Edmund Burke: Lectures French Revolution

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Burke addresses a rather thorny problem: on what grounds can he contend for the English Revolution of 1688 while condemning the French Revolution of 1789? No matter what answer he gives, he will have to own up to the fact that the British did remove a king. Granting that, however, there are some notable differences.

Burke isn’t against all changes, for he notes that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation” (Burke 21). Burke holds this possibility of change in conjunction with the principle of a hereditary crown. It is a hereditary crown that grounds the ancient liberties as hereditary right (25). In other words, the common good moves through the crown and not through a majority vote. It was the line of the Stuarts that threatened this ancient liberty. Therefore, to restore the ancient liberties, it had to restore the Crown back to its role.

The English maintained, and the French lost, that idea of “cultivating virtue” within proper spheres of hierarchy. France abandoned the idea of moral equality and sought “that monstrous fiction” which only embitters real inequality (37). “France has not sacrificed her virtue to interest; but she has abandoned her interest, that she might prostitute her virtue” (37).

Concerning inequality, we must insist on a natural hierarchy. “But whilst I revere men in the functions which belong to them, and would do, as much as one man can do, to prevent their exclusion from any, I cannot, to flatter them, give the lie to nature” (44). Further, hierarchy helps us grow in virtue. Burke continues: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind (47).

On Human Rights

Burke defines a right as “whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself….He has equal rights but not a share to equal things” (59). This is an important safeguard, for as he warns on the next page: “By having a right to everything, they want everything” (60).

Burke points out that the revolution destroyed not only the ancient institutions, but the principles under girding them.

Burke’s groundwork (Grundrisse? With apologies to Marx) is that man is a religious animal and a stable society must safeguard the religious institutions (or as we would say today, networks). He notes: “We are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree that it exists, and in no greater” (91). I’ve seen some Libertarian friends claim Burke as their own. This cannot be so. Burke, though he inconsistently despises metaphysics, believes in an ordered realm of goods. Religious stability is a more preferable good than buying cheap plastic junk from China.

Critique and Analysis

Our hearts thrill at Burke’s prose. There can be no doubt of that. Unfortunately, Burke was not the most powerful thinker of the age and while England was spared the horrors of “democracy,” Burke never really gave a coherent alternative.

Men as disparate from Plato to Lincoln argued from genus, which is an argument made from the nature of the thing. Burke, unfortunately, argued from “the facts surrounding the case.” These facts determined the strongest premise of his argument.

His defense of the English Revolution of 1688 illustrates the problem. By precedent England had a generational defense and practice of property and rights that are upheld by the monarchy. All well and good. In fact, paradoxically, England took up arms to prove they didn’t have the right to overthrow the government. Here is Burke’s problem: “What line do the precedents mark out for us? How may we know that this particular act is in conformity with the body of precedents unless we can abstract the essence of the precedent? And if one extracts the essence of the precedent, does not one have a speculative idea” (Weaver)?

Burke pointed out that participation in political power “does not belong to the rights of man, because men have a right to good government, and there is no necessary connection between good government and government by the many.” If anything, the rights of men point to a natural aristocracy (Strauss 298).

That’s good. Unfortunately, Burke held to the British sensualist view of art, which specifically denied a connection between intellectual beauty (e.g., mathematical proportions) and sensible beauty (312). This explains why he doesn’t like French gardens. They are too geometrical and not “natural.” There is something to be said for the country aesthetics of some British gardens. I think that is true. Unfortunately for Burke, applied to his whole system, the result is an emancipation of sentiment from reason.


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