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Burke: Finally a Promoter of Natural Reason

November 9, 2010

Why is it that almost every philosopher asserts that we must use our ability to reason in current times to correct the many mistakes of the past? Why is it that they insist that we can be so much smarter now, or any single person can be smarter, than the general consensus of prior civilizations and people; didn’t they have the same innate capability to think reasonably and intelligently that we possess now? Burke uproots the traditional philosophical trend of declaring a need for a complete upheaval, a need to start over and recreate a society that will be somehow profoundly better than the one we already reside in.

Burke states, ” A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors” (503).

In other words, he is essentially defending tradition. He is appealing to many in that he is actually realistic; people of the past did not get everything wrong. There are many codes of conduct and simple ways of the world that have developed and held because they were in fact right. In the above quotation, he does address that change can be beneficial and necessary (by the use of the word generally to provide for exceptions), however, he counters that by saying that nothing that forwards society can be established without maintaining some of the aspects of it that have proven to work. The entire system does not have to be effaced and declared utterly flawed; instead, minor enhancements are totally allowed but we have no right to assume that individually, we have an idea that solves all the problems in a society. In saying this, he takes a shot at many philosophers that came before him, especially Rousseau, invoking the concept that a following of Rousseau’s basic principles, the ideas of one man, led to the gruesome, deadly Revolution in France. Tradition didn’t spout out of thin air, Burke explores, it was agreed upon and lasted most likely because it was deemed reasonable by the general population over a longevity of time.

4 Comments
  1. arimark91 permalink
    November 9, 2010 6:34 PM

    Tradition is important, but to a certain extent. In discussion today we spoke about how Burke would support institutions at this school. For example, Burke would support fraternities. Fraternities are all about tradition and brotherhood, and Burke would love that because thats what he stands for. However, because Burke was so focused on keeping tradition alive, he did not support individualism, free thought, or liberty. College campuses are geared toward helping people become individuals. So while I do think that Burke would have accepted fraternities, I do not think that they would have accepted him. Yes, tradition is important, but innovation is great too. Many institutions have found ways to keep it alive while also letting members become individual thinkers. Burke is too focused on tradition, rather than finding a good balance between tradition and innovation.

  2. erikamir permalink
    November 9, 2010 7:04 PM

    You make a good point but as I have argued before, I am not a real big fan of Burke. Burke focuses on tradition and as you say that tradition lasted because it was deemed reasonable at the time. However some things just don’t work. Burke saw that these various revolutions would have heavy burdens. Traditions do not always work because times change and if we are to keep tradition you have to modify a particular tradition to fit the present day. Consider the original Constitution, it was geared toward White men, not women or minorities; but times have changed and amendments were made to modify tradition. Just something to think about.

  3. November 9, 2010 8:47 PM

    I believe you and Burke are correct in many aspects. It is true that total upheavals and complete change are not always necessary. But the fact is that sometimes change in necessary for improvement. You say about people, “didn’t they have the same innate capability to think reasonably and intelligently that we possess now?”. While people then did have the same intellectual capabilities as people now, they didn’t have the total sum of all the knowledge that we have today. In other words, people are more knowledgeable then people were back when Burke was writing. Systems in this world are not perfect and constantly need to be revised especially as tie goes by. If you look at the constitution of the United States, the founders made it a “living” document for this exact reason. While I respect tradition, I believe times change and sometimes tradition can’t hold up.

  4. thacarter4 permalink
    November 10, 2010 12:57 AM

    I like and agree with the idea that some traditions are necessary to maintain order in society and that sometimes subtle changes, instead of system wide ones are better for society as a whole. I also like that you used a lot more logic in this argument than Burke, who made pretty emotional appeals instead of arguing point by point. Where I disagree with this is the somewhat excessive praises of Burke’s writing, he was a traditionalist but he had pretty bad reasons for being one. He was supporting a disconnected monarchy in France even though they had repeatedly abused their people. By doing this he was taking a stand against individual liberties and against the people being able to decide who governs them and how they are governed. Maybe not every political system needs to be completely overrun but if Burke stood against upheaval in France it’s a safe bet that he was against the American revolution, which we now think was a pretty good thing. My point is that small changes are not always enough, sometimes to make real, meaningful progress we need a revolution.

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