Some years ago I arrived very late for a talk on Edmund Burke that I was due to give (I had failed to come to London by train, I as should have, because a friend kindly offered to drive me to the event – and then everything went wrong).
Another person had kindly stepped into the breach and was giving the talk on Edmund Burke as I arrived. I noticed that the talk was very one sided.
Burke’s “Reflections….” (1790) was stressed, but his other works (over some 40 years of engagement in politics) were almost ignored. And even on Reflections on the Revolution in France the talk was very one sided – as it stressed the liberty-is-just-what-we-do-here side of “Reflections” and not the other side of the work.
Of course liberty was not just a habit or tradition in 18th century Britain – it was consciously chosen and supported, one only need look at the work of Sir John Holt (the classic “Old Whig” Chief Justice after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 right to 1710) to see that.
The 18th century was a time when Old Whig (such as Edmund Burke) and Tory (Dr Johnson) were united in what “liberty” was – both philosophically and politically.
On philosophy Dr Johnson famously said “we know our will is free – and there is an end to it” (meaning the philosophical dispute), in this he was not just saying much the same thing as the Scottish “Common Sense” Whig philosopher Thomas Reid (the philosopher most stressed by the American Founding Fathers – with their “we hold these truths to be self evident”) but also the Old Whig Edmund Burke – with his Aristotelian position that we can (with effort) choose to resist our desire (our passion) to do evil, and are thus morally responsible for our actions.
Not just an Aristotelian point by Burke (as if he were just following the anti determinist “On Fate” by Alexander of Aphrodisias – the great “Commentator” on Aristotle revered by later generations) – but a vital part of his Christianity, as it was with Dr Johnson also.
If we do not (with effort) know moral right from moral wrong and can not (with effort) choose to do what is morally right against our passion to do what is morally wrong – then liberty, including Christian liberty (the choice to pick up our cross and follow Jesus Christ) is nonsense, – we are just the flesh robots of Mr Thomas Hobbes and others, abominations that look and sound like people but are NOT people. This was common knowledge in 18th century Britain – after all Ralph Cudworth (the philosopher theologian who replied to Hobbes on such matters as morality and moral agency) was widely read in the 18th century (especially by people who followed the anti determinist Church of England at the time – and in Scotland the Calvinists tied themselves into knots trying to reconcile their Predestination with the obvious truth of moral self awareness – i.e. free will as James McCosh and others were going to continue to do in the 19th century). And an “argument” that runs “Cudworth believed in witchcraft – so he must have been wrong about moral agency” would have been rejected with contempt – and rightly so.
The politics of Old Whigs such as Edmund Burke came from their philosophy and their religion – without the philosophical foundation of moral self awareness (free will) their Whig Constitutional politics was absurd – and they knew it (one can not really, contra “The Constitution of Liberty” by F.A. Hayek, have Old Whig politics without the foundation of Old Whig philosophy of what a “person” is – they stand or fall together). And Dr Johnson”s Tory dreams of a moral monarchy were also meaningless (and he knew it) – if the King (a human after all) was not capable of telling moral right from moral wrong and not capable of choosing to do what is morally right against the desire (the passion) to do what is morally evil.
As for the “compatiblism” of Mr David Hume – Dr Johnson and Edmund Burke may not have agreed with the German philosopher Kant about much, or agreed with the later American philosopher William James about much – but they would both have agreed that compaibilism is a “wretched subterfuge” (an attempt to pretend that the radically opposed are “compatible” – via a mist of words) leading to a “quagmire of evasion”.
The person who was giving the talk on Edmund Burke had not just radically misunderstood 18th century Britain – he went on to talk about Ancient Athens here again liberty was supposedly “just what they did”, not something that they consciously thought about and choose.
In reality Ancient Athens was a place of open reflection about fundamental principles – both the plays of Ancient Athens and the political debates (they were both held in much the same place – with the citizens as either audience or the debaters) show this. It is hard to think of a more gross error to make about Ancient Athens that to think it was a place where liberty just happened by accident and was continued without people thinking about fundamental principles and choosing (of a while – a brief period in the grim history of humanity) freedom of speech and so on.
Indeed liberty “naturally” dies without conscious effort to maintain it. Edmund Burke did not invent the saying “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”, because this was commonly known.
When David Hume wrote of the “euthanasia of the constitution” – what was shocking was not the idea that liberty would be destroyed without constant conscious effort to maintain it (everyone knew that) – what was shocking was the seeming indifference of Mr Hume to this “euthanasia of the constitution” into absolute monarchy (after the manor of the “Sun King” – Louis XIV of France). He did not write as a desperate appeal to inspire men for the struggle to maintain (indeed advance) liberty, he wrote as if liberty was unimportant and humans were not beings (moral beings) anyway. That we are soulless (in both the religious and the Aristotelian sense) creatures. A position far away from both the Old Whig position of Edmund Burke and the Tory position of Dr Johnson (no wonder Johnson reacted with contempt to the suggestion that he and Hume were on the same side politically) of the individual standing against the forces of evil (the savage “Social Justice” mob or whatever) to the bitter end – if bitter it must be, as the sun sets and we collapse, broken sword in hand, into a pool of our own blood.
Both Whig and Tory went to see Addison’s play “Cato” – about Cato the Younger who fought to the bitter end to preserve liberty in the dying Roman Republic, and they both held it dear to them. I can not see Mr Hume being so moved.
18th century people knew that liberty naturally declines, that government naturally expands, without desperate resistance to this – without people making a conscious choice to stand for liberty, to risk everything for it (including their own lives). They did not need 20th and 21st century experience to tell them that without principled (“ideological”) opposition to it, the state expands and liberty dies.
“But Paul, David Hume said…” and “But Paul. F.A. Hayek said…..” – yes and they were obviously wrong.
As obviously wrong as those “libertarians” who, for example, think that Mr Donald Trump opposes free trade treaties because they are not free trade enough – when he actually opposes such treaties because they are too close (not too far away) from free trade. Ditto his position on government “infrastructure” (and other) spending, and so on.
It is not subtle errors of detail that cause the most harm – it is gross errors about obvious matters that cause the most harm. And these vast (gross) errors are the ones that intellectuals are most vulnerable to.
As Cicero pointed out – nothing is so absurd that some great philosopher or other did not believe it, indeed some things are so absurd – that only a great philosopher (someone who has left common sense so far behind that they are blinded by their own speculations) could believe them.
Preserve what liberty that still exists and seek, with all your might to expand liberty – be principled to the bitter end, if bitter it must be.
When the savage mob (each member of that mob could have chosen otherwise – but have made the choice for evil, deep in their souls they KNOW) come, with their Social Justice doctrines of group “Identity Politics” of “race” or “class” – it is the role of an honourable person to stand against them. Even if one’s death is the certain result of doing so.
And, no, one does not have to be a Christian to see that – one can believe that the soul dies with the body and still see that.