edmund burke[Excerpt from: William F. Byrne, Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics (De Kalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011).]

To the extent that there is such a thing as “Burkean conservatism,” we can get a glimpse of its true nature from a passage in the unfinished English History, a writing project which Burke undertook when he was about 28. Compared with Edmund Burke’s other writings this work receives little attention from scholars, and indeed much of it may be seen as less important than his more directly political or philosophical writing. Still, aspects of it yield vital insights into Burke’s thought, and into central questions about knowledge, morality, and politics. Especially noteworthy is Burke’s recounting of the conversion of England to Christianity. In this animated passage he relates the story of how Pope Gregory took care to accomplish the conversion in as gradual a manner as possible.[1] Rather than destroying pagan temples, they were slowly converted to Christian practice; longstanding pagan practices, such as the slaughtering of oxen, were deliberately continued near the new churches. Ceremonies and even doctrines were changed gradually. Burke explains:

Whatever popular customs of heathenism were found to be absolutely not incompatible with Christianity, were retained; and some of them were continued to a very late period. Deer were at a certain season brought into St. Paul’s church in London, and laid on the altar; and this custom subsisted until the Reformation. The names of some of the church festivals were, with a similar design, taken from those of the heathen, which had been celebrated at the same time of the year.[2]

Burke clearly approves of the manner in which the religious conversion was accomplished; he goes so far as to state that the Pope’s policy revealed a “perfect understanding of human nature.” If anything Burke may actually overstate the seamlessness of the transition to Christianity and the melding of the Christian and the pagan; this subject clearly captures his imagination. Why should this be so? For one thing, the incremental change involved in the conversion would seem to fit in well with the usual idea of “Burkean conservatism.” But a problem exists in that “Burkean conservatism” is typically associated with the belief that traditional knowledge and practices are, as a general rule, superior to new schemes. It is certainly not the case here that Burke could believe that the old paganism was superior, or even equal to, Christianity. His belief in and support for Christianity is evidenced throughout his works. While a few commentators have questioned the sincerity of Burke’s religious convictions, the vast majority have not; J. G. A. Pocock for example maintains that “the point at which his thought comes closest to breaking with the Whig tradition to which he deeply belonged was that at which he articulated his concern for clerisy. Burke’s religiosity—his awareness of the sacred, of the need for transcendent moral sanctions—was real.”[3] Moreover, just a few paragraphs earlier in his discussion of the conversion of England Burke remarks that Christianity confers “inestimable benefits on mankind” and that it helped change the “rude and fierce manners” of the Anglo-Saxons.[4]

Of course, one may construct an argument that belief in the superiority of Christianity to paganism is not inconsistent with Burke’s approval of the gradualness of the transition. Such gradualism appears to be a key component of “Burkean conservatism.” Because of the limitations of human reason, we cannot be sure how new schemes will play out; therefore, change should be incremental. However, a problem exists with this model as well. The standard “limitations of human reason” argument is generally used to oppose the sudden adoption of new, untested “rationalistic” schemes. That is, the model is generally understood to argue for respect for tradition, and for caution regarding the implementation of new plans or ideas for society. Christianity, however, was no new scheme; it was, in fact, a tradition, with centuries of experience behind it by the time of its introduction into England. It had been time-tested and, to a degree, had evolved and developed over time. Since Christianity had already been long proven and was not some new idea which had just been cooked up by armchair philosophers, there would presumably be no reason why it should be introduced into England in a cautious, incremental manner. Why then should Burke take a conservative or gradualist position regarding the introduction of Christianity, and even approve of the admixture of presumably inferior pagan elements?

