It’s All About Proportion

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Edmund Burke

In 1791, in a letter to a Member of the National Assembly, the British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke wrote:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. 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.

The above quote calls to mind another quote by the Roman historian Tacitus, relating to the character of his late father-in-law Agricola, “He took from philosophy its greatest gift: a sense of proportion.”

So Burke is saying that to the degree in which men (mankind) rein in their appetites, love justice, level headedness, and wisdom, will be the degree that men are capable, or qualified for (psychologically and socially) civilization, and without need for a greater degree of external (law and government) restraint or supervision. An observation that seems well supported by history, psychology, and common sense. Arguably, Burke is anticipating Sigmund Freud, and his idea that Civilization and its Discontents (degrees of restraint) actually make civilized society possible. In other words, civilization may have its discontents but God knows we wouldn’t want to live without them!

Of course Burke believed that the “controlling power” in each individual should mostly come from culture, custom, religion, and tradition. For the most part, I think Burke was right, but with a caveat—that surely Thomas Paine and the American Founders, revolutionaries themselves, I remind you, would sympathize with—that while all of these things are important, they can sometimes be the very things that are complicit in forging our fetters. Thomas Jefferson was thinking, I believe, along these lines when he wrote: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The tyrannies we suffer under aren’t always from the acts of other men, but are more often from pernicious ideas and beliefs that have slowly captured and infected our hearts and minds. And so we must be mindful that the conceptions that seemingly bind us together, may actually be the ideas, the mental chains, that are truly enslaving us.

I can imagine Burke, with a little chuckle in his voice, listening to all this and replying, in that Englishman’s voice slightly tinged with an Irish brogue, “Well, sir, I did say it was all about proportion.”

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