• The Political Forum

A Tribute to the Great Thinkers, Part III


Before there was a Left, there was no Right. Of course, there had been many conflicts during the preceding fifteen or so centuries between the defenders of what was known then as Christendom and a wide variety of its enemies. But it wasn’t until the emergence of what became known as the Left during the French Revolution that a full-scale assault on the principles underlying Western Civilization became so serious that a commensurate defense was needed.

This was not a matchup between two political factions with differing views as to how to achieve a similar end. It was, and still is, a war in which one side (the Left) is ceaselessly attempting to demolish the existing order, which was once called Christendom and is now more commonly referred to as Western Civilization, while the other side (the Right) is, even today, fighting to conserve it.

Naturally, the French revolutionaries are considered the fathers of the Left. Edmund Burke has the honor of being the “father” of the Right, or, if you prefer, of “conservatism.” Burke was born in Dublin, the son of a Protestant lawyer and a Catholic mother. He was educated at a Quaker boarding school and at Trinity College. He was a committed Anglican all of his life. He came to London at the age of twenty-one to study law but gave that up and made his living during the next fifteen years or so as a private secretary to several senior Parliamentarians.

At the age of thirty-six, Burke became a Member of Parliament himself, where he established a reputation as one of the most brilliant men of his age and, as we say above, earned the title that he holds today as the Father of Conservatism. Samuel Johnson, who is described in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history,” said this of Burke: “You could not stand for five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced that you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever seen.” Adam Smith remarked that Burke was “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.” The great British statesman William Pitt the Elder said of Burke’s maiden speech as a member of the House of Commons that he had “spoken in such a manner as to stop the mouths of all Europe.” More recently, Russell Kirk said the following: “If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone; and if radicals wish to test the temper of their opposition, they should turn to Burke.”

Burke was a central figure in countless political battles. One such battle was his lonely and futile fight against King George’s demand to punish the American colonists for their alleged treasonous activities. He earned his reputation as the world’s greatest defender of Western Civilization with the publication of his classic Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790.

To praise this book is to guild the lily. As a political treatise, it has no equal in the modern world. Indeed, we would argue that it, together with Burke’s other political writings, are to the Western tradition of political and social commentary what Plato’s works are to philosophy. A. N. Whitehead famously said that the European philosophical tradition is nothing more than a series of footnotes to Plato. Likewise, the conservative intellectual tradition is nothing more than a series of footnotes to Burke. On virtually any topic – political, social, or economic – Burke’s wisdom trumps that of the brightest of contemporary conservative pundits and politicians. This is not to take anything away from the paladins of conservatism in the United States today, but there is nothing that any of them can say on behalf of the cause that wasn’t said two hundred years ago, and said better, by Edmund Burke.

We offer the following brief quotes from his work in the hope that they will provide pleasant memories to those familiar with this work and persuade those who are not to become familiar with it.

You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.
Men who undertake considerable things, even in a regular way, ought to give us ground to presume ability. But the physician of the state, who, not satisfied with the cure of distempers, undertakes to regenerate constitutions, ought to show uncommon powers. Some very unusual appearance of wisdom ought to display themselves on the face of the des
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites … in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right. It is an institution of beneficence; and law itself is only beneficence acting by a rule. Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to do justice, as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in public function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents, to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring, to instruction in life, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favor. In this partnership all men have equal rights, but not to equal things. He that has but five shillings in the partnership has as good a right to it as he that has five hundred pounds has to his larger proportion. But he has not a right to an equal dividend in the product of the joint stock; and as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of man in civil society; for I have in my contemplation the civil social man, and ns of those who appeal to no practice and who copy after no model.