Who was Edmund Burke & why does he matter? This is a question asked – and well-answered – by Professor Peter Stanlis in his entrancing book, Edmund Burke & the Natural Law, written in 1958. Professor Stanlis’ work inaugurated a sea-change in Burke interpretation by infusing a soul and morality into his politics. But perhaps more importantly, Professor Stanlis, reminds us of the role of the Natural Law, its relevance in contemporary politics, & its ingenious articulation in the works of Edmund Burke.
So who was Edmund Burke? An 18th century Irishman, Edmund Burke served as minister of parliament in the British House of Commons. He is perhaps best known for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a remarkably prescient piece warning (correctly) of the dangers of ideological excess by the French revolutionaries, and the indispensable restraining virtues of the institutions of church and state. Burke’s work threw water on the enthusiastic “enlightened opinion” of the day – many of whom thought the French Revolution and the implementation of the Rights of Man would usher in heaven on earth. Needless to say, Burke’s impassioned, reasoned, and articulate indictment of the French Revolution generated no small amount of anger (if not hatred) among the Revolution’s true believers. Over 500 tracts would appear to counter Burke’s lone voice – a voice proven correct by the Revolution’s descent into the butchery of the Reign of Terror and the despotism of Napoleon.
While the French Revolution would define Burke’s place in history, his advocacy for Ireland, his respect for American colonists, and his ire for the corrupt Warren Hastings reveal Edmund Burke at his principled and courageous best. Unfortunately, many historians interested in squeezing Burke into an ill-fitting ideological box have only confused his story and left him labeled a seasoned utilitarian at best or a cynical hypocrite at worse. That is where Professor Stanlis’ work guides and corrects so brilliantly. And this leads us to our next, more important question…
Why does Edmund Burke matter? Burke never set out to be a philosopher, nor to create a systematic philosophy. He has no seminal work dedicated to an all-encompassing theory, only a series of works in response to seminal events. But as Professor Stanlis intelligently demonstrates, Burke needed no such philosophical magnum opus. All one needed to understand Burke’s philosophy was to read Burke’s work. And Professor Stanlis saw one theme that dominated and defined Edmund Burke more than any other from year to year, and work to work – an adherence to and reverence for the Natural Law. It is this dominant thread that embarrasses those accusing Burke of cynicism, hypocrisy, and incoherence. And I would agree that the reverence for and defense of the Natural Law could be in no more capable hands than a genius like Edmund Burke.
Burke recognized certain unfailing truths in his understanding of the people and politics of his day. First, there is a loving God who has provided inherent rights to man including life, liberty, and property. This is the Natural Law. Second, God entrusted the institutions of church and state to be faithful stewards of these rights for all men. Third, should these institutions fail to keep this charge, they would be deemed arbitrary and illegitimate, but fourth, the generations of tradition and the local constitutions should make one prudent before dismissing these institutions for their faults. Finally, because man is and always has been fallible, and not perfectible in his own lifetime, the institutions of church and state play an indispensable, albeit imperfect, role in civilizing man and restraining him from his worse vices.
This worldview placed Burke in direct opposition to the philosophical adherents of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Theirs was considered an enlightened philosophy which perceived man as perfect in his original “state of nature”, well-guided by his own “sensibility”, and corrupted from his perfection by society’s imperfect institutions of church and state. Whereas Burke saw institutions as restraining influences, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau saw them as corrupting influences. Whereas Burke saw man as fallible, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau saw him as originally perfect, and once again perfectible. Burke saw an uncompromising authority in Natural Law, while Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau saw an authority in one’s own passions, appetites, or sensibility. Is it any wonder that two such diverging philosophies could yield such diverging opinions and anticipations of political events, not least the French Revolution?
The lessons to be learned from Edmund Burke’s wisdom, Professor Stanlis seems to remind us, are many. There is an absolute Truth, a right and wrong, a universal standard that even the most hardened skeptics cannot deny – a sanctity of life, an imperative for freedom, a respect for that which belongs to another. This is the Natural Law – and it derives not from some wise man or murky ether, but from God. Man is fallible. One need only look in the mirror to realize that we rise imperfect and retire imperfect, notwithstanding our best efforts. If man is fallible, then our man-dominated institutions, too, will be fallible – BUT if the institutions and the men comprising them faithfully strive to respect and conform to the Natural Law, reform where needed, and, with prudence, learn from the wisdom of preceding generations, THEN the institutions will serve their God-inspired purposes better. Institutions, Burke admonishes us, are not divine, but their charge is. Finally, theory and speculation in human affairs that is ignorant of man’s fallen nature and of the restraining role of society’s institutions risks being pernicious to an atrocious degree. The French, Russian, and Nazi revolutions promoted self-referencing utopian theories, eradicated imperfect institutions, and led their societies into wicked bloodbaths.
In an age of arrogance, an age of hypersecularism, relativism, radical individualism, and skepticism, an age that can be swept up in thoughtless and rudderless ideology, Edmund Burke and the Natural Law can seem quaint, irrelevant, and anachronistic. But on further reflection and thoughtful consideration, Edmund Burke’s prudence, wisdom, and advocacy for an enduring Truth is not only illuminating, but frankly refreshing. For this we owe Professor Peter Stanlis a debt of gratitude for a work that deserves to be cherished for years to come.