Tag Archives: Political philosophy

Who is Australian?

The message below was included in the latest email from the federal Liberal member for Bowen, Henry Pike. Not only do Redlands public school teachers display their bigotry and adherence to the system of apartheid proposed by the Aboriginal elite, they show a deep-seated ignorance of what constitutes a nation.

Of course, we wouldn’t expect primary school teachers to be versed in political philosophy. But you expect them to have an inkling of what aspects would be considered when talking about the concept of nation. I refer the reader to the links on my homepage where I deal with the idea of nation in detail.

The essential aspect of a nation, however, is that it is a moral and political incorporation of a people developed over time and not just a mass of land. Indeed, a mass of land is a mass of land until a people organize over it. Australia refers to the nation built by the British settlers after the arrival of the First Fleet. The Aboriginals had little to do with it.


Henry Pike MP:

This is a slide used in a Redlands public school last week to teach our kids that a non-indigenous Australian should be referred to as an “occupier” or “coloniser” but shouldn’t be called “Australian”.

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 flawed 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.


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 in Burke’s understanding 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.

In his writings on the influence of social contract theory in Britain, however, he had several contemporaries foremost in mind, notably Joseph Priestly (1733-1804),[4] Dr Richard Price (1723-1791)[5] and Thomas Paine (1737-1809).[6] He did not name Priestley or Paine but openly attacked Price in the Reflections on the Revolution in France, precisely on the question of Price’s understanding of the social contract. Social contract theories have been developed from Hobbes and Locke down to today, the latest in the writings of John Rawls (1921-2002).

Social contract theory typically deals with the way society originates and how political authority over the individuals forming society can be legitimate. The contract is between a ‘people’ made up individuals in the ‘state of nature’ and an authority they have elected and appointed. The people allow their elected authority to curtail their natural rights, rights arising from the state of nature, in return for protection and other benefits they could not have as individuals.

The key idea of social contract theory is that each individual being in nature radically free and equal must choose his authority – an expression of his will – for that authority to be recognised as legitimate. Hobbes’s fundamental principle (shared by most social contract theorists) was that there can be ‘no obligation on any man which ariseth not from some act of his own.’[7] Political obligation arises out of an arrangement in which the individual coming out of the ‘state of nature’ where he enjoys unlimited freedom and equality is obeying his own will when electing or appointing political authority. So doing, he freely creates an obligation for himself. Rousseau couched the issue of individual autonomy, state authority, and political obedience in these words:

The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before. This is the fundamental problem of which the social contract provides the solution.[8]

From a general theory of social contract, we can draw at least four pertinent conclusions. First, each time autonomous individuals come together to choose and ratify their authority — the outcome of the free expression of each person’s will — they are beginning government anew and committing themselves to obeying the expression of their will. Second, if the ruler fails to live up to the contract, the contract is broken, and the people return to the state of nature with all their rights. Three, any government that does not have the consent of its individual members condemns the people to servitude. Four, any authority based on church, tradition, and convention — a type of authority the individual allegedly has no say in — is rejected as illegitimate. In all this, the concept of the state of nature, conceived as the original or pre-political state of man, is crucial. Locke describes it thus:

To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man. A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection [9]

There was one dramatic difference in the views that Hobbes and Locke held of this original pre-political state. Hobbes’s starting point was a relentlessly mechanistic or physiological conception of human nature. In brief, according to Hobbes, man was driven by his appetites and aversions, the result of his environment acting on him. Deliberation and decision-making were the results of the unceasing processing of appetite and aversion. Man’s greatest fear was death which meant an unending struggle for power over others so that ‘during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called warre; and such a warre as is of every man against every man … And the life of man [would therefore be] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.’[10] We have thus an irresistible argument for men coming out of the state of nature to appoint an all-powerful authority in exchange for security.

Locke disagreed with Hobbes. In the state of nature, he insisted, people were inclined to cooperate and live peaceably. It was only when disagreements got out of hand that people degenerated into a ‘state of war’. The solution again was for the people to agree to curtail their rights in the state of nature to form state and society with institutions that could protect them and redress wrongs. Burke’s social contract contemporaries Joseph Priestly, Dr Richard Price and Thomas Paine were more aligned with Locke than Hobbes. Their concentration was not so much on the concept of the state of nature but on rights that people had in nature, those inherent in man being man, rights discoverable by the application of unaided human reason. They saw no difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution, claiming the same ‘democratic’ principles underwrote both. On this, Burke was in violent disagreement, a matter that must remain for another occasion. For my purposes, then, I will suffice with the above sketch of the main elements (and issues) of social contract theory.

Critics have understandably raised objections. The first and most obvious is the challenge to show when such a state of human affairs ever existed. Although Hobbes could point to the widespread social and political upheaval of the English Civil War (1642–1651) between Royalists and Parliamentarians, that war still fell short of a war in which ‘every man [is] against every man.’ The reply is that the concept of the state of nature is a philosophical fiction, an explanatory device or, as Roger Scruton expressed it, a ‘thought experiment’. It serves as a lucid illustration of the problem of reconciling the rights of people in nature with the necessity of a legitimate authority that requires people’s obedience. However convincing that explanation may be, Scruton has a far more serious objection which he discusses in three of his books. It is essentially this: a social contract presupposes the social circumstances which it aims to establish. In The Meaning of Conservatism,[11] he writes in conclusion after some discussion that ‘society could not … have been based on any contract since the individual autonomy, without which no contract can be made, presupposes the society which is supposedly formed through it.’ In his How to be a Conservative,[12] he expands this objection:

The social contract begins from a thought-experiment, in which a group of people gather together to decide on their common future. But if they are in a position to decide on their common future, it is because they already have one: because they recognize their mutual togetherness and reciprocal dependence, which makes it incumbent upon them to settle how they might be governed under a common jurisdiction in a common territory. In short, the social contract requires a relation of membership. Theorists of the social contract write as though it presupposes only the first-person singular of free rational choice. In fact, it presupposes a first-person plural, in which the burdens of belonging have already been assumed … We can make sense of the social contract only on the assumption of some such pre-contractual ‘we’.[13]

In his three books,[14] Scruton offers an alternative view of how a society is formed in which political obligation and legitimate authority are integral. An analysis of those views, however, is a matter for another essay. My object here is to analyse Burke’s response to the social contract theories of his contemporaries and to judge whether he has cause to condemn the French Revolution as ‘a wild attempt to methodize anarchy; to perpetuate and fix disorder’ when Dr Richard Price greeted that democratic dawn in France in a triumphant rapture. In a more moderate mood, Burke claimed that forming government on the prescriptions of an abstract theory was a dangerous fantasy. In An Appeal he said (writing in the third person):

[Mr Burke] has never professed himself a friend or an enemy to republics or to monarchies in the abstract. He thought that the circumstances and habits of every country, which it is always perilous and productive of the greatest calamities to force, are to decide upon the form of its government.[15]

The objection that an a priori theory of government is inadequate in deciding and carrying on government is a constant theme in Burke’s thought. That he understood the abstract arguments of Priestley, Price and Paine for a democratic order (as they understood it) is abundantly clear in the Speech on a Motion for a Committee to inquire into the State of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament, May 7, 1782.

They, who plead an absolute right [to representation in Parliament], cannot be satisfied with anything short of personal representation, because all natural rights must be rights of individuals; as by nature there is no such thing as politic or corporate personality; all these ideas are mere fictions of law, they are creatures of voluntary institution; men as men are individuals, and nothing else. They, therefore, who reject the principle of natural and personal representation, are essentially and eternally at variance with those that claim it… It is ridiculous to talk to them of the British Constitution upon any or upon all of its bases; for they lay it down, that every man ought to govern himself, and that where he cannot go himself he must send his representative; that all other government is usurpation, and is so far from having a claim to our obedience, it is not only our right, but our duty to resist it. Nine-tenths of the reformers argue thus, that is, on natural right.[16]

