It would be difficult to find a more beautiful republican thought in all of Edmund Burke’s writings than this: “A man full of warm speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country”…
“I have no doubt that some miserable bigots will be found here as well as elsewhere, who hate sects and parties different from their own, more than they love the substance of religion,” Edmund Burke wrote in his magisterial 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France. These very same men will be found to be “more angry with those who differ from them in their particular plans and systems, than displeased with those who attack the foundation of our common hope.” In more modern terms, as The Imaginative Conservative‘s contributor Phil Nielsen has argued, one might readily argue that there will always be Christians among us who hate sin more than they love love. Such is the lot of humanity and the human condition long after the Fall.
Such a recognition, Burke argued, neither excuses blanket toleration nor radical intolerance. Properly understood, the just opposite of intolerance is not tolerance, but prudence and temperance. Defined classically, prudence is the ability to judge good from evil, and temperance is the use of the created goods for the common good. As such, a man who claims to be tolerant of all things not only lacks prudence and temperance, but he is also not really not tolerant in the least. To be tolerant of everything is, simply expressed, to be tolerant of nothing.
Burke lamented that in France, as well as among the English supporters of the French Revolution, a number of those proclaiming universal toleration had arisen.
We hear these new teachers continually boasting of their spirit of toleration. That those persons should tolerate all opinions, who think none to be of estimation, is a matter of small merit. Equal neglect is not impartial kindness. The species of benevolence, which arises from contempt, is no true charity.
Taken with their own liberal spirit, they corrupt their abilities to act with true virtue. Indeed, rather than help those they claim to tolerate, they merely dismiss them as a morass of indistinguishable opinions.
In these words of Burke, one hears and reads echoes of Jesus’ teaching that it is best to be good, but better to be evil rather than neutral. The lukewarm, the Savior proclaimed, He would spit from His mouth. Though evil is evil, it at least shows that the man has used his free will, however corrupted and perverted—something far greater than allowing one’s will and gifts to linger, decay, and rot.
Shared humanity demands that we praise what must be praised, decry what must be decried, and reform what must be reformed. We must do all of these things, however, with a spirit of humility, knowing that as individual human persons, we understandably perceive universal truths and manifestations of universal truths in various and varied ways.
Even more dangerously, a people that tolerates all things will ultimately believe nothing. When this occurs, no one should expect justice or toleration or any liberality at any level of society. Instead, the ancient pre-Judeo-Christian horrors of “might makes right” will reassert themselves insidiously as well as prominently in the society, mercifully, perhaps, leading it by the hand toward the abyss of annihilation. Before that society succumbs to nothingness, however, it might well infect any other society it touches.
Taking his argument directly from Aristotle—but also indirectly from the long lineage of greats of Western civilization—Burke claimed that all political society existed to secure justice, the highest end of any good government.
If a people, though, have succumbed to false notions of prudence and temperance, they will readily succumb to a misunderstanding of justice, trading its inherent harmony with revenge, anger, and jealousy. In the very name of justice, the perverted will confiscate anything in the name of serving the so-called “greater good.” Their proclamations of justice serve as nothing less than a pure “contempt of justice,” allowing for the subversion and ultimate subjugation of society.
Not surprisingly, the very society that has overturned justice in the name of justice, turns to anyone or any group that promises order, no matter how perverted that order might be. At the time of greatest necessity, an order of any kind is better than anarchical and violent disorder. The society, then, becomes open to the greatest of mischiefs, the imposition of the human will upon the entire and fundamental pattern of existence. One might even—according to Burke—define the truly terrible man as he who believes himself the necessary and only guardian of society. “I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases,” Burke argued.
The true opposite of the egotistical strong man who claims to serve the “greater good,” for Burke, though, is the reformer of the “common good.”
A man full of warm speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.
It would be difficult to find a more beautiful republican thought in all of Burke’s writings than the above passage.
For Burke, every great statesman is a reformer, recognizing that his patrimony must be respected but, likewise, judged. Some things inherited must be passed on, some rejected, but most reformed. Real wisdom, Burke argued, came not from creating what we wish to be true, but by recognizing what is true and what, through our limited existence, can be made true. “Wisdom cannot create materials,” he wrote, “they are the gifts of nature or of chance.”
In the end, Burke claimed, men tolerate others not because they necessarily agree with their opinions, but because they respect the holders of those opinions, recognizing their own limitations and fallibility. Along with that respect comes a certain amount of trust that allows for the stability of property and, thus, of social order and harmony.
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