Отклонения, лирически и прозаически
Burke's attack on Equality, Liberty, Fraternity - a "wise" or an "inconsistent" one

Every society is based on a particular view of human nature. Today' s view, springing from Enlightenment philosophy, is that people are equal, interchangeable units of production and consumption. Hence, all differences among people - such as racial, cultural, national, gender, religious, etc. - are perceived as obstacles to social harmony which must be removed. The model society which would, supposedly, be the result of the successful accomplishment of the above objective is the "dream world" of our day. It is most proper a characteristic of human constitution to defy nature, to strive towards independent existence, interfered in the least possible extent by natural events. Every facility, of whatsoever kind, that has been introduced to humanity, mostly in the era of industrialization - cheaper homes, better vehicles, health care, etc. - is aimed at the achievement of this state of independence. The idea of "perfection" (in the modern sense of the word) has been introduced and developed by what we refer to as Western culture, the origins of which are to be discovered in a certain number of countries that promote it throughout the world, and more specifically in Great Britain, which was the first to experience the Industrial Revolution.

One thinker, of much lesser prominence (due to the way of expressing his views, at times considered inconsistent [i]) than the one a large number of thinkers enjoy, is the English politician and philosopher Edmund Burke. Developing his view on the social world, he was able to foresee the emergence of the principle outlined in the opening lines of this essay and condemned it as a fallacy, announcing his opinion of equality for him a monstrous fiction.

The purpose of the present essay is to make a brief conspectus of the times Edmund Burke lived in (and those that preceded him) an to describe the governing issues of his line of thought, one developed in the course of the whole of his life, relating these issues, wherever possible, to the status quo of modern society.

In present day the world considers Britain to be a country of established political tradition, the Island being the place where modern ideas of society and government have been introduced for the first time.

Before exploiting the topic of tradition and its rooting, an outline of the events that took place in the age wherein fundamental social works such as John Locke's Two Treatises of Government were produced that is, the last quarter of the 17th century in Britain when the reformist views and tendencies proper to this century developed into a basis stable enough as to lead to the building of present day's society.

In the years between 1678 an 1681 the Exclusion Crisis provided ground for reviving the myth of England being the protector of the Protestant world from Catholicism. Anti-papal moods went as far as a certain demand that James, a manifest defender of Catholicism and legal heir of the throne, Charles II's brother, be removed. This, theoretically and politically speaking, meant an outward denial of the monarch's God-granted right for the throne and an establishment of the Parliament's supremacy. It is in this same period that the two political parties in England the Whigs and the Tories appeared, the first being the initiators and supporters of the idea of excluding the heir. The attempt, however, proved unsuccessful and James II accessed the throne and immediately manifested his desire of imposing Catholicism in England. Three years later, though, the Tories' James initial supporters having not met his radical actions with approval invited William of Orange to remove James and to access the throne. Thus 1688 witnessed the Glorious Revolution, the year when William took the crown, while James escaped to France.

A contemporary of the harmless coup d'etat, a direct observer of the events, John Locke, wrote his Two Treatises of Government, wherein, according to Richard Ashcraft, he suggested a theoretical justification of the constitutional reform that aimed at the prevention of a possible absolutism. The book also presented arguments in defense of radical political actions, including armed resistance [ii]. The treatises also sought to expose and denounce the "false principles and arguments of Sir Robert Filmer and his followers", who, in his book, Patriarchia, postulated that "power [was] originally monocratic and arbitrary. The absolute monarchy [was] not simply the best, but the only possible form of government. Aristocratic government and democracy mean[t] anarchy. People [were] not born naturally free." Views similar to those of Filmer were steadily becoming obsolete by the time, and new means had been sought after for managing the newly arising issues of justification of power exercising, of providing social stability and understanding of the principles that governed the functioning of so complex a system as a "modern" society.

In the years to follow many works were produced studying social principles and those of understanding human nature, not only in England but in Europe also. The Island, however, had distinctly moved forward in applying the philosophy of the age into real life, and certain polity principles came to be established. Edmund Burke, a devoted to human and social understanding politician, put effort for re-establishing political tradition. Burke, himself an MP for 30 years, respected as a magnificent orator, had, at times, a somewhat over-idealized perception of social principles and duty, and insisted that what society was in need of was stability and it was our prime duty to do whatever was necessary in order to achieve such stability and avoid discord. Although he championed many liberal an reform causes, Burke believed that political an religious institutions represented the wisdom of the ages; he feared political reform beyond the limitations of the crown. Consequently, his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) in which he opposed the harshness of such an act - made him the spokesman of European conservatives, as well as caused him to break with the Whigs a year later.

What Burke does is rather study the abstractions that occupied the mind of the thinking man of his age (and of ours too), than seek the true reason of human behaviour as such. And this behaviour is quite too often an irrational one, at times embarrassingly radical, governed by ideals not fully comprehended. Throughout the years Burked managed to develop a philosophical system that in itself was most probably invalidated and well-grounded, still unable to provide, in its greater part, applicable solutions for a normal, acceptable human behaviour "his suggestions appear to be moralizing, rational and clear-purposed, but such as do not consider the true human nature" "a never heeding species" as Kurt Tuholski described it two centuries later "the nature of a being normally unable to learn from its mistakes, apt to excess and benign aspirations."

