Reflections On the Revolution In France


In the Reflections, Burke argued that the French Revolution would end disastrously because its abstract foundations, purportedly rational, ignored the complexities of human nature and society. Further, he focused on the practicality of solutions instead of the metaphysics, writing "What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In this deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor".[8] Following St. Augustine and Cicero, he believed in "human heart"-based government. Nevertheless, he was contemptuous and afraid of the Enlightenment, led by intellectuals such as Rousseau, Voltaire, and Turgot, who disbelieved in divine moral order and original sin, saying that society should be handled like a living organism, that people and society are limitlessly complicated, thus, leading him to conflict with Thomas Hobbes' assertion that politics might be reducible to a deductive system akin to mathematics.

A dominant theme in Reflections is that the French were not upholding the rights accorded to all men, like the American revolutionaries that he supported or the English in the Glorious Revolution. C. B. Macpherson, goes as far as saying any contradiction can "be dismissed very quickly".[9] Others, such as Jeff Spinner, argue that opposition to the United States revolution was more pragmatic. Burke believed only war and the spread of uniquely American ideals, which were ill-suited for Europe, could result from opposition to the American self-determination.[10]

As a Whig, he expressly repudiated the belief in divinely appointed monarchic authority and the idea that a people have no right to depose an oppressive government; however, he advocated central roles for private property, tradition, and "prejudice" (i.e., adherence to values regardless of their rational basis) to give citizens a stake in their nation's social order. He argued for gradual, constitutional reform, not revolution (in every case except the most qualified case), emphasizing that a political doctrine founded upon abstractions such as liberty and the rights of man could be easily abused to justify tyranny. He saw inherited rights, restated in England from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right, as firm and concrete providing continuity (like tradition, "prejudice", inheritable private property), by contrast enforcement of 'speculative' abstract rights might waver and be subject to change based on currents of politics. Instead, he called for the constitutional enactment of specific, concrete rights and liberties as protection against governmental oppression.

In the phrase, "[prejudice] renders a man's virtue his habit", he defends people's cherished, but untaught, irrational prejudices (the greater it behooved them, the more they cherished it). Because a person's moral estimation is limited, people are better off drawing from the "general bank and capital of nations and of ages" than from their own intellects.[11]

He predicted that the Revolution's concomitant disorder would make the army "mutinous and full of faction", and then a "popular general", commanding the soldiery's allegiance, would become "master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic".[12] Though he may have been thinking of Lafayette, Napoleon fulfilled this prophecy on the 18th Brumaire, two years after Burke's death.

Most of the House of Commons disagreed with Burke and his popularity declined. As the French Revolution broke into factions, the Whig Party broke in two: the New Whig party and the Old Whig party. As founder of the Old Whigs, Burke always took the opportunity to engage in debate with the New Whigs about French Jacobinism.

After trying to loosen the Protestant minority's control of Irish government, he was voted out of the House of Commons with a great pension. He later adopted French and Irish children, believing himself correct in rescuing them from government oppression. Before dying, he ordered his family to bury him secretly, believing his cadaver would be a political target for desecration should the Jacobins prevail in England.

To support or color his arguments, Burke uses several Latin quotations, the sources of which he does not cite. The bulk appear to come from Vergil or Horace. However, the following quotation from Cicero's De Senectute 83 is employed to underline the ludicrous idea, in his view, of placing soldiery in a state at a perfectly equal status as the rest of the citizenry: "Si isti mihi largiantur ut repueriscam, et in eorum cunis vagiam, valde recusem!"

An approximate translation is: "If they should grant to me that I might become a child again, and that I might wail in their cradle, I would vigorously refuse!"

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