The Value-Centered Historicism of Edmund Burke

Joseph Baldacchino, "The Value-Centered Historicism of Edmund Burke," Modern Age 27, no. 2 (1983).


As he opposed the notion of a “geographical” morality, so, too, did Burke denounce the idea that man’s moral duty changes with the passage of time. “We know that we have made no discoveries,” he writes, “and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.”

For Burke, the moral obligation is “eternal”; it provides the basis of all community; and it has its source in the will of God. Hence, all “persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awefully impressed with an idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great master, author and founder of society.”

Such examples could be multiplied almost endlessly. A deep awareness of a universal moral order having its source in God’s will pervades Burke’s writings. Whatever the issue at hand, Burke constantly repairs in one way or another to the theme that all “human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice.”

How, then, to explain, in the face of such evidence to the contrary, the widely held view that Burke was in significant ways a moral relativist? An answer may be found in the fact that, while Burke placed great importance on the historical nature of human existence, the possibility of an historicism that accepts a universal moral order is widely overlooked. In the remaining pages, which will rely heavily on the work of Irving Babbitt and Claes Ryn, I intend to argue that Burke was gravitating toward such a “value-centered historicism.” In addition, I hope to show that a key ingredient in Burke’s thought is his tendency to conceive of morality in terms of practical action—i.e., in terms of will—rather than reason, and, finally, to reconsider in this light some of the points made by Strauss.