Edmund Burke

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Edmund Burke (approx. 1767–1769) Edmund Burke signature.png

Edmund Burke (pronunciation: [bə: k]) (* January 1 July / January 12,  1729 greg. In Dublin ; † July 9, 1797 in Beaconsfield ) was an Irish-British writer , early theorist of the philosophical discipline of aesthetics , State philosopher and politician during the Enlightenment . He is considered the spiritual father of conservatism .

The writer and aesthetician

Burke studied classical literature and history at Trinity College Dublin from 1743 to 1750 . He did not complete a law degree that he had started. His writing began in 1756 with the work A Vindication of Natural Society , which is read by some as a satire , by others as "an anarchist criticism of the existing social order". In 1757 he published A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful (German: Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful) , in which he for the first time the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic category in addition to the beauty introduced . Immanuel Kant in particular took up this classification, but replaced the empirical justification with a transcendental one .

The politician

Burke worked from 1765 to 1766 as the private secretary of Lord Rockingham, the First Lord of the Treasury. In the course of his political career, Burke became a member of the Freemasons Association in London . His lodge was Jerusalem Lodge No. 44 . From 1765 Burke was a member of the British House of Commons for various constituencies . He made a name for himself as a shrewd thought leader and brilliant rhetorician . There is no coherently written political work by him. His political writings are made up of combat writings and speeches:

  • “Thoughts on the case of the present discontent” from 1770, a program of the opposition Whigs group against alleged constitutional violations by the king
  • several writings against the tax and colonial policies of the British government in America
  • his most important work: "Reflections on the Revolution in France", "Reflections on the Revolution in France" from 1790
  • further writings are directed against the policy of the governor general in India.

In his main work, the "Reflections" of 1790, Burke formulated a sharp criticism of the conditions and developments that prevailed in France at the time after the revolution of 1789 , which ultimately led to the Jacobin reign of terror in 1793/1794.

Burke found it inconceivable that a government of "500 lawyers and village pastors" could do justice to the will of a mass of 24 million and their varied needs. He viewed the rulers of that time with disdain and described them as intolerable, but at least described as upgraded by the apostate members of the higher classes who are now at the head of this group. The natural conditions, and thus law and order, have fallen victim to an ochlocratic order, and ultimately the destruction of property remains inevitable.

In the attempt by the victorious enlightenment thinkers to press France into a democratic form, it was dismembered. Burke considers the division into 83 départements , which he wants to be understood as republics, which for their part pursue autonomous aspirations and are hardly subject to central rule and also did not want to accept restrictions imposed in favor of the Republic of Paris, is highly questionable . The Republic of Paris will leave no stone unturned in order to strengthen its despotism .

Burke, with his skeptical attitude, rejecting rationalism in politics, stood in sharp contrast to Jean-Jacques Rousseau , to whom the masterminds of the French Revolution invoked. The attempt to lay down the principles of social coexistence a priori must fail because of objective reality and human nature, according to Burke.

The state philosopher

Image of man

Burke sees humans as imperfect beings who only achieve their full humanity in the community, in the state . The human being is shaped by his rational and emotional nature. His reason , however, is limited and also differently developed within humanity. People are not the same. Only in a structured state is it possible to perfect reason. Burke rejects the unlimited trust of the Enlightenment in the common sense of the individual. His conception of human rights was sharply criticized by Thomas Paine in the following years .

Conception of the state

Burke's concept of man relativizes the social contract theories of the Enlightenment. The hierarchy of a state is given by nature and by God. The origin of the state is thus behind a "holy veil". The state, with its form and structure, flourishes and grows with the structure of society . Burke sees the members of the government as representatives of the entire people, who, however, are only subject to their conscience (trustees) and therefore have a free mandate . Instead of revolutionary upheavals, Burke prefers permanent change in the constitution , which is why he resolutely rejects the French Revolution .

What is important to Burke is a historically slow growth and change that should not be hindered by politics - for this reason he supports the emancipation efforts in North America. In the three-way division of the crown, upper house and lower house, he sees the best protection against despotism, but also against the rule of the mob. The free mandate of the MP serves as protection against further democratization . In political parties (here only in factional form) he sees an effective containment of the monarchy .

It was Burke who indicted the Governor General Warren Hastings, residing in the British East Indies, of defiling England's reputation in 1786 . In 1795 Hastings was acquitted.

Father of conservatism

Since Burke first outlined the maxims of the conservatives in all their facets, he is also referred to as the father of conservatism. For the conservatives who join Burke, there is a divine or natural world order that is also reflected in society. Man is imperfect and sinful in his ideas . There is physical and mental inequality among people. Property , even if it is unevenly distributed, and the right to it, is an important cornerstone of a functioning form of society in the conservative sense . The conservative recognizes the downside of progress and knows that people are bound by tradition, religion, myths and the constitution. At Burke, the connection to a tradition is based on the idea of ​​a cross-generational community. It is important to use and further develop the experience and knowledge that are stored in the traditional institutions and customs, instead of implementing potentially devastating radical innovations: “Anger and delusion can tear down more in half an hour than wisdom, deliberation and wise caution are able to build in a hundred years. "

Therefore, in Burke's view, the democratic majority, which only represents the present, cannot have the right to radical innovations.

