In the last couple of months I’ve heard the name Edmund Burke fall lovingly from the lips of conservative Republicans. They are reminding us that Edmund Burke was the founder of modern day Conservatism. They are proud of that. They hold him in great esteem.
You’d think they would be embarrassed to admit that he is the father of their political philosophy. But they’re NOT!
Let’s stroll back to 1961, shall we? It was at the very beginning of the 60s, a revolutionary time. I was nineteen and in my first Philosophy class taught by Dr. Pritchard. When you say the name Dr. Pritchard around here, fifty years later, the people who knew him get a gentle, sweet look on their faces.
Dr. Pritchard was thin, kinda short, glasses, dark hair. He always had a gentle, sweet look on his face. (I just Google-imaged Dr. Pritchard, Oklahoma Baptist University, and I got two obituaries of him – one with a picture of him that I saw in my mind when I thought of him back in 1961 – and the other a picture of him when he was much older. The older picture shows the gentle smile I saw when I was in his Philosophy 101 class. The obituary said that up until he died he taught Philosophy101 to people who lived in his retirement community. It must have been his favorite class to teach. Boy. Were they lucky.)
Our text book was Great Political Thinkers – Plato to the Present written by William Ebenstein. Ebenstein would preface each political thinker’s treatise with a description of the time and place of each man (yes, no women included in this book,) what other political ideas had preceded the one he was about to discuss, and his brilliant analysis of each writer.
I learned about Aristotle warning the people about tyrants. “Tyrants will say, ‘Give people the games.’”
I learned of Hobbes’ “state of nature” which described his view of human beings as being basically bad and that unless the sovereign had control, our lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
I learned that Locke’s “state of nature” was more optimistic and that humans intrinsically realize they ought not to harm one another in “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Golden Rule, right? All societies have that concept, right?
I met Rousseau in The Social Contract in which he says a deal is made between the sovereign and the people in which the people obey the laws and rules of the sovereign and pay their taxes but MUST get something back in exchange – protection against the invading hordes, protection against the abuse of power, a decent way to earn a living, an environment that is healthy and alive. In other words, a good life.
That book was so important to me that I have carried it from house to house over the many moves of my lifetime. I finally gave away almost all the books I lugged (and lugged and lugged) in the back of my car, in the back of pickups borrowed from friends, in the back of U Hauls, because I realized that it was my ego that propped those books up on book shelves so that everyone could see that I was a book lover, smart, an intellectual, not because I was ever going to read them again. I also saw, every time I pulled them down to move, that they collected ENORMOUS amounts of dust and old spider webs and stuff like that.
But Great Political Thinkers was different. I knew I would read it again. I knew I would open pages to recollect principles and ideas. It’s on a shelf here in my house in Oklahoma, the pages thin and crisp and yellow, the spine’s covering torn. And even though I’ve only occasionally opened it, I did this past month. Edmund Burke made me do it.
So here, Gentle Readers, is the basic Edmund Burke tutorial, the founder of Conservatism.
Back in the 1700s as revolutions were blossoming in Europe and here on the North American continent, there was quite a lot of discussion about what revolutions meant. Edmund Burke was on the anti-democratic side of the debate. He wrote about the impracticability of the democratic ideal saying democracy degenerates into chaos and anarchy.
He believed in hierarchy in all aspects of society, saying that those at the top knew better than the masses because that’s why they were at the top in the first place. He hated revolutions and wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France as an argument against those who saw the Revolution as the dawn of a new society.
Burke’s piece gave legitimacy to the enemies of the Revolution. Kings and the upper class loved him. Ebenstein wrote in his preface that King George III excitedly tells everyone who visits him, “It will do you good – do you good! Every gentleman should read it,” referring to Burke’s Reflections piece. His piece, Vindication, says speaking ill against the rulers and the rules was wrong because that would destroy the society.
Our own Thomas Paine wrote his Rights of Man as an impassioned response to Burke. Yeah, that Thomas Paine. The Thomas Paine who essentially put into words what the people of America were thinking and feeling and wanting.
Burke was a pessimist and doubted whether God even intended for Man to be happy and sees, like Hobbes, the need for laws and rules so that we wouldn’t all just run around killing and eating each other.
Burke loved the aristocracy and saw it as part of the Divine Plan and saw democratic revolution as part of the evil ambitions of people who had a lust for power. He called for a European movement to crush all revolutions by force.
He didn’t resist all change, though. He thought change had to come very slowly, incrementally, and to be thought out and handed down to the masses from on high.
(Do you see the same connection I do with Trickle Down Economics and Burke’s ideas of the powerful elite trickling the Truth down to us poor dumb souls?)
He didn’t think democracy was a valid philosophy and didn’t endorse individual rights but instead thought human beings should be considered, not as individuals, but just as one big entity. (Fascism grew out of that idea. Yeah, that fascism.)
Although Burke didn’t approve of people in the lower classes actually being abused, he still thought they had no right to vote. “He saw wealth and aristocracy as the repositories of wisdom and experience,” according to William Ebenstein. Burke thought property is, and should be, always unequal.
And here is the part that gets me. Burke cared not a fig for the laboring man.
According to Burke, labor is a commodity and is subject to the fluctuations of the marketplace and there is no obligation on the part of anyone to give consideration to a living wage as part of the deal. Nice, huh?
He saw the poverty of the masses as the result of there being too many of their kind. Even though Burke rejected the concept of the Rights of Man, he had a different opinion on the Rights of Commerce. He considered the laws of commerce equivalent to the laws of nature.
No wonder Republicans love him.
Okay. So. What does he think about liberty?
Well, he doesn’t believe there are certain inalienable rights – as in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He thinks the Powers That Be should establish rights for us underlings and that all rights are dependent on whether the people are good enough to handle them. He never saw revolution as the result of long suffering of ordinary people. He always saw the monarchy, church, and aristocracy as having all the answers.
For modern day Republicans to proudly point to him as their mentor, their guide, their founder, is to reveal themselves for what they are – defenders of the rich, proponents of Supply Side/Trickle Down economics, advocators of a hierarchical system that protects itself from intrusion by the middle and lower classes, a class system that has no concern for the welfare of those beneath the top cats.
One final thought. Conservatism is pessimistic. It sees people as basically bad and that without stern laws and punishments and powerful leaders our world would dissolve into total chaos. Liberals are basically optimistic and see human nature as good and that The System is to blame for what goes wrong between people and it must be changed to benefit the most people possible.
I am glad to have been of service to you, Dear Reader, in the whole matter of Edmund Burke. It was great fun cracking open that old philosophy book. It reactivated old synapses and let me look one more time at the sweet and gentle face of Dr. Pritchard and to think about Edmund Burke.