Edmund Burke (1729−1797)
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Last updated 2 Jun 2020
There is little doubt that Edmund Burke is the most influential conservative thinker of all time.
Burke's thoughts and comments deliver a fundamental set of ideas for conservatism. Burke provides a wide-ranging contribution to political theory, although he is best-known for his reflections on the revolution in France. Along with other conservative philosophers of the time such as Joseph de Maistre, Burke belongs in the counter-enlightenment school of thought. Burke rejected the Enlightenment view that humans are rational entities. Instead, Burke claimed we are both imperfect and imperfectible. Any attempt to create a system based upon the perfectibility of man is thereby contrary to our innate character.
Burke’s critique of the French revolution centres primarily upon its flawed attempt to create a utopian society based upon the slogans of ‘liberty, fraternity and equality.’ This is to ignore the social bonds that keep us together, and marks an attempt to replace the accumulated wisdom of previous generations with abstractions. The hot-headed idealists who manned the barricades were entirely wrong to believe they could construct a new world from the ashes of the old. They placed their faith in destruction rather than preservation; thereby acting contrary to what Burke claimed should be the guiding principles of society.
Unlike other social contract theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes; Burke believed that “society is but a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born.” We must therefore construct civilisation by giving weight to our ancestors, ourselves and those still to be born. Burke’s notion of an eternal society beautifully encapsulates the Tory view that the present should not be arrogant enough to believe they know what is best. For a true conservative; society needs to reflect the past, consider the present and meet the needs of future generations. It is a partnership that bridges the generations and provides for continuity over the years that should reflect the “democracy of the dead” as argued by G.K. Chesterton.
The Burkean conception of the social contract also provides a blueprint for those who seek to conserve the natural environment. A clear conclusion from his work is that we should give proper consideration to future generations. No generation should be so arrogant as to think only of themselves. Instead, we are its guardians and therefore have an obligation to sustain our natural environment in order to bequeath to the next generation. Therefore, we do not have a right to do with the natural world as we so wish. In addition, Burke believed that we seek security over abstract notions of equality and liberty. Humans are largely sceptical of what politics and politicians can ever hope to provide.
The Burkean notion (or trustee model) lies at the very centre of an understanding of the British parliamentary system. In a famous speech to his constituents in Bristol, Burke stated that an elected representative owes you his conscience. He should not slavishly follow public opinion in the style of a delegate. There is an important distinction to be made between a representative and a delegate. That said, the public can “kick the rascals out” during the subsequent election. The Burkean notion derives from the mindset that those who are elected to represent the people possess a greater level of wisdom than the public.
Burke can easily be criticised for offering ample justification for the ruling elite to place their own interests over that of the public. Indeed, Burke goes so far as to claim that the ruling classes are the only ones who can govern the country in a disinterested manner. In contrast, both the middle-class and working-class would serve their own group’s interest rather than the national interest. Revealingly, Burke claimed that his own social class could govern the country on the basis of paternalism.
Burke also believed there was a natural hierarchy within society, and each component must play their part on the basis of a living organism. Burke adopted an organic notion of society as opposed to the mechanistic view of liberal thinkers. Each section of society has their own obligations and we should “love the little platoon in society to which we belong.” The ruling elite benefits from the knowledge passed down by family members, but this gives them the duty of care over others (what later become identified as noblesse oblige).
Finally, Burke rejects the liberal view that technocratic experts are best placed to offer guidance. Instead, we must give adequate reflection to the past and be highly cautious when adopting a course of action. There is an inherent virtue in common-sense values; or what Burke called the “wisdom of unlettered men.” Although he was no democrat, Burke believed it unwise to resist change on the basis of greater democracy when change would lead to the preservation of vital institutions. Indeed, this reflects one of Burke’s most famous quotes (“a state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation”).