At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture


Classical Conservatism and Revolution

posted by Jack Kerwick

The “revolution” that began in Egypt and that is now spreading across the Middle East has many a Westerner, and even more Americans, smiling.  Those who supported President Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” are now crediting the former visionary for setting in motion the domino effect that, they are convinced, promises to bring “Democracy” to the Islamic world. 

At this time we would be well served to revisit the thought of the one thinker who is about as widely respected, if not revered, by all self-professed “conservatives” as anyone: Edmund Burke, the recognized “father” of modern conservatism.

Burke was no admirer of revolution.  Contrary to popular opinion, Burke didn’t even support the American Revolution.  It is true that he expressed no shortage of sympathy for the colonists, but he labored indefatigably to persuade them not to sever their ties with the Mother Country. 

Burke implored the colonists to resist those “who would alienate you from your dependence on the Crown and [the] parliament of this kingdom.”  He also went to great pains to remind them that, since the “very liberty, which you so justly prize above all things, originated here,” in England, “it may be very doubtful whether, without being constantly fed from the original fountain, it can be at all perpetuated or preserved in its native purity and perfection.”  This “liberty” that the colonists “prize” and that is bequeathed to them by England is nothing more or less than the English constitution, a constitution, Burke worries, that neither “now, nor for ages,” the colonists will be capable of sustaining “in an independent state.” 

Notice, “the liberty” around which Burke’s discussion centers is not an abstraction but a concrete, culturally-specific complex of arrangements that he identifies as the English constitution.  The colonists “are descendants of Englishmen” who, as such, are “devoted…to liberty according to English ideas and English principles.  Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found.”  They are also largely Protestant, “and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.”  Burke tells us that: “All Protestantism…is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance: it is the dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion.”

Burke’s political philosophical suppositions are starkly at odds, not just with the views of those of his contemporaries with whom he did battle, but with the abstract metaphysics of most of our contemporaries who call themselves “conservative.”  The ideas of “Human Rights,” “Global Democracy,” a “Propositional Nation” and the like he would have found, at the very least (and best), irrelevant to the art of governing. 

It wasn’t just the violence attending to revolution that Burke abhorred, but the metaphysics undergirding it.  He insisted that while he loves a “manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentlemen,” he “cannot…give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions and human concern on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.” 

This is a crucial point.  No one would anymore think to deny that “liberty” or “freedom” is a good thing than they would think to deny that love is.  But precisely because liberty is an abstract concept, it can and does admit of multiple and mutually incompatible conceptions. The French Revolutionaries who Burke castigated prized Liberty, and contemporary leftists—including Marxists—value it as well; yet their idea of Liberty—utopian and, thus, devoid of all context—is obviously eons apart from Burke’s.  For that matter, Islam too affirms “liberty” as among the highest of goods, but true liberty, as far as it is concerned, is attainable only once Sharia law is imposed upon the whole world.  That is, this conception of “liberty” is even further removed from Burke’s view than the Marxist’s. 

As Egypt undergoes its transition to a new form of government, those self-identified “conservatives” who anticipate a new era in the Middle East and the furtherance of Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” would do well for themselves to bear in mind Burke’s warning regarding “the wild gas” that is “the spirit of liberty.”  He beseeches us 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.” 

Burke reminds us that since “liberty, when men act in bodies, is power,” and since “the liberty” that the people of Egypt just found for themselves is “new power in new persons” with “whose principles, tempers, and dispositions” we “have little or no experience,” “considerate people” should first “observe the use which is made of power” before they congratulate a people for their new found “liberty.”

As the world’s eyes are fixed upon Egypt and the Middle East, conservatives especially should take their “patron saint’s” words to heart.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.



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