Reflections on the Revolution in France
Reflections on the Revolution in France is a 1790 book by Edmund Burke and one of the best-known intellectual attacks against the French Revolution. The tract has been used as a defining piece of modern conservatism as well as an important contribution to international theory. Above all else, it has been one of the defining efforts of Edmund Burke's transformation of "traditionalism into a self-conscious and fully conceived political philosophy of conservatism.".
The pamphlet has not been easy to classify. Academics have had trouble identifying whether Burke, or his tract, can best be understood as "a realist or an idealist, Rationalist or a Revolutionist." The current academic consensus is that the tract is a "classic text in political theory". Thanks to thoroughness, rhetorical skill and literary power, it has become one of the most widely known of Burke's writings. For this reason many writers have attempted to recruit Burke for their own political viewpoints.
Edmund Burke served in the House of Commons of Great Britain, representing the Whig party, in close alliance with liberal politician Lord Rockingham. In Burke's political career, he vigorously defended constitutional limitation of the Crown's authority, denounced the religious persecution of Catholics in his native Ireland, voiced the grievances of Britain's American colonies, supported American Independence, and vigorously pursued impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of British India, for corruption and abuse of power. For these actions, Burke was widely respected by liberals in Great Britain, the United States, and the European continent.
In 1789, soon after the fall of the Bastille, the French aristocrat Charles-Jean-François Depont asked his impressions of the Revolution; Burke replied with two letters. The longer, second letter became Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790.
In the Reflections, Burke argued that the French Revolution would end disastrously because its abstract foundations, purportedly rational, ignored the complexities of human nature and society. Further, he focused on the practicality of solutions instead of the metaphysics, writing 'What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In this deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor." Following St. Augustine and Cicero, he believed in "human heart"-based government. Nevertheless, he was contemptuous and afraid of the Enlightenment, led by intellectuals such as Rousseau, Voltaire, and Turgot, who disbelieved in divine moral order and original sin, saying that society should be handled like a living organism, that people and society are limitlessly complicated, thus, leading him to conflict with Thomas Hobbes's assertion that politics might be reducible to a deductive system akin to mathematics.
A dominant theme in Reflections is that the French were not upholding the rights accorded to all men, like the American revolutionaries that he supported or the English in the Glorious Revolution. C. B. Macpherson, goes as far as saying any contradiction can "be dismissed very quickly." Others, such as Jeff Spinner, argue that opposition to the United States revolution was more pragmatic. Burke believed only war and the spread of uniquely American ideals, which were ill-suited for Europe, could result from opposition to the American self-determination.
As a Protestant and Whig, he expressly repudiated the belief in divinely appointed monarchic authority and the idea that a people have no right to depose an oppressive government; however, he advocated central roles for private property, tradition, and 'prejudice' (adherence to values regardless of their rational basis) to give citizens a stake in their nation's social order. He argued for gradual, constitutional reform, not revolution (in every case except the most qualified case), emphasizing that a political doctrine founded upon abstractions such as liberty and the rights of man could be easily abused to justify tyranny. He saw inherited rights, restated in England from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right, as firm and concrete providing continuity (like tradition, 'prejudice,' inheritable private property,) by contrast enforcement of 'speculative' abstract rights might waver and be subject to change based on currents of politics. Instead, he called for the constitutional enactment of specific, concrete rights and liberties as protection against governmental oppression.
In the phrase, "[prejudice] renders a man's virtue his habit," he defends people's cherished, but untaught, irrational prejudices (the greater it behooved them, the more they cherished it). Because a person's moral estimation is limited, people are better off drawing from the "general bank and capital of nations and of ages" than from their own intellects.
He predicted that the Revolution's concomitant disorder would make the army "mutinous and full of faction," and then a "popular general," commanding the soldiery's allegiance, would become "master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic." Though he may have been thinking of Lafayette, Napoleon fulfilled this prophecy on the 18th Brumaire, two years after Burke's death.
Most of the House of Commons disagreed with Burke and his popularity declined. As the French Revolution broke into factions, the Whig Party broke in two: the New Whig party and the Old Whig party. As founder of the Old Whigs, Burke always took the opportunity to engage in debate with the New Whigs about French Jacobinism.
