The Wisdom of Edmund Burke

Portrait of Edmund Burke (oil on canvas), Northcote, James (1746-1831) / Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, Devon, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library “They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery.”Edmund Burke from Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790. Edmund Burke was an outspoken member of the British House of Commons in the latter part of the 18th century. He was a gifted speaker, author and philosopher who was often critical of his government’s colonial policies. Burke is best remembered for his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he warned against the revolutionary destruction of old institutions, which he saw taking place in France, institutions that had taken generations to evolve. Burke understood that civilization had been built upon thousands of years of experience through trial, failure and error and that the road to modern civilization was long, slow and hard-won. He argued that the ancient institutions which had evolved over so many generations and which had served great nations like England and France so well, although imperfect, should continue to be cherished and improved upon, not completely destroyed or discarded. Burke believed in a collective wisdom that developed through the experience of many generations. To discard this accumulated experience, which is embodied in a country’s institutions, for the promise of a quick fix to the wrongs of society was a dangerous course to undertake in Burke’s view: When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer. The French Revolutionaries who sent their own King and Queen to the gallows demanded Liberty in the abstract. Burke argued that they did not have a correct idea of liberty and doubted they would attain it. He predicted that the French Revolution would result not in liberty, but in tyranny, which it did, first with the Terror and then with the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Reign of Terror, which began a few years after Reflections was published, resulted in the execution of over 16,000 French citizens by guillotine, many of whom had instigated or supported the Revolution in its early stages. Burke’s prediction had come true. He intended his essay to be a warning to those in Great Britain who also were being tempted by the hollow promise of a revolutionary utopia. Burke understood that those who had reverence for tradition and its accumulated wisdom stood opposed: “We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers. We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born…” Burke’s warning against the temptation to radically remake society is still as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. Why? Because our deeply flawed human nature is constant. UnfortunateIy, some members of each succeeding generation think they are more intelligent and enlightened than those that came before, which leads them through their arrogance and unwisdom to discard an imperfect system and replace it with one they believe will wash away all previous deficiencies. Such radical social and political movements often lead to unintentional, but very damaging consequences. To use more modern examples, the Obama administration wants to eliminate income inequality. This was also the noble goal of the revolutions in the Soviet Union, Cuba and more recently in Venezuela. Yet what did they accomplish? Tens of millions dead in the Soviet Union, totalitarianism in place of freedom, and the wholesale wrecking of these nation’s economies. Venezuela’s currency inflation rate was 56% in 2013. In other words, every Venezuelan who had savings saw the value of their savings decrease by more than half in one year. In Cuba, there is little income disparity, and guess what? Almost everyone is poor. If Burke were advising the Obama administration about the issue of “income inequality,” he certainly would warn against foolish “solutions” that can never solve the problem, but which will most likely have the unintended effect of making the rest of us poorer. In Reflections, Burke made a most compelling case for the ideas we now define as traditionalism or conservatism. His timeless wisdom is as relevant today as it was over 200 years ago. Recommended works, also by Edmund Burke: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful and his speech March 22, 1775 speech On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, which can be read by clicking on “In this character of the Americans a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole…(they) become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies, probably, than in any other people of the earth…”                  From On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, March 22, 1775

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