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Edmund Burke: Society and Reason

Updated on June 30, 2010

Edmund Burke

BURKE: THE PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDER OF WESTERN CONSERVATISM

Edmund Burke served in the British House of Commons and was a member of the Whig party. He is considered to be the philosophical founder of Anglo-American conservatism. Edmund Burke wrote the book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in response to a young man’s request to know what his opinions were on the matter of the revolution in France. His work has since been used extensively in the 20th century to critique socialist and communist revolutionary politics. Burke’s influential Reflections on the Revolution in France is understood to be the manifesto in Conservative thought. He argued extensively for an appeal to authority based on collective reasoning and organic reform while rejecting the use of abstract principles and individual reason in establishing mass rule.

REASON AND SOCIETY

Burke was the first individual to refute the conception made dominant by Locke, that each man had the capability of using his independent thought as a true authority, that an individual’s reason was a sufficient guide in determining the truth. Burke argued against this, stating that society is comprised of an organic whole in which each person’s mind is part of a particular and ancient growth, and conditioned by that surrounding it, and that any detachment from its collective position within society only leads to death.

He believed in the recognition of collective reason that has built up over time as opposed to the sudden reliance on individual reason, which by itself could be faulty. He stated that he regarded all that was considered noble and worthy within society to be in danger if the constitution of the moral order rested upon the unrestrained criticism of every individual.

Burke placed great emphasis on tradition (which he termed as prejudice), and used this belief to counter enlightenment ideas such as the reliance on individual reason. He believed that true lasting reformation came from the evolvement of customs, not imposed laws.

Burke saw internal reformation as proceeding from the principle of adherence to this tradition as the only concrete and successful way to reform. True freedom is inherited; the nature of the creation of the Magna Charta was testament alone to this innate right to Burke. It was the reliance on abstract principles that had lead to utter ruin. In the beginning stages of the book, Burke puts forward his axiom that, “One of the first motives to civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is, that no man should be judge in his own cause.”

Burke argues that there will be no discoveries in morality, that what is present among men is an absolute truth and it cannot be dispensed with or re-created by those enlightenment thinkers who wish to do so. He claims emphatically that “we are not the converts of Rousseau, we are not the disciples of Voltaire.” He states that the ideas of liberty and the principles of government have been present throughout history and will continue to be so regardless of present attempts to remake man’s destiny. He makes the connection between being real physical creatures of flesh and blood and that of knowing from within the fear of God, the monarchy and respect to nobility; they go together hand in hand because it is the natural state of things. All other feelings contrary to this position lead only to corruption of the mind and to slavery.

It is at this point that I believe his argument fails. While I will personally agree that there is an inherent need for God within each one of us (I do realize that my view is not held by all), I believe Burke simply cannot make the connection between that of the physical world and of adherence to a rigid monarchial code. Burke supports this argument through the proposition that since it has been accepted for centuries (this respect for the monarchy), it must therefore be valid; and this is where Burke will continually run into trouble, by advocating an adherence to institutions simply on the basis of elongated existence. A simple dismissal of this argument would suffice by citing examples of societies in which accepted institutions and traditions were barbaric (such as the near enslavement of the peasant class in certain societies).

Burke fears the ideas of the establishment of government upon that of individual reason because this reason is indeterminate from one individual to another and is minuscule in comparison to what is needed to accomplish such a large task. He states that those men who do have the capacity of reason, men that he defines as “men of speculation,” that they will always reach the same conclusion which is the inherent and latent wisdom which prevails in the belief of what he calls “prejudice,”which means tradition. Burke believes that this prejudice leads only to wisdom and virtue and does not lead to dangerous and skeptical indecision. Prejudice renders virtue as habit and is connected as a series of acts that is part of the nature and the being of man. Burke’s main thrust of his argument here is that the enlightenment thinkers believe that anything that gives perpetuity is evil and regard as accomplices anyone who supports such a view as in gross error. Loyalty at this point within the French revolution is adherence to those in power and their fleeting and temporal ideas as to the formation of a republic.

