Edmund Burke: a forgotten Enlightenment thinker

I asked in a poll my Twitter followers what my first English-only blog should be about. It resulted in a tie between Burke & the Enlightenment and a critique of liberalism. This blog is about the former.


I've been suspicious about contemporary thinking regarding Edmund Burke and the "ideology" he launched, conservatism. For instant, a Yale professor described him as an anti-Enlightenment thinker. Why wouldn't he? Didn't Burke wrote a book that opposed the French Revolution? Didn't Burke value traditions and social hierarchy?

I would like to argue that Burke and conservatism should be considered as full members of Enlightenment thought, just like liberalism and socialism. As I will outline in this blog, the common image of the Enlightenment is deeply flawed. There was never such thing as an Enlightenment but rather two till three Enlightenments. 

I would also like to make a sort of typology of the major political ideologies, finding out how each evolved over time from the moment of the two Enlightenments till now.

Two Enlightenment

It didn't took me long to find scholars who explained that there are in fact two strains of Enlightenment thinking. For instant, this is what physicist David Deutsch wrote in "The Beginning of Infinity", Chapter 3 : The Spark:
"The Continental Enlightenment was impatient for the perfected state – which led to intellectual dogmatism, political violence and new forms of tyranny. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Reign of Terror that followed it are the archetypal examples. The British Enlightenment, which was evolutionary and cognizant of human fallibility, was impatient for institutions that did not stifle gradual, continuing change. It was also enthusiastic for small improvements, unbounded in the future." (emphasis added)
What Deutsch describes, resonates in Thomas Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions" and Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate". In Chapter 16: Politics, Pinker describes the two dominant visions of politics:
"In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. "Mortal things suit mortals best," wrote Pindar; "from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made," wrote Kant. The Tragic Vision is associated with Hobbes, Burke, Smith, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, and the legal scholar Richard Posner. 
In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Its creed might be "Some people see things as they are and ask 'why?'; I dream things that never were and ask, 'why not?'" The quote is often attributed to the icon of 1960s liberalism, Robert F. Kennedy, but it was originally penned by the Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote, "There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough"). … 
In the Tragic Vision, our moral sentiments, no matter how beneficent, overlie a deeper bedrock of selfishness. That selfishness is not the cruelty or aggression of the psychopath, but a concern for our well-being that is so much a part of our makeup that we seldom reflect on it and would waste our time lamenting it or trying to erase it." (emphasis added) 
British writer Jonathan Israel wrote a book called "A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy". In Chapter 1, he contrasts between the Radical Enlightenment and the moderate Enlightenment:
"This striking contrast between the progress of the radical democratic thinkers and that of of defenders of mixed monarchy like Ferguson and Burke exactly mirrors the contrast between opposing broad tendencies running throughout the Western Enlightenment as a whole and making this clear is the chief aim of this chapter. For these two fundamentally different conceptions of progress - the radical democratic, and in metaphysics, materialist-determinist, or alternatively Christian-Unitarian, on the one hand, and the "moderate" and positively providential (Deist or religious), championing the monarchical-aristocratic order of society, on the other - were diametrically opposed to each other in their social and political consequences. They were also from the outset philosophically and theologically incompatible, and indeed opposed, which, on the whole Enlightenment historians have failed to engage with." (emphasis added)
I surely would recommend you to read the whole chapter, which can be done freely in Google Books. Israel was hard on historians but not entirely correct, Friedrich Hayek also noticed it. In his collection of essays "The Constitution of Liberty", he writes in Chapter 4 the following:
"What we have called the “British tradition” was made explicit mainly by a group of Scottish moral philosophers led by David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson, seconded by their English contemporaries Josiah Tucker, Edmund Burke, and William Paley, and drawing largely on a tradition rooted in the jurisprudence of the common law. Opposed to them was the tradition of the French Enlightenment, deeply imbued with Cartesian rationalism: the Encyclopedists and Rousseau, the Physiocrats and Condorcet, are their best known representatives. Of course, the division does not fully coincide with national boundaries. Frenchmen like Montesquieu and, later, Benjamin Constant and, above all, Alexis de Tocqueville are probably nearer to what we have called the “British” than to the “French” tradition. And, in Thomas Hobbes, Britain has provided at least one of the founders of the rationalist tradition, not to speak of the whole generation of enthusiasts for the French Revolution, like Godwin, Priestley, Price, and Paine, who (like Jefferson after his stay in France) belong entirely to it.
Though these two groups are now commonly lumped together as the ancestors of modern liberalism, there is hardly a greater contrast imaginable than that between their respective conceptions of the evolution and functioning of a social order and the role played in it by liberty. The difference is directly traceable to the predominance of an essentially empiricist view of the world in England and a rationalist approach in France." (emphasis added)
Likewise, I can recommend the whole chapter which is a lot more informative. Hayek notes that the terminology "British" and "French" are not strictly geographic. Frenchmen like De Tocqueville and Montesquieu belong to the British tradition, while Englishmen like Hobbes and Price belong to the French tradition.

