Friday, November 13, 2009

Reflections on the Revolution in France

I've just finished reading Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. I expected it to be a dry political treatise, but found instead that it was a delight to read since it is a work, not only of profound insight, but also of immense beauty. (How many of our own politicians write treatises that are beautiful? Not a lot.)

Who Was Edmund Burke?

Edmund Burke, couldn’t have entered politics at a more critical time in history. As a member of Parliament during one of Europe’s most tumultuous periods (1765-1794), he was uniquely poised to offer a restraining voice against the forces of radicalism and barbarism that were threatening to sweep across all of Christian Europe.

After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin in 1744, Burke moved to London to study law. He quickly gave that up to travel in Continental Europe, while trying to support himself as a writer. When he returned to London, Burke continued writing, publishing his famous treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

In 1757 Burke married Jane Mary Nugent, the daughter of a physician who had treated him.

Burke’s career in politics began with the acquaintance of the Irish MP William Gerard Hamilton. When Hamilton was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, Burke became his private secretary.

In 1765 Burke became private secretary to another statesman before finally entering Parliament himself as an MP for Wendover in 1765. He remained in Parliament until 1797, a loyal member of the Whig party.

As an orator and writer, Burke has never been equalled. One of the most engaging and captivating writers throughout the entire tradition of English prose, Burke has been compared to Cicero, Milton and even Shakespeare. Yet it is not his eloquence alone that makes Burke relevant over two hundred years later. The Lord also gifted Burke with a Jeremiah-like ability to read the signs of the time and to bring his razor sharp mind to bear on the problems of his day. With an almost prophetic insight he was able to penetrate beneath the surface of things and discern undercurrents and implications that time would later make clear to everyone else.

Liberty and the Rule of Law

Burke’s political career was marked by an abiding love for liberty and the rule of law. These two concepts were never separated in Burke’s thought. Liberty, he believed, was meaningless unless rooted in responsibility – a responsibility derived from God and the laws He had written into creation.

This perspective meant that Burke was prepared to go against the grain of the popular politics to defend freedom and the rule of law. When the King’s party sought to increase the royal prerogative he resisted. When the Whigs sought to use government for the enrichment of their own class, he resisted. He defended the American colonists living under the arbitrary will of George II’s ministers, the people of India under Hasting’s tyrannical oligarchy, Irish Catholics suffering from unjust trade conditions and the Negros anguishing under Britain’s merciless trade in human lives. This led to an unpopular and largely unsuccessful career in Parliament.

Burke’s defence of liberty could simultaneously set itself against the tyranny of despotism and the tyranny of mass democracy. Whether he was defending the king and queen of France or the rights of the least important person in the kingdom, Burke’s principles remained constant. He once wrote, that
“When, indeed, the smallest rights of the poorest people in the kingdom are in question, I would set my face against any act of pride and power countenanced by the highest that are in it; and if it should come to the last extremity, and to a contest of blood – God forbid! God forbid! – my part is taken; I would take my fate with the poor, and low, and feeble. But if these people came to turn their liberty into a cloak for maliciousness, and to seek a privilege of exemption, not from power, but from the rules of morality and virtuous discipline, then I would join my hand to make them feel the force which a few, united in a good cause, have over a multitude of the profligate and ferocious.”

In our own age when the banners of liberty, equality and tolerance are trumped out to transform any political grievance into a social right, Burke reminds us not to be so foolish. While few have ever surpassed Burke in his defence of freedom, he never advocated liberty in an unqualified sense, as the above words make clear. Burke knew that unqualified liberty for fallen man could only mean anarchy followed by tyranny. As he remarked: “liberty, when men act in bodies, is power.” Instead, Burke urges us to cling to “a manly, moral, regulated liberty” and to enlarge the bounds of that liberty only gradually and with great caution.

Turmoil in France

When Burke was sixty years old and considering retirement, the French revolution erupted.

