Lessons from an 18th-century Anglican Whig

In many ways, the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-97) is a man for our season

Recently, Alvino-Mario Fantini, editor of “The European Conservative”, wrote in Catholic World Report about the joyous celebration in St. Andrews, Scotland, of the 60th anniversary of Russell Kirk’s seminal work, The Conservative Mind.

Kirk’s book, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered, may not be as well known, but it is rich in insights into this remarkable man, from whom we can still learn much.

As once-radical ideas become mainstream thinking, and then de rigeur, we may have the urge to retreat to a place of “safety”. The argument goes: if we can’t do anything about the culture then we ought to focus on keeping our own house in order, and ignore the barbarians at the gate. A front-page Wall Street Journal story on October 22nd is entitled “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback From Politics, Culture War”.

Challenging the culture takes an emotional and psychological toll. One man who was immersed – rather, who immersed himself – in his own cultural cauldron lived in 18th century England. He was Irish by birth, a man of ideas and letters, and a Whig Member of Parliament, also serving briefly in two Whig governments.

Edmund Burke is difficult to categorize using modern nomenclature. Burke advocated “liberal” policies in relation to American rights. He advocated increased freedom for the American colonies, arguing that the economic advantages associated with the colonies remaining within the British Empire outweighed the revenue that could be obtained-at the expense of loyalty-by taxing the colonies. He tried to keep Britain’s American colonies within the Empire, even after hostilities commenced.

Though he was a faithful member of the Church of England, Burke favored the repeal of oppressive Irish Catholic proscriptions, again arguing that the empire was stronger with a loyal Ireland than with the constant threat of insurrection. Burke would have admitted Irish Catholics to a share in the constitution, allowing them to vote on the same terms as those enjoyed by Protestants, and giving them genuine Parliamentary representation.

Burke was passionate about the natural rights of the native peoples under the rule of the British East India Company, pursuing an ultimately futile case against the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, arguing, “Law and Arbitrary Power are in eternal enmity.” The principle that Burke espoused, universal human rights, had little traction is those times, apart from intentional Christians.

He “conservatively” defended social mores and conventions, religious faith, and the need for personal responsibility to accompany rights, stating, “Men of intemperate mind can never be free; their passions forge their fetters.”

Burke was a “libertarian” in the sense that he labored to curtail the power of the King of England and the British aristocracy. For the majority of his career, Burke was scorned and derided by the King and his coterie of supporters.

Edmund Burke’s finest hour arguably occurred late in his life when his fortunes and health were declining. Burke vigorously opposed the French Revolution, Danton and Robespierre, when liberty-minded Europeans and Americans, Jefferson and Madison among them, were bedazzled by the philosophes and their acolytes. In a series of papers over a span of years, Burke compellingly reasoned that Jacobinism would destroy society and authentic liberty.

If any label can be applied to Burke, it would combine humanism, religious faith, and realism. As Kirk states, Burke’s principles “meant general truths obtained from the wisdom of our ancestors, practical experience, and a knowledge of the human heart.” That’s not a popular notion today when most insist that everything should be decided by the voice, if not the whim, of a fickle majority. Burke was a staunch proponent of human liberty, but not an unbridled “liberty” of mob democracy, saying, “Society requires that not only the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves…”

Burke’s words in the late 18th century speak directly to the cultural battle we encounter in our own time: abortion-on-demand, infanticide, homosexual “marriage”, boutique children, and a strident brand of secularism, gaining momentum, that seeks to drive religious faith out of the public square:

“In all that we do, whether in the struggle or after it, it is necessary that we should constantly have in our eye the nature and character of the enemy we have to contend with…What have they (the Jacobins), then, to supply their innumerable defects, and to make them terrible even to the firmest minds? One thing, and one thing only – but that thing is worth a thousand: they have energy. In France, all things being put into a universal ferment, in the decomposition of society, no man comes forward but by his spirit of enterprise and the vigour of his mind. If we meet this dreadful and portentous energy, restrained by no consideration of God or man, that is always vigilant, always on the attack, that allows itself no repose and suffers none to rest an hour without impunity; if we meet this energy with poor commonplace proceeding, with trivial maxims, paltry old saws, with doubts, fears, and suspicions, with a languid, uncertain hesitation, with a formal official spirit, which is turned aside by every obstacle from its purpose, and which never sees a difficulty but to yield to it, or at best to evade it – down we go to the bottom of the abyss, and nothing short of Omnipotence can save us. We must meet a vicious and distempered energy with a manly and rational vigour.”

If there is any doubt that Burke believed he was at odds with the spirit of his own age, he requested that his body lie in an unmarked grave for fear that radicals would exhume and desecrate it. Only after Burke’s passing was the wisdom of many of his ideas and positions broadly recognized. A combination of character and reasoning excellence, we could do with more Burkes in our season.

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About Thomas M. Doran 79 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.