December 31, 2019


Reflections on Burke's Reflections: Revisiting the lasting, provocative wisdom of Edmund Burke (Gertrude Himmelfarb, February 2009, New Criterion)

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. [...]

[H]e deliberately chose to shock his readers, to oblige them to confront the issues more boldly by expressing them more starkly--to confront not only the French Revolution, but the inevitable cultural revolution that he believed to be even more subversive than the political revolution.

More subversive, indeed, for England as well as France, which is why so much of the Reflections is a vigorous critique of those Englishmen who were reinterpreting their own revolution a century earlier in the spirit of the French, as if their revolution had given the people the right to select (in effect, to elect) their king and depose him at will. On the contrary, Burke insisted, that "glorious Revolution" was designed to secure the dynastic succession by restoring legitimate government after the illegitimate usurpations of James II, thus preserving those "ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government" which are "the only security for law and liberty." The French, Burke argued, could have reformed their government in the same manner, but chose instead the fatal path of revolution--total revolution.

It is this Burke, the author of the Reflections, who is often pilloried as reactionary--quite wrongly, I obviously believe. No one could attach that label to the Burke who, as a Whig, not a Tory, sided with parliament and party against the King and his ministers. Nor does it apply to the Burke who was a friend and disciple of Adam Smith, who is reputed to have said that Burke was "the only man who, without communication, thought on these topics [a free economy] exactly as he [Smith] did." Nor does it apply to the Burke who defended John Wilkes, the radical Member of Parliament who was expelled from the House of Commons for libeling the king. Nor to the Burke who conducted a long campaign against Warren Hastings and the East India Company for abusing their charter and exploiting the people of India. Nor to the Burke who joined William Wilberforce in the campaign to abolish the slave trade. Nor, most notably, to the Burke who was an eloquent champion of America before and during the American Revolution. [...]

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." Or reflecting upon "the veneration which time bestows on everything ... without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability." Or remarking that "the reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated" (and fortified, too, by "ancient" opinion as well). Or that "the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side." Or that experience is "that best oracle of wisdom." Most telling, and most Burkean, is Alexander Hamilton's advice in the last of the Papers:

I should esteem it the extreme of imprudence to prolong the precarious state of our national affairs, and to expose the Union to the jeopardy of successive experiments, in the chimerical pursuit of a perfect plan. I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.

If Burke could have penned those words in the Federalist Papers, Hamilton or Madison could have written that memorable passage toward the end of the Reflections--a passage that could well serve as an epigraph to the Federalist Papers:

To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power; teach obedience; and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government, that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.

A "sagacious, powerful, and combining mind"--Burke might have been describing the authors of the Federalist Papers, who had collectively displayed just such a mind.

The genius of the Federalist Papers was to devise a constitution for the new republic which made the United States the most enduring and most successful republic in modernity. The genius of the Reflections was to provide a philosophical critique of that other revolution, so different from the American, which produced another republic, ill-conceived and ill-fated. "You chose to act," Burke told the French, "as if you had never been molded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew." The Americans never made that mistake.

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[originally posted: 2/03/09]

Posted by at December 31, 2019 5:58 PM