Burke and the French Revolution

Edmund Burke, noted literary theorist, and, to the French, chief advocate for raining on their parade.

Already, literary figures outside of France were less than enthusiastic about the French Revolution. Edmund Burke, famous for his theory of the sublime and the beautiful, was among some of the most prominent of these figures. In his Reflections on the Revolution of France (1790), Burke argues that “government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants”, and that the moment one missteps and imposes an “artificial” or unnecessary limitation on the rights of men, it becomes a “consideration of convenience” rather than a living, breathing entity.

Hence, Burke turns to the idea of revolution, with a preface that he has not ever been very fond of the talk of revolution, or the “extreme medicine of the constitution”. He begins by decrying the republicans and radical professors of England, the former who quickly abandon their concept of ‘resistance, and the latter who want “war and revolution, or nothing at all.” He harbours particular disdain for the scholarly group, and claims that they are are willing to “abandon for very trivial interest what they find of very trivial value,” or anything that doesn’t support their cause, in other words. These people, Burke claims, are always bad citizens, as they change from being monarchists to revolutionaries from one day to the next, without any regard for “cause, person, or party”. To them, there are no judgements to be made, and achieving a goal is more important than the morality of said goal.

After having established this dislike, he focuses his attention on the Revolution in France. Burke goes on to explain that the citizens of other countries view the Revolution as “militant”, where the French view it as “triumphant”, and cautions once again against radicals and those who “under the name of religion teach little else than wild  and dangerous politics. Another problem with the revolutionaries, he goes on to say, is that they are “so taken up with their theories of the rights of man, that they have forgotten his nature,” or in other words are holding their fellow man up on a pedestal.  By doing this, and not allowing for any sort of understanding of the other side to come about, thy “pervert” the “sympathies” of themselves and others. Consequently they start to view “plots, massacres, [and] assassinations” as “a trivial price” for “obtaining a revolution”, and view working within the government without shedding blood as “flat and vapid”.  Thus, they begin to crave bloodshed, if only for the sake of bloodshed. The National Assembly, he posits, is a “farce of deliberation” and “comdians of a fair before a riotous audience”. They only destroy, and never create, except in order to help with their destruction.

Burke goes on to describe the night of October 6th, 1789, when the palace is stormed by revolutionaries, in great detail. His account first focuses on Marie Antoinette, who is first awakened by one of her sentinels pleading for her to flee for her life, only to be “cut down. She manages to escape her bed just before a “band of cruel ruffians and assassins” bursts in and strike the bed. She escapes to find Louis, then, the family as a whole is paraded to Paris, with two of their guards’ heads on a pike. Burke treats the family with sympathy, all the while portraying their attackers as harboring elements the grotesque, not out of the divine right of kings, but out of the savagery they have committed.  The only thing missing from that humiliation was a regicide, and by mentioning it Burke almost seemed to predict the execution of Louis XVI, four years later.

Finally, Burke turns to the system of power that the revolutionaries aim to institute. He admits that a king is “but a man” and a queen is “but a woman”, but argues that without representations of government systems, “laws are to be supported only by their own terrors”, and since the old system of fealty is being eliminated, society will devolve into violence and counter violence, following only the “long roll of grim and bloody maxims which form the political code of all power.” Burke concludes by expressing his fear that the French republic, in enabling this violence, will cause it citizens to see that “criminal means once tolerated are soon preferred”. And that, ultimately, will destroy French society.


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