Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, March 30, 2015

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution (Justice and Freedom)

We have examined Burke’s idea of freedom: “I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty.”  Now let’s look how his theory of justice works.  What’s the relationship between justice and freedom?  Burke prefers the devil we know to the one we don’t know.  He says, “By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges in the same manner in which we enjoy our property and our lives.”  His English way of life didn’t just plop down out of the sky arbitrarily.  English folkways developed slowly over time after many generations and after much trial and error.  They learned from their mistakes and kept slowly building a fallible people into a sturdy nation.  Burke thinks it’s wise to dance with the one that brung you and beware of change that may bring the whole state crashing down upon you. 

Burke has a cultivated disinclination for change.  He believes “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views.  People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”  Change should only come with the broader view of history in mind; not only the history of our own nation but also the general successes and catastrophic failures of other nations.  With this view of history “…our liberty becomes a noble freedom.  It carries an imposing and majestic aspect.  It has a pedigree and illustrating ancestors… nature teaches us to revere individual men: on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended.”  For Burke freedom that is not “noble” is not worth having.  We need to know where we came from.  We need to acknowledge and revere the sacrifices of earlier heroes who made our own freedom possible.  Then we, in our turn, should sacrifice our own “right” to comfort in order to pass the same freedom along to our children and grandchildren.  This is justice.  And this is what Burke means by a “manly freedom… the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for… our rights and privileges.”  England and America weren’t built with some vague philosophical theory of Man.  They were built with blood, sweat and tears.

That’s why Burke believed France’s political experiment would fail.  It was unjust.  They tried to jump-start a brand new government from vague theories created by deluded philosophers.  The French overthrew a lawful sitting government and tried to erase their past.  In Burke’s opinion this was national suicide.  He wrote to his friend in Paris: “You began ill because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.”  If the French wanted change they should have proceeded more slowly and taken the history of France into account.  That way, “Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.”  It did not surprise Burke that the revolution soon turned into a blood bath; we “have seen the French rebel against a mild and lawful monarch with fury, outrage and insult… this was unnatural.  The rest is in order.  They have found their punishment… were all these dreadful things necessary?”  Freedom without justice is a dreadful thing.  This revolution wasn’t natural, it was artificial.  Was it worth it?  Burke says “…no artificial institution whatsoever can make the men of whom any system of authority is composed any other than God, and nature, and education, and their habits of life have made them.  Capabilities beyond these the people have not to give.  Virtue and wisdom may be the objects of their choice, but their choice confers neither the one nor the other…”  Unjust government can never give citizens virtue, wisdom or freedom.  


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