faith: Edmund Burke

on Free Will, Christian Charity, & the Good Society

By Bradley J. Birzer|December 16th, 2016|Categories: Bradley J. BirzerCharityChristianityConservatismEdmund BurkeFeaturedSt. Augustine

Christianity, Edmund Burke held, is the great equalizer. Not only is it the first force in the world to recognize the moral equality of all men and women, but it allows the high and the low to become one in their equal desire for the good society…

saint-martin edmund burke
st. Martin of Tours

In a manner similar to Cicero with the Cosmopolis and St. Augustine with City of God, Edmund Burke defended the “whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth” as something greater than the immediate, the here and the now. Should the human person not attach himself to something grander than the moment, he “would become little better than the flies of a summer.” Without cultural and historical continuity, Burke warned, no real brotherhood of men could ever emerge. After all, how could any one generation or even several generations tell a man what was good and what was ill? If not in conversation with the past as well as with the future, how could the present anchor itself to anything beyond the ephemeral? We might very well know science, literature, manufacturing, and art, but by what means would a man “know what would be the test of honour?” After several generations of inheriting but not understanding the sources of science, literature, manufacturing, and art, each would decay, “crumble away, be disconnected into the dust and power of individuality.” After a suitable period of time of such corruption, even heaven would blow the remains into dust.

Understanding the need for some wisdom to be gleaned and understood over time, Burke claimed, the sagacious among us—presumably from Socrates to Joseph Addison—had engaged in not only a conversation, but, more importantly, a contract of all men, from Adam to the Omega. While one might call it a contract of sorts, it is really a partnership that crosses all of time.

It is to be looked on with other reverence because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only among those who are living, but among those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law.

Though Burke stated this explicitly, it should be stated again and again and again—as the ancient Stoics very well understood, man’s will can only embrace this reality… or not. Should man fight it, through ignorance or will, he can only pervert or mock reality, not actually change it. The law of nature is before, above, and beyond the will of any one man or any number of men combined. All associations, therefore, whether natural or willful, act merely as subsidiary parts of the eternal republic, the partnership of all over time. This applies to churches, to families, and to nations. Each can either obey or defy. If the latter, all lose. In what could have been written by the Roman slave, Epictetus, Burke explained:

The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles. It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion, and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule; because this necessity itself is a part too of that moral and physical disposition of things to which man must be obedient by consent or force. But if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken; nature is disobeyed; and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.

The true God, Burke claimed, loves order and loves perfection. As the author of nature, the human person, and the civilized state, God desires us to attain our end through virtue. He would never command such a thing without also giving humanity the means to make it happen. “He willed therefore the state; He willed its connexion with the source and original archetype of all perfection.” As such, Burke’s thought contrasted rather strongly with St. Augustine—who believed most governments mere “robberies”—but falls perfectly in line with St. Paul as he explained it in the thirteenth chapter of his letter to the Romans.

Following the thought of Erasmus and Thomas More, Burke called for a traditional renewal of Christian humanism as a means of engaging God’s will and the necessity of perfection in human community and, especially, in the state. “By this connexion,” he claimed, “we conceive that we attach our gentleman to the church; and we liberalize the church by an intercourse with the leading characters of the country.” This prevents the church from becoming puritanical and the natural aristocracy from losing its moral compass and anchor. A “Gothic and monkish education,” he continued, places the natural aristocracy in direct communication with the great scientists, artists, and writers who have “illuminated and adorned the modern world.”

Further, Burke claimed, religion is a real anchor, not a noble lie. Here, of course, Burke countered much of Platonic, Polybian, and Machiavellian thought. Most importantly, he believed, a faith in religion leavens true charity in the human soul:

But as they know that charity is not confined to any one description, but ought to apply itself to all men who have wants, they are not deprived of a due and anxious sensation of pity to the distresses of the miserable great. They are not repelled through a fastidious delicacy, at the stench of their arrogance and presumption, from a medicinal attention to their mental blotches and running sores.

Real charity, consequently, also prevents real boredom, “the killing languor” of any class or society.

Further, and just as important, a true Christian should proudly (if not sinfully) proclaim his Christianity as true and good, necessary to temper the ill and lift the good. Christianity is the great equalizer. Not only is it the first force in the world to recognize the moral equality of all men and women—past, present, and future—but it allows the high and the low to become one in their equal desire for the good society.

Finally, Burke reminded his reader, no religion understood the necessity and goodness of free will as much as Christianity. In the desire for the well-ordered society, the good man knows that many decisions must remain guesses and that true order comes from the justice of choice and dignity. “It is better to cherish virtue and humanity, by leaving much to free will, even with some loss to the object,” Burke convincingly wrote, “than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of a political benevolence. The world on the whole will gain by a liberty, without which virtue cannot exist.”