Reflections on the Revolution in France (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is the undisputed foundation of modern conservatism. It is a brilliant pamphlet against the French Revolution, one rooted in the solid ground of a practical political philosophy. Burke’s central argument is that the French Revolution was driven by a utopian egalitarianism, which was dangerously disconnected from the actual experience of politics. A conservative, he grants centrality to the practical rationality of existing socio-political traditions ...

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Reflections on the Revolution in France

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Overview

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is the undisputed foundation of modern conservatism. It is a brilliant pamphlet against the French Revolution, one rooted in the solid ground of a practical political philosophy. Burke’s central argument is that the French Revolution was driven by a utopian egalitarianism, which was dangerously disconnected from the actual experience of politics. A conservative, he grants centrality to the practical rationality of existing socio-political traditions and institutions, criticizes radical changes at all costs, and advocates gradual political reforms.

“But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tradition or restraint.”— Edmund Burke

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Edmund Burke was an outstanding politician, polemicist, and political thinker, as well as a theorist of aesthetics and literature. Born in Dublin in 1729, he graduated from Trinity College in 1748. From there, he moved to London with the intention of studying law at the Inns of Court, but soon abandoned his studies to pursue a career in literature.  Soon he was moving in the artistic circle of Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, and Oliver Goldsmith.. In 1756, Burke published A Vindication of Natural Society, a satire that took issue with the rationalist principles of the Enlightenment. In 1757, he wrote a short treatise that laid the groundwork for a new conception of aesthetics that would influence, among others, Immanuel Kant.

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Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, originally published in 1790, remains highly relevant as the undisputed foundation of modern conservatism. Mirroring Burke’s engagement as a political thinker and politician, the Reflections is not an abstract political treatise, but a brilliant pamphlet against the French Revolution, one rooted in the solid ground of a practical political philosophy. Burke’s central argument is that the French Revolution was driven by a utopian egalitarianism, which was dangerously disconnected from the actual experience of politics. Burke intended Reflections to alert its readers to the errors of the French revolutionaries and persuade them of the virtues of the existing British tradition and system of free government. Burke’s conservative thinking is skeptical of utopian political ideologies meant to serve as blueprints for constructing the perfect society. Instead, he grants centrality to the practical rationality of existing socio-political traditions and institutions, criticizes radical changes at all costs, and advocates gradual political reforms.

Edmund Burke was at once an outstanding political thinker, politician, polemicist, as well as a theorist of aesthetics and literature. Born in Dublin in 1729, he graduated from Trinity College in 1748, and then went to London with the intention of studying law at the Inns of Court. He soon abandoned his studies in law to pursue a career in literature, and moved in the artistic circle of Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, and Oliver Goldsmith. His first published works belong to this period. In 1756, Burke published A Vindication of Natural Society, a satire that took issue with the rationalist principles of the Enlightenment. In 1757, he wrote a short treatise that laid the groundwork for a new conception of aesthetics that would influence, among others, Immanuel Kant. Burke’s treatise criticized the influential rationalist views handed down from the Greek philosophers, marking a departure from the dominant views of his time.[1]

Shortly after, Burke became increasingly involved in politics. In 1765, the incoming Prime Minister, Lord Rockingham, invited him to become his private secretary. Burke soon became a major spokesman and pamphleteer for the Rockingham Whigs, who tended to defend reforms and liberties more than the opposition Tories. Burke wrote on behalf of the Whigs a series of writings and pamphlets, including the remarkable Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents (1770). From 1770 until the American Revolution, Burke was also an agent in Parliament for the colony of New York. In a suite of famous speeches and letters, he attempted to persuade Parliament to moderate its attitude toward the colonies and respect the liberties of the Americans. In 1774, Burke was elected as Member of Parliament for Bristol. In his speech at the close of the poll, Burke famously argued that the legitimate relationship between an MP and his constituency should be one of representation, and not of delegation.[2] Burke was not reelected by the Bristol constituency, yet he served as Paymaster-General, first for Rockingham and then for the Fox-North coalition. In his long career in politics, Burke used his extraordinary rhetorical skills to support the reform of the East India Company, the Irish Catholics against the popery laws, and the Americans against the British imposition of additional taxation.

