Opinion | Why Edmund Burke Still Matters

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How did Burke get it right about the ultimate course of events in France — and, by extension, so many subsequent revolutions that aimed to establish morally enlightened societies and wound up producing despotism and terror? The question is worth pondering in light of two main ideological currents of today: the tear-it-all-down populism that has swept so much of the right in the past five years and the tear-it-all-down progressivism that threatens to sweep the left.

At the core of Burke’s view of the revolution is a profound understanding of how easily things can be shattered in the name of moral betterment, national purification and radical political transformation. States, societies and personal consciences are not Lego-block constructions to be disassembled and reassembled with ease. They are more like tapestries, passed from one generation to the next, to be carefully mended at one edge, gracefully enlarged on the other and otherwise handled with caution lest a single pulled thread unravel the entire pattern. “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity,” Burke wrote. “And therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.”

Burke’s objection to the French revolutionaries is that they paid so little attention to this complexity: They were men of theory, not experience. Men of experience tend to be cautious about gambling what they have painstakingly gained. Men of theory tend to be reckless with what they’ve inherited but never earned. “They have wrought underground a mine that will blow up, at one grand explosion, all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of parliament. They have ‘the rights of men.’ Against these there can be no prescriptions.”

Not that Burke was against rights per se. The usual caricature of Burke is that he is the conservative’s conservative, a man for whom any type of change was dangerous in practice and anathema on principle. That view of him would have astonished his contemporaries, who knew him as a champion of Catholic emancipation — the civil rights movement of his day — and other reformist (and usually unpopular) causes.

A fairer reading of Burke would describe him as either a near-liberal or a near-conservative — a man who defied easy categorization in his time and defies it again in ours. He believed in limited government, gradual reform, parliamentary sovereignty and, with caveats and qualifications, individual rights. But he also believed that to secure rights, it wasn’t enough simply to declare them on paper, codify them in law and claim them as entitlements from a divine being or the general will. The conditions of liberty had to be nurtured through prudent statesmanship, moral education, national and local loyalties, attention to circumstance and a healthy respect for the “latent wisdom” of long-established customs and beliefs. If Burke lacked Thomas Jefferson’s clarity and idealism, he never suffered from his hypocrisy.

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