Edmund Burke Legacy
by Andrew Webster
A Tribute on the 200th Anniversary of his Death
9th JULY 1797 the statesman and the philosopher Edmund Burke died, after having
contracted stomach cancer. He was buried in
However, Edmund Burke's true legacy was contained in his extensive writings. In letters,pamphlets and books he expounded a coherent system of ideas about human nature;the organic state; the benefits of prejudice;the dangers of government by secret consensus and the role of political parties.
Two hundred years on, most scholars would agree that Burke had a gift for deep analysis conveyed in stylish English prose.Yet the content of his work though remains controversial. Supporters included the poet William Wordsworth, who called Burke: "the most sagacious politician of his age". Karl Marx, on the other hand, complained in Das Kapital that Burke was a bourgeois stooge of the English ruling class. Marxists took particular offence at Burke's critique of egalitarianism, perhaps realising the radical threat which this presented to their own vision of a future society.
Modern liberals and conservatives still acclaim some of Burke's ideas, but their interest is largely rhetorical. Burke's liberal tendencies would almost certainly not go far enough for today's liberals. His support for the abolition of slavery was only gradualist, his religious toleration did not extend to atheists (whom he saw as dangerous criminals) and, whilst in favour of curbing royal patronage, Burke supported monarchy and aristocracy. Meanwhile, his conservative defence of Parliament, the nation and the Anglican Church would presumably be a sheer embarrassment to today's Conservative Party, which has embraced European Union and a secular, free market ideology.
This two-part article will outline some of Edmund Burke's key ideas and assess their relevance to nationalism. His contribution is an important one. Sadly, Burke's clarity and complete lack of political correctness must limit his appeal in the modern age. In 1997 and beyond Burke seems destined to become a forgotten prophet except to those who challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.
NATURE OF MAN
All societies are based on a particular view of human nature. Today's view, springing from Enlightenment philosophy, is that people are equal, interchangeable units of production and consumption. Differences of race, nationality, culture, gender and ability are seen as obstacles to social harmony which must be removed.Burke witnessed the emergence of this fallacy and condemned it.The intellectuals of his age blamed "special ties" for causing conflict and injustice. A typical example of such thinking was Richard Price's Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789). Dr. Price argued that patriotism was "a blind and narrow principle,producing a contempt of other countries" and he called upon people to become "citizens of the world". Burke's most famous tract,Reflections on the Revolution in
Instead of forcing people to conform to a model of an "ideal society", Burke started by studying man's true nature. He observed that real people were not abstract "men" but Englishmen, Frenchmen, Indians and the like.Burke wrote: "We begin our public affections in our families... we pass on to our neighbourhoods". He accepted that human beings have distinctive identities, that we love our kin above strangers and that this must affect the type of society we create. It is not morally bad, it is simply the way we are. "To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind". (1)
THE ORGANIC STATE
In defending the family, locality and nation,Burke stood for a natural, organic state as opposed to an artificial one based on planning. At a time when machines like steam engines were transforming the economy,many argued that society could also be planned and precision engineered. The French Revolution was an attempt to redesign a country in this way.
However, advances in botany and zoology showed that, whereas machines were rigid, repetitive and tended to break down, organic life is flexible, adaptable and self-perpetuating. Burke, along with the Romantic poets, preferred to base society on evolutionary nature, making it "a permanent body composed of transitory parts". Today's world is dominated by artificial empires, multinational firms and bureaucracies, which treat human beings as components. If Burke was right, the future will belong not to these, but to human scale structures which have grown over hundreds of years.
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE ARE ONE
"People will not look forward to posterity", Burke wrote, "who never look backward to their ancestors" (2). His famous definition of society was that it was a contract between the living, the dead and those who are yet to be born. Each individual is merely a cell in a larger body. The individual dies, but the body carries on. Therefore it is the body that matters.If we accept that we are citizens in an "eternal society",we must never turn our backs on tradition because this age-old wisdom is the experience of our race.Tradition is a better guide to action than is abstract reason. This is because "the individual is foolish. The multitude is foolish; but the species is wise....as a species it almost always acts right' (3).
Modern society embraces a dynamic change and sees the past as obsolete.It destroys the old to build the new. Burke called this "a liberal descent" and warned "unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos". He urged respect for institutions on the same grounds as for men: "on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended".
History, claimed Burke's biographer, "was always central to his thought. A nation's manners and morals, its religions and political institutions, its social structure, were all prescribed by its past....the outlines of the "script" were already written" (4). Now we must ask ourselves: is government from
PUTTING OUR PEOPLE FIRST
Burke's desire to make
Charity should begin at home. Of course it does not have to end there. If people wish to donate money to foreign causes they should be allowed to do so. But in cases where outsiders are supported against our own kind this is clearly a moral evil.
EQUALITY: "A MONSTROUS FICTION"
As a Christian, Burke acknowledged a certain moral equality of mankind "that is to be found by virtue in all conditions". But egalitarianism as a political programme he opposed on two grounds. Firstly it was unjust,as it relied upon compulsion, encouraged envy and inevitably levelled people down since levelling them up is impossible. (We know it is impossible because people are genetically unequal; Burke, unaware of genetics, used a `scarcity of resources' argument. For example: dividing a chocolate bar among 100 people leaves each person effectively nothing). Secondly, equality undermined the natural order of things, nature being hierarchical. Burke believed that: "Political equality is against nature. Social equality is against nature. Economic equality is against nature. The idea of equality is subversive of order"(6).
