Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775
Reflections on the Revolution in France is a withering forceful critique of the French Revolution's early stages by the Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke. Burke was a member of the Whig faction in the British Parliament. The Whigs saw themselves as champions of liberty against the arbitrary tyranny of...
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Reflections on the Revolution in France is a withering forceful critique of the French Revolution's early stages by the Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke. Burke was a member of the Whig faction in the British Parliament. The Whigs saw themselves as champions of liberty against the arbitrary tyranny of kings; their ideas were very influential among the American colonists in their struggle against the British. Not surprisingly, many Whigs strongly supported the French Revolution. Burke, however, wasn't one of them. He composed his famous pamphlet largely as a response to those members of his faction who saw events in France as heralding a new birth of liberty, part of a noble tradition stretching back to Magna Carta and incorporating the ideals of the American Revolution. Burke sets out to disabuse them of this notion.
The main problem with the French Revolution for Burke is that it's based upon an abstract idea of liberty. Liberty as Burke understands it emerges from long-standing tradition, something that has been passed down from generation to generation. The emergence of liberty has been gradual, developing out of the needs of individual men over time. As such, liberty develops naturally; it is not something, as in the case of the French Revolution, which is imposed on society by those who lack the necessary experience of governance.
This leads us on to another of Burke's criticisms: the leaders of the French Revolution have no understanding of what it takes to govern a country. Governance for Burke is a skill, and this skill can only be acquired through long experience. The Revolutionaries have no experience of government or administration, therefore they do not have the requisite skill to govern. All they have to rely on is what Burke calls their stock of reason, which in most men is very small.
A far better guide to governing is prejudice. Today, we tend to associate prejudice with social injustices such as racial discrimination. However, what Burke means by prejudice is something entirely different. He simply means that stock of innate wisdom which each and every one of us has based upon our experience of life. The leaders of the French Revolution have no experience in relation to governing a state, so they must fall back on rational concepts that have not been tried and tested. Government is no place for amateurs carrying out dangerous constitutional experiments and innovations.
Burke is scathing of those Whigs who equate the French Revolution with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In the latter case, it was King James II who had violated the constitution. The people and their representatives were therefore perfectly entitled to rise up and overthrow him. Louis XVI, however, was France's lawful legitimate ruler. It was not he, but the Revolutionaries who had broken the law by overturning several centuries of unbroken tradition. Burke is not hostile to political change per se; it's simply that he believes that any change must be cautious, piecemeal, and gradual. What's more, any changes made to a nation's constitution—which is always a delicate thing—must only be made by those with the relevant know-how and experience. The French Revolutionaries do not possess these skills. As such, they are messing around with something they do not understand.
The consequences of such a fundamental upending of the ancient French constitution are, for Burke, catastrophic. We need to remember that when Burke wrote the Reflections, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had not been executed and the Terror was still a few years away. Yet Burke, with remarkable prescience, was able to predict that the Revolution would eventually degenerate into violence. As the French Revolutionaries' concept of liberty was a completely abstract one, it would be impossible to get any measure of agreement as to what it would mean in practice. Inevitably, there would then be conflict between different groups over how the Revolution should proceed. And so it was proven.
Such a conflict did not arise in England after the Glorious Revolution or in America after the Revolutionary War, because in both cases there was a common understanding among the governing class—a general consensus as to what constituted liberty. This could only happen because liberty was founded in history, tradition, and experience. In other words, it had roots. The abstract concept of liberty so beloved of the French Revolutionaries has no such firm foundations; indeed, the self-appointed leaders of the Revolution have torn up the ancient constitution's roots in their thirst for power. Burke saw only too well that pulling up a political system by the roots would lead not to a new birth of liberty, but to the establishment of tyranny.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1710
Edmund Burke was deeply involved in English public life as a Whig politician who served from 1765 to 1794 in Parliament. This experience convinced him that governments must respond to the practical needs of the peoples they govern and that political crises do not all yield to the same measures. When he saw what was unfolding in France in 1789 and 1790, Burke became alarmed that the revolutionaries were ignoring the wisdom achieved by long experience and that they were acting on assumptions that were contrary to human nature. Reflections on the Revolution in France was intended to warn the people of England against being caught up by the same enthusiasm for destructive change that Burke saw infecting the citizens of France.
The Reign of Terror had not yet begun when Burke took up his pen in 1790 (some would say it is foreseen in Burke’s castigation of the revolutionaries), but in July, 1789, the Bastille had been taken and the Comitù des Recherches had been formed and given numerous repressive police powers. In August, the French National Assembly promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Two months later, the king’s family was transferred from Versailles to Paris. In November, the National Assembly appropriated the Catholic Church’s property, which soon became the basis of a new paper currency known as assignats. The religious orders, excepting those concerned with charity or education, were shut down in February, 1790, and finally, in July, the hereditary nobility were stripped of their titles and perquisites. These were the drastic changes taking place in France as Burke wrote the Reflections.
In late 1789, a young French friend of Burke, Charles-Jean-François Depont, asked Burke for his thoughts on the recent events in France. After a first, short letter of response, Burke began again in earnest with the words “Dear Sir” and did not stop until he had written an entire book. In the Reflections he explains that he will “throw out” his thoughts and express his feelings “just as they arise in my mind, with very little attention to formal method.” No chapter divisions or subheads appear in the work, only long, dense paragraphs packed with balanced statements and striking turns of phrase. Burke seizes a subject and wrings it dry, his tone frequently modulating between contempt and solemnity.
