Public Life
The Maxims And Reflections Of Burke selected and edited by F.W. Rafferty

We must soften into a credulity below the milkiness of infancy to think all men virtuous. We must be tainted with a malignity truly diabolical, to believe all the world to be equally wicked and corrupt. Men are in public life as in private, some good, some evil. The elevation of the one, and the depression of the other, are the first objects of all true policy. But that form of government which, neither in its direct institutions, nor in their immediate tendency, has contrived to throw its affairs into the most trustworthy hands, but has left its whole executory system to be disposed of agreeably to the uncontrolled pleasure of any one man, however excellent or virtuous, is a plan of polity defective not only in that member, but consequently erroneous in every part of it—Present Discontents (II. 32).

Gentlemen, warm in a popular cause, are ready enough to attribute all the declarations of such persons to corrupt motives. But the habit of affairs, if, on one hand, it tends to corrupt the mind, furnishes it. on the other, with the means of better information. The authority of such persons will always have some weight. It may stand upon a par with the speculations of those who are less practised in business; 'and who, with perhaps purer intentions, have not so effectual means of judging. It is besides an effect of vulgar and puerile malignity to imagine that every statesman is of course corrupt; and that his opinion upon every constitutional point, is solely formed upon some sinister interest. —Present Discontents (II. 72).

It is not enough in a situation of trust in the commonwealth, that a man means well to his country; it is not enough that in his single person he never did an evil act, but always voted according to his conscience, and even harangued against every design which he apprehended to he prejudicial to the interests of his country. This innoxious and ineffectual character that seems formed upon a plan of apology and disculpation falls miserably short of the mark of public duty. That duty demands and requires that what is right should not only be made known, but made prevalent; that what is evil should not only be detected, but defeated. When the public man omits to put himself in a situation of doing his duty with effect, it is an omission that frustrates the purposes of his trust almost as much as if he had formally betrayed it. It is surely no very rational account of a man's life, that he has always acted right; but has taken special care to act in such a manner that his endeavours could not possibly be productive of any consequence—Present Discontents(II. 79).

I remember an old scholastic aphorism, which says, "that the man who lives wholly detached from others must be either an angel or a devil." When I sce in any of these detached gentlemen of our times the angelic purity, power, and beneficence, I shall admit them to he angels. In the meantime we are horn only to be men. We shall do enough if we form ourselves to he good ones. It is therefore our business carefully to cultivate in our minds, to rear to the most perfect vigour and maturity every sort of generous and honest feeling that belongs to our nature. To bring the dispositions that are lovely in private life into the service and conduct of the commonwealth; so to be patriots, as not to forget we are gentlemen. To cultivate friendships, and to incur enmities. To have both strong, but both selected; in the one, to be placable; in the other, immovable. To model our principles to our duties and our situation. To be fully persuaded that all virtue which is impracticable is spurious; and rather to run the risk of falling into faults in a course which leads us to act with effect and energy, than to loiter out our days without blame, and without use. —Present Discontents(II. 85).

Public life is a situation of power and energy ; he trespasses against his duty who sleeps upon his watch, as well as he that goes over to the enemy.—Present Discontents. (II. 86).

I hope there are none of you corrupted with the doctrine taught by wicked men for the worst purposes, and received by the malignant credulity of envy and ignorance, which is, that the men who act upon the public stage are all alike, all equally corrupt, all influenced by no other views than the sordid lure of salary and pension. The thing I know by experience to be false. Never expecting to find perfection in men, and not looking for divine attributes in created beings, in my commerce with my contemporaries, I have found much human virtue. I have seen not a little public spirit; a real subordination of interest to duty; and a decent and regulated sensibility to honest fame and reputation. —Letter to Sheriffs (II. 283).

The applause of ambition—which though I am ready to consent is not virtue, yet surely a generous ambition for applause for public services in life is one of the best counterfeits of virtue, and supplies its place in some degree; and it adds a lustre to real virtue where it exists as the substratum of it. — Warren Hastings. Speech on the Sixth Charge.

There have been known to be men, otherwise corrupt and vicious, who, when great trust was put in them, have called forth principles of honour latent in their minds; and men who were nursed, in a manner, in corruption, have been not only great reformers by institution, but greater reformers by the example of their own conduct.— Warren Hastings. Speech on the Sixth Charge.

Ordinary service must be secured by the motives to ordinary integrity. I do not hesitate to say that that state which lays its foundation in rare and heroic virtues will be sure to have its superstructure in the basest profligacy and corruption. An honourable and fair profit is the best security against avarice and rapacity; as in all things else, a lawful and regulated enjoyment is the best security against debauchery and excess.— Economical Reform (II. 362).

I deceive myself indeed most grossly, if I had not much rather pass the remainder of my life hidden in the recesses of the deepest obscurity, feeding my mind even with the visions and imaginations of such things, than to he placed on the most splendid throne of the universe, tantalised with a denial of the practice of all which can make the greatest situation any other than the greatest curse.— Bristol, 1780 (III. 46).

He (Fox) will remember that obloquy is a necessary ingredient in the composition of all true glory: he will remember that it was not only in the Roman customs, but it is in the nature and constitution of things that calumny and abuse are essential parts of triumph.— Fox's India Bill (III. 137).

A conscientious person would rather doubt his own judgment than condemn his species. He would say, I have observed without attention, or judged upon erroneous maxims; I trusted to profession, when I ought to have attended to conduct. Such a man will grow wise, not malignant, by his acquaintance with the world. But he that accuses all mankind of corruption ought to remember that he is sure to convict only one. In truth, I should much rather admit those whom at any time I have disrelished the most to be patterns of perfection, than seek a consolation to my own unworthiness in a general communion of depravity with all about me.— Letter to Sheriffs (II. 284).

I am aware that the age is not what we all wish. But I am sure that the only means of checking its precipitate degeneracy is heartily to concur with whatever is the best in our time; and to have some more correct standard of judging what that best is than the transient and uncertain favour of a court. If once we are able to find, and can prevail on ourselves to strengthen an union of such men, whatever accidentally becomes indisposed to ill-exercised power, even by the ordinary operation of human passions, must join with that society, and cannot long be joined without in some degree assimilating to it. Virtue will catch as well as vice by contact; and the public stock of honest, manly principle will daily accumulate. We are not too nicely to scrutinise motives as long as action is irreproachable. It is enough (and for a worthy man perhaps too much) to deal out its infamy to convicted guilt and declared apostasy.— Letter to Sheriffs(II. 285).

I believe the instances are exceedingly rare of men immediately passing over a clear, marked line of virtue into declared vice and corruption. There are a sort of middle tints and shades between the two extremes; there is something uncertain on the confines of the two empires which they first pass through, and which renders the change easy and imperceptible.— State of the Nation (I. 353)

The ignorance of the people is a bottom but for a temporary system; the interest of active men in the state is a foundation perpetual and infallible.— Present Discontents (II. II).

That man who before he comes into power has no friends, or who coming into power is obliged to desert his friends, or who losing it has no friends to sympathise with him; he who has no sway among any part of the landed or commercial interest, but whose whole importance has begun with his office, and is sure to end with it; is a person who ought never to be suffered by a controlling parliament to continue in any of those situations which confer the lead and direction of all our public affairs; because such a man has no connexion with the interest of the people.— State of the Nation. (II. 35).

Public calamity is a mighty leveller; and there are occasions when any, even the slightest, chance of doing good must be laid hold on, even by the most inconsiderable person.— Conciliation (II. 172).

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