By Dane Richard
In this essay I will argue that Edmund Burke’s view in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790) and Michael Oakeshott’s view in “On Being Conservative” (1956) both share the ideas of change, familiarity, and innovation; the three main facets of conservatism. Although Oakeshott’s work was written much later than Burke’s, the ideas are nearly identical, proving these facets of conservatism are some of the most common in the ideology, and that the ideas of the conservation of traditions and respect of familiarity still exist and are thus timeless conservative ideals.
Both Burke and Oakeshott emphasize the vices of radical change and the virtues of gradual change when necessary. Burke argues in Reflections on the Revolution in France that nations are built on traditions and persistence, as opposed to radical change. However, that was precisely the goal of the French Revolution, which was to be brought about by uprooting or “dissolv[ing] the whole fabric” of society ¹. Burke believed that trying to create social institutions from scratch would end up destroying the nation, as the long term evolution of society is what creates successful social institutions, and should thus be gradual. The English Revolution of 1688, for example, was an adjustment rather than the total removal of tradition: “All the reformations we have hitherto made have proceeded upon the principle of reverence to antiquity” ¹. In other words, Burke is saying that all of the changes that came from the English Revolution of the mid-17th century, was done as reformations, with deep respect for the social fabric of society – something that is formed over a long period of time. The French Revolution was quite the opposite. Oakeshott also valued gradualism and persistence; he states “…[the conservative] will find small and slow changes more tolerable than large and sudden; and he will value highly every appearance of continuity” ². Continuity of course cannot occur if familiarity is not respected.
Familiarity is another point the two men discuss in detail. Burke believed that the traditional definition of revolution, “a procedure or course back to a starting point”³ ( italics mine) is the proper function of revolution – the French Revolution was radical, seeking to completely replace long standing society with something new. What it was to be replaced by was ambiguous; at the time Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, the French Revolution was more of an abstract idea of peace and justice, which was untested and therefore carried much social risk, including bloodshed, as Burke feared. Clearly Burke preferred the familiar to the untried new in the same way that Oakeshott describes in a more general sense; he states “[f]amiliar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments”. Oakeshott argues, like Burke’s view on traditional institutions and long developed culture, that to keep and enjoy things one has learned to love is far more important than instilling new, grander ones, even if they appear as better. If applied to the events of the French Revolution, the two writer’s ideas are identical.
Gradual change is one of the most emphasized facets of conservatism that was presented by Edmund Burke in the late 18th century. 166 years later, Michael Oakeshott argues this facet of conservatism, but from a slightly different perspective. His writings were, like Burke’s, unmistakably conservative: “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untested, …” ². Oakeshott argues that change for its own sake is not always positive. For example, the death of a loved one or the loss of favoured customs are changes that are hard to accept, things one “actually enjoyed, … and what takes its place is something [for] which [one] has acquired no attachment” ². He discusses this concept further, stating “The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better” ². To compare the two writers’ theories, the “known good” can easily be taken in the literal sense as the social fabric described by Edmund Burke, and the “unknown better” as the peace and justice that was sought during the French Revolution.
Burke greatly preferred experience, historical proof, and traditional institutions to innovation, stating “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” ¹. Despite the criticism of abstract change, Burke was not against change in general; he argued for incremental, rational change that’s based on past experiences, and argued that “[a] state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”
Oakeshott argues that to be conservative is a manner of “accommodating ourselves to changes” ², as well as being averse from them. He also shares Burke’s view on using what is traditionally known to defend: “[T]he only means we have of defending [ourselves] against the hostile forces of change is in the open field of our experience…” ². In other words, the negative consequences of change can be challenged by one’s inherent beliefs and knowledge, as well as the experience of long-standing society. Oakeshott attacks blind innovation on the same argument as Burke; he states that “a [conservative] is not inclined to think that nothing is happening unless great changes are afoot…”. Finally, Oakeshott, like Burke, realizes that “[the end result] can neither be foreseen nor circumscribed” ² when it comes to innovation for the sake of improvement. He argues that innovations guarantee some sort of loss but some sort of gain; there’s no sure way of proving the innovation will be better as a whole except for the innovator’s word. Burke argues that a lack of restraint from the appearance of liberty in blind innovation, as well as the throwing away of common wisdom and virtue in exchange for the new is “folly, vice, and madness” ¹. It is clear these views of Oakeshott and Burke on change and innovation and the way in which we reform society are unmistakably conservative.
Comparing the two writer’s thoughts, it is easy to consider the ideas originally presented by Burke; that gradual change is better than radical change, familiarity is better than the unknown, and that blind innovation is dangerous are the most common, important assumptions of conservatism. These ideas coincide perfectly with the common conservative idea of conserving one’s society and its traditions, and as displayed by Oakeshott, will forever be apart of the conservative ideology.
¹ – Michael Oakeshott, “On Being Conservative” , Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen,1962), pp. 168-196
² – Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France  (Pearson Longman, 2006), p. 144.
³ – www.Dictionary.com