Edmund Burke, Our Prophet
He foresaw the statist consequences of cultural revolution
By: Kelse Moen
Even before the Reign of Terror, the Irish-British statesman Edmund Burke foresaw what the French Revolution would ultimately engender. “[T]he age of chivalry is gone…,” he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. … It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”
In the two centuries since Burke penned those words, the age that he loved so dearly—that of the lady and the nobleman, the doffed hat and the powdered wig—has indeed been extinguished, and in its place is a world even more terrifying than that of Jacobin France: a world of ideological warfare, massive state centralization, and killing on a hitherto unimaginable scale. Or more succinctly: the world has become what Burke envisioned when he watched the French revolutionaries overthrow tradition in favor of a rationalistic ideology.
For such inclinations, Burke is often considered the father of modern Anglo-American conservatism. But many libertarians consider Burke an enemy. Murray Rothbard sympathized with revolutionaries like Thomas Paine and Richard Price—avowed enemies of Burke—and considered Burke himself a defender of an oppressive oligarchy. In the last issue of YAR, George Hawley promulgated similar criticisms, arguing that Burkean adherence to tradition represents a defense of the status quo, and that since the status quo in modern-day America is statist, the libertarian must disavow tradition in favor of radicalism.
These arguments reveal a fundamental—and common—misconception about Burkean thought. In the beginning of The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine remarks with some wonder that Burke, who seemed an upstanding liberal in his defense of American secession from the British Empire, could turn so reactionary when the French had their chance for revolution. He concluded that Burke was a self-serving hypocrite. In fact, Burke’s actions were perfectly consistent and present a powerful example for why he was not merely a defender of the status quo. He supported the American Revolution because it was a political, not social, revolution. The French Revolution was both. Americans wanted more freedom from government, but they wanted to exercise their freedom within society as it existed. The French wanted to overthrow both their government and society itself; not only did they tear down the Bastille, but they worked to level the natural social hierarchy, create an entirely new calendar, and even crown a prostitute as “Goddess of Reason” in Notre Dame Cathedral.
Burke did not oppose the French Revolution because it was novel. He opposed it because it was an atheistic, egalitarian attack on a better society that—for all its faults—promoted justice, piety, and humility. Those virtues, he knew, could not withstand the attack.
Some say libertarians do not need to concern ourselves with moral questions, that we should only strive to maximize liberty: in Hawley’s words, “tradition be damned.” But this is insufficient. Like anyone else, the libertarian will encounter moral problems in his everyday life. And since libertarianism is only a political ideology, it cannot give him answers as to whether he should donate to charity, go to church, or visit his sick aunt in the hospital, questions to which libertarianism’s central “nonaggression axiom” is irrelevant. But we need some means of answering questions that concern actions that are free and voluntary.
In each of the above choices, it seems obvious what, in the absence of mitigating circumstances, one should do. But it is only through adherence to a tradition of moral thought that we can make such judgments. Morality rests on presuppositions that are known but cannot be logically proven. The rationalism of Voltaire or Descartes (or Robespierre) fails because it tries to give moral status to first principles via theoretical logic. But that is impossible. First principles cannot be proven. If they could, there would be even more basic principles to prove, which would then need to be proven, and so on ad infinitum. Morality, to have any force, must be pre-reflective and passed along through a coherent social order.
It is in subjecting the precepts of morality and society to cold a priori reason, an ordeal they could not withstand, that the French revolutionaries destroyed them. In destroying them, they left behind a confused, atomized mass who made the perfect dependents for that monstrosity that was even then looming on the horizon: the modern redistributive state.
Burke understood very well that only a moral people has the wherewithal to maintain its own freedom. Libertarians would do well to heed his advice. If we want to destroy the redistributive state, we should start by reviving Burkean morality.
Kelse Moen is a recent graduate of Emory University.