Washington Fellows 2016: Session Four

Burke, Prudence, and the Spirit of Conservatism

Date: Monday, March 7, 2016
Guest Discussion Leader: Yuval Levin, Hertog Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

The great eighteenth century Anglo-Irish statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke was in important respects the father of modern conservatism. A champion of the American cause and a panegyrist to English liberty, he saw the great evils at work in the French revolution and in modern ideology, more generally. An evocative writer and rhetorician, he defended reform, not revolution, and what can be called a “politics of prudence.” He was the enemy par excellence of abstraction in politics, of an appeal to abstract ideas that ignores circumstances, the wisdom of the ages, and settled tradition.

Required Reading:

Levin, Yuval. The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left (Basic Books, 2013). pp. 177-204, 223-231.

Selection from “Reflections on the Revolution in France” by Edmund Burke found in: Muller, Jerry Z., Conservatism: An Anthology of Political Thought From David Hume to the Present (Princeton University Press, 1997). pp. 83-122. 

Recommended Reading:

Strauss, Leo. “Burke” in Natural Right and History. (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1953). pp. 294-323.

Pangle, Thomas L. and Ahrensdorf, Peter. “Burke’s Recovery of Ciceronian Natural Law” in Justice Among Nations: On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace (Univ Press of Kansas, 1999). pp. 183-85.

Session Four Required Reading Part 1

Session Four Required Reading Part 2

Session Four Recommended Reading Part 1

Session Four Recommended Reading Part 2

Session Four Recommended Reading Part 3

Discussion Questions

1.    In what ways is Thomas Paine the prototype of the modern intellectual who supports revolution not to relieve “specific grievances” but to found political communities on “proper foundations.” What precisely are those foundations according to Paine? How would Burke respond?

2.    Why did Paine believe that Revolution must be “total and uncompromising”? Did he learn anything from his own imprisonment in revolutionary France?

3.    In what ways was Burke both a counterrevolutionary and a reformer? Why did he fear Enlightenment rationalism as a new despotic “state religion”?

4.    What might Burke say about the American revolution in contrast to the French one?

5.    According to Burke, How did militant atheism inform and motivate the French Revolution? Why is such inveterate hostility to the Christian religion incompatible with a free and decent society?

6.    How do Burke and Paine continue to inform the thinking and habits of the contemporary Right and Left?

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