The mission

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1730. He left Ireland in 1750 to settle in London where he frustrated his father’s plans for him to study law and turned to writing. He became a Member of the House of Commons in 1765 under the patronage of the Marquess of Rockingham, a leading member of the Whig party. He remained active as a politician until 1794, playing a leading role in the major political issues of the period both as a politician and philosophical analyst for his party.

The major political problems he dealt with were the abuse of the Crown’s authority in parliament, the oppression of Irish Catholics, the conflict with the American colonists, the abuse of British power in India and the impeachment of Warren Hastings, and the threat of revolutionary abstract theory as exemplified in the French Revolution. He also had much to say on matters of the economy and the government’s financial management.

Burke gave speeches in parliament and sometimes wrote lengthy pamphlets in which he was often forced back to fundamental philosophical questions to defend his political position.  These included questions of epistemology, the nature of reason, metaphysics, natural law, positive law, freedom, the prescriptive nature of custom and tradition, and what it means to be a people. The general task of The Edmund Burke Society is to discuss Burke’s position on these matters and to apply the conclusions to current political issues.  A more particular task is to concentrate on and promote those conclusions that characterise the Edmund Burke Society’s existence, without barring any debate whatsoever. The following are some of those key positions:

Political reasoning
Abstract theory has limited, if any, application in the concrete circumstances of political problems. First, abstract theory causes a disconnection from the multifaceted and multilayered concrete circumstances of every political issue. Second, individual reason is limited and fallible. It simply cannot grasp the full extent of any given issue. Third, there is a stock of third person knowledge in settled social and political arrangements that politicians would ignore at their peril. Fourth, political problems are about seeking the good for society. They are not about the truth of abstract propositions. Finally, there is some inscrutable guiding element operating below the surface of individual reason that results in rational order. American thinker Leo Strauss captures the idea with ‘good order or the rational is the result of forces which do not lend themselves to good order or the rational’. The following quotations illustrate these points.

A man who considers his nature rightly will be diffident of any reasonings that carry him out of the ordinary roads of Life; Custom is to be regarded with great deference especially if it be universal Custom; even popular notions are not always to be laughed at. There is some general principle operating to produce customs, that is a more sure guide than our theories.
A Notebook of Edmund Burke (1750-1756)

Political problems do not primarily concern truth or falsehood. They relate to good or evil.
An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791)

The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity.
Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

I never govern myself, no rational man ever did govern himself, by abstractions and universals. I do not put abstract ideas wholly out of the question; because I well know that under that name I should dismiss principles, and without the guide and light of sound, well-understood principles, all reasoning in politics, as in everything else, would be only a confused jumble of particular facts and details, without the means of drawing out any sort of theoretical or practical conclusion. A statesman differs from a professor in an university: the latter has only the general view of society; the former, the statesman, has a number of circumstances to combine with general ideas, and to take into his consideration. Circumstances are infinite, and infinitely combined, are variable and transient: he who does not take them into consideration is not erroneous, but stark mad; dat operam ut cum ratione insaniat (he labours to make his mind unsound by means of his reason); he is metaphysically mad.
Speech on the Petition of the Unitarians 1772

Whether all this can be reconciled in legal speculation, is a matter of no consequence. It is reconciled in policy: and politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature; of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part
Observations of the Late Publication, intitled The Present State of the Nation (1769)

Moral prudence and natural feeling
Because political problems are concrete and complex and man’s reason limited and fallible, the politician (the philosopher in action) is called on to apply his prudential judgment. But prudential judgment is not just a process of weighing up the different options in varying circumstances. It also entails a moral judgement calling on one’s natural sympathies and feelings. In Burke’s terms, prudence is the sorting of the moral and political data. Prudential judgment ultimately draws on the natural law (see below).

It is melancholy, as well as ridiculous, to observe the kind of reasoning with which the public has been amused, in order to divert our minds from the common sense of our American policy. There are people who have split and anatomised the doctrine of free government, as if it were an abstract question concerning metaphysical liberty and necessity, and not a matter of moral prudence and natural feeling.
A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol (1777)

Circumstances perpetually variable, directing a moral prudence and discretion, the general principles of which never vary, must alone prescribe a conduct fitting on such occasions.
Remarks on the Policy of the Allies (1793)

…the wise legislators of all countries [have] aimed at improving instincts into morals, and at grafting the virtues on the stock of natural feelings.
First Letter on a Regicide Peace 1796

With such things [revolutions] before our eyes our feelings contradict our theories; and when this is the case, the feelings are true, and the theory is false.
An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791)

For you know that the decisions of prudence (contrary to the system of insane reasoners) differ from those of the judicature; and that almost all the former are determined on the more or the less, the earlier or the later, , and on a balance of advantage and inconvenience, of good and evil.
Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe (1792)

Political reason is a computing principle; adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally and not metaphysically, true moral denominations.
Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Metaphysical or Physical Speculations neither are, or ought to be, the Grounds of our Duties; because we can arrive at no certainty in them. They have a weight when they concur with our own natural feelings; very little against them.
A Note-Book (1750-1756)

The natural law
Throughout Burke’s speeches and writings there are appeals to a ‘superior law’, a ‘universal law’ or what is termed the natural (moral) law. This is an area of controversy in the critical literature. The appeals are variously described as persuasive rhetoric, a Lockean idea of natural law, a Thomistic concept of natural law or they are dismissed as posturing overblown rants. The Society of Edmund Burke firmly believes that Burke subscribed to a Thomistic natural law which underpinned all aspects of his political philosophy.

