Religion & Liberty Online

Edmund Burke on true freedom

In the United States, a growing number of Americans, especially young Americans, are calling for extreme personal autonomy in the guise of “freedom,” while promoting increased government control and coercion.

The left, for example, defends radical pro-abortion laws motivated by a desire for personal autonomy. Yet, they look to the government to enforce their radical individualism. Additionally, the left’s praise of democratic socialism has increased dramatically in the past decade. Now, over half of Democrats are in favor of socialism and disprove of capitalism. Something doesn’t click here. How do these two ideas–radical individualistic freedom and radical government control–fit together?

Edmund Burke, a Christian humanist from the 18th century, provides key insight into this debate. Burke presents a traditional understanding of virtue and liberty, and argues that virtue is what qualifies the individual for a free society. Liberty is not just the unbridled pursuit of passion. In fact, in “Further Reflections on the French Revolution,” Burke argues that it is inner restraint that gives one liberty from his passion: “Men are qualified for liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Burke argues that men who do not restrain their passions, but rather pursue them are bound to them. This binding to passion is not true freedom.

Several institutions help the individual in his pursuit of true freedom. Burke names four: social, economic, political and religious institutions. These institutions help balance out the individual’s passions, and keep them in check. In doing so, they “provide the means for him to develop fully into the virtuous, free human being that God intended.” These institutions that have developed over time and throughout tradition have freed, rather than imprisoned, man. By providing the individual with the means for virtue, these institutions have shown man how to maintain dominion over his passions.

The new left adamantly rejects Burke’s understanding of tradition, especially religion. According to Frank Newport from Gallup, only 23% of Democrats are highly religious, whereas 51% of Republicans are highly religious. This is obvious in the Democratic Party platform, which focuses more on women’s reproductive rights and the right to abortion than it does in addressing religious freedom. The left’s growing rejection of religion, and tradition in general, highlights Burke’s critique of the French Revolution: “By re-educating his sympathies away from the traditional and the familial, the habitual and the customary, the revolutionary citizen “liberated” himself from the very circumstances in which most ordinary citizens enjoyed their liberty.” Indeed, these traditions, developed over time, have proven to provide the individual with the tools necessary for restraint. Why dissolve them, for the sake of unbridled, self-seeking, passion?

Burke argues that it is when these societal institutions break down, and inner restraint is not cultivated in the individual citizen, that a strong government is necessary for order. This strong-handed federal government is a form of artificial religion which, Burke argues, replaces authentic religion: “If after all, you should confess all these Things [rejecting the lawful dominion of our reason], yet plead the Necessity of political Institutions, weak and wicked as they are, I can argue with equal, perhaps superior Force concerning the Necessity of artificial Religion.” If people let passion drive them rather than reason, Burke concedes that the force of the political institution is necessary for order. It makes sense, then, that the progressive left, in seeking unbridled freedom from all institutions, find strong government necessary for order. They need a larger, overreaching government to fund this new, unvirtuous, reckless pursuit of freedom. Freedom from themselves, from man’s nature, and from liberty.

Not all hope is lost, however. Burke’s emphasis on preserving the institutions of the past as those which have shaped civil society. Institutions worth keeping. The recent explosion of classical schools across the nation gives me hope for the future of America. Education’s role of teaching the individual about reality, presenting the world as it is to him and his place in it, prepares the individual for self-government and civil society. Classical education’s focus on teaching the student how to live well through living a life of virtue, rooted in rich tradition, provides an answer to our nation’s shift in rejecting tradition and starting over with a tabula rosa. I am confident the next generation will be dedicated to shaping the minds and hearts of good citizens.


Featuring an image by Kencf0618 [CC BY-SA 4.0]