Edmund Burke, the French Revolution, and What It Means to Be Conservative

When asked to define conservatism, the average person would likely rattle off a list of policy positions. Conservatives are for lower taxes, smaller government, stronger defense, and more traditional values. Liberals, on the other hand, favor higher taxes on the wealthy, a more generous welfare state, a smaller defense budget, and more progressive social norms. But this brings us no closer to understanding the essence of either term.

A casual glance through Wikipedia will reveal that not only are there conservatives and liberals, but liberal conservatives, conservative liberals, and libertarian conservatives. There are also fiscal conservatives, national and traditional conservatives, cultural and social conservatives, religious conservatives, progressive conservatives, and authoritarian conservatives. What do they all mean? Is it even possible to boil all these diverse strands into a single, essential conservatism? If so, what value does it offer today?

I would argue that there is such an essence, rooted not in policy but in outlook. When presented with a problem, conservatives look to past experience for guidance. They espouse a view of human nature that is basically fixed. Man has always been man, and will never be anything but. Therefore, any system of ordering society or government will accept the very real limitations imposed by human nature. Utopian schemes, be they Nazism or communism, are thus to be rejected out of hand. As psychologist E. O. Wilson said of communism, “Great idea. Wrong species.”

What do conservatives seek to conserve? Tradition is the most obvious answer. The accumulated wisdom of past experience. Virtues such as loyalty, obedience, and sacrifice – traits that have gone out of style in recent centuries.

Conservatives look to the past and find beacons of light that still illuminate the problems facing human societies, as human societies themselves reflect our unchanging human nature. Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Franklin, and Dickens stand ready to point the way with sage advice and observations. Though none would pass the test of today’s utterly liberal social norms, conservatives are willing to forgive these cultural icons for tolerating and even justifying certain evils of their day, including sexism and slavery. Conservatives lack some of the smug self-righteousness of today’s liberal social justice warriors. They understand that we are essentially no better than our ancestors in the moral sense, though we benefit from a necessarily larger pool of human wisdom.

What makes defining conservatism and liberalism so tricky is that the meanings of both terms have evolved over the decades along with the political debates of the times. Yet both ideologies trace back to the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and continues to reverberate to this day. In the nineteenth century, many conservatives favored absolute monarchy and maintaining the social hierarchy, while opposing revolutionary movements. Liberals espoused Enlightenment principles of liberty, democracy, and nationalism, while often supporting revolutionary change.

Edmund Burke, who many consider to be the founder of modern conservatism, had this to say about the French Revolution, in particular the execution of Marie Antoinette:

Oh, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! … little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

The relationships here described help explain why some liberals can’t stand Downton Abbey, the acclaimed PBS drama with a distinctly conservative bent. Why, they must wonder, do the servants appear to care for the family instead of organizing a labor strike, or at least spitting in their afternoon tea?

In Downton Abbey and Poldark, another PBS drama set a century earlier, it is the middle class that provides the chief villain. It is interesting that Burke’s assessment should be echoed by none other than Karl Marx, the founder of communism. He describes a similar historical process in his condemnation of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, denouncing Burke’s “economists and calculators:”

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence…

Marx would no doubt consider Burke one such “reactionary,” pining for the lost chivalry and glory of a bygone era. But Burke was not the mindless defender of the status quo that some of his liberal critics thought him to be. He supported the American Revolution, even making a pleading speech in Parliament to seek peace with America:

Again and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it…. Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it…. Do not burthen them with taxes… If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery…

Burke’s support illuminates the essentially conservative spirit of the American Revolution, as oxymoronic as this may at first sound. Our Founding Fathers saw themselves as restoring their ancient rights as Englishmen, rights that stretched back to the Magna Carta, and before that to God’s creation of man. Unlike the Jacobins of the French Revolution, they did not seek to redefine and reinvent every aspect of society. They were, for the most part, students of history and men of faith. The idea of overthrowing Christianity would have never occurred to them, although it was attempted with disastrous results in France.

