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Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is primarily remembered for Reflections on the
Revolution in France (1790). His other works are in a similar vein and
criticize the abstract rationalism of the Enlightenment, democracy, and corrupt
government. Burke's analysis of the merits of the English Constitution and the
demerits of the French Revolution is often seen as laying the foundations of
Burke was a consistent doubter of the merits of democracy. His analysis found
the general public ill qualified to exercise power, disposed to follow their
passions, and too willing to tyrannize the minority. All things considered,
Burke found democracy a more troubling form of government than either oligarchy
or despotism. The amount of damage a single tyrant or an oligarchy can do to
a state is limited, but a tyrannical majority without appeal to any counterauthority
can do almost unlimited harm.
Burke's opposition to the French Revolution touched, in part, on its abstract,
rational espousal of democracy and universal rights. He correctly predicted
that although those were the ends claimed by the revolutionaries, the revolution
would quickly turn into a parade of tyrants. In the name of universal rights,
those in power were willing to destroy the monarchy, aristocracy, and church;
raze the religious and spiritual resources of society; and topple traditional
sources of morality. These institutions were an important obstacle to despotic
power, however, and their removal opened the door to demagogues who claimed
to speak on behalf of the people.
In contrast to the French experiment, Burke lauded the English Constitution
as the political embodiment of continuity rather than rationalism. It ensured
respect for traditional institutions as opposed to speculative ventures, upheld
customary rights rather than abstractions, and maintained a sense of the sacred
that recognized the basic imperfection of human beings. Burke accepted the existence
of human nature but distrusted attempts to understand it on purely rational
grounds. He saw man as an imperfect creature subject to the whims of passion
who required the constraints of evolved and customary institutions. Political
society could not change this basic fact, and only magnified the need for moral
constraints. Burke had little faith in the ability of philosophy or reason to
solve society's problems. He thus viewed the removal of the traditional and
time-tested brakes on human passions as a dangerous and dubious undertaking.
Works by Burke
Burke, Edmund. A Vindication of Natural Society. Indianaplis: Liberty
Fund, Inc., 1982. Available from Liberty Fund's online
Burke, Edmund. Selected Works of Edmund Burke, compiled and with a
foreword and notes by Francis Canavan. 3 vol. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc.,
1999. Available from Liberty Fund's online
Burke, Edmund. The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke. 12 vols.
Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1866.
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the French Revolution. London: J.M.
Dent & Company, 1935.
Burke, Edmund. Further Reflection on the Revolution in France. Indianapolis:
Liberty Fund, Inc., 1992. Available from Liberty Fund's online
Burke, Edmund. Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. F. and C. Rivington
and J. Hatchard, 1800.
Burke, Edmund. The Works and Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund
Burke. 8 vols. London: Francis and John Rivington, 1852.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.