In both Western society and academy, there is a spirit of revolutionary zeal and destructive rage that plagues us. In this way, the year 2020 feels eerily similar to the winter of 1790 when Edmund Burke wrote his political treatise, Reflections on the Revolution in France. The age in which Burke lived saw the haunting specter of revolution that seems to have reared its head this year. This eminent statesman warned that “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.” Today, it seems that any reverence for previous generations or respect for our ancestors has left cities like Portland, Minneapolis, and Kenosha.
While the detested philosophers, economists, and sophists that Burke so forcefully denounced saw an opportunity in the upending of the old order in France, Burke foresaw chaos, disorder, and even the coming democratic despotism. Burke held in reverence the traditions of merry old England, and once wrote that “Those whose principle it is to despise the [ancient] permanent sense of mankind, and to set up a scheme of society on new principles, must naturally expect that such of us who think better of the judgment of the human race than of others” discard their schemes and abstractions too lightly. But he saw that when the French tore down monuments and institutions – when “all the decent drapery of life is rudely torn off” – order is replaced by something worse. Then we require new ideas “furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination … to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature.”
Edmund Burke: The First Conservative
In the words of Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke was denouncing forces of disorder and evil in his political writings: “Foreseeing a sack of the world by the forces of Chaos and old Night, Burke endeavored to save the best of the traditional order within the barricades of institution and philosophy. He was the first conservative of our time of troubles.” The eminent English Member of Parliament was a statesman and thinker, perhaps even a political prophet, of the 18th century whose writings still reverberate today. His eloquent defense of order and tradition in the face of chaos on the European continent was prescient to the point of prophetic. When in Reflections he warned his French interlocutor about the dangers and excesses of “reason” and idealistic “liberty” and “equality,” his warnings from 1790 essentially came to pass in the Reign of Terror of 1792-1794. The intellectual framer of the modern conservative movement knew the vital importance of common people, rooted in localities and belonging to faith communities. He was a man of the ages although he lived in revolutionary times. Against the backdrop of the French Revolution, British statesman Edmund Burke laid the intellectual foundation for the modern conservative and anti-revolutionary movements.
“Foreseeing a sack of the world by the forces of Chaos and old Night, Burke endeavored to save the best of the traditional order within the barricades of institution and philosophy. He was the first conservative of our time of troubles.” Russell Kirk
Edmund Burke was a practical politician and supremely conservative thinker, and as such he viewed society as a partnership between the living and the dead. He once wrote that:
The state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee … to be taken up for a little temporary interest … It is to be looked on with reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. … 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.
It is this idea of historical continuity, cultural inheritance, and intergenerational debt that separates Edmund Burke from rationalists like Voltaire and Rousseau.
The ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau, notions of man cut off from his ancestors and having obligations to neither family nor descendants, was “unnatural” for Burke. Rather, Burke viewed abstract rights as contrary to order, and their final result in society was “Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigour; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and a state not relieved; civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom.” It was this social anarchy – this rebellion against God and government – that Burke saw at the heart of the French Revolution and of which he warned his fellow Englishmen. In the words of Augustine Birrell, “none knew better than Burke how thin is the lava layer between the costly fabric of society and the volcanic heats and destroying flames of anarchy. He trembled for the fair fame of all established things, and to his horror saw men … digging in it for abstractions.”
Burke was a political conservative who did indeed care about heritage, inheritance, and “the eternal constitution of things,” who wrote that “men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters” (Levin, 114). For Burke, the partnership that formed the basis of the civil-social order was rooted in temperance, prudence, religion, and self-control. The whole thrust of his political thinking and writing was a testament to these virtues. His was a political movement that has endured because it is rooted in natural law and the fundamental nature of the world. His eloquent defense of order and tradition in the face of European chaos was brilliant and impactful. In his own lifetime, there was an ongoing debate between Burke and Thomas Paine in what one writer has termed “The Birth of Right and Left.” These debates had a lasting impact, and the man Burke has ideas that truly shaped the western world for two and a half centuries.
It would behoove us to revisit the deep well of Burkean and Antirevolutionary conservative thought.