Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution (Freedom and Justice)

Consider three past readings in the Great Books.  One of the lessons we learned from Dante was this: people who abuse their freedoms end up losing them.  In an earlier reading Rousseau stated that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”  And in America’s own Declaration of Independence we claim that citizens have certain rights that can never be taken away.  Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The Federalist Papers were written to preserve these basic rights.  Those were three great lessons concerning freedom.  Now consider a headline from a recent article in an Ivy League school newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, “Justice Trumps Freedom.”  Freedom is good.  Justice is good.  But what happens when two “goods” come into conflict?

That’s one of the questions Edmund Burke explores in his reflection on political theory.  The GB footnote says “Burke is writing to a friend in Paris who has requested his views concerning the recent revolution in France.”  Burke assures his friend that “I do most heartily wish that France may be animated by a spirit of rational liberty” but goes on to say “it is my misfortune to entertain great doubts.”  Why does Burke have doubts?  Freedom is a good thing and the French people have just thrown off the tyranny of monarchy for the freedom of the people.  What’s wrong with that?  Isn’t that the same thing that happened in the American colonies?  No, it’s not, says Burke.  Those two revolutions took place under different circumstances and Burked believes “circumstances (which some gentleman pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect.”  When James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers there was one set of circumstances in America.  When Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in France there was a different set of circumstances.

So where exactly does Burke come down on the dilemma posed by the Harvard Crimson? Is justice more important than freedom?  Burke believes we frame the question the wrong way when we pit justice and freedom against one another.  We have to consider the circumstances of the situation.  He begins by stating his own opinion of freedom: “I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman.”  (Here’s an interesting side question: how many Harvard students today would even want the kind of freedom Burke describes as “manly, moral, and regulated?”)  Liberty is indeed a blessing but Burke says “I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one.”  Burke approved of the American Revolution.  But now the bottom line is whether the French people are better off after their revolution than they were before.  The circumstances in France are different than in the American colonies.  Freedom can be a good thing but Burke warns “The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulation.”  The question for Burke is simple.  The French people are “free” from government by a king.  Now what will they do with their freedom under a new form of government?  Burke believes “Liberties (are) an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity…”  The French have thrown off the inheritance of their forefathers; now what kind of country will they hand on to their children?  And if Burke walked onto Harvard’s campus today he might ask: you have your freedom.  But before I congratulate you and count it as a blessing, I must ask you this, what are you going to do with it?


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