Since defying nature is unworkable, equality is "a monstrous fiction" (7). At worst, ambitious elites use equality as a pretext to reallocate resources to themselves. At best,well-intentioned people see equality as no more than a benign aspiration. They think it would be just in theory but of course not when applied to themselves in practice, lest this endanger their own privileges. This is perhaps the greater error. "Abstract principles,however appealing, cannot be applied directly to solve real political problems. Any attempt to do so will have futile or harmful results. There is no such thing as a political principle which is good in itself, but not practicable. If it is not practicable then it is not good.
In today's climate, wisdom and prejudice are seen as opposite. Prejudices (pre-judgements in advance of the facts - usually negative pre-judgements) are considered ignorant and irrational. Edmund Burke would have been surprised by this. Unlike modern liberals, Burke examined the origin of prejudice, its nature and function. Prejudice originates in past, collective experiences and contains "the wisdom of the ages". Burke wrote of prejudices: "the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them". (8)
This is far from irrational. As individuals we have a limited experience of the world, because our lives are short. We rely on knowledge accumulated by generations of our ancestors, which provides a useful shortcut to dealing with our own problems. Our ancestors learned to fear the unknown. When foreign peoples descended on a community (the Danes, Vikings and others) it led to dislocation, conflict and loss. Only people with no experience of history could possibly welcome outsiders and not feel prejudice against them.
The nature of prejudice, is a feeling or emotion which transcends reason. Burke claimed: "When our feelings contradict our theories....the feelings are true, and the theory is false". Feelings are not easy to convey in rational terms. Some of the people who hold prejudices may indeed be ignorant and inarticulate. However the prejudices themselves cannot be ignorant, since they are never the product solely of one mind or time.
The function of prejudice is to act as a survival aid. It rescues us from danger when we do not have time to think from first principles. When humans are confronted by a lion they feel fear. Perhaps they have never met a lion before and its intentions may be entirely benign. But the collective experience of our species is that lions are hostile and so we have a prejudice against them. Burke's conclusion, therefore, is that prejudices are wise. Men of understanding "instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them".If they find this wisdom,"they think it more wise to continue the prejudice".
WE HAVE NO "RIGHTS" EXCEPT THOSE WE INHERIT
Human rights are a topical issue. Western politicians argue that every adult person should have the right to vote, and they condemn autocratic countries. But is the right to vote universal to all humans? It may be appropriate in certain Western cultures, but it is surely less important in places like
For Edmund Burke, rights were not universal but particular to each society and handed down by our forefathers. Burke claimed that his view of rights was the traditional British view. In Magna Carta and in the 1689 Declaration of Right - the cornerstone of our constitution - there is no mention of "the rights of man". In these documents, rights were regarded as a patrimony or inheritance. Burke defined rights as: "an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any more general or prior right". (9). We receive and transmit our privileges"in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives" (i.e. by legal and genetic inheritance).
Modern critics see this position as "startlingly illiberal": It implies, for instance, that people who have no bequest of democracy or liberty from their ancestors have no automatic right to them. "Freedom is not so much a right that is a necessary part of being human but an inheritance that is handed down to the British people as a piece of property ; might be" (10). If Burke is correct, Westminster-style democracies will never flourish in
In Burke's day,
SECRET AND OPEN GOVERNMENT
Like other M.P.'s of his day, Burke gained his seat as the 'placeman' of a wealthy patron. Aided by the Whig Lord Rockingham, he became M.P. for Wendover and later for
Although opposed to universal adult suffrage, Burke supported both freedom of speech and open debate. He wanted citizens to express their views without hazard "even though against a predominant and fashionable opinion". He believed in principled argument and despised governments in which "all their measures are decided before they are debated". This system of rule by secret consensus is alive and well. Its dangers are twofold. Firstly secret government favours vocal special interest groups which are blind to the needs of the nation. This undermines the authority of Parliament, which is "a trustee for the whole and not for the parts". Burke would have opposed legislation framed by homosexual activists, for instance. Secondly, secret governments are easy to subvert by foreign interests. Burke wrote that the worst factions were those "under the direction of foreign powers". The government is not accountable to
THE ROLE OF POLITICAL PARTIES
At a time when governments were drawn from "all the talents", Burke was "the champion and idealiser of party" (12). He ridiculed
Edmund Burke's ideal party was one of "firm, determined patriots...who will fix the state upon these bases of morals and politics which are our old and immemorial and, I hope, will be our eternal possession" (13). His great fear was that opportunists and mercenaries might take power and, for personal gain, actually dissolve the nation they were elected to run. "The whole chain and continuity of the Commonwealth would be broken. No one generation would be able to link with the other. Men would become little better than flies of a summer".
1. Reflections on the French Revolution,Edmund Burke, J.M. Dent &
(Everyman edition), p 44.
2. Reflections, p 31.
3. Edmund Burke's Works and Correspondence, vol X, (1852), p 97.
4. Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions,
(1988), p 152.
5. Works and Correspondence, vo) VI, p 21.
6. Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism, Michael Freeman, Blackwell
(1980), p 21.
7. For Burke's view of prejudice, see his Reflections on the French Revolution, J.M. Dent & Sons,1955, p.84.
8. Burke discusses rights in his Reflections on the French Revolution, pp29-33.
10. Cited in Spirit of
11. For Burke's view of parties, see Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions, StanIey Ayling, John Murray Publishers,1988, p.73.
12. Letter to a Member of the French National Assembly,1791.
13. Ibid. Note that the last sentence is often quoted out of context, giving the opposite meaning to that which Burke intended. He did think we can 9plan the future by the past.