Edmund Burke

Irish social and political philosopher and statesman. Although reared in the Enlightenment era, Burke was a severe critic of rationalist theories of natural law and social contract.

Like David Hume, Edmund Burke believed that political and social organization evolved organically over history from a variety of political, cultural and social circumstances. In Burke’s view, current society is a robust organism that emerged piecemeal and slowly over history. For this reason, Burke never trusted abstract “grand plans” for radical political, economic and/or social reorganization of society. This has led him to be celebrated as the father of conservatism.

However, Burke wasn’t exactly an apologist of the current order either. Tyrannical kings and parliaments, no less than tyrannical mobs, were an anathema to Burke. It is for this reason that he defended the American Revolution (since, in his view, they were merely “reclaiming” their traditional rights as freeborn Englishmen) and condemned the French Revolution (which, in his view, was based on a rationalist experiment).

Burke was trained as a lawyer at Trinity College, Dublin and thereafter moved to London. In 1759, he became a private secretary to William Hamilton and then, in 1765, to Charles Wentworth, Marquis of Rockingham, the Whig prime minister. Burke was himself elected to the House of Commons in 1765. After the fall of the Whigs in 1766, Burke sat in opposition to the Tories in parliament.

Burke took up several political causes, both in Parliament and in the press. The first was the Wilkes crisis and the relationship between Crown and Parliament (1769, 1770) and then against the British colonial policy in America (1774, 1775). He also raised his voice for the emancipation of Catholics, the removal of trade barriers with Ireland, the abolition of the slave trade and slavery and against the privileges and excesses of the rule of the East India Company in India (and later instigating the impeachment of Warren Hastings, governor general of India). Some of his political positions (e.g. on Catholics) were not very popular and he would lose his parliamentary seat repeatedly as a result (always he would return with another seat). In 1771, Burke was chosen by the New York assembly as their agent in London. Burke retired from Parliament in 1794.

Burke’s impact on economics was interesting. In the modern era, his ideas about the unplanned, historical evolution of political and social norms is echoed most clearly in the later works of Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian School. But his greatest influence was on social commentators like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, who invoked Burke’s arguments to condemn the destructive rise of capitalist industrialism. The Carlyle-Ruskin assault on the “whiggery” of economists was already presaged in Burke’s famous passage from his 1791 Reflections upon the execution of Marie Antoinette:

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.

Edmund Burke is famously celebrated in William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Seven Sages”.

Major Works of Edmund Burke

– On Taste
– A Vindication of Natural Society, 1756
– A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756 (enlarged 1757)
– Observations on the Present State of the Nation, 1769
– Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents, 1770
– Speech on American Taxation, 1774
– Speech on Conciliation with America, 1775
– Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, 1777
– Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 1780
– Speech in Commons on India, 1783
– Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
– To a Member of the National Assembly, 1791
– A Letter to a Noble Lord, 1796
– Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs
– Thoughts on French Affairs
– Letters on a Regicide Peace

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