Best known as the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke’s first work was A Vindication of Natural Society (1756). Published anonymously, it parodied the writing of Bolingbroke, a monarchist politician and Tory leader who rejected the dogmas and institutions of the church in favor of “natural” religion. Surely, argued Burke, if “natural” religion was preferable to organized religion, then “natural” society must be preferable to organized (“artificial”) society. In Bolingbroke’s style, Burke proceeded to enumerate the evils of the very “artificial society” which Bolingbroke had championed.
As a satire, the Vindication is enjoyable. In a page-long calculation, Burke totals up every human life lost in battle. This comes out to 36 million, which he multiplies by a thousand to account for all other “artificial deaths,” giving a figure of 36 billion—which, Burke notes, is more than the entire population of Earth and more than all the deaths caused by “Lions, Tygers, Panthers,” etc., that would plague a purely “natural” society. As a work of political thought, the Vindication suggests the absurdity of opposition to tradition and institutions. Why oppose the laws of religion but not of society? For “Civil Government borrows a Strength from ecclesiastical; and artificial Laws receive a Sanction from artificial Revelations.” Burke was a committed Anglican who praised the “veils” which tradition placed over human nature.
As Russell Kirk explains, “Any informed man, [Burke] reasoned, can see the absurdity of a ‘natural’ society, suitable only for savages … By analogy, ‘natural’ religion could only reduce man to anarchy of spirit and morals. For in matters spiritual, as in temporal, we require just authority, the wisdom of our ancestors, and the establishments which have been developed painfully, over many centuries, by men groping for means to know God and to live with themselves and with their fellow men.”
A Vindication of Natural Society is a satirical and insightful essay—a conservative classic written by the founder of modern conservatism.