If his improvised style holds the reader with its rhetorical inventiveness, the substance of his account is often not to be trusted. His silly story of the mob’s takeover of Versailles on October 6, 1789, which features the queen’s servant being “cut down” by a “band of cruel ruffians and assassins,” is a lurid fiction. This passage in particular was immediately ridiculed and hurt Burke’s credibility. Reflections on the Revolution in France should not be read as history, however, but as a work of political theory that expresses a coherent point of view.
On November 4, 1789, in an area of London known as the Old Jewry, Dr. Richard Price, a dissenting minister, preached a fiery sermon praising the upheaval in France. Burke identifies (not quite verbatim) three fundamental rights that Price insisted the English people had acquired: “to choose our own governors,” “to cashier them for misconduct,” and “to frame a government for ourselves.” Burke rejects this talk of “rights” and cites the Declaration of Right (the bill of rights written under William and Mary) as “the cornerstone of the constitution” and as the embodiment of the true principles of the Revolution of 1688.
The “Glorious Revolution” did not, Burke says, give people the lasting right to elect their own rulers but only the opportunity to resolve a crisis at that specific time. The British people were free to fill the throne only “upon the same grounds on which they might have wholly abolished their monarchy, and every other part of their constitution.” In other words, the people had hardly any grounds, for a hereditary monarchy is rooted in British history. “An irregular, convulsive movement may be necessary to throw off an irregular, convulsive disease. But the course of succession is the healthy habit of the British constitution.”
As for the second claim of the Revolution Society, the “right of cashiering their governors for misconduct,” Burke focuses on the vagueness of the word “misconduct.” No general principle of fundamental importance can be based on language so ill defined. The “virtual abdication” of King James II that resulted in the succession crisis was forced by specific charges of “nothing less than a design, confirmed by a multitude of illegal overt acts, to subvert the Protestant church and state” and of “having broken the original contract between king and people.”
The third right that Burke accuses Price and his followers of advocating is the “right to form a government for ourselves.” Burke dismisses this claim by appealing to a “uniform policy” stretching from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the Declaration of Right, a policy that reveals an “entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers . . . without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.” Burke’s discussion relies heavily on the bedrock assumption underlying his entire political theory, a conviction that the British system of law and government evolved from basic principles in nature itself. Indeed, Reflections on the Revolution in France can perhaps be understood as a long gloss on one magnificent, swelling sentence: 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, by the dispensation of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious 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.
This sentence encapsulates Burke’s political philosophy and his theology.
Burke’s faith in a natural order of things approaches the conviction that whatever is, is right, simply because it is. If every human institution were not the best of its kind, then the institution would have evolved otherwise. This vision reflects an innate pragmatism that trusts no a priori judgments and leaves all arrangements to be forged in experience. Burke sneered at the French rationalists and especially at Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791), in which he responds to questions about Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke blisters Rousseau as “the great professor and founder of the philosophy of vanity in England” and “the insane Socrates of the National Assembly.” These philosophes and their rabble-rousing followers in England, Burke claims, inflame weak minds with their prating about “natural” rights that are mere abstractions too often born of greed and envy. They intend to abolish religion and to replace it with an education “founded in a knowledge of the physical wants of men; progressively carried to an enlightened self-interest, which, when well understood, they tell us will identify with an interest more enlarged and public.”
Dr. Price and the other dissenting clergy represented in the Revolution Society applauded the National Assembly when it seized the property of the Catholic Church. As a defender of the sacredness of private property rights, Burke was horrified by the seizure, and he argues at length in Reflections on the Revolution in France that the corporate holdings of the Church should enjoy the same status as an individual’s property. The dissidents who attack the Church forget its “duty to make a sure provision for the consolation of the feeble and the instruction of the ignorant” and seem to regard religion, “the great ruling principle of the moral and natural world, as a mere invention to keep the vulgar in obedience.”
A third group whose perceived corruption Burke assails is the “stockjobbers,” as he calls them, those individuals who put their own private economic interests above the nation’s and seek to further those interests by exploiting the possibilities opened up by a dismantled Church economy. Among these, Burke targets speculators who fear for their investments because of the accumulating national debt, and many British readers must have been sensitive to that danger.
Prominent among the many enemies of the Church and the monarchy cited by Burke is a certain alienated personality that he describes as “discontented men of quality” who evince no love of country or of humankind. They fail “to love the little platoon we belong to in society” and “generally despise their own order,” and they exhibit “a selfish and mischievous ambition” and “distempered passions.” Had Burke lived to read Fyodor Dostoevski’s Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913), he would have found in that novel’s cankered nihilists precisely the sensibility to which he objected. His allegiance to the established Church extends to a sympathy for those Church members deprived of their rank and fortune. Speaking always of what is ideal, and well aware that many clergy betray that ideal, Burke defends the privileges accorded ecclesiastics, who, with the nobility, provide models to which the humble can aspire. As he says: “Some part of the wealth of the country is as usefully employed as it can be, in fomenting the luxury of individuals. It is the publick ornament. It is the publick consolation. It nourishes the publick hope.”
Admitting to but a slight knowledge of the character of the French nobility, Burke argues that his lifetime study of “human nature” compensates for that deficiency. He ascribes to the French nobles a “high spirit” and “a delicate sense of honour.” Their behavior toward the “inferior classes” appears good-natured and “more nearly approaching to familiarity” than the practice of their British counterparts. The fact that commoners who had achieved wealth did not enjoy adequate esteem in society Burke judges to be “one principal cause of the old nobility.” Yet he considers the nobility and the established Church as the embodiment of the sacred principle of private property. “Nobility is a graceful ornament to the civil order. It is the Corinthian capital of polished society.” The leveling instinct is therefore false to human nature. Holding these beliefs, then, it was natural for Burke to interpret the events in France as a threat to the foundations of a civil society in Britain.