An explanatory look at the social thought of Edmund Burke, our namesake. Particular attentions is paid to the social contract, the little platoons, English rights and culture, political gradualism and religion. A great read for anyone interested in learning more about the father of conservatism.
The social thought of Edmund Burke has been significant in the development of historical and contemporary conservatism. For all intents and purposes, Burke’s views reflect that of a social conservative, with an emphasis on family and community, religion, and hierarchy.
The Social Contract
Burke acknowledged the existence of a social contract, an idea made famous by the liberal theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, albeit under his own definition. In Reflections on the Revolution in France Burke declares:
Society is indeed a contract … it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. (Reflections, pp. 192-193)
Edmund Burke elevates the social contract above the status of mere ‘political business’, so to speak; in fact he places the social contract on a higher level even than Rousseau, who was perfectly happy to talk of promises made and signed, of rulers bound by contract to the people who they served in the present moment. Realising the fickle nature of popular will, Burke sees fit to include the dead and the unborn in this ‘contract’, giving it the character of an ‘organic’ contract, one which can be said to exist as a product of history rather than the squabbling of lawyers.
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ [seed] as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind. (Reflections, pp. 136-137)
The ‘little platoon’ is a euphemism for local community in Burke’s social thought. As we can see in the above quotation, it is intuitively the starting point for any reflection upon the world, since we can only experience the world through the people and location around which we grow up. But necessarily we therefore form natural attachments to people and places, and a connexion to a locality implies connexion to the wider whole – hence the ‘procession towards a love to our country’ which follows from love for one’s local community.
It is important to note that Burke should choose such quasi-military terminology for his description of the community. However, just like a ‘platoon’, the community is both well-structured and mutually dependent in ‘battle’, which in social thought we might simply call ‘life’. It is telling that the ‘little platoons passage’ appears following Burke’s discussion of the Third Estate, the aristocracy of the French kingdom, who were destroyed by both the Revolutionary National Assembly and the guillotine; Edmund Burke identifies the fault in both, in the revolutionaries, for their destructive and murderous response by destroying the aristocracy, and in the aristocrats, for ‘puffed up personal pride and arrogance’ which led to a disregard for the downtrodden. The platoon requires hierarchy and leadership, but in order to function there must be mutual respect between the classes – otherwise, conflict is inevitable.
English Culture and Rights
Aside from this, Edmund Burke made several virulent defences of his interpretation of ‘English culture’, particularly in the context of the American War of Independence.
the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen … They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and English principles. (Second Speech on Conciliation with America)
Liberty according to English ideas and English principles was reflected, for Burke, in the 1689 Bill of Rights, the consequence of the Glorious Revolution, which bound the monarchy to the guaranteeing of certain rights such as the representative power of parliament, the right of petition, the right not to be tortured and so on. He claimed that this was a landmark achievement of the English nation – one which reflected the Englishman’s tendency to want nothing more than his own life, property, and happiness.
It is interesting to note Burke’s view in the context of recent reinterpretations of the American Revolution. Eric Nelson presents, in The Royalist Revolution (2017), the American colonies in a very different light to that which we are used to. Little over ten years before the American Revolution, whole cities and towns in the colonies were fiercely royalist, and the Americans, in petitioning King George concerning their grievances about Parliament’s Acts, saw the royal prerogatives which protected them as having been usurped by an upstart parliament. Given that Burke’s criticism is direct primarily against Parliament, it is perhaps a vindication of this view – that English culture presupposed monarchy, and Burke’s social views were not so much original as they were a reflection of the ideal English polity which he imagined.
In religion, Burke was Protestant (albeit with sensitivity towards the plight of Catholics) and theologically conservative; yet it is in his examination of religion in relation to society that his thought is most valuable, and his views are encapsulated perfectly by the distaste with which he viewed the French Revolutionaries’ moves towards secularisation. Describing the confiscators of Church property in France as ‘atheists’ and ‘robbers’, Burke identifies an important political truth:
You would not cure the evil [of bad spiritual and temporal government] by resolving, that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel … You might change the names. The things in some shape must remain. (Reflections, p. 244)
On the balance of having true religion as the guardian and guide of the state against some secular replacement, it is clear which Burke would choose. A common analogy used alongside Edmund Burke’s religious views is that of the sailor: when a sailor undertakes a journey at sea he requires maps and compasses. Bring the improper guides, and the ship will sail to the wrong destination. If the ship is the state, the navigator its monarch, and the compass, religion, then all three must be in good order for a successful journey.
It is interesting to note that Burke does not limit the utility of religion to Christianity alone. In a speech to the House of Commons, he praised Hinduism for its contributions to the ‘flourishing’ of Indian civilisation, which he saw as working in a similar fashion for the Indian states as Christianity had for the Europeans (Harris, Burke and Religion, p. 98).
Perhaps one of Burke’s most enduring political legacies is his contribution to the development of gradualism, sometimes known as ‘Burkean gradualism’ in his honour, which has been influential in both the history of conservatism and socialism. As a doctrine, gradualism presupposes change, but posits that it should be achieved slowly and in stages rather than at once in the form of radical change or revolution. Burke’s ‘gradualism’ can be seen in his comments concerning the deficient institutions of the French monarchy or Ancien Régime, which he calls ‘old establishment[s], not frequently revised’ (Reflections, p. 242). Elsewhere we find the more well-known gobbet:
A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished most righteously to preserve. (Reflections, p. 108)
Whilst Burke seems to imply that reform is sometimes necessary, the act of reform for Burke is a conservative exercise, rather than an innovative or inventive one. Consider for example, in his Letter to a Noble Lord his opinion that ‘to innovate is not to reform’ (p. 20). For Burke, political change should be an act of conservation – that is to say, reform should only be undertaken in order to alleviate some injustice or hurt which the constitution of the state mandates is unjust in the first place. There is a sense, therefore, that for the Burkean conservative, reform is in some sense the correction of a deviation from a previously correct state of affairs.
Edmund Burke, F. Canavan (ed.), Reflections on the Revolution in France (Liberty Fund, 1999); available online
The Works of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke, 12 vols. (J. C. Nimmo, 1887)
Dwan & Insole (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Edmund Burke (CUP, 2012)
E. Nelson, The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding (Harvard University Press, 2017)