Edmund Burke (1729—1797) was, without question, the outstanding critic of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, especially the philosophy of Rousseau. Burke did not write any systematic work on political science. Instead, his ideas are scattered through speeches. letters, pamphlets, and books. Burke was a member of the House of Commons from 1765 to 1794, a period covering both the American and French revolutions. Burke was particularly critical of metaphysical and abstract political theory.
It was such theorizing, rather than practical reason, that he attacked. To him morality is not comparable to mathematics. The most important qualification for a states- man was practical wisdom rather than the abstract, deductive reasoning of the leaders of the French Revolution, who believed it possible to create a new civilization by drawing up a new constitution based on theoretical ” rights of man.
The Philosophy of Edmund Burke
According to Burke. man is a complex animal of both reason and passion. Reason is influenced by passions, loves, fears, and habit. Although Burke accepted the idea of natural law, he regarded the social contract theory of government as an oversimplified fiction. A political society was not a human invention but a living organism, with roots deep in the past, that evolved slowly over the years and reflected the political experience of a particular nation. He considered the British settlement of 1688, with its limited monarchy and division of power between the king and Parliament. to be the best possible reconciliation of liberty and authority. No wonder Burke often has been called the philosopher of “common sense.
Burke defended the American Revolution while bitterly criticizing the French. The Americans in his opinion were fighting to retain the ancient liberties of Englishmen, which were threatened by the policies of the king and Parliament. The French Revolution. on the other hand, was seeking to overturn the entire political order and create a new order based on abstract rights without concern tor history or tradition. Burke was not opposed to all change or reform, as his attitude toward the American Revolution indicates.
No doubt he idealized the British House of Commons and overlooked its unrepresentative character. Also, in criticizing the excesses of the French Revolution, he minimized the evils of the old regime in France. Nevertheless, Burke performed a great service in showing the weaknesses of a philosophy that assumed the perfectibility of human nature and the belief that all social evils result from a bad environment and can be eradicated overnight by a revolution based on abstract theories.
Burke’s Reflections On the Revolution in France (1790) usually is considered the beginning of conservatism as a philosophical movement. There have been tar fewer conservative than liberal writings. and conservatism has been far more influential in Europe than in the United States. Although European conservatism began as a reaction against the French Revolution and its philosophy, it is not inherently a reactionary movement opposed to all social change.
Conservatism originated among the aristocracy of Europe. but it was accepted by considerable sections ot the working class. Conservatism is characterized by basic attitudes rather than specific beliefs.’ Support of established churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, and a belief that traditional institutions such as the family are important, are part of the conservative creed. Traditionally, conservatives supported monarchy and generally still do where constitutional monarchies continue to exist.
Conservatives also believe in an organic conception of society similar to Burke and accept the traditional class structure of society. Although conservatives support private property as necessary for political and economic stability. they have not been committed to a belief in economic laissez- faire, as were many liberals in the early nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century English conservatives such as Benjamin Disraeli favored not only enfranchisement of the working class but paternalistic legislation to protect them against the evils of industrialism.