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Thursday, April 02, 2015

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution (Manly Liberty)

Early in his Reflections on the French Revolution Burke says “I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty…”  What does that mean?  What exactly is manly liberty?  Moral liberty?  Regulated liberty?  And how are these different from other kinds of freedom? Let’s consider “manly liberty” first.  What does Burke mean when he says he loves a “manly” liberty?  To get a clearer view it might help if we compare Burke’s idea with an idea put out by Friedrich Nietzsche.  In “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” Nietzsche says “Behold, I teach you the overman.”  This “overman” isn’t translated smoothly into modern English as “super-man” but nevertheless it helps us visualize a man who’s superior to ordinary men.  We would consider him a man among men and Nietzsche goes so far as to make him almost a demigod.  He stands out from the crowd and claims that his role is “to lure many away from the herd, for that I have come…”   In Nietzsche’s view society is a creation of the weak for mutual defense.  They crowd together in herds because they’re afraid to live out on their own, both literally and figuratively.  They literally crowd together in cities and hire policemen and soldiers to protect them.  They figuratively live in herds by adopting the values and tastes of timid minds.  The “good” and the “just” in this kind of society are really just timid souls who rely on the values and tastes of weak people.  This is not freedom according to Nietzsche.  The Overman wants to expose the hypocrisy of a social order which breeds weakness.  He says, “Behold the good and the just!  Whom do they hate most?  The man who breaks their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker.”  Of course timid souls hate the Overman because secretly they envy him.  They envy him “yet he is the creator.”  It’s only Overmen who can actually build new and better societies by destroying weak and decaying ones.  And what Nietzsche is looking for are the seekers after a better and stronger social order.  He wants “Fellow creators, the creator/overman seeks those who write new values on new tablets.”

Is this what Burke means by manly liberty?  No.  He doesn’t want new values written on new tablets.  He wants the old and proven values written on the tablets of tradition.  He agrees that some men are better at governing or conducting war than others.  But this is a far cry from Nietzsche’s exalted “Overman” concept.  Burke argues that all men may have a natural right to develop their talents.  However, they do not have a right to conduct moral experiments on political society in order to test their metaphysical theories.  And this is where many thinkers go wrong.  They mistake thinking for doing and since they encounter no opposition inside their own minds they push their theories to extremes.  Anything seems possible to a fevered imagination.  Burke believes these kinds of men are dangerous because “The pretended rights of those theorists are all extremes, and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.”  These moral and political theories are false because they begin in error concerning the basic nature of Man.  As Burke sees it, “This sort of people are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man that they have totally forgotten his nature.  Without opening one new avenue to the understanding, they have succeeded in stopping up those that lead to the heart.  They have perverted in themselves, and in those that attend to them, all the well-placed sympathies of the human breast.”  Most of us are neither Overmen nor scoundrels; we’re just average.  And Burke doesn’t think society needs a new breed of revolutionary Overmen. We need the old traditional breed of good men; ordinary men with good hearts willing to fight evil and defend the weak.  This is Burke’s manly liberty.


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