The floodgates of revolution had broken loose when King Louis XVI’s government called a meeting of the Estates-General in May 1789. This was a parliamentary-type body made up of representatives from the three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the rest of France. The King assembled the Estates-General in an attempt to solve the financial crisis that was threatening to debilitate the nation, but it quickly became apparent that the people had other plans. The third estate, bitter over the fact that they could always be outvoted by a consensus of the other two estates even though they represented 97% of the population, took the opportunity to meet separately and form another body, which they termed the “National Assembly.” Though the National Assembly had no legal authority, they drew up a new French Constitution and tried to gain the support of the people.

The king attempted to suppress the illegal National Assembly but was hampered by urban and rural uprisings. The people of France, long embittered by a monarchy that had been out of touch with their needs, were whipped up into a dangerous mob by revolutionary politicians. These revolutionaries appealed to categories of Enlightenment thought, drawing on the utopian theories of men such as Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 –1778) who believed that human nature could be remade through political action. Building on the Enlightenment idea that all authority – whether the authority of the Bible or the monarch – was a vestige of an unenlightened, superstitious past, the revolutionaries demanded a new society structured around the trinity of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity (brotherhood).’

On 14 July the hated Bastille prison (the hated symbol of the old regime) was stormed by a rioting mob seeking gunpowder. From there the civil unrest escalated until 6 October 1789, when throngs of discontented peasants broke into the king and queen’s palace in Versailles and forced the royal family to march to Paris paraded behind the heads of decapitated palace guards. Though the King and Queen were ostensibly under the protection of the National Assembly, they were really the prisoners of an increasingly unstable public.

Four months after the Revolutionaries had declared France to be a republic and following a thwarted attempt by the royal family to escape to Austria, the King was executed on 21 January 1793. From there the revolution spiralled out of control. By summer of the same year, power had become concentrated in a 12-man war dictatorship known, ironically, as the “Committee of Public Safety.” Led by Maximilien de Robespierre, the committee formally suspended the revolution’s own constitution and instituted a “reign of terror” in which anyone suspected of being a royalist was arrested and executed on the guillotine.

Freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of speech were all abolished, being replaced by a totalitarianism unseen since the days of the Caesars. Under the banner of liberty, justice and human rights for all, over 40,000 French citizens were decapitated, while more than 350,000 Parisians spent time in jail.

Later in the same year, Queen Marie Antoinette was forced to follow her husband to the ‘national razor’ while revolutionary France, now intent on world domination, declared war on Britain, Holland and Spain.

The revolution left a legacy of civil war and international conflict in its wake that would last for the next twenty-five years, lending credibility to Jane Austen’s words “Oh, Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!”

Britain's Response to the French Revolution

France’s old regime was hated by the English. Not only had monarchical France been rivals with Britain in the scramble for colonial domination, but they had helped the rebellious Americas to gain independence. Thus, it was not without some sympathy that Britain watched as their old nemesis was overthrown.

Naturally, British sympathy was quickly extinguished once the terror arose. However, in the critical time between the advent of the revolution and the outbreak of the terror, many of England’s leading intellectuals believed the French were emancipating themselves. Pitt and Fox even went so far as to praise the revolution in Parliament. Still others held up the National Assembly as a model that England would do well to copy.

So great was public sympathy among the English that many historians believe that England came perilously close to entering a similar debacle. It was during this decisive period, with England teetering in the balance, that Edmund Burke stood up to offer his penetrating refutation of the revolutionary mentality and to warn Britain not to follow France down the slippery slope of destructive folly.

An 'Under-Ground Mine'

Burke’s critique of the French revolution occupied the form of an extended letter to the young man Charles DePont, who had written to Burke asking for his opinion on the revolution. Thus ut was that the Reflections on the Revolution in France came to be. It first appeared in print on 1 November, 1790 and sold twelve thousand copies in the first month alone. In less than a year there were eleven editions. By 1796, over thirty thousand copies had been sold, making it one of the most influential political books ever written.