The 1790 publication of his Reflections on the Revolution in France marked a critical moment in Burke’s political career. As a virulent critique of the French Revolution, this work strained his relationship with his reformist Whig colleagues. Reflections garnered both praise and condemnation in countless pamphlets and books; Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791 and 1792) had the greatest impact and remains the most popular rejoinder to Burke’s arguments. Burke defended his view and rebuffed Paine’s objections in a sequel to Reflections entitled An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791). He further developed his critical view in Thoughts of French Affairs (1791) and the Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796–1797). Burke passed away in London in 1797, leaving behind a set of outstanding writings critical of the rationalism that, in his view, characterized the Age of Enlightenment and the project of the French Revolution. Reflections remains his most important and seminal work for its critique of revolutionary utopianism and the alternative it poses to the liberal-individualist tradition initiated by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

For Burke, the utopian philosophy of the French revolutionaries created a form of intransigent perfectionism based on the radical rejection of past institutions and traditions in the name of the ideal of perfect equality and pure democracy.[3] The disastrous “success” of this utopian vision was explainable in part by the lack of any practical political experience of the majority of members of the French Assembly. Their impractical attempt to do away entirely with the old regime and create a perfectly egalitarian society was bound to end in tyranny and violence. As Burke notes:

the [French] Assembly proceeds upon principles the most opposite from those which appear to direct them. . . . They [the French revolutionaries] follow precedents and examples with the punctilious exactness of a pleader. They never depart an iota from the authentic formulas of tyranny and usurpation , , , they abandon the dearest interests of the public to their loose theories, , , ,

 In politics, Burke subtly argued, utopia tends to generate violence. Politics driven by a utopian fantasy is at odds with the irreducible imperfections and complexities of human nature and practice, as well as with the natural diversity of opinions and interests. Unsurprisingly, maintained Burke, the intransigent perfectionism of the French revolutionaries provoked in actual practice a dramatic increase in violence: the nobler the ideal, the less humane its implementation. As Burke aptly underlined, “hating vices too much, they [the revolutionaries] come to love men too little.” The result of the revolutionaries’ utopian enthusiasm is that “[m]oderation . . . is stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors.” Burke prophetically anticipated that dissenters would be condemned as traitors to the Revolution and would meet their fate at the guillotine during the revolutionary Terror. If political reality did not fit the philosopher’s ideal, all the worse for it. Utopia and violence went hand in hand.

 

The Age of Enlightenment and Reason was, for the French revolutionaries, incompatible with the prejudices and traditions of the Old Regime. For them, the construction of the rational emancipated society was premised on razing the traditional society to the ground. Burke rejects the simplistic dichotomies of progress versus tradition and reason versus prejudice. Progress makes sense only in relation to what has been: doing away with all traditions empties out the very notion of progress. Burke certainly acknowledges that there are practices that need to be reformed. Yet traditions are ways of doing things that include viable and tested solutions to social and political problems. The gradual accumulation of these solutions, transmitted from generation to generation as ”prejudices” and “habits,” forms a shared experience and a practical rationality essential for all human activities, including politics. We need to draw on these resources of shared rationality because of the fallibility and frailty of individual reason and the irreducible complexity of practice:

“the longer they [prejudices] have lasted . . . the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that his stock in each man is small and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages…”

  

Burke is a conservative, not a reactionary. Reactionary thinkers oppose any sort of revolution or significant reform, and want to return to an idealized pre-revolutionary past represented as a Golden Age. Reactionaries share with revolutionaries the fanatical dismissal of the present as falling short of their aspirations: reactionaries see utopia in the past, whereas revolutionaries project it into the future. As a modern conservative, Burke is opposed to radical violent changes inspired by utopian schemes, but not to changes per se. Burke defended the Glorious Revolution of 1688, arguing that it was necessary to conserve the British regime of liberty threatened by a political usurpation rather than to create an entirely new society: “[t]he [Glorious] Revolution was made to preserve our ancient laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty.”