Hayek describes that the British tradition saw society from an empiricist evolutionary perspective (and suggests that Darwin was influenced by this thinking, not the way around) while the French tradition saw society from a rationalist perspective:
"While the rationalist tradition assumes that man was originally endowed with both the intellectual and the moral attributes that enabled him to fashion civilization deliberately, the evolutionists made it clear that civilization was the accumulated hard- earned result of trial and error; that it was the sum of experience, in part handed from generation to generation as explicit knowledge, but to a larger extent embodied in tools and institutions which had proved themselves superior—institutions whose significance we might discover by analysis but which will also serve men’s ends without men’s understanding them. (...) 
The rationalistic design theories were necessarily based on the assumption of the individual man’s propensity for rational action and his natural intelligence and goodness. The evolutionary theory, on the contrary, showed how certain institutional arrangements would induce man to use his intelligence to the best effect and how institutions could be framed so that bad people could do least harm. The antirationalist tradition is here closer to the Christian tradition of the fallibility and sinfulness of man, while the perfectionism of the rationalist is in irreconcilable conflict with it. (...)
The greatest difference between the two views, however, is in their respective ideas about the role of traditions and the value of all the other products of unconscious growth proceeding throughout the ages. It would hardly be unjust to say that the rationalistic approach is here opposed to almost all that is the distinct product of liberty and that gives liberty its value. Those who believe that all useful institutions are deliberate contrivances and who cannot conceive of anything serving a human purpose that has not been consciously designed are almost of necessity enemies of freedom. For them freedom means chaos. To the empiricist evolutionary tradition, on the other hand, the value of freedom consists mainly in the opportunity it provides for the growth of the undesigned, and the beneficial functioning of a free society rests largely on the existence of such freely grown institutions. There probably never has existed a genuine belief in freedom, and there has certainly been no successful attempt to operate a free society, without a genuine reverence for grown institutions, for customs and habits and “all those securities of liberty which arise from regulation of long prescription and ancient ways.” Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society." (emphasis added)
Deutsch, Sowell, Pinker, Israel and Hayek used all slightly different terminology but they describe the exact same phenomenon: the moderate British Enlightenment focuses on human fallibility, empiricism and small gradual evolution while the radical French-Continental Enlightenment strives for human perfectibility, rationalism and radical revolution.

It is the last one which eventually prevailed. General ignorance about the British tradition did the rest. As such, we know have an image of the Enlightenment as radical, rationalistic and utopian. This distorted image is then projected back on the Enlightenment as a whole.

Burke: conservative or progressive?

A remarkable thing is that Edmund Burke is mentioned by these authors alongside all other Enlightenment thinkers, rather than being considered anti-Enlightenment.

That's actually quite logical. Burke was a parliamentarian for the Whig party, today they are called the Liberal Democrats (although the Lib Dems have little resemblance with the Whigs). He was part of the Rockingham faction, also referred to as the "Old Whigs", and was the major spokesperson of this faction.

Although it would take us too far to detail Burke's beliefs in full, I would summarize it as a belief in tradition, hierarchical order of society, prudent attitude, constitutional monarchy, liberty and natural law. Does this mean Burke was a conservative?

Well, this depends on your definition of "conservative". I consider the labels "conservative" and "progressive" as temporally and geographically relative. What is conservative/progressive depends on what is culturally established. One cannot assign those labels without carefully knowing the political conditions of that particular time and place.

