The thoughts and writings of Edmund Burke contain a complexity which prevents them from being simply categorized. While some historians want to dismiss him as a relativist, and other find him to be the founder of modern political conservatism, the reality is much more nuanced.
From the very beginning, Burke was not easily pigeonholed. His mother was an Irish Catholic, while his father was Anglican whose English family had settled in Ireland several generations earlier.
Burke cheered on the American Revolution of 1776, but despised the French Revolution of 1789, after his analysis found the two movements to be based on utterly different premises.
One of Burke’s theses was that tradition merits respect, and that those who respect it will find it advantageous. Burke did not want men to be slaves to tradition, but neither did he want them to cast it aside thoughtlessly - as he saw the leaders of the French Revolution do.
Burke predicted the outcome of the French Revolution, although he did not live to see it. He foresaw that, having demolished the monarchy, they revolutionaries would proceed to experiment with a series of various governmental forms, and to be satisfied with none of them.
Likewise, Burke criticized the British officials in India who did not stop to study or understand the traditions of the Hindus. They missed, Burke saw, a chance to decide judiciously which of them to keep.
In the course of reviewing William Byrne’s book about Burke, Daniel Foster writes:
A reform-minded, pragmatic British MP, he had expressed sympathy for the American Revolution, worked on behalf of the oppressed Catholics in Ireland, and stridently opposed the Crown’s imperial policies in India. So Thomas Paine, who’d assumed he had a natural ally in Burke, was perhaps understandably taken aback by Burke’s pique at the revolution in France in 1789, and his famed Reflections on the same. Similarly, though Burke was a Whig during most of his parliamentary career, he counted no less a figure than Samuel Johnson — who had called Whiggism “the negation of all principle” and japed that “the first Whig was the Devil” — as his good friend and admirer. Burke despised the programmatic fixity of “metaphysicians,” but wrote a treatise on aesthetics that influenced the young Immanuel Kant.
One way of understanding Burke’s hypothesis is that political liberty is dependent on personal self-discipline. Governments are tempted, or forced, to impose regulation on public and private life when citizens fail to conduct themselves rationally and ethically.
Burke was no anarchist, but he would agree with James Madison that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” From that axiom, Burke concludes that the closer men are, in their behavior, to angels, the less regulation the government will want or need to impose on them.
Burke encourages, then, a social and cultural structure which will save citizens from regulatory tyranny by encouraging appropriate behavior. Daniel Foster notes:
Ben Franklin wrote in 1787, a year of some moment, that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” In many ways, avoiding the latter consequence was the central preoccupation of the Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, a Franklin contemporary.
The French Revolution, because it sought to destroy not only the government, but also the social and cultural order, was doomed to end in tyranny. The destruction of social and cultural structure will leave a vacuum. That vacuum will necessitate, or tempt, a government to impose order.
Thus, a revolution initiated as quest for freedom ended in a government whose totalitarian tendencies were limited only by the technology of the time. Foster continues:
There is much going on here. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Burke saw the substitution of a cold and unmoored rationalism, novel in the worst sense of the word, for the body of mores and morals that had long held French civil life together.
Burke’s task, then, is to find a formula by which the traditional structures of society and culture can be reinforced so that the imposition of governmental regulations can be relaxed. A civilization with maximal socio-cultural edifice can enjoy minimal governmental intervention.
To this end, Burke encourages what he calls ‘prejudice.’ This word merits examination. Many readers in the early twenty-first century, shaped by several decades of debate about civil rights in the United States, have associated this word with injustice, racism, and other unpleasant phenomena. But in Burke’s day - he wrote this particular text in 1790 - the word had different connotations.
By ‘prejudice,’ Burke meant something along the lines of developing a moral instinct or refining and training one’s ethical judgment. By ‘prejudice,’ Burke meant bringing one’s education - one’s knowledge of tradition - to inform one’s judgment.
Between 1790 and 2015, the word ‘prejudice’ has changed its connotation significantly, and even its denotation somewhat. By ‘prejudice,’ Burke is asking the reader not to make decisions in a vacuum, not to make uninformed decisions, but rather to inform one’s decisions by the inherited wisdom of tradition. Daniel Foster phrases it this way:
Burke understands our moral faculty as an admixture of reason and sentiment. Healthy judgments of right and wrong come from an application of what he repeatedly calls “prejudices” — instincts, habits, virtues culturally inherited — aided by reason. White papers, economic models, and graduate seminars get you only so far. The rest requires the wisdom of “nations and … ages” (Burke’s words) that is all too often dismissed as (our words) “the conventional wisdom.”
Studying and internalizing one’s cultural heritage equips one to make ethical decisions. To discard, as the French Revolution did, social tradition creates a vacuum in which every decision must be made ex nihilo and ab initio. One is forced, morally speaking, to perpetually reinvent the wheel. If one must reinvent the wheel several times a day, then one will sometimes get it wrong.
Discarding all tradition, one throws the individual, stripped of all culture, intellectually naked and unequipped into a sea of moral dilemmas. Faced with the need to make decisions about what is permissible, what is obligatory, and what is forbidden - incest, prostitution, polygamy, slavery, defamation, libel, slander, greed, selfishness - the individual is forced to undertake a long and arduous moral inquiry, which at the least mires society in endless moral debate, and at worst creates endless pitfalls for making bad decisions.
By analogy, we do not ask a nurse or a physician to begin with a study of all known chemical elements when a solution is needed to sterilize medical instruments. We have already on hand a knowledge of which substances meet that need, and we have supplies of such substances. Likewise, we do not ask the individual to begin a thorough examination of all possible ethical axioms when faced with a practical decision in daily life. We have a supply of such things already on hand. Burke himself writes:
Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
Burke argues that many different aspects of civilization owe their strength to inherited cultural tradition. Literature, he argues, depends on its predecessors - even that literature which makes its claim that it is a sharp break from the past.
Business and economics, Burke asserts, is no mere application of algebraic rules, but rather also depends on a social heritage. A thriving commercial environment, which offers income and opportunity freely, fairly, and equally to all its citizens, is possible only on the foundation of a cultural tradition.
Thus the French Revolution not only, in its attempt to create more freedom, ended up destroying freedom, but also, in its attempt to create prosperity and opportunity, ended up destroying economic opportunity for the lower classes. Burke does not criticize the noble desires of the French Revolution, but rather points out that its methods will bring about the precise opposite of those desires. Burke writes:
If, as I suspect, modern letters owe more than they are always willing to owe to ancient manners, so do other interests which we value full as much as they are worth. Even commerce, and trade, and manufacture, the gods of our economical politicians, are themselves perhaps but creatures; are themselves but effects, which as first causes, we choose to worship. They certainly grew under the same shade in which learning flourished. They too may decay with their natural protecting principles.
Burke’s vision is, then, one which empowers the individual to make ethical choices, and which one creates commercial prosperity accessible to all classes. Burke’s vision, unlike the failed French Revolution, is based on the solid tradition of cultural heritage.
Any endeavor toward freedom, ethical maturity, and economic opportunity will not only fail, but bring about its opposite - tyranny, moral confusion, and poverty - if it is not based in the inherited traditions of civilization.