Writing before the reign of terror revealed the true nature of the revolution, Burke’s Reflections predicted with remarkable accuracy what the result of the revolution would be. He knew that when principles such as liberty, equality and human rights are emulated as ends in themselves, stripped of all connection with circumstance and responsibility, the result must inevitably be dictatorship and terror. As he put it, “they have wrought under-ground a mine that will blow up, at one grand explosion, all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of parliament.” Burke believed that this under-ground mine, if left unchecked, could explode throughout all of Europe, replacing Christendom with an atheistic tyranny. (Here again, Burke shown an uncanny discernment, for all of the great revolutions of the 19th century, which themselves set the template for the turmoil of the 20th, self-consciously followed in the wake left by France.)

Burke’s Reflections completely opposed the entire spirit of the age and had a remarkable effect in turning public opinion in England against the revolution.


The legacy left to us by Edmund Burke is remarkable and offers innumerable lessons for our own day and age. I am constrained to mention only six.

Firstly, Edmund Burke’s life teaches us that God does not judge success and failure in the same way that man measures it. “By the vulgar standards of immediate success and external appearances,” wrote Peter Stanlis in his introduction to The Best of Burke, “it would seem that Burke’s political career was largely wasted in serving lost causes. But in his constant efforts to establish an orderly, just, and free society, under constitutional and moral law, he set forth the vital ideas and principles of his political philosophy, which has continued to influence men throughout history long after the partisan causes which triumphed over him were buried in the graveyard of dead politics.”

Secondly, Burke teaches us the pivotal role that worldviews play in shaping the affairs of men. If anyone understood the maxim that ideas have consequences, it was Burke. Speaking of the French Revolution in his Letter on a Regicide Peace in 1796, Burke wrote “a silent revolution in the moral world preceded the political, and prepared it” while his Reflections states that the revolution in France was first and foremost “a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions.”

Burke minced no words in identifying the worldview behind the French revolution as being the worldview of atheism straight from the pit of hell. As he puts it:

But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.
Thirdly, Burke teaches us that atheism, for all its transitory pomp, is always doomed to failure because it goes against our instincts as men and women created in the image of God. “We know, and it is our pride to know,” he wrote, “that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long.”

Fourthly, Burke teaches us the dangers of statism and the preciousness of liberty. He called for “a jealous, ever-waking vigilance, to guard the treasure of our liberty, not only from invasion, but from decay and corruption...” Had Burke’s warnings been taken more seriously, it is doubtful that Britain would have developed into the Nanny state that it has.

Fifthly, Burke teaches us the necessity of listening to our ancestors. It was Burke with whom the famous quote originated, ‘People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.’ Burke believed that only by reverencing our ancestors could freedom be preserved. This is because liberty is not a natural right of man, but the product of tradition, family and faith. It is passed on in much the same way as property is transmitted: from one generation to another through inheritance. To establish this, Burke pointed to the great liberties of the British tradition, showing that were built up over years of tradition stretching back to the Magna Charta, the Declaration of Right and the entire network of common law freedoms which the hereditary succession of the monarchy helped to preserve. This legacy would not long abide a generation that was willing to cast off the heritage of their ancestors.

Thus, whenever Burke wished to reform, it was in order to conserve. He was sympathetic to the American struggle (it is not true that he actually supported their war for independence) for the same reason that he looked positively on England’s, so called, ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688, since both these struggles were aimed at preserving an already existing network of charters, customs and liberties.

Sixthly and finally, Burke teaches us the folly of revolutionary solutions to social problems. His entire approach to can be summed up in Solomon’s proverb: “My son, fear the Lord and the king; do not associate with those given to change; for their calamity will rise suddenly, and who knows the ruin those two can bring?” (Proverbs 24:21-22) Burke, no more than Solomon, advocated a static traditionalism. On the contrary, he taught that “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” The question is how does change occur? Burke’s answer was that change must be sought through slow, organic reform based on constitutional precedent. If we must to repair the walls, he said, we should do so on the old foundations.

See also

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