Burke emphasizes that previous attempts by those who have fought against tradition have always failed. He believes that when authority is absolute, the people under that authority have far more confidence in that power. While Burke was a supporter of the American Revolution, I find it difficult to reconcile is opinion in adherence to tradition when the colonists rebelled against the British crown. Burke argued that it was the British government, which first broke the bond between the rule and the governed, by instilling a harsher tax structure. This is a fundamental difference in how Burke views the American Revolution and the French Revolution; he states that it was the English rulers who made the immoral transgression within the American Revolution as opposed to the French Revolution in which it was the subjects under the crown which had instigated an immoral rebellion. Once again Burke ignores that the British crown has always levied high taxes during times of war and it was “tradition.” He believed democracy to be the shameful but his recorded reactions to the success of the Americans simply reveal this to be contradictory.

Burke further confuses the issue by claiming that society is indeed a contract and that the relationship between that of the individual and that of the state to be of the utmost importance. He states though that it is a contract between the living and the dead, between those born and unborn and that each link within the social contract is but a small part of a greater contract within the “eternal” society, linking the spiritual and physical worlds. This belief of Burke’s is at odds with his accusation that one cannot build an infrastructure upon metaphysical concepts yet Burke has done just this in trying to explain the state’s role within society. By linking the “unborn” and the “dead” with that of the present world, Burke attempts to tie in the course of time itself in claiming that it is almost (if not) natural law that society should be viewed this way. Burke is as guilty of applying the conduit into the metaphysical world as those insurrectionists who claim the revolution is founded upon them.

GOVERNMENT AND MONARCHY

Burke believed that those who supported the revolution in France not only destroyed and shocked the moral sentiments of the people, but disapproved of any system that disagreed with their own thinking-they believed that there was no third option between that of the despotism of the monarch and that of the despotism of the multitude. In this regard Burke is correct, the disintegration into chaos shortly after overthrowing the king was swift and the following years alternated between that of mob rule and dictatorial leadership, each characterized upon pain of death, a strict adherence to one’s particular view as opposed to the extreme opposite. Any desire by those that expressed caution or a moderate approach was viewed at the very least as treasonous.Burke will later correctly predict in the book that the outcome of the revolution will be the seizure of the tumultuous chaos by a “popular general” who will “seize and control your assembly, the master of your whole republic.”

Burke argues that those responsible for the revolution used every description of cruelty and tyranny in order to bring the revolution to fruition, tactics that the revolutionaries claimed that they despised within the ruling monarchy that was overthrown. Those that disagreed with the tactics of the revolutionaries are immediately labeled as monarchists and are considered as a threat to the new order.

Burke counters immediately that the monarchy itself was not nearly as disreputable as the insurrectionists believed and that the monarchy had its own system of political correction, without the need to induce strong reactionary measures. He mentions that that its system of regulating abuses was that of a “judicious check from the reason and feeling of the people being governed.” Burke here self refutes himself, for one can make the argument that it was a “judicious check” which resulted in the revolution to begin with. Additionally, Burke has argued about the dangers of using reason to decide one’s fate and the fate of that of society yet feels the need to express the belief that those under the authority of monarchies may use this very same reason as a check and balances system of correction. Burke simply tries to tailor his argument to fit the solutions that he thinks are viable in correcting oppressive measures. However, Burke does try to extricate himself from the avocation of total reform by claiming that the real and substantially reformist revolution that occurred in France was when the nobility met under the King’s precept at Versailles where the recommendation for reformation was heard. It was at this point Burke states, that the nobility surrendered their pretence to the right of taxation as well as much of their privileges. Burke claims the problem began with the violence that accompanied the tumultuous anarchy, which came about in establishing a despotic democracy, which then morphed into a repressive government of reciprocal control.

