Lessons from Burke: A Timeless Teaching on Virtue and Freedom

Edmond Burke was an intellectual giant of the eighteenth century who is unwelcome in the prissy safe spaces of the American University today because he is widely regarded as the father of modern conservatism. He was a Scotsman who moved to England and became a member of the old Whig party in Parliament (the Conservative party against the French Revolution). He boldly provided scholarly support for the colonists of the American Revolution, viewing them as British citizens getting their natural law rights trampled by their home country. He supported the American Revolution because the colonists had the biblical worldview that was essential for ordered liberty to thrive, as Os Guinness records in A Free People's Suicide: The Golden Triangle of Freedom: 


Burke knew that you can't impose freedom on a culture without the moral worldview to support it, as freedom carries with it the paradox of being its own undoing: its unchecked expression leads to chaos. When the chaos ensues, the people cry for order and when it's intolerable enough (riots in the streets, etc) they'll willingly trade their liberty for tyranny (This is the essence of Chicago-style politics being carried out by the Democrat Party today). As went the French Revolution, foretold by the clarion warning of Burke, they sent the ruling class to the guillotine and wound up with Napoleon.  As the devout Quaker who founded the state of Pennsylvania, William Penn (who preceded Burke by a half century) remarked, "You can either be governed by God or ruled by tyrants." France was not governed by God, thus, it was ruled by Napoleon. The historical lesson happened fast enough in the case of the French Revolution that it's impossible to miss the direct morality-freedom connection and close enough to our own time, considering the span of human history, that it ought to move us. Yet as we shall see, it doesn't. 

One of Burke's most famous quotes is "Those that don't know history are doomed to repeat it." The father of modern conservatism  elucidated one of the core tenets of conservatism: studying history to conserve the positive and learn from the mistakes of those who've experienced the hard way. As my mentor David Lane (founder  of the American Renewal Project) says: "There's no lesson in the second kick of a mule." The founders of the American Republic understood that the wise statesman "uses history to defy history." The human being is a fallen, imperfect creature and great, unbreakable empires (such as Ancient Rome and Babylon) have all been consumed by the vices of pride, complacency, immorality, corruption (and the other base manifestations of sin). The lessons of history teach that concentration of power in the hands of a few fallen human beings as well as cultures that cast off moral restraint are antithetical to the survival of a free people. Freedom cannot long suffer concentrated power and if private ethics aren't a public concern, freedom will cave in under the weight of moral darkness. 

The American founders, standing on the intellectual foundation of Edmond Burke were very clear that their grand experiment would only survive if the American people could govern themselves based on the biblical ethic of temperance. Otherwise, it would go the way of Rome. The Apostle Paul wrote, in his chapter on Christian Liberty, "For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Gal. 5:13). When liberty is untempered by the Christian ethic, it breaks down into license for evil, then tyranny. That's why John Adams, who was a Unitarian (not Christian in the orthodox sense), wrote in a letter to the Militia of Massachusetts: "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly in adequate for the government of any other." In the vein of Burke, Adams' point is history teaches that liberty ordered on founding documents means nothing if it isn't in the hearts and minds of the citizenry. 

Unfortunately, we have allowed a ruling class in America to rise to power today that completely scoffs at the idea of biblical morality and the notion that we can learn anything of value from the past. To the modern American progressive, the future starts today and the past filled with bigots and idiots unqualified to speak into our current situation. The fall of nations like ancient Rome carries with it no lesson for the contemporary American leftist applicable for the here and now. After all, they truly believe they are the product of the next stage of evolution, with the biblical idea of sin being an antiquated joke. All that's needed is for the rest of society to crawl out of the ancient gutter and catch up with them, if so, utopia would arrive tomorrow. In a devious method called "Deconstruction" the past is judged by today's moral norms, and evils overcome today (slavery) are used to show how awful the heroes of that era really were, all the while 3,000 babies are aborted on average each day in our own day's manifestation of evil. The science and philosophy are really quite clear that human life begins at conception, yet abortion continues at a breakneck clip in the nation who's Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson (a slaveholder, mind you), declares all humans created equal, "endowed by their Creator" with the inalienable right to life. 

Burke would tell modern day America that liberty is not in the hearts of the citizenry, biblical morality is no longer a public interest and we've completely ceased the Founders' mission to "use history to defy history" to remain "always free, free always." As such, we are doomed, as a people, to go the way of the other civilizations before us that thumbed the nose at ethics and thought they had nothing to learn from their predecessors. Of course, the American intelligentsia in academia, the media, and government regard Burke an outdated, knuckle-dragger from a past era we've long since evolved from as a species. They spit on the Burkean view of using history. Merely referencing the Holocaust (an event that occurred less than a century ago!) as a lesson in today's American public square will get you mocked mercilessly by the professors of progress who've declared such a ridiculous happening could never occur again, in their America (again, while one baby every thirty seconds is aborted). What's at stake in our day is tremendous. If we cannot, as a citizenry, heed Burke, drown out the pop-culture experts, and conserve and recover the principles of liberty, ethics and regards for the lessons of history, we will fast continue our decline past the point of no return. Indeed, we will have refused to learn from history, and will be doomed to repeat it, once and for all.