In Burke's days, constitutional monarchy was relatively new (a product of the Glorious Revolution in the 17th century) and adherents of constitutional monarchy like the Whigs were progressive. On the other hand, the Tories who were in favour of absolute monarchy, were conservative. But Burke still defended the monarchy and aristocracy, he wasn't as radically progressive as the French revolutionaries or their supporters like Richard Price and Thomas Paine.

Burke's reputation as conservative seems to be 20th century fabrication, constructed by Tory politicians who claimed Burke as their own. This strange course of history - Burke once a staunch critic of the Tories, later a herald of the Tory-successors - can be explained once you let go the labels "conservative" and "progressive" as ideologies and rather consider them sociologies [1].

As I mentioned in the previous blog, conservatives tend to compare the present to the past while progressives tend to compare the present with a hypothetical perfect future. As such, conservatives tend to be the defenders of the established institutions while progressives rebel against those, but most importantly, the nature of these institutions is entirely irrelevant. The liberal democracy for instant is fully established, so those who defend it are conservative while those who reject it (postmodernists) are progressive. There is thus a clear succession of ideologies: the ideas of Burke were new but got established by the end of the 19th century and thus got the label "conservative" [2].

Even more, there is a strong generational component. With each new generation, the collective memory refreshes itself. The past gets forgotten due to the death of the old and the present impregnated in the minds of the young. Things like the French Revolution were once radical, today it is mainstream. Thus, the labels "conservative" and "progressive" remain but their content shifts with each generation.

Also, progressive ideas are largely the product of the young while conservative ideas are largely of the old. But because the young eventually become old, the once progressive ideas become established and conservative. Of course, society is resilient and not all progressive ideas become immediately established. It might take more than one generation for certain ideas to become established.

River of ideas

Ideologies are like braided rivers. They can diverge from each other due conflict, but can later converge due to establishment. Some ideas will dry out, some ideas will keep flowing. Some ideas can spring and confluence to the bigger river.

By the end of the 18th century, there are three channels: the British and the French-Continental Enlightenment [3] and the Counter-Enlightenment [4]. This division between the two Enlightenments became most prominent in the Late Enlightenment (1780-1815) as the French Revolution made the two strands of Enlightenment divorce. In a sense, Burke was the one who broke the marriage between the two by his devastating critique in the Reflections.

By the half of the 19th century, the memory of the French Revolution faded. Both strands of the Enlightenment got well established and slowly pushed the Counter-Enlightenment to near extinction (in Britain, there is even today a monarch as head of state). But as both moved closer, the most radical and conservative strands split off. The combination of the two would finally form what we refer today as "classical liberalism". As Hayek noted:
"The two traditions became finally confused when they merged in the liberal movement of the nineteenth century and when even leading British liberals drew as much on the French as on the British tradition."
To give some examples what the impact was of the French tradition on the British tradition, Hayek gives two clear examples.
"Not Locke, nor Hume, nor Smith, nor Burke, could ever have argued, as Bentham did, that “every law is an evil for every law is an infraction of liberty.” Their argument was never a complete laissez faire argument, which, as the very words show, is also part of the French rationalist tradition and in its literal sense was never defended by any of the English classical economists." (...)
"Even such a celebrated figment as the “economic man” was not an original part of the British evolutionary tradition. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that, in the view of those British philosophers, man was by nature lazy and indolent, improvident and wasteful, and that it was only by the force of circumstances that he could be made to behave economically or would learn carefully to adjust his means to his ends. The homo oeconomicus was explicitly introduced, with much else that belongs to the rationalist rather than to the evolutionary tradition, only by the younger Mill."
As such, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are those who incorporated rationalist thought into British Enlightenment tradition, creating the classical liberal ideology. It is ironic that some libertarians with their laissez faire and homo economicus claim to be classical economists, while Smith would have opposed such thinking. It gives another example on how the thought of philosophers get warped through time.

The two outlying channels, the radicals and conservatives, would develop into respectively "classical socialism" and "classical conservatism" by the end of the 19th century. Classical socialism could be seen as synonymous with Utopian socialism developed by Owen Jones, Charles Fourier and Claude-Henri de Rovroy. But that form of socialism was merely an inspiration for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who with their infamous works replaced the Utopian socialism and established the true classical socialism.

Classical conservatism is based upon the thought of William Pit the Younger, Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli, the latter revived the ideas of Burke into his "one-nation conservatism". The current Conservative Party is thus the creation of an independent Whig, a Tory-contrarian and a social conservative [5].

