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Reflections on Burke’s Reflections

Gertrude Himmelfarb

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Edmund Burke was, and still is, a provocative thinker—a 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 Revolution—Wordsworth declaring what “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”—Burke 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.

While others were witnessing what they took to be a natural and much needed political revolution, the transformation of an absolute monarchy into a limited monarchy, Burke saw nothing less than a total revolution—a social, religious, and economic revolution as well as a political revolution. And beyond that, a cultural revolution, “a revolution,” he said, “in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions.” This was well before the momentous events: the abolition of the monarchy and establishment of the republic; the execution of the king and queen; the declaration of war against much of Europe (and England); the confiscation of the property of dissidents and emigrés; the imprisonment, expulsion, and assassination of more moderate (and not so moderate) revolutionaries; and, finally, the establishment of the Reign of Terror. Three years before Robespierre came to power, Burke took the measure of the man and his regime.

Justifying perfidy and murder for public benefit, public benefit would soon become the pretext, and perfidy and murder the end; until rapacity, malice, revenge, and fear more dreadful than revenge could satiate their insatiable appetites.

This was the Revolution Burke described—or, rather, predicted—in his Reflections on the Revolution in France—an extraordinary feat of political imagination. Burke’s critics have never forgiven him for that “premature” account of the Revolution, for recognizing the seeds of the Terror so early and so dramatically. Nor can they forgive him for revealing the flawed philosophy and the temper of mind that had inspired the Revolution and had made it so total. 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, which was even more revolutionary, aspiring to create nothing less than an “age of reason.” This is why so much of the Reflections went well beyond the Revolution itself, reflecting upon the nature of man, society, politics, religion, and much else—reflections, I may add, that are as provocative and challenging to conservatives as to liberals.


Read the entire article on the New Criterion website (new window will open).

Posted: 21-Feb-2009

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