Fortunately, Burke states quite plainly why it was desirable to ensure a gradual transition and to retain aspects of paganism wherever practical. Abrupt changes were avoided “in order that the prejudices of the people might not be too rudely shocked by a declared profanation of what they had so long held sacred.”[5] The danger Burke perceived lay not in Christianity itself as an untested scheme, but in the possible effects of any attempt to disrupt the pagans’ existing worldview. The “prejudices” of the people had grown up over a long period of time in the context of belief in a particular cosmological order and in the context of specific practices related to that belief. Consequently, the sudden profanation of the sacred would have wreaked havoc on the community by undermining its basis for order and meaning. Pope Gregory, in Burke’s eyes, understood the importance of preserving the old framework, and took pains to minimize the disruption which would occur as a result of the change in belief system. This argument, it should be made clear, is quite different from the usual understanding of “Burkean conservatism.” Burke’s focus is not on the “objective” problem of whether or not the innovation is “good,” or whether the change is suitable for the circumstances at hand. His focus is on the subjective experience of the people. This emphasis on subjectivity is one key to Burke’s approach to fundamental problems of order, meaning, and the good.

What informs Burke’s discussion of the conversion of England informs his politics and writings in general. This is a concern for what contemporary writers such as Charles Taylor have referred to in other contexts as “horizons of significance.”[6] Taylor’s term, however, might be understood as referencing explicit religious, moral, or teleological beliefs only, and Burke has much more than this in mind. In the above discussion Burke’s concern is not limited to the gods in which the pagans believed and any explicit moral codes which may have been directly associated with that belief. He is concerned about the rites, the practices, the physical structures, the geographical locations, the calendar, and various other elements which were present in the pagan religious culture. All of these elements worked together to give the pagans a sense of the sacred and to form a framework of order and meaning which shaped their lives. Without this framework the ordered lives and society of the pagans would presumably collapse.

The retention of so much paganism, which Burke regards so positively, might make some Christians uncomfortable. Objections could be raised that it would compromise, corrupt, or, at least, needlessly encumber Christianity. If Christianity’s truth and benefits are acknowledged, then, one might argue, it must follow that only the “purest” form of it should be pursued. Burke, however, sees things differently. For him the approach to the true and the good is not simply intellectual in character but broadly experiential, and involves much more than a conscious rational assent to certain propositions. This favoring of the experiential over the “rational” should not be taken to suggest that Burke is a radical skeptic, that he rejects reason or universals, or that he is less than fully committed to the true and the good. This subject will be taken up in some detail later, when it will be argued that Burke in fact possesses a greater sense of the sacred and a deeper appreciation of the search for what is true and good than do many of his critics.

The way in which the various elements of the pagans’ religion shapes their lives is through the feeding of the moral imagination. The term “moral imagination” does not appear in the Burke’s early English History, but much later in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke uses it when he is bemoaning the spread of the radical and rationalistic worldview of the French Revolution:

All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.[7]

Although the phrase “moral imagination” appears in Burke only this one time, it alludes to a set of concepts which are compactly present in his thought, which may employed to help make sense of politics and of his writings in general, and which, when developed, yield especially important and useful insights into the sources of political order. Burke never develops a detailed philosophical explication of his approach in one place; this is partly because, once he entered Parliament, his concern was much more for matters of practical politics than for speculative philosophy. The philosophical tools and language available to him were also different from those available today, and this may also have contributed to his difficulty in fully articulating his relatively novel perspective. However, the existence of this important and sophisticated, if somewhat compactly held, philosophical framework is readily apparent from an examination of the body of Burke’s writings.

In the particular context of the above reference to the moral imagination Burke is defending traditional elements of society—customs, manners, ritualized behaviors, common beliefs, symbols, etc.—which some would “explode” as “ridiculous” and “antiquated.”[8] These elements are for Burke necessary to the maintenance of civilized society. This is because they serve as reference points which constitute a kind of framework of meaning which underpins morality and order. The manner in which this underpinning occurs is complex, and will be explored throughout this book. To start, it may be observed that the source of any particular political or social order is found, to a significant degree, in the hearts and minds of the individuals who make up that society. Societies work (or fail to work) in particular ways because their members tend to think in certain ways. That is, they tend to frame questions in particular ways and tend to be inclined toward particular inferences, conclusions, and, ultimately, actions. These inclinations are partly culture-specific. The difficulties which often arise from attempts to duplicate a particular political system and legal structure in a context which is culturally different from the original, such as failed attempts to export Western European or American democracy to emerging third-world states, attest to the importance of these learned inclinations. For a stable and liberal state to work, people need to possess worldviews and habits which promote the kinds of behaviors that make it possible for such a state to work in the context of the particular physical conditions and other circumstances at hand. One commentator on Burke’s speeches, Stephen Browne, finds that “for Burke, the question of order is very much a matter of public virtue.”[9]