To complete my story, in the 20th century the classical liberals were influenced by the classical socialists by the acceptance of democracy [6] and (albeit minimal) welfare state due to the Great Depression. The ideology that emerged can be referred to as "liberal democracy", "democratic liberalism" or "social liberalism" (although social liberals are economically more left-wing than liberal democrats). The Liberal Democrats are the legacy of that merge. The classical liberal thought didn't die however, but became known as libertarianism and influenced the Conservative Party (especially during the years of Margaret Thatcher).

Classical conservatism evolved to modern conservatism (or simply conservatism), when conservatism conformed itself to the established progressive ideas like democracy and the welfare state.

Classical socialism diverged into two strands, the revolutionary strand which is now known as Marxism or communism, and the reformist strand which is now social democracy or (democratic) socialism. Both strands are present in the Labour Party but until the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the reformist strand was dominant.

Why "Classical"?

The observant reader might have noticed that I used the adjective "classical" to describe the different ideologies that formed throughout the 19th century. I use "classical" not only in the meaning of "old" or "the first", but also to describe the general thinking of these ages.

Classical thinking came to rise during the Renaissance with the rediscovery of the texts of Classical Antiquity. Ever since, those that could get education would get a classical education: learning Latin and ancient Greek, reading the works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. Philosophers of the Renaissance age like Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas Morus (who Latinised their names) also wrote in Latin.

These philosophers developed also a method of thinking, classicism. This thinking was the most dominant from the 17th till the second half of the 20th century. However, due to the French Revolution a new movement emerged in Germany, romanticism. Although they didn't last long, they had a profound impact on society. This and this article of The School of Life gives a good overview of the two contrasting visions.

Romanticism is a method of thinking that slowly affected the modern ideologies, despite being part of the Counter-Enlightenment [7]. Thus, it didn't disappear but rather got absorbed. As such, the current conceptions of liberalism, socialism and conservatism are romantic.

Conservatives are least affected by romanticism. Lots of the classical thought are still present today: evolution, modesty, politeness, education, value of institutions, responsibility, skepticism,... In a sense, conservatives are the true heirs of the Renaissance classicism while the other Enlightenment departed. However, as defenders of the nation-state, they were affected by romanticism. Especially the more authoritarian type of conservatism emphasizes on a strong nation-state. Peace through strength was the motto of Ronald Reagan. The neoconservatives are the most romantic of contemporary conservative thought.

Liberals are mediocre affected by romanticism. Contemporary liberalism greatly emphasizes on the ingenious individual, genre Steve Jobs and Marc Zuckerberg while classical liberalism emphasizes on the every-day individual. The transcendalists in America (Thoreau and Emerson) were very liberal, rejecting education and rather embracing original thinking. Liberals today go down the same path by thinking pupils can uncover truths by themselves, reducing the teacher as a mere coach.

Socialists are the most affected by romanticism. Postmodernism, environmentalism and today's SJW are deeply romantic: authenticity, revolt, searching for blame, outrage over dishonesty, all those things are deeply romantic concepts. In a sense it is curious that the most progressive and radical descendant of the Enlightenment is the most romantic of all [8]. It is my hypothesis that because socialism was so susceptible of romanticism, it infected the other ideologies through it.

It was socialism and nationalism after all that would become one of the deadliest combinations of ideologies of the 20th century. Especially the Left refuses to acknowledge that fascism and Nazism are in fact variants of nationalism. The narrative that they were simply extreme right-wing is strong. It is really a no-brainer that someone who referred to himself as "national socialist" was indeed a socialist.

Dutch historian and fascism-expert Robin De Faa recently wrote a book "Wat is fascisme? Oorsprong en ideologie" (What is fascism? Origin and ideology). He argues that fascism is revolutionary and utopian, like socialism, with an ethnic-nationalist flavour. It is not reactionary or conservative, and thus isn't extreme right-wing but extreme left-wing.


Although I'm not a historian of ideas, there are enough indications in the literature that the Enlightenment wasn't an unified movement, but rather from the beginning was split in two: the British Enlightenment and the French Enlightenment. Those two strands of Enlightenment had heavy disagreements about human nature, the course of society and politics.

