Lecture 5: The Wisdom of Experience: Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797)

Freedom and Tradition: An Introduction to Classical Liberalism and Conservatism

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke
Fall 2006

With this lecture we turn from classical liberalism to conservatism, and to the man generally recognized as the father of conservatism as a philosophy in the English-speaking world. The differences between these two viewpoints, however, should not be exaggerated. Burke was not only a conservative but also a classical liberal. Adam Smith remarked that “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.” He believed in liberty, but also believed it was important to use it wisely. In regard to the French Revolution’s claim to bring liberty to the people of France, he wrote: “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 which may be soon turned into complaints.”

The basic principle of Burkean Conservatism (there are others) is respect for the voice of experience rather than theoretical reasoning as the prime source of knowledge about human affairs. While theoretical reasoning deals in concepts for which a universal validity is claimed, experience is always particular: of particular people regarding particular things in particular circumstances. Conservatism therefore suggests that we begin our analysis of any question concerning society by studying individuals and the concrete relationships that exist between them, and the concrete natures of the things involved, rather than abstract concepts.

The viewpoint opposed to conservatism is not classical liberalism but what Michael Oakeshott has called “rationalism” and Burke “speculation.” This is the very common approach of presuming that abstract analysis or universal considerations, without much concern for the distinct features of the particular situation, can show us what needs to be corrected in a society. Some existing feature of society may come to be labelled “irrational” because it does not fit in very obviously with some theoretical scheme, yet it may play a vitally important role in actual human life. A classic example of this is the proposal made by Plato in the Republic that the Guardian class responsible, in his theory, for the defense of the city should possess property, wives and children in common. For Plato, as for many modern socialists, the family is an irrational institution because it is “selfish.” But the voice of experience tells us something entirely different, that the loving relationships of the family are the foundation of a sound emotional development in which selfishness is overcome and one learns to reach out to others.

The supporters of the French Revolution preached a gospel of universal equality, but Burke remarks: “In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature.” The reason is that the actual relationships between people that make their lives meaningful transcend such simplistic categories. (An example of this would be George Gilder’s argument that, while it is true women have traditionally been dependent on men economically, it is also true that men are more dependent on women in other ways, especially emotionally.)

Valuing experience means valuing history, custom and tradition, and the many aspects of human life that cannot be captured by abstract analysis. Glanvill, the great mediaeval commentator on the English Common law, wrote that “custom is a form of reason.” The fact that people over a long period of time have done something in a certain way is itself a testimony that there have been good reasons for doing it that way. This does not mean it cannot be changed, for circumstances can change. Burke: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” A society must have “the two principles of conservation and correction.” But if we wish to change something important in the life of a society, it would be good to understand, if we can, what those original reasons were. A society of human beings is not a laboratory in which we can be entitled to carry out experiments which might be just as likely to fail as to succeed. If we know by experience that some project or entity is successful, we should be hesitant to criticize it on theoretical grounds.

Burke supported the American revolution, not on the ground of “human rights,” but of “the rights of Englishmen” which the colonists ought to possess. He does not doubt that there are some fundamental rights that all human beings possess, but what exactly are those rights? Any answer must give a theoretical concept whose basis is speculative and can be argued about. (The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a “right” “to equal pay for equal work;” “to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay;” and “to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” The meaning of the term “right” here is very different from its traditional meaning, different even from that of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen that issued from the French Revolution.

By contrast, everyone knows, from the history and custom of the society, what the traditional rights of Englishmen are. It is the difference between a theory and an inheritance.

Burke’s most influential work is his Reflections on the Revolution in France. It was written in 1790 while the king, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette were still alive. But it foresaw rather accurately the horrors that were to come. We will follow Burke through the first part of his analysis of the events that had taken place, and then discuss how it relates to the United States. The work started out as a letter written to a young Frenchman who had asked for his opinions, but owing to the thoroughness of Burke’s treatment it finished up becoming a thick book. The main thesis he develops in this part is that the authority of the king comes not from the choice of the people, but from tradition. The English Constitution has authority because it is an inheritance handed on by the earlier generations that created it.

Burke begins his argument by taking notice of a sermon preached by a Dr Richard Price which expressed the hope that the liberty being created in France would find its way to England. This, however, implied that England was not a free country. Price granted that the English king “is almost the only lawful king in the world because the only one who owes his crown to the choice of the people.” But this implied that a king’s right to rule came solely from his choice by the people. Burke disputes both points.He begins with the preliminary observation that it is a great mistake to mix religion and politics.

