Waterloo and Burke’s stunning prophecy

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) dismayed many of his Whig colleagues and infuriated his enemies, both of whom imagined the revolution ushering a glorious era of freedom. Burke’s masterpiece nerved the pen of Thomas Paine into a fury of scribbling to produce one of the most overrated works of political philosophy – The Rights of Man – taking Hobbes’s idea of the state of nature to its logical absurdity. Burke’s analysis of the Revolution’s action and theory contained a number of prophecies which in time proved accurate. The most extraordinary for its prescience and accuracy was the following:

In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full off action until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master — the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.
(Reflections, p. 342 Penguin Edition)

That man Burke foresaw was Napoleon. Napoleon mounted a coup in 1799 and with his French army attempted to take the revolution to the whole of Europe. The Duke of Wellington eventually stopped him at Waterloo. The revolution/Napoleon paradigm of social degeneration to dictatorship would repeat itself through the next two hundred years without its lesson sufficiently penetrating the consciousness of the people of Western Civilization.

Burke vs Paine – Then and Now

Jesse Norman, author of one of the most recent biographies of Edmund Burke – and one of the best – reviews The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, by Yuval Levin, (Basic Books) HERE. Norman’s book is Edmund Burke: Prophet, Politician and Philosopher, parts of which have been discussed on this website. Norman’s review of Levin’s book is highly recommended.

Burke vs Paine – Then and Now

Reputation, Reason and the Enlightenment Project

Discussion of Chapter Six, ‘Reputation, Reason and the Enlightenment Project’, Second Part on ‘Thought’ of Jesse Norman’s book EDMUND BURKE: PHILOSOPHER, POLITICIAN AND PROPHET

Chapter Six, ‘Reputation, Reason and the Enlightenment Project’ begins the Second Part on ‘Thought’ of Jesse Norman’s book Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician And Prophet. Norman surveys the reaction to Burke’s writings and speeches following Burke’s death in 1797. He cites the views of many well-known historical figures in addition to lesser known names in the fields of academia, politics and literature. His conclusion, with which one should readily agree even on a brief reading of the opinions, is that there was much ‘bipartisan esteem’ of Burke’s thought.   ‘Amid the ferment of early nineteenth century social, economic and political change,’ he says, ‘many different writers were able over time to find ideas of enduring value within Burke.’ (KL 2320) Continue reading “Reputation, Reason and the Enlightenment Project”

Burke on natural rights and the right to free speech

The arguments for free speech in current debates are almost exclusively based on a principal of utility. Simply put, free speech will result in benefits for society. Those acquainted with the academic discourse on free speech are likely to appeal to J.S. Mill’s utilitarian arguments which he summarises in four points. In brief, to suppress all beliefs in favour of one held to be the truth, presupposes infallible judgement. No one and no group is infallible. Thus the clash of many opinions is the way to the truth. That presupposes free speech. If people reason their way to true belief, they will not hold that belief by prejudging – not as a prejudice.

If arguments from pure utility are unconvincing for some, one can also mount a Burkean defence of free speech incorporating an idea of utility, but one drawn from man’s nature rather than resting solely on a principle of utility. There are two crucial passages in Burke that provide the basis. The first is in the Reflections: Continue reading “Burke on natural rights and the right to free speech”

Some Personal Details About Edmund Burke

The person who comes to the study of Edmund Burke’s thought faces an enormous volume of writing. Because Burke was not a philosopher in the systematic sense, one has to read a great deal to reach an understanding not only of the prominent argument with its many intricate connections, but also of the unmistakable metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions embedded in his writings. Similarly the student of Burke has to read widely in his works to appreciate his mastery of the English language and the potency of his oratory. This is to state what the Burkean scholar has said many times.

 Although such a wide reading will connect you with Burke’s powerful mind and emotional make-up, one does not often come across personal details. Such details are left to the patient biographer to dig up for us. Towards the end of chapter three in Part One of Jesse Norman’s book: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, we find some interesting details I have never come across before. Who would have thought that Edmund Burke had red hair?



Part One, Chapter 3

In 1780 Burke was fifty years of age, and at the height of his powers. But what of him in private? Despite his personal reticence, we can catch glimpses: of the bespectacled Irishman with his wig off, who kept his red hair for many years and always spoke with an accent ‘as strong as if he had never quitted the banks of the Shannon’, in the words of the MP and memoirist Sir Nathaniel Wraxall; of the husband, ‘Ned’ as the family called him at home, who addressed his wife with the utmost tenderness as ‘My dearest Jane’, ‘My dearest love’ and ‘My ever dear Jane’; of the father, whom one son’s death had left almost too fond of the other, and who adored the company of children; of the host, never free of house guests but always entertaining with an open hand; of the patron, who knew the value of help to a young man, and who supported talented outsiders such as the painter James Barry and the poet George Crabbe; of the clubbable fellow who relished puns and low jokes and conversation, but never quite mastered the art of wit or repartee; of the countryman, who loved nature and rejoiced in his vegetable garden and in ‘scientific agriculture’; of the solitary thinker, who did not make close friends easily, who chafed at idleness and was prone to fits of melancholy.

Burke took care not to allow private matters to intrude into his public life, but there was no great gap between the two. And publicly at this time he was in every way a substantial figure: physically substantial, though never corpulent, and intellectually substantial, though still light enough to charm and command an audience. Two portraits, one painted in 1766– 70 after Reynolds (see following page/ s) and the other in 1774 by Reynolds himself (see cover), show his development; there is an almost tangible hardening, a sense of toughness and purpose in the (now rather damaged) latter painting. By 1780 Burke was a man of significant property, and debt; and he was an orator of huge power and unending invention, so that James Boswell once said, ‘It was astonishing how all kinds of figures of speech crowded upon him. He was like a man in an orchard where boughs loaded with fruit hung around him, and he pulled apples as fast as he pleased and pelted the Ministry’; and he was a senior politician, who dared to hope of high office after fourteen long years in opposition, as the North administration undid itself over the war.


