The Value-Centered Historicism of Edmund Burke 

Joseph Baldacchino*

Does Edmund Burke accept a universal moral order, or does his thought rest on mere utilitarianism and subjectivistic ethics? In the final chapter of Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss suggests the latter. Though acknowledging many classical and Christian overtones in Burke's political writings, he argues that, at its core, Burke's thinking is profoundly modern and that it prepares the way for a morally relativistic historicism. In support of this view, Strauss cites what to his mind is Burke's excessive depreciation of "reason or theory" in favor of concrete human experience, practice, and tradition.1

At first glance, says Strauss, Burke's emphasis on the importance of practical wisdom or prudence in the political sphere might appear to be a return to the Aristotelian view—forgotten by modern natural-right theorists like Hobbes—"according to which theory cannot be the sole, or the sufficient, guide of practice." 2 But while Aristotle stresses the preeminence of theory as providing a conceptual model of what the best society ought to be like—a model which it is the duty of legislators using prudence to approximate as nearly as possible in given circumstances—"Burke asserts that theory . . . has essentially a tendency to mislead practice." 3

Strauss explains that speculation or reason, "being essentially 'private,' is concerned with the truth without any regard to public opinion." 4 But for Burke, he continues, society rests 

on consent. Yet the consent cannot be achieved by reasoning alone, and in particular not by the mere calculation of the advantages of living together—a calculation which may be completed in a short span of time—but solely by habits and prejudices which grow up only in long periods. . . 

The intrusion of theory into politics is liable to have an unsettling and inflaming effect. No actual social order is perfect. "Speculative inquiries" necessarily bring to light the imperfect character of the established order. If these inquiries are introduced into political discussion, which, of necessity, lacks "the coolness of philosophic inquiry," they are liable "to raise discontent in the people" in regard to the established order, discontent which may make rational reform impossible. The most legitimate theoretical problems become, in the political arena, "vexatious questions" and cause "a spirit of litigation" and "fanaticism." Considerations transcending "the arguments of states and kingdoms" must be left "to the schools; for there only they may be discussed with safety." 5

 Thus, Strauss concludes, Burke "parts company with the Aristotelian tradition by disparaging theory and especially metaphysics. He uses 'metaphysics' and 'metaphysician' frequently in a derogatory sense." His "opposition to modern 'rationalism' shifts almost insensibly into an opposition to 'rationalism' as such." 6

Strauss notes that a direct consequence of Burke's critique of reason is his rejection of the view that constitutions can be "made" by "a wise 'legislator' or founder" based on the reasoned understanding of man's "highest end"—regarded by Strauss as the classical position—in favor of the view that constitutions must "come into being . . . slowly, not to say imperceptibly, 'in a great length of time, and by a great variety of accidents.' " 7 Related to this belief, Strauss contends, are tendencies on Burke's part to regard the common good as the product of accidental causation without benefit of specifically moral intentions; to accept evil fatalistically in the face of apparently overwhelming historical trends; and to see what is "inherited"—or in Burke's case, the British constitution—as a sufficient standard of the good, rendering recourse to a higher standard unnecessary. 8

According to Strauss, what later came to be called "historical process" was for Burke "still accidental causation or accidental causation modified by the prudential handling of situations as they arose." Burke, he writes, saw the sound political order as "the unintended outcome of accidental causation. He applied to the production of the sound political order what modern economy had taught about the production of public prosperity: the common good is the product of activities which are not by themselves ordered to the common good. Burke accepted the principle of modern political economy which is diametrically opposed to the classical principle: 'the love of lucre', 'this natural, this reasonable . . . principle', 'is the grand cause of prosperity to all states.' " 9