Burke objects to utopianism that it mistakenly abandons traditional and tested experiences in favor of abstract theories promising pie-in-the-sky changes. In contrast, he maintains that gradual reforms should be introduced when necessary, and they should make use of existing social and political experience. In Burke´s view, “[a] great patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.”

 Burke further advances the subtle point that the very conservation of tradition requires that it change. In order to avoid fossilization, traditions need to be adapted and improved so that they can face new problems and challenges. Such changes should be prudent and gradual, given the frailty of individual reason and the complexity involved in calculating the medium- to long-term consequences of our actions. Reforms should be carried out with infinite prudence to prevent destabilization and anarchy:

[t]o avoid , , , the evils of inconsistency and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state; that no man should approach to look into the defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.

 

Burke’s view of a shared rationality incorporated in existing traditions and institutions leads him to a specific understanding of society. This understanding is at odds with the influential liberal belief that a just society should be seen as a contract between equal individuals. This contract had, for Locke, a rational basis: he regarded the legitimate political society as the result of the rational preferences and interests of individuals.

Burke forcefully argues that this liberal conception is based on the fiction of a disembodied, rational individual who exists only in the mind of the philosopher. In Burke’s view, society, including the state, is indeed a contractual agreement, but of a completely different sort; it emerges gradually as an intergenerational, long-term experience, and it has a moral import that transcends strictly individual reason and will:

Society is indeed a contract. . . . [T]he state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee . . . or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. . . . It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

Consequently, the contract does not result from the mechanical addition of individual preferences, but instead evolves slowly, like a living organism, across generations. This intergenerational agreement cannot be legitimately challenged in a radical way by current members of society because it represents a collective bond and a rationality that goes beyond mere individual preferences and interests. Furthermore, for Burke the religious thinker, the contract also links human society with God, the ephemeral with the perpetual, the temporal with the spiritual: “[e]ach contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, connecting the visible and invisible world...”

 

 

Burke´s conception of society and state imparts a fundamental role to religion. Religion is important because it inculcates a sense of duty and restraint. Religion is also “the basis of civil society, and the sources of all good and comfort.” Burke´s basic assumption is that human beings are religious by nature; thus atheism, so widespread among the French revolutionaries, goes against the order of nature as created by God: “[w]e know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts. . . .” It is therefore unsurprising that, from Burke’s perspective, an established church has its rationality given that it enhances the stability and legitimacy of the British government: “church establishment . . . is first of our prejudices; not a prejudice destitute of reason, but involving in it profound and extensive wisdom.”

Nonetheless, Burke is an eloquent critic of injecting “religious enthusiasm” into politics. He makes the interesting point that the anti-religious fervor of the French revolutionaries in fact displayed religious or quasi-religious overtones: “[t]he Atheistic Fathers have a bigotry of their own; and they have talked against monks with a spirit of a monk.” For Burke, such “religious” enthusiasm was at odds with the spirit of compromise and moderation characteristic of a free government. A free government presupposes a degree of separation between politics and religion: “politics and pulpit are terms that have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity. The cause of civil liberty and civil government gains as little as that of religion by this confusion of duties.”

 

Burke’s modern conservatism does not entail the rejection of the concept of rights, but only of their rationalist and individualist understanding. According to the liberal-contractualist tradition, all individuals are endowed with universal human rights independent of their membership in a society. This entails an “arithmetical” conception of equality, according to which the same set of rights belongs to each and every individual.[4] However, argues Burke, human rights ascribed to individuals in the abstract, removed from all socio-historical ties, are just philosophical imaginings. There is no practical purpose in metaphysical speculation about the rights of men since they are always embedded in specific political arrangements that give them a meaning and a “trajectory”:

[t]he metaphysical rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are, by their nature, refracted from their straight line. Indeed, in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction.

