Is Burkean Conservatism Anti-Ideological?
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Edmund Burke was one of the most prominent members of the Conservative traditionalists. He is considered the spiritual father of the conservative course in England. His ideological evolution, writings, and political career are not only a reflection but also an organic element of the formation of the ideology of conservatism. Burke’s parliamentary speech and political treatises, and especially his famous “Reflections on the French Revolution” expressed the essential trends of the ideology of conservatism on an international scale. Therefore, the name of Edmund Burke is associated with the first major theoretical performance against the French Revolution and the Enlightenment ideology in general. Many of his ideas of social development, freedom and equality, human nature, civil society, the political authorities, and the state have become part of the system and the conceptual and categorical apparatus of conservative ideology and politics. This paper will examine Burke’s views as related to the understanding of such issues as the ideological basis of conservatism, its epistemological possibilities, and practical interests of class power within the concept.
Ideological Basis of Burkean Conservatism
The English philosopher and politician Edmund Burke clearly formulated the meaning of conservatism for the first time. In modern societies, conservatism is one of the four so-called basic ideologies: democracy, liberalism, socialism, and conservatism. Conservatism is an ideological commitment to traditional values and order, social or religious doctrines. Within it, the main value is considered preservation of traditions of society, its institutions, and values. Conservatives emphasize the value of the existing state and social order and reject radical reform. The political meaning of conservatism as the type of thinking is rooted in the philosophical, religious, and ordinary consciousness.
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When considering the issue of the ideological basis of Burke’s philosophy, it should not be forgotten that he was elected to the House of Commons. He remained a member of parliament until the end of his days and became a recognized spokesman for the ideological and political platform of the Whigs. However, for Burke, membership in the party was not an obstacle to conservatism. At that time, the line between the parties was conditional. Party affiliation showed mostly the clan connections but not the political principles. That is why, being the enemy of serious reforms of the political system, Burke joined the Whigs (Norman, 2013, p. 10).
In his works, Burke and other founders of conservatism strongly rejected the basic thesis of the ideology of the Enlightenment. Burke denied the possibility of consideration of human nature, civil society, and the political authority from a general standpoint of reason, rationality, and the theory of “natural law” (Meyer & Goldberg, 2015, p. 89). He called this law morally and politically incorrect mainly because it claimed “natural” equality of people (Meyer & Goldberg, 2015, p. 89). He opposed educational presentation about the nature of social phenomena to a provision on the complexity and the organic nature of society. According to Burke, society is arranged in such a way that each part depends on the other, and all components are closely related to each other (Burke, 1872, p. 409).
As a rule, as an essential element of conservatism is considered the rejection of or hostility towards ideologies, ideas, theories, and so on. Conservative thinking is anti-theoretical in nature, while liberal rationalistic thinking purposefully designs all sorts of abstract schemes, according to which it tries to reorganize society. However, it is only one dimension of conservatism. The fact is that the very conservative is not the other thing than an ideological political movement for social and political thought, complex ideas, concepts, principles, and so on. In fact, when talking about anti-ideological and anti-theoretical nature of conservatives, people have in mind not that the conservatives have no ideas and theories, but the fact that they prefer pragmatism, opportunism, compromise before abstract schemes (Viereck, 1962, p. 100). Thus, conservatism is ideological in its essence.
Ideological nature of Burkean conservatism is expressed in the protection the principles of free market relations, individualism, free competition, criticism of government intervention, the welfare state, social reforms, and so on. The hard rationalism of philosophy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution guillotine practice led him to believe that the only decent a course politician was the ability to maintain when one was ready to improve. Thus, avoiding the very term ‘conservatism’, Burke articulated conservative political tactics: “The timely transformation is a friendly agreement when friend still has power while belated reform is a forced to contract under the conditions imposed by the victorious enemy” (Burke, 1872, p. 412).
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Traditionally, conservatism is identified with the protection of status quo existing at any given period of history institutions, social structures, values, and so on. In fact, a conservative could not ignore every single change. Burkean standard of a statesman corresponds to a combined predisposition to the conservation and the ability to improve. Thus, conservatism stands for slow and gradual change with the aim of preserving all the good and correcting the bad.