The true weakness and opprobrium of our best constitutions is, that they cannot provide beneficially for every particular case, and thus fill, adequately to their intentions, the circle of universal justice.
Tracts on the Popery Laws (1765)

But if we could suppose that such a ratification [of a bad law] was made, not virtually but actually, by the people, not representatively, but even collectively, still it would be null and void. They have no right to make a law prejudicial to the whole community, even though the delinquents in making such an act should be themselves the chief sufferers by it; because it would be made against the principle of a superior law, which is not in the power of any community, or of the whole race of man, to alter. – I mean the will of Him who gave us our nature, and in giving impressed an invariable law upon it.
Tracts on the Popery Laws (1765)

All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice.
Tracts on the Popery Laws (1765)

He have arbitrary power! My Lords, the East India Company have not arbitrary power to give him; the king has no arbitrary power to give him; your Lordships have not; nor the Commons, nor the whole legislature. We have no arbitrary power to give, because arbitrary power is a thing which neither any man can hold nor any man give. No man can lawfully govern himself according to his own will; much less can one person be governed by the will of another.

We are all born in subjection – all born equally high and low, governors and governed, subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existing law, prior to all our devices and prior to all our contrivances, paramount to all our ideas and all our sensations, antecedent to our very existence, by which we are knit and connected in the eternal frame of the universe, out of which we cannot stir.

This great law does not arise from our conventions and compacts; on the contrary, it gives to our conventions and compacts all the force and sanctions they can have. It does not arise from our vain institutions. Every good gift is of God: all power is of God; and He who has given the power, and from whom alone it originates, will never suffer the exercise of it to be practiced upon any less solid foundation than the power itself.
Opening of Impeachment, 1788

Burke’s ideas on human reason, political prudence, natural feeling and the natural law lead into his ideas about freedom. Burke is rightly considered the father of modern conservatism, but he was known in his day as a defender of freedom. Even today there are those that reject the tag of conservative and claim Burke was in reality a liberal (understood in the classical sense). It is understandable that many of his contemporaries considered him a liberal because for much of his political career he defended the British Constitution against those abusing its authority, that is, against those encroaching on the freedoms already established in society.

This last is the reason Burke can be called a conservative. If the object of society is the happiness and security of its members then individual freedom, the right to one’s own counsel, is its greatest object. Such is the object of every society, Burke thought. If freedom depended on society’s arrangements, then that society’s order of arrangements must be defended at all costs. Without order there can be no freedom. But order must be underpinned by the natural law, by individual moral action – or virtue. The next quotation is one of the most important passages in all of Burke’s writings. It distinguishes the Burkean conservative from the liberal, and from all forms of libertarianism.

The distinguishing part of our constitution (he said) is its liberty. To preserve that liberty inviolate, is the peculiar duty and proper trust of a member of the house of commons. But the liberty, the only liberty I mean, is a liberty connected with order, and that not only exists with order and virtue, but cannot exist at all without them. It inheres in good and steady government, as in its substance and vital principle.
An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791)

Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favourite point, which by way of eminence becomes the criterion of their happiness.
Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies (1775)

Civil freedom, Gentlemen, is not, as many have endeavored to persuade you, a thing that lies hid in the depth of abstruse science. It is a blessing and a benefit, not an abstract speculation; and all the just reasoning that can be upon it is of so coarse a texture as perfectly to suit the ordinary capacities of those who are to enjoy, and of those who are to defend it. Far from any resemblance to those propositions in geometry and metaphysics which admit no medium, but must be true or false in all their latitude, social and civil freedom, like all other things in common life, are variously mixed and modified, enjoyed in very different degrees, and shaped into an infinite diversity of forms, according to the temper and circumstances of every community.
A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol (1777)

But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and mad­ness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by in­capable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.
Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

There are of course other important concepts and ideas arising from Burke’s speeches and writings. For example, of hardly less importance are his ideas about individual subjective rights and the constitution of state and society. The ideas above and the interpretation given them form the core of The Edmund Burke’s Society’s views about Burke and his thought. People of different views and interpretation are welcome at meetings of The Edmund Burke Society to discuss the issues. Membership of the society, however, is extended by invitation to those subscribing generally to these core ideas which will be the subject of discussion, promotion and application.

Gerard Wilson