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Edmund Burke did love order, and he also loved the ordered soul and the ordered society—the one in which men freely pursued the good, the true, and the beautiful…

french revolutionWhen challenging the “coffee-house” radicals who were so gleefully leading the French into generations of ruin through their mad abstractions, Edmund Burke recognized that their definition of liberty was not—in any way, shape, or form—the definition of liberty as understood in the Western or the Anglo-Saxon traditions. Their liberty was license, the folly of avarice clothed in the deceptive language of rational self-interest. Seductive to be sure, their liberty was proclaimed through the voice of Circe, complete with a kiss of falsity and enslavement. Rejecting even the semblance of prudence, the revolutionary leaders had become merely “intoxicated with admiration of their own wisdom and ability,” or what they ridiculously considered their wisdom and ability, contrary to the traditions of the past or the sagacious present. In their relation to the past and the present, they held nothing but contempt. Knowing their own persuasive skills deficient—that is, if one defines persuasion as leading by example—they intentionally distracted the people of France, leading them down paths of absurdities.

They speak with the most sovereign contempt of the rest of the world. They tell the people, to comfort them in the rags with which they have cloathed them, that they are a nation of philosophers; and, sometimes, by all the arts of quackish parade, by shew, tumult, and bustle, sometimes by the alarms of plots and invasions, they attempt to drown the cries of indigence, and to divert the eyes of the observer from the ruin and wretchedness of the state. A brave people will certainly prefer liberty, accompanied with a virtuous poverty, to a depraved and wealthy servitude.

True liberty, Burke argued, always walks hand in hand with timeless wisdom and eternal justice, never betraying its worth for the trinkets and baubles of the moment. True men and women understand this. “A brave people will certainly prefer liberty, accompanied with a virtuous poverty, to a depraved and wealthy servitude.” Yet, one should never injudiciously throw away hard-won wealth as it might well have come from a virtuous activity. As with most things, Burke counseled prudential judgments, not as abstractions, but as difficult case-by-case and moment-by-moment decisions.

As far from symmetrically as possible, the Anglo-Saxon common law tradition had advanced and adapted and evolved sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, but always haphazardly. The term that would come into vogue with the Romantics by 1800—inspired by Burke—was “gothic.” That is, law grew organically, like a tree, rather than being made. Through conflict, trial and error, and openness to a particular situation, law revealed itself over, through, and across time. One did not make it as much as one discovered it. As with a tree, men could prune, shape, or destroy it, but they could not make it.

How, then, does one judge wisely how to respond to corruption in the State? That is, if Burke opposed the radicals of the French Revolution, how did he hope to make better that which was wrong in the existing government? Did the image portrayed by the radicals match reality? “Along with much evil, there is some good in monarchy itself; and some corrective to its evil, religion, from laws, from manners, and from opinion.” Is all of this so corrupt that it must be utterly destroyed and society started anew?

In his musings, Burke offered three ways. He did not mean for these questions to be exclusive or to end the conversation, but, rather, to begin it. Typically, Burke proposed, but he did not mean for any of these to be ironclad. Circumstances shape and free will continues to operate in all moments, no matter how small or how large a thing was.

First, is the population growing, decreasing, or maintaining a semblance of stability? “No country in which population flourishes, and is in progressive improvement, can be under a very mischievous government.” In no way, Burke argued, does good government equal population increases, but bad government and instability do readily lead to a decline of population and wealth. As of 1789, Burke argued, no such decline in either existed in France.

This led into Burke’s second question. Exactly how would one judge the wealth of a nation? Is it increasing or decreasing? Regarding each, to what degree? From what Burke saw, France’s economy was not only doing well in terms of providing for its people, but it was offering quality as well as quantity.

By far, though, the most important question for Burke was the question of charity and the arts. As much as population and economy mattered, the non-quantifiable elements mattered most. It is worth quoting him at length on this matter.

When I contemplate the grand foundations of charity, public and private; when I survey the state of all the arts that beautify and polish life; when I reckon the men she has bred for extending her fame in war, her able statesmen, the multitude of her profound lawyers and theologians, her philosophers, her critics, her historians and antiquaries, her poets, and her orators sacred and profane, I behold in all this something which awes and commands the imagination, which checks the mind on the brink of precipitate and indiscriminate censure, and which demands, that we should very seriously examine, what and how great are the latent vices that could authorise us at once to level so spacious a fabric with the ground. I do not recognize, in this view of things, the despotism of Turkey. Nor do I discern the character of a government, that has been, on the whole, so oppressive, or so corrupt, or so negligent, as to be utterly unfit for all reformation. I must think such a government well deserved to have its excellencies heightened; its faults corrected; and its capacities improved into a British constitution.

