Edmund Burke on the Levelling Spirit

Edmund Burke

One of the pervasive themes of Edmund Burke’s writing and career was the dangers of a levelling spirit—the desire to destroy, rather than reform, any institutions which seem responsible for injustice. This was certainly characteristic of the French Revolutionaries, who targeted nearly every social and political institution for destruction. In his Reflections, Burke argued that such a tendency comes from a false and simplistic assessment of history, which draws basic lessons from the surface level of human experience, failing to see the deeper causes of so much human misery. The past shows us that “pride, ambition, avarice, revenge,” and other vices infect human understanding, inflame political passions, and give rise to calamities, civil strife, and a host of wrongs. Says Burke:

These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition, by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did, you would root out every thing that is valuable in the human breast. As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments, national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil by resolving, that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel; no interpreters of law; no general officers; no public councils. You might change the names. (FROM: The Policy of the National Assembly Criticised) - Edmund Burke

Though wars are fought and injustices perpetuated over religion, laws, social structures, institutions, or differing conceptions of liberty, these are not the true causes of civil strife. By destroying these pretenses—abolishing established rights, executing kings, divesting religious institutions—revolutionaries merely shifted the material through which human vice would manifest itself. Here is a warning against the belief that, by manipulating the material world, we can perfect the human condition.