Edmund Burke is often considered to be part of the British Enlightenment and as such, his thinking that inspired the making of what we now call conservatism, is in fact an Enlightenment "ideology". This is contrary to popular belief that conservatism is opposed to the Enlightenment, but that's because the Enlightenment got wrongly associated with the French Enlightenment.

The labels "conservative" and "progressive" are to me sociological phenomena rather than real ideologies. Conservatism is the defense of the established culture while progressive is the rebellion against the establishment. The two are thus not fixed but relative to a certain time and place and the content of it changes with each generation.

The two Enlightenment strands form the basis of the three most dominant political ideologies: conservatism, liberalism and socialism. Due to the dynamics of establishment and rebellion, all ideologies adopted aspects of the other. Liberalism for instant was originally part of the British Enlightenment but more French ideas like laissez-faire and homo economicus greatly changed its economics. It was later democratized and socialized under impulse of socialism

While in the past the three were deeply classical in nature, heritage of the Renaissance. All of them got influenced by the romantic counter-movement, originating in the beginning of the 19th century. The conservatism, liberalism and socialism of today are much different than in the 19th century.

What is the point of this all? Well, we should stop projecting our concept of Enlightenment unto the past. We shouldn't idealize the past and think that all Enlightenment thinkers were secular, revolutionary and democratic. We have no clue how current ideologies evolved and transformed over time. I will not pretend that I figured out what happened over the course of 200 years or that I didn't make any mistakes.

The purpose of this blog is to red-pill people: common conceptions of ideologies, especially conservatism, are deeply biased and flawed. I want people to think, I welcome reading some of the authors I referenced or searching for other authors who came to the same conclusions (and I would appreciate it if you would notify me of such authors, preferably via Twitter).

But I mostly want conservatives to know they do not need to accept the stigma of being Counter-Enlightenment anymore. Conservatives are the true heirs of the British Enlightenment, of great Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville and yes, Edmund Burke. It is also a warning to cherish that heritage and not waste it by falling for the left-wing romanticism.


[1] What I mean with "sociology" is that both conservatives and progressives are less well-defined ideologies, but rather are two opposing social forces. The ideologues look at conservatives and progressives as a clash of ideas and deduces from that the social conflict. The sociological look is to start from the social conflict and see the clash of ideas as merely rationalisations.

[2] What does it mean for the future of established political doctrines like liberalism or social democracy? Well, they will go extinct, we already see that in Europe. The social democratic party in France is pretty much gone. The Liberal Democrats are pretty much dead in Britain. Conservatives will take over their ideologies and they will need to find a new ideology. Today, they chose for multiculturalism, postmodernism and globalism. The new divide of conservative/progressive is culturally between nationalists and globalists.

[3] I would consider a fourth channel, the American Enlightenment: the Founding Fathers combined both French as British Enlightenment ideas into one coherent ideology, that later developed into republicanism embodied by the Republican Party (although since Reagan, the European liberalism has greatly influenced the Republican Party). But as American republicanism had little effect on the European river of ideas, I leave it out.

[4] With the Counter-Enlightenment I mean the ideas of the Tory party and Joseph-Marie de Maistre. They were feudalistic, absolute monarchistic, in favour of the Church (when Catholic) or Christian apologetic and of course opponents of the French Revolution.

[5] With social conservatism I mean the European sense, as in a form of conservatism that emphasizes on social reform for the betterment of the organic society.

[6] John Stuart Mill opposed a "pure" democracy like today as he believed the common people were too dumb to vote and pure democracy would lead to a dictatorship of the majority. He inverted the American idiom "no taxation without representation" into "no representation without taxation!". Mill believed those that didn't pay taxes (the poor mainly), didn't deserve the right to vote. Classical liberalism is thus anti-democratic! Socialists however were in favour of universal suffrage.

[7] I do not know for sure if romanticism is a direct descendant of the feudalist Counter-Enlightenment or that it rather emerged independently. Regardless, romanticism merged with the modern ideologies.

[8] Perhaps because romanticism isn't Counter-Enlightenment at all but the Enlightenment taken to its extreme. As I noted in the previous blog, postmodernism is hyper-modernistic by liberating the individual from all constraints. The result, subjectivity and relativism, is also the core of romanticism. Is this simply a case of convergent evolution of ideas? Or is romanticism part of the Enlightenment (as Jacques Barzun suggests in "Classic, Romantic, and Modern") after all?