Edmund Burke is one of the most important — if not the most important — political thinkers in the last three hundred years. Those who have never read him directly have interfaced with someone either influenced by him or caught up reckoning with his views. He was, as it were, the snake in the Leftist garden, reminding those bent on revolutionary bliss they are not as gods.
But Burke is hardly a household name beyond a widely-shared paraphrase of a quote. Those who can summon up a high school-level review of Locke, Hobbes, Washington, Jefferson, etc more often draw a blank if asked about this great “philosopher in action.”
This article is, first and foremost, a primer for those out there drawing a blank.
Who was Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke was a Member of Parliament who spent some of Britain’s most pivotal decades in the public eye. He was an intellectual leader among the Rockingham Whigs, comparable to Newt Gingrich and Bernie Sanders in his “ideas man” style of influence, but certainly better than both at that game unless the old coots have been holding out on us.
Burke’s Political Career
His career spanned the Seven Years War to the French Revolution. He was either instrumental in the conduct of every major event in between or credited with providing indispensable observations of them; such as his magnum opus, Reflections on the Revolution in France .
Unlike other “great” politicians, Burke never attained the highest office in the land or exerted much in the way of direct personal influence. In this respect, his career reached its apex during Rockingham’s, two stints as Prime Minister (1765-1766, 1782). Outside that very brief time, Burke served as Parliament’s reforming gadfly by powerfully orienting Parliament’s concerns toward the good, true, and beautiful; even if the cause in question was otherwise hopeless.
Burke had twin concerns throughout his political career:
1. The emergence of ideology and revolution.
2. Just reform in the interest of continued peace and order.
They both went hand in hand- Burke believed revolution and the revolutionary spirit ought to be crushed in order to prevent catastrophe, but stubbornness on the part of magistrates and a general unwillingness to correct injustices provoke rebellion.
As such, the greater part of his career was not spent railing against foreign revolutions as was the case with France, but rather reforming and quashing emerging injustices in British policy.
Burke was a rare friend to the American people in parliament when Lords Grenville and North sought to levy taxes on the soon-to-be United States and thereby curtail colonial sovereignty and their rights as Englishmen. He realized such bullheadedness would lead to a permanent break with the colonies, but was too cultured to openly grunt “See, I told you so!” in 1776.
When Governor General Warren Hastings arrived in England after waging smaller wars of his own in India, the entire “governing” structure of the British East India Company was called into question. The unsuccessful prosecution was led by Edmund Burke, and while he realized Hastings would be acquitted after a certain point, he found an open discussion on British conduct in India to be a moral imperative, because it was clear the raw Imperial commercial interests were not accompanied with basic concerns for justice and equality before the law.
While Burke was born and raised in a stable Ireland, its political union with Britain was slowly tearing at the seams by the late 1700’s due to revolutionary separatism and a government which continued to treat the Irish as second class citizens. As was the case with America, Burke argued for a more just and favorable trade arrangement coupled with the toleration of Irish Catholics as opposed to the preferential treatment of Protestants who had, at that point, showed violent revolutionary tendencies. Burke took lumps these stances, suffering a loss of his great seat in Bristol and no small amount of public ridicule.
For all this, Burke is often considered a liberal of his own day and, in certain respects, he was. But it’s a mistake to think of him as some sort egalitarian “do-gooder.” He was not bothered by the specter of inequality, nor was he beguiled by a promise of Heaven on earth. He merely believed a state had an obligation to provide a just order. Particularly the British state which had an observable track record of ordered liberty built on centuries of custom and a strong concern for eternal truths.
This made him the logical opponent of the French Revolution when it rolled around.
“These writings and sermons have filled the populace with a black and savage atrocity of mind, which supersedes in them the common feelings of Nature.”
American conservatives have a great many heroes to look back on in the late 1700’s- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. A cast of imperfect but mostly good statesmen who did their utmost to build a durable political order consistent with American experience up until that point in time. But I would deign to say Burke understood the nature of revolution and the threat it posed to all good order better than any American before or since. He is therefore essential reading in a way the aforementioned are not in our own age of Cultural Revolution.
Burke’s Magnum Opus
Reflections on the Revolution in France is Burke’s magnum opus, and writing it was his most important achievement. In it, he critiques the origins of the revolution among Parisian intellectuals and merchantmen, the imprudent administration and staffing of the French government, the bizarre political geography, the sanguinary tendencies that arise from “a black and savage atrocity of mind,” and the rotten effect on institutions such as the army and the judiciary. Throughout, he offers the British constitution as the grand foil, its greatness owed to ancient origins preserved and honored by gradual, necessary changes.
A mere, paragraph-long description does not do justice to this text. Burke dives deeply into observations of history, human nature, and so forth. The conclusions he reaches in meditating on the Revolution will remain even if Western countries find their stride in an enduring order.
This site and broader organization maintains there is an indissoluble link between the reforming conservatism of Edmund Burke and the political implications of Reformed Theology. The details of this ought to be left to another article as it isn’t mere introductory material. But it’s important to note that while Burke had no great love for the Puritans (according to Kirk), it doesn’t mean their spiritual descendents cannot love him.
He is possibly the finest spokesmen for ordered liberty that the world has ever known. He did not arrive at his conclusions by way of vain philosophizing, but hewed close to the experience of mankind and the principles of just and right governance as espoused by the Bible.
“Violently condemning neither the Greek or the Armenian, nor, since heats are subsided, the Roman system of religion, we (the British) prefer the Protestant: not because we think it has less of the Christian religion in it, but because, in our judgment, it has more. We are Protestants not from indifference, but from zeal.”
“We know and it is our pride to know that man is by his constitution a religious animal…”
Citations & References1. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.
2. Edmund Burke, Collected Works of Edmund Burke.
3. Strauss Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy.
4. Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke, A Genius Reconsidered.