Edmund Burke Quotations

Edmund Burke / 1729–1797 / Dublin, Kingdom of Ireland (now Eire) / Politician, Member of Parliament, Philosopher

Atheists

The writers against religion, whilst they oppose every system, are wisely careful never to set up any of their own.

A Vindication of Natural Society (1756).

Boldness formerly was not the character of Atheists as such. … But of late they are grown active, designing, turbulent, and seditious.

Thoughts on French Affairs” (1791).

Change

Nothing in progression can rest on its original plan. We may as well think of rocking a grown man in the cradle of an infant.

A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol on the Affairs of America” (1777).

A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Chivalry

The age of chivalry is gone.—That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

I thought ten thousand swords must have leapt from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [Marie-Antoinette] with insult.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone!

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Compromise

All government—indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter.

Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies” (1775).

Curiosity

The first and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is Curiosity.

A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).

Entrepreneurs

There is a sort of enthusiasm in all projectors [entrepreneurs], absolutely necessary for their affairs, which makes them proof against the most fatiguing delays, the most mortifying disappointments, the most shocking insults; and, what is severer than all, the presumptuous judgement of the ignorant upon their designs.

An Account of the European Settlements in America (1757).

Habit

Custom reconciles us to every thing.

A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).

International Affairs

Whenever our neighbour’s house is on fire, it cannot be amiss for the engines to play a little on our own.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Law

There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity—the law of nature, and of nations.

Speech on the Impeachment of Warren Hastings” (1794).

Liberty

Liberty too must be limited in order to be possessed.

A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol on the Affairs of America” (1777).

Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist,

A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol on the Affairs of America” (1777).

Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found.

Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies” (1775).

Natural Reason

A good parson once said, that where mystery begins, religion ends. Cannot I say, as truly at least, of human laws, that where mystery begins, justice ends? It is hard to say whether the doctors of law or divinity have made the greater advances in the lucrative business of mystery. The lawyers, as well as the theologians, have erected another reason besides natural reason; and the result has been, another justice besides natural justice. 

A Vindication of Natural Society (1756).

We are indebted for all our miseries to our distrust of that guide, which Providence thought sufficient for our condition, our own natural reason, which rejecting both in human and Divine things, we have given our necks to the yoke of political and theological slavery. We have renounced the prerogative of man, and it is no wonder that we should be treated like beasts.

A Vindication of Natural Society (1756).

Order

Good order is the foundation of all good things.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791).

Past and Future Generations

People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Society is indeed a contract…it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Politics

Kings are ambitious; the nobility haughty; and the populace tumultuous and ungovernable. 

A Vindication of Natural Society (1756).

We scarce ever had a prince, who by fraud, or violence, had not made some infringement on the constitution. We scarce ever had a parliament which knew, when it attempted to set limits to the royal authority, how to set limits to its own. Evils we have had continually calling for reformation, and reformations more grievous than any evils. Our boasted liberty sometimes trodden down, sometimes giddily set up, and ever precariously fluctuating and unsettled; it has only been kept alive by the blasts of continual feuds, wars, and conspiracies.

A Vindication of Natural Society (1756).

People must be governed in a manner agreeable to their temper and disposition; and men of free character and spirit must be ruled with, at least, some condescension to this spirit and this character.


Observations on a Late Publication Entitled ‘The Present State of the Nation’” (1769).

. . . and politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature; of which the reason is but a part; and by no means the greatest part.

Observations on a Late Publication Entitled ‘The Present State of the Nation’” (1769).

It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the publick to be the most anxious for its welfare.

Observations on a Late Publication Entitled ‘The Present State of the Nation’” (1769).

The conduct of a losing party never appears right: at least it never can possess the only infallible criterion of wisdom to vulgar judgements—success.

A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791).

Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Power

Those who have been once intoxicated with power, and have derived any kind of emolument from it, even though for but one year, can never willingly abandon it.

A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791).

Public Positions

I need not excuse myself to your Lordship, nor, I think, to any honest man, for the zeal I have shown in this cause; for it is an honest zeal, and in a good cause. I have defended natural religion against a confederacy of atheists and divines. I now plead for natural society against politicians, and for natural reason against all three. When the world is in a fitter temper than it is at present to hear truth, or when I shall be more indifferent about its temper, my thoughts may become more public. In the mean time, let them repose in my own bosom, and in the bosoms of such men as are fit to be initiated in the sober mysteries of truth and reason.

A Vindication of Natural Society (1756).

Radical Egalitarianism

This barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

As much injustice and tyranny has been practised in a few months by a French democracy, as in all the arbitrary monarchies in Europe in the forty years of my observation.

A Letter to Captain Thomas Mercer,” February 26, 1790.

State of Nature

In a state of nature, it is an invariable law, that a man’s acquisitions are in proportion to his labours. In a state of artificial society, it is a law as constant and as invariable, that those who labour most enjoy the fewest things; and that those who labour not at all have the greatest number of enjoyments. A constitution of things this, strange and ridiculous beyond expression! We scarce believe a thing when we are told it, which we actually see before our eyes every day without being in the least surprised.

A Vindication of Natural Society (1756).

Consider the ravages committed in the bowels of all commonwealths by ambition, by avarice, envy, fraud, open injustice, and pretended friendship; vices which could draw little support from a state of nature, but which blossom and flourish in the rankness of political society.

A Vindication of Natural Society (1756).

Sublimity of Nature

A great profusion of things, which are splendid or valuable in themselves, is magnificent. The starry heaven, though it occurs so very frequently to our view, never fails to excite an idea of grandeur. This cannot be owing to the stars themselves, separately considered. The number is certainly the cause. The apparent disorder augments the grandeur, for the appearance of care is highly contrary to our idea of magnificence. Besides, the stars lie in such apparent confusion, as makes it impossible on ordinary occasions to reckon them. This gives them the advantage of a sort of infinity.

A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).