Burke’s Historical Value | Anthony Daoud


Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is a monumental text in the conservative political tradition and Burke himself is unquestionably regarded as the founder of modern conservatism in the Anglosphere. Albeit a paragon in the conservative patrimony, Burke was a Whig statesman and remained allied to the faction throughout the entirety of his political career. Nevertheless, his political philosophy transcended partisanship, as his opposition to the French Revolution challenged the principles of Whiggism which adhered to a similarly revolutionary paradigm at the time. While Burke’s Reflections is lauded for its philosophical output, there is value to be found in its historical perspective. The social, economic, and religious circumstances of 18th century Britain were tied into a critique of the political developments that occurred in France during the revolution. Burke aimed to strike a parallel between the Britain and France to expose the facsimiles in the liberalism that was consuming both countries.  

Originally published in 1790, the Reflections condemned the French Revolution for its odious violence and the sanguine enforcement of Franco Enlightenment ideals on society. Guised as a movement for the “common-man”, the revolution was very much inspired by the ideas of the philosophes and their aristocratic followers to overthrow the ancien régime along with the Catholic values engrained in society. This enmity towards the fabric of pre-Republican France inspired the revolutionaries to radically alter society beginning with the purges at the guillotines to the eventual exaltation at the altar of “Reason”, the religion of the revolution. The revolutionaries adopted Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité as their axiom and it has since become the fundamental doctrine French republican values.

Burke’s Reflections lamented the Revolution’s celebration of individualism and predicted the violence that ensued. No supporter of Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who conceptualized political society as an amalgamation of individuals sustained by a mutually consenting social contract, Burke saw society as a living compact. Unlike Rousseau’s theory – concentrated on the present – the Burkean “contract” linked past, present, and future generations, and is therefore eternal as each generation is endowed with an obligation to preserve the wisdom of the past to create a desirable inheritance for the future society. This contract is foundational to the wellbeing of a political community designed to withstand radical philosophies, in Burke’s case, the radicalism that engulfed France. Communities drew their ethos from custom and “untaught feelings” that enrich individuals with a web of associations and loyalties. As Roger Scruton wrote, individuals are therefore obliged to preserve the generational wisdom that “gave us what we have” rather than emancipating from tradition on account of a utilitarian “cost-benefit calculation”. In so doing, the “little platoons”-institutions that compose society- retain the wisdom embedded in tradition which allows for the perpetuation of a given culture throughout time.

Analyzing Burke’s Reflections can pose several challenges, notably the ambiguity between political commentary and historicity. Nevertheless, the value in the Reflections is due to its insight on the historical context of 18th century Britain. At the time Burke penned his polemic, Britain was already experiencing the ascent of liberalism and he feared the trends that occurred in France were imminently going to reach the shores of his beloved Albion. Readers of the Reflections are given a glimpse on the social, economic, and religious changes impacting Britain that occurred in France, although to a lesser extent.

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin to a wealthy family, as his father was a prominent attorney. He attended Trinity College, a school described as “a bastion of the Anglican Church of Ireland” but never considered joining the Anglican priesthood or pursue philosophy because it did not guarantee a reliable income.

Hitherto the revolution in France, Steven Stryer explained that Burke interpreted history as “largely progressive”. Being Whig statesman, Burke subscribed to the party’s historicity devised by John Wilkes, which envisioned human society as an odyssey of infinite linear progression. This epistemic approach to human society changed at the onset of the French Revolutions but appears in his fondness for Britain and his believe of improving the empire while retaining its political structure intact. The Reflections was a warning to Britain to avoid enduring a similar fate to France, whom he viewed as succumbing to the temptations of the liberal Enlightenment.

