Introduction to the Work of Burke

Edmund Burke spent the bulk of his maturity dealing with political affairs, and his political thought reflects this experience. Indeed, Burke’s emphasis on the importance of tradition and history, along with his questions about the harmful effect of purely theoretical standpoints in politics has led some to dismiss him as unphilosophical. In fact, as we will see, Burke’s writings engages seriously with the great themes of political philosophy, although almost always in the context of particular questions of policy and choice. As a young man, moreover, he wrote an important work on the origin and meaning of beauty.

Burke’s writings have also had an important practical effect. His thoughtful opposition to the extremes of the French Revolution has made his Reflections on the Revolution in France a perennial source for understanding that event. His discussion of political parties in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents is a basic source for understanding the meaning of modern party government. And his work was one source of the postwar American conservatism that resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan.

The Defects of Our Nature

Burke follows Aristotle and precedes Tocqueville in identifying associations as fundamental to human flourishing. For Burke, the best life begins in the “little platoons”—family, church, and local community—that orient men toward virtues such as temperance and fortitude. It is in the local and particular that we are able to live justly. In seeing political life as best conducted within an order of particular habits and presumptions—specifically, the order of the British Constitution—Burke resisted the attempts of some of his contemporaries to study man as if he could be viewed in isolation, apart from all the trappings of society. This type of political speculation, which for Burke is most dubiously practiced by Rousseau, postulates an original “state of nature,” in which “man is born free,” but is everywhere in chains.

Burke thought on the contrary that men are born constrained by the traditions of their forbears; ill-considered reforms that stem from abstract theoretical designs are therefore dangerous. The proponents of a new age of “light and reason” who fomented the French Revolution are likely to harm us by tearing away “the decent drapery of life.” In doing so they deny the presumptive excellence of ruling gentlemen, the implicit contract among the present, past, and future, a proper place for the exceptional prudence of men such as Burke himself, and a decent appreciation of religion. The speculative and theoretical proponents of political revolution fail to see themselves and us as indebted to a larger tradition that includes the art, literature, ritual, and customs established over the course of millennia. Without these way stations, which are “necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature,” it is difficult to endow men with greater dignity—itself a central aim of the Enlightenment. Burke’s often highly rhetorical attacks on the French Revolution and other harmful political projects were in the service of these basic structures of excellence and stability.

The Limits of Political Science

By 1789, the French had almost completely eliminated their inherited political, social, and cultural order—one of kings, aristocrats, and clergy known as the ancien régime—and attempted to begin the world anew. Their method, which aimed to understand man based on reason alone, or reason as they unreasonably understood it, was anathema to Burke, who wrote that “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori.” Useful changes to political order must begin not with abstract speculation, but with a serious understanding of the limitations imposed by existing conditions. Civilization is too complex to be understood, and, especially, to be secured, by abstraction alone. Opinion, prejudice, habit, individual facts and events, and chance are the necessary elements of political life. Authority cannot be secured by theoretical arguments.

Especially as manifest in the French Revolution, unbridled abstract speculation sacrifices present individual happiness to the future of an abstract humanity and dissolves the virtuous restraints that check individual licentiousness and immorality. One must secure and improve the British life one has, rather than govern according to speculative thought whose practical result will be disastrous. “Very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions,” Burke writes. This questioning of grand theoretical plans that led Burke to clarify the milieu of practical activity is not only an immediate warning about the French Revolution, but is also a signal contribution to reflection about politics, reprising elements of Aristotle’s understanding of prudence and practice, although from a different and ultimately less theoretical standpoint.

Burke’s warnings about theoretical schemes in politics did not lead him to insist upon preservation of the status quo at all costs. All societies must adapt to changing circumstances, but such reform should always proceed carefully. “The science of government,” he wrote, was “so practical in itself” that it required “even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life.” He thus insisted that “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.” In this light, the British system of parliamentary representation, which in Burke’s day restricted the number of those who could vote and allowed constituencies of vastly different sizes, was to him adequate for its constitutional role of protecting the national interest.

According to Burke, the ties of family and neighborhood and the title to property established from long use or prescription were more natural than abstract egalitarian schemes. The prudence (or its lack) of government representatives should be visible to the public, but should not be under the thumb of public opinion. Representatives were not mere delegates of people, but, rather, trustees of the public good. Indeed, he told his own constituents that “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Government requires statesmen whose virtue is critical to crafting legislation and principled, although often partisan, actions.

History, the Social Contract, and Inherited Rights

Although Burke opposed Rousseau and aspects of modern political thought such as abstract egalitarianism and individualism, he understood the importance and power of the love of wealth and supported government that helped to secure a plethora of individual interests and ends. One might say that in effect, if not in intention, he combined elements of modern individualism, ancient practice, and the kind of order that we see in the growth or history of entities such as Great Britain and its constitution. Civil society must provide men “a sufficient restraint upon their passions” in order that their liberties can be secured. The imposition of the restrictions necessary to a civilized existence could only be imposed “by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue.” Burke thought that Rousseau’s concept of the general will was particularly dangerous because it seemed to endorse the idea that every generation is its own keeper and hence a rejection of the tradition that “no man should be judge in his own cause.”

“Society is indeed a contract,” he argued, adopting the language of his modern opponents, “but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee … to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties.” Civil society was therefore to “be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature.” The only effective remedy for the problem of establishing political authority was deference to inherited order: “As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society.”

Because the aims of civil society could only be worked out through history, it followed for Burke that political rights, while ultimately rooted in transcendent principles, could only be understood in the context of historical tradition. In contrast to the Rousseau-inspired French revolutionaries, whose “rights of man” seemed to Burke to be rooted in nothing but the passions of the mob, Burke claimed that in practice, most rights and liberties had been passed down from previous generations. They were not abstract, but “an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity—as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.”

The Regulation of Empire

Burke’s contention that political institutions need to take root in particular times and places led him to a complex but often skeptical view of the way in which Britain’s possessions were administered. Burke’s prudence did not require unthinking support of the actions of sitting governments. He was, for example, a notable friend of the American Revolution; he recommended that the British Empire let its rebellious American colonies separate peacefully. As in the case of the French Revolution, he found that framing the debate in terms of rights—whether of the colonists to rebel or Parliament to tax them—did not help clarify matters. A government’s reliance on abstract legal claims was but a lesser version of forming government and policy on the basis of abstract speculation, and, therefore, still dangerously impractical. “The question with me is, not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy. It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do, but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.” Parliament may have had the legal right to put down the rebellion in the colonies, but the way it had treated its subjects—in this case with overly burdensome taxation—was clearly imprudent and opposed to dignity and justice. The colonists’ sovereigns in London may not have violated the letter of constitutional precedent, but they had failed to respect the spirit of the traditional liberties of Englishmen, an inheritance of which the colonists saw themselves as beneficiaries.

Burke’s invocation of prudent constitutional judgment in questions of empire extended to a long battle with the colonial masters of British India, a fight that Burke apparently considered the most important of his political career. As in the American case, Burke thought that the dominion exercised by the British could not justifiably be seen as a mere exercise of power, but rather involved properly respecting existing local customs and practices. His disdain for the exercise of arbitrary power is especially visible in his famous opening statement at the trial of Governor-General Warren Hastings, in which Burke claimed that the limits of empire were demarcated by no less than the natural order and divine law.

Burke employed his immense practical judgment to defend the British Constitution and its developing model of party government. Because of his own excellence, however, he sometimes reached conclusions that differed from the views of any of the parties.

For further introductory reading, see:

Harvey Mansfield, “Burke” In History of Political Philosophy, eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.