Incorrectly attributed quote

One of the best-known (alleged) sayings of Burke, “For the triumph of evil it is enough if the good do nothing!” (“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”) was u. a. quoted in the opening credits of the film Hitler - Rise of Evil (2003), in the film Tears of the Sun (2003) and by Martin Schulz (SPD) in a special broadcast by ZDF, which was dedicated to the European election campaign. Actress Emma Watson also quoted Burke's saying in her speech to the UN in September 2014 . Although Burke has expressed himself in a similar way several times, the quoted sentence is not found in any of his writings.

The famous quote comes from Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) and reads: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle. "


According to him, this is Burke County named in Georgia. In 1784 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh .


  • Philosophical research into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful. Newly edited in the classic translation by Friedrich Bassenge . by Werner Strube. Philosophical Library, Volume 324. Meiner, Hamburg 1989. ISBN 978-3-7873-0944-3 . First published in London probably in 1757 as A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful; with an introductory discourse concerning taste.
  • Edmund Burke: About the French Revolution. Reflections and treatises . Manesse, Zurich 1987 ISBN 3717580884 ; Academy, Berlin 1991 ISBN 3-05-001755-4 . Frequent reprints. First in 1790 as Reflections on the Revolution in France, And on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event , in London. The still classic translation by Friedrich Gentz dates back to 1793 ( digitized version of the 2nd edition ; digitized version of the new edition, published in two parts)
  • Olaf Asbach , Dirk Jörke (ed.): Edmund Burke: Tradition - Constitution - Representation: Small political writings . De Gruyter: Berlin / Boston 2019, ISBN 978-3-05-004492-7 .


  • David Bromwich: The intellectual life of Edmund Burke: from the sublime and beautiful to American independence , Cambridge, Mass. [u. a.]: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-674-72970-4
  • Emily Jones: Edmund Burke and the Invention of Modern Conservatism, 1830-1914. An Intellectual History Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Dieter Oberndörfer , Wolfgang Jäger (Hrsg.): Classics of the state philosophy 2nd volume . Stuttgart 1971.
  • Roger Scruton: Burke's Relevance Today (lecture in The Hague 2001) - German as Conservatism or Edmund Burke's actuality in: Secession . 3/2003, p. 14ff.
  • Robert Zimmer : Edmund Burke as an introduction. Junius, Hamburg 1995.

Web links

Wikisource: Edmund Burke  - Sources and full texts (English)
Commons : Edmund Burke  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. The year of birth is controversial. The year 1729 was determined from the ages of 1744 and 1797, compare pp. 4–5 in: API Samuels: The early life correspondence and writings of the rt. hon. Edmund Burke , Cambridge University Press, 1923. The date of birth January 12 is well documented, but the reference to the calendar is only based on circumstantial evidence; see D. Wecter: Burke's birthday , Notes & Queries , Volume 172, page 441, 1937.
  2. ^ Raimund Schäffner: Anarchism and Literature in England. From the French Revolution to the First World War. Heidelberg 1997, p. 68. This reading is supported by authors such as William Godwin and Murray Rothbard .
  3. Werner Strube: Edmund Burke . In: Julian Nida-Rümelin and Monika Betzler (eds.): Aesthetics and Art Philosophy. From antiquity to the present in individual representations . Krömer, Stuttgart 1998, pp. 151–156, here p. 152.
  4. Werner Strube: Edmund Burke . In: Julian Nida-Rümelin and Monika Betzler (eds.): Aesthetics and Art Philosophy. From antiquity to the present in individual representations . Krömer, Stuttgart 1998, pp. 151–156, here p. 155.
  5. ^ Robert A. Minder: Freemason Politicians Lexicon. Study publisher; Innsbruck 2004, 350 pages, ISBN 3-7065-1909-7
  6. cf. Ian Gilmour : Edmund Burke (1729-1797). In: Ders .: Inside Right. A Study of Conservatism. Robinson, London 1977, pp. 59-67, here p. 61.
  7. Edmund Burke: Considerations on the French Revolution. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1967, p. 257.
  8. ^ David Bromwich: The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke . Harvard University Press, Cambridge / Mass, 2014 ISBN 978-0-674-72970-4 p. 175
  9. See e.g. B. Edmund Burke: Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents , pp. 82-83 (1770). In: Select Works of Edmund Burke , ed. by Francis Canavan with foreword and biographical information, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis 1999 (Liberty Fund ed. 1999), Vol. 1, p. 146.
  10. ^ Fellows Directory. Biographical Index: Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002. Royal Society of Edinburgh, accessed October 13, 2019 .
  11. Online to p. 242 (of 285), edition 1794, Ex. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek , Fraktur (click: button "view reading sample"). Excerpts in Martin Morgenstern , Robert Zimmer Ed .: State foundations and historical meanings . Series Meeting Point Philosophy, 4: "Political Philosophy". Bayerischer Schulbuch Verlag BSV, Munich 2001 ISBN 3762703256 & Patmos, Düsseldorf 2001 ISBN 3491756413 p. 103f.