Are Manners More Important Than Laws?

The World in FlamesThe world is a mess.

Our country is a mess.

And it’s hard to know where to begin to fix it.

Those of us who believe in Christ know two things. One, it will be fixed one dayTwo, our Lord calls us to make disciples until that day (and that will be part of the fix). But here is a voice from the past that might help us to think about the process a bit more clearly. The following is from the Kairos Journal.

Manners More Important than Laws

—Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797)

Born and educated in Dublin, Edmund Burke would play a major role in British politics from 1765, when he became private secretary to a member of Parliament (MP), until just before his death, some 30 years later. He served as an MP during the tumultuous years of the American and French Revolutions. His watchword throughout was “a liberty connected with order.” Though he was a lawmaker, he believed that law was hopeless if the citizens were not considerate of one another.

In this connection, Burke found the French Revolution particularly disordered, its leaders advocating “a system of manners, the most licentious, prostitute, and abandoned that ever has been known, and at the same time the most coarse, rude, savage, and ferocious.”1 Not long before he died, he wrote letters to an MP, urging that Britain not recognize the new French government. The following passage from one letter explains his stand for civility and decency.

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or sooth, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.2


1  Edmund Burke, Select Works of Edmund Burke, and Miscellaneous Writings, ed. E. J. Payne (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1999), 3.1.05, ed. E. J. Payne brkSWv3c1.html, (accessed November 7, 2005).
2  Ibid.

One thought on “Are Manners More Important Than Laws?

  1. Another twist could be what Lord Acton said, paraphrasing from memory . . . “Freedom is not the right to do what one wants but rather the right to do what one ought (to do).”

    Yes, if people can exercise personal responsibility on their own initiative that is better than compulsion by laws. But, as some, actually many, individuals cannot do this, the compulsion of the law is needed.


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