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Edmund Burke on liberty as “social” not “individual” liberty (1789)

A year before he published his full critique of the French Revolution Edmund Burke (1729-1797) wrote to a young Frenchman and offered his definition of liberty. His was not “unconnected, individual, selfish liberty” but a “social freedom” which is “secured by well-constructed institutions”:

Permit me then to continue our conversation, and to tell you what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled. This is the more necessary, because, of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.

You hope, sir, that I think the French deserving of liberty. I certainly do. I certainly think that all men who desire it, deserve it. It is not the reward of our merit, or the acquisition of our industry. It is our inheritance. It is the birthright of our species. We cannot forfeit our right to it, but by what forfeits our title to the privileges of our kind. I mean the abuse, or oblivion, of our rational faculties, and a ferocious indocility which makes us prompt to wrong and violence, destroys our social nature, and transforms us into something little better than the description of wild beasts. To men so degraded, a state of strong constraint is a sort of necessary substitute for freedom; since, bad as it is, it may deliver them in some measure from the worst of all slavery—that is, the despotism of their own blind and brutal passions.

You have kindly said, that you began to love freedom from your intercourse with me. Permit me then to continue our conversation, and to tell you what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled. This is the more necessary, because, of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions. I am sure that liberty, so incorporated, and in a manner identified with justice, must be infinitely dear to every one who is capable of conceiving what it is. But whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither is, in my opinion, safe. I do not believe that men ever did submit, certain I am that they never ought to have submitted, to the arbitrary pleasure of one man; but, under circumstances in which the arbitrary pleasure of many persons in the community pressed with an intolerable hardship upon the just and equal rights of their fellows, such a choice might be made, as among evils. The moment will is set above reason and justice, in any community, a great question may arise in sober minds, in what part or portion of the community that dangerous dominion of will may be the least mischievously placed.

If I think all men who cultivate justice, entitled to liberty, and, when joined in states, entitled to a constitution framed to perpetuate and secure it, you may be assured, sir, that I think your countrymen eminently worthy of a blessing which is peculiarly adapted to noble, generous, and humane natures. Such I found the French, when, more than fifteen years ago, I had the happiness, though but for too short a time, of visiting your country; and I trust their character is not altered since that period.

About this Quotation:

In this passage from a letter written to a young Frenchman François Depont in November 1789 only 4 months after the outbreak of the French Revolution, Burke makes a very clear distinction between two theories of liberty. The first is the individualist notion of liberty (described by Burke as “solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish”) which was based upon the natural rights of the individual to the unfettered enjoyment of their life, liberty, and property. This was the notion of liberty accepted by most of the American Revolutionaries and the more moderate constitutional branch of the French Revolutionaries. The second notion, the one he preferred, was “social” in nature, where various institutional and legal “restraints” were in place to prevent any one person from “regulat(ing) the whole of his conduct by his own will”. The strengths and weaknesses of each of these theories was hotly debated in the late 18th century which you can follow in this collection of texts on The Debate about the French Revolution. The issue often came down to the following questions: to what extent do existing institutions make the exercise of liberty possible, to what extent do those same institutions violate the rights of individuals, and how does one resolve that tension?

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