The above reveals, of course, Burke’s great humanity. But, it also reveals something critical in Burke scholarship. Indeed, it counters the very ridiculous lie about Burke—mostly begun by Thomas Paine—that he unhesitatingly defended the French monarchy, monarchy in general, corruption in the Church, and oppressive governments, as long as they provided stability. The above paragraph alone proves Paine’s assertions to be nothing but falsehoods.

Burke did love order, and he also loved the ordered soul and the ordered society—the one in which men freely pursued the good, the true, and the beautiful. After spending a life dedicated to understanding and promoting the dignity and rights of the Irish, the African, the Asian-Indian, the Catholic, the Hindu, and the American, it is absurd to think that Burke simply lost his mind when the French Revolutionaries when into action. Yet, sadly, this is how many have perceived perhaps the single finest man the Irish ever produced.

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3 replies to this post
  1. To read Burke is almost to hear the choir give voice to words, but such words as made men give pause to a truth implacable in its strength and logic, words for the centuries.

  2. To often people want to make the French Revolution a political football. Lets step away from that. The failings of the terror were as intrinsic to the birth of self determination in Government as the success the United States. It was a much different scenario. France lived under the foot of the oldest monarchy in Europe. It was oppressive, and it was an every day fact of European life. After they overthrew the Royal yoke, it wasn’t a power play for control of the new world, it was an existential battle for the Crown which had existed since the dawn of mankind. The entire world declared war on France. Burke for his part was a moderate, opposed to the excesses of the terror. Compared to the Jacobians, he was a monarchist, and probably would have executed as a traitor to the republic had he been in Paris. He seems to have supported to some extent the rights of men, and held it in the respect it was due. It was corrupted by the events that followed, the same as the monarchy. Power leads to corruption. As the founder of conservatism, Burke was in favor of preserving lawful traditions, and saw that as better than outright revolution. He was progressive enough to see the need for reform. In that respect, he could have been a student of Confucius and the principle of the golden mean.

  3. “That is, law grew organically, like a tree, rather than being made. Through conflict, trial and error, and openness to a particular situation, law revealed itself over, through, and across time. One did not make it as much as one discovered it.” – Birzer

    What a perfect analogy of natural law philosophy. Thank you!

    ” In no way, Burke argued, does good government equal population increases, but bad government and instability do readily lead to a decline of population and wealth.” – Birzer

    Not necessarily. African countries ruled by vicious dictators, often become richer (overall) and see population explosions due to an influx of foreign aid and charity.

    “Their liberty was license, the folly of avarice clothed in the deceptive language of rational self-interest.” – Birzer

    I think this is the problem most real conservatives have with libertarians. The problem is that most often, this is a straw-man. I am an anarcho-capitalist in the Rothbardian tradition, but I consider myself a conservative, and I greatly admire Burke and Russell Kirk for their, what I consider to be, true conservative values.

    I read Kirk’s take on libertarians and how the libertarian philosophy is antithetical to conservatives, and I was very disappointed with his criticisms. Again and again he launched impassioned (contrary to the article title) attacks on a target which did not reflect what I’ve come to know as libertarianism whatsoever. Libertines and libertarians are two completely different things, and yet Kirk seems to lump them together (along with communists), betraying his ignorance on this issue.

    Contrary to Kirk’s poorly constructed analysis, the libertarian political philosophy is extremely compatible with social conservatism, especially Kirk’s own principles. I would argue it is the best fit, and would provide ‘rule of law’ much more effectively than some monopolistic organization of violence and dispute resolution, of which a tiny percentage is subject to elections every four years. What Kirk didn’t understand is that libertarianism is only a foundation of ethics. It only applies to the political realm governing the use of violence in society. It speaks nothing to the social realm. This is where libertarians should learn from conservatives to form a complete ethical spectrum.

    http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2015/02/a-dispassionate-assessment-of-libertarians.html

    Still, there is something among many libertarians that should give conservatives pause. It is what marked the main distinction between Burke and Paine: radicalism. Paine was radical, and Burke was prudent. Both believed in natural and inalienable rights and the merits of free enterprise. Where they differed was the way to get there.

    Many libertarians consider themselves radicals, but what they don’t understand, is that the nonaggression axiom forces one to reject the ‘by any means necessary’ recipe of attaining liberty. Libertarians must put the means as well as the ends under the ethical microscope, and this makes them prudential, not radical. Libertarians must convince not coerce, and this makes them inherently anti-radical.

    “True liberty, Burke argued, always walks hand in hand with timeless wisdom and eternal justice, never betraying its worth for the trinkets and baubles of the moment.” – Birzer

    Burke was truly a genius. His criticism of the French Revolution was certainly wise and timeless.

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