'Burke opposed political change because he believed human nature to be intrinsically wicked.' Discuss.
Spinner (1991) Constructing Communities: Edmund Burke on Revolution Author 23/3 Palgrave Macmillan Journals, p401
To start with it is necessary to analyse to what extent Burke did actually oppose political change, before one can start actually questioning his reason for such a view. I would argue that in many ways Burke does not actually oppose political change, but rather believes change is necessary to safeguard some fundamental principles that can never be replaced. Edmund Burke's political theory was 'engendered in the context of the unfolding drama of modernity.' (Spinner (1991) Constructing Communities: Edmund Burke on Revolution Author 23/3 Palgrave Macmillan Journals, p401) In particular, his political ideas were a response to the rise of radical ideologies like Jacobinism. Burke's liberal conservatism opposed the implementation of drastic theoretical plans for radical political change but recognized the necessity of gradual reform. It was on these grounds that he supported the American revolution, but was also a strong critic of the French revolution.
'Burke's famous disdain for metaphysical ideas did not start with the French Revolution.' (Spinner, p405) Burke, sympathetic to the Americans in their revolution, argues that 'when a people rebel a wise ruler will listen to the people's wishes, ignoring whatever abstract right to rule he may claim to have' (Spinner, p407). When an entire people rise up in rebellion, they will have a good reason: 'General rebellions and revolts of a whole people never were encouraged, now or at any time. They are always provoked' (Burke, Edmund, 1968, Reflections on the Revolution in France: and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to That Event, Penguin, London,p203). An aggravated people can also assert that theoretical rights defend their actions. For Burke, however, a conversation over rights is a clear sign of a badly run state: 'The bulk of mankind on their part are not excessively curious concerning theories while they are really happy; and one sure symptom of an ill-conducted state is the propensity of the people to resort to them' (Burke, p235). Burke is unambiguous here: a generally supported revolt, like the American Revolution, is the mistake of the rulers and in these circumstances change must be accepted.
Burke's understanding with the Americans disappears when he examines France. 'The many people who rebelled in France, of course, invoked the rights of man to vindicate their revolution' (Spinner, p401). But the French Revolution can only mean that the French, a mislead people, are like madmen, who have been reduced to a state of 'savage, stupid, servile insensibility' (Burke, p43). Here, according to Burke, the King can be seen as a blameless victim who did little to create the uprising from the crowds; in this case the revolution cannot be seen as the fault of the ruler. Burke argues that the whole of Europe should defend Louis XVI's throne, claiming that doing so is protecting the respect and rights of all legal governments and therefore opposing political change.
In the Reflections, Burke began his criticism of the French Revolution with a forceful justification of the British Revolution of 1688, highlighting that he did not reject all political change. He was determined to prove that 'the British overthrow of James II was fundamentally different from what the French were undertaking.' (Heinemann, Robert, 1994, 'Bentham and Burke', Authority and the Liberal Tradition: From Hobbes to Rorty, Library of Conservative Though, Transaction publishers, New Jersey, pp156)
Radicals in England and France claimed that due to the Revolution of 1688 the British had acknowledged the belief that 'a popular election is the sole lawful source of authority' (Burke, p111). Burke saw the exact opposite as having occurred. The British upheaval of 1688 in fact had sustained the 'tradition of hereditary monarch and the underlying laws of governance.' 'Nowhere in the recognition of a new monarch or in the Declaration of Right was the right of popular sovereignty anticipated' (Heinemann, p164). Burke accepted that monarchs make mistakes and are not outside criticism, but he was absolutely loathed to leave behind the extensive customs of succession to the throne merely due to the 'passing errors of an incumbent' (Heinemann, p166). 'A particular king may abdicate or flee but he cannot thereby negate the fundamental constitutional law of the nation or destroy the social fabric' (Burke, p154). According to Burke, thoughtlessly, by demolishing the monarchy, the French had removed and relinquished their customs and ethics that had kept their nation together. 'They had acted on the basis of metaphysical reasoning disconnected from the foundations of a secure and stable life and had plunged France into chaos' (Heinemann, p168). The probability of such a result was why in Burke's view 'a revolution will be the very last resource of the thinking and the good' (Burke, 145). The British Revolution of 1688 had conserved the basics of the nation; the French Revolution was in the course of obliterating them.
Edmund Burke believed cautious change must uphold continuity with history. 'To alter fundamentally from the past, as the Jacobins did, is to reject the reward of prescriptive wisdom and knowledge.' (Lucas, Paul, 1968, 'On Edmund Burke's Doctrine of Prescription; Or, an Appeal from the New to the Old Lawyers', The Historical Journal, 11/1,Cambridge University Press, p36). It is, as Burke claimed, 'man is a most unwise and a most wise being. The individual is foolish...but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species, it almost always acts right' (Burke, p109). Prescriptive wisdom is imperative since it provides contact with tangible human experiences instead of theoretical principles. The variety and depth of historical knowledge is far superior to the knowledge of one man or one generation. 'The past must become a living past (Burke p73).' For this to happen tradition must be examined and reconstituted; the experiences of the past that contributed to civilization must be imaginatively relived and prudently applied (Lucas, p38).'
Burke believed human nature was separated by good and evil leanings. Evil is a lasting element of life on earth and subsequently 'political and social life must contend with the lower passions of men and women who, intentionally or not, do harm to others and themselves.' (Federici, 1991, 'Kirk's Fifth Canon of Conservative', The Politics of Prescription: Thought, Praeger Publishers, p21)This essential insight into human nature acts as a barrier resisting far-reaching change. It warns one to discard utopian ideas that start by asserting authority to an ideal man and society. 'The Gnostic impulse to remake the world depends on a rejection of the older sober view of man. A certain tolerance for evil must be cultivated because 'the devil we know is apt to be better than the devil that radical change engenders.' (Federici, 1991, p 23) The arrogance of the modern mentality is to take for granted that the current generation knows more than preceding generations and that reason and science can generate a novel world.
I would argue that Burke was not essentially opposed to all political change. He was not even necessarily opposed to all revolutions. The American Revolution was not the merely the only one he defended. Burke understood that English history is covered with uprisings: 'At various periods we have had tyranny in this country, more than enough. We have had rebellions with more or less justification' (Burke, p34). But Burke saw the French Revolution as being unlike these former revolutions. 'All sense of order and justice was destroyed by this revolution; emerging from this destruction was a new sort of government, one that had no place in Europe' (Spinner, p389). It did not maintain or modify. Previous revolutions may have 'changed a few things here and there, but they mostly preserved their nation's ancient institutions' (Spinner, p423). Burke refers to the Glorious Revolution as an example of a necessary change even though it was a 'departure from the ancient course of the descent of this monarchy' (Burke, p45). This reform 'restored the deficient part of the old constitution through the parts which were not impaired' (Burke, p67). Since this reform conserved the traditional constitution, Burke found it tolerable.
Although Burke may have accepted some political change, he stressed that 'without certain similarities and agreements a com-munity cannot survive; a community cannot sustain prolonged disagreements over fundamental principles' (Spinner, p). It must decide or be obligated to select which values will direct it. Unquestionably a few differences in a society are reasonable. 'Burke himself argues about many issues in Parliament. But some issues are beyond the scope of argument' (Spinner, pp). Burke appropriately specifies that a number of divergences threaten society itself. Arguments about some subjects are not disputes over what strategy the community should pursue or what its aims and goals ought to be.'." By not arguing or discussing certain matters that are exceptionally disruptive, a society can pursue its other targets.