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Source: Introduction to Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 2.
Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is his most famous work, endlessly reprinted and read by thousands of students and general readers as well as by professional scholars. After it appeared on November 1, 1790, it was rapidly answered by a flood of pamphlets and books. E. J. Payne, writing in 1875, said that none of them “is now held in any account” except Sir James Mackintosh’s Vindiciae Gallicae. In fact, however, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, Part 1, although not the best reply to Burke, was and remains to this day by far the most popular one. It is still in print.
Burke scorned to answer Paine directly, but in 1791 he published a sequel to his Reflections under the title An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. In it, he quoted several pages from Paine’s book without acknowledging their source, and took them as representative of the views of all the British sympathizers with the French Revolution. Paine came back with The Rights of Man, Part 2. Burke ignored it, so in fact there was no debate between him and Paine. The two men talked past each other in appeals to the British public.
the radical democratic ideology
Burke had been personally acquainted with Paine, but it is unlikely that he had him in mind when he wrote the Reflections. He already knew the radical democratic ideology that inspired part of the demand for expanding the people’s right to vote for members of the House of Commons. Typically but wrongly, he attributed that ideology to most of the parliamentary reformers, as he did in his Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament in 1782.
The premise of the radical ideology was that men by nature are individuals endowed with natural rights but not, as Aristotle had thought, political animals designed by nature to live in organized political societies. In the prepolitical “state of nature,” there was no government and every man was a naturally sovereign individual with an absolute right to govern himself. Only he could transfer that right to a government, and even he could not transfer it totally. The only civil society that he could legitimately enter was one in which his natural right to govern himself became the natural right to take part on equal terms with every other man in the government of civil society.
This view translates into the principles of political equality and majority rule. Civil society is a purely artificial institution created by independent individuals who contract with one another to set up a government whose primary purpose is to protect them in the exercise of their natural rights. Its basic structural principles are dictated by the nature of man as a sovereign individual. In this theory, natural rights are prior to social obligations.
burke’s reaction to the french revolution
Burke encountered this theory also in A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, a speech which a Dissenting minister, Dr. Richard Price, delivered on November 4, 1789, to the Revolution Society, a group that met annually to celebrate the English Revolution of 1688. This speech (which Burke did not read until January) was delivered two days after the French National Assembly confiscated the estates of the Catholic Church in France. Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution had been slow in forming, but events in France in the fall of 1789, such as the confiscation of Church property, opened his eyes to how radical the Revolution there was. Dr. Price’s speech awakened a fear in Burke of a similar ideology’s bringing about a similar revolution in Great Britain.
On February 9, 1790, he gave a speech in the Commons on the Army Estimates that marked the beginning of his eventual complete break with his political party, the Whigs, now led by Charles James Fox, who admired the French Revolution. In the meantime, Burke was working on what was to become Reflections on the Revolution in France. It had begun with a letter, written in November 1789, to Charles-Jean-François Depont. Depont, a young Frenchman who had visited the Burke family in 1785, now wrote to ask Burke to assure him that the French were worthy of the liberty that their Revolution was bringing them. Burke’s reply was a calm and cool analysis of the Revolution. When Dr. Price spurred him to respond to his praise of the French Revolution, Burke couched his reply in the form of another letter to Depont. But it grew into a book addressed in reality to the British public in a highly rhetorical style.
Yet there is more, much more, to the Reflections than rhetoric. E. J. Payne, the editor of this set of volumes, who was very English and very much a man of the nineteenth century’s Victorian age, could say, “No student of history by this time needs to be told that the French Revolution was, in a more or less extended sense, a very good thing.” (When the bicentenary of the Revolution was celebrated in 1989, scholars were no longer quite so sure about that.) Payne also, like most students of Burke who were educated in the British Isles, reflects the empiricism and positivism that are so strong a strain in English thought and make it difficult for British students of Burke to perceive that there is a genuine philosophy wrapped in the gorgeous rhetoric of the Reflections.
It is not that Burke was or claimed to be a philosopher. Nor is his book a detached philosophical reflection on a great historical event. It is designed not merely to explain the event, but to persuade a reading public that the French Revolution is a menace to the civilization of Europe, and of Britain in particular. Yet, since the Revolution was built upon a political theory, Burke found himself obliged for the first time to organize his own previous beliefs about God, man, and society into a coherent political countertheory.
burke’s constitutional theory
The Reflections begins with an attack on Dr. Price and his speech. According to Dr. Price, as quoted by Burke, George III was “almost the only lawful king in the world, because the only one who owes his crown to the choice of his people.” Popular choice, then, was the criterion of legitimacy. This followed from what Dr. Price said was a basic principle established by the Revolution of 1688, namely, the right of the people of England “1. ‘To choose our own governors.’ 2. ‘To cashier them for misconduct.’ 3. ‘To frame a government for ourselves.’” Burke read this declaration of the right of the people as an assertion of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, and he denounced it as unknown to and incompatible with the British constitution.
