As Edmund Burke continued his ferociously intellectual and spiritual attack on the French Revolutionaries in the earliest and least violent days of the Revolution, he noted critically that no one could ever attain or realize the virtues without struggle.
By invoking the virtues, here, Burke did not mean the kind of easy “I did good” or “I meant well” slop of rhetoric so present in the mouths of many so-called republicans of his day. Instead, the struggle for virtue must be tangible, real, and, even at times, bloody. As he had argued in the case of natural rights, the virtues were certainly rooted in nature and in God’s design and creation, but man could not simply declare them to be this or to be that. The virtues existed independently of man’s desires, though man could discover and embrace them to the fullest extent (and limit) of his abilities. History and the mysterious processes of free will, instinct, and folly have allowed the darkened mind and soul of man to see beyond himself and toward the virtues. And, as Burke claimed, following the western tradition, these were seven traditional virtues. The first four were found in the Symposium: prudence; justice, temperance; and fortitude. St. Paul the final three: faith; hope; and charity. Sadly, each of these words, as of the early twenty-first century, have become so adulterated and stunted that it’s worth remembering the classical definitions, the ones Burke understood.
Prudence: the ability to choose the good from the ill.
Justice: giving each person his due.
Temperance: the use of the created goods for the pursuit of good.
Fortitude: the pursuit of justice and the good, no matter the cost.
We have mutilated these words almost beyond recognition in our post-French Revolutionary era. Prudence has become timidity; justice, either revenge or equality; temperance, avoiding alcohol consumption; and fortitude, bull-headedness, and cynicism. Admittedly, we have maintained a fairly good comprehension of faith and hope (though, the two have become, at times, wrongly interchangeable), but only because these words have remained somewhat the private reserve of the theologian. Charity or love, of course, is the word we have raped the most in our modern and post-modern world. Far from it being the giving of one’s self for another, it has become a synonym for possession and desire, the exact opposite of its original and true meaning.
How far have we fallen from the standards of these virtues! Of course, we pervert words and their meanings all the time, but it’s deadly folly to do so with these seven. And, by doing so, we have rightly suffered. We have lost not only the essence of these words, but the very essence of goodness, truth, and beauty. For, if we cannot rightly love, we cannot rightly live.
As Burke so brilliantly understood, by making the virtues something easy and equally attainable by all men, the French Revolutionaries were undermining not just civilization but the very core of the human experience. At its root, he wrote, the perversion of such things “makes our weakness subservient to our virtue,” and “it grafts benevolence even upon avarice.” And, yet, as should be obvious to all, Burke thought, the very men promoting easy virtue and equality believed in nothing of the sort, knowing fully and cynically that they were merely rousing the working classes of the French to their side, only to oppress them as soon as possible. Whatever their language, the new elites view “the humbler part of the community with the greatest contempt.” In other words, they spoke the language of virtue as a cloak for their grab for power. In their rush to create systems of perfection, “they despise experience as the wisdom of unlettered men.”
Instead, in the well-ordered society, he continued, men must acknowledge excellences, however much their egos might suffer from it. It is well worth quoting Burke at length here, in one of the most famous passages of Reflections on the Revolution in France:
There is no qualification for government, but virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive. Wherever they are actually found, they have, in whatever state, condition, profession or trade, the passport of Heaven to human place and honour. Woe to the country which would madly and impiously reject the service of the talents and virtues, civil, military, or religious, that are given to grace and to serve it; and would condemn to obscurity everything formed to diffuse lustre and glory around a state. Woe to that country too, that passing into the opposite extreme, considers a low education, a mean contracted view of things, a sordid mercenary occupation, as a preferable title to command. Everything ought to be open; but not indifferently to every man. No rotation; no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortition or rotation, can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. Because they have no tendency, direct or indirect, to select the man with a view to the duty, or to accommodate the one to the other. I do not hesitate to say, that the road to eminence and power, from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing too much of course. If rare merit be the rarest of all rare things, it ought to pass through some sort of probation. The temple of honour ought to be seated on an eminence. If it be open through virtue, let it be remembered too, that virtue is never tried but by some difficulty, and some struggle.
Unquestionably, this is some of Burke’s best writing. And, it is certainly worth repeating, true government demands wisdom and virtue in its leaders, and the society that destroys, ignores, or mocks excellences is a society well on its way to ultimate collapse.
Thus, Burke concluded, the duty of every generation is to discern—through prudence—the good and the bad of what has been inherited. It’s not enough to be a mere traditionalist, ratifying all that has been handed down to us. Nor, however, should we be revolutionaries, discarding all that came to us, simply because it was old. Instead, Burke sounded very much like the great Athenian statesman and military leader, Pericles. We love our fathers because they loved their fathers. Every generation has the high duty of examining all inheritances, deciding if a thing should be discarded, accepted, or reformed. We do this, Burke argued, by securing our liberties through vigilance. We must see the “treasure rather as a possession to be secured than as a prize to be contended for.” There are certainly “the real rights of men,” Burke argued, but they do not allow for each to do whatever he wants. Rather, they promote a “partnership [in which] all men have equal rights; but not to equal things.” Further, Burke forcefully claimed, “government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it.” Man—whether individually or in a political body—can never fully understand the essence of natural rights, only that they exist. As with the good, the true, and the beautiful, we know natural rights are real, but we can only reach toward them in our desire for a good society. We can never fully know them, as we are not gods or God.
This essay is the fifth essay in a series; the first essay may be found here; the second may be found here; the third may be found here; the fourth here. Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.