The Place of Laissez-Faire Economics in Edmund Burke’s Political Order

Professor C.B. MacPherson in his short book Burke raised what he thought was a inconsistency between Edmund Burke’s political philosophy and his ideas on economics. Joseph Pappin III takes up the challenge in this paper and provides a convincing case on how the two can be reconciled in the natural law. Joseph Pappin’s book The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke is the only book devoted to the subject (metaphysics). Highly recommended.

The Austrian Scholars Conference, March 2002
By Joseph Pappin III, University of South Carolina
President of The Edmund Burke Society of America

I wish to focus upon what until now has been a largely unanswered question: “What is the relationship between Burke’s economic theory and his political theory?” The implications of this question and the built-in assumptions are that Burke’s political economy is entirely libertarian, stressing laissez-faire principles in a free-market setting, and that his political philosophy emphasizes order, hierarchy, tradition – all of which comprise a conservative world-view, recalcitrant towards change, prizing order and virtue over economic liberalism. Continue reading “The Place of Laissez-Faire Economics in Edmund Burke’s Political Order”

Creating culture through reason, natural feeling and the moral imagination

One of the best-known passages from Edmund Burke’s writing is his lament over the capture of the French royal family and their being force-marched twelve miles from the Palace of Versailles into Paris ‘amidst the horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell in the abused shape of the vilest of women.’

Burke’s lament was provoked not so much by this melancholy scene and the barbarism of the revolutionaries. It was rather the Revolution Society’s glorification of the bloody revolutionary action at the Old Jewry that moved him. In particular, the raptures of radical preacher Dr Richard Price proclaiming the victory of reason and the dawn of freedom nerved Burke’s pen to write several pages of soaring prose bemoaning far more the ideological defeat of European Christian culture than the tragic predicament of the Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Continue reading “Creating culture through reason, natural feeling and the moral imagination”

Edmund Burke on what it means to be ‘a people’

When Edmund Burke claimed in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs that the French Revolution ‘was a wild attempt to methodize anarchy; to perpetuate and fix disorder…that it was a foul, impious, monstrous thing, wholly out of the course of moral nature,’[1] he was targeting a particular theory of political organization now known as ‘social contract theory’. It is important to understand that for Burke social contract theory not only determines the form of political organization of a particular people but the accompanying social organization as well.[2]

The early theorists of social contract were Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Hobbes being considered the first to introduce the idea. Burke was clearly familiar with the writings of these political philosophers. There are recognizable references to Hobbes (Leviathan) and Locke (The Second Treatise of Government) in his speeches and writings, although he does not mention them by name. He was scathing about Rousseau, reducing his entire philosophy (including the Social Contract) to one of vanity, claiming that ‘with this vice he was possessed to a degree little short of madness,’ and that ‘it is plain that the present rebellion [in France] was its legitimate offspring.’ [3] In other words, he attributed the ‘wild attempt to methodize anarchy [and] to perpetuate and fix disorder’ in France to Rousseau as a major influence. Continue reading “Edmund Burke on what it means to be ‘a people’”

What did Burke say exactly about good men, bad men and the triumph of evil?

The quotation most frequently attributed to Edmund Burke about g00d men and bad men and the triumph of evil is not something Burke said though it sounds like Burke. The passage from the Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents on which the wrongly attributed quotation is based, is different. Professor David Bromwich of Yale University explains why the difference is important:

‘When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’ This great sentence is the germ of the most famous quotation wrongly ascribed to Burke: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ The sentiment extractable from the corrupt version is pompous, canting, and demonstrably false, for evil is not a disembodied thing; it has its origin in acts by specifiable agents. Nor is it true that ‘the only thing necessary’ for the triumph of evil is the inaction of good men. There must also be an extended occasion of public fears for bad men to play upon, and there must be a catalysing event. The bad men themselves must be unusually excited, active, conscious of each other’s presence, aware of the inlets for increasing power, and unimpeded by the indifferent mass of people. Burke’s sentence is careful to say flatly what the triumph-of-evil apothegm leaves mysterious. Bad men do combine but, as the word combine suggests, their alliance may be impersonal and almost mechanical, a reflex of ambition and appetite, or the product of a theory. By contrast, association, through constant intercourse with other persons, leaves room for correction and improvement in the corps and a concern for the public good. Yet it matters that the defence of principle, when its cost is high, should achieve a public notability, so that interim defeats may prepare for an eventual triumph. The sacrifice of a party is important because it is so visible, compared to the obscure sacrifice of an unconnected person. Consistency of opinion, which is both a cause and a consequence of regular association, makes all the difference between a contemptible and worthy struggle.

The intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence, David Bromwich, pp. 175-176

Burke’s Catholic conservatism

An unbiased reader of Burke’s writings, one familiar with the history of Catholic theology and philosophy, could not help thinking that Edmund Burke was as close to being Catholic as one could be without officially belonging to the Church. Garrett Ward Sheldon in his essay in Modern Age Summer 2014 marshals such compelling evidence and argument that there seems hardly any doubt left about where Burke had his religious allegiance. Professor Sheldon’s essay is one of the most important in recent years about one of the crucial influences that operated on Edmund Burke, an influence that has not until now received the full attention it demands.

by Garrett Ward Sheldon

Garrett Ward Sheldon is the John Morton Beaty Professor of Political Science at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, and author of ten books on political theory and political theology.

In perhaps his most famous observation, Edmund Burke said that the social con­tract is not something made in a moment in time but rather is between the past, the present, and the future. Continue reading “Burke’s Catholic conservatism”