Reflections on the Revolution in France

by Edmund Burke

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763

A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.

Burke is not a die-hard reactionary; he doesn't believe in turning the clock back to some mythical golden age. He accepts the need for change in any system of government. What he doesn't accept is radical change, change made according to abstract ideas of liberty that come from nowhere and can be successfully applied nowhere. Change must be gradual, cautious, and piecemeal. Both society and government are highly intricate, precious organisms; they must therefore be carefully preserved and allowed to develop naturally. The imposition of radical change tears up government and society by the roots, leading to violent disorder and chaos.

You will smile here at the consistency of those democratists who, when they are not on their guard, treat the humbler part of the community with the greatest contempt, whilst, at the same time they pretend to make them the depositories of all power.

The French revolutionaries, as with all political radicals, talk a lot about "The People." But Burke takes this expression as so much cant and hypocrisy. "The People," as with every aspect of the revolutionaries' ideas, is wholly abstract, nothing more than an ideal, an exercise in empty political rhetoric. The real people, the actual flesh-and-blood people of France, are despised by the revolutionaries for their attachment to custom, tradition, and religion. The French Revolution has been carried out in the name of "The People," yet one elite has simply been replaced by another. Unlike the elites of the ancien regime, however, this new elite rules exclusively in its own interests, hiding their self-serving hypocrisy behind a revolutionary slogan.

What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics.

Abstract rights are utterly meaningless to Burke, and the French Revolution is especially iniquitous for having been founded on such abstractions. There are indeed rights, but as Burke is at great pains to point out, they only emerge within specific social and historical circumstances. Abstract rights belong in minds given to metaphysical speculation or in the pages of a book. But in real, living societies, what matters is how man's rights as a member of society are to be secured on a practical basis. You can have all the charters, bills, and documents of human rights you want, but none of them will be able to satisfy the rights of individuals within a specific society.

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper, and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.

One of the main problems with the revolutionaries is that they are wilfully ignorant of the past. Yet this is a fatal mistake for Burke. Societies and the institutions of government based upon them constitute a contract between the ages—past present and future—the living, the dead, and the yet to be born. Society is an inheritence, one we must cherish, preserve, and protect before handing it on to our children and grandchildren.

Suffice to say the revolutionaries don't see it like that. Everything for them is all about the here and now. For the past, they feel nothing but contempt; to them, it's nothing more than an endless tale of obscurantism, tyranny, and reaction. They believe society must be torn up by the roots; we must start all over again to build anew here on earth. As the revolutionaries care nothing for the past, neither do they have any regard for the future. They believe that each generation has the right to tear everything up and start over. If that's the case, then why should we even care about what we leave behind to posterity?

Those who attempt to level, never equalize.

Leveling down society never leads to equality. Burke was writing before the revolution took a more radical turn, but here as elsewhere he displays remarkable prescience. Social and economic equality are neither attainable nor desirable. Any attempts to achieve them are not just doomed to failure, they will lead to the destruction of the delicate bonds that bind people together in society. As equality is but a chimera, there will still be a dominant class in society. The difference is that it will cloak its dominance and political control in the language of liberty, egailty, and fraternity.

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