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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versão On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versão impressa ISSN 0041-4751


ROETS, Ernst. Edmund Burke's traditonal conservative conception of freedom as opposed to that of modern conservatism. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2022, vol.62, n.4, pp.662-679. ISSN 2224-7912.

Even though Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is regularly described as the "founder of conservatism", it is argued in this article that Burke would not recognise his thinking in what is today regarded as modern conservatism. This is because modern conservatism - and the different strands that constitute it - can more aptly be described as particular strands within the broad framework of liberalism. The reason is that modern conservatism is in many ways built on liberal cornerstones, such as the pursuit of individual freedom, free markets, an appeal to political theory and a quest to universalise its way of thinking. Modern conservatism can be divided into a number of strands. It is argued that the most influential of these strands include: 1) libertarianism, which emphasises economic freedom as the primary determining factor for freedom; 2) individualist conservatism, which emphasises the individualist theories of among others John Locke and Thomas Paine; and 3) neo-conservatism, which emphasises its quest to universalise the Western conception of social order. The traditional conservatism of Edmund Burke - and his conception of freedom in particular - differs from the mainstream strands of modern conservatism in three fundamental ways. These can be summarised as: first, the pursuit of the good as the cornerstone to promote freedom; second, a view of the citizen as someone who finds meaning and fulfilment not by turning inward towards their individual selves, but by participating in the community towards the pursuit of the communal good; and third, by rejecting political theory as an approach to solving societal questions and resorting to experience instead. Burke linked experience to tradition, which he also described as the "wisdom of the ancients". Nonetheless, Burke has been described as a liberal and even as the first post-modern thinker. This can be ascribed to his criticism of the prevailing political forces of his time, his support for the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (according to which monarchical power was limited in favour of parliamentary authority) and his support for American autonomy from British rule. It is argued that Burke does notfit these ideological labels, as Burke's conception of identity and offreedom was fundamentally conservative and hardly reconcilable with the tenets of liberalism and post-modernism. Burkean thought is not characterised by an aversion to change, but rather by a pragmatic approach to political change, which favours gradual change and reform over sudden change and revolution. Therefore, he argued for change in favour of American autonomy from the British Empire. Burke argued that the Americans had developed a different culture than that of the British and that they could therefore not be governed by the British as if they had in fact been British. This, according to Burke's analysis, constituted not freedom, but rather imperialism and oppression, which could be described as the opposite of freedom. Burke clearly distinguished between his own conception of freedom (which places the emphasis on the fulfilment of responsibilities in the context of community) and individual licence (according to which freedom is regarded as a circumstance under which individuals can do whatever they please). In Burke's analysis, freedom can only be achieved by preserving what is good from the past and building upon it towards the good, which is grounded in Christianity. This, he argued, can only be done by valuing experience over theory. For this reason, he rejected the French Revolution's conception of freedom, describing it as unnatural and savage. For Burke, freedom naturally implied that citizens of the community should suppress their immoral appetites. Failing to achieve this or giving in to one's sinful desires was, in Burke's analysis, a state of slavery - not freedom. This is because the pursuit of the good naturally implies that freedom must be connected to the pursuit of virtue rather than licence. Therefore, Burke described freedom as "not solitary, unconnected, individual selfish liberty, " but as liberty "secured by the equality of restraint." It is thus concluded that in Burke's conception of freedom, he did not place the individual at the centre; nor did he define freedom along the lines of unlimited market participation; nor did he attempt to convert other cultures to his way of thinking.

Palavras-chave : Edmund Burke; freedom; conservatism; liberalism; tradition; the good; experience; rationalism; political theory; individualism; community; French revolution.

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