Within the interpretation of the role of the state in various spheres of public life, the position of conservatives varies depending on the particular circumstances. With the change in cash structures, the content of conservatism changes as well. Moreover, as Goodwin (1974) argues “Conservatism is a kind of ideological chameleon because its appearance depends on the nature of his enemy” (p. 123).
In other words, the most important provisions of conservatism evolved in response to the changes in ideological and political currents opposing it. It has a secondary character in relation to liberalism and various forms of bourgeois social reformism and radicalism. From this perspective, the ideological and socio – philosophical structures of conservatism are characterized by eclecticism and pragmatism. This determined its other important features – polyalternativeness and contradictory, sometimes reaching outright confrontation and the incompatibility of the individual components.
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It would be wrong to portray Burke as a deep theoretician or search for elements of sociological and political science concepts in his views. Burke himself treated abstract theoretical schemes with disgust. His judgments were usually made because of specific situations. He cared for the aesthetic side of things rather than the philosophical ones. He often sacrificed the logic in favor of the rhetorical effects. Hence, the mass of contradictions and inconsistencies, which even his admirers can hardly deny, appear. However, precisely because of this, Burke’s statement can be used widely in different contexts. This allows each new age to look for arguments in favor of an updated version of conservatism in his legacy.
Burkean Conservatism as Intellectual Guide to Conservative Rule
It is worth to consider not only conservative situation as a purely social and political situation, but view a conservative situation, in which there is the problem of knowledge, and the intellectual (or ideological) determination, and then political action. Conservatism as an ideological and epistemological program is an opposition to political rationalism. In other words, it is the attempt to construct political reality based on the categories of “pure reason” and bring the life of society from an abstract pattern (Bourke, 2015, p. 34). Burke opposes to this rationalism the idea of life experience, life skills only by which the most important and indescribable in words can be acquired. Being conservative means to prefer the familiar to the unknown, trialed to untested, the fact to the puzzle, indeed to possible, limited to limitless, close to distant, wealth to abundance, just convenient to perfect, the joy of today to bliss, promised somewhere in the utopian future (Bourke, 2015, p. 35).
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True knowledge for Burke always has the character of pre-understanding, prejudice. According to Burke (1872), prejudice meant the essence, the basis, a kind of crystallization of the results of any understanding in the history, feeling all the existing collective experience of humanity, country, nation, social class, family, and the individual in the form of established traditions, customs, and mores (p. 406). In this regard, prejudice is Magna Carta inscribed in the hearts (Freeman, 1980, p. 162).
Conservative solution to the problem of freedom is an intelligent solution. It focuses on knowledge of the conditions of its existence and good orientation in them. That society is most free, in which all its members are as much as possible aware of the conditions of its functioning and have strategies of action utilizing opportunities provided by these conditions.
At the time when society is threatened by revolutionary social change, the Conservatives try to lower their rates, so that society, at least, kept pace realizing the changes themselves. If such changes have already taken place, the conservative strategy is to establish links between the old and the new, establishment of continuity and associative correspondences, so that people could navigate the unknown, relying on well-known.
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Conservatism is characterized by exceptional attention to the “matrix”, which is formed by the orientation of its members in the community – to public decency, etiquette, superstitions, and mental attitudes. In other words, more than preserving the clarity of existing conditions, a conservative individual is concerned about the persistence of the mechanisms of understanding. Thus, conservatism can be understood as a certain system of cognitive categories and “synthetic judgments a priori”, prior to any act of political knowledge for the conservator and followed by a political decision (Bourke, 2015, p. 38).
It should be emphasized that the epistemological premise of conservatism is the dual nature of the socio-political process. On the one hand, it represents the evolution, development, and negation of the old, a break with the past and the creation of something new. On the other hand, it saves and carries the viable and enduring into the present and the future. Any socio-political system can evolve in many of its aspects, at the same time, maintaining the continuity of the other.
