During the past two centuries Burke’s political philosophy has been claimed by utilitarians, positivists, liberals, conservatives, Rousseauists, and even by neo-Marxists. Only since the middle of the twentieth century have his basic philosophical principles been so clearly identified as to justly categorize him as a political conservative.
Burke’s statement that “the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged” makes his politics a branch of ethics and thus separates him completely from Machiavelli and the whole modern political tradition that makes power supreme. His basic political principles are based on the ancient classical and Christian moral natural law, derived from God and perceived by all uncorrupted men through “right reason.” The moral natural law provided Burke with the normative principles by which to judge whether or not rulers used their power to fulfill or to violate the great ends of civil society—the protection of life, liberty, and property—which Burke regarded as the necessary means of achieving temporal happiness. Through legal prescription, which derived from natural law, Burke defended private and corporate property as the necessary condition of the maintenance of freedom in society.
The natural law furnished the moral basis for Burke’s other important political principles: his conception of international, constitutional, prescriptive, and statutory law; his view of human nature; the role of history in human affairs; his theory of the social contract; and the cardinal importance of moral prudence in practical politics. Burke believed that no moral problems are ever abstract matters, but are rather always embodied in concrete human conditions. Therefore, it was not necessary to appeal to the moral norms of natural law in every political conflict, since its principles were incorporated in the legal constitution of every justly organized society, which defined the legitimate powers and restrictions on power of sovereign rulers: “Power to be legitimate must be according to that eternal, immutable law, in which will and reason are the same.” This view implied that all power was given as a trust and that rulers were to be held strictly accountable for their actions—to God under natural law and to their subjects under both natural and constitutional law. Appeals to natural law were reserved by Burke for extraordinary violations of the moral law, as in British misrule in Ireland and India and in the Jacobin tyranny expressed during the French Revolution.
Like Aristotle, Burke believed that man is by nature a social animal. Therefore, he rejected every political theory of the origins of society based on the a priori assumption of a primitive or pre-civil “state of nature,” such as those propounded by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He refuted them with the aphorism, “Art is man’s nature.” Theories based upon a supposed “state of nature” were to Burke “the fairy land of philosophy.” They were highly dangerous because they ignored history and opened the door to ideological, abstract speculations that substituted for the facts of history fictions that were then taken for reality in practical politics. Social contract theories invariably conceived of society as consisting of so many isolated and self-sufficient individuals rather than corporate human beings living in organized communities. Burke was aware that for the corporate conception of man Hobbes had substituted monarchical will, Locke majority will, and Rousseau collective will, and that all of them ended by replacing community with some form of collectivism.
Underlying Burke’s view of civil society is his faith in a divinely ordained universe and a providential conception of history. Within history human nature, by virtue of reason and free will, provided the practical instrumental means of fulfilling its spiritual and temporal destiny through basic and necessary institutions, such as the family, church, and state. Burke’s moral values, derived from the religious traditions of Christianity and natural law, are realized in the historical process by their embodiment in the church and in all the civil institutions of society, and are thus transmitted from generation to generation. That is why history, conceived as providential development and empirical experience, is an important part of Burke’s political philosophy. In its unfolding, history reveals the divine purposes for man in the temporal order. This view does not mean, as some scholars have supposed, that Burke was a determinist or “historicist” who accepted whatever happened in history as good, including tyrannical regimes. Rather, it means that historical experience was an important source of knowledge and prudential wisdom. Burke defines history as “the known march of the ordinary providence of God”; it is to him a secondary form of revelation, supplementing in concrete form religious revelation and natural law. To Burke, history was “a preceptor of prudence,” not a depository of principles. A high regard for historical experience was one of Burke’s cardinal principles in politics because historical experience taught governors the cardinal virtue of temperance and directed them to put restraints upon their use of power. Finally, history provided warnings against seeking violent change through ideological revolution.
Burke believed that “society is indeed a contract,” but unlike Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, he believed that it was a contract between God and man and between all the generations of men within history—the past, present, and unborn generations.
Burke defined the politician as “the philosopher in action.” As a philosopher, the politician should adhere to moral natural law; as a man of action, he ought to be guided by prudence in practical affairs. Burke regarded prudence in all things a virtue, but in politics it was the first of virtues. Prudence provides the practical means by which moral natural law and constitutional law are fulfilled in the various concrete circumstances of man’s life in society. Prudence, which made politics an art, not a science, taught statesmen that “the situation of man is the preceptor of his duty.” This meant that “a statesman, never losing sight of principles, is to be guided by circumstances; and judging contrary to the exigencies of the moment he may ruin his country forever.”