Reflections on the Revolution in France

by Edmund Burke

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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 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.

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