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When Conservatism found its voice

Summary:
On November 1st, 1790, Edmund Burke published his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” and articulated, what many regard as for the first time, the essence of Conservative philosophy. Despite general optimism in Britain and the US that the French Revolution would usher in an age of liberty and sweep away the privileges and petty powers of an oppressive aristocracy and an autocratic church, Burke predicted that the revolution would end in blood and chaos because it was founded on abstract ideas that ignored the subtleties and complexities of human nature and human societies.Burke stressed the importance of practicalities, of things that had survived the test of time and had been proved to work. The abstract and metaphysical reasoning was inadequate because it was not grounded in

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On November 1st, 1790, Edmund Burke published his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” and articulated, what many regard as for the first time, the essence of Conservative philosophy. Despite general optimism in Britain and the US that the French Revolution would usher in an age of liberty and sweep away the privileges and petty powers of an oppressive aristocracy and an autocratic church, Burke predicted that the revolution would end in blood and chaos because it was founded on abstract ideas that ignored the subtleties and complexities of human nature and human societies.

Burke stressed the importance of practicalities, of things that had survived the test of time and had been proved to work. The abstract and metaphysical reasoning was inadequate because it was not grounded in reality. He wrote:

"What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In this deliberation, I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor."

Burke took on headlong the assertion by Thomas Hobbes that Human society might be explicable on a deductive system like that of Euclid’s geometry. No, said Burke. Society is impenetrably complex and detailed, and defies reduction into simple principles. It is more akin to an organism, developing like a living entity, adapting and changing not according to some rational analysis, but more by reliance on the values transmitted by tradition

He argued that constitutional reform should be gradual, drawing on what had been inherited from the past and had proven its worth by the survival of societies that embraced practical values such as property rights and traditional practices. His case was that the imposition of theoretical abstractions such as the rights of man was too easily subverted and used to justify tyranny. The French might talk of asserting values that were rationally calculated, but it was the inherited rights, embodied and restated in England in Magna Carta and the Declaration of Right, that provided a secure base of continuity and acceptance that conveyed value in practice.

Burke’s reputation was greatly enhanced when the French Revolution degenerated into the repression and bloody savagery that he had predicted. He thus became hailed as the founding father of modern Conservatism. This is not the conservative character trait that Lord Cecil described as “a disposition averse from change,” but the political tradition (spelled with a capital ‘C’) that does not seek to conserve an outcome, but a process. It does not oppose change, but wants it to be organic and spontaneous, rather than imposed according to some plan. It is a tradition that has endured for more than the two centuries since Edmund Burke first gave it its voice.

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