Certainly, he said, it was unknown to the leaders of the Revolution in 1688. He admitted that it would be “difficult, perhaps impossible, to give limits to the mere abstract competence of the supreme power, such as was exercised by parliament at that time.” But there was no doubt in the minds of the revolutionary leaders or in Burke’s about the limits of what they were morally competent to do:
The house of lords, for instance, is not morally competent to dissolve the house of commons; no, nor even to dissolve itself, nor to abdicate, if it would, its portion in the legislature of the kingdom. Though a king may abdicate for his own person, he cannot abdicate for the monarchy. By as strong, or by a stronger reason, the house of commons cannot renounce its share of authority. The engagement and pact of society, which generally goes by the name of the constitution, forbids such invasion and such surrender. The constituent parts of a state are obliged to hold their public faith with each other, and with all those who derive any serious interest under their engagements, as much as the whole state is bound to keep its faith with separate communities.
the principle of inheritance
For this reason, Burke continued, “the succession of the crown has always been what it now is, an hereditary succession by law.” Originally, succession was defined by common law; after the Revolution, by statute. “Both these descriptions of law are of the same force,” however, “and are derived from an equal authority, emanating from the common agreement and original compact of the state, communi sponsione reipublicae, and as such are equally binding on king, and people too, as long as the terms are observed, and they continue the same body politic.”
The operative moral principle, it will be noticed, is that the terms of the constitution, once set, must be observed. But the reason for accepting hereditary government as a constitutional principle is a practical one: “No experience has taught us, that in any other course or method than that of an hereditary crown, our liberties can be regularly perpetuated and preserved sacred as our hereditary right.” It was this consideration that made Burke a monarchist, not devotion to any abstract principles of royal right parallel to abstract principles of popular right. Burke explicitly rejected the notions that “hereditary royalty was the only lawful government in the world,” that “monarchy had more of a divine sanction than any other mode of government,” or that “a right to govern by inheritance [was] in strictness indefeasible in every person, who should be found in the succession to a throne, and under every circumstance.” But he considered hereditary monarchy justified as an integral part of a constitution that was wholly based on the principle of inheritance and historically had served the people well.
“We have,” he said, “an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and a house of commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors.” Indeed, “it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.”
This passage may seem to imply that there is no standard of natural right anterior and superior to the constitution. But it will be noticed that Burke is speaking here, not of the objective moral order, but of “the uniform policy of our constitution,” and that he praises this policy, not as a statement of ultimate moral principles, but as a manifestation of practical wisdom “working after the pattern of nature.”
It will be further noticed that throughout this passage Burke contrasts inherited rights, not with natural rights (to which he could and did appeal on other occasions), but with “the rights of men,” which are the original rights of men in the state of nature. Dr. Price and others presume that it is possible to appeal to those rights in order to determine what rights men ought to have now, in an old and long-established civil society. It is this appeal that Burke says English statesmen of the past rejected in favor of the historic rights of Englishmen.
These statesmen wisely “preferred this positive, recorded, hereditary title to all which can be dear to the man and the citizen, to that vague speculative right, which exposed their sure inheritance to be scrambled for and torn to pieces by every wild litigious spirit.” It is advisable, therefore, to have some viable definition of what men’s rights are. Positive and recorded rights are better than original rights, in Burke’s view, because they have been defined, nuanced, and given sure modes of protection through long historical experience. Original rights, which are objects of speculation rather than of experience, can give rise to conflicting absolute claims that can tear a society apart.
the true rights of man
Furthermore, it is to misunderstand the social condition to think that men’s claims on society and one another can be reduced to rights which they enjoyed in abstract and unqualified forms before civil society came into being. Burke never denied that there had been a state of nature, that men had original rights in it, or that civil society had been formed by a compact. Either he accepted these beliefs as one tends to accept the commonplaces of his age or he knew that others accepted them so generally that to deny them would be to lose the argument at the outset. For whatever reason, he restricted himself to arguing that the original rights of men were not unreal, but irrelevant to civil society. The change they underwent in the civil state was so profound that they no longer furnished a standard for judging the rights of “civil social man.” In Burke’s own words:
These metaphysic rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are, by the laws of nature, refracted from their straight line. Indeed in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns, the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections, that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction. The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.
We must think, then, of men’s rights in society in another way:
If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right. It is an institution of beneficence; and law itself is only beneficence acting by a rule. Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to do justice; as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in politic function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry; and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour.
Civil society is “an institution of beneficence”; its purpose is to do good to its members, and the good that it can do for them becomes their right or legitimate claim upon it. But their civil rights are not merely the legal form taken, after the social compact, by their original natural rights. Nor is government derived from every man’s original right to act according to his own will and judgment.
The purposes of government are specified by the natural wants of men, understood not as their desires, but as their real needs. “Government,” according to Burke, “is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom.” But among these wants is the education of men to virtue through legal as well as moral restraints upon their passions. “In this sense the restraints on men as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” Burke, one sees, is moving toward rational moral ends as the legitimating principle of government, and away from original rights and their corollary, consent. But his immediate concern in this passage is to point out that, “as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.”
Rather, one must say: “The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of good; in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil.” To clarify what Burke is getting at, let us agree by way of example that it is not good for human beings to be starved, beaten, humiliated, deprived of human affections, or intellectually stultified. There are conceivable circumstances in which any of these, in a limited degree and for a limited time, might do someone more good than harm. But they could be justified only as a means to good ends, for these things are not in themselves human goods. Therefore, they cannot constitute the ends of life or the purposes of society. On the other hand, one can name human needs that do specify, in a general way, what civil society is for, and Burke did name some of them.
the goals of civil society
Civil society exists to guarantee to men justice, the fruits of their industry, the acquisitions of their parents, the nourishment and improvement of their offspring, instruction in life, and consolation in death. These are among the advantages that civil society exists to provide for men. But it is impossible to define antecedently, in the abstract and for all possible circumstances, the concrete forms in which these advantages are to be acquired and safeguarded. That must be left to social experience and the gradual development of custom and law.
The end of civil society, then, in global terms, is to promote what is good for human beings. Human goods are “not impossible to be discerned”—Burke was not a radical cultural relativist—and they can serve as the general goals that guide law and public policy. They will therefore set the outer limits of what government may do to people and define what it may not do to them. Burke was not inconsistent when he denounced the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland and Warren Hastings in India for violating natural law by their treatment of the populations subject to their power. To deny that natural law is an abstract code of rights is not to say that it forbids nothing.
But when it comes to specifying in the concrete the claims on society that its goals confer on people, it becomes evident that the rights of men “are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition.” They cannot be defined, that is, in the abstract and in advance. Human goods must be limited and trimmed in order to be simultaneously attainable in society. Not only that, but evils, which are negations of good, must be tolerated, sometimes even protected, in order that any good at all may be attained. A society ruthlessly purged of all injustice might turn out to be a vast prison. So, for that matter, might a society single-mindedly devoted to the individual’s liberty.
the right to govern
These considerations are particularly relevant to the right that was fundamentally at issue between Burke and his opponents. They held that every man in the state of nature had a sovereign right to govern himself and for that reason had a right to an equal share in the government of civil society. Burke held that what was important in the civil state was not that every man’s will should be registered in the process of government, but that his real interests (advantages, goods) should be achieved.
By entering civil society, Burke insisted, man “abdicates all right to be his own governor.” Hence, “as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of man in civil society.” On the contrary, “it is a thing to be settled by convention.” “The moment you abate any thing from the full rights of men, each to govern himself, and suffer any artificial positive limitation upon those rights, from that moment the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience.” But to organize a government and distribute its powers “requires a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities, and of the things which facilitate or obstruct the various ends which are to be pursued by the mechanism of civil institutions.” The allocation of power in the state, in other words, ought to be made by a prudent judgment about that structure of government which will best achieve the goals of civil society, not merely in general, but in this historically existing society. But this implies that purpose, rather than original rights and individual consent, is the organizing and legitimizing principle of a constitution.
A further conclusion about the nature of political theory follows: “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science.” Moral and political theory may enlighten us on the ultimate ends of social life, but the means thereunto are the object of a practical science that relies on experience.
Who, then, shall make the practical judgments of politics? The question cannot be answered by appealing to the rights of men. “Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit.” But as to what is for their benefit, Burke said: “The will of the many, and their interest, must very often differ.” The first duty of statesmen, indeed, is to “provide for the multitude; because it is the multitude; and is therefore, as such, the first object . . . in all institutions.” But the object is the good of the people, not the performance of their will. The duties of statesmen, in consequence, do not belong by right to those whom the many have chosen, but ought to be performed by those qualified by “virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive,” for the task of government.
burke’s view of democracy
Burke was undoubtedly what today is called an elitist and, in his own terminology, an aristocrat in principle. He had a very low estimation of the political capacity of the mass of the population, and when he agreed that the people had a role in government, he meant only a fairly well-educated and prosperous segment of the people. But the main object of his attack on the democratic theory of his day was not so much the idea that the populace at large was capable of exercising political power as the principle that it had an inherent right to do its own will.
He certainly rejected the notion “that a pure democracy is the only tolerable form into which human society can be thrown.” But it could be an acceptable one, though not often:
I reprobate no form of government merely upon abstract principles. There may be situations in which the purely democratic form will become necessary. There may be some (very few, and very particularly circumstanced) where it would be clearly desirable. This I do not take to be the case of France, or of any other great country.
Democracy as a mere form of government, then, would be sometimes, if only rarely, acceptable to Burke. What would never be acceptable was that the people “should act as if they were the entire masters.” Burke explained his objection to this conception of popular sovereignty in the course of his defense of the principle of a state establishment of religion. Under a “mixed and tempered government” such as that of Great Britain, “free citizens . . . in order to secure their freedom, . . . must enjoy some determinate portion of power.” But “all persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great master, author and founder of society.”
authority and the order of creation
This sense that authority is a trust given by God is all the more necessary “where popular authority is absolute and unrestrained.” No one can and no one should punish a whole people, Burke said, but this conclusion followed: “A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world.” It is essential, then, that the people “should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong.” To exercise political power or any part of it, the people must empty themselves “of all the lust of selfish will, which without religion it is utterly impossible they ever should.” They must become “conscious that they exercise, and exercise perhaps in a higher link of the order of delegation, the power, which to be legitimate must be according to that external immutable law, in which will and reason are the same.”
The phrase concerning the place of the people in the order of delegation is interesting because it may refer to a theory of the origin of political authority which was generally accepted in Late Scholasticism and was most elaborately presented by the sixteenth-century Jesuit Francisco Suarez. In this theory, all political authority comes from God, not by any special divine act, but simply as a consequence of God’s having made man a political animal by nature. This authority consequently inheres in the first instance in the body politic or whole community. But the community can and, for its own common good, normally will transfer its authority to a king or a body of men smaller than the whole.
In any case, God plays a larger role in Burke’s political theory than in Paine’s. For Paine, once God had given man his original rights at the creation, His work was done. Men then were able to create political authority out of their own wills. But for Burke, the authority of even the people was a trust held from God. They were accountable to Him for their conduct in it, and they must perform it in accordance with “that eternal immutable law, in which will and reason are the same.” In Burke’s thought, arbitrary will was never legitimate, because will was never superior to reason, not even in the sovereign Lord of the Universe. In God, however, will is always rational because His will is identical with His reason. The people, for their part, must make their will rational by keeping it in subordination to and conformity with the law of God.
the moral order of creation
The law of God that Burke has in mind is not only or primarily His revealed law but the natural moral law, because it is a law that follows from the nature of man as created by God. The Creator is
the institutor, and author and protector of civil society; without which civil society man could not by any possibility arrive at the perfection of which his nature is capable, nor even make a remote and faint approach to it. . . . He who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection—He willed therefore the state—He willed its connection with the source and original archetype of all perfection.
There is an entire metaphysics implicit in this passage. God, as Creator, is the source of all being. The infinite fullness of His being, therefore, is the archetype of all finite being and becoming. All created beings reflect the goodness of their primary cause and tend toward their own full development or perfection by approaching His perfection, each in its own mode and within the limits of its potentialities. The state, as the necessary means of human perfection, must be connected to that original archetype. In Burke’s philosophy, there can be no merely secular society, because there is no merely secular world.
The end of the state, for Burke, is divinely set and in its highest reach is nothing less than the perfection of human nature by its virtue. (According to Burke, “in a Christian Commonwealth the Church and the State are one and the same thing, being different integral parts of the same whole.” He thus found it easy to attribute to the state, or commonwealth, or civil society, the totality of men’s social goals, whereas we today should be inclined to divide them between the political and religious spheres.)
Hence Burke could say, “Society is indeed a contract,” but with a difference. The constitution of civil society was a convention whose shape and form was not a necessary conclusion drawn from principles of natural law. Nonetheless, society was natural in the sense of being the necessary and divinely willed means to achieve the perfection of human nature. If one equates the natural with the primitive, one will say that it is more natural to live in a cave than in a house; that is what is usually implied in the phrase “back to nature.” But if one equates the natural with the mature perfection of any species of being, one will say that it is more natural for human beings to live in houses than in caves. Houses are undeniably artificial works of human hands, but they are a natural habitat for men because they more adequately satisfy the needs of human nature than caves can do. Similarly—and this was Burke’s meaning—civil society is artificial, conventional, even, if you will, contractual. But it is natural to man because “he is never perfectly in his natural state, but when he is placed where reason may be best cultivated, and most predominates. The Aristotelian teleology of this remark seems obvious.
the social contract
Society, then, is indeed a contract, but not one to be regarded in the same light as a commercial contract that is entered into for a limited and self-interested purpose and can be dissolved at the will of the contracting parties. Paine could look upon human society as rather like a vast commercial concern, potentially worldwide in scope, that was held together by reciprocal interest and mutual consent. Burke could not share this utilitarian view of society:
It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.
Because of the nature of its purposes, the contract of society has a character and a binding force that are different from those of ordinary contracts. “As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” This sentence offended Paine’s commonsense mind and led him to ask what possible obligation can exist between those who are dead and gone, and those who are not yet born and arrived in the world; a fortiori, how could either of them impose obligations on the living? In a literal sense he was, of course, quite right. But if one turns one’s attention from contracting wills to the rational moral ends which those wills are bound to serve, one may conclude that, in the light of those ends, obligations descend upon the present generation from the past, and there are obligations in regard to generations yet unborn.
Men achieve their natural social goals only in history. The structures inherited from the past, if they have served and still serve those goals, are binding upon those who are born into them. These persons are not morally free to dismantle the structures at pleasure and to begin anew from the foundations. For the goals in question are not those alone of the collection of individuals now present on earth, but also those of human nature and of God.
The constitution of a society, conventional and historically conditioned though it is, becomes a part of the natural moral order because of the ends that it serves. This is the thought that lies behind Burke’s rhetorical language in the next part of the passage on the contract of society:
Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law.
The “great primaeval contract” and the “inviolable oath” are, of course, the moral order of the world as established by God. That moral order furnishes a law to which civil societies as well as individuals are obliged to conform.
when revolution is justified
But are people never free to change the constitution and their government? Burke does not quite say that. “The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles.” The key phrase in this statement is “at their pleasure.” There is also the unspoken assumption, characteristic of Burke, that a political revolution would be tantamount to a dissolution of society as such. Underlying that assumption was a conception of the constitution which one writer has well described in these words: “Burke . . . understood ‘constitution’ to mean the entire social structure of England and not only the formal governmental structure. . . . Included in his concept of constitution was the whole corporate society to which he was devoted.” No people, Burke said, had the right to overturn such a structure at pleasure and on a speculation that by so doing they might make things better.
Nonetheless, he could not and did not deny that a revolution was sometimes necessary. He only insisted that it could not be justified but by reasons that were so obvious and so compelling that they were themselves part of the moral order:
It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion, and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule; because this necessity itself is a part too of that moral and physical disposition of things to which man must be obedient by consent or force. But if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken, nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.
One may think that here Burke has gone beyond rhetoric into rhapsody. Yet the lines of his argument are clear enough. In An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, he made them more explicit and clearer still. It is difficult, therefore, to understand why Frank O’Gorman says: “The present writer has always found it strange that Burke rarely refers, either explicitly or even implicitly, to the principles that are supposed to have been the foundations of his thought. Burke was, indeed, uninterested in the workings of the Divine power.” It seems obvious to this writer that, particularly in the Reflections and An Appeal, Burke not only refers to but also elaborates in detail the principles that are the foundation of his theory of civil society and political authority. He was, it is true, a practicing politician, not a philosopher, and in these two works he wrote a polemic, not a dispassionate treatise on political theory. But his polemic included the presentation of a countertheory to the theory he was attacking. The countertheory depended in turn on explicitly stated premises of a moral and metaphysical nature. The premises are expounded, one must admit, in rhetorical language, especially in the Reflections. But they are, to borrow Burke’s words, not impossible to be discerned.
basic premises of burke’s thought
Briefly, the ultimate premises of Burke’s political thought are provided by the metaphysics of a created universe. They assume the superiority of reason or intellect to will in both God and man. Part of this universe is the natural moral order based on the nature of man as created by God. Man’s nature is oriented by creation toward ends that may be globally described as its natural perfection. Since civil society is necessary to the attainment of that perfection, it too is natural and willed by God.
The authority of the state derives from the rational and moral ends that it is intended by nature to serve. Consent plays a role in the formation of the state and the conferral of its authority on government, since both involve human acts of choice. But the obligation to form a civil society is prior to consent, and, for those born under a constitution, consent to the constitution is commanded by the previous obligation to obey a government that is adequately serving the natural goals of society. Rights also play a part in Burke’s political theory. But the basic political right is the right to be governed well, not the right to govern oneself. In Burke’s thought, purpose and obligations are more fundamental than rights and consent.