Strauss sees in Burke the beginnings of a secularized version of the traditional belief in Providence. "It almost goes without saying," he writes, "that Burke regards the connection between 'the love of lucre' and prosperity, on the one hand, and 'a great variety of accidents' and a healthy political order, on the other, as part of the providential order. . . ," 10 The theological tradition recognized that God's ways are mysterious, says Strauss, and therefore held "that man cannot take his bearings by God's providence but only by God's law, which simply forbids men to do evil." But Burke, he contends, "comes close to suggesting that to oppose a thoroughly evil current in human affairs is perverse if that current is sufficiently powerful; he is oblivious of the nobility of last-ditch resistance." 11 Moreover, Strauss continues, while "political theory had been from its inception the quest for civil society as it ought to be," Burke's "political theory is, or tends to become, identical with a theory of the British constitution, i.e., an attempt to 'discover the latent wisdom which prevails' in the actual." Citing Burke's emphasis on the prescriptive nature of that constitution, Strauss argues: "Prescription cannot be the sole authority for a constitution, and therefore recourse to rights anterior to the constitution, i.e., to natural rights, cannot be superfluous unless prescription itself is a sufficient guaranty of goodness. Transcendent standards can be dispensed with if the standard is inherent in the process; 'the actual and the present is the rational.' " Thus, he concludes, Burke's thinking is a major step toward the historical relativism of Hegel. 12

Strauss is by no means alone in this assessment. Others expressing similar interpretations include Harold J. Laski and Lee Cameron McDonald. Laski sees Burke as, at bottom "a utilitarian who was convinced that what was old was valuable by the mere fact of its arrival at maturity." 13 He adds that Burke's was essentially a "monistic view of society" which "maintained the inherent rightness of the existing order." 14 Similarly, McDonald sees Burke as accepting the "English Constitution" as the ultimate measure of political wisdom while being "too anti-philosophical" to be consciously aware of his own "historical relativism." While Burke often appealed in defense of his various policies to concepts such as "moral law" or "experience," writes McDonald, in "all these cases what he was really appealing to was what we all know deep down to be right because we are, after all, Englishmen. In the case of Irishmen, Americans, Indians, and Frenchmen, they were judged as if they were Englishmen. . . . 15

But such interpretations fail to do justice to the complexity of Burke's position. If it were true, as these authors contend, that Burke was an historical relativist for whom the prescriptive rights of Englishmen provided the ultimate ethical standard, then it seems that one of two things would have to follow: Either he would (consciously or unconsciously) equate the British constitution with a universal standard of right, in which event he would insist that the details of that constitution should everywhere apply, or else he would view morality as being merely conventional, in which case he would see the moral obligation as differing according to time and place. In fact Burke did neither. 

While Burke's fulsome praise for the British constitution in the Reflections is often taken as showing an overly exalted view of the existing order, it is important to remember his purpose on that occasion. He was upholding British institutions not as perfect in the abstract but as vastly preferable to the approach taken by the French revolutionaries—an approach then being vigorously touted by Dr. Richard Price and others for possible emulation in England. 16 Burke explicitly stated, moreover—and a careful reading of the Reflections bears him out—that, in praising the British constitution, he "did not mean that its exterior form and positive arrangement should become a model for. . . [France], or for any people servilely to copy." 17

Burke believed strongly that political constitutions and the details of government should differ in accordance with the "character and circumstances" of various peoples. 18 But he also affirmed that the "principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged" 19 and that these principles are the same throughout the world. When the defense in the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal, argued that "the exercise of arbitrary power" was the historical norm in India and that the moral imperative did not hold with the same force there, Burke thundered in reply: 

This geographical morality we do protest against. . . . We think it necessary . . . to declare that the laws of morality are the same everywhere, and that there is no action which would pass for an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and of oppression in England, that is not an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and oppression in Europe, Asia, Africa, and all the world over. This I contend for not in the technical form of it, but I contend for it in the substance. 20

As he opposed the notion of a "geographical" morality, so, too, did Burke denounce the idea that man's moral duty changes with the passage of time. "We know that we have made no discoveries," he writes, "and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity." 21

For Burke, the moral obligation is "eternal"; it provides the basis of all community; and it has its source in the will of God. 22 Hence, all "persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awefully impressed with an idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great master, author and founder of society." 23

Such examples could be multiplied almost endlessly. A deep awareness of a universal moral order having its source in God's will pervades Burke's writings. Whatever the issue at hand, Burke constantly repairs in one way or another to the theme that all "human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice." 24

How, then, to explain, in the face of such evidence to the contrary, the widely held view that Burke was in significant ways a moral relativist? An answer may be found in the fact that, while Burke placed great importance on the historical nature of human existence, the possibility of an historicism that accepts a universal moral order is widely overlooked. 25 In the remaining pages, which will rely heavily on the work of Irving Babbitt and Claes Ryn, I intend to argue that Burke was gravitating toward such a "value-centered historicism." 26 In addition, I hope to show that a key ingredient in Burke's thought is his tendency to conceive of morality in terms of practical action—i.e., in terms of will—rather than reason, and, finally, to reconsider in this light some of the points made by Strauss. 

