Skip to comments.Reflections on Burke's <i>Reflections</i> (Edmund Burke)
Posted on 02/04/2009 11:24:06 AM PST by mojito
Edmund Burke was, and still is, a provocative thinkera provocation in his own day, as in ours. At a time when most right-minded (which is to say, left-inclined) English literati were rhapsodizing over the French RevolutionWordsworth declaring what bliss was it in that dawn to be aliveBurke wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a searing indictment of the Revolution. He was accused then, as he often is now, of being excessive, even hysterical, in his account of the Revolution:
"a ferocious dissoluteness in manners, an insolent irreligion in opinions and practices, laws overturned, tribunals subverted, industry without vigor, commerce expiring a church pillaged civil and military anarchy national bankruptcy."
All this, one must remember (it is sometimes hard to remember), was said in November 1790, three years before the Reign of Terror, which Burke was so presciently describing.
(Excerpt) Read more at newcriterion.com ...
I laughed when Obama tried to claim moral authority by calling for the ‘end of anything goes’. That’s precisely what brought the fool to power!
Edmund Burke ping. A fine article by Bill Kristol’s mom.
Lest we foret at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgement to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history beginsor which is which), the fist radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdomLucifer.--Saul Alinsky"[A community] organizer... does not have a fixed truth -- truth to him is relative and changing. ... To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma"--Saul Alinsky
Edmund Burke ping. A fine article by Bill Kristols mom.
In this sense, the Reflections was even more provocative than it seems on the surface, for it was an indictment not only of the French Revolution but of the French Enlightenment,
It was an indictment of more than that. One reason that Burke was so vigorously attacked for the Reflections was that before he even got to criticism of the French he went after two English private clubs - revolutionary societies - that offered ideological and monetary support to the French revolutionaries and with whom, by a similarity of overall sentiment toward Enlightenment liberalism, his French correspondent (the Reflections is, actually, a long letter) assumed him in sympathy if not an actual member. Far from that.
It was unclear at the time and for many not so much less unclear now why Burke, a vigorous supporter of the American "revolution," should oppose the French one with equal vigor. The Reflections are, as a document, the answer to that question.
It might have been Burke, in the Federalist Papers, observing that a man must be far gone in Utopian speculations to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.
It was, of course, Publius and not Burke (yer a cynic, Pub') but I can think of fewer more accurate summations of one of the foundational premises of conservatism.
As to the nature of superstition and its relationship with religion I have two points. First, that this too must be judged with an eye toward Burke's own antecedents - his mother was Roman Catholic, his father probably a Protestant convert - and with respect to the degree to which the French Enlightenment was virulently anti-Catholic. The latter constitutes one major difference between the American War of Independence and the French Revolution that might account for part of Burke's different views of the two.
But all popular religion contains an element of superstition, if by that we mean a belief in dogma for which there is little Biblical (in the case of Christianity) foundation. It is a topic over which hours are spent in debate in the FR Religion Forum. For a radical Jacobin all religion, and specifically all Catholicism, was superstition; for a Calvinist, the Catholic church hierarchy, and so on. I'm guessing here Burke was more hedging his bets with respect to the reader than attempting to draw fine lines himself.
But central to Burke's views of both politics and religion was that it really didn't matter when one was confronting the overthrow of an established set of mores, that the latter had grown, by the time of consideration, to fill functions that were not apparent from the view of theory or dogma, and that their careless dissolution might be fraught with unintended consequences. It is there that Burke's genius made the step from the clear (even at the time) possibility that the dissolution of the strictures of the Crown might lead to chaotic violence, to the bold prediction that it was inevitable. As, perhaps, it was, but in any case, to take a Burkean approach to our own perspective, regardless of theory it did happen. Observation trumps prediction. We know that he was right.
And that's a problem for the theorists. It disturbed Thomas Paine enough to pen his monumental Rights of Man in reply. And with the greatest respect for Paine, who was probably as much in touch with the spirit of the time as Burke, he didn't really answer the principal objection of the Reflections, which was, shortly, that a tree is to be known by its fruit, not its seed.
The same goes for Mikhail Gorbachev. During the Eighties he was asked which revolution had the greater impact on world history. He chose the French Revolution.
There was an outcry in American conservative circles when he made that statement, but he had a point as far as the old Soviet Union was concerned. Bolshevism can be viewed as the poison of the French Revolution rising to the surface again in 1917. It took almost 75 years for the forces of civilization to overthrow it, and that effort dominated the 20th Century.
However, the best and most concise set of distictions in this century is Hayek in the fourth chapter of the Constitution of Liberty. I ran a thread about it once and virtually typed in the whole chapter by hand in order to do so, LOL.
It has always amazed me how infrequently Reflections is cited or discussed on FR as it is obviously the closest thing we have in the conservative movement to a founding document outside the Constitution.
"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." - Manuel II Palelologus
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.