12 January 1729 - Birth of Edmund Burke

January 11, 2019

Birth of Edmund Burke – the philosopher founder of modern conservatism

On 12 January 1729, the philosopher founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, was born in Dublin, Ireland (to an Anglican solicitor and Catholic mother).

Burke never finished the law degree he started in 1750 – instead, he chose to travel in Continental Europe and turn his hand to writing (and keen societal and institutional observation), which ultimately led him to politics. He was a member of the British Parliament and Whig Party from late-1765 to mid-1794, but of the conservative faction (or “Old Whigs” as they became known, as distinct from the New Whigs, which supported the French Revolution).

Burke shaped lasting conservative views on:

  • British imperialism (reducing its exploitative nature and inefficacies relative to that of the other empires, eg those of Belgium, France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands)
  • the folly and danger of revolutionary (cf evolutionary) change (particularly regarding the French Revolution, whose build-up and execution Burke studied very closely)
  • the necessity of morality to attain (and maintain) liberty
  • freedom of religion (and as an Anglican, he fought for the emancipation of Catholics and their Church), and
  • how a nation’s institutions, customs and values were the long-term product of its experiences over many generations and centuries, with small, pragmatic adjustments (incremental, well-based and slow) occurring in response to changing needs and circumstances, with the cumulative effect being the current society (and unique due to its path).

Such a framework (of conservatism) is inherently sceptical of revolutionary change and the individuals or ideologies (eg nihilists, anarchists or cultural Marxists) that try to instigate it – see further details below.

Eminent 20th century American conservative, Russell Kirk, was heavily influenced by the writings and philosophy of Burke, as his book, “The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana” (1953) and other subsequent works attest.

Celebrate Edmund Burke’s birthday – father of modern conservatism – by:

Further details on the wisdom of, and positions taken by, Edmund Burke

Burke propounded individual and societal liberty (classical liberalism) but understood that it could not be maintained or optimised without wisdom, virtue, manners, restraint and morality (conservatism).

Those that lacked the latter conditions would inevitably undermine their own liberty and that of others, their organisations, sectors and society. Liberty without:

  • wisdom (truth, honesty, understanding) and
  • morality (eg Golden Rule morality, reciprocity, a third-person perspective that transcends the more biologically innate first- and second-person perspectives of solipsism and empathy)

would risk/invite dysfunction, chaos and poverty – or greater governance from without (often blunt, ill-targeted, over-done, even tyrannical) to supply the governance to those that can’t or refuse to govern themselves. And once invited in, such governance tends to beget more governance (whether through more contracting out of self-governance, more moral hazard or the new governors enjoying their new power and wanting to have more of it), unleashing a bevy of self-reinforcing effects.

  • In his first book entitled, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), father of capitalism and founder of classical, free market economics, Adam Smith, had come to similar conclusions. By closely observing people voluntarily trading in a local market for many years, Smith saw the importance of social capital, trust, convention and morality (particularly mutual respect and reciprocity) to maximise exchange and welfare overall – something not lost on Burke (nor has it been on conservatives since).

Burke was highly critical of the British Empire’s early imperial practices towards its colonies (particularly those in America and India), seeing them as unnecessarily harsh, disrespectful and extractive or exploitative to the detriment of all.

During the American Revolution, Burke was a staunch critic of the British treatment of the American colonies – particularly the crippling taxation and regulatory policies being imposed without the colonies having political representation to resist, moderate or hone the impositions (ie in violation of the principle, “no taxation without representation”). Whilst he did not advocate for American independence, Burke saw that, without greater political compromise, liberty and autonomy, the risk of hostilities and eventual independence would escalate – as indeed they did, and America eventually was lost to the British Empire.

Burke also fought to curtail the powers of Britain’s East India Company in its early exploitative colonial rule, administration and poor treatment of India (late-1700s). The famous impeachment trial of Warren Hastings (then Company head and India’s first governor-general) was led by Burke with his inspiring speeches and advocacy for the better treatment of the colonised (and the win-win that could be mutually achieved through lifting morality, trust, liberty and reciprocity).

Whilst Hastings escaped impeachment (1795), Burke’s efforts were pivotal in improving the nature and course of British imperialism (including in India), particularly its attitude towards, and treatment of, those that Britain had colonised. (Other colonial powers of Europe did not have their Edmund Burke, which may help to explain in no small part their relative colonial records over the two centuries that followed Burke, who died in 1797.)

Perhaps Burke’s greatest and most insightful stand was against the French Revolution, which he saw as nihilistic, atheistic, counter-productive, particularly as it destroyed the traditional institutions and moral fabric of good society (including the persecutions of Christians, particularly Catholics). He saw it as a mindless triumph of tyranny and intemperance over liberty and civil society, despite its early goals, purposes and grievances. During 1791, Burke was inspired to write:

“What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue?

It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without restraint.

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as they are disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good in preference to the flattery of knaves.

Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.

It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Another famous, sage and salient quote of Burke is, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Burke was praised by both conservatives and (particularly classical) liberals in the 19th century and became widely regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism in the 20th century, and especially in America.

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