Column: Fathers of liberal, conservative thought not what you might think

John Locke and Edmund Burke

John Locke and Edmund Burke

Editor’s note: This is the second column trying to answer a reader’s question, what is a liberal and what is a conservative?

I was hiking in Sedona and trying to work out in my head how I would introduce John Locke and Edmund Burke, considered the fathers of classical liberalism and conservatism respectively.

It was a tricky problem, because some of my readers might be learning about them for the first time, but many others probably know a lot more about the two men than I do.

How do you balance that?

The answer I settled on was literally staring me in the face during that hike.

“Good afternoon,” I’d say to one stranger. “Hello,” to another as we passed each other on the trail.

I encountered quite a bit of diversity on that Saturday afternoon hike. There was a couple speaking German (I think), a black woman wearing a large gold Ankh, a same-sex couple, and a mixed-race couple, among others.

How would these two great men react to such diversity?

I’m guessing Locke would be a bit overwhelmed, for that’s probably more change than he ever dreamed of. He would likely be shocked at how well his theories played out in real life, and then he’d be pretty proud. What he scratched out on paper some 300 years ago turned out pretty well. But that’s just a guess.

What about Burke? I was afraid you’d ask.

I was struggling to climb inside of Burke’s head. I thought maybe it was just me, but then I watched a lecture by one of the top philosophers of our day — Baroness Onora O’Neill delivered at Trinity College — talking about Burke’s take on human rights.

Thank goodness, that’s what I was trying to understand.

She said even today, more than 200 years after Burke’s death, there is no consensus from the leading experts on Burke’s opinions on that subject. Glad it wasn’t just me.

Locke wrote actual theories and gave arguments that supported them. Burke didn’t really do theories, his great contribution is more an attitude, an outlook.

What really makes Burke difficult to comprehend is he often contradicted himself. For example, he argued as a member of the House of Commons that the colonists in America were right to rebel and supported the American Revolution. However, he is best known today for his adamant opposition to the French Revolution soon after.

There is a logic to that contradiction, which I will dive into in a future column, but Burke is filled with nuance.

Not so much Locke. We know exactly where he stood, but there are some aspects of Locke that will trouble modern-day liberals, such as him being a major stakeholder in the Royal African Company, which engaged in slavery. Locke talked a great deal about Natural Rights, but it appears that only applied to white people.

Burke, however, appears to have been opposed to slavery, writing a letter detailing how the practice should be abolished.

So set aside for now what you think you know of the fathers of conservatism and liberalism, and try and remember both lived in very different eras. Their views were shaped by their faith (both were religious) and the wars of their times.

Locke (1632-1704) was an Englishman born into a wealthy family and received the very best education. He was studying to be a doctor, but a chance meeting with a lord in college changed the course of his life. He became a philosopher who is best known for three great works, one on politics, one on religion and one on education.

Burke (1729-1797) was an Irishman who was studying to be a lawyer before he decided writing and politics were more to his liking. He became a member of the House of Commons and was there during both revolutions, the American and French. He is remembered for a great humility, and a skepticism when it comes to politics and education.

We’ll go more in depth with each man’s political philosophy over the next two weeks, starting with Locke, who if he wasn’t the true father of our country, well, he was at least its grandfather.

Related Stories