As in the Reflections and An Appeal Burke argued in the Speech on a Motion that legitimate authority in government and the obligation of the citizen to obey rested on different grounds. The difference is in the passage ‘all natural rights must be rights of individuals; as by nature there is no such thing as politic or corporate personality.’ Burke suggests contrary to the individual subjective rights theorists that there is in nature a politic or corporate personality in the people being a people, a social entity that necessarily has rights. The question is how he can justify this claim. Given Burke’s acknowledgement that one could legitimately talk about a state of nature, the issue for him, therefore, was how that state should be understood.

Let me start with the explanation that Hobbes’s idea of the state of nature serves as a philosophical fiction, that for the coherence of social contract theory it did not matter that such a state may never have existed. The potency of this fiction rests on a certain deductive force. Perhaps it is not a question of challenging the deduction, but of the reasonableness of the thought experiment that Hobbes and Locke conjured. After all, Hobbes’s deductive move is not the only direction one can take from the point of a proposed original state of nature. There is one other that certainly is not beyond the imagination of most people, one that is in line with Burke’s arguments about authority in society and people’s obligations. It must be kept in mind that Burke was not a systematic political philosopher in the sense that Hobbes and Locke were. Much of his political philosophy is implied, leaving us to draw out implications that are consistent with his explicit thoughts.

In whichever way you regard the individual person in the state of nature or that individual taking action to come out of the state of nature in the scenarios just sketched, you are looking at an individual who has a mother and a father. It cannot be otherwise. A mother and father and child are the minimum number of the basic human unit or group. Or are they? The individual’s mother and father also have a mother and a father. That’s leaving aside the most likely scenario that each couple has more than one child. An individual is thus never alone; he is always in community with others. True communion between family members exists from the beginning of the social group. This is the original state. That community is not simply an aggregate of individuals. What’s more, the group forms of necessity into a hierarchy of organisation and management. With the age difference and the task of bringing up progeny, it could not be otherwise. In addition, there is the natural allocation of tasks due to physical makeup and sex (biological) differences (I do not use the word ‘gender’ because of its present ideological assumptions). And that organisation would have particular concrete forms decided unconsciously by their effectiveness and the group’s particular comfort, tastes and preferences. We have here what Roger Scruton calls the guidance of an ‘invisible hand’, the invisible hand of nature. If we can talk about the natural sympathies of the human breast, as Burke put it, then in the basic human unit of child, mother and father and grandparents, the first sympathy is surely reciprocal love, a love issuing in care. That the first and overriding feeling in a family group is love is hardly a debatable proposition. The actual experience of most of us would confirm that.

We can now form a valid conditional argument (affirming the antecedent) from this. If you love your family and its secure organisation then you would not harm it. You don’t harm those that you love. For example, you would not steal from them or commit any act that comes under the heading of theft. You would not physically harm them whether directly or indirectly — and so on through a well-known category of wrongs. This sounds familiar.

Most of us are at least culturally familiar with the Gospel’s account of what Jesus replied when asked what the greatest commandment was: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22: 36-40).’ In these verses which most people take to be simply a two-prong biblical command, there is the same valid conditional (affirming the antecedent) argument. If you love God and your neighbour then you would not commit those acts which offend God and harm your neighbour.

We should understand that the biblical two-prong command is not merely the sort of command an irresistible authority would give. The inextricably linked commandments to love God and your fellow man are written into the nature of things and are accessible to human reason, as I have reasoned above. How could it be otherwise? A rational person with the unaffected sympathies of the human breast would feel and recognise the love due to God and by extension to his fellow man. This is generally known as the natural (moral) law which is not the same as the law of nature of the social contract theorists.

As we shall see, Burke’s prescriptions about political obligation are consciously connected to the grounding of moral obligation in the Scriptures. The important point at this stage is that unaided human reason finds out objective moral obligation in the Scriptures. Let us see now the path Burke takes to derive political obligation from an implied state of nature, the state of nature that is presupposed by his arguments.

