Friday, March 14, 2008

Edmund Burke: Irishman

Edmund Burke is an intellectual and philosophical lodestar for modern conservatives. This being St. Patrick's Day weekend it is only fitting to reflect on one of Ireland's greatest sons. Joseph Morrison Skelly has a brilliant essay over at National Review on how Burke's Irishness effected his outlook and what Burke might have to say about the war against Islamofascism.

Skelley quotes Russell Kirk's Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered, which crystallizes the essence of conservatism.

Burke’s chief concern had been for justice and liberty, which must stand or fall together — liberty under law, a definite liberty, the limits of which were determined by prescription. He had defended the liberties of Englishmen against their king, and the liberties of Americans against king and parliament, and the liberties of Hindus against Europeans. He had defended those liberties not because they were innovations, discovered in the Age of Reason, but because they were ancient prerogatives, guaranteed by immemorial usage.

Skelly reminds us that,What is more, 'Burke was liberal,' in the noble, traditional sense of the word, 'because he was conservative.'”

Skelly's thoughts on what Burke would counsel in the current conflict are also instructive

The question arises: how would this defender of ordered freedom respond to one of its greatest enemies today, namely, militant Islam? To be sure, there are fundamental differences, and we must avoid reflexive comparisons. The Jacobins promoted a political religion, while al-Qaeda adheres to a fanatical theocratic politics. The former sought to eradicate religion from society, the latter seeks to impose sharia law. In foreign affairs, Burke often counseled caution. Kirk is clear on this point: “a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.” In this spirit, some of today’s leading conservatives legitimately question the wisdom of foreign entanglements.

Yet when all is said and done, extremist Islam poses the same threat to our established way of life as the French radicals did in Burke’s day. He would espy in al-Qaeda the same evil he discerned in the Committee on Public Safety. In his masterful Letters on a Regicide Peace, he exhorted his countrymen to fight a “long war” against their enemies, and he would most likely advise the same today. In one of his last letters before his death in 1797, he urged his friends in Britain: “Never succumb to the enemy; it is a struggle for your existence as a nation; and if you must die, die with the sword in your hand.” These words could be Edmund Burke’s epitaph. They may also be our motto, on Saint Patrick’s Day, and until the “long war” is won.

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