Category Archives: Western Civilization

Edmund Burke and Magna Carta

This was a talk I gave on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

Edmund Burke devoted the eighth chapter in his Abridgment of English History, to King John’s reign. He records that it was near the end of John’s reign that the barons forced him to place the royal seal on the provisions and undertakings that form the document called Magna Carta, Latin for Great Charter. The Abridgment of English History is a little known and almost entirely disregarded work of Burke’s. He began it in 1757 as a commission from publisher Robert Dodsley. It was one of the projects taken up when he abandoned the law to devote himself to a literary career. He never completed the planned series of books. Indeed, chapter eight is the final full chapter. The eight chapters plus a fragment of chapter nine, ‘An Essay Towards An History Of The Laws Of England’, appeared after his death.

The reader has to take seriously Burke’s title to his work on English history because a distinct purpose is revealed in the process of abridgment. Through the sometimes sparse historical details, the reader finds a concentration on the effect of the different settled arrangements (like custom and tradition) on the development of the law governing the English people. The contrast, though nowhere near as explicit as in his later writings, is between law as developed out of the concrete circumstances of a people being a people and law as the product of abstract speculation.  The fragment of chapter nine confirms this analysis.

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Some Reflections on the 1960s

Most Australians born after 1970 could not be blamed for acquiring the impression that the 1960s was one long party of sexual abandonment, drunkenness, the defiance of authority, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, British pop, anti-Vietnam protests, marijuana, hippies, flower-power and so on in that colourful style. One saying is that if you remember the 1960s, you were not there. A witty comment, but the small number abusing themselves to the state of memory loss are all long dead and in no position to make that boast. I can report first-hand, however, that this picture of widespread youthful abandonment is fanciful, designed to impress those who could not know better.

In July 1960, I turned fourteen. I was in my second year of secondary school. My father carried his camera around with him, ever at the ready to shoot photos of his adored children. We have thus a pictorial record of those years when five of my parents’ six children were in their teens.

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Enid Blyton: The writer’s 10 finest children’s books

Enid Blyton, the popular children’s writer, died 50 years ago this week.

Astonishingly prolific, the author composed some 700 books between 1922, when she published her poetry collection Child Whispers, and her death in Hampstead on 28 November 1968, often rattling out 6,000 words a day at the typewriter.

She has sold more than 600 million books, which have never gone out of print, been translated into 90 languages and enjoyed a loyal following among young readers for generations, her characters from the Famous Five to Noddy capturing the imagination and inspiring a taste for adventure.

But Blyton has also been heavily criticised. The BBC refused to dramatise her output during her lifetime on the grounds she was a “second-rater”, while she has been derided for the patriarchal assumptions, snobbery and xenophobia evident in her novels and mocked as a conservative relic of a Britain that no longer exists. Read on…

Reputation, Reason and the Enlightenment Project

Discussion of Chapter Six, ‘Reputation, Reason and the Enlightenment Project’, Second Part on ‘Thought’ of Jesse Norman’s book EDMUND BURKE: PHILOSOPHER, POLITICIAN AND PROPHET

Chapter Six, ‘Reputation, Reason and the Enlightenment Project’ begins the Second Part on ‘Thought’ of Jesse Norman’s book Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician And Prophet. Norman surveys the reaction to Burke’s writings and speeches following Burke’s death in 1797. He cites the views of many well-known historical figures in addition to lesser known names in the fields of academia, politics and literature. His conclusion, with which one should readily agree even on a brief reading of the opinions, is that there was much ‘bipartisan esteem’ of Burke’s thought.   ‘Amid the ferment of early nineteenth century social, economic and political change,’ he says, ‘many different writers were able over time to find ideas of enduring value within Burke.’ (KL 2320)

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the epiphany – the story of the three wise men