We can extend the conditional argument above to read: if you love your family, you have the duty of refraining from harming them. The natural ‘sympathies of the human breast’ issue in a range of duties that the person owes to his family unit. Burke does not talk about love. He talks rather about the duties that love prescribes. Of course, a member of a family unit may at times feel less than love for another family member, but because love is an essential part of the natural order of family groups, the duty remains even when the feeling is not optimal. It follows from the objective nature of the duties prescribed by the love of family — duties which are extended to the wider family group by analogy — those duties are not voluntary, or the result of an explicit voluntary compact. Burke makes an important distinction between voluntary and involuntary pacts out of which ‘compulsive’ duty arises. In An Appeal, he begins with the obligations that generally arise from the two-prong biblical command:

We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not matters of choice. On the contrary, the force of all the pacts which we enter into with any particular person or number of persons amongst mankind, depends upon those prior obligations. In some cases the subordinate relations are voluntary, in others they are necessary—but the duties are all compulsive.[17]

He then chooses marriage and family as the paradigm example of compulsive duties:

When we marry, the choice is voluntary, but the duties are not a matter of choice. They are dictated by the nature of the situation…

Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention [contract] of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things.[18]

By analogy, he moves to the implied contract (and its duties) in society at large.

Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country, which comprehends (as it has been well said) ‘all the charities of all.’ Nor are we left without powerful instincts to make this duty as dear and grateful to us, as it is awful and coercive.[19]

Further on in An Appeal he draws the same analogy:

He [Burke] is convinced that neither he, nor any man, or number of men, have a right … to free themselves from that primary engagement into which every man born into a community as much contracts by his being born into it, as he contracts an obligation to certain parents by his having been derived from their bodies. The place of every man determines his duty…[20]

The essence of duty is that it is not subject to our will. Indeed, it is its contrary:

If we owe to [civil society] any duty, it is not subject to our will. Duties are not voluntary. Duty and will are even contradictory terms. Now though civil society might be at first a voluntary act (which in many cases it undoubtedly was) its continuance is under a permanent standing covenant, coexisting with the society; and it attaches upon every individual of that society, without any formal act of his own. This is warranted by the general practice, arising out of the general sense of mankind. Men without their choice derive benefits from that association; without their choice they are subjected to duties in consequence of these benefits; and without their choice they enter into a virtual obligation as binding as any that is actual. Look through the whole of life and the whole system of duties. Much the strongest moral obligations are such as were never the results of our option [21]

Those powerful instincts that make duties dear issue originally from the natural sympathies of the human breast aroused by our social environment. In the Reflections, Burke extends society’s contract in nature from the primordial family governed by love to all human society born and unborn, setting not just the natural law but the eternal law of God above all.

Society is indeed a contract … It is a partnership in all the arts; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law.[22]

In another important passage in An Appeal, Burke repeats that mere will cannot with justice transgress obligations underwritten by the moral law. The constitution of a people is the result of long-established, coalesced, and intertwined arrangements agreed upon by the people over time. The agreed arrangements form a contract that is not the result of the momentary votes of individuals and cannot be overturned by the votes of the people acting as individuals.

Neither the few nor the many have a right to act merely by their will, in any matter connected with duty, trust, engagement, or obligation. The constitution of a country being once settled upon some compact, tacit or expressed, there is no power existing of force to alter it, without the breach of the covenant, or the consent of all the parties. Such is the nature of a contract. And the votes of a majority of the people, whatever their infamous flatterers may teach in order to corrupt their minds, cannot alter the moral any more than they can alter the physical essence of things.[23]

Burke’s ideas about how a particular nation forms itself and endures are not only allied to his thoughts on moral and political obligation as it relates to members of a particular society, they are a further extension or explication of the detail of those thoughts:

A nation is not an idea only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation, but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers, and in space. And this is a choice not of one day, or one set of people, not a tumultuary giddy choice; it is a deliberate election of ages and generations, it is a Constitution made by what is then thousand times better than a choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil and social habits of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time. It is a vestment which accommodates itself to the body.[24]

Of crucial importance, a nation, therefore, is never just the mass of land determined by geographical coordinates:

Our country is not a thing of mere physical locality. It consists, in a great measure, in the antient order into which we are born. We may have the same geographical situation, but another country; as we may have the same country in another soil. The place that determines our duty to our country is a social, civil relation.[25]

The particular ‘social [and] civil relation’ determines what constitutes a particular people is in all its characteristics, including their particular agreement – or compact. The following is a straight rejection of Hobbes’s state of nature which in reality represents a decomposition of a people.

In a state of rude nature there is no such thing as a people. A number of men in themselves have no collective capacity. The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation. It is wholly artificial; and made like all other legal fictions by common agreement. What the particular nature of that agreement was, is collected from the form into which the particular society has been cast. Any other is not their covenant. When men, therefore, break up the original compact or agreement which gives its corporate form and capacity to a state, they are no longer a people; they have no longer a corporate existence; they have no longer a legal coactive force to bind within, nor a claim to be recognized abroad. They are a number of vague loose individuals, and nothing more. With them all is to begin again. Alas! they little know how many a weary step is to be taken before they can form themselves into a mass, which has a true politic personality.[26]

As in the abstract, it is perfectly clear, that, out of a state of civil society, majority and minority are relations which can have no existence; and that in civil society, its own specific conventions in each incorporation, determine what it is that constitutes the people, so as to make their act the signification of the general will.[27]

For Burke, there are two major misapprehensions that appear in discussions about what constitutes a people with its particular system government. First, a mass of land distinguished by geographical coordinates can never be a nation, even less a people. ‘People’ and ‘land mass’ are mutually exclusive terms although a particular people is connected to a particular physical environment which may influence their character. A people as a moral incorporation and a ‘social [and] civil relation’ is above the material, belonging to the order of the world – the order of nature – that is intelligible to the human intellect. This raises the contrast of metaphysical contexts. Burke clearly follows the classical realist metaphysics of Christian Aristotelianism; Hobbes, Paine, Rousseau, and the French philosophes assume a materialist metaphysics. The difference has great import in the act of conceiving a political philosophy. Second, the idea that the democratic process conducted by loose unconnected beings is a prescriptive element in nature is erroneous.

We are so little affected by things which are habitual, that we consider this idea of the decision of a majority as if it were a law of our original nature: But such constructive whole, residing in a part only, is one of the most violent fictions of positive law, that ever has been or can be made on the principles of artificial incorporation. Out of civil society nature knows nothing of it; nor are men, even when arranged according to civil order, otherwise than by very long training, brought at all to submit to it. The mind is brought far more easily to acquiesce in the proceedings of one man, or a few, who act under a general procuration for the state, than in the vote of a victorious majority in councils in which every man has his share in the deliberation.[28]

Roger Scruton, acknowledging the general validity of Burke’s analysis of the terms ‘people’ and ‘nation’, wrote:

Only where people have a strong sense of who ‘we’ are, why ‘we’ are acting in this way or that, why ‘we’ have behaved rightly in one respect, wrongly in another, will they be so involved in the collective decisions as to adopt them as their own. This first-person plural is the precondition of democratic politics, and must be safeguarded at all costs, since the price of losing it is social disintegration.[29]

Certainly, a democratic order is possible – even desirable – but not in the way theorists of the French Revolution conceived it. A system of democracy can arise by a long and sometimes painful process within the natural development of a people and nation as Burke conceives it. A democratic system presupposes an extensive structure of tradition, conventions, and unwritten law. When that structure disappears or is destroyed, the democratic system on which it depends fails. A democratic order formed on the basis of the propositions of an abstract theory is inherently unstable. The failures of democracies in our modern era, in the Middle East and on the African continent, support Burke’s claims. Indeed, the cultural framework of some countries in the Middle East is incompatible with democracy whether conceived by Burke or Paine. Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan would seem to present paradigm cases of a people unfit for democracy.

