Reflections on the Revolution in France

by Edmund Burke

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Explain the following quote from Reflections on the Revolution in France: "On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order".

Burke views the idea of a mass society as one that reduces all people to the lowest common denominator. This, he argues, is not a philosophy of light and reason, but of darkness and unreason.

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Burke writes that according to the philosophy he is describing (as well as critiquing and, indeed, satirizing) everyone is so drastically equal that we are all reduced to the lowest common denominator. The absurdity of the idea is shown by the breakdown of logic in the final clause, for the notion Burke is criticizing is precisely that there is no highest or lowest order of anything. If people are all the same because we are all animals, then there is no reason to say that animals are not all the same too. In this case killing one's mother becomes no more terrible than killing an earthworm. Burke himself makes this point, without extending it to the animal kingdom, when he says that "this barbarous philosophy" would treat regicide and parricide only as common homicide.

The dismal egalitarianism of the Revolution which Burke excoriates is in marked contrast to his own respectful and, indeed, adulatory descriptions of the Queen of France, whom he recalls seeing when she was still a princess at Versailles sixteen or seventeen years ago. To view a great queen as no more worthy of regard than anyone else is not, he avers, a philosophy of light and reason. It is to tear away "the decent drapery of life" and become an animal oneself.

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