Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France

Burke

When reading Burke, it is hard to escape his imposing intellect, his world-weary wisdom which bears down softly but firmly. As both an Irishmen and proud Member of Parliament for the Empire he loved, for the England he cherished, Burke gave conservatism an unashamedly British colour. His Reflections on the Revolution in France takes the form of a letter in response to a member from France’s National Assembly who had asked his opinion on the Revolution in 1790. Having been a Whig for most of his life, the dawn of the French Revolution marked a development in Burke’s thought, finding himself politically homeless as he strode resolutely to the side of the landed class and the party whose overriding instinct to preserve was not only right, but fundamentally English. Throughout Reflections, we are reminded of the harmony between our constitution, culture and society; of how nature is reflected in all that we are, and all that our country is, by truth and dignity. There are many passages which exhale the importance of this relationship between nature and society, but the following, although at length, sums the wistful treatise on the British state rather well:

“Our Political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein the disposition of stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysteries incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly absolute.”[1]

He celebrated the evolution of the British state and common law, the slow, deliberate fortification of our ancient liberties and rights down the ages, passed undiminished from father to son. Even in the Civil War and Glorious Revolution Burke finds satisfaction in the way rebels fought to protect their rights of patrimony, not overturn them. Far from being a revolution, it was an affirmation of everything that our country stood. From this starting point, we do not struggle to wonder why Burke’s mind was repelled by events across the Channel; the French Revolution really was a revolution, not simply in the black-and-white rebellion of arms, but, most significantly, of spirit. Whilst he did lament the destruction of physical things, like buildings and art, his quiet temper soared at the loss of those irreplaceable and immortal institutions of state which gave to humanity its “decent drapery”; monarchy, nobility and church. There are times when Burke is cold and calculating in his critique, when he provides a strictly empirical indictment of the foolish choices the Revolutionaries made in their destruction of these institutions and their alternative institutions and ideas for society. He breaks down, at length, the faults of their economic decisions, the hypocrisies and faults of the new rulers. In fact, much of the letter is dominated by this, and the reader struggles to be but impressed and swayed. However, his most memorable and moving words pour from the elegant, emotional, more indulging passages, of which the following is the most well-known, following his defence of the Queen of France:

“[L]ittle did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour and cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult…But the age of chivalry is gone. – That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever…Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom…The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage, whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”[2]

Having read his Reflections, one is left in quiet admiration of Burke’s foresight, in his prophetic warnings of the direction of travel which France was taking. The revolution in spirit, loathsome to him, forcibly overturned and censored the past, coerced a false unity between the multilingual and semi-independent provinces of France, imposed artificial and uniform rights, language, culture, tradition and history from the top down. Bureaucrats in Paris were the architects and creators of a new, utopian society, to which none could safely disagree and which would be dogmatically and ruthlessly animated through the elevated but unstable military. Burke saw through all of this, and reserves merciless, empirical criticism for these innovations which were antithetical not just to the bottom-up construction of British common law, culture, and institutions, but to nature itself. Unlike the new, abstract French Declaration of Rights, our own law is organic, it “is the collected reason of ages, combining the principles of original justice with the infinite variety of human concerns“.[3] Unlike Rousseau’s “Social Contract” between citizen and state, our own social contract is “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born…the great primeval contract of eternal society“.[4] This, in particular, features in Burke’s writing. The debt the present owes to the past, what we owe to our forefathers, is ever present in his presentation of English society. Not only lessons, but guidance and prescription can be mined from history, along with the perennial inheritance of our immemorial rights as Englishmen, accrued over centuries so that no scrap of paper like the French Declaration could ever strip our citizens of such rights.

But Burke’s “letter”, (for it is several hundred pages long), is more than just his reflections on the French Revolution, it is also a treatise on politics as a whole, how society has come to be, and should be, ordered and operated. It is an organised outpouring of a conservative, counter-revolutionary philosophy which is unashamedly patriotic. He describes the natural chain of our affections: “To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle, of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” The acknowledgement of a hierarchy in our love reflects a natural sensibility of mankind – to love one’s own family before another’s. The step to loving one’s own country before another’s is but a short shuffle away, and as natural and as moral as our basic familial instincts.

On habitual innovators and reformers, particularly the forebears of socialists, he addresses their core plight, proclaiming that “those who attempt to level, never equalize”.[5] Later, he denounces their economic philosophy: “The whole indeed of their scheme of revenue is to make, by any artifice, an appearance of a full reservoir for the hour, whilst at the same time they cut off the springs and living fountains of perennial supply.[6] It is oh to easy to make comparisons in our own time with popular socialist movements in the Anglo-sphere driven by the same selfish, dogmatic obsession with the present, with no thought for the past or future. Inheritance and prescription is perhaps the surest bulwark of the stability of any society, and the enemy of this process is the enemy of our country at its most fundamental.

One of the most challenging issues is that of democracy. For Burke, the limited democracy of England was a fine institution because “The will of the many, and their interest, must very often differ; and great will be the difference when they make an evil choice.”.[7] We need politicians to have an independent and virtuous mind of their own to help guide our country, not be tarnished by the need to grovel to the electorate. Having politicians behoved to the occasional will of the people would encourage popular sycophants, who were often the same people as courtly flatterers in absolute monarchies, the same people who held power and authority. Absolute democracy, in Burke’s mind, was thus rendered as detestable as absolute monarchy. The landed classes must be overrepresented in order to maintain balance and conserve society. Under either system, which Aristotle thought ethically identical, politicians were debauched and depraved individuals whose politics and own moral imaginations were subsidiary to the will, and not the interest, of the people they served: “They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides of the people.”[8]

Neither is he an unabashed flag-bearer for liberty: “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”[9] Context matters, and abstract rights like the declarations from France and America are pitiful attempts to guide human affairs; in all things Burke is counter-revolutionary, in all things he is persistently reserved. Caution and prudence are amongst the highest virtues he extols, and the proper disposition of all policymakers. The organic state of Britain belied the “enlightened” men of letters on the continent and around the globe. It was a monarchy but it was free and loved by its people, it had a nobility yet it was regarded as the “Corinthian Capital of polished society”, it had a church, yet it guided and flattered laymen. The virtues and manners of those in the highest echelons were regarded as just as noble and dignified in those of the lowest echelons. The proverbs and received wisdom of the great commonality were the proverbs and received wisdom of the great nobility. Society is not some man-made blank slate, it is an ever-growing landscape, the heart of which is nature itself.

 

[1] Edmund Burke, Reflections On The Revolution In France, (1790), p. 120.

[2] Ibid, p. 170.

[3] Ibid., p. 193.

[4] Ibid., p. 195.

[5] Ibid., p. 138.

[6] Ibid., p. 356.

[7] Ibid., p. 141.

[8] Ibid., p. 373.

[9] Ibid.

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