Related to Burke’s concern regarding character is his emphasis on prudence. A great many commentators have remarked on Burke’s emphasis on prudence in place of any particular conceptual formulas for politics. Most have viewed it favorably, but some have seen it as a weakness. In his introduction to a collection of Burke’s letters, Harvey Mansfield complains that Burke emphasizes “a moral prudence . . . . But he does not say how to be sure of the morality of prudence.”[10] While Mansfield may seem to be making a good point, it is important to step back and ask how one is “to be sure of the morality” of anything. What if Burke had instead emphasized liberty, or equality; how would we be sure of the morality of liberty or equality? How would we be sure even of the precise meaning of “liberty” or “equality,” in various specific circumstances? How, in fact, can we be sure of anything? Many people have been “sure” that the sun revolved around the Earth, or that bloodletting would cure disease, or that the abolition of private capital would lead to a workers’ paradise. There is always a problem of certainty of knowledge. The problem of moral certainty—which is in some ways a special case of the problem of certainty of knowledge—is perhaps especially acute. Consequently, there is always a problem of knowing the right thing to do. We are groping along in partial darkness.

What distinguishes Burke is not that he is unaware of this problem of knowledge but that he is so keenly aware of it, and that he approaches it with a relatively sophisticated moral and epistemological outlook. He knows that the adoption of certain political ideals or formulae such as the “rights of man” does not solve the basic problem of how to do the right thing. This does not mean that, in the proper contexts, formulae and ideals of various types cannot be helpful. But, they are not self-executing, and they are only partial expressions of complex truths. Likewise the adoption of particular political structures or rules will not necessarily yield good government, although such structures or rules may play an important role in promoting sound politics by interacting with other social and cultural elements in a desirable manner. Burke’s call for prudence is not meant to be understood as a simple formula which one can quickly adopt for automatic success. The development of prudence is a problem of both morality and knowledge—or wisdom—which takes time and effort to address. It is in part a function of the character, or thinking patterns, or inclinations, of a people; this is why Burke demonstrates so much concern for cultural elements and their role in shaping a citizenry.

For example, for Burke the “most important,” and most dangerous, aspect of the French Revolution is its “revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions.”[11] It is this cultural revolution, not the political revolution per se, which threatens to send Western civilization on a downward spiral into chaos from which it may lack the resources to recover. In the most extreme case, what is at risk is nothing less than our humanity. We need “the superadded ideas” because they are “necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation.” They make us who we are. And, for Burke, our ability to perceive reality, and, consequently, our ability to act ethically and effectively, is a function of who we are. Who we are, in turn, is in part a function of the kind of imagination we possess.

Books by Edmund Burke may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


1. One of Burke’s sources is no doubt Pope Gregory’s letter to Abbot Mellitus (A.D. 601), found in Bede, A History of the English Church and People (Historia Ecclesiastica), trans. Leo Sherley-Price, revised by R. E. Latham (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), pp. 86-7.

2. An Essay towards an Abridgment of the English History, in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Paul Langford, general editor, vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 430.

3. J.G.A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 281.

4. Writings I, p. 393.

5. Writings I, p. 394.

6. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 52.

7. Writings, VIII, p. 128.

8. It should be noted that the words “tradition” and “traditional” do not appear in Burke, and he uses a related term, “traditionary,” only once.

9. Stephen H. Browne, Edmund Burke and the Discourse of Virtue (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993), p. 87.

10. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., introduction to: Edmund Burke, Selected Letters of Edmund Burke, ed. Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 8-9.

11. Reflections, in Writings, VIII, p. 131.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email