Burke addressed the changing social and economic conditions of 18th century Britain by symbiotically pointing to the sclerotic dissolution of hierarchy in France. This occurred as the nation embraced egalitarianism under the new dogma of Liberté, Égaltié, and Fraternité. Burke abhorred the changes as hierarchy was reflective of an enduring order through safeguarded stability, a necessary precondition for Burke’s understanding of true liberty. The threat to a hierarchal order began appearing in Britain and was reflected by the changing attitudes towards consumerism. Spurgeon Thompson’s study on Burke reaffirms the defence of hierarchy that is discretely stressed and arguably the driving theme, throughout the Reflections. The ascent of industrialism and the takeoff of the liberal project manifested in a transforming economy whereby consumerism was given the environment to proliferate. This largely resulted from Adam Smith’s early capitalism described in the Wealth of Nations that was inspired by his liberal predecessors. This facilitated market liberalism predicated on the unobstructed deracinated, and newly “free” individual. Although traditional hierarchy suffered from the voraciousness of economic liberalism, a new aristocracy germinated; one that valued productivity over the traditions historically safeguarded and perpetuated by the older elite. This new minority resembled an oligarchy as it relinquished the usual responsibilities of their predecessors in favour of financial prosperity. Due to growing urbanization and more surplus income, a new middle class formed, and inspired by the en vogue philosophy of liberalism, placed enormous value on consumerism. Equipped with a new mindset and financial power this new social group had far more mobility. Thus, society became more susceptible to losing its hierarchical nature because consumers were driven to emulate the wealthy.  The was evidenced in attitudes towards clothing. For Sturgeon Thompson, clothes were losing their symbolism as demarcations of “carefully” resonating “order and structure [in] society” to mere objects of consumption. This shift represented one of the first instances of the erosion of a traditional elite that protected “high-culture”, according to Roger Scruton, towards a new wealthy class solely concerned with commercial affairs.

But the new elite also differed from the old in their loss of noblesse oblige, a paternalistic system where the elite aided the poor on their own accord. This display of benevolence fostered an economic solidarity that unified the country. In its absence, economic stratification continued without consideration on its potential effects on society.

Although the middle class expanded in the 18th century, poverty persisted and society’s upper echelons all but refused to provide aid. In the 18th century context, poverty was considered exclusively to those who were incapable to feed themselves or young labourers, enchanted by the promises offered by industrialism, that fled the countryside to move to the London’s growing urban centres. However, the neglect of the elite fostered tensions between classes and an animosity between societal divides. As Burke feared, hierarchy moved from being the national spine to eventually disintegrating into field of tension between classes that increasingly lost touch with one another. Perhaps unexpectedly, Burke emphasized of the success of the French revolutionaries to yield support from the lower classes; the “litigious lawyers and hotel, brothel, and tavern keepers.” More, the appreciation of Burke’s historicity in the Reflections was his ability to connect the changing economic situation of Britain with the consequences a waning of traditional hierarchy would impose onto the “Earth of Majesty”. A new relationship was formed between the upper and working classes, one of arduous labour, questionable wages, and a new mode de vie. Faced with a transforming aristoi, Burke’s anxieties over the loss of hierarchy was a prescient warning to his beloved Britain; one that would ultimately go ignored until Benjamin Disreali endeavoured to reconcile the “two nations” during his political career

Coupled with the aristoi’s relinquishment of past responsibilities, Burke also observed the disassembling of “all family relations of parents and children husbands and wives” in France that was associated with the emancipation liberalism proscribed.

As Patrick Deneen writes in Why Liberalism Failed, one of the liberal states’ main roles is the “active liberation of individuals from any limiting conditions”. Burke’s insight on the transformation of the family unit was significant as it actively opposed the liberal assumption that life could be reduced to contractarianism. In his Two Treatises, Locke understands marriage not as a sacramental union, but as an easily revocable pact. As such, he endorsed divorce as it was simply the amending of a contract between two consenting individuals navigating through the state of nature. The Two Treatises was written nearly a century before Burke’s Reflections, and while the Irish statesman was a reader of John Locke, Jonah Goldberg highlights in the National Review structural differences existed between the two over the role of the individual and collective in society. Therefore, Burke’s passage on the dissolution of family in France was not only a critique of the revolutionary zeal, but also an implicit condemnation of a possible experience for British society. The protection of family would enable the preservation of the “little platoons”, the intimate institutions that foster a sense of belonging, modes of living.

