Edmund Burke, an eighteenth-century member of the British House of Commons is widely regarded as the founder of modern conservatism. He supported liberal principles of social reform with great rhetorical skill until the chaos of the French Revolution inclined him to be more skeptical about our rational capacity for revolutionary progress.
Burke foresaw the havoc that resulted from the overthrow of the French monarchy and he predicted that the French would lurch into a new dictatorship to escape the chaos they created for themselves.
Some of his contemporary critics like Karl Marx and Thomas Paine accused Burke of being opportunistic and transactional and as having no consistent adherence to philosophical principles. But I think Burke’s principles can be discerned from the positions he took on the three main issues faced by Britain at that time: the American Revolution, the British East India Company’s abuses in India, and the French Revolution.
The deeper problem, for me, is whether those principles are compatible with an interest in social progress.
The Consistency of Burke’s Principles
As to the question of Burke’s opportunism or mercenariness, Adam Gopnik offers a plausible account of Burke’s consistent reasoning on those three issues.
Thus, Burke’s support for the independence of the American colonies wasn’t based on any abstract conception of human rights or progress. Rather, says Gopnik, Burke “came to doubt the wisdom of trying to rule a big country from a great distance, and of taxing people who didn’t get to vote for the people who taxed them. He thought the idea that you could run an empire on a balance sheet was crazy.”
Likewise, Burke’s defense of the natives of India against the depredations of the East India Company [EIC] wasn’t based on any revolutionary idea of progress. Rather, Burke preferred old-school, aristocratic imperialism to the modern, private-enterprising variety:
Burke wanted a more humane imperialism, a kinder colonialism, and behind his words is the continuing prejudice of a landed interest against a commercial one: this [the slaughter of Indians by the EIC] is what happens when merchants, rather than a military and civil establishment under the control of a better class, are allowed to rule colonies.
Why, then, if the “American Burke is a model of rational prudence” and “the Indian Burke one of imperial responsibility and sympathy,” as it were, did Burke veer into such trenchant opposition to the French Revolution, later in his life?
Even when “the Revolution in France worked its way around from the Terror to the more cautious Directory,” writes Gopnik, “Burke never adjusted his tone.” The British foreign policy makers rejected Burke’s advice to wage war in Europe to re-establish overthrown monarchies. And “The Republican principles Burke excoriated were exactly those which, after 1870, came to rule France…until this day, producing the wisest and wealthiest period in its history.”
Gopnik thinks it’s a question of the “sneering and second-class snobbery” that’s apparent from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. “Burke hates the Revolution in France because it will sacrifice man to plan, but also because it raised up people you wouldn’t want to dine with — hairdressers and Jews and speculators.”
Accounting for the Consistency
What unites these three positions is Burke’s rejection of abstract philosophical reasoning in favour of prejudice, tradition, and attention to historical context. That skepticism entails a defense of British aristocratic practices and elitist disdain for the type of mob rule you’d expect to find in a newly-minted republic, fresh from liberation from the Ancien Regime. Also entailed is the theocratic appeal to the divine basis of natural human rights.
After all, how else could a conservative who dismisses the Enlightenment project of improving society with radical, transformative philosophy nevertheless take the moderate line of advocating for incremental, tradition-friendly progress? How could a moderate conservative like Burke even entertain the prospect of any kind of social progress if he rejected all abstract concepts, including “progress”?
What are the ideals that would guide the conservative’s piecemeal social advances? “Advances to where?” we might ask.
For example, the EIC was abolished after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, when the company avenged itself against the Indian insurgents by killing thousands of rebel combatants and civilians deemed loyal to them. So if Burke was opposed to this sort of carnage, what improved state of affairs could he have had in mind, given his distrust of abstract philosophical reasoning?
The answer, for Burke, must have been found in divine revelation. Burke famously said during the attempt to impeach Warren Hastings, “There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity — the Law of Nature and of Nations.”
Burke thus wrote on Christian grounds that all of nature is God’s handiwork and that our traits are therefore blessed by the Creator. What we tend to do is what we ought to do, because God is sovereign over everything he made, and he gave us our inborn dispositions according to his perfect plan.
The Christian Foundations of Burke’s Conservatism
This is why Burke was so hostile to the imperialism of the EIC, not because he was against imperialism as such, but because the modern variety is secular and godless. There are, however, natural forms of imperialism and of social hierarchy, found throughout most human societies for thousands of years and even in animal species. The makings of that most stable social hierarchy — with the minority ruling over the majority, the whole united by religious faith, in the human case — provide the main contents of the “traditions” and “prejudices” to which Burke appeals in lieu of the principles of philosophical reasoning.
The problem with philosophy or with radical freedom of thought, in turn, for Burke, isn’t that this freedom is potentially progressive. After all, as a Christian Burke would be happy to concede that the afterlife in Heaven will be a great improvement on any mere human society, and that the Bible lays out ideals for social interaction. No, the problem with independent thinking such as you find in philosophy, and the reason for Burke’s skepticism is that this way of thinking is un-Christian and hubristic to the point of being Luciferian.
We insult the Christian’s god when we dare to try to figure out for ourselves what we should be doing, when we discard church dogmas and ponder life’s ultimate questions, based on objective, nontheistic principles and methods.
Burke predicted the French Revolution would result in the Terror. But no prophetic foresight would have been needed to imagine that after the Scientific Revolution and the Protestant uprising against the Catholic Church, in the very midst of the Enlightenment, thousands of years’ worth of presumptions resulting in near universal oppression under a series of kings and emperors could be reversed without any trial and error or chaotic overcompensations.
Nor did Burke have the moral high ground in condemning the French Terror, since weighed against the ocean of blood extracted by the ancestral tyrants so endorsed by conservative traditions, the Jacobins’ mass executions were like pinpricks.
Burke’s skepticism and his rejection of secular philosophy must be coupled with religious morality and traditions, to ground his political moderation and compromises with the emergent liberalism. The reason Burke didn’t advocate for bloodthirsty tyranny like that of a Genghis Kahn or a Vlad the Impaler is that such tyranny wouldn’t have been supported specifically by British tradition. That history has a different honour code resulting from Britain’s particular schemes of chivalry, which made its Christendom seem superficially like something Jesus would have wanted.
And the reason Burke’s skepticism doesn’t lapse into something like nihilism, asceticism, or Zen quietude is, again, that he means to replace the whole godless enterprise of modern secular philosophy with deference to the local, theocratic customs. Whereas the progressive fixes her sights on the inhabitants of the far future, the Burkean conservative bows before the authority of his ancestors, and that authority dictates how the conservative says his society should be managed in the present. Thanks to divine providence, those local norms in Europe establish natural aristocracies, the rule by the excellent few over the less excellent many.
Alas, because of how the concentration of power corrupts everyone the Christian is supposed to deem afflicted with original sin, that kind of rule tends to degenerate into tyrannies after all; hence the Protestant, American, and French revolutions, for example, and the transition from the medieval holding pattern after the collapse of Rome, into the modern age of relative godless progress.
The Emptiness of Christian Social Reform
Burke wrote that the only reliable liberty derives from descent and is based ‘not on abstract principles “as the rights of men”, but as the rights of Englishmen, and as a patrimony derived from their forefathers…The idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and…of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement’ (my emphasis).
But what are the prospects of moderate conservatism, based on Burke’s approach? Does Christianity, for example, offer any solid basis for even incremental improvements on theocratic traditions?
I submit that appealing to Christian tradition for permission to attempt to improve on our earthly circumstances is preposterous. Two thousand years of Christian compromise with empires enable you to support any undertaking you like, from war and torture to Nazism and Trumpism.
Inclined to lord it over the Jews? Why not turn, then, like Martin Luther and the Nazis did to the promising scriptural passages in which the Jews are scapegoated for Jesus’s execution? Or would you prefer to support a ravenous form of unsustainable capitalism? In that case, you need only opt for Christianity’s apocalyptic prediction that the world’s going to end anyway at God’s behest and infer that we might as well help that process along.
If we dismiss the tradition of Christendom, of organized Christianity as a bastardization of authentic Christian principles, and we turn directly to the New Testament, do we find there more “reliable” grounds for this-worldly social advances?
Hardly! Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who threatened the elites of his day with hellfire because they were insufficiently focussed on God who would soon break into nature, overthrow the pagan empires that were run ultimately by demonic fallen angels (foreign gods), and establish an unearthly, supernatural kingdom. Jesus said to give away your possessions, pick up your cross, and follow him as he sacrificed his earthly chances for happiness, for spiritual reward in the afterlife:
‘Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it”’ (Matt.16:24–25).
With the dualistic Gnostics, Paul of Tarsus said that natural processes are far from divinely sanctioned. On the contrary, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph.6:12). With Platonic contempt for the material world, Paul said, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor.2:14).
So much for the conservative’s talk of a Christian basis for natural rights!
Even if the essence of Christianity were palatable to reformers of political institutions, there would be no way to know what that essence is, since the key parts of the Bible are written in the languages of myth and poetry which are therefore susceptible to a variety of interpretations.
So much, then, for the reliability of Burke’s traditional basis for social reform!
After all, what’s the point of attempting to improve earthly societies, when God’s going to overthrow them all anyway and when the vaunted incremental gains would pale next to the prospect of everlasting rewards in the afterlife? Of course, Jesus never returned to earth as the New Testament expected. Thus, as far as anyone can tell, the Christian tradition is based on a blunder at worst or on a metaphorical myth at best.
As to how that myth of Jesus’s life, sacrificial death, and resurrection should be interpreted, the Protestants showed the lack of wisdom in kowtowing to the dogmas of Christian authorities, since the latter can so easily be used as rhetorical pretexts for corruption and oppression.