“…politics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity. The cause of civil liberty and civil government gains as little as that of religion by this confusion of duties. Those who quit their proper character to assume what does not belong to them are, for the greater part, ignorant both of the character they leave and of the character they assume. Wholly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of meddling, and inexperienced in all its affairs on which they pronounce with so much confidence, they have nothing of politics but the passions they excite. Surely the church is a place where one day’s truce ought to be allowed to the dissensions and animosities of mankind.”

Burke’s attitude towards the French Revolution is deeply skeptical. “All circumstances taken together, the French revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world.” For it has brought chaos to a great nation, and it seems essentially unnecessary. The king had done little to deserve the treatment he was receiving. The clergy were in general a dedicated and often renowned body of men. The French nobility had great achievements to their credit and were for the most part humane in their dealings with their people. No doubt there was room for improvement in the affairs of France, but there was no rational justification for a revolution.

If what Price says were true, that the only lawful king is one who owes his crown to the choice of the people, then the current king, George III, would have no more title to authority than a gangster. Almost every ruler in history would have been unlawful, and his laws and the actions of his government, including those that have been the most beneficial, would be null and void. But this idea is crazy.

“This doctrine, as applied to the prince now on the British throne, either is nonsense and therefore neither true nor false, or it affirms a most unfounded, dangerous, illegal, and unconstitutional position. According to this spiritual doctor of politics, if his Majesty does not owe his crown to the choice of his people, he is no lawful king. Now nothing can be more untrue than that the crown of this kingdom is so held by his Majesty. Therefore, if you follow their rule, the king of Great Britain, who most certainly does not owe his high office to any form of popular election, is in no respect better than the rest of the gang of usurpers who reign, or rather rob, all over the face of this our miserable world without any sort of right or title to the allegiance of their people.  They have little regard to the obvious consequences of their doctrine, though they must see that it leaves positive authority in very few of the positive institutions of this country. When such an unwarrantable maxim is once established, that no throne is lawful but the elective, no one act of the princes who preceded this era of fictitious election can be valid. Do these theorists mean to imitate some of their predecessors who dragged the bodies of our ancient sovereigns out of the quiet of their tombs? Do they mean to attaint and disable backward all the kings that have reigned before the Revolution, and consequently to stain the throne of England with the blot of a continual usurpation? Do they mean to invalidate, annul, or to call into question, together with the titles of the whole line of our kings, that great body of our statute law which passed under those whom they treat as usurpers, to annul laws of inestimable value to our liberties? of as great value at least as any which have passed at or since the period of the Revolution? If kings who did not owe their crown to the choice of their people had no title to make laws, what will become of the statute de tallagio non concedendo? — of the petition of right? — of the act of habeas corpus?”

Burke argues that the authority of the king or any ruler comes not from election by the people but by “inheritance.” It is not simply that the king has a right of inheritance, but above all the people have a right to inherit the form of government created by their forefathers, since it establishes their rights. The people of England have a right to inherit the free society and the constitution established by earlier generations, and the people of France likewise have a right to inherit the constitution created by their forefathers many centuries ago. The Parisian mobs and the unrepresentative figures collected together in the Estates Generales have no right to take it from them.

This argument may seem to some remote, but it applies directly to the American situation. What is the source of political authority in the United States? Many “liberals” assume it comes from the people, by election. But this is not true of the Constitution. We do not vote and never have voted on the Constitution. Where does the authority of the Constitution come from, then? The Burkean answer is that we have inherited it and the rights it gives us from our forefathers.

I’d like now to indicate some viewpoints that are typically held by modern American conservatives largely inspired by Burke’s writings. As a source for this information you might wish to consult the National Review, or the writings of authors such as Russell Kirk or Roger Kimball. Outstanding English conservative thinkers include Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton. Theodore Dalrymple always makes good reading.

One is the importance of authority for liberty. Burkean conservatives believe in liberty, but point out that it does not happen of its own accord. Left to themselves and their own desires and instincts, human beings can create a hell on earth through violence: as we see happening in some parts of the globe today. As Hobbes wrote, in the absence of effective government the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Authority is needed to create a space for liberty. One of the problems with what is called “liberalism” in the U.S. is a preoccupation with power and the demand for power, but a lack of support for authority. This is an important distinction. Authority is legitimate power. But for “liberals,” no power is truly legitimate. They fear and detest genuine authority, viewing it as inherently exploitative and a threat to equality.

Read A Note on Terminology: “Classical Liberalism”