Edmund Burke

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke

Six Sessions, July 8 through August 11, 2009

Unlike many thinkers of the Enlightenment, a movement that exalted scientific rationality, Edmund Burke saw that the roots of man’s social existence lie in deeper soil, in concrete attachments, history, custom, lived experience and nature, than the abstract principles of theoretical reason, valid as they may be.  This is a conservative stance. But Burke’s conservatism is liberal, in the original sense of that word: dedicated to liberty.  Adam Smith said of him, “Burke is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do without any previous communication having passed between us”.   His younger contemporary, the jurist and writer James Mackintosh,  said: “Burke was one of the first thinkers as well as one of the greatest orators of his time. He is without parallel in any age, excepting perhaps Lord Bacon and Cicero; and his works contain an ampler store of political and moral wisdom than can be found in any other writer whatever.” This liberal conservatism or conservative liberalism makes Burke and his ideas peculiarly suited to America. His respect for liberty led Burke to argue forcefully in the British Parliament for the rights of the American colonists.  The American rebellion was a conservative rebellion, fought to preserve the traditional rights of Englishmen, and the American Constitution is a conservative constitution.  But his respect for history and tradition led him to condemn the French Revolution as an act of madness, by which the French people gave away a priceless inheritance that could have been reformed.  Burke saw that political self-government cannot exist without individual self-government: the first virtue of political society is temperance or moderation.

Burke is also a master of the English language. It is a positive pleasure to read him. He expresses complex thoughts with nuance and subtlety, and almost every paragraph he wrote contains something memorable.

“Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither, in my opinion, is safe.”

“But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”

“The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.”

The French Revolutionists “made and recorded a sort of institute and digest of anarchy, called the Rights of Man.”  Anarchy, because as universal statements they can be used to destroy the concrete and necessarily imperfect achievements of history and experience.

“Men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”