Burke despised democracy because he was certain that in a democracy, the majority of citizens would be able of exercising complete oppressive control over the minority. He believed that such persecution gets worse within a democracy and that the persecution would spiral out of control. At this point Burke falls to the same accusation he leveled at the insurrectionists, that of an either-or proposition. Burke simply disregards the necessary safeguards that a democracy would entail to protect that of each individual citizen, regardless of majority vs. minority views. He gives a simplified “Greek” version of a democracy in which one’s fate can be decided by the seemingly vindictive voting patterns of an angry mob, going so far as to quote Aristotle’s quote upon comparing a democracy to that of tyranny.

Burke claims that only under a monarchy can one have the same lot as the other and that even when oppression is present within a monarchy, the victim can take comfort in that his stock is shared by those within the kingdom in that they are all subject to the ruling individual and to the whims of the multitudes. This is simply ludicrous as it rules out selective oppression/favor toward individuals within the state, as well as indicates that citizenry can be happier knowing that others suffer along with them. Since Burke argues that true reform is begat from customs and not laws, how is one to propagate this germination within an oppressive system? Does Burke honestly believe that despotic rule can simply germinate years later into that of benevolent rule without some sort of reactionary internal or external influence? Does Burke simply ignore his own country’s history with its own measures of dealing with oppression such as Oliver Cromwell or the various Scottish insurrections against oppressive English rule? Taking Burke’s approach, one could simply ignore the early British practice of slavery simply on the belief that eventual reform would suddenly materialize. How does expanding British rule into the far reaches of the globe fit within Burke’s explanations? The forced seizures of other countries surely does not correspond with Burke’s ideas of “prejudice” being the great underlying denominator in deciding reform as many of these subjugated countries had their “traditions” cast asunder under invasion. Burke further complicates the issue by reflecting upon his own limited experiences with aspects of French society (the nobility, priests, etc) and stating that he did not witness the repression claimed by the French revolutionaries. Though he admits that some oppressive measures may have occurred, he reduces them to a mere annoyance; once again we have the problem of Burke contradicting his stance on the individual judging for himself the state of society, by making judgments based on his own thinking concerning the matter.

I do agree with Burke on several issues, including the following two. Burke pointed out the distinction between that of religious persecution within France as opposed to persecution across French secular society. Burke correctly argues the case that the real evils that cause misery are pride, ambition, revenge, lust, hypocrisy, etc, and that they are the causes of the violent upheaval. He state that religion, morals, laws, liberties, and the rights of men are the pretexts of a real and objective good and evil; he furthers the distinction by stating that there are many actors on the stage of good and evil such as Kings, priests, captains, magistrates, judges, etc, but one does not rid oneself of the problem by ridding the earth of these occupations, yet the insurrectionists did this with the clerical order.

Burke counters the underlying motives of the revolution by accusing the revolutionaries of tearing down the existing monarchial infrastructure and attempting to replace it with a theoretical model based on abstract principles. Repeatedly he makes the argument that reform can only come from within and that attempts to simply replace everything are doomed to failure. I believe he is right in asserting this point, history has shown that it is extremely difficult to simply uproot a ruling authority completely and then replace it with a desired infrastructure, much less a compendium of vague ideas and concepts as the French revolutionaries were attempting to do.

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      saslmkls 6 years ago

      dude..awesome..thanks a lot.

    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 6 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      >">"Burke supports this argument through the proposition that since it has been accepted for centuries (this respect for the monarchy), it must therefore be valid; and this is where Burke will continually run into trouble"<

      This alone should be reason enough to dismiss Burke. He justifies his argument through the logical fallacy of Appeal to Tradition which is a fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that something is better or correct simply because it is older, traditional, or "always has been done." This sort of "reasoning" has the following form:

      X is old or traditional

      Therefore X is correct or better.

      This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because the age of something does not automatically make it correct or better than something newer. This is made quite obvious by the following example: The theory that witches and demons cause disease is far older than the theory that microrganisms cause diseases. Therefore, the theory about witches and demons must be true.

