Edmund Burke, Magisterial Whig Protestant

I know, I know–I still owe one more post on Burke eviscerating fantasist utopian “justice” lunatics. I’m saving up my energy for that one.

In the meantime, I’ve also been reading William Hazlitt’s wonderful sketch of Burke in Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters. Hazlitt is always a delight, but especially so here.

Hazlitt did not side with Burke politically; he appended a footnote to the title of the essay as follows: “This character was written in a fit of extravagant candour, at a time when I thought I could do justice, or more than justice, to an enemy, without betraying a cause.” Yet, despite considering Burke an “enemy,” he declares in the essay itself, “It has always been with me a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.” Christopher Hitchens used this quotation to open a 2004 essay in The Atlantic.

In a particularly acute summation of Burke’s politics (with one caveat: the reader must ignore Hazlitt’s contention that Burke saw one of the purposes of society as “perfecting the nature of man,” which would have made Burke lose his mind, unless one take it in an Aristotelian sense of “completing” vel sim. due to man’s natural gregariousness), Hazlitt says this:

The simple clue to all his reasonings in politics is, I think, as follows. He did not agree with some writers, that that mode of government is necessarily the best which is the cheapest. He saw in the construction of society other principles at work, and other capacities of fulfilling the desires, and perfecting the nature of man, besides those of securing the equal enjoyment of the means of animal life, and doing this at as little expense as possible. He thought that the wants and happiness of men were not to be provided for, as we provide for those of a herd of cattle, merely by attending to their physical necessities. He thought more nobly of his fellows.

In using the analogy of the herdsman to (correctly) describe Burke’s politics–that is, that the magistrate does not simply provide for the belly, because he does not govern beasts–Hazlitt places him in a train of thought that is found everywhere among magisterial Protestant thinkers contending for the establishment principle. You find it, for example, in Richard Hooker and Peter Martyr Vermigli.

You also find it in Philip Melanchthon, used in the same way. Here are a couple of passages from my translation of A Summary of Moral Philosophy (forthcoming, Lexham Press). First:

In Deuteronomy 17, God makes the king the guardian of the law and of religious doctrine. And in the book called Wisdom, the following command is handed on at the beginning: “Love justice, you who judge the earth. Seek God,” etc. I cited very many similar statements above that remind princes about their highest duty. However, after the sacrificianados began to pass laws for the rest of the congregation according to their own will, and no one was permitted to disagree with the statements and judgments of the pontiffs, there crept into the minds of very many that princes had nothing to do with the care of churches and that to them had been entrusted only the defense of bodies and fortunes–that is, that they were guardians of the stomach alone. But if the stomach alone is to be cared for, how do princes differ from herdsmen? For one should think far differently, namely, that God, with wondrous wisdom and goodness, established polities not only for seeking and enjoying the goods of the stomach, but much more so that God might be made known in society and so that eternal goods might be sought.

Second, responding specifically to the argument that the magistrate ought to care only for the bodies of his subjects, Melanchthon writes:

The first argument: The duty of the magistrate is to protect bodies. The government of churches pertains to the soul. Therefore, the magistrate ought not to be involved in ecclesiastical affairs. 

I respond to the major premise. The definition is not complete when it is said that the duty of the magistrate is to defend bodies or peace, because what pertains to the magistrate is the preservation of external discipline not only according to the second table, but also according to the first. This, then, is a complete definition: The magistrate is the guardian of the law as far as external discipline is concerned, and he protects it with bodily force. Just as he prohibits adultery, so he ought to prohibit and punish Epicurean discourses and external idolatry and blasphemy. For there is no doubt that the second commandment pertains to the magistrate. There is a difference between herdsmen and magistrates: the former look only to animals’ stomachs; the magistrate ought to serve the glory of God. On account of this lofty duty, God imparts to him an association with his name.  

Make of it what one will, this is certainly the tradition of Burke, as is clear from his discussion of religion in the Reflections on the Revolution in France; and it is a product of Protestant political theory.


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This