One of the most heinous developments of the French Revolution was the treatment of the Catholic Church. The revolutionary zeal was the impetus for heinous crimes against the clergy and the desecration of churches, insofar as converting the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg into a temple for Reason; the deity meant to represent Enlightenment values. In the same era however, the Anglican Church faced opposition from Protestant dissenters, like John Locke, who pertained to or created new Christian denominations. Fluctuations in the British religious landscape also paralleled (albeit to a less grave extent) the religious changes of revolutionary France. 

As Linda Colley expresses in her study of 18th century Britain, the Church of England was entrenched in the establishment and was supported by the traditional hierarchy. However, Burke suggested it did not have the same wealth of the Catholic Church in France, writing; “You may suppose that we do not approve your confiscation of the revenues of bishops, and deans, and chapters […] because we have the same of sort of establishment in England”. Nevertheless, it equally played an active social function, serving as leadership in communities, and giving financial relief to the poor. But the dissolution of hierarchy in Britain meant even traditional religion was threatened; not only by consumerism of the laissez faire economy which edified a deity of its own, but also by Protestant dissenters.[1] Burke eschewed a description and defense of the Anglican Church in the Reflections that provide a historical account of the institution’s role in society.

The Anglican Church was instrumental to the spiritual life of Britain through its administration of the sacraments and mass. At the time Burke published the Reflections, religion was still integral to daily life, despite the early friction between liberalism and religion. But if the hierarchy that sustained a social order were to fall, as Burke feared, the Anglican Church would also suffer. Despite being arraigned for his supposed “crypto-Catholicism”, as historian Jonathan Pettinato infers, Burke advocated for the High Anglican Church by esteeming the “higher” Roman Catholic clergy “of noble birth” who were amongst France’s most highly educated individuals erudite in “English Divines” protestant theology, and even Oriental philosophy. Burke’s unconventional defence of French clergymen was at odds with Britain’s anti-Catholicism but was employed to strike a parallel with the Anglican High Church who’s founders he considered to be “the sincerest believers”. In likening the High Anglican Church to the persecuted French Catholic clergy, Burke forewarned the implications a similar revolution in Britain would produce.

Edmund Burke’s Reflections were originally written to warn Britain against suffering a similar fate to France. Hailed for its philosophical excellence, the Reflections provide noteworthy historical insight on 18th century Britain.  Burke’s text served a symbiotic purpose as it denounced the French Revolution while addressing political and social issues that were affecting Britain. Thus, as modern readers, we can draw value from the polemic beyond political philosophy and appreciate it for historical content.


Bibliography

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Carlyle, Thomas. “Past and Present”. Anodos Books

Carlyle, Thomas. “The French Revolution”. Oxford World Classics

Harris, Ian, “Edmund Burke”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed).

Pettinato, Jonathan M. “Jeers, Jingo, and Jesuits: Britishness, Edmund Burke, and Crises of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an Dá Chultúr30 (2015)

Scruton, Roger. “Conservatism; An Invitation to the Great Tradition”. Bloomsbury

Steven Stryer. “Burke’s Vehemence and the Rhetoric of Historical Exaggeration.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 30, no. 2 (2012): page 179.

Thompson, Spurgeon. “Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” and the Subject of Eurocentrism.” Irish University Review 33, no. 2 (2003): Page 248.

Weaver, Richard M. Ideas Have Consequences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013


[1] Thomas Caryle writes in Book III of Past and Present that consumerism, a product of Enlightenment liberalism, is predicated on the Gospel of Mammonism, and thus tied to atheism along with “so many other isms and falsities, each falsity with its misery at its heels”


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