Edmund Burke’s Noble Lie (Reflections 3)

After defending the English Revolution of 1688 as a thing of a different and more respectable sort than the French Revolution of 1789, Burke goes on to argue against universal rights in favor of the particular rights of particular people. He believes that people receive their rights through inheritance from past practice, and that the French made a huge mistake to throw away that inheritance and try to invent a universalistic and rational constitution with no precedent. Reading Burke carefully, we begin to see that Burke supports a certain type of hypocrisy as essential for political stability, a noble lie of sorts. In the case of England, the Noble Lie perpetuated by the English parliament was that the Glorious Revolution did not establish parliamentary supremacy and change forever the role of the monarchy, even though it did. The Noble Lie respects the sensibilities of people and does not push people’s imaginations beyond what they can bear, and in doing so, it prevents the snowball effect (if we can do this radical thing, we can do whatever we want) which results in social chaos.

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