Edmund Burke

A Dublin-born British statesman and political theorist, Burke’s writings emphasise the need for political action to be rooted in tradition and experience. Deeply opposed to the attempt to recast French politics in accordance with the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, he argued that wisdom resides largely in history and, in particular, in institutions and practices that have survived through time. Burke nevertheless held that the French monarchy had been partly responsible for its own fate, as it had refused to ‘change in order to conserve’. Burke had a gloomy view of government, recognising that, although it may prevent evil, it rarely promotes good. His most important work is Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke also supported the classical economics of Adam Smith, regarding market forces as an example of ‘natural law’, and championed a theory of representation that stresses trusteeship and holds that representatives serve their constituents best when they think for themselves and use their own judgement.

Burke saw the main problem of the French Revolution was that iit was an attempt to create a new society based on abstract principles such as liberty and equality, rather than the lessons of the past. Since these principles were not well established in France, he argued such drastic changes could only end in chaos and tyranny. Burke saw the state as resembling a living organism like a plant that may be changed when necessary through gentle pruning or grafting to preserve political stability and social harmony. Reform should be limited and cautious, take into account the past and be based on empiricism and tradition. (Empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes from real experience and not from abstract ideas)

Burke's endorsement of the value of tradition and empiricism is clearly linked to his attitude towards organic, gradual change> In this view, tradition, and empiricism represent the accumulated and 'tested' wisdom of the past.

Respect for the past and tradition promotes continuity and stability. It also establishes an obligation or duty for each generation to protect and pass on the accumulated wisdom of tradition and empiricism to their successors.

. He argued that inheritance and tradition were the basis of a stable society, and that the institutions and beliefs that form society are formed by the wisdom and knowledge of those who came before us and must be respected . He used France — the tyranny and disaster of the aftermath of the 1789 revolution — as an example of what happens when you destroy this past knowledge . Burke argued for continuity — ‘change is only necessary in order to conserve’ — and saw society as a partnership or bond between the dead, the living and the unborn future generations rather than a social contract between the government and the governed . These connections create stability and security in society and create social order, preventing social chaos .

Unlike other social contract theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes; Burke believed that “society is but a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born.” We must, therefore, construct civilisation by giving weight to our ancestors, ourselves and those still to be born. Burke’s notion of an eternal society beautifully encapsulates the Tory view that the present should not be arrogant enough to believe they know what is best. For a true conservative; society needs to reflect the past, consider the present and meet the needs of future generations.

Burke, like many conservatives, also rejected the abstract ideas and theories, e .g . rights, that developed as a result of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution . He also rejected democracy and saw inequality as natural . The people should be represented by the elite and the wise (the same thing), who would not be delegates but would follow their own conscience in making decisions . Burke was not a supporter of Locke’s interpretation of social contract theory, which suggests that the relationship between the government and the governed can be broken if power is abused . Society exists to provide individuals with a link to the past and future . However, Burke defended the Glorious Revolution and did not believe in absolute monarchy, rather that the king should be constrained by a parliament elected by the few