Catholic Social Science Review

Volume 17, 2012

Joseph Almeida
Pages 197-219

Constitutionalism in Burke’s Reflections as Critique of the Enlightenment Ideas of Originative Political Consent and the Social Compact

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is an anti-Enlightenment tract. His treatment therein of the British constitution (and constitutionalism in general) is set in critical opposition to the Enlightenment philosophical principles that animated the French Revolution. However, he often employs the very terms of Enlightenment political theory in framing his criticisms of Enlightenment principles. The solution to this interpretive problem is that Burke purposefully employed Enlightenment terminology in the Reflections precisely to signal his specific intention to criticize the key Enlightenment notion of political consent and to transform the Enlightenment theory of social compact into a theory of constitutionalism, understood as the generational transmission of prescriptive political institutions. Proof comes through a reading of the Reflections limited by the parameters of the problem of interpretation, which in turn indicates some general aspects of a Burkean theory of the political and social order.