        

One practical outcome of the speculative approach to human rights is, for Burke, ¨the loss of all natural sense of wrong and right.” To make a political judgment about what is right or wrong is not to mechanically apply a simplistic ideology of human rights, but to weigh continuously the complexities and difficulties of actual political practice, of which ¨the rights of men” are a part. According to Burke,

[t]he rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and these are often in balance between differences of good; in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil. Political reason is a computing principle; adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral determinations.

     

Moreover, rights do not exist independently of duties. Here Burke opposes the classic-liberal tradition, which tends to privilege individual rights over public duties and virtues. The latter are not chosen at will by the individual, but are largely “given” or ascribed within the natural context of a specific communal group to which the individual belongs. Duties and virtues, as social phenomena, are communal in nature because they are ascribed through membership in various communal groups (nobles, peasants, merchants, etc.). Since these groups are not equal, the corresponding duties and virtues of their members are not equal either. For Burke, the differences between them reflect the natural hierarchy and inequality that exists in society.

     

An important corollary: Burke does not equate freedom with the absence of obstacles in the exercise of one’s will (as Hobbes does).[5] In contrast to classic liberalism, Burke’s conservatism grants a central role to public duties and virtues. Thus freedom equates to fulfilling one’s duties and practicing virtues as well as exercising one´s rights in relation to group membership and existing traditions. Liberty without the restraints presupposed by duties and virtues is impossible, for liberty unleashed would fall into licentiousness and arbitrariness: “[b]ut what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tradition or restraint.”

 

Burke does not speculate on what constitutes the best political regime. Although this is a favorite question among political philosophers, Burke argues that pursuing such a utopian query is idle and potentially dangerous. Instead, as a practical politician, Burke considers which political arrangements have legitimacy within specific contexts. In an age in which, as a rule, the term “democracy” had a pejorative meaning, Burke went as far as to argue that while “I reprobate no form of government merely upon abstract principles , , , [t]here may be situations in which the purely democratic form will become necessary.” For France and Britain, Burke argues for constitutional monarchy. For him, this kind of political system should be understood as a “mixed and tempered government” that avoids the extremes of both monarchical tyranny and democratic despotism. Between these extremes, there is the middle way of “monarchy directed by laws, controlled and balanced by the great hereditary wealth and hereditary dignity of a nation; and both again controlled by a judicious check from the reason and feeling of the people at large. . . .”

  

Burke’s conservatism is meant to represent a realist theory of social and political freedom. For Burke, a free government depends on a plurality of principles, powers and interests that restrain one another. These checks and balances maintain the equilibrium of limited government and the delicate “fabric” of socio-political freedom, and prevent the tyranny of one dispensation over all others. The French revolutionaries, by contrast, introduce the possibility of “total despotism” because their starting point is the “naked” individual stripped of all socio-political bonds, which removes all barriers to the expansion of the central power. The ensuing emergence of a “homogenous mass” of isolated individuals tends to lead to a “state of unbounded power.”

 

Burke´s modern conservatism focused on the British tradition should not be confused with contemporary American (neo)conservatism, which is a tension-ridden blend of free-market capitalism, American evangelism, and ¨democratic militarism” in foreign affairs.[6] However, there is also a relative continuity between the two, such as in the importance granted to religion and tradition, the non-instrumental conception of the state, and more acceptance of the ¨natural inequalities” in society.[7]

