Author: Robert Finn
Note: Burke's birth is January 12, 1729
By remembering Edmund Burke we aren’t just honouring the memory of the most eloquent conservative; nor are we paying tribute to his immortal name as the first conservative. We are remembering an orator hardly surpassed in the history of the English tongue, a writer of sublime vivacity and beauty, a politician forward in his thinking, a lover of liberty, a man of warm heart and of a caring soul. We are remembering one of the greatest men to have been born during the last four hundred years. We are remembering the most radical thinker in the history of mankind.
The last sentence of the preceding paragraph would have undoubtedly have caused some eyebrows to rise. For many, conservatism signifies to any form of change either in the constitution of the state or in the means and ways of society. But Burke was certainly not a reactionary. Just a brief glance at his career as a politician clears away such false ideas of Burke: he opposed slavery and the slave trade, fought for the emancipation of Catholics, and gave some of the greatest speeches in the English language to defending the American colonies.
A constant theme of Burke’s life is his opposition to the abuse of power. Besides his opposition to the encroachment of the British crown upon the rights of the British parliament during the time of George III, Burke opposed the tyranny of idealism. Indeed, his greatest work, and the work of which he is chiefly remembered, Reflection on the Revolution in France, besides (in the opinion of the author of this article) being the greatest work written in the English language on politics, is the greatest defense ever written against politics based on ideals and not on experience or tradition.
This is where Burke is the most radical thinker of all time. For hundreds of years thinkers had been trying to deduce the laws of politics from pure reason alone: Locke with natural rights, Rousseau with his social contract, etc. Burke, however, stated that politics has nothing, and should have nothing to do with, ideas. It has to do with people and their practical affairs. Out of all the major thinkers during the Age of Enlightenment, Burke did not believe that mankind could achieve perfection. His belief in the doctrine of Original Sin led him to the conclusion that man is an imperfect being, largely guided by prejudices rather than by reason. Burke said, “Prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts”.
If you’ve never read any of Burke’s work (which you should), here are some quotes to both satiate your palate and spark your curiosity:
“A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it, but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution”- Reflections on the Revolution in France.
“But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint”-Ibid.
“Manners are of more importance than laws. The law can touch us here and there, now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation like that of the air we breathe in”-Letters on a Regicide Peace.