Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke lived during a period of revolution and upheaval abroad but lived in Britain during a period of relative stability. As such, he was able to compare and contrast different political systems and the revolutions that sought to change them, and his conclusions created the ideological basis for conservatism as we know it today. 

Edmund Burke Edmund Burke

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    As with any political theory, whether it be Marxism, liberalism, or conservatism, it is important to approach it with an open mind as the actual theory and the popular understanding of the theory are often two very different things! So let's take a closer look at Edmund Burke, the "Father of Conservatism".

    Edmund Burke Biography

    Edmund Burke (1730-1797) was born in Dublin, Ireland to a Protestant father and Catholic mother who passed on their religious beliefs to Burke and sent him to a private Quaker school. Because of his mixed religious upbringing, Burke would become a strong advocate for religious toleration later in life and would himself marry a Catholic woman by the name of Jane Mary Nugent in 1757.

    At the age of 15, Burke was enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin where he received a classical education studying the works of Homer, Epictetus, and Cicero while also reading more modern writers such as William Shakespeare and John Milton. After completing school and going against his father's wishes for him to study law, Burke busied himself with his writing publishing several works and releasing one of his most famous works, called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

    Edmund Burke, Edmund Burke portrait, StudySmarterA portrait of Edmund Burke, Author: Sir Joshua Reynolds, wiki.commons CC-PD-Mark

    In 1766 Edmund Burke found his calling as a Whig member of Parliament and would retain his seat in the House of Commons for almost three decades. Throughout his time in Parliament, Burke continued to write. During the French Revolution, he was asked his opinion on events in France and, to the surprise of many, responded with disdain toward the revolution. He put his views into writing in Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790 in which he laid out his opposition to the revolution and inadvertently laid the foundations for conservatism as a political theory.

    Edmund Burke French Revolution

    The French Revolution lasted from 1789-1799 and transformed France from a monarchy into a short-lived republic that would eventually fall under the dictatorship of Napolean Bonaparte. The French Revolution appealed to abstract ideals such as liberty, equality, and fraternity, and instead of creating a state with these principles as its guide, the French state slid into a long violent revolution. The Revolution resulted in the deaths of thousands of French citizens, the collapse of the monarchy, internal conflicts and external wars against the British, Russians, Austrians, Italians and others.

    The French Revolution was in part inspired by the much more successful American Revolution and its revolt against the British crown. The French were inspired by what they saw in America and sought to implement the same Enlightenment ideals that were being applied to American state-building.

    Edmund Burke, The Painting Liberty Leading the People, StudySmarterLiberty Leading the People, Author, Eugène Delacroix, wiki.commons, CC-PD-Mark

    At the same time, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the rule of King Louis XVI and the conditions of the average French citizen deteriorated, leading to protests, riots and, eventually, revolution. By 1790, when Burke was asked his opinion on the matter, the French Revolution had already seen several major events such as the fall of the Bastille and transitioning into a constitutional monarchy. Although Edmund Burke did not live to see the result of the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France foreshadowed the future failures of the revolution and help to explain why they happened.

    The French Revolution is an important event in European history and understanding it will help to place much of the political theory that appeared after it into a much clearer context.

    Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France

    Reflections on the Revolution in France began as a letter from Edmund Burke to a Frenchman who had asked his opinion on the French Revolution. In response to this request, Burke began writing what was supposed to be a letter, but which quickly turned into one of the most powerful critiques of not just the French Revolution, but of the Enlightenment more generally.

    For Burke, the French revolution had no moral legs to stand on as it was born out of an unjust desire to revolt against the monarchy and the state. As mentioned above, France under Louis XVI was not a perfect place but it was not, according to Burke, so bad that it required a revolution, let alone the removal and replacement of everything that had up until that point made French society distinct and unique.

    Burke believed the French Revolution failed to accept that the natural rights and liberties which it was pursuing were not merely the products of reason, but were instead inherited through the established institutions of France's social order. To revolt against these institutions and attempt to completely reorder society was a grave mistake as it was these very institutions and cultural practices that created the ideas of liberty and justice to begin with.

    Burke was not arguing that any change in French society and government was detrimental, but he objected to the wholesale rejection of every aspect of the French social order. He believed that the revolution would have massive consequences for the French state, a point which was proven correct as the revolution evolved over the last decade of the 18th century.

    Burke launched a further attack against the individuals leading the revolution and their complete lack of political and institutional knowledge. As Burke saw it, the revolution up to that point had produced more suffering for the average French citizen than they had endured under the ineffective leadership of Louis XVI.