Burke’s criticism of the theory of political organisation driving the revolutionaries in Paris anticipated the major objections to modern contract theory and thus to the inherent problems of an abstract theory of popular sovereignty. First, there was the self-defeating nature of France’s revolutionary theory.

If men dissolve their antient incorporation, in order to regenerate their community, in that state of things each man has a right, if he pleases, to remain an individual. Any number of individuals, who can agree upon it, have an undoubted right to form themselves into a state apart and wholly independent. If any of these is forced into the fellowship of another, this is conquest and not compact. On every principle, which supposes society to be in virtue of a free covenant, this compulsive incorporation must be null and void.[30]

Second, it was contradictory. In destroying authority based on tradition and convention they subverted their own authority:

This mode of arguing might be pushed into all the detail, so as to leave no sort of doubt, that on their principles, and on the sort of footing on which they have thought proper to place themselves, the crowd of men on the other side of the channel, who have the impudence to call themselves a people, can never be the lawful exclusive possessors of the soil [because there can be no prescription regarding property]. By what they call reasoning without prejudice, they leave not one stone upon another in the fabric of human society. They subvert all the authority which they hold, as well as all that which they have destroyed.[31]

Third, it gives sanction to conspiracy and sedition. Conspiracy and sedition are normal modes of political action.

By such doctrines, all love to our country, all pious veneration and attachment to its laws and customs, are obliterated from our minds; and nothing can result from this opinion, when grown into a principle, and animated by discontent, ambition, or enthusiasm, but a series of conspiracies and seditions, sometimes ruinous to their authors, always noxious to the state. No sense of duty can prevent any man from being a leader or a follower in such enterprizes. Nothing restrains the tempter; nothing guards the tempted. Nor is the new state, fabricated by such arts, safer than the old. What can prevent the mere will of any person, who hopes to unite the wills of others to his own, from an attempt wholly to overturn it? It wants nothing but a disposition to trouble the established order, to give a title to the enterprize.[32]

If you wish to take an a priori theory of government seriously – that is, prescriptive of the way a government is constructed – then you must run it to its logical conclusion. This is exactly what Burke does in his criticism of social contract theory and the scheme of individual subjective rights that serves as it basis. His criticism is borne out by the actual events of the French Revolution – indeed, of all the ‘democratic’ revolutions that have followed, most of which have degenerated into barbarism. The modern Middle East is again the outstanding example. Taking the theory to its bitter end, Burke was justified in calling the French Revolution ‘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.’ The accuracy of Burke’s predictions about what would immediately follow the revolutionaries’ success (most importantly the prediction about the rise of a dictator – Napoleon) brought many of his critics to his side.

This is the negative side of Burke’s assessment of the social contract theory of Hobbes and company. The positive side is his explication about what constitutes people with all their (civil) rights and obligations. If there is a state of nature in which people find themselves, says Burke, then it is in a community of people that already exists from which a particular society and its management naturally arise. There is no explicit contract consciously agreed to. The obligations and duties, as well as the rights and privileges, already exist before its members are conscious of them and the structure of their society and government. The supreme obligation of the membership that draws rights and privileges is to safeguard that society and its inheritance in deference to those that have been, those they that are, and those that are to come. In all this, the rights and obligations are underwritten by the natural moral law.

In this essay, I have concentrated on Edmund Burke’s understanding of how a people originates and endures. In two following essays, I will apply Burke’s thinking to what it means to be Australian, and to his understanding of civil rights as opposed to abstract individual subjective rights.

© Gerard Charles Wilson, revised 2021

[1] Edmund Burke, An Appeal from the New Whigs to the Old Whigs, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. IV, Cosimo Inc. New York, USA, 2008, originally published 1887, pp. 70/71.

