Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Edmund Burke

"When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really recieved one. Flattery corrupts both the reciever and the giver; and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings. I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit while it lasts, and is not likely to continue long."
-Edmund Burke, On the Revolution in France.

Burke's classic text on the Revolution is largely spot on about the Revolution; pretty impressive considering that it was written, as a letter to a gentleman in Paris, in 1790. Interestingly enough, Burke echoes Socrates' speech in The Republic on how Democracy becomes tyranny- the desire for liberty spreads to all areas of society, upturning all fixities and hierarchies simply out of hand. Socrates worried that students would no longer listen to their teachers- for him, the teacher-student relationship is the model of all civilization. Burke's fear was that French citizens, having been disuaded of all the former ideas that had supported political rule- such as the idea of the gentleman or the tenets of Christianity- would cease having any reasons at all to support any rule, and the National Assembly would have to resort to the use of force. This is what Socrates foresaw as well: liberty turns to licence and anarchy, paving the way for a tyrant to 'take the day'. Burke was right about France: civil society broke down, the collection of revenue failed, the army mutineed, religion divided the nation, and eventually the National Assembly became the Directory.

It's also interesting to think of Burke as one of the intellectual cornerstones of conservatism. His argument here is for reason and caution: liberty is wonderful, but it must be preserved through order, and gotten through slow and patient work. It's impossible to know what he would have thought of our current attempts at fostering liberation in the world: one is tempted to replace "new liberty of France" with "new liberty of Iraq" in that quote above. Perhaps Burke would have seen this project as valid. He supported the English Revolution. But, the spirit of moderation and restraint that he championed seems all but lost in the new world that we live in.

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