Edmund Burke is acclaimed today as one of the originators of modern political conservatism. In particular, his defence of the virtues of tradition and prejudice in Reflections on the Revolution in France is considered exemplary as a statement of conservative principles.
However, there is more to Burke’s philosophy than a simple celebration of the established social order. Not least, it is suffused with a thorough going scepticism about the character and capabilities of human beings, which led him to reject the Enlightenment view that reason can be readily employed to the betterment of mankind.
In this sense, Burke’s ideas can be seen as a counterblast against the sort of Enlightenment thinking that was sweeping through Europe towards the end of the 18th century.
The French Revolution, at least in the initial period, had lot of support in England. One popular defence was from Richard Price. Burke’s masterpiece emerged as a critique of Price. His scathing criticism surprised many, destroying many of his close friendships. Equally shocking for many was the clear difference between the young and the old Burke.
Burke’s earlier criticism of the king’s control over the parliament, his efforts of more than a decade to expose oppression, exploitation and misrule in India by the East India Company, and his championing the cause of the American colonies was at variance with his total denunciation of the French Revolution.
Unlike many other contemporaries, he refused to draw any parallels between the French events and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Burke’s Reflections was written during the revolutionary years. Macpherson pointed out that one should not overlook the second part of the title of the book, because it was very significant, i.e. his immediate concern was the perceived danger of the French revolution’s impact on England and in other parts of Europe.
In Reflections, Burke made a detailed criticism of both the theoretical and practical aspects of the Revolution. He pointed out the dangers of abstract theorising, but was realistic enough to provide for an alternative mode of social progression. Unlike Joseph de Maistre and Louis Gabriel de Bonald, who out rightly defended orthodoxy and absolutism, Burke provided a framework for change with continuity.
“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve”.
As Burke pointed out, these two principles of conservation and correction operated in England during the critical periods of the Restoration and the Revolution, when England did not have a king. But in both these critical times, a totally new one did not replace the entire edifice of the old order. Instead, a corrective mechanism was achieved to rectify the deficiencies within the existing constitutional framework.
As such, it balanced the old and the new, Burke criticised Jacobinism for its wholesale attack on established religion, traditional constitutional arrangements and the institution of property, which he saw as the source of political wisdom in t country. He often used the term “prejudice”, by which he meant attachment to established practices and institutions. These provided a bulwark against sweeping changes, particularly those that followed from a rational critique.
He did not support everything that was ancient, only those that held society together by providing order and stability. His main audience in the Reflections was the aristocracy and the upper middle class of English society, which he perceived to be the upholders of stability and order.
He challenged the English ruling class to respond appropriately to the plight of the French Queen; otherwise it would reflect the lack of chivalry and demonstrate that the British political order was not superior to that of the Continent.
Burke further argued that the period of the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights was one of slow but steady consolidation, reflecting continuity and change. This enabled the British constitution to preserve and provide unity within the context of diversity. Inheritance was cherished as a political necessity, for without it both conservation and transmission were not possible.
While there was a process of gradual change in Britain the French made an attempt to achieve a complete break with the past and create afresh with emphasis on equality and participation. With this inherent belief in natural aristocracy, he debunked the very attempt to create a society of equals.
Burke emphasised the necessity of well- ordered state, to be ruled by a combination of ability and property. Such an order would be inherently based on inequality. He linked the perpetuation of family property with stability of a society. There was no place for either proportionate equality or democratic equality in his preference for aristocratic rule. Like Adam Smith, he stressed the importance of preserving and protecting property.
He favoured accumulation of wealth, rights of inheritance and the need, to enfranchise property owners. While Burke was socially conservative, he was a liberal in economics, the two being fused together uneasily.