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Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish-born politician most credited with establishing political conservatism, had much to say on the topic of freedom and its role in society. Burke saw liberty as a “treasure” and regarded the task of maintaining it by way of a “jealous, ever-waking vigilance” as his first and primary duty as a statesman. In doing so, however, Burke often articulated a view of freedom that included concepts somewhat foreign to the lips of conservatives today.
To begin with, the manner in which Burke spoke of freedom typically emphasized not only its individualism but also its relational nature. In responding to a letter in 1789, Burke described “the freedom that I love and that to which I think all men entitled” as follows:
“It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish Liberty. As if ever Man was to
regulate the whole of his Conduct by his own will. The Liberty I mean is social
freedom. It is that state of things in which Liberty is secured by equality of
Restraint; A Constitution of things in which the liberty of no one Man and no body
of Men and no Number of men can find Means to trespass on the liberty of any
Person or any description of Persons in the Society.”
In defining freedom in this way Burke not only anticipated Hayek’s concept of negative freedom, he also echoed the relational aspect of freedom in a manner similar to Aristotle. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle recognized that every individual choice, including those made in privacy, has a consequential effect on the life of the person making it. Since we are born into relationship and therefore to some degree naturally relational, individual freedom should forever be linked to the context of relationship. As a result all of our choices, including those made in privacy, have at the very least an indirect effect on those who care about us.
According to Aristotle, recognition of this fact does not circumvent individualism but instead allows us to truly actualize it. This is due to the fact that individualism is predicated upon the presence of others to whom a person may distinguish himself or herself. By interacting with others people may fully express themselves, a process which facilitates the discovery of true distinctiveness. In this manner Aristotle’s arguments serve to actualize true individualism even as they blur what Hayek referred to as the “equally protected sphere” of every human person.
Burke echoes Aristotle when he argues that the presence of freedom necessitates a significant restraint upon individual will, not the mere following of it, and that this restraint should originate in the care, concern, and respect for others. To truly argue on behalf of freedom and promote individualism, then, is to recognize and defend not only individual will but also humanity’s relational nature, the social reality in which true individualism is actualized, and the degree to which individual will should be restrained.
Given this understanding of freedom, what are the implications for conservatives today? To what extent should Burke’s holistic viewpoint change the way we view modern politics and fight for freedom? For answers to these questions we shall look to my next post, one in which we shall investigate Burke’s methodology for approaching politics and extract his reasoning for our own use.
 Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France, Yale University Press. p46.
 Ibid, p217.
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