We have seen that Strauss, in line with older Western thought, tends to associate the moral order with norms of conduct or "general principles" accessible to reason, which it is the duty of statesmen and indeed all men to imitate in the practical realm. He sees such terms as "prudence" or "practical wisdom" in Burke as connoting mere economic efficiency or utility unordered by principles of natural right, which are accessible only to reason or theory. It is for this reason that Strauss concludes from Burke's elevation of practice over theory that, for Burke, the common good results in some way from actions not motivated by moral intent. 27

From the way Burke uses "prudence" or "practical wisdom," however, it becomes apparent that he does not assume, as does Aristotle, a sharp break between the realm of action and the realm of the universal or the good. Rather, prudence itself (also "practical wisdom," "practical science," "political reason," which are used interchangeably) has a moral dimension. 28 And this moral dimension, according to Burke, is not to be found in rigid adherence to preconceived rules but in a sense of high purpose, or will, that accords with the "permanent part" of man's nature. 29

Traditional natural-law thinkers who are accustomed to associating the moral imperative with rules or precepts of reason often see a conflict, as Ryn points out,30 between stressing the ultimacy of will and accepting a universal moral order. Heinrich Rommen writes, for example, that to assert the superiority of will over intellect "means relativism in ethics. . . . It means positivism in jurisprudence, non-morality in politics, denial of the natural rights of men, and the acceptance of absolute power of the state. It leaves no alternative but to profess that might is right." 31

But this ignores the distinction, long recognized by Christianity and other religions, between different qualities of will. Irving Babbitt has described the existence within the human breast of two competing elements of will: the lower will, which is manifested in the expansive desires, and the higher will, which is experienced as a propensity to put a check on those desires in favor of a unifying and more deeply satisfying goal.32

Commenting on Babbitt's work, Ryn notes that the higher will itself—and not some preexisting set of rules discovered by reason—is the ultimate "moral imperative at the center of [man's] awareness in terms of which everything is finally evaluated." The higher will, says Ryn, "is in one sense particular and mutable; it is experienced by individual men and has an effect in the unique circumstances of their lives. But this will is also the same in all men; it is universal and immutable in that it pulls all in the same direction, towards the special quality of life which is its own reward by satisfying man's deepest yearning." 33 The ethical will is experienced as a negative in that it is felt as an "inner check" or restraint on man's merely selfish impulses. Yet, paradoxically, it is simultaneously experienced in a profoundly positive way as the potentiality of a truly meaningful existence: the source of true happiness and genuine community. "To the extent," Ryn explains, "that man acts from within that special will and thus disciplines opposing inclinations, he unifies his personality and tends to move into communion with others who are similarly motivated." Conversely, the "effect of indulging the selfish will is deepening disharmony and isolation from others." 34

Despite intermittent lapses by Burke into the older rationalist terminology, it is nonetheless true that he ultimately associates the moral imperative with what Babbitt later called the higher will, rather than with abstract laws or precepts of reason. In matters of morality and politics, virtuous habits and noble character clearly count for more to Burke than brilliance of intellect. 35 He frequently differentiates between men's "true rights" or their "interest," on the one hand, and their "occasional" or "selfish" will, on the other. The people have a right to expect of their leaders "an entire devotion to their interest," he writes, "but an abject submission to their occasional will" would extinguish in governmental officials "all moral principle, all sense of dignity, all use of judgment, and all consistency of character. . . . For power to be legitimate, it must be exercised not according to the people's "sordid selfish interest, nor to their wanton caprice, nor to their arbitrary will," but according to "that eternal immutable law, in which will and reason are the same." 36