Burke understood the forces that connect us to each other better than most of his more liberal contemporaries. He knew that the strongest bonds are with those closest to us, but that “to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon… is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” Any system of government must recognize that we exist not as isolated individuals or a single, uniform mass, but as members of families and communities first.

It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the chief inspiration of the French Revolution, who first rejected this essential truth, seeing even the family as an artificial, modern construct that society would be better off without. Efforts to isolate the individual from the family culminated in the communist movements of the twentieth century and can still be seen today. Recall “Julia” of President Obama’s infamous campaign ad, who moves through life relying upon the state to act as mother, caretaker, and spouse. In sum, conservatives are more likely to see the family, not the individual, as the basic unit of society.

Can one be too conservative? Certainly, just as one can be too liberal. At the extremes of conservatism, we find reactionaries who reject practically all change and long for a return to a past that is already gone. At the extremes of liberalism, we find radicals who are willing to tolerate any amount of violence to bring about necessary social change, even if it brings only equal misery. Liberals praise dictators like Fidel Castro because they judge people on their good intentions and lofty ideals, not on the human misery and deaths that often result from misguided policies.

In their rush to remake society, many liberals dismiss the Constitution and the Bible as outdated and irrelevant, obnoxious hindrances to progress. They mistakenly believe that human nature itself can be changed. In their rush to redefine marriage, they jettison millennia of human experience without a second thought. But it does not stop there (it never does), as “male” and “female” are now up for redefinition as well.

It is true that conservatives are more cautious about launching into massive social experiments of the sort that liberals desire. But this does not mean opposing change at all costs. Recall that Burke himself supported the American Revolution and its emphasis on natural rights, while rejecting the radicalism of the French. As we survey the current generation of campus activists ready to protest at the slightest offense, it is worth asking – are we raising a generation of Jefferson’s or Robespierre’s? Does our path lead to the Constitution, or the guillotine?

A Question for Atheists

In 2012, a Gallup International poll found that 12% of global respondents identify as “convinced atheists.” In China, the figure is 47%, followed by Japan at 31% and France at 29%. In the United States, self-identified atheists have risen from 1% in 2005 to 5% in 2012. While this is still a very small figure, atheism predominates in certain metropolitan areas and career fields. A friend of mine living in Seattle recently expressed her frustration over the intolerance of the secular Left: “Up there, people think you’re an idiot if you believe in God.”

Make no mistake, even the historically religious United States is becoming increasingly atheistic. Since 2005, America has seen best-sellers on atheism by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and others. Religion is routinely mocked on social media and television, while atheism is portrayed as mature, rational, and tolerant.

America’s religious divide is also generational. Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) are the least religious demographic in America, and they are bucking past trends by becoming less religious as they age. Even writing from the Bible Belt, I have observed signs of a rising atheism amongst my high school students. A couple years ago, I was surprised when nine or ten students in a single class decided, unprovoked, to proclaim their atheism (I would never question students about their personal religious beliefs; we happened to be discussing the role of religion in early societies). Their line of reasoning went something like this: “Religion is great for people who find comfort in all that ‘God’ stuff, but as an educated person, I know better.”

Which leads to my question for atheists: where do you get your faith?

I understand people who believe in God, but have been turned off by organized religion. Periodic scandals, perceptions of moral hypocrisy, and revulsion over past misdeeds may be enough to discourage potential followers. On the other hand, a culture steeped in secularism or just general apathy might prevent someone from going to church, though they still believe in God and even pray on occasion. These are the unaffiliated believers, and their position (though not one I would endorse) makes a certain sense. It offers a starting point, at least, from which to move towards a deeper encounter with God.

I also understand people who feel that we humans simply cannot reach definitive conclusions regarding the divine, including some agnostics. Catholicism teaches that the exact nature of God is a mystery beyond humanity’s power to fully comprehend. The Trinity and the Incarnation cannot be rationalized without losing an essential part of their Truth. This makes some people uncomfortable, and they would rather not even attempt to understand something beyond the limits of human reason.

But to look out at creation and proclaim: “I know there is no Creator!” is beyond me. How do you know?

