Was Edmund Burke a genius, and have we given him enough consideration?
Many Americans know little to nothing more about the 18th century statesman than perhaps recognizing his name. But the more philosophically minded, particularly those concerned with conservative political philosophy, harbor something of a reverential regard for Burke.
I should add here for those unacquainted that Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was the father of what we now regard as conservative political philosophy. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Burke served as a member of British Parliament from 1765-1794, during which time he played the man engaging the major issues of his time.
A supporter of the cause of the American colonists in their War for Independence, Burke nevertheless opposed on principle revolutions and revolutionary thinking, preferring instead reform with a view to expedience and the social and national interest.
Just so and for the same reason, Burke strongly denounced the French Revolution on the grounds that it was hubristically and wickedly destroying everything that stood between its instigators and remaking the world in their image without regard for either posterity or the legacy of previous generations.
Speaking personally, I am inclined to agree with Russell Kirk, and liked very much his biography of the man. Edmund Burke was a genius, and we have not given him enough consideration.
For all the revolutionary talk in our day, and questions of what conservatives are for rather than against, and what it is exactly that we mean to conserve when we say we are conservatives, Burke serves as a thoughtful, principled, clarifying resource.
Don’t let the intervening years trick you into thinking we are far removed from the debates in Burke’s day. His ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ is as timely now as it was when at its publication Jean-Jacques Rousseau had only been in the grave a mere dozen years. And the reason for this is because the ideas of Rousseau are still very much with us, both in their consequences and in their ideological descendants.
In studying Burke through the lens of Russell Kirk, you will find a man who stood not just firm but forcefully against those ideas. And this is because Burke recognized these ideas the potential for destruction and death of all kinds – including the destruction and death of civilization and its attendant blessings.
Arguing for ordered liberty, Burke understood that human freedom cannot be unlimited and abstract. It has to be tempered with reasonable discipline and restraint in order to live for long or to a fruitful end.
To those wondering what conservatism is or should be about, we do well to study the life and times of Burke, and his response to those times. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better way to honor the substance of Burke’s ideas – where they were founded on considering the intentions and lessons learned from previous generations – and incorporating the same into our own plans, purposes, and principles.
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