A key difference between Burke and older natural-law thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas can be seen in Burke's understanding of the role played by laws and rules of conduct. Burke sees the establishment of good laws as crucial to civilized society. Indeed, society cannot exist if the law is not respected. But unlike those traditional natural-law thinkers who viewed the universal moral order as actually inhering in general laws or principles of behavior, Burke regards legal codes as means to a higher end. Civil society, he writes, "is an institution of beneficence; and law itself is only beneficence acting by a rule." 37 Laws, then, are instrumental: Their purpose is to help men to achieve "beneficence" or, as Burke puts it a sentence later, "justice." And as the requirements of justice change with circumstances, the laws should also vary. They are not abstract and immutable, he tells us, but matters of "convention." This does not mean, however, that legislators or voters in democracies are free to act at whim. Morality is not merely subjective. Rather, men must actively seek the just solution in the circumstances: the solution that accords with man's "permanent" nature. 38 While everything else changes, says Burke, this obligation never changes. "My Lords," he declared as the Hastings trial drew to its close, 

it has pleased Providence to place us in such a state, that we appear every moment to be on the verge of some great mutations. There is one thing, and one thing only, which defies all mutation; that which existed before the world, and will survive the fabrick of the world itself; I mean justice; that justice, which, emanating from the Divinity, has a place in the breast of every one of us, given us for our guide with regard to ourselves and with regard to others, and which will stand, after this globe is burned to ashes, our advocate or our accuser before the great Judge, when He comes to call upon us for the tenour of a well-spent life. . . . 39

The importance Burke places on tradition, prescription and sound prejudice is analogous in many ways to the importance he places on legal enactments: All provide indispensable support to man's higher disposition in its continual struggle against contrary inclinations. Tradition for Burke is the summing up in concrete experience of innumerable attempts by men to embody the good in particular circumstances. As such, it offers to the imagination a valuable source of inspiration for new acts of morality. "Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers," Burke explains in the Reflections, "the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity.40 On the other hand, the partial manifestation of the good in tradition never completely exhausts the good in its full transcendence. Hence, no tradition—British or otherwise—provides for Burke a complete model of the good to be slavishly imitated without regard to circumstances. By "following wise examples you would have given new examples of wisdom to the world," he says of the French revolutionaries. 41

Strauss suggests that Burke abandoned the ancient "quest for civil society as it ought to be" in favor of a too-ready acceptance of the existing as good. Actually, Burke was too keenly aware of the infinite complexity of human existence for him passively to accept any preconceived set of behavioral norms (whatever their source) as adequately reflecting man's ethical duty. For Burke, man's ethical imperative is an active power. It requires the creative ordering of particular circumstances with reference to man's ultimate purpose—a purpose emanating from the Divine will. And as circumstances are constantly changing, man is forever faced with the necessity of making new moral choices—but always with a view to the one unchanging end, which is the transcendent good for all. It is this that Burke probably had in mind when he described himself near the end of the Reflections as a person "who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end." 42

In Burke's view, "civil society as it ought to be" is one that restrains man's arbitrary impulses while at the same time allowing the higher will as much freedom of action as possible. But since the proper balance depends upon the (ever changing) "character and circumstances" of the people to be governed, the "quest" is an eminently practical one. One of the major needs of men which it is the office of government to provide, says Burke, is "a sufficient restraint upon their passions." "In this sense," he adds, "the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them on that principle." 43

In Burke's eyes, then, the "quest for government as it ought to be" requires not abstract speculation but "a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities, and of the things which facilitate or obstruct the various ends which are to be pursued by the mechanism of civil institutions." 44 In other words, it requires both philosophic and pragmatic knowledge of tremendous proportions; and since mistakes could have disastrous effects, not mere utility but morality itself dictates caution and proper intellectual humility. "If circumspection and caution are a part of wisdom, when we work only upon inanimate matter," writes Burke, "surely they become a part of duty too, when the subject of our demolition and construction is not brick and timber, but sentient beings, by the sudden alteration of whose state, condition, and habits, multitudes may be rendered miserable." 45 "The true lawgiver," he continues, 

ought to have an heart full of sensibility. He ought to love and respect his kind, and to fear himself. It may be allowed to his temperament to catch his ultimate object with an intuitive glance; but his movements towards it ought to be deliberate. Political arrangement, as it is a work for social ends, is to be only wrought by social means. There mind must conspire with mind. Time is required to produce that union of minds which alone can produce all the good we aim at. 46