Matthew 2: 1-15 translated by Ronald Knox

1 Jesus was born at Bethlehem, in Juda, in the days of king Herod. And thereupon certain wise men came out of the east to Jerusalem, 2 who asked, Where is he that has been born, the king of the Jews? We have seen his star out in the east, and we have come to worship him. 3 King Herod was troubled when he heard it, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 so that he assembled all the chief priests and learned men among the people, and enquired of them where it was that Christ would be born. 5 And they told him, At Bethlehem in Juda; so it has been written by the prophet: 6 And thou, Bethlehem, of the land of Juda, art far from the least among the princes of Juda, for out of thee will arise a leader who is to be the shepherd of my people Israel.7  Then, summoning the wise men in secret, Herod questioned them closely upon the time of the star’s appearing. 8 And he sent them on their way to Bethlehem, saying to them, Go and enquire carefully for the child, and when you have found him, bring me back word, so that I too may come and worship him. 9 They obeyed the king, and went on their journey; and all at once the star which they had seen in the east was there going before them, till at last it stood still over the place where the child was. 10 They, when they saw the star, were glad beyond measure; 11 and so, going into the dwelling, they found the child there, with his mother Mary, and fell down to worship him; and, opening their store of treasures, they offered him gifts, of gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 Afterwards, because they had received a warning in a dream forbidding them to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country by a different way. 13 As soon as they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said, Rise up, take with thee the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt; there remain, until I give thee word. For Herod will soon be making search for the child, to destroy him. 14 He rose up, therefore, while it was still night, and took the child and his mother with him, and withdrew into Egypt, where he remained until the death of Herod, 15 in fulfilment of the word which the Lord spoke by his prophet, I called my son out of Egypt.

Burke on natural rights and the right to free speech

The arguments for free speech in current debates are almost exclusively based on a principal of utility. Simply put, free speech will result in benefits for society. Those acquainted with the academic discourse on free speech are likely to appeal to J.S. Mill’s utilitarian arguments which he summarises in four points. In brief, to suppress all beliefs in favour of one held to be the truth, presupposes infallible judgement. No one and no group is infallible. Thus the clash of many opinions is the way to the truth. That presupposes free speech. If people reason their way to true belief, they will not hold that belief by prejudging – not as a prejudice.

If arguments from pure utility are unconvincing for some, one can also mount a Burkean defence of free speech incorporating an idea of utility, but one drawn from man’s nature rather than resting solely on a principle of utility. There are two crucial passages in Burke that provide the basis. The first is in the Reflections:

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Edmund Burke on what it means to be a ‘people’

When Edmund Burke claimed in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs that the French Revolution ‘was a wild attempt to methodize anarchy; to perpetuate and fix disorder…that it was a foul, impious, monstrous thing, wholly out of the course of moral nature,’[1] he was targeting a particular theory of political organization now known as ‘social contract theory’. It is important to understand that for Burke social contract theory not only determines the form of political organization of a particular people but the accompanying social organization as well.[2]

The early theorists of social contract were Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Hobbes being considered the first to introduce the idea. Burke was clearly familiar with the writings of these political philosophers. There are recognizable references to Hobbes (Leviathan) and Locke (The Second Treatise of Government) in his speeches and writings, although he does not mention them by name. He was scathing about Rousseau, reducing his entire philosophy (including the Social Contract) to one of vanity, claiming that ‘with this vice he was possessed to a degree little short of madness,’ and that ‘it is plain that the present rebellion [in France] was its legitimate offspring.’ [3] In other words, he attributed the ‘wild attempt to methodize anarchy [and] to perpetuate and fix disorder’ in France to Rousseau as a major influence.

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Enid Blyton: 50 years after her death

Enid Blyton and her writing went through a bad period when the left had almost full control of the media. They dismissed her as a untalented purveyor of the West’s oppressive bourgeois capitalist society. It’s gratifying to see in recent times just tribute being paid to one of the greatest of children’s storytellers in English. 

Enid Blyton, the popular children’s writer, died 50 years ago this week.

Astonishingly prolific, the author composed some 700 books between 1922, when she published her poetry collection Child Whispers, and her death in Hampstead on 28 November 1968, often rattling out 6,000 words a day at the typewriter.

She has sold more than 600 million books, which have never gone out of print, been translated into 90 languages and enjoyed a loyal following among young readers for generations, her characters from the Famous Five to Noddy capturing the imagination and inspiring a taste for adventure.  Read on...

The Romance of Edmund Burke

For those of us who love Russell Kirk, T.S. Eliot, and Irving Babbitt, the extravagantly convoluted term, “the moral imagination,” rolls readily off the tongue and warms the heart like few other things. Yet, most of our closest allies on the right scratch their collective and individual heads in confusion. “What is this moral imagination,” they ask in some understandable bewilderment. The term comes from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. It only appears once in this seminal writing, but it is the cornerstone of the entire work. And, yet, even for those of us who love the term and the concept… we too easily employ it, more often than not, out of its context, thus rendering this precious Burkean-ism somewhat un-Burkean.  Read on…

Men are not marrying – why?

Karen Straughn is a popular youtuber who talks about men and their place in modern (feminist) society. An attempt in 2012 to explain why men are retreating from (feminized) society and avoiding marriage has drawn 1.9 million views and 33,000 comments. Her views are not what your average finger-wagging feminist wants to hear, and what should frighten the life out of the average young woman who wants it all, including marrying a reliable man and having children.