Christian Conservatism as Rhetorical Cover for Social Darwinism
The author of the Stanford Encyclopedia’s article on Burke characterizes Burke’s elitism as having a progressive aim: “The ability of the educated, the politicians and the rich to take constructive initiatives contrasted starkly with the inability of the peasantry to help itself: peasants relieved their misery principally through spasms of savagery against their landlords’ representatives, but such violence was repressed sternly and helped nobody.”
Thus, he continues, “improvement, if it was to spread outside the educational elite, must spring from the guidance and good will of the possessing classes: from the landlord who developed his property, from the priest who instructed and consoled the poor, and from the lord lieutenant who used his power benevolently.”
For that reason, “Burke retained all his life a sense of the responsibility of the educated, rich and powerful to improve the lot of those whom they directed; a sense that existing arrangements were valuable insofar as they were the necessary preconditions for improvement; and a strong sense of the importance of educated people as agents for constructive change, change which he often contrasted with the use of force, whether as method or as result.”
We may ask, though, why the peasants were unable to help themselves. The answer is that conservative societies are stagnant, so enthralled to the past that they’re unable to grapple with the indifference of natural reality and thus to progress technologically to be able to educate the whole of society, as opposed to reserving the modest bounties of theocracies for the upper class.
Moreover, far from being altruistic, the European aristocrats were often so focused on waging wars of conquest to afford their lavish, wildly un-Christian lifestyles that they approved of mass ignorance as a means of reinforcing their dominance. The peasants were materially dependent on their lords, but they were also mentally helpless in imagining an alternative to theocracy, to the dominance hierarchy that had prevailed since the Sumerians and the Neolithic era.
Burke’s elitism and incrementalism, then, are recipes for social stagnation, not for progress. The social improvement Burke could tolerate would be so incremental as to be invisible, a matter of mere taste in styles of imperialism.
The very notion of a cultured elite or of an aristocratic vanguard, in place of Vladimir Lenin’s socialist one, is anathema to authentic Christianity. These snooty upper-class Brits Burke admired would be the very last to give away their possessions, dismiss secular learning as sinful, and wash the feet of the poor. Obviously, Burke’s appeal to the divine origin of “natural rights” was a rhetorical sham and a rationalization of the dominant and oppressive type of human class structure, in contrast to what was then the emerging modern ethos.
Burke’s defense was all-too convenient because he was himself an elite member of Britain. Indeed, as Burke’s leftist critics point out, it’s hard to imagine someone from an impoverished lower class agreeing that progress should be only slow and piecemeal. Not everyone can afford to wait for good intentions from decadent aristos who might one day miraculously be open to releasing their stranglehold on the government, the legal system, religious indoctrination, and the engines of production.
Of course, the pragmatic criticism of philosophy and objectivity, that they generate subversive and reckless oversimplifications, would prevent Burke from simultaneously insisting on the absolute truth of the Christian creed. Just because some propositions are counterproductive doesn’t mean they’re false. So if certain secular inquiries should be abandoned on pragmatic grounds, the Burkean conservative would have to accept Christian teachings only as a result of a comparable Machiavellian calculation.
In any case, proto-scientists or “natural philosophers” like Galileo and Isaac Newton had already demonstrated the difference between the fictions, noble lies, and speculative presumptions that are the centerpieces of theology, and rigorous models of how reality works. And they did so first by showing how scientific methods of critical thinking, skepticism, and empirical testing depart from the conservative’s ideal of self-serving credulity.
In that respect, science is implicitly liberal and progressive — as well as being potentially subversive as the bearer of bad news. And Burke’s “skepticism” is inherently threatening to conservatism because doubt has a habit of spreading. Once you feel free to suspect that abstract philosophy is so much balderdash, what will stop you from wondering whether Christian myths and practices are sheer hokum?
The reason monarchies and other forms of minority rule were so universal is that they were indeed grounded in the facts of biology. Look around the animal species and you’ll find similar concentrations of power in the alpha males or (much more rarely) females. This is indeed a stable way of organizing a group of social animals whose genes equip them with unequal traits, because the dominance hierarchy prevents an outbreak of permanent conflict between the members and the group’s self-destruction.
But this power distribution is fit for animals, not for people. That’s what the modern age realized from its discovery of the secular humanism of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Burke gets it half right: the “tradition” of aristocracy is natural, but not thereby divine — at least not in any monotheistic sense.
Natural selection generates social creatures that sort themselves mostly into hierarchies that signal the power inequality between their classes. The weaker members periodically submit in symbolic fashion, by offering their hindquarters or throat to the dominant members, as a substitute for being killed outright by them. This has nothing to do with divine providence or Christian morality. The natural, evolutionary power distribution in groups of social animals is wholly amoral unless you’re inclined to think that might makes right, which is the conceit of social Darwinism.
Either way, if you dismiss abstract philosophical reasoning in your so-called moderate advocacy of social reform, you surrender society not to God but to nature. The resulting political inhumanity would be as monstrous and awe-inspiring as a mountain, an ocean, or the night sky.