[2] I would like to acknowledge the influence of Chapter 4 ‘The Social Order’, The Political Reason of Edmund Burke, Francis P. Canavan SJ, Duke University Press, Durham N.C., 1960.

[3] Edmund Burke, A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, 1791, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. IV, Cosimo Inc. New York, USA, 2008, originally published 1887, pp. 26/33.

[4] Joseph Priestley, Essay on the First Principles of Government, London, 1768.

[5] Richard Price, On the Nature of Civil Liberty, London, 3rd edition, 1776, & Discourse on the Love of Country, London, 1789.

[6] Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, Everyman’s Library Edition, London, 1906, reprinted 1954.

[7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 2, Chapter 21.

[8] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, Tr. G.D.H. Cole, Every Man’s Library, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1973, p. 174.

[9] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Chapt. 2, para. 4. 1689.

[10] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 13, Part I.

[11] Scruton, Roger, The Meaning of Conservatism, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1980.

[12] Scruton, Roger, How to be a Conservative, Bloomsbury Continuum, London, 2014.

[13] Scruton, ibid., Kindle Edition loc. 463.

[14] The above two books and A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, Continuum International Publishing Group, London, 2006.

[15] Edmund Burke, An Appeal from the New Whigs to the Old Whigs. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. IV, Cosimo Inc. New York, USA, 2008, originally published 1887, p. 109.

[16] Edmund Burke, Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament, in the Commons, 7 May 1782. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. VII, Cosimo Inc. New York, USA, 2008, originally published 1887, p. 93.

[17] Edmund Burke, An Appeal from the New Whigs to the Old Whigs. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. IV, Cosimo Inc. New York, USA, 2008, originally published 1887, p. 166.

[18] Edmund Burke, ibid., p. 166.

[19] Edmund Burke, ibid., pp. 166/167.

[20] Edmund Burke, ibid., p. 167.

[21] Edmund Burke, ibid., p. 165.

[22] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. III, Cosimo Inc. New York, USA, 2008, originally published 1887, p. 359.

[23] Edmund Burke, An Appeal from the New Whigs to the Old Whigs. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. IV, Cosimo Inc. New York, USA, 2008, originally published 1887, p. 162.

[24] Edmund Burke, Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament, in the Commons, 7 May 1782. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. VII, Cosimo Inc. New York, USA, 2008, originally published 1887, p. 95.

[25] Edmund Burke, An Appeal from the New Whigs to the Old Whigs. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. IV, Cosimo Inc. New York, USA, 2008, originally published 1887, p. 167.

[26] Edmund Burke, ibid., pp. 169/170.

[27] Edmund Burke, ibid., p. 173.

[28] Edmund Burke, ibid., pp. 170/171.

[29] Scruton, Roger. ‘Conserving Nations’, Chapter 1 in A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, Continuum International Publishing Group, London, 2006, p. 9.

[30] Edmund Burke, An Appeal from the New Whigs to the Old Whigs. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. IV, Cosimo Inc. New York, USA, 2008, originally published 1887, p. 172.

[31] Edmund Burke, ibid., p. 173

[32] Edmund Burke, ibid., p. 184

Greek and Roman Natural Law – a brief survey


A Survey of Greek and Roman Natural Law

Members of The Edmund Burke Society met at the RACV Bistro for a seminar on Greek and Roman ideas of Natural Law. We had a long list of talking points which were on sheets handed to each participant to follow in the discussion. The discussion was broken at points by the serving of drinks and food. It worked exceedingly well. It was a relaxed enjoyable atmosphere and those present look forward to the next meeting on 7 March. Go here for the list of discussion points: Discussion points Natural Law seminar

The basic ideas of natural law is that there is an order in the universe, and that right action is behaviour in harmony with that order. Coupled with or implicit in this belief is that the objects of the universe have a character and a purpose. The integrity of the object is achieved through honouring that character and pursuing that purpose in both the physical and moral world. Continue reading Greek and Roman Natural Law – a brief survey