Burkean Conservatism and the Practical Interests of Class Power
In Burke’s philosophy, a certain important fact was reflected. The fact is that the ideologists of conservatism often were not well-born aristocrats, but representatives of the bourgeois intelligentsia that began to form back then as well as people who came from a nobility and sometimes even from the bottom. Aristocratic nobility rarely put forward thinkers from their ranks. The ruling class had the ability to attract the talented people who possessed neither the status nor a noble pedigree. Meanwhile, those often were attracted by the opportunity to join the aristocratic wealth or feel that they belonged to the elite (Levin, 2014, p. 234).
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In England, advanced on the path of the bourgeois development, the trend toward the separation of the spiritual and material work in the environment of the ruling class was especially felt. One part is the thinkers of the class; they are active, capable of generalizing ideologues who make the development of this class’ illusions about itself the main source of their livelihood (Levin, 2014, p. 238). The figure of Burke embodies many features that can characterize this group of the ruling class in general, and the dominant traits in particular that in some modified form can also be found in modern prophets of conservatism.
In the inheritance of the British Whig, feudal-aristocratic and bourgeois traits are intricately interwoven. They reflect the specificity of social development of England of the end of the XVII century, especially its ruling circles, the alliance of the landowning aristocracy, and the big bourgeoisie embodied in the Whig oligarchy. Burke was an undoubtedly gifted man. Due to the socio-economic development of his country, he was put forward in comparison with his continental counterparts, most of whom took an unequivocal position to protect the interests of the feudal-aristocratic elite. In the ideological and political evolution of Burke, the regularity typical for many conservative theorists and politicians revealed. He constantly shifted to the right while trying to keep a part of the old ideological baggage. Hence, the duality characteristic of him occurs, reflecting inconsistencies of a feudal-aristocratic and bourgeois component of the system of his belief.
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This duality of Burke is evident in his understanding of the “natural aristocracy” (Whale, 2000, p. 85). He included in this notion not only the nobility but also the rich businessmen, educated people, lawyers, scientists, and artists. Burke identified a fatal mistake of the French nobility, which ultimately led to the revolution. He considered it the fact that people from the bourgeoisie reached or even surpassed aristocrats’ level for their wealth but did not get that social status and dignity (Whale, 2000, p. 89). He saw the root of the evil in neglected traditions and values inherited from ancestors as well as in the fact that revolution mindlessly destroyed the spiritual resources of society and accumulated centuries of cultural and ideological heritage. Burke contrasted the radicalism and the unwritten British constitution with its basic values: concern for the political continuity and natural development, respect for tradition and the practical specific rights instead of the abstract idea of law, and speculation based on these innovations. In Burke’s views, the feudal-aristocratic and bourgeois components are linked together by traditionalism node. This traditionalism is a key element of Burke’s views that predetermined its role and place in the development of the theory and practice of conservatism (Eccleshall, 1990, p. 78). Thus, Burke believed that society should take for granted the existence of a hierarchical system among people because due to the imperfection of all human contrivances artificial redistribution of property may result in a catastrophe for society.
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The internal logic of Burke’s thought led him to the conclusion, important for the evaluation and understanding of the entire political ideology of conservatism. He formulated the answer to the question of the basis of human nature, social, political, and other changes. For the normal functioning of society that part of human nature, which includes the traditions, customs, habits, tastes, and needs of people, changing in the process of historical development is crucial. Adhering to a qualitatively different view and considering necessary firstly to focus on historical experience and tradition, Burke sees the social order not as arbitrary improvisation, but like all human relationships, as the result of a slow historical development. He seeks a solution of issues not in the individual mind, as the philosophers of the Enlightenment did, but in the public mind, or in the collective wisdom of the human race. Edmund Burke made a new step towards a correct approach to the analysis of many social and political phenomena, human nature, civil society, and political power. Not without reason, Burke pointed the importance of the historical tradition in human lives. Many conservative ideas and principles are now firmly established in the arsenal of the patriotic movement in the modern world and they remain an important component of the public consciousness.