Learning Conservatism from Edmund Burke

By:  Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.
01/08/2013
       
Learning Conservatism from Edmund Burke

As the members of America’s “conservative” party struggle to get a hold of themselves following this past election, they should revisit — or visit — the thought of modern conservatism’s “patron saint,” Edmund Burke.

As the members of America’s “conservative” party struggle to get a hold of themselves following this past election, they should revisit — or visit — the thought of modern conservatism’s “patron saint,” Edmund Burke.

If anything distinguishes conservatism from other brands of political thought, it is its affirmation of tradition. This Burke makes clear. This attachment to tradition, in turn, is inseparable from its disavowal of “metaphysical abstraction.” Radicals of all types think that they can surmount their cultural traditions — their civilization — by bringing them before the tribunal of their own intellects. Burke is having none of it.

“We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason,” Burke famously wrote, for “we suspect that this stock in each man is small.” Human reason, far from preceding tradition, is actually dependent upon it. Thus, rather than rely upon their own reason, individuals “would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages” — i.e. tradition.

This lofty conception of Reason for which radicals are known — F.A. Hayek called it “the fatal conceit” — gives rise to a morality of ideals or principles. For example, the radicals of the French Revolution upon whom Burke set his sights touted the ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Radicals in other times and places have centered their attention on Human Rights, say, or Virtue, Piety, Democracy, and the Will of the People.

There is nothing wrong with ideals and principles as such. The problem sets in when they are treated as if they were timeless and self-evident truths that can be effortlessly grasped by people everywhere. It is when we ignore the fact that these ideals and principles are meaningful only within the context of the specific traditions within which they developed that trouble promises to ensue.

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