Reflections on the Revolution in France
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"I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty"
Wikipedia - Full Text - Print Edition: ISBN 0199539022
Edmund Burke was born and raised in Ireland, from a family with splendidly mixed Protestant & Catholic, Irish & Norman, credentials. He went off to study law in London, but grew sick of it and turned instead to literature and politics, becoming a Member of Parliament for the modest English town of Wendover and in 1774 for the great port city of Bristol.
His essay on Aesthetics 'The Sublime and Beautiful', published in 1756, made him slightly famous, and this book 'Reflections on the Revolution in France', caused a sensation. He had lauded the recent revolution in America, but decried the revolution in France, marking himself out as someone who was neither in favour of nor against revolutions, but was concerned only for the results they brought. This was a new type of politics, one built on principle rather than allegiances, and it makes him one of the founders of the political persuasion we now call 'Liberalism' or 'Conservatism'. It was in response to his ideas that Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft produced theirs, and his influence is with us yet.
You might like to know that, in his time at Dublin's Trinity College, Burke set up a Debating Club, which eventually became the College Historical Society, the longest-running undergraduate society in the world.
This condensed edition of 4,000 words is adapted from the original 97,900 words (4%), largely based on the earlier abridged version edited by Sir John Hammerton.
Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes © 2012
I. - The Meaning of Freedom
Dear Sir, You are pleased to call again, and with some earnestness, for my thoughts on the late proceedings in France. You will see, sir, that though I do most heartily wish that France may be animated by a spirit of rational liberty, it is my misfortune to entertain great doubts concerning several material points in your late transactions. I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as anyone; but I cannot stand forward and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions and human concerns, on a simple view of the subject, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.
I should, therefore, suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners.
All these, in their way, are good things, too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit while it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do before we risk congratulations. It appears to me as if I were in a great crisis, not of the affairs of France alone, but of all Europe, perhaps of more than Europe.
All circumstances taken together, the French Revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world. Everything seems out of nature in this chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies. In viewing this monstrous tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; laughter and tears; scorn and horror.
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.
Our political system is placed in a just symmetry with the order of the world; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great, mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but, in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. We have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domesticities; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars. Always acting as if in the presence of canonised forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity.
All your sophisters cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.
II. - A Lost Opportunity
You might, if you pleased, have profited of our example, and have given to your recovered freedom a correspondent dignity. 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. But you began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you. Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves. By following wise examples you would have shamed despotism from the earth by showing that freedom is not only reconcilable, but auxiliary to law. You would have had a free constitution. You would have had a protected, satisfied, laborious, and obedient people, taught to seek the happiness that is to be found by virtue in all conditions; in which consists the true moral equality of mankind, and not in that monstrous fiction which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality which it never can remove, and which the order of civil life establishes as much for the benefit of those whom it must leave in an humble state as those whom it is able to exalt to a condition more splendid but not more happy.
Compute your gains; see what is got by those extravagant and presumptuous speculations which have taught your leaders to despise all their predecessors and all their contemporaries, and even to despise themselves, until the moment in which they became truly despicable. By following those false lights, France has bought undisguised calamities at a higher price than any nation has purchased the most unequivocal blessings. She has abandoned her interest that she might prostitute her virtue.
All other nations have begun the fabric of a new government, or the reformation of an old, by establishing, or by enforcing with greater exactness, some rites or other of religion. All other people have laid the foundations of civil freedom in severer manners, and a system of a more austere and masculine morality. France, when she let loose the reins of regal authority, doubled the license of a ferocious dissoluteness in manners, and of an insolent irreligion in opinions and practices; and has extended through all ranks of life, as if she were communicating some privilege, or laying open some secluded benefit, all the unhappy corruptions that usually were the disease of wealth and power. This is one of the new principles of equality in France.
France, by the perfidy of her leaders, has utterly disgraced the tone of lenient counsel in the cabinets of princes, and has taught kings to tremble at what will hereafter be called the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians. Sovereigns will consider those who advise them to place an unlimited confidence in their people as subverters of their thrones. This alone is an irreparable calamity to you and to mankind.
The French have rebelled against a mild and lawful monarch with more fury, outrage, and insult than ever any people has been known to rise against the most illegal usurper or the most sanguinary tyrant. Their resistance was made to concession; their revolt was from protection; their blow was aimed at a hand holding out graces, favours, and immunities. They have found their punishment in their success. Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigour; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a Church pillaged and a state unrelieved; everything human and divine sacrificed to the idol of public credit, and national bankruptcy the consequence.
III. - The Men in Power
This unforced choice, this fond election of evil, would appear perfectly unaccountable if we did not consider the composition of the national assembly. If we were to know nothing of this assembly but its title and function, no colours could paint to the imagination anything more venerable. But no artificial institution whatever can make the men of whom any system of authority is composed any other than God, and nature, and education, and their habits of life have made them. Capacities beyond these the people have not to give. Virtue and wisdom may be the objects of their choice; but their choice confers neither the one nor the other on those upon whom they lay their ordaining hands. They have not the engagement of nature, they have not the promise of revelation, for any such powers. Judge, sir, of my surprise when I found that a very great proportion of the assembly was composed of practitioners in the law. It was composed, not of distinguished magistrates, not of leading advocates, not of renowned professors; the general composition was of obscure provincial advocates, of stewards of petty local jurisdictions, country attorneys, notaries, and the whole train of the ministers of municipal litigation, the fomenters and conductors of the petty war of village vexation.
From the moment I read the list I saw distinctly, and very nearly as it happened, all that was to follow. Who could but conceive that men who are habitually meddling, daring, subtle, active, of litigious dispositions and unquiet minds, would easily fall back into their old condition of low and unprofitable chicane? Who could doubt but that, at any expense to the state, of which they understood nothing, they must pursue their private interests, which they understood but too well? It was inevitable; it was planted in the nature of things.
Other revolutions have been conducted by persons who, whilst they attempted changes in the commonwealth, sanctified their ambition by advancing the dignity of the people whose peace they troubled. Such was our Cromwell, one of the great bad men of the old stamp. Such were your whole race of Guises, Condés, Colignys, and Richelieus. These men, among all their massacres, did not slay the mind in their country. A conscious dignity, a noble pride, a generous sense of glory and emulation, was not extinguished. But your present confusion, like a palsy, has attacked the fountain of life itself. Every person in your country in a situation to be actuated by principles of honour is disgraced and degraded. Property is destroyed, and rational liberty has no existence. If this be your actual situation, as compared to the situation to which you were called, as it were by the voice of God and man, I cannot find it in my heart to congratulate you on the choice you have made, or the success which has attended your endeavours.
Far am I from denying in theory, full as far as my heart from withholding in practice, the real rights of man. 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. 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. 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. 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 organisation of government becomes a consideration of convenience. This it is which makes the constitution of a state, and the due distribution of powers, a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill.
When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade, or negligent of their duty. The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes, and in proportion as they are metaphysically true they are morally and politically false. The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. But this sort of people are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man that they have totally forgotten his nature. Without opening one new avenue to the understanding, they have stopped up those that lead to the heart.
IV. - The Death of Chivalry
As for the National Assembly, a majority, sometimes real, sometimes pretended, captive itself, compels a captive king to issue as royal edicts, at third hand, the polluted nonsense of their most licentious and giddy coffee-houses. It is notorious that all their measures are decided before they are debated. Amidst assassination, massacre, and confiscation, perpetrated or meditated, they are forming plans for the good order of future society. Who is it that admires, and from the heart is attached to, national representative assemblies, but must turn with horror and disgust from such a profane burlesque and abominable perversion of that sacred institute? Miserable king, miserable assembly!
History, who exercises her awful censure over the proceedings of all sorts of sovereigns, will not forget how the king, and his queen, and their infant children, who once would have been the pride and hope of a great and generous people, were forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left polluted by massacre and strewn with mutilated carcases, and were made to taste, drop by drop, more than the bitterness of death. Is this a triumph to be consecrated at altars?
I rejoice to hear that the great lady, an object of that triumph, has borne that day - one is interested that beings made for suffering should suffer well - and that she bears the whole weight of her accumulated wrongs with a serene patience, in a manner suited to her rank and race; that she feels with the dignity of a Roman matron; that in the last extremity she will save herself from the last disgrace; and that, if she must fall, she will fall by no ignoble hand. It is now sixteen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles, and surely never lighted on this orb a more delightful vision. I saw her glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendour, and joy. Oh! what a revolution!
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 honour, 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 for ever. 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. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, 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.
If the king and queen of France and their children were to fall into our hands by the chance of war, they would be treated with another sort of triumphal entry into London. We formerly have had a king of France in that situation; you have read how he was received in England. Four hundred years have gone over us; but I believe we are not materially changed since that period. We have not lost the generosity and dignity of thinking of the fourteenth century; nor as yet have we subtilised ourselves into savages.
We have not been drawn and trussed, in order that we may be filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with chaff and rags and paltry blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man. We have real hearts of flesh and blood beating in our bosoms. We fear God; we look up with awe to kings, with affection to parliaments, with duty to magistrates, with reverence to priests, and with respect to nobility. Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds it is natural to be so affected; because all other feelings are false and spurious, and tend to corrupt our minds, to vitiate our primary morals, to render us unfit for rational liberty; and by teaching us a servile insolence, to be our low sport for a few holidays, to make us perfectly fit for, and justly deserving of, slavery through the whole course of our lives.
V. - Principles of Statesmanship
One of the first principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it should act as it they were the entire masters, hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation. By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. Men would become little better than the flies in summer.
First of all, the science of jurisprudence, the pride of the human intellect, which, with all its defects, redundances, and errors, is the collected reason of ages, combining the principles of original justice with the infinite variety of human concerns, would be no longer studied. No certain laws, establishing invariable grounds of hope and fear, would keep the actions of men in a certain course.
No principles would be early worked into the habits. Who would ensure a tender and delicate sense of honour, to beat almost with the first pulses of the heart, when no man could know what would be the test of honour in a nation continually varying the standard of its coin? To avoid, therefore, the evils of inconstancy 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 its 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. Society is indeed a contract. But it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature.
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. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.
These, my dear sir, are, were, and, I think, long will be, the sentiments of not the least learned and reflecting part of this kingdom. They conceive that He Who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed, therefore, the state - He willed its connection with the source and original archetype of all perfection. They who are convinced of His will, which is the law of laws, and the sovereign of sovereigns, cannot think it reprehensible that this, our corporate realty and homage, that this our recognition of a signiory paramount - I had almost said this oblation of the state itself - as a worthy offering on the high altar of universal praise, should be performed with modest splendour and unassuming state. For those purposes they think some part of the wealth of the country is as usefully employed as it can be in fomenting the luxury of individuals.
It is on some such principles that the majority of the people of England, far from thinking a religious national establishment unlawful, hardly think it lawful to be without one. The commons of Great Britain, in the national emergencies, will never seek their resource from the confiscation of the estates of the church and poor. Sacrilege and proscription are not among the ways and means of our committee of supply. There is not one public man in this kingdom, of any party or description, who does not reprobate the dishonest, perfidious, and cruel confiscation which the national assembly have been compelled to make of that property which it was their first duty to protect.
But to what end should we discuss all these things? How shall we discuss the limitations of royal power? Your king is in prison. Why speculate on the measure and standard of liberty? I doubt very much indeed whether France is at all ripe for liberty on any standard. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
1729 - 1797
Burke has a grand tomb in St Mary and All Saints Church, Beaconsfield
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