Edmund Burke on Learning from Past Errors

Edmund Burke

Found in Select Works of Edmund Burke, vol. 2

Perhaps more than any great thinker, Edmund Burke is associated with history— especially the traditions and institutions it hands down. But he also recognized the value of history as a teacher by example:

In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.

By examining human beings and their actions in contexts outside of our own, we can gain a better understanding of ourselves and our own times. But we must do so cautiously. “We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history,” he warns. Too often, we draw simple, moralistic lessons from the surface of history, rather than study the deep moral ones. The latter, he says, typically show how the great human vices—“pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, [and] ungoverned zeal” seep into and disfigure the good things of human life—religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, [and] rights of men”—transforming them into perpetual causes of civil strife. (From Select Works of Edmund Burke, volume 2)