Friday, October 18, 2019

Edmund Burke’s Critique of the Social Contract

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke predicts with amazing prescience that the French revolutionaries would destroy their country because they were motivated by the idea obliterating the political, social, and theological institutions and redistributing wealth. He also offers a good critique of the Social Contract theory. He points out that society is not an outcome of contract that people enter into at a particular moment. The contract among the people (if there is indeed a contract) is eternal and unstated and it includes the dead and the future generations. According to Burke, a political society is like an organism that exists over a period of time—it gains legitimacy through its traditions. The local loyalties of the people—the collectives like family, neighborhood communities, and the religious institutions—are the glue that hold the organism called society together.

Here’s an excerpt from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.”

Burke warns against the intellectuals who are backed by men who have acquired new wealth and have little respect for traditions and institutions. He says that these intellectuals are  determined to reform society according to abstract principles of reasoning. But their doctrine of “rule of reason” is actually a kind of despotism.

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