Tag Archives: Social Contract theory

Edmund Burke on what it means to be a people

This essay is to be read with my post, Australia did not exist before 26 January 1788. The present debate in Australian about British Invasion and Aboriginal sovereignty is fatally flowed when one understands how peoples, societies and nation have developed over time. The history of Europe, for example, is one of shifting peoples, migration, settlement and and invasion. Nations arise out of these shifts. It is absurd and incoherent to disqualify the majority of a settled nation because its member are the descendants of people who centuries before settled or invaded a particular geographic area. A nation is a moral incorporation, not a particular mass of land distinguished by geographical coordinates The moral incorporation implies a contract.

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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.

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