Every day, the Internet is filled with talk of revolution. And not just the Tunisian Revolution or the Ukrainian Revolution. There is the energy revolution, the information revolution and the fashion revolution. Soft drinks, sneakers and makeup are billed as “revolutionary.” Revolution sells.
Human nature wasn’t much different in 1790. The world marveled at the fact that, in the American Revolution, a common people had defied a tyranny. Now France, the country that birthed the American Revolution, was twisted by a revolution of its own. The king and queen were imprisoned (later guillotined). The poorer classes seized power. A soaring Declaration of the Rights of Man circulated in the streets. Atheism caught fire, and the property of the church was confiscated. The governor of a prison called the Bastille was decapitated, his head paraded on a pike, and Europe quaked with excitement and fear. Among many others, a famous English preacher named Richard Price praised the French Revolution and urged his English compatriots to pick up the French spirit of “universal benevolence” and “enlightenment.” Revolution was selling well.
Those ads for revolutionary sneakers? Those posters for Che Guevara? They’re sexy, and they’re mostly targeted at young people. Young people are naturally stirred by the idea of revolution, whether for Nikes or for Socialism. You may have been, too, when younger. But as a person grows a little older, and settles into the worn grooves of a nice life full of credit scores, Christmas cards, art exhibits and choir practices, she can lose track of the reasons why so many revolutions seemed so important to her as a young person. She can’t say exactly why she feels this way.
I have long been full of that vague feeling. But a slipshod education had never given me the words I needed to reify it. Then, the other day, I picked up The Gateway Edition of “Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches,” with its excellent introductions by the conservative scholar Peter J. Stanlis. And I read, for the first time, Burke’s most famous book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, And on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event, in a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Paris, written in 1790. A great writer can concretize vague feelings, even if that writer has been dead two hundred years.
Burke, the Irish-born statesman and writer, watched Revolution Fever sweep across England. He read Richard Price’s sermon extolling the virtues of this great and gory revolution in France. And, in the midst of all this change, this frenzied rush to seize the property of the nobility and clergy and distribute it to the poor, and to change everything according to a series of abstract ideas, Burke did something just as revolutionary. He urged — caution.
To have a revolution is to turn away from what already is. But, Burke noted, society as a whole is not something to be shucked off and carelessly thrown away. It is something multigenerational, “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” This partnership includes the stuff of life, like horses, fences and hayfields, which the proletariat were busy redistributing. The inheritance of property from parent to child, and between generations of members of different institutions, is one of the first rights a society needs to protect; it is what keeps society going. This is because property and inheritance isn’t just a collection of stuff — a bunch of horses, fences and hayfields — it is the knowledge of how those things operate — how the fences corral the horses which are fed by the hayfields, and who plants the hay and trains the horses, and who deserves how much credit for making it all run smoothly.
France, Burke noted, had an astounding inheritance. France was a beacon of light in Europe and the world, leading not just in architecture, fashion and furniture, but also in the most valuable commodity we have — ideas. These ideas took the form of literature, and traveled out of France, and enriched not just France but England and America and other places, too, in a way that, for example, ideas out of Estonia or New Brunswick or Angola did not. Those countries are full of rich local traditions and brilliant ideas of their own, but they hadn’t produced satires as piercing as Voltaire’s, essays as heartfelt as Montaigne’s, theories about as resonant Etienne de la Boetie’s, who was the first to assert that tyrants have power because the people give it to them. Those kinds of ideas made the world modern. And they weren’t arrived at overnight. They were the collective outcome of two thousand years of continuous culture stretching back to The Iliad and The Odyssey, through Greece and Rome and refined and added to over a million earnest, contentious and hