Burke, Edmund (1729-1797)

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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 modern conservatism.

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 book catalogue.

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 book catalogue.

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 book catalogue.

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.

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