Of course, Burke's philosophy was developed upon some basic and true formulae for the functioning of a healthy society, termed by him The Organic State, which was a complex system, not subject to planning, but to no more than minor adjustments [iii]. To Burke the state was the natural outcome of the socialization of human beings "it was the utmost stage of it, and man was originally inclined to herding in smaller groups that belonged to the lower stages" the family, the kin and then, the nation. Studying society from an evolutionist point of view, along with the Romantic poets, he preferred to perceive it as a "permanent body composed of transitory parts" in which what mattered was not the individual, but the body "which is to carry on". Hence his famous definition of society as a "contract between the living, the dead and those who are yet to be born." Observing this contract, one should also observe tradition because humanity "as a species almost always acts right." [iv]

Because radical, hyper-dynamic change was, for one, against tradition, being an action that would bring along but "a liberal descent" and "unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos", Burke had his firm ground for attacking the French Revolution. Naturally, he did not denounce the moral value of the cry for "Equality, Liberty, Fraternity" as a Christian he acknowledged a certain moral equality of mankind "that [was] to be found by virtue in all conditions". He, however, opposed egalitarianism as a political programme first, because it relied on compulsion and encouraged envy and inevitably leveled people down (since it is not possible to level them up) and second, because egalitarianism contradicted organic society and natural order. Burke wrote: "Political equality is against nature. Social equality is against nature. Economic equality is against nature. The idea of equality is subversive to order, it is a monstrous fiction." [v] According to Burke, at best, well-intentioned people see equality as a benign aspiration "it would be just in theory but of course not when applied to themselves in practice, lest this endanger their own privileges." Thus "abstract principles, however appealing, cannot be applied directly to solve real political problems. Any attempt to do so will have futile or harmful results. There is no such thing as a political principle which is good in itself, but not practicable. If it is not practicable then it is not good." [vi]

The second ground on which he attacked radical change, in particular that in France, is one that Burke developed in his early years, when he wrote his A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and the Beautiful, where he claimed that beauty was a social quality [vii] and that beauty was to be found in things small, smooth, an in gradual change:

On the whole, the qualities of beauty, as they are merely sensible qualities, are the following: First, to be comparatively small. Secondly, to be smooth. Thirdly, to have a variety in the direction of the parts; but, fourthly, to have those parts not angular, but melted as it were into each other. Fifthly, to be of a delicate frame, without any remarkable appearance of strength. Sixthly, to have its colours clear and bright, but not very strong and glaring. [viii]

Healthy society, being governed by natural principles, should also be based on these, and any change in it (for there has to be change) should happen naturally:

Nothing long continued in the same manner, nothing very suddenly varied, can be beautiful; because both are opposite to that agreeable relaxation which is the characteristic effect of beauty. [ix]

In the French Revolution, Burke points out, beauty has been forsaken, and what is natural and therefore right, has been defiled.

Tradition conveys one clear message - that of sound reason and common sense. Burke "puts down to earth" the exalted ideals and appeals to a practical, expedient solution of social problems. And how far-sighted is the above comment related to the Revolution in France - because 1789 not only fails to achieve the " Equality, Liberty, Fraternity" promise, but "eats its children", being too radical, its criteria for judgment too high even for them "which only precipitates the chopping of heads" - a total of 50,000 beheadings in three years, among which the heads of Robespierre, Marat, Saint Just - all leaders and faithful supporters of these ideals. The issued social instability seeks its balance, and Burke only lives to see the beginning of the "uncivil" and "unsocial" chaos, the consequences of which are apparent throughout the greater part of the next century in France.

It is likely that, at times, that Edmund Burke's views in defending tradition go into "extremes", his being in favour of prejudices. Truly, he examines their origin, nature and functions - he claims that prejudices contain "the wisdom of the ages" and "the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them" [x]. Because such a statement is not necessarily wrong, we can support it with the argument that our lives are short, and we, as individuals have a limited experience of the world. We rely on knowledge accumulated by generations of our ancestors, which provides a useful shortcut to dealing with our problems. Because prejudice as a feeling or emotion transcends reason, "when our feelings contradict our theories, the feelings are true, and the theory is false." Prejudices themselves cannot be ignorant, since they are not the product solely of one mind or time. Thus, the conclusion Burke reaches is that prejudices are wise "and men of understanding instead of exploding general prejudices, enjoy their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them." And if they find this wisdom, "they think it more wise to continue the prejudice."

Being one who cherished traditional values, Burke protects such a political prejudice as the requirement for property qualifications which solely may grant one the right to participate in the government "the main position here is that people have no rights except those that they inherit. According to Burke, rights are nor universal but particular" they are handed down by our forefathers, which, Burke claimed, was the traditional British view. He defined rights as: "an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference to any more general or prior right." [xi] To Burke "rights equal experience", equal a political know-how, which should be able to provide society with stability, although this would mean that certain capable individuals who belong to classes which do not have the background of property qualifications will not be given the chance of realization and acknowledgement.

Burke correctly understands the inability of human beings to have equal rights, because for most people equality is synonymous not simply to having equal opportunities, but to having exactly the same rights, obligations, and possessions over which to exert these rights. He agrees that people should be given the chance to win their rights, not that they should be presented with such. The confusion of meanings concerning this issue is known as primitive egalitarianism (which still appears to be the situation in present day Bulgaria). It is exactly this (mis)understanding that proved to be the engine and mobilizing effect for the masses in France in 1789 who had been mislead by the abstractness of the promise for "Equality, Liberty, Fraternity", something that following tradition would have been able to prevent "through the verification of one's ability to make a sensible decision, an optimal one, not a radical one" which, according to Burke, should have been handed down by one's forefathers. Of course, the use of tradition, which Burke strongly defends, is possible only given that the government is an ideal, faultless one, and a party is the ideal party: here we have one novel concept that he advocated: that of the party system "as a boy of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed", and politicians should be people who do not own power for their own benefit, but are "temporary possessors" of it, appointed to serve the nation [xii].

Such a view of politicians and government is apparently quite a romantic one, and it can also be seen in his idea of the nation, as related by the historian, John R. Green:

A nation was for him a great living society, so complex in its relations, and whose institutions were so interwoven with glorious events in the past, that to touch it rudely was a sacrilege. Its constitution was no artificial scheme of government, but an exquisite balance of social forces which was itself a natural outcome of its history an development. & To touch even an anomaly seemed to Burke to be risking the ruin of a complex structure of national order which it had cost centuries to build up. [xiii]

In such a system the role and duty of those who govern was to:

take this structure as it was, and by cautious and delicate adjustment to accommodate from time to time its general shape and the relations of its various parts to the varying circumstances of their natural development. [xiv]

Maintaining his well-supported line of attitude towards social structure an principles, proceeding from the traditional viewpoint, employing the typical British sobriety, Burke insists that

the inequality of the different orders of society I not destroy the unity an the harmony of the whole. The health and well-being of the moral world was to be promoted by the same means as the beauty of the natural world; by contrast, by change, by light and shade, by variety of parts, by order an proportion. To think of reducing mankind to the same insipid level, seemed to him the same absurdity as to destroy the inequalities of surface in a country, for the benefit of agriculture and commerce. [xv]

Edmund Burke did, indeed, attack that famous proclamation and cry for "Equality, Liberty, Fraternity" for the surprise, probably of many. That his arguments are acceptable and valid, is, more or less, a matter of opinion. The author's most recent experience in which the topic of the Revolution and its justification, as well as a certain number of other, connected issues, were discussed with two Frenchmen, university students in Paris, proved this point. They had been instructed into an understanding of these events and of modern society such as opposing the author's view that natural principles, honesty, respect and understanding of tradition and of beauty are of utmost importance for the sound existence both of the individual and of society, which, by the author's view, does appear to be the case in the world we live in.

Burke's contribution to understanding society is, undoubtedly, a minor one, and his views have not generally been met with approbation in history's course. The social environment he has had in mind while developing his philosophy has not undergone any dramatic change since the 18th century "human beings are basically the same, their wishes an strivings generally the same" for equality, liberty and brotherhood. These, however, have proved most remote and fictitious as to modern man, so to Burke's contemporaries, who attempted to bring society to order with the help of reason. The romantic poet realized that symmetry and harmony, whatever their virtues, are enemies of movement. Their craving to break through, to move, to transcend was soon to become Byron's gloom and depression. But still, one who has "a deep understanding of human driving forces, who just like Beethoven despises conventionality and disagrees with popular opinion, should be able to gather strength and oppose all those forces that threaten to mutilate what is human in us: lies, tanks, tear-gas, ideologies, public opinion surveys, mechanization, computers and control systems and the like." [xvi]


[i]Chambers' reference for Burke includes the statements that he "never systematized his political philosophy" and that there were "inconsistencies" in his writings and speeches.

[ii]Ashcraft, R., Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Two Treatises of Government, Princeton, 1986

[iii]Burke presents his understanding of society in Vindication of Natural Society, (1756)

[iv]Edmund Burke's Works and Correspondence, vol. X (1852), p. 97

[v]Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism, Michael Freeman, Blackwell (1980), p.21

[vi]ibid. p. 23

[vii]Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime an the Beautiful, Chapter 10 "Of Beauty", Bartleby.com electronic version of the book

[viii]ibid., Part 3, Chapter 18 - Recapitulation

[ix]ibid. Part 4, Chapter 23 - Variation, Why Beautiful

[x]Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1955, p.84

[xi]Burke discusses rights in Reflections on the French Revolution, pp. 29-33

[xii]Burke's view of parties is presented in Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions, Stanley Ayling, John Murray Publishers, 1988, p.73

[xiii]Green, History of the English People, vol. X, p.59

[xiv]ibid, p. 60

[xv]Hazlitt, Political Essays, 1819

[xvi]Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation.  A Personal View, BBC, London & John Murray, 1969 Bulgarian translation

ADDITIONAL READING: Roy Willis, F., Western Civilization, Volume 2, D.C. Health and Company, 1985