    Burke argued that because neither the leadership of the revolution nor the citizens supporting it understood the impacts of the revolution, then the end result would be a "positive feedback loop" of bad leaders listening to the bad requests of the citizens. Burke believed the French were digging a hole so deep that eventually, citizens would simply be under the thumb of the worst leadership imaginable. As it turns out, the French did find themselves under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre and the Montagnards, the group responsible for the Reign of Terror.

    The Reign of Terror lasted from September 1793 to July 1794 and was initiated by Maximilien Robespierre as he attempted to purge France of his political opponents, primarily the Girondins, though Robespierre also approved the executions of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. These political persecutions ended with the death of Robespierre. Unfortunately for France, the White Terror began immediately after the Reign of Terror and was an attempt to root out and kill supporters of the Reign of Terror and remaining Jacobins.

    Burke was not against revolution per se. He spoke highly of both the English Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution. His argument for the English Revolution of 1688 was that the goal was to improve the already established order of England as opposed to erasing the entire structure of society.

    As for the American Revolution, he argued that England had betrayed the American colonies and they had a right to revolt against the tyranny of the British crown. In the case of the French Revolution, there was little tyranny to revolt against and the revolutionaries did not want to improve what was already established, but instead, to destroy the entire political system - something Edmund Burke simply could not support.

    Edmund Burke Conservatism

    Edmund Burke never developed a clear-cut theory of conservatism. Instead, his thoughts on knowledge, political institutions, change, and arguments against the French Revolution, amongst others, all pointed towards a preference for continuity and caution in reform. Later thinkers called these ideas "conservative", in that they argued for the conservation of the existing social and political order - in part or in whole.

    Conservatism as it developed argued that the institutions, customs, and values of a society are not simply the result of spontaneous invention, but instead develop out of a sustained effort over multiple generations. For Burke - and conservatives more generally - these institutions, customs, and values create a body of wisdom and knowledge that develops over hundreds or thousands of years and to simply reject and destroy a social and political order means to destroy the wisdom and knowledge that it upholds.

    Burkean conservatism, then, can be described as the view that conserving inherited forms of governance is the best way to guarantee liberty, economic and intellectual progress and the general well-being of society. While some political systems may occasionally need to be reformed, reform must proceed cautiously and must never involve destroying existing systems.

    As was clear in the French Revolution, as French institutions were levelled, the only thing left was the chaotic rule of rival political factions which eventually ended in the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, French expansionism and war in Europe. Burke, had he lived to see it, would not have been surprised at this outcome in the least.

    This sentiment of the past acting as a guide was echoed by many theorists after Burke. One example is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that "Direct self-observation is not nearly sufficient for us to know ourselves: we need history, for the past flows on within us in a hundred waves; indeed, we ourselves are nothing but that which at every moment we experience of this continual flowing."

    Edmund Burke Quotes

    The following quotes are exerpts from Reflections on the Revolution in France:

    A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.

    This quote shows that Burke is not opposed to change and, on the contrary, sees some change as necessary to the continued health of the state and society.

    It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. 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 to be born.

    This quote refers to the social contract and sees Burke arguing that the social contract is constructed by generations of individuals. For Burke, to simply throw out the social contract is to also throw out the knowledge and insight acquired throughout its duration.

    Is it, then, true that the French government was such as to be incapable or undeserving of reform, so that it was of absolute necessity that the whole of the fabric should be at once pulled down and the area cleared for the erection of a theoretic, experimental, edifice in its place?

    This quote sees Burke questioning the condition of the average French citizen under King Louis XVI and asking if it truly warranted the wholesale destruction of the societal structure of France.

    Edmund Burke - Key takeaways

    • Edmund Burke was an Irish-born political theorist who served as a Whig Member of the British Parliament.
    • Burke was not opposed to progress and approved of the American Revolution.
    • However, he opposed radical revolution and believed that events in France would achieve the very opposite of liberty, equality and fraternity.
    • Edmund Burke did not write a political theory of conservatism but instead laid the groundwork for the development of a political theory that seeks to conserve existing society.
    • For Burke, the institutions, customs, and values of a particular society hold within them wisdom from past generations and should not be simply abandoned in pursuit of entirely new values.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Edmund Burke

    What are Edmund Burke beliefs?

    That the conservation of society is important.

    What did Edmund Burke think of the French Revolution?

    It was a bad idea.

    What did Edmund Burke think about government?

    He supported it.

    What are main arguments of Edmund Burke?

    That the French Revolution was a bad idea and the insitutions hold within them the knowledge and wisdom of past generations.

    Did Edmund Burke believe in natural rights?

    Yes, but he also believed the best way of guaranteeing these rights was to preserve existing social and political orders and to reform them only very gradually. 

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