Reflections on the Revolution in France

by Edmund Burke

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

Liberty is historical, not abstract

Liberty is a very precious thing, something that emerges gradually over centuries in the course of history. This is where the French revolutionaries err, according to Burke. Their idea of liberty is wholly abstract; it is untried and untested, something derived from speculative reason rather than experience. No wonder, then, that none of the revolutionaries can agree in practice as to what it means; and no wonder that such a lack of consensus leads to regular outbreaks of internecine violence among the various factions.

Prejudice vs. Reason

For Burke, reason is not a useful guide to human behavior, let alone to the business of governing a state. The stock of reason that each one of us has is relatively small, and so we have little to fall back on to guide us through the myriad difficulties involved in government. Far better that we rely on our prejudice—our instinctive understanding, honed by years of experience—to determine the wisest course of action in any given situation.

Governance is a skill

As with all skills, some people have it and others don't. The French revolutionaries certainly don't possess this skill, according to Burke. They've been excluded from power and so lack the necessary experience by which the skill of governing is refined. All they have are lots of high-flown concepts with which to work. As such concepts are abstract, they do not derive from the precise historical circumstances of the country the revolutionaries seek to govern. And as they do not arise naturally from society, they must be imposed upon it, with tyrannical consequences.

Society is organic

The French revolutionaries, in common with most thinkers of the Enlightenment, look upon society as a machine. If something goes wrong with this "machine," it can be dismantled and put back together again, new and improved. But that's not how Burke sees society. To him, society is an organism that develops slowly and gradually over centuries. Society, despite its superficial divisions of wealth and class, grows as a whole, with each part related to all the others. As society is such a delicate, natural organism, it cannot be subjected to radical change without causing serious damage. This is one of the most catastrophic errors made by the French revolutionaries. They pulled society up by its roots and so the system of government they sought to build upon the new society had no firm foundations. The results, as Burke saw with remarkable prescience, were bloodshed, chaos, and bitter social conflict.

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