- Reflections on the Revolution in France
"Reflections on the Revolution in France" (1790), by
Edmund Burke, is one of the best-known intellectual attacks against the (then-infant) French Revolution. In the twentieth century, it much influenced conservative and classical liberal intellectuals, who re-cast Burke's monarchical arguments as a critique of Communismand Socialist revolutionary programmes.
Edmund Burke served in the
British House of Commons, representing the Whig party, in close alliance with liberal politician Lord Rockingham. In his 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 the American Revolution, and vigorously pursued impeachment of Warren Hastings, the governor-generalof Bengal, for corruption and abuse of power. For these things, he was respected by democratic liberals in the the U.K., the U.S.A., and the Continent.
In 1789, soon after the
Fall of the Bastille, the French aristocrat Charles-Jean-François Depontasked his impressions of the Revolution; Burke replied with two letters, the longer, second letter became "Reflections on the Revolution in France", published in 1790.
Per the "Reflections", 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." [Edmund Burke, "Reflections on the Revolution in France"  (Pearson Longman, 2006), p. 144.] Founded upon
St. Augustine, Cicero, and Plato, he believed in "human heart"-based government, nevertheless, he was contemptuous and afraid of the Enlightenment (led by the intellectuals Rousseau, Voltaire, and Turgot) that 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 and abhor Thomas Hobbes's contemporary assertion that politics might be reducible to a deductive systemakin to mathematics.
As a Protestant and a Whig, he expressly repudiated the belief in divinely-appointed monarchic authority "and" that a people have no right to depose an oppressive government, however, he advocated central roles for Private Property, Tradition, and Prejudice (adherence to irrational values) 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), emphasising that a political doctrine founded upon abstractions such as "liberty" and the "rights of man" easily could be abused to justify tyranny. 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, therefore, people are better off drawing from the "general bank and capital of nations and of ages" than from their own intellects. [Edmund Burke, "Reflections on the Revolution in France"  (Penguin Classics, 1986), p. 183.]
He predicted that the Revolution's concomitant disorder would make the army "mutinous and full of faction", then a "popular general", commanding the soldiery's allegiance, would become "master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic". [Ibid, p. 342.] 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 Old Whig founder, Burke always took opportunity to debate them 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 secretly bury him, believing his cadaver would be a political target for desecration, should the Jacobins prevail in England.
The monarchist Edmund Burke died on the 18 Brumaire, the birth of the
First French Republic, and the beginning of Napoleon Bonaparte's ascent.
"Reflections on the Revolution in France" was much read at publication, though not every Briton approved of Burke's kind treatment of their historic enemy, nor of their 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. Intellectually, his beliefs were countered with "
Rights of Man", by Thomas Paine, and " A Vindication of the Rights of Men", by Mary Wollstonecraft, yet said anti-French work became popular with reactionariessuch as King George III and the Savoyard philosopher Joseph de Maistre.
Historically, "Reflections on the Revolution in France" became the founding philosophic opus of
Conservatismwhen some predictions occurred: the Reign of Terrorsucceeded the execution of King Louis XVI and his wife, to purge ant-revolutionary enemies of the people, that, in turn, led to the political reaction of Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte's military dictatorship.
In the nineteenth century, positivist French historian
Hippolyte Tainerepeated 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 aristocracyto an "enlightened" heartless élite "more" incompetent and tyrannical than were the aristocrats. In the twentieth century, Western conservatives applied Burke's anti-revolutionary"Reflections" to popular socialist revolutions, thus establishing Mr Burke's iconic political value to conservatives and classical liberals, to wit, two of the more important classical liberals of the twentieth century, Friedrich Hayekand Karl Popper, acknowledged intellectual debt to Burke.
* http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm An online version of the text
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