Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

Born: 1729. Died: 1797.

Biography

Irish social and political philosopher and statesman. Although reared in the Enlightenment era, Burke was a severe critic of rationalist theories of natural law and social contract.

Like David Hume, Edmund Burke believed that political and social organization evolved organically over history from a variety of political, cultural and social circumstances. In Burke's view, current society is a robust organism that emerged piecemeal and slowly over history. For this reason, Burke never trusted abstract "grand plans" for radical political, economic and/or social reorganization of society. This has led him to be celebrated as the father of conservatism.

However, Burke wasn't exactly an apologist of the current order either. Tyrannical kings and parliaments, no less than tyrannical mobs, were an anathema to Burke. It is for this reason that he defended the American Revolution (since, in his view, they were merely "reclaiming" their traditional rights as freeborn Englishmen) and condemned the French Revolution (which, in his view, was based on a rationalist experiment).

Burke was trained as a lawyer at Trinity College, Dublin and thereafter moved to London. In 1759, he became a private secretary to William Hamilton and then, in 1765, to Charles Wentworth, Marquis of Rockingham, the Whig prime minister. Burke was himself elected to the House of Commons in 1765. After the fall of the Whigs in 1766, Burke sat in opposition to the Tories in parliament.

Burke took up several political causes, both in Parliament and in the press. The first was the Wilkes crisis and the relationship between Crown and Parliament (1769, 1770) and then against the British colonial policy in America (1774, 1775). He also raised his voice for the emancipation of Catholics, the removal of trade barriers with Ireland, the abolition of the slave trade and slavery and against the privileges and excesses of the rule of the East India Company in India (and later instigating the impeachment of Warren Hastings, governor general of India). Some of his political positions (e.g. on Catholics) were not very popular and he would lose his parliamentary seat repeatedly as a result (always he would return with another seat). In 1771, Burke was chosen by the New York assembly as their agent in London. Burke retired from Parliament in 1794.

Burke's impact on economics was interesting. In the modern era, his ideas about the unplanned, historical evolution of political and social norms is echoed most clearly in the later works of Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian School. But his greatest influence was on social commentators like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, who invoked Burke's arguments to condemn the destructive rise of capitalist industrialism. The Carlyle-Ruskin assault on the "whiggery" of economists was already presaged in Burke's famous passage from his 1791 Reflections upon the execution of Marie Antoinette:

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.

Edmund Burke is famously celebrated in William Butler Yeats's poem "The Seven Sages".

Major Works of Edmund Burke

- A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, 1791
- A Letter to a Noble Lord, 1796
- A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, 1777
- A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1756 (enlarged 1757)
- A Vindication of Natural Society, 1756
- Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs
- Letters on a Regicide Peace
- Observations on the Present State of the Nation, 1769
- On Taste
- Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
- Speech in Commons on India, 1783
- Speech on American Taxation, 1774
- Speech on Conciliation with America, 1775
- Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 1780
- Thoughts on French Affairs
- Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents, 1770

Quotes from Edmund Burke

- "Custom reconciles us to everything." (from "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful", 1756)

- "I know of nothing sublime, which is not some modification of power." (from "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful", 1756)

- "No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear." (from "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful", 1756)

- "The elevation of the mind ought to be the principal end of all our studies." (from "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful", 1756)

- "We have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others." (from "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful", 1756)

- "A good parson once said that where mystery begins religion ends. Cannot I say, as truly at least, of human laws, that where mystery begins justice ends?" (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "All hapiness [is] ... connected with the practice of virtue, which necessarily depends on the knowledge of truth." (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "An aristocracy and a despotism differ but in name." (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "In a State of Nature, it is an invariable Law that a Man's Acquisitions are in proportion to his Labors. In a State of Artificial Society, it is a Law as constant and as invariable that those who labor most enjoy the fewest things; and that those who labor not at all have the greatest Number of Enjoyments. A Condition of things this, strange and ridiculous beyond Expression." (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "Its hard to say whether the doctors of law or divinity have made the greater advances in the lucrative business of mystery." (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "Show me and absurdity in Religion, [and] I will udertake to show you an hundred in Political Laws and Institutions." (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "The first accounts we have of mankind are but accounts of their butcheries. All empires have been cemented in blood." (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "The whole Business of the Poor is to administer to the Idleness, Folly, and Luxury of the Rich; and that of the Rich, in return, to find the best Methods of confirming the Slavery and increasing the Burdens of the Poor." (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "Unnatural power corrupts both the heart and the understanding." (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "We are indebted for all our Miseries to our Distrust of that Guide which Providence thought sufficient for our Condition, our own Natural Reason, which rejecting both in Human and Divine things, we have given our Necks to the Toke of Political and Theological Slavery." (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "We first throw away the Tales along with the Rattles of our Nurses. Those of the Priest keep their hold a little longer; those of our Governors the longest of all." (from "A Vindication of Natural Society", 1756)

