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Edmund Burke - avoiding the rule of evil men​

Read time: 4 minutes.
evil do nothing

Reflections on ‘Edmund Burke's battle with Liberalism - His Christian philosophy and why it matters today’.

by Samuel Burgess

Burke was an influential Whig politician at a pivotal time in American, French and English politics during the reign of George III. He is popularly known for quotes like ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. He was an influential speaker and friend of PM Pitt the Younger. He is actively studied today, not least as Western nations suffer a crisis of positive vision.

Samuel Burgess's 2017 book takes an academic look at key elements of Burke's thought as informed by his Christian faith. This was crucial to Britain's survival at the time. I've added some additional context.

Burke engaged with the cultural influences of the time. He started by asserting Natural Law – that man, though fallen, has a moral awareness given by God. This is given shape by the 10 commandments (earlier embodied in King Alfred’s law code) and exercised with the mercy and restitution of the New Testament. He contrasts this to the arguments of John Locke that man can rationally and scientifically decide what is right and wrong, and that he is independent and free by definition, declaring ‘The Rights of Man’ as first principles. Burke points out that this is flawed – we all exist in the complex relationships of families and society over many generations (and are far from perfectly rational (or righteous) in thought or action).

Christian-based form of Government 

Edmund Burke’s key work was to make the case for a Christian-based form of Government – not from a pietistic sense but because it was freer and better than what was being enacted in ‘progressive’ revolutionary France at the time. Britain avoided that chaos through God’s grace but most of that good has now been lost through lack of defence. Secular rationalism inhabits us all from school onward and we don't even realise what has been lost. An individualistic nature leads not to greater freedom (which requires goodwill and restraint) but to creeping authoritarianism. Those in power feel they have the right to exercise their personal will – why not do what I can get away with? Power is so attractive and so addictive. As commentator Harrison Pitt said recently ‘freedom doesn't carry any moral force any more’. Burke had warned earlier: ‘Liberty does not exist in the absence of morality.’

Limits on power

Healthy forms of government always have built-in limits on power (with varying degrees of enthusiasm!) because of the recognition of the fallenness of man. We have periodic elections against manifestos, then should have trusted institutions and honoured procedures to give effect to the people's choice. The US has ‘checks and balances’, in the UK ‘His Majesty’s loyal opposition’. And the opposition must act as such – we currently endure the ‘uniparty’ where the government’s agenda is not sufficiently scrutinised by Opposition MPs. Advancing contrary views is not just party politics, it is providing a necessary corrective. This has been massively missing, particularly in the last 3 years. Instead, as Burke said, ‘The essence of tyranny is the enforcement of stupid laws.

Incremental change

Burke valued incremental changes in law and institutions. This makes sense as we also adjust to changes in the external environment and relationships in the same way, balancing give-and-take a step at a time. This is much as a husband and wife do as they grow in marriage and raise a family. But it is always in the context of the reality of God, the nature of mankind and the witness of the Bible. This in contrast to the manufactured utopian rationalism he was seeing in France – which that nation paid for in blood - 20-30,000 were killed in la Terreur, the majority were peasants.

Incrementalism or conservatism is not preserving things to avoid change, it’s not traditionalism, but it's looking at situations in the context of God’s presence and adjusting things to fit more closely to His ways bearing in mind the lessons of the past, Burke: ‘Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it’. If we have been doing this earnestly over a period, with prayer (and there had been a lot over Britain), then we should have got some good way into settled arrangements, which we know how to adjust as we know the principles that got us here and will take us forward in God’s company.

Secular is not neutral

Many people believe that we live in a neutral state and that Christian views should not be forced on other people. Sure not forced – but the state culture is never neutral. The rationalist revolution has been all but won. Other people might be offended at Christian views - well we should be offended by theirs – the question is who is closer to the Creator’s views, which alone allows human flourishing. But it's not just views on specific topics, it’s a whole world-view that needs to be recaptured. Harry Blamires, friend and student of CS Lewis, wrote: There is no longer a Christian mind. There is still, of course, the Christian ethic; a Christian practice, and a Christian spirituality . . . But as a thinking being the modern Christian has succumbed to secularization...

The revolutionary secular state has already given up on a genuine belief in democratic ideals! We see in the US a politicising of the legal system and an interference in elections, which beggars belief (see this short interview). In the UK more draconian controls over speech and material freedom, a civil service that isn't. And there is always blood, of unborn, elderly, children.  This is fundamentally the result of a rejection of God, His ways, and of one day having to give an account of ourselves, but it is also the result of not engaging economics, politics, sociology or art with a Christian mind. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 2 Cor 10:5

Refreshing confidence

What is refreshing is Burke's confident attitude – you can either have the more solid institutions of state that Britain had developed through many reforming trials or the monster in France: mad, bad and dangerous to be a neighbour of. Britons paid in human life and in wealth (income tax was first levied) to defeat Napoleon’s well-prepared invasions, and to help free conquered Europe.

It’s encouraging that Burke’s approach, widely reflected in the country at the time, is being slowly rediscovered today, but is it enough? We all need to urgently recover our sense of God’s good sovereignty and get involved in rebuilding healthy civic structures.

Burke again: ‘The Fate of good men who refuse to become involved in politics is to be ruled by evil men’.