According to Burke, "True humility, the basis of the Christian system, is the low, but deep and firm, foundation of all real virtue." 47 And among the most important forms of humility, he said many times, is humility of intellect—"a strong impression of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind." 48 Hence, says Burke, good statesmen, giving proper regard to their own fallibility, will proceed slowly in the task of constitution-building—step by step, using trial and error over scores of years and even centuries—so that the resulting civilization could not have been foreseen in its fullness by any of the generations whose efforts helped to build it. It is in this sense that Burke praised the British constitution as having come into existence "in a great length of time, and by a great variety of accidents." 49 In referring to "accidents," however, he clearly did not mean that the constitution was good because the product of actions not guided by moral intent. On the contrary, as we have seen, Burke viewed the British constitution as good precisely to the extent that it had resulted from innumerable moral actions, each participating in the universal good but in different circumstances. At the same time, he realized full well that many other actions not ethically motivated had also gone into the making of his and all societies, and that even such good as men had been able painstakingly to build into civilization over millennia was constantly threatened by man's lower nature. Given the perennial tug-of-war between the lower and higher wills which defines the human condition, society short of the eschaton will always be imperfect, embodying the universal good in some of its aspects but never completely. 

The mark of a good statesman, according to Burke, is "a disposition to preserve" what is good in the existing order, combined with "an ability to improve" it. 50 In this practical way, the ancient "quest for society as it ought to be" continues even to the end of time. 


1. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 300-314. [Back]

2. Ibid., pp. 192, 301-02. [Back]

3. Ibid., pp. 162-63, 304. [Back]

4. Ibid., p. 310. [Back]

5. Ibid., p. 311. [Back]

6. Ibid., pp. 311, 313. [Back]

7. Ibid., pp 313-14. [Back]

8. Ibid., pp. 314-19. [Back]

9. Ibid., pp. 314-15. It should he noted here that, while Burke recognized the motivating force of self-interest in economic affairs, he did not believe the "love of lucre" alone was sufficient to produce prosperity or good of any other kind. On the contrary, he frequently refers to the subordinate place in the moral order held by the merely economic, and condemns economic practices that are not ordered to moral ends. One of Burke's major complaints against Hastings and the East India Company, for instance, was the company's ruthless economic exploitation of India. See Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1967), pp. 109-111. Also see Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution In France, ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), pp. 173-74, 194-95, 3O6-l3. [Back]

10. Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 316. [Back]

11. Ibid., pp. 317-18. Strauss bases this criticism on the final paragraph of Burke's Thoughts on French Affairs. "If a great change is to be made in human affairs," Burke wrote, "the minds of men will be fitted to it, the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope, will forward it; and then they, who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the desires of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.'' Strauss interprets this as meaning that Burke thought the victory of the French revolution might have been decreed by Providence and that, assuming that were so, it would be "perverse'' to oppose it, no matter how evil it might be. But as Russell Kirk points out, Burke was not hinting "that perhaps the champions of religion and of things established ought to let themselves be swept away by the current of the French Revolution. On the contrary, he says that effectual opposition to the Revolution must be the work of many people, acting together intelligently. . . . The 'mighty current' for which he hopes is an awakening of the men with 'power, wisdom, and information' to the peril of the Revolution. . . ." See Russell Kirk, "Three Pillars of Order: Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith,'' Modern Age, XXV (Summer 1981), 228. Significantly, Burke's actual conduct—which he insisted was the best test of a man's principles—is in direct contradict ion to Strauss's interpretation. As Kirk notes (''Three Pillars of Order,'' p. 228): "Of all the men of his time, Burke was the most vehemently opposed to any compromise with Jacobinism. He would have chosen the guillotine rather than submission—or, as he put it, death with the sword in hand. He broke with friends and party, sacrificing reputation and risking bankruptcy, rather than countenance the least concession to the 'peace' faction in England.'' [Back]

12. Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 319. [Back]

13. Harold .J. Laski, Political Thought in England (London: Oxford University Press, 1920, 1961), pp. 155-56. [Back]

14. Ibid., p. 178. [Back]

15. Lee Cameron McDonald, Western Political Theory (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), p. 427 (emphasis in original). [Back]

16. See Burke, Reflections, esp. pp. 85-123. Also see A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, The Works of Edmund Burke (London: Bohn's Standard Library, 1886), II, p. 519. [Back]

