Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, April 04, 2015

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution (Regulated Liberty)

When Burke says he loves manly, moral, regulated liberty, the one that doesn’t seem to fit is “regulated liberty.”  It sounds like an oxymoron but it isn’t.  Our reading in The Federalist Papers (GB Series 4) shows how Americans have attempted to balance the restraints of law with the freedoms of liberty.  This is not an easy task.  Jean Jacques Rousseau attempted to do the same thing in his writing on The Social Contract (GB Series 1).  The views expressed in The Federalist Papers and the views expressed in The Social Contract differ.  And the difference between their points of view reflects the difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution.  Rousseau begins by writing that “Man was/is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”  The Constitution of the United States claims that “all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”  Under this framework all “rights” have been granted to us by our Creator, which is God.  Furthermore, these rights are unalienable.  No one can legally take them away from us and we can’t give them away.  God has created each one of us with an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  These are the fundamental building blocks of political power.  Rousseau points out that “All power comes from God, I admit, but so does all illness.”  He wants to build society on a different foundation.  Rousseau wants to build a new human society resting on strictly human foundations.  So the political problem as Rousseau sees it is to “Find a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force, and by means of which each one, uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before.”  In the best of all possible worlds the State would defend and protect us and our belongings and yet it would also be a place where every man “obeys only himself and remains as free as before.”  The only catch is this.  I may have to give up some of my own personal beliefs about liberty and happiness in order to live in this community.  Why?  Rousseau explains that “the private will tends by its nature toward preferences, and the general will toward equality.”  So my private preferences must necessarily yield to the general will of the rest of the political community.  These regulations are needed for the greater common good and therefore “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body; which means only that he will be forced to be free.”  This is Rousseau’s idea of regulated liberty and it was the generalized philosophy of the French Revolution.   

Is this what Burke means by “regulated liberty?”  No.  Burke is horrified by the idea of building a social order based on the lowest common denominator.  This “general will” is an extremist idea flowing from the muddy waters of deluded thinking.  Burke believes Rousseau plants wrong-headed ideas inside the fertile soil of sound principles.  For example, Rousseau says “The most ancient of all societies, and the only natural one, is that of the family.”  This is a sound principle and Burke agrees with it.  But then Rousseau poisons it by adding “Yet children remain bound to the father only as long as they need him for self-preservation.  As soon as the need ceases, the natural bond dissolves.”  This is the core of Burke’s argument against the French Revolution and all it stands for: dissolving natural human bonds, the social and religious sentiments which bind us all together, turns us back to a barbarism where we’re all equal only in the sense that we’re little better than beasts.  “Levelers change and pervert the natural order of things” but Burke’s “regulated liberty” is built on the natural bonds of human affection.


Post a Comment

<< Home