Those looking for an alternative narrative will find little on the outskirts of the college mainstream. They may find, through her long novels and archived videos, the Russian-American writer Ayn Rand and her alternative philosophy known as Objectivism. Should students venture into their economics department they may also study libertarian writers such as Ludwing Von Mises, Frederick Bastiat, and Frederich Hayek. Despite some differences, such authors will all labor to convince students that freedom is the elixir of mankind’s ills. And despite each proclaiming their own uniqueness, they will all take and build far more upon John Locke’s distinctly modern worldview than any cares to admit.
Against such a narrow understanding of the world stands the conservative philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke. Burke wrote his masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France, at a time when the Western world was enthralled with the French Revolution and an abstract understanding of liberty. During those days many intellectuals desired change at any cost, and they applauded the ferocity of the French revolutionaries who aimed to overthrow the king and destroy any evidences of the monarchy. As Burke had long argued for restraints on the British monarchy and even praised the colonists of America, many French revolutionaries believed that he would be partial to their cause.
Burke’s pamphlet is a refutation of that assumption and an outlining of his political philosophy. He begins the work by dissecting liberty as an abstract principle and dismissing it as an ideology unto itself. He writes that “the effect of liberty to individuals is, that they do what they please,” and that instead of praising any free action we should “see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints (p8).” In doing so Burke deflated liberty as an ideology and reduced it to a principle that could result in anything from profound goodness to savage chaos. He took this effort in defiance of the libertarian perspective which commonly sees liberty as a singular prerequisite for mankind’s success. Instead, Burke understood that liberty simply serves to unleash human nature. This can be for better or for worse depending on the level of virtue compelling those who are free.
With such liability toward evil, Burke concluded that freedom alone could not satisfy the nature of man. He claimed that humanity’s true nature was of “the greatest possible complexity,” and therefore no simple government or single ideology could satisfy man’s needs. Neither could any government or earthly power change that nature or force people to be anything “other than God, and nature, and education, and their habits of life have made them (p34).” To provide for this nature was indeed the solemn and sacred task of government, but to do so government needed assistance, and more assistance than any simple political ideology could provide.
As a guide for action Burke argued that politicians and administrators should turn to tradition and the experience of past generations. He argued that no matter how smart an individual was, his “private stock of reason” was small and meager compared to “the general bank and capital of nations and of ages (p74).” Taking advantage of this knowledge would educate men of the present, showing them that history proves the siege of human vice upon the pretexts of higher morality. The conservative steeped in tradition understands that evil is a permanent fixtures of the human condition disaffecting both himself and society at large. Success requires eternal vigilance and confrontation to forge growth and virtue out of struggle.
This obligation was what led Burke to criticize and side against the French revolutionaries. Though he sympathized with their concerns about the monarchy and absolutist power, he could not bring himself to engage in support for their bloody overthrow of the king. He saw many vices in monarchy, but he was under no illusions that democracy would be preferable if it were unrestrained and equally violent. He argued instead for the British path which had undertaken the Glorious Revolution as a means “to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties” rather than set up a new government without any deference to the past.
In doing so Burke defined the concept of prudence as an important feature of conservative political philosophy. Burke claimed that “a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman (p133).” Rather than building politics out of self-interest, conservatives should reach back to the past and take account of the wisdom of the ages in setting the course for the future. In doing so they must recognize that the future will be different from the past, for “a state without the means of some change is without the means for its conservation (p19).” To craft it judiciously they must apply a nuanced, meticulous view of institutions which aims to sort out the good from the bad. The success they cultivate would therefore reflect the order of the world, not by nostalgia but by recognition of truth, order, and society’s place in time.
In articulating these views Burke distinguished himself greatly from the modern viewpoint that pervades our college classrooms. Rather than Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau who considered man in an abstract sense, Burke contextualized man in time and space. He saw society as natural to man, and he defined the social contract as existing between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born (p82).” Because men of the present have been given an inheritance, they owe it to their ancestors to preserve its strengths and, equally, to their children to improve upon its imperfections. Rather than philosophers telling students to purse freedom at the expense of all other motivations, Burke gives us a view of a man existing in mature tension with others and inculcated with both rights and duties. The follower of Burke has an obligation to preserve and improve upon that true and circumstantial liberty, to carry out his duties and obligations to others, and to labor from his heart in order to satisfy the deepest aspects of his own human nature.
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France (Yale University Press: 2003).
Purchase a copy here: