Review of “Reflections on the Revolution in France” by Edmund Burke

Greetings, and welcome to the new incarnation of my blog. I will have to disappoint you, friends, but Tumblr was too much of a shithole even for me. Hard to believe, I know.

For my debut post here, I have a special treat – a review of one of the classic works in reactionary/traditionalist philosophy and conservative philosophy more broadly. Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” is easily one of the most influential books on politics ever written, influencing many reactionaries, traditionalists, conservatives and even libertarians, from De Maistre to Hayek. It is almost a travesty that Burke’s thought has not been considered in much detail in the neoreactionary blogosphere (at least to my knowledge). Hopefully after this short (not really) review of Burke’s magnum opus, you will be motivated to pick up the book yourself. There are only two things worth spending a lot of time on in this world and those are reading good books and listening to good music. The “Reflections” is definitely one of those good books, and the impressive style in which it is written is almost musical and certainly dramatic (but in a good way).

Burke is known by almost everyone as the “father of Conservatism”, and modern conservatives very often appeal to his ideas and authority. However, rather unfortunately, most of the discussion of Burke’s thought nowadays seems rather superficial. There are good books on Burke of course, but most of what you will usually hear or read is not worth paying much attention to – so it’s best to go straight to the source. I suspect that if it wasn’t for the catch-phrase title of “father of Conservatism” and the need for at least some historical context for their political ideology modern mainstream conservatives would have probably abandoned Burke, just like they have abandoned figures like De Maistre, who also used to be known as one of the founders of 19th century conservatism.

Rarely has the world seen such an eloquent and talented writer as Mr. Edmund Burke. His mastery over the English language and his rhetorical skill have been remarked upon by various prominent authors, poets and politicians throughout the years. And indeed you will be hard pressed to find any author with a more remarkable style. Some have of course accused Burke’s rhetoric of being ‘too flowery’, mainly his intellectual opponents, but I disagree. The ‘flowery’ rhetoric helps bring life to Burke’s arguments and makes you sympathize with his point of view, at least from an aesthetic perspective. And aesthetics play a very important role for Burke, not just with regards to the style and presentation of his arguments, but with regards to their contents as well.

“Reflections on the Revolution in France” was written by Burke at the request from a prominent French aristocrat, who was curious about the Irishman’s evaluation of the recent events in France. One of the main tasks which Burke sought to accomplish with his “Reflections” was to distance himself, and to a large degree the majority of the English population, from some of the more radical Whigs in his country who were very supportive and enthusiastic about the Revolution. The main target of Burke’s incisive and merciless rhetoric was the Reverend Dr. Richard Price, who was a nonconformist priest and a big partisan of radical and liberal causes, like the American and especially the French Revolution (to the scholar educated in Moldbug’s theory of the origin of modern progressivism this bio is hardly surprising). Price was the man behind what was called the “Revolution Society” – a radical intellectual circle which was formed in order to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Glorious Revolution. The reason why Burke harbored a great dislike and even contempt of this ‘society’, was that its members, and especially the reverend Dr. Price, were very keen on drawing parallels between the current French Revolution in 1789 and the English Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Burke, although being a big supporter of the Glorious Revolution himself, and a prominent Whig politician, had some social and political views very different from those of Dr. Price and some other more radical Whigs of the day. He starts his “Reflections” by commenting on the activities of the “Revolution Society” and more specifically a recent speech made by Price in one of the gatherings of said society. In this speech, very supportive of the events in France at the time, Price claims the British king is one of the only lawful sovereigns in the world because he ‘owes his crown to the choice of the people, referencing the revolution of 1688 in which the aristocracy replaced James II with William III of Orange. Although a lot of Whigs would be inclined to agree with this remark of Price, Burke is deeply troubled by it and regards it as a very dangerous and misinformed idea:

“This doctrine, as applied to the prince now on the British throne, either is nonsense, and therefore neither true nor false, or it affirms a most unfounded , dangerous, illegal, and unconstitutional position. According to this spiritual doctor of politics, if his Majesty does not owe his crown to the choice of his people, he is no lawful king. Now nothing can be more untrue than that the crown of this kingdom is so held by his Majesty. Therefore, if you follow their rule, the king of Great Britain, who most certainly does not owe his high office to any form of popular election, is in no respect better than the rest of the gang of usurpers, who reign, or rather rob, all over the face of this our miserable world, without any sort of right or title to the allegiance of their people. The policy of this general doctrine, so qualified, is evident enough.”

As Burke mentions, this idea might lead one to the conclusion that a revolution and overthrow of the British King is perfectly justified, if he does not ‘owe his crown to the choice of the people’. But this is a “most unfounded , dangerous, illegal, and unconstitutional position”. Burke then proceed to debunk all of the claims Price makes about the Glorious Revolution, and most importantly the three principles of government that he believes were established by it:

“1. To choose our own governors.
2. To cashier them for misconduct.
3. To frame a government for ourselves.”

And this is what Burke has to say about that:

“This new, and hitherto unheard-of bill of rights, though made in the name of the whole people, belongs to those gentlemen and their faction only. The body of the people of England have no share in it. They utterly disclaim it. They will resist the practical assertion of it with their lives and fortunes. They are bound to do so by the laws of their country, made at the time of that very Revolution which is appealed to in favor of the fictitious rights claimed by the society which abuses its name.”

Burke then goes on to make an overview of the British constitution and the Magna Charta and the rights and privileges guaranteed by them. This part of the book will be of particular interest to those who want to know more about the history of the constitution of Britain and the revolution of 1688. Burke repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the monarchical institution and the principle of hereditary succession, and maintains that the circumstances around the Glorious revolution were of a unique nature and that the reason why a break in the principle of direct hereditary succession could be allowed was because of extraordinary necessity, and it was never meant to be made into a rule to be followed as it would surely lead the realm into anarchy and civil strife. Indeed a radical event such as the 1688 revolution is a last resort only permissible when all else has failed and when there is truly no other option.

This is what Burke has to say regarding the importance of hereditary rule in Britain:

“No experience has taught us that in any other course or method than that of an hereditary crown our liberties can be regularly perpetuated and preserved sacred as our hereditary right.”

Burke makes it abundantly clear that to him, the Revolution of 1688 was in fact not a radical change and shift in the social and political direction of the realm but was its return to the original and traditional course as prescribed by the Magna Charta and as it naturally evolved through the centuries, especially with regards to the question of the religious faith of the monarch. In this way the events of 1688 were more akin to a correction of the constitution at the time and in no way an actual deviation from the established tradition. For Burke, the Glorious Revolution was actually akin to a restoration after the British state had strayed from its original path for several decades in the 17th century. His political convictions are one of an ardent traditionalist and it is crystal clear that in his mind every true Whig must also be a traditionalist who seeks to preserve the original constitution of the British State and not a rabid radical ready to tear down and destroy everything that has been handed down to him by past generations of British statesmen. Burke is a Whig because he is a traditionalist and he is a traditionalist because he is a Whig, or at least that is how he saw himself – as a defender of the tradition of British aristocratic liberty, and it is hard to argue with the historical survey which he offers in support of his position:

“You will observe, that, from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our Constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity,—as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our Constitution preserves an unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.”

After revealing his opinion that the British constitution is based on tradition and inheritance, not on arbitrary revolution, Burke makes some further remarks about the nature of the tradition he defends:

“This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection,— or rather the happy effect of following Nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free; but it secures what it acquires. Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement, grasped as in a kind of mortmain forever. By a constitutional policy working after the pattern of Nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. The institutions of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of Providence, are handed down to us, and from us, in the same course and order.”

The events in France, on the other hand, did not confirm neither to the extraordinary situation of absolute necessity which was present in Britain a hundred years ago, neither did they conform to Burke’s (and those of the 1688 revolution and the British tradition) rather traditionalist political principles in their unfolding. With these considerations in mind, this is what Burke has to say on the state of the French constitution:

“You might , if you pleased, have profited of our example , and have given to your recovered freedom a correspondent dignity. Your privileges , though discontinued, were not lost to memory. Your Constitution, it is true, whilst you were out of possession, suffered waste and dilapidation ; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations […] In your old states you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community was happily composed; you had all that combination and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction, which, in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers draws out the harmony of the universe. These opposed and conflicting interests, which you considered as so great a blemish in your old and in our present Constitution, interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions. They render deliberation a matter, not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations, and rendering all the headlong exertions of arbitrary power, in the few or in the many, forever impracticable. Through that diversity of members and interests, general liberty had as many securities as there were separate views in the several orders;”

This passage is also a very nice summary of Burke’s opinion on what are the crucial elements of a good constitution. He further continues:

“You had all these advantages in your ancient states; but you chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you. You set up your trade without a capital. If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by , and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom beyond the vulgar practice of the hour; and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired. Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves. You would not have chosen to consider the French as a people of yesterday, as a nation of low-born, servile wretches until the emancipating year of 1789.”

Burke accuses the French of abandoning their tradition and spitting on the social and political structures inherited from their ancestors, which even if maybe somewhat defective, were not wholly without any beneficial characteristics. And of course to simply utterly destroy the previous foundations of the state and to try to start building a new one from ground zero is an extremely dangerous and utterly impossible task. Burke is convinced that states and their constitutions cannot be established in a complete form by one single original legislator or body of legislators, but usually take a long time to evolve to what they currently are. For him the idea that one can start from scratch and establish a constitution based on no previous tradition or inheritance, but on abstract set of ‘natural rights’ is an absurdly ridiculous idea, which can only be believed practical by sophistical metaphysicians. And Burke is hardly surprised by the disastrous consequences of this misguided thirst for absolute overturning of ancient traditions:

“This was unnatural. The rest is in order. They have found their punishment in their success. Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigor; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and a state not relieved ; civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom; everything human and divine sacrificed to the idol of public credit, and national bankruptcy the consequence; and, to crown all, the paper securities of new, precarious, tottering power, the discredited paper securities of impoverished fraud and beggared rapine, held out as a currency for the support of an empire, in lieu of the two great recognized species that represent the lasting, conventional credit of mankind, which disappeared and hid themselves in the earth from whence they came, when the principle of property , whose creatures and representatives they are, was systematically subverted.”

Burke is far from denying that men in civil society do possess certain rights, but he does deny that those rights are the same as the one proclaimed by the French intellectuals spearheading the Revolution:

“Far am I from denying in theory, full as far is my heart from withholding in practice, (if I were of power to give or to withhold,) the real rights of men. In denying their false claims of right, I do not mean to injure those which are real, and are such as their pretended rights would totally destroy. If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right. It is an institution of beneficence; and law itself is only beneficence acting by a rule. Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to justice, as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in politic function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry, and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents, to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring, to instruction in life and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favor. In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things. He that has but five shillings in the partnership has as good a right to it as he that has five hundred pounds has to his larger proportion; but he has not a right to an equal dividend in the product of the joint stock. And as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of man in civil society; for I have in my contemplation the civil social man, and no other. It is a thing to be settled by convention.”

And he further remarks:

“Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it,— and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.”[emphasis mine]

This is a very important passage because here Burke states that the subjection of people’s natural passions is one of their rights and indeed a crucial one, because it is only through this subjection that civil society can function at all.

“The moment you abate anything from the full rights of men each to govern himself, and suffer any artificial, positive limitation upon those rights, from that moment the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience. This it is which makes the constitution of a state, and the due distribution of its powers, a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill. It requires a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities, and of the things which facilitate or obstruct the various ends which are to be pursued by the mechanism of civil institutions. The state is to have recruits to its strength and remedies to its distempers . What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.”

There are some very important insights on the nature of proper government in these passages and even if you are mostly familiar with them this is a good reminder, especially from a classic such as Burke. He also goes on to state that “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori.” And, of course, one can hardly disagree with this statement. Abstract reasoning can hardly teach us more than the accurate and detailed study of the history of the human species. Abstract reasoning could help us make sense of human history by constructing theories and explanations of the information it presents, but when the two are distanced from one another the first becomes utterly detached from reality.

After a lengthy reflection upon the faulty principles of the French revolutionaries, Burke goes on to comment on the specific events and policies undertaken by the new government, and this forms the latter two thirds of the book. It is at the start of this discussion where we find Burke’s famous quote about Marie Antoinette:

“It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,— glittering like the morning-star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what an heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom! little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise , is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!”

I posted the whole somewhat lengthy passage here because I think the quote must be considered in its full context. This passage reveals that for Burke the argument again the revolution in France is not merely one of political or ethical nature, but also of aesthetical such. Indeed aesthetics do play a very big part in Burke’s whole body of thought, and he even wrote a whole treatise entirely devoted on that subject titled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”. Of course the importance Burke places on aesthetics is also somewhat revealed by his eloquent and flowery style, but in the whole of the “Reflections” it is most obvious in this passage devoted to Marie Antoinette.

Burke is disappointed of not just the ethical, but also the aesthetic degradation of France and he uses Marie Antoinette as a sort of a personification of the French royal tradition. This is why he emphasizes her beauty and uses such a rich and alluring language to describe her and the feelings that she invoked in him. In this way Burke makes an emotional and aesthetic appeal to the reader, by romanticizing the institution of the Ancien Regime, as personified in Marie Antoinette. This is one of the most tense and emotional passages in the whole book and a sort of a focal point of Burke’s arguments against the Revolution. Unsurprisingly Burke’s detractors have overwhelmingly focused on this particular passage and have repeatedly attempted to denigrate it as much as possible. But the passage does its work and through a very eloquent and, I dare say, magnificent style, is indeed capable of provoking an emotional response even in the reader most detached from Burke’s views and make him genuinely worry that the upheaval in France with its attacks on tradition, nobility, and royalty, endangers everything that is beautiful and worth fighting for in the world and instead debases human life and tears it down to a lowly materialist existence, devoid of any grace and dignity, ruled by sophisters, economists, and calculators. Whatever one makes of this passage, its artistry and rhetorical and emotional effectiveness cannot be denied.

Shortly after this passage come some very important points that Burke has to make on prejudice and its role in social affairs:

“You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings: that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree; and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, 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 the 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. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, (and they seldom fail,) they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”

This is one of the passages in which Burke most obviously reveals himself as a supporter of the idea of Spontaneous Order, later most efficiently popularized by Friedrich Hayek (who actually references Burke pretty often in his own writings). Burke emphasizes the importance of prejudices inherited from our ancestors as very important pillars of society which help keep the political and social realm stable and orderly. Note how he emphasizes that the more prejudices have lasted, the more they are cherished – here is once again stressed the importance of historical and empirical evolution of social norms, over the abstract naively rationalist reasoning and speculation of ‘natural rights’ philosophers. Prejudice has the benefit of being the accumulated experience and wisdom not just of one man, but of whole generations that have come become us, and also the benefit of being “ready application in the emergency” and rendering a man’s virtue his habit. Some things take ages to be learned and to Burke it is absurdly naïve, not to mention arrogant, to assume that a single man, or even a single generation, can possess a wisdom greater than all of that accumulated and developed by all their ancestors. Sure, the knowledge which we inherit from the might not be correct in every single aspect, but it is certainly not wrong in that manner either, and it would be obscenely presumptuous of us to think that if they couldn’t perfect their knowledge over the course of ages, or even millennia, we could be able to do so in the time frame of a single generation. The revolutionaries in France were of course to have none of that, and promptly proceeded to disregard every bit of prejudice and experience inherited from their ancestors – for Burke, this was a grave mistake.

Burke then continues forward with a more detailed analysis of the new political and social organization that was taking root in France and makes this comment on the desire of some to achieve a state of an absolute democracy there:

“But where popular authority is absolute and unrestrained, the people have an infinitely greater, because a far better founded, confidence in their own power. They are themselves in a great measure their own instruments. They are nearer to their objects. Besides, they are less under responsibility to one of the greatest controlling powers on earth, the sense of fame and estimation. The share of infamy that is likely to fall to the lot of each individual in public acts is small indeed: the operation of opinion being in the inverse ratio to the number of those who abuse power. Their own approbation of their own acts has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favor. A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world. As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless. No man apprehends in his person that he can be made subject to punishment. Certainly the people at large never ought: for, as all punishments are for example towards the conservation of the people at large, the people at large can never become the subject of punishment by any human hand. It is therefore of infinite importance that they should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong. They ought to be persuaded that they are full as little entitled, and far less qualified, with safety to themselves, to use any arbitrary power whatsoever; that therefore they are not, under a false show of liberty, but in truth to exercise an unnatural, inverted domination, tyrannically to exact from those who officiate in the state, not an entire devotion to their interest, which is their right, but an abject submission to their occasional will: extinguishing thereby, in all those who serve them, all moral principle, all sense of dignity, all use of judgment, and all consistency of character; whilst by the very same process they give themselves up a proper, a suitable, but a most contemptible prey to the servile ambition of popular sycophants or courtly flatterers.”[emphasis mine]

This is one of the passages in which Burke specifically targets democracy as a very dangerous and overly arbitrary system of government when taken to its extreme (in which we have the pleasure to live nowadays). Notice how it is emphasized that in popular government “The share of infamy that is likely to fall to the lot of each individual in public acts is small indeed: the operation of opinion being in the inverse ratio to the number of those who abuse power” and this characteristic feature of democracy makes it the most shameless and fearless type of government. When ‘the people’ are released of all restraint on the extent of their power and are allowed to freely pursue their arbitrary and base desires, for humans are at their core nothing more than base and arbitrary animals, they become easy prey to petty flatterers lusting for power, who then become arbitrary tyrants over the very people who had elected them. Because the people always elect according to their own nature, according to what best appeals to that nature – they get what their animal nature guides them to, they get representatives as arbitrary and base as themselves, with no restraint, no fear, and no shame. And is not the phenomenon of modern democracy that we have the delightful pleasure to observe on a regular basis a testament to this fundamental insight of the honorable Mr. Burke?

In line with this reasoning Burke also emphasizes other important institutions, besides a limit on popular power, such as the Church which place a religious and moral restraint on the people. For Burke humans are fallen creatures and one of the main functions of the Church is to help them control and deal with their fallen nature.

This is one of the reasons why he is deeply disturbed by the hatred that the Revolutionaries have for the Church and their wild enthusiasm in arbitrarily confiscating church property and in any other way impoverishing the priestly class using the organs of the state. To the modern reactionary, baptized in the contemporary reactionary verse and prose (Moldbug), it is hardly surprising that the newly self-appointed priestly class of radical ‘free-thinking’ intellectual are very much concerned with destroying the old priestly class which are probably the most direct threat to their newfound influence on popular opinion. Indeed immediately targeting the guardians of the old religion is the first thing that one should do when attempting to establish a new radical theocracy, and there is no doubt that this is exactly what the French revolutionaries were trying to do. Robespierre himself founded a new religion and was very enthusiastic about religious festivals in honor of his God.

Burke continues his “Reflections” by further analyzing the specific policies pursued by the revolutionary government and their arbitrary confiscations and disregard of the principle of private property. For Burke respect for private property if a fundamental value for society and when a precedent is set that it can be disregarded, the gates are opened for the most arbitrary forms of rule imaginable. Indeed when the State can freely disregard the private property of its subjects, it is a sure sign that it has become a dangerous tyranny and if not remedied this disregard for property eventually leads the society into a state of anarcho-tyranny.

Burke also provides substantial defenses of each of the persecuted classes in France, most specifically the nobility and the clergy. Those are some very interesting passages and they contain valuable insights into the history of French society at the time. Something that Burke emphasizes as a failure of the Ancien Regime, was the undue separation between the older landed nobility and the newly rising commercial bourgeoisie nobility – specifically the fact that the new nobility, despite sometimes achieving greater wealth that the old nobility were not allowed certain privileges made exclusive for the old one. This led to a very unfortunate antagonism according to Burke which was one of the big causes of the social disturbances in France. In his view if the new nobility had been recognized as such the revolution would lack its very substantial support that it currently enjoyed. Burke does indeed make a very good point here, and this once again shows his great talent in analyzing social and political structures and developments.

During the reign of Louis XIV the bourgeoisie was actually able to gain a lot of ground and become even more powerful than the landed nobility, because the king wanted to consolidate and centralize his power as much as possible and the nobility were actively opposed to such developments as they would endanger their own influence, Louis started emancipating the lower classes and formed his personal bureaucracy entirely from the bourgeoisie and was able to significantly limit the influence of the nobles through a series of rather progressive legislations. Richelieu and Mazarin were also very influential in these developments. And so, Louis XIV achieved near absolute power by emancipating the lower classes. For obvious reasons you will rarely hear this story nowadays, although it has been common historical knowledge for quite some time. If you are further interested in Louis XIV’s reforms look at these books.

What Louis XIV’s grandsons did however, was to surrender quite some ground back to the nobility – a development in which the bourgeoisie lost most of the power gained during Louis the XIV’s reign. Unsurprisingly they were not happy about that. This newfound influence of the nobility also had the effect of weakening the authority of the king. Also unsurprisingly both Louis the XV and Louis XVI were known as rather weak kings, the latter doing everything possible to appease the discontented nation. But I digress.

Burke also makes some very important and critical comments on the economic reforms undertaken by the new government. He repeatedly stresses the evils of redistribution, fiat money and most importantly the accumulation of large amounts of debt owed to a class of ‘moneyed interest’. Here is one important quote he makes on the accumulation of too much debt:

“It is not the confiscation of our Church property from this example in France that I dread, though I think this would be no trifling evil. The great source of my solicitude is, lest it should ever be considered in England as the policy of a state to seek a resource in confiscations of any kind, or that any one description of citizens should be brought to regard any of the others as their proper prey. Nations are wading deeper and deeper into an ocean of boundless debt. Public debts, which at first were a security to governments, by interesting many in the public tranquillity, are likely in their excess to become the means of their subversion . If governments provide for these debts by heavy impositions, they perish by becoming odious to the people. If they do not provide for them, they will be undone by the efforts of the most dangerous of all parties: I mean an extensive, discontented moneyed interest, injured and not destroyed. The men who compose this interest look for their security, in the first instance, to the fidelity of government; in the second, to its power. If they find the old governments effete, worn out, and with their springs relaxed, so as not to be of sufficient vigor for their purposes, they may seek new ones that shall be possessed of more energy; and this energy will be derived, not from an acquisition of resources, but from a contempt of justice.”

The quote speaks for itself. Obviously Mr. Burke would not be very pleased by the habit of modern governments to accumulate large amounts of public debt in order to finance their wasteful and excessive operations, but he would also be hardly surprised by this fact, considering that most modern governments are of the democratic type.

There are many other excellent insights on sound economic policy littered through the rest of the book, but I will let you discover them for yourself. Burke continues to note that there is such a thing as reforming the inefficient and unjust parts of a government without having to tear down everything that is efficient, good, and just about it. As already mentioned, that was more or less his view of what the Glorious Revolution had achieved.

In this review I tried to compress the most important and crucial points that Edmund Burke makes in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, as you can see there is a lot of wisdom in that relatively short book – I was merely able to abridge its main points and even so, I barely scratched the surface. Besides being supremely interesting, the book is also written in such a beautiful style that it is an utter delight to read. At least for me. Maybe others will not share the same appreciation for Burke’s beautiful and exquisite rhetoric that I do, but even so it will not be a dull read by any stretch of the imagination. This book would actually also be a really good read for some libertarians, especially of a more radical bent. They will certainly find in Burke’s thought much to agree with and might quite possibly be persuaded to change their mind on some other issues on which they usually disagree with reactionaries and (more broadly) conservatives.

The “Reflections” is a book that absolutely every reactionary everyone should read, even if he is already anticipating most of its arguments. Those bear reiterating every now and then, especially when presented in such a beautiful style.

 

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7 responses to “Review of “Reflections on the Revolution in France” by Edmund Burke

  1. Urban IX February 10, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    Hmmm…I’ll have to add this to the list of books to read. From my studies of the last three Bourbon kings I had formed a theory that the revolution had come about as a result of Louis XIV’s uplifting of the bourgeois and the subsequent power struggle with the old nobility that came about after the Sun King’s death.

    It seems I’m not nearly as innovative as I thought. Good article.

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  2. Alrenous February 10, 2015 at 10:03 pm

    Burke is apt to be misinterpreted to mean one may stop thinking, as the ancestors have done all that.

    Of course as a proprietor of dark knowledge, I can hardly complain that some truths can be dangerous to the holder.

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  3. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/02/13) | The Reactivity Place

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  6. Wade McKenzie March 13, 2015 at 3:45 am

    “There are only two things worth spending a lot of time on in this world and those are reading good books and listening to good music.”

    Though I’m rather more fond of the former than the latter, I couldn’t agree more with the spirit of this sentiment. Cleave to it for the rest of your life and you won’t go wrong.

    “Abstract reasoning can hardly teach us more than the accurate and detailed study of the history of the human species. Abstract reasoning could help us make sense of human history by constructing theories and explanations of the information it presents, but when the two are distanced from one another the first becomes utterly detached from reality.”

    Of course, we have to ask ourselves: “What is reality?” or “What is the nature of the real?”–and in light of the extract from your piece which I’ve quoted above, one way of asking this would be: Is *reality* or the *real* more adequately represented by *abstract reason* or by *history*? Your passage comes down decisively on the side of the latter.

    Interestingly enough, in the *history* of philosophy, the philosophers themselves–from, say, Thales to Hume and/or Kant (nearly 2300 years)–have overwhelmingly considered abstract reason to be infinitely more representative of reality than is history (or historical studies). This had to do with their overriding conviction that reality is changeless and thus timeless or ahistorical–whereas human history, like everything changing, is a more or less meaningless flux. They may have been wrong about that, but if so wouldn’t that then be a case where *history* (the history of philosophy) is misleading–and thus, in a sense, unreal? And wouldn’t that then mean, that the philosophers were right all along? In other words, if the history of philosophy is ex hypothesi the history of an error, wouldn’t abstract reason (contrary to the hypothesis) be vindicated over against history?

    The only reason I’m making this strange observation is that Burke was one of the first philosophers to begin to theorize that history may be more consonant with what is ultimately real than is ahistorical abstract reason–an idea that has since come to exercise a powerful, indeed pervasive, influence. Other philosophers who are associated (mutatis mutandis, of course) with this line of thought include Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Whitehead and Heidegger. I am myself sympathetic with this point of view, but I nevertheless think it important for us not to fail to see the controversy betwixt abstract reason and history precisely as a *controversy*, as opposed to a settled dispute.

    Re: Burke’s argument for the central importance of prejudice.

    It’s interesting that in contemporary English, the word “prejudice” has come to be overwhelmingly associated with race prejudice–and one might infer from this that race prejudice is prejudice par excellence. So, given your interest in Burke, I’d be interested to know your views on race prejudice. As someone who believes that traditional American race prejudice is simply an instance of inherited wisdom, I’d like to think that I find support for my position in Burke.

    “And is not the phenomenon of modern democracy that we have the delightful pleasure to observe on a regular basis a testament to this fundamental insight of the honorable Mr. Burke?”

    Yes indeed.

    “In line with this reasoning Burke also emphasizes other important institutions, besides a limit on popular power, such as the Church which place a religious and moral restraint on the people.”

    So does this mean that Christianity is important because true–or rather instrumentally useful in the maintenance of civic morals? As someone who thinks that Christianity is another instance of inherited wisdom–in fact, a crucial instance for our civilization–I’d incline myself to the former view. I find the hostility to Christianity in neoreactionary circles to be distressing. I’d be curious to know your own view of the matter.

    In closing, permit me to say that I found your treatment of the Marie Antoinette passage to be compelling–as is your emphasis on the aesthetic and rhetorical dimensions of the text generally. I really think you’ve contributed something valuable to my own reading of Burke’s Reflections by drawing attention to the artful composition and rhetorical construction of the Marie Antoinette passage, whereby it has somewhat less to do with the queen herself in her specific and personal particularity, but she rather emblematizes–or is the literary incarnation of–the Ancien Regime itself.

    There’s obviously a great deal more to be said–for me, in particular, the question as to whether the several revolutions of sixteenth and seventeenth England (from the Henrician change of religion and confiscation of church property to the martial assertion of parliamentary supremacy in the civil war, the subsequent beheading of Charles, and the deposition of James II) really were fundamentally different from the revolution in France–but I’ll leave that for another occasion.

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  7. mercyjilljill February 28, 2017 at 5:41 am

    Great. The book is prescribed in my MPhil course. Wonderfully written review.

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