Imagine that I were to place a sealed up cardboard box in front of you and ask you what was inside it. You could shake, smell, and feel the box, but not open it.

If you were to hear clucking and the flutter of feathers, you would rationally suspect that the box contained a chicken. Even if no noises were to come from the box, you would be unable to rule out the possibility that it contained something very light or inanimate.

An atheist is someone who looks at the box and confidently proclaims: “There is nothing inside that box!”

Really? How do you know?

Merriam-Webster defines atheism as “a disbelief in the existence of divinity” or “the doctrine that there is no deity.” Both positions contradict logic and experience, but the latter is just absurd. How can one ever be 100% convinced that God does not exist?

Here’s another popular thought experiment. Imagine the world is made up of little cardboard boxes. You open the first to discover a red ball. You open the second and find another red ball. This goes on for hundreds and even thousands of boxes—all contain red balls. Just as you are about to open the millionth box, I ask you what it contains. “A red ball,” would be your likely answer. But what if the millionth box contains a white ball? You have no way of knowing until you open it.

Atheism is thus unscientific. It presupposes not only that mankind has never discovered support for the existence of a Creator, but that it will never discover evidence of a Higher Power at any point in the future. In fact, much of science already points to the existence of God. The most persuasive of these arguments is the sheer improbability of life in the universe. Scientists used to believe that the only necessary conditions for a planet to support life were size and distance from a star of sufficient warmth. But they have since discovered a multitude of other conditions, the absence of any one of which would render life on Earth impossible. It’s almost as if Earth was designed for life.

Atheists cannot explain the origin of the universe. The Big Bang theory supports the idea of a Creator by positing that all matter originated from a single point. In fact, if one little thing had gone differently at the moment of the Big Bang, none of the elements would have been able to form.

Atheists cannot explain the origin of life. They would rather believe that life originated from an improbably lucky accident or outer space (which, if so, how did it get there?) than entertain the possibility of a creator God.

Ironically, atheism is not without its crowned saint – Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution has long been atheism’s best argument or most cherished dogma, depending on your point of view. Never mind that atheists cannot explain how the universe or life originated; they claim to know that human life evolved from the most basic single-celled organism over millions of years by pure chance.

While persuasive on some level, this argument still has several holes. We can observe natural selection at work, or the process by which a species better adapts to its environment. But, to use the classic example, the fact that more black moths survived to reproduce that white moths in industrial Britain does not in any way refute the existence of God. What we have never observed is a species becoming another species. Currently the best theory as to the mechanism of evolution on a macro scale is random genetic mutation. But this explanation cannot account for the fact that most genetic mutations are harmful and/or can’t be passed on to offspring. The theory of Intelligent Design seems a persuasive alternative to me, but to many atheists this position is no better than Creationism; to be taken seriously, one must deny any role for God at the outset.

So what explains atheism’s appeal, especially among the young, urban, and educated?

My guess is that some people are just confused. They would like to believe in God, but falsely believe God has been disproved by science. Others are apathetic; they just don’t care. But for others, atheism fits nicely into their secular worldview. If there is no God, then I get to be my own god. If I was made not by a Creator, but by a series of lucky mutations, then there is nothing to keep me from remaking myself in the image of my choosing. I get to set my own rules, unconstrained by divine teaching or natural limits. Furthermore, I get the elitist’s satisfaction of believing myself superior to the ignorant masses, along with the occasional chuckle at their expense.

Atheists like to point to all the wars that have been fought over religion, but they ignore the far greater number that have been fought over just this sort of hubris, including the worst tragedies of the 20th century. The Nazis and the Soviets both rejected God, whether explicitly or implicitly, and decided to take human evolution into their own hands. They sought to remake not just society but mankind himself, with disastrous consequences. In the case of the Nazis, they even quoted Darwin in the process.

This is not to say that atheists are bad people—far from it. There can be and have been many good atheists or agnostics, just as there have been religious people who nevertheless committed heinous crimes. To worship is natural, and so is to doubt. But to categorically deny the existence of a Creator is unscientific, and atheism requires far greater faith than Christianity. My question once again for atheists is: where do you get your faith?