Nothing is more certain than that our manners, our civilization, and all good things which are connected with manners and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles, and were, indeed, the result of both combined: I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion. The nobility and the clergy, the one by profession, and the other by patronage.Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution of France
Edmund Burke lived from 1729-1797 and worked as a British member of parliament for many years towards the end of his life. To many, he’s considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern Conservatism because of his beliefs involving the conservation of tradition, religion, and advocating for the inherited rights of the nobility. In short, he wasn’t fond of big changes.
When the French Revolution of 1789 forcefully overthrew the monarchy of King Louis XVI in order to establish a more secular republic, Burke made clear his position on the event taking place with a published letter, partially because he worried that a similar revolution could happen in England and threaten his own inherited position as part of the noble class.
Burke began his letter by arguing that abstract qualities such as “liberty” or “equality” are only as good or bad as the circumstances which give rise to them and he states that he could not possibly congratulate the French on their new-found liberty until he could better assess the consequences of their revolution.
Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty?Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution of France
I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with solidity and property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things, too; and without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long.Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution of France
And considering that the French Revolution was followed by a Reign of Terror for the next few years, persecuting counter-revolutionaries, that might seem like a fair point. However, the wars that followed the revolution of France were mostly in defense of the revolution itself, by those who feared the inspiration it might bring to the established orders in other countries across Europe. The revolution was inspiring the working class everywhere, and even the bourgeoisie, to demand further rights, both politically and economically.
Burke continued his letter by arguing why he believed tradition and the established order was so important…
We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution of France
This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection,–or rather the happy effect of following Nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free; but it secures what it acquires.
So, Burke believed that innovation was dangerous and selfish unless founded upon generations of tradition, which sounds nice on paper, I suppose, but if there were not problems with established traditions then why would there even be a need for revolution in the first place? Where would humanity be now if we were not to have innovated so marvelously for the purposes of creating a more ideal future?
Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it,–and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned, the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection.Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution of France
Here, Edmund Burke shares his belief that government is not actually there to protect a person’s natural rights but to enforce its laws and control its subjects in whichever way the government saw best to shape its ideal society based on the ruling classes beliefs. Think of conservative rallies against abortion etc. Burke continued to argue that balancing the wants of the people with the needs of society was a very delicate matter which required the greatest skill to achieve and that abstract values like “liberty” or “equality” as an ideology simply didn’t translate well to practical good government.
It is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.
When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us, nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution of France
What I take from this passage is Burke had a strong fear of change and believed in a very slow path to civil progress. I do not agree that radical change means to disregard our history or “ancient” ways of life, sometimes we simply demand change because we have learned from our history, what works and what does not. I also believe this ideology is not properly suited to tackle catastrophic disasters such as climate change which currently threatens all life on Earth. It is just far too slow to act.
This is likely why climate change is simply denied by so many conservatives today because admitting that we need radical change today would completely disrupt their inherited ideologies. Yet, I do find it interesting that an ideology based around conservation cares so little for the destruction of our natural world and the great changes that those changes will bring. It seems both self-serving and hypocritical to me, but I cannot deny the fact that I am a staunch liberal at heart. I digress… Back to Burke…
Nothing is more certain than that our manners, our civilization, and all good things which are connected with manners and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles, and were, indeed, the result of both combined: I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion. The nobility and the clergy, the one by profession, and the other by patronage…Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution of France
Again, Burke reminds the reader that he believes virtue is associated with tradition and passed down by those in established positions of power or through the church. Growing up an Irish lad in the mid-18th century, I am hardly surprised by his devotion to religion, but is this true? Have all good things been handed down by the nobility or religion? Personally, I could argue that many meaningful advancements in civilization arose from the organization of the lowest classes. The French revolution itself did eventually lead to a democracy in France and improved the lives of millions and great changes often occur in spite of nobility or religion. I believe it is also fair to argue that there have been a number of terrible things which have plagued humanity as a result of people in positions of power or because of religion; atrocities have been committed in the name of God and tyranny has oppressed millions while favoring only a select few in the tyrants inner circle. But, I digress, back to Burke…
Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previosly engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
Your literary men, and your politicians, and so do the whole clan of the enlightened among us, essentially differ in these points. They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste, because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery.Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution of France
Yes, the appropriate defense of prejudice by a man who seems rather closed-minded and set in his ways. After all, faith in tradition means closing yourself off from new ideas.
I do not dispute that developing prejudices is natural and sometimes beneficial in small amounts, for example, when I traveled to Thailand I had my wallet stolen at the airport upon arrival. If I were to go back to Thailand my prejudices based on that experience would lead me to be more suspicious and cautious with my belongings. However, if I were to put full faith in my prejudice that Thai people are dangerous and immoral, I would be grossly over-generalizing an entire spectrum of people with both good and band intentions.
Feeding those prejudices is to narrow your perspective and to misjudge many individuals who do not actually fit those prejudices. Prejudices are learned by people as a way to try and protect themselves from a potential danger because we are animals and we were designed to survive, but it is my belief that we should seek to disprove our prejudices and evolve our understanding of the world and humanity. I do not believe that prejudices are fundamentally wise, but I do believe that they can give a person a sense of security, even if it is false, while making the same individual only more fearful of the subject of his prejudice.
Well there you have it. Edmund Burke’s political philosophy which has been passed down for hundreds of years and slowly evolved into the ideology of many modern conservatives all over the world (and surprise, surprise, it hasn’t changed much!).
Let’s recap: All good things come from the nobility and the church, and change should only be acquired slowly at a snails without doing anything drastically different from what we already do. Those that have inherited the most powerful positions in life know best and we should keep the positions that we inherit. If you are a wage laboring grunt, you should stay a wage laboring grunt and leave educated positions of power to the established elite. Also prejudices are wisdom and should be acted upon without too much thought, because that makes you a strong person of action. Do you agree?
As a working class man brought up in a working class household, I know the struggles of the average person even in a country as good to its people as Canada because there is still a huge gap in class privilege and the rich are greedy. However, I can understand why a man born into relative ease and power, compared to his fellow man, would not want to lose his station in society by sharing his privileges with those beneath him in the social hierarchy. Many of those power struggles are still alive today in civilizations all around the world and I do find it frustrating that so many working class people still support an ideology that actively works against their self-interest. That’s not to say that modern liberalism, better known as neoliberalism, is working in favor of the working class either, but it is an ideology that is more apt to change.
The class struggle has not yet ended in our societies and I suspect they will not be ending any time soon. Yet we should never give up hope or continue to pursue the changes we ought to see in the world to further justice, equality and a greater standard of living for all. Next week I’ll be writing about John Stuart Mills, one of the founding fathers of classical liberalism who had thoughts very different to Burke in respect to politics.
Note: The entire philosophical text was quite lengthy so I chose to highlight only key points in the writing. The entire text can be found here if you are interested.
Did you find this philosophy interesting or take away something different from Burkes letter? Leave a comment down below!