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Edmund Burke on what it means to be people

Gerard Charles Wilson

This essay should be read with the post, Australia did not exist before 26 January 1788, to appreciate the full argument.

When Edmund Burke claimed in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs that the French Revolution ‘was a wild attempt to methodise 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 organisation now known as ‘social contract theory’. It is essential to understand that in Burke’s understanding, social contract theory not only determines the form of political organisation of a particular people but the accompanying social organisation 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 is considered the first to introduce the idea. Burke was clearly familiar with the writings of these political philosophers. There are recognisable references to Hobbes (Leviathan) and Locke (The Second Treatise of Government) in his speeches and writings, although he does not name them. 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 methodise 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 his understanding of the social contract.

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