- "There ... is a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue." (from "Observations on a Late State of the Nation", 1769)

- "The politician ... is the philosopher in action." (from the pamphlet "Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents", 23 April 1770)

- "We set ourselves to bite the hand that feed us." (from the pamphlet "Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents", 23 April 1770)

- "Passion for fame; A passion which is the instinct of all great souls." (from the speech to the House of Commons "American Taxation", 19 April 1774)

- "To tax and to please, no more than to love and be wise, is not given to men." (from the speech to the House of Commons "American Taxation", 19 April 1774)

- "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion." (from the speech to the the electors of Bristol (England), 3 November 1774)

- "Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great empire and little minds go ill together." (from the speech to the House of Commons "Conciliation with America", 22 March 1775)

- "Man acts from motives relative to his interests; and not on metaphysical speculations." (from the speech to the House of Commons "Conciliation with America", 22 March 1775)

- "Peace implies reconciliation." (from the speech to the House of Commons "Conciliation with America", 22 March 1775)

- "Public calamity is a mighty leveller." (from the speech to the House of Commons "Conciliation with America", 22 March 1775)

- "The concessions of the weak are the concessions of fear." (from the speech to the House of Commons "Conciliation with America", 22 March 1775)

- "The march of the human mind is slow." (from the speech to the House of Commons "Conciliation with America", 22 March 1775)

- "Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist." (from the letter to the sheriffs of Bristol (England), 3 April 1777)

- "Those who have much to hope and nothing to lose will always be dangerous, more or less." (from the letter to Charles J. Fox, 8 October 1777)

- "As wealth is power, so all power will infallibly draw wealth to itself by some means or order." (from the speech to the House of Commons, 11 February 1780)

- "What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue." (from the speech at Bristol (England), 9 September 1780)

- "The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion." (from a speech at Buckinghamshire (England), 1784)

- "Religious persecution may shield itself under the guise of a mistaken and over-zealous piety." (from a speech at the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, 17 February 1788)

- "An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent." (from a speech at the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, 5 May 1789)

- "A brave people will certainly prefer liberty, accompanied with a virtuous poverty, to a depraved and wealthy servitude." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "A woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "An enlightened self-interest." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "Eloquence may exist without a proportionable degree of wisdom." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "First of all virtues, prudence." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "He who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue willed also the necessary means of its perfection." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "In a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "Man is by his constitution a religious animal." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "Nobility is a graceful ornament to the civil order." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "Society is indeed a contract. ... It is a partership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained except in many generations, it becomes a partnership now only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "The dignity of every occupation wholly depends upon the quantity and the kind of virtue that may be exerted in it." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "The most important of all revolutions, ... a revolution in sentiments, manners ad moral opinions." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself. It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue; it grafts benevolence even upon avarice." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "There is no qualification for government but virtue and wisdom." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "Whilst Shame keeps its watch, Virtue is not wholly extinguished in the heart." (from "Reflections on the Revolution in France", 1790)

- "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportions to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. ... Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be places somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without." (from a letter to a member of the French National Assembly, 1791)

- "The only infallible criterion of wisdom to vulgar minds - success." (from a letter to a member of the French National Assembly, 1791)

- "You can never plan the future by the past." (from a letter to a member of the French National Assembly, 1791)

- "Early and provident fear is the mother of safety." (from the speech to the House of Commons, 11 May 1792)

- "Contempt is not a thing to be despised." (from "Letters on a Regicie Peace", 1795-1797)

- "There were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all." (from On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle, 1841)

- "The heart of the art of diplomacy is to grant graciously what you no longer have the power to withhold." (from the column of Glen Frankel at Washington Post National Weekly "Whether War Comes or Not, An Ancient Art Will Endure", 31 December 1990 )

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