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Mar 28, 2014

Edmund Burke, Intellectuals, and the French Revolution, Part 3

Smith explains why Burke predicted that the French Revolution would end in systematic violence.

After posting the first two parts of this series, I received an email from an old friend who expressed his desire to read Edmund Burke more carefully than he had previously. I replied, in part: “I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Burke for decades. I often find him annoying, while at the same time appreciating that he made some good points.”

Many other libertarians will, I think, have a similar push-pull reaction after reading Reflections on the Revolution in France. If so, their reactions have been shared by many readers of different political persuasions. I stated one reason for this common reaction in Part 1 when, quoting from my book The System of Liberty, I described Reflections as “a rambling mixture of maudlin sophistry and stunning brilliance unique in the history of political thought.”

If you are looking for a systematic presentation of Burke’s political philosophy, you will not find it in any of Burke’s writings, least of all in Reflections. But there is a coherent philosophy lurking in that book, one that may easily be overlooked by casual readers. Therefore, my main purpose in this installment is to explain the basic reasoning behind Burke’s condemnation of radical revolutions that are justified on the grounds of abstract principles, most notably the rights of man.

Let’s begin with a famous bit of Burkean sophistry. In October 1789, thousands of Parisians, believing that Louis XVI was gathering a military force to crush the Revolution, marched to Versailles to demand that the king move his court to Paris. A small faction with a grudge against Marie-Antoinette (one woman had threatened to “bring back the queen’s head on the point of a sword”) broke into her chambers, after which the queen barely escaped by fleeing, nearly naked, to the king’s bedroom. This event outraged and offended Burke, causing him to write what became the most famous passage in Reflections.

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 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. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense 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.

Although the safety of the king and queen was secured by 20,000 national guardsmen, led by Lafayette, who arrived in Versailles after a forced marched in pouring rain, the fact that the attempted assault on the vain and spendthrift queen could happen without a public outcry of indignation is what so infuriated Burke. (One of the leaders of the assault, the woman mentioned above, was later sentenced to a year in prison.) If Burke’s reaction became the most quoted passage from Reflections, it also inspired Thomas Paine to write the most quoted passage from Rights of Man.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection, that I can find throughout [Burke’s] book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope, in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.

Although it would be easy—and many have done exactly this—to dismiss the key point in Burke’s passage along with his purple prose, this would be a mistake. The spirit of chivalry, argued Burke, was being destroyed by those rationalistic champions of the rights of man who rejected any tradition that could not meet the test of reason. At first glance this may appear nothing more than a rationalization of power, an excuse to justify and maintain the deference of subjects to their rulers. But this simplistic criticism misses what Burke had in mind. Unfortunately for readers, Burke’s central thesis appears in bits and pieces and is scattered throughout his book, so let’s try to pull all this together.

The first thing we need to understand is Burke’s defense of “prejudices.” These are sentiments, random mixtures of feelings and unreasoned opinions, not conclusions of discursive reasoning—and this is why rationalistic philosophers tend to sneer at sentiments, while arguing that governments should be constructed entirely on rational principles. This is a serious mistake, according to Burke, because it ignores the nature of human beings, who are not especially rational and, more often than not, are motivated by their impulses, which in turn depend on their sentiments. Now, these impulses can be very destructive or they can be relatively civilized, and only if civilized sentiments are widespread can a society maintain itself with any degree of order and justice.

So what serves to civilize our sentiments? Certainly not tracts and lectures on the rights of man. Rather, we become civilized as we assimilate the traditional values and customs of our culture, often without knowing or caring what the rational justification (if any) of those social mores may be. And Burke believed that the mores associated with chivalry were largely responsible for the high degree of civilization that eighteenth-century Europe had attained.

This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the ancient chivalry; and the principle, though varied in its appearance by the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations, even to the time we live in. If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great. It is this which has given its character to modern Europe.

As Burke goes on to explain, the traditional values of France did far more than render Frenchmen respectful to their kings. More importantly, it also made kings trust their subjects, and this trust served to lessen dramatically the amount of brute force that rulers had previously used. The traditions of France, in other words, had civilized both subjects and rulers.

It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force, or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a domination vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners.

Burke understood that sentiments based on tradition, especially in matters of political power and obedience, are nothing more than “pleasing illusions,” but he also believed that society itself is a mystery that does not admit of rational analysis. Such mysteries are unacceptable to those philosophers who are so wedded to their abstract principles that they overlook the relatively minor role that reason plays in human affairs, while tearing asunder the true foundation of social order.

So what happens when reason conquers all, causing people, intoxicated with their rights, to demand that their government conform to abstract principles of justice or be rejected as illegitimate? Since no government ever has been, or ever will be, able to meet the demands of these abstract criteria, rulers, unable any longer to rely on traditional sentiments, will resort to naked force to compel obedience.

On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment.

But power, of some kind or other, will survive the shock in which manners and opinions perish; and it will find other and worse means for its support. The usurpation which, in order to subvert ancient institutions, has destroyed ancient principles, will hold power by arts similar to those by which it has acquired it. When the old feudal and chivalrous spirit of Fealty, which, by freeing kings from fear, freed both kings and subjects from the precautions of tyranny, shall be extinct in the minds of men, plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation, and that long roll of grim and bloody maxims, which form the political code of all power, not standing on its own honor, and the honor of those who are to obey it. Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle.

This brings us to the most telling part of Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution. The Revolution had been justified in the name of the rights of man; but the revolutionaries, after gaining power, would quickly learn that they could not govern according to those selfsame principles. Instead, like every government before them, including the government they had replaced, the revolutionaries would find that governance is impossible without violating some of the same abstract rights to which they had appealed to justify their revolution. Thus, having repudiated the traditional sentiments which had previously motivated obedience, the revolutionaries would be left with nothing more than naked force to compel obedience to their decrees.

Every thing depends upon the army in such a government as yours; for you have industriously destroyed all the opinions, and prejudices, and, as far as in you lay, all the instincts which support government. Therefore the moment any difference arises between your national assembly and any part of the nation, you must have recourse to force. Nothing else is left to you; or rather you have left nothing else to yourselves….Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights of men! These are the fruits of metaphysic declarations wantonly made, and shamefully retracted!…You lay down metaphysic propositions which infer universal consequences, and then you attempt to limit logic by despotism….

The [revolutionary] leaders teach the people to abhor and reject all feudality as the barbarism of tyranny, and they tell them afterwards how much of that barbarous tyranny they are to bear with patience. As they are prodigal of light with regard to grievances, so the people find them sparing in the extreme with regard to redress.

Whatever one may think of Burke’s arguments, they have a certain inner logic that many of his contemporaries found compelling, as do many conservatives today. So how should a radical libertarian respond to Burke’s reasoning? Although I cannot say how all libertarians would respond, I have my own ideas and criticisms. But for those you will have to wait for Part 4.

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