17. Burke, Of the National Assembly, Works, II, p. 551. [Back]

18. Burke, Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, Works, II, p. 29. [Back]

19. Burke, Letter to [William Markham], Letters, p. 131. [Back]

20. Burke,.Speeches in the Impeachment of Warren Hastings, Speech in Opening—Second Day, p. 378. Quoted in Vigen Guroian, "Natural Law and Historicity: Burke and Niebuhr," Modern Age XXV (Spring 1981), 169. [Back]

21. Burke, Reflections, p. 182. Also see Of the National Assembly, Works, II, p. 529. [Back]

22. Burke, Reflections, pp. 194-96; Sheriffs of Bristol, Works, II, p. 30. [Back]

23. Burke, Reflections, p.190. [Back]

24. Burke, Tracts on the Popery Laws, Works (Bohn edition), VI, p. 22. Quoted in Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (New York: Avon Books, 1968), p. 44. [Back]

25. See Claes G. Ryn, "History and the Moral Order," in The Ethical Dimension of Political Life, ed. Francis J. Canavan, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1983). [Back]

26. The term is Ryn's. See "History and the Moral Order." [Back]

27. Compare Strauss's assertion that "skepticism in regard to theoretical metaphysics . . . culminated in the depreciation of theory in favor of practice" and that this brought "into being a new type of theory, of metaphysics, having as its highest theme human action and its product rather than the whole [i.e., the transcendent good], which is in no way the object of human action" (Natural Right and History), p. 320, with Aristotle's description of wisdom (sophia) as "most precious for it is extraordinary that anyone should regard political science or prudence as most important, unless man is the highest being in the world," (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. J. A. K. Thomson [revised ed., Harmonsworth: Penguin Books, 1976], Bk. VI, Ch. VII, p. 212.) [Back]

28. Burke, Sheriffs of Bristol, Works, II, pp. 7, 27; idem, Reflections, pp. 152-53.

29. Burke, Sheriffs of Bristol, Works, II, p. 7; idem, Reflections, pp. 151, 189. [Back]

30. Ryn, "History and the Moral Order." [Back]

31. Heinrich Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), pp. 166-67. Quoted in Ryn, "History and the Moral Order." [Back]

32. Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1924, 1979), p. 28. [Back]

33. Ryn, "History and the Moral Order" (emphasis in original). [Back]

34. Ibid. For a more extensive discussion of the moral imperative as will, see Claes G. Ryn, Democracy and the Ethical Life Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), esp. Part Two. [Back]

35. Burke writes (Letter to [William Markham], Letters, p. 131) that, "when your lordship speaks of tests of public principles, there is one which you have not mentioned, but which, let me say, is far above them all,—the actions and conduct of men. Let mine, and those of my friends, speak for our public principles." [Back]

36. Burke, Reflections, pp. 191-92. [Back]

37. Ibid., p. 149. [Back]

38. "Lawyers . . . have their strict rule to go by," Burke writes (Sheriffs of Bristol, Works, II, p.7). "But legislators ought to do what lawyers cannot; for they have no other rules to bind them, but the great principles of reason and equity, and the general sense of mankind. These they are bound to obey and follow; and rather to enlarge and enlighten law by the liberality of legislative reason, than to fetter and bind their higher capacity by the narrow constructions of subordinate, artificial justice." [Back]

39. Quoted in Kirk, Edmund Burke, p. 122. [Back]

40. Burke, Reflections, p. 121. [Back]

41. Ibid., p. 123 (emphasis added). [Back]

42. Ibid., p. 377. [Back]

43. Ibid., p. 151. [Back]

44. Ibid. [Back]

45. Ibid., pp. 280-81. [Back]

46. Ibid. [Back]

47. Burke, Of the National Assembly, Works, II, p. 536. [Back]

48. Burke, Reflections, p. 376. Referring to the French revolutionaries' lack of appreciation for the good examples of the past, Burke notes (Of the National Assembly, Works, II, p. 553) that "a certain intemperance of intellect is the disease of the time, and the source of all its other diseases." [Back]

49. Quoted in Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 314. [Back]

50. Burke, Reflections, p. 267. [Back]

*Joseph Baldacchino is President of the National Humanities Institute. [Back]

[This article first appeared in Modern Age, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Spring 1983).] [Back]

Updated 1 July 2023