Kudos to Roger Simon for locating the original source of the paraphrased wisdom so often attributed to this great statesman and philosopher.
The thought may sound similar, whether we consider Burke’s actual words (above), or their usual adaptation: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
But, unsurprisingly, the sage is more precise than his interpreters. When times get tough, it may become necessary to “do something,” but “something” does not mean “anything.”
What ought we to do, and how? Burke helpfully specifies that isolated action is doomed to end in inglorious failure.
As Alexis de Tocqueville was later to note (and here I paraphrase): only the “art of association” will enable free citizens to guard and enjoy their freedom in a modern world characterized by mass movements and hypertrophic concentrations of social power.
The example of Simon’s sleuthing demonstrates that one form of association is the reading of those great works in which are stored the treasures of civilizational wisdom. The avid study of such works—whether by professionals or by hobbyists—constitutes a vital contribution to the formation or restoration of conditions making life worth living today.
But association also implies real engagement with living people in our present milieu.
By “real,” I mean something like what is described in this inspiring account of a group of citizens who responded to the madness afflicting our contemporary educational system by associating with others ready to form a coalition of the sane.
Setting up a classical academy, focused on the formation of hearts and minds in essential knowledge and civic virtue, these brave souls have dedicated themselves to the advancement of a genuinely common good—one that serves the true interests of students, parents, and society.
For their efforts, they have of course been rewarded with the standard slanders of selfish souls whose principalities they threaten. Though “49 percent of the students enrolled in charter schools are black”—meaning that such schools help to provide minority students with the kind of education their parents consider best—those striving to make this possible are dismissed as “racists.”
In addition to telling us all we need to know about the hypocrisy of the name-callers, this slur illustrates another of Tocqueville’s insights: “It will always be difficult to make a man live well who does not want to die.”
To serve as a board member for a classical academy today, one must be “willing to take a beating publicly, [and] lose friends and acquaintances.” Says one of the school’s founders, “I will die trying to open a classical public charter school.”
As Burke also implied, doing good in a fallen world requires sacrifice. To succeed at overcoming evil, we must be prepared to suffer—and to associate with others to ensure that our sacrifice is no “contemptible struggle” but instead a foundation for the flourishing of our fellow man.
This is the voice of practical hope in the modern world: “We were not afraid to fail. We tried a lot of things. It was hard, but we kept going because we believed the juice was worth the squeeze.”
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