The Casuistry of Edmund Burke’s Moderate Conservatism

And how natural societies have no divine approval

Benjamin Cain
Jan 15 · 12 min read
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Image by Burak AYDIN, from Pexels

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.

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.

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 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).

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.”

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Benjamin Cain

Written by

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Benjamin Cain

Written by

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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