      On top of that...Burke rests that logical fallacy on the very head of another; an Appeal to Authority (ad Veredundiam )assuming that the authority of a monarch and the aristocracy that supports it is something worthy of maintaining. It's not surprising to find conservatives looking to Burke for inspiration. The conservative is always looking to maintain the existing institution based on these illogical appeals, and of course in doing so, it always benefits them and blocks all attempts at democracy. The maintaining of the institution of slavery in the south was a clear example of this kind of thinking. Slavery amounted to a "Lords and Serfs" structure, and an aristocratic view. Most of our founders were aristocratic landowners who were "enlightened" enough to reject a system that benifited them. They were capable of standing outside of their own self interest for the sake of something greater. You can track every development of freedom and advancement of democracy in this country and see clearly where the opposition to it came from. Those who attempt to identify with our founders miss that completely. They clearly sought something that was much broader in scope. They held the same position on Church/State matters. Had they wanted a "Christian Nation" there certainly were enough Christians in congress to create that which would have served their own self interest at the expense of all others. But they didn't. They put their ego's aside and opted for something else.

    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 6 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      >"It is at this point that I believe his argument fails"<

      I agree with you. Completely, as did Paine.

      >"Burke supports this argument through the proposition that since it has been accepted for centuries (this respect for the monarchy), it must therefore be valid; and this is where Burke will continually run into trouble, by advocating an adherence to institutions simply on the basis of elongated existence. A simple dismissal of this argument would suffice by citing examples of societies in which accepted institutions and traditions were barbaric (such as the near enslavement of the peasant class in certain societies)."<

      Excellent.

      >"At this point Burke falls to the same accusation he leveled at the insurrectionists, that of an either-or proposition. Burke simply disregards the necessary safeguards that a democracy would entail to protect that of each individual citizen, regardless of majority vs. minority views. He gives a simplified “Greek” version of a democracy in which one’s fate can be decided by the seemingly vindictive voting patterns of an angry mob, going so far as to quote Aristotle’s quote upon comparing a democracy to that of tyranny."<

      He had reason for concern but didn't anticipate the idea of a constitutional democracy with a Bill of Rights to prevent the tyranny that he feared. Very good points here.

      >"Burke claims that only under a monarchy can one have the same lot as the other and that even when oppression is present within a monarchy, the victim can take comfort in that his stock is shared by those within the kingdom in that they are all subject to the ruling individual and to the whims of the multitudes. This is simply ludicrous as it rules out selective oppression/favor toward individuals within the state, as well as indicates that citizenry can be happier knowing that others suffer along with them."<

      This is an excellent critique.

      >"I believe he is right in asserting this point, history has shown that it is extremely difficult to simply uproot a ruling authority completely and then replace it with a desired infrastructure, much less a compendium of vague ideas and concepts as the French revolutionaries were attempting to do."<

      But...not impossible. We did it. We really had no idea of what kind of government we'd have until after the Revolution. The Federalist Papers weren't published until 1787-89, and that was the first attempt at describing the kind of government we'd have. I don't think that historicism has any bearing on the subject. History shows what was, not what will or can be. Historicism is the belief that the course of history is predetermined by scientific laws. That was the view of Karl Marx. He was criticized for it by philosophers such as Karl Popper.

      Overall, I enjoyed reading your critique of Burke. It's been long over-do and over-looked. The man was a narrow minded aristocrat in my view, and Paine laid waste to his argument on the French Revolution with the Rights of Man. Nice work.

    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 6 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      >"He is considered to be the philosophical founder of Anglo-American conservatism. Edmund Burke wrote the book, Reflections on the Revolution in France,"<

      And Thomas Paine wrote a book in response to Burkes book. It's called The Rights of Man. It's quite famous and outsold Burkes book. Burke was an aristocrat. Paine obviously was not. As Burke is the father of present day conservatism we can see that Conservatism is rooted in the preservation of the aristocracy.

      Principally, Rights of Man opposes the idea of hereditary government — the belief that dictatorial government is necessary, because of man's corrupt, essential nature. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) Edmund Burke says that true social stability arises if the nation's poor majority are governed by a minority of wealthy aristocrats, and that lawful inheritance of power (wealth, religious, governing) ensured the propriety of political power being the exclusive domain of the nation's élite social class — the nobility. That attitude still exist today. Witness the extended tax cuts for the wealthies people in this country.