After trying to loosen the Protestant minority's control of Irish government, he was voted out of the House of Commons with a great pension. He later adopted French and Irish children, believing himself correct in rescuing them from government oppression. Before dying, he ordered his family to bury him secretly, believing his cadaver would be a political target for desecration should the Jacobins prevail in England.
To support or color his arguments, Burke uses a suite of Latin quotations, all the sources of which he does not cite. The bulk appear to come from Vergil or Horace. However, the following appears to be a Latin phrase of his own invention, employed to underline the ludicrous idea, in his view, of placing soldiery in a state at a perfectly equal status as the rest of the citizenry:
"Si isti mihi largiantur ut repueriscam, et in eorum cunis vagiam, valde recusem!"
An approximate translation is: "If they grant to me that I may become a boy again, and that I may wander about in their defecations [defecatory reasonings], of course I will refuse!"
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Reflections on the Revolution in France was read widely on publication, though not every Briton approved of Burke's kind treatment of their historic enemy or its royal family. His English enemies speculated he either had become mentally unbalanced or was a secret Catholic, outraged by the democratic French government's anti-clerical policies and expropriation of Church land. The publication of this work drew a swift response, first with A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) by Mary Wollstonecraft, and then with Rights of Man (1792) by Thomas Paine. Nonetheless, Burke's work became popular with reactionaries such as King George III and the Savoyard philosopher Joseph de Maistre.
Historically, Reflections on the Revolution in France became the founding philosophic opus of Conservatism when some of Burke's predictions occurred: the Reign of Terror succeeded the execution of King Louis XVI and his wife, to purge anti-revolutionary enemies of the people. That, in turn, led to the political reaction of Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte's government, which appeared to some to be a military dictatorship. Burke had predicted the rise of a military dictatorship and that the revolutionary government instead of protecting the rights of the people would be corrupt and violent.
In the nineteenth century, positivist French historian Hippolyte Taine repeated the Englishman's arguments in Origins of Contemporary France (1876–1885): that centralisation of power is the essential fault of the Revolutionary French government system; that it does not promote democratic control; and that the Revolution transferred power from the divinely chosen aristocracy to an "enlightened" heartless elite more incompetent and tyrannical than the aristocrats.
In the twentieth century, Western conservatives applied Burke's anti-revolutionary Reflections to popular socialist revolutions, thus establishing Burke's iconic political value to conservatives and classical liberals. For example, an important classical economic liberal, Friedrich Hayek, acknowledged an intellectual debt to Burke.
- Mazlish 1958, p. 21
- Armitage 2000, p. 619
- Bruyn 2001, p. 577
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France  (Pearson Longman, 2006), p. 144.
- Macpherson 1980, p. 7
- Spinner 1991, pp. 400–402
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France  (Penguin Classics, 1986), p. 183.
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France  (Penguin Classics, 1986), p. 342.
- Armitage, Dave (2000). "Edmund Burke and Reason of State". Journal of the History of Ideas (University of Philadelphia Press) 61 (4): 617–634.
- Bruyn, Frans De (2001). "Anti-Semitism, Millenarianism, and Radical Dissent in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France". Eighteenth-Century Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press) 34 (4): 577–600.
- Hampsher-Monk, Ian (2005). "Edmund Burke's Changing Justification for Intervention". The Historical Journal (Cambridge University Press) 48 (1): 65–100.
- Mazlish, Bruce (1958). "The Conservative Revolution of Edmund Burke". The Review of Politics (Cambridge University Press) 20 (1): 21–23.
- Macpherson, C. R. (1980). Burke. New York: Hilland Wang.
- Spinner, Jeff (1991). "Constructing Communities: Edmund Burke on Revolution". Polity (Palgrave Macmillian Journals) 23 (3): 395–421.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- An online version of the text (scanned excerpt + OCR)
- Another online version of the text, from Project Gutenberg
- "Reactionary Prophet: Edmund Burke understood before anyone else that revolutions devour their young—and turn into their opposites" by Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2004.