With the undeserved benefit of hindsight, I think that one of the main limitations of Burke´s view is that he underestimated the democratic and egalitarian impact of the French Revolution. Together with the American Revolution, the French Revolution presaged the historic break with the aristocratic order and its hierarchies, and introduced on the world stage a new phase of political development. Burke’s defence of natural inequality, and of aristocracy with its attendant codes of duty and deference specific to the “age of chivalry,” is not in tune with our contemporary egalitarian and democratic sensibility. If Burke’s is a philosophy of liberty, it is not one of equality: it took the historical prescience of Alexis de Tocqueville to sense the ineluctability of the “democratic revolution.” Furthermore, given that today’s democracies are shaped by the forces of pluralization and globalization, Burke´s claim that political practice is informed by one relatively homogenous tradition is not entirely convincing. Traditions are often plural, diverse, and in conflict. Equally problematic is that Burke´s brand of conservatism is unable to provide criteria for questioning traditions of domination (e.g., of women and sexual minorities) or authoritarian-militarist traditions. 

Despite these limitations, the influence and relevance of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is unlikely to wane. His analysis of a new and radical type of despotism justified by rationalist utopias foresaw both the collapse of the French Revolution in a reign of terror as well as the rise of communist totalitarianism (Stalinism). He saw the great evil in the deliberate, even vengeful, break with a cohesive tradition and its replacement by an implacable utopian program whose enthusiastic adherents disregarded its savage consequences. As the twentieth-century political philosophers Michael Oakeshott and Hannah Arendt pointed out, Burke prophetically anticipated the likelihood that an abstract, utopian egalitarianism could turn into the most radical form of servitude and despotism. Burke’s trenchant critique of political utopianism and his persuasive advocacy of gradual reform in light of irreducible human fallibility and complexity of practice ensure the enduring salience of Reflections on the Revolution in France. No doubt it will continue to inspire conservatives, liberals, and republicans alike for many years to come.

Burke’s observation that political bonds are of a different and more complex nature than relationships built through “trading pepper and coffee” is an important argument against reducing political activity to a market dynamic. Moreover, Burke’s emphasis on the shared rationality embodied in existing practices and traditions, as well as the importance of understanding human rights contextually and in close relationship to our duties and virtues, provides a significant corrective to the “public reason” approaches advanced by influential contemporary theorists such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas.  

Reading Burke’s masterful work Reflections on the Revolution in France today requires both an openness to learning from it as well as a willingness to adapt its conservative themes to contemporary democracies that are shaped by the forces of globalization. As Burke vividly puts it: “[p]eople will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

Camil Ungureanu teaches political theory at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. He specializes in contemporary political philosophy and history of modern political thought, and has published in the Journal of Political Philosophy and the European Journal of Political Theory. At present, he is working on the book Democratic Theory and Religion (Routledge, 2010) and coediting Law, State and Religion in the New Europe with Lorenzo Zucca (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[1] For more details on Burke’s, see Pocock, J. G. A. “Introduction,” in Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987; and Fennesy, R. R. Burke, Paine, and the Rights of Man. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963. David Boucher provides an excellent short introduction in the interpretative debates concerning Burke´s thought. See Bocher, “Burke,” in Boucher, David and Kelly, Paul, Edss, Political Thinkers. From Socrates to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2003, 363–383.

[2] For a broader view on this issue, see Pitkin, H. F., The Concept of Representation, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1967.

[3] See also, Freeman, M. Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980.

[4] For Burke on rights, see especially Waldron, Jeremy, Ed. Nonsense upon Stilts: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Men. London: Menthuen, 1990.

[5] ¨By LIBERTY, is understood, according to the proper signifance of the Word, the absence of externall Impediments. . . .¨ (Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York: Penguin [1651], 1985, 189).

[6] For a complex view of neoconservatism, see for instance Kristol, Irving. Reflections of a Neoconservative. Looking Back, Looking Ahead. New York: Basic Books, 1983; Fukuyama, Francis. America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

[7]  For Pocock, there is no connection between Burke´s modern conservatism and neo-conservatism (see Pocock, J. G. A. “Introduction,” in Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987, vii.) But this is an overstatement. While there are certainly unbridgeable differences between Burke´s conservatism and neo-conservatism (e.g., the centrality of market values), there are also continuities.

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