      Rights of Man denounces Burke's assertion of the nobility's inherent hereditary wisdom; countering the implication that a nation has not a right to form a Government for governing itself. Paine refutes Burke's definition of Government as "a contrivance of human wisdom". Instead, Paine argues that Government is a contrivance of man, and it follows that hereditary succession and hereditary rights to govern cannot compose a Government — because the wisdom to govern cannot be inherited.

      >"His work has since been used extensively in the 20th century to critique socialist and communist revolutionary politics. Burke’s influential Reflections on the Revolution in France is understood to be the manifesto in Conservative thought."<

      Well, it's one of the manifesto's. As I said above, the very idea of the aristocracy of the wealthy is part of the "manifesto of conservatism". A phrase coined by Mark Levin. There is a problem with all manifesto's. They are dogmatically ideological. In fact you can't get more ideological than to create a "manifesto". Those are the very doctrines of thought. The canons of belief. Here is the problem with it: If you agree that man is fallible then you must accept the fact that mans ideas must also be fallible. Fallible man cannot create an infallible system of thought. Conservatism cannot demonstrate itself as true. It is a value system and like all value systems it can't demonstrate it's claim to truth. And if Truth is what matters most, then what can conservatism offer to recommend itself?

      Essentially, as I see it, Conservatism is the domination of society by a group devoted to aristocracy. Conservatism, is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on complete deception, lies and a commitment to the Machiavellian concept of "the ends justify the means", and has no place in the modern world. Conservatives are consumate justificationists. But what is the justification based on? And then..what is the basis for that basis? This can be taken into infinite regress, meaning you'll never be able to find something to demonstrate it's Truth. It's a rigid and narrow way of thinking which can never be more than what it defines itself as.

      Mark Levin who wrote his own "manifesto of conservatism, stated; "We can’t salute a philosophy that is antithetical to our history (that’s a subjective view and could be debated forever) or to our BELIEF SYSTEM. And that is where the problem lies. Conservatism is by Levin’s own admission, a belief system. But being so it can never demonstrate itself as being true. It’s an ideology actually formalized by Russell Kirk in the 1950's who provided 6 canons that conservatives follow. Canons? Conservatism today has taken on the mantle of a religious cult. It has a doctrine that must be followed religiously or you risk excommunication.

      The problem with ideological thinking like this is that it assumes its own infallibility. That it is flawless. Yet it was created by fallible men. Is it even remotely possible that it could be wrong? Can an idea created by fallible men be infallible?

      The question is, can it even demonstrate how it’s true. If it can, then maybe Levin, or Kirk, or even Burke could provide the methodology that he uses to prove it. He (they) writes a book that is the Conservative Manifesto, defining conservatism. But by defining it, he is unconsciously limiting the reach of its own effectiveness. Once he defines it then it’s not possible to be something beyond that definition. Its potential for greatness is limited to what he’s ( Burke, Kirk, or Levin )described. That is self limiting and completely contrary to free-thought and democracy. Perhaps he might reevaluate his ideas. But no! That isn’t possible because the ideology can’t be wrong. He can’t demonstrate how it’s true, but it can’t be wrong. But if something cannot possibly be wrong, then how can it be right. What would you have to compare it to? In order for something to be right it must contain the possibility of being wrong. For something to be true, it must contain the possibility of being false otherwise you’re merely preaching a belief, rather then something that can be proven right or wrong empirically. You would have nothing to compare that truth to. In the world of Mark Levin, conservatism cannot be wrong. But man is fallible, and therefore his ideas must also be fallible.

      From the time of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the thugs of ancient Rome to the glorified warlords of medieval and absolutist Europe, and in nearly every urbanized society throughout human history, there have been people who have tried to constitute themselves as an aristocracy. These people and their allies are the conservatives.