Previous Post: The Roots of American Conservatism (Part 4)
Burke explains the nature of true statesmanship in Reflections on the Revolution in France by defining the impulse which should motivate conservatives in political affairs: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” For Burke, patriotism begins with appreciation for one’s community in the sense of attachment and loyalty to one’s origins. From there local ties grow into affection for country and find their fullest expression in an obligation and love for humanity.
According to Burke, this patriotic impulse is essential for the survival of society. It breeds feelings of attachment and allows government institutions, such as law enforcement and the military, to function properly. As Burke claimed in 1775, “It is the love of the people; it is their attachment to their government, from the sense of the deep stake they have in such a glorious institution—which gives you your army and your navy, and infuses into both that liberal obedience, without which your army would be a base rabble, and your navy nothing but rotten timber.” Burke argued that politicians should also share in this patriotism rather than seek self-promotion or their own gain. As he said before Parliament, “We out to elevate our minds to the greatness of that trust to which the order of Providence has called us.”
In order to serve well, Burke argued that conservatives must add a proper education to their patriotism. Determining what is best for others is no easy task; it requires a thorough understanding of the nature of reality and its moral structure. Burke often invoked this understanding, which he referred to as natural law, when calling for the prosecution of corrupt officials. He claimed that “[we] are all born--high as well as low, governors as well as governed--in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existing law, a law prior to all our devices and conspiracies, paramount to our feelings, by which we are connected in the eternal frame of the universe, and out of which we cannot stir.” By studying natural law, the conservative gains a healthy respect for the moral framework in which humans live and develops the ability to discern right from wrong.
To explore this morality fully, Burke argued, the conservative must dive deeply into both history and culture. “In history,” he argued, “a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.” The sum of these lessons, what Burke called experience, varies widely across cultures which makes close study of anthropology essential. When informed, the conservative may observe causality at work as the consequences of human choices play out over time.
Burke believed that such observation would demonstrate that many long-standing institutions contain the inherited wisdom of multiple generations. He argued that conservatives should utilize prudence and alter such institutions gradually rather than discarding them at will. In this manner innovation is encouraged when it builds upon the lessons of history and advances society; it is likewise discouraged when it repeats previously accounted failures and ignores the experience of the past. Such development Burke called prescription, the linking of past and present generations in the common goal of discovering what is good.
Given Burke’s arguments we may now succinctly outline his definition of conservatism. The conservative, according to Burke, is a person who is motivated by love of family, community, and country to serve others. He or she is a person who is deeply educated in history, culture, and ethics. From this the conservative demonstrates a deep appreciation for the mystical nature of the universe and the moral and epistemological complexities surrounding politics. Practically, the conservative seeks to utilize prudence and prescription when making decisions that affect others. The conservative is thus largely a reformer by trade, one who seeks to smoothly bridge what is best in the past with the most promising innovations of the future. As Burke himself wrote in Reflections, “A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.”
The final question of this outline and series, then, is does anyone in our current political climate fit Burke’s criteria of a conservative? Does anyone today truly exemplify “a disposition to preserve” and “an ability to improve?” Do you?
 Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. p.40.
 Burke, Edmund. Select Words of Edmund Burke: Vol 1. p.288.
 Ibid. p289.
 The Speeches of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke (1816). p.357-358.
 Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. p.119.
 Ibid. p.133.
Next Post: The Roots of American Conservatism (Conclusion)
To learn more about The Burkean Conservative and subscribe to our newsletter check out our Connect page!