About the Talk

Can a moral or divine law independent of contingency accommodate the social and economic complexities of circumstance? Does a defense of custom necessarily repudiate the idea of immutable law applicable to all peoples and cultures? Is transcendent universality and spontaneous order reconcilable?

This episode explores this age-old tension with reference to the intellectual origins of liberalism and conservatism. These ideologies are often said to derive from the French Revolution, but their roots trace back even further to the tension between reason and custom in the early modern period. Thinkers and jurists such as Richard Hooker, Edward Coke, and Matthew Hale defended custom for embodying the distilled wisdom of the generations, while the social contractarian tradition placed heavy stress on universal rationality and legislative sovereignty to instantiate the principles of individual autonomy and equality in civil society based on abstract reason. During the pamphlet wars in England over the Revolution, Edmund Burke, considered to be the godfather of conservatism, expanded on such early endorsements of custom to defend the cultural inheritance of European civilization. On the other hand, Richard Price and Thomas Paine, among various adversaries of Burke, intensified the early contractarians’ emphasis on abstract reason to support the Revolution and attack Burke’s defense of custom and just prejudice.

This episode thus examines whether proto-conservatives, spanning from Hooker to Burke, and proto-liberals, spanning from Hobbes to Paine, persuasively harmonized their embrace of a universal moral law with their recognition of the complexity of social life. This inquiry will illustrate how the intellectual origins of conservatism and liberalism were premised on varying presuppositions about the sinful nature of man and the epistemological constraints of individual knowledge.

The Guest

Gregory M. Collins is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics at Yale University. His book on Edmund Burke’s economic thought, titled Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. Greg’s scholarly and teaching interests include the history of political thought, the philosophical and ethical implications of political economy, American political development, constitutional theory and practice, and the political theory of abolition. He has published articles on Burke’s economic thought in Review of Politics; Adam Smith’s imperial political and economic thought in History of Political Thought; Burke’s and Smith’s views on Britain’s East India Company and monopoly in Journal of the History of Economic Thought; Frederick Douglass’ constitutional theory in American Political Thought; Burke’s plan for the abolition of the slave trade in Slavery & Abolition; and Burke’s intellectual relationship with Leo Strauss and the Straussian political tradition in Perspectives on Political Science.

Greg won the 2020 Novak Award, awarded annually by the Acton Institute to one young scholar who conducts research on the intersection of liberty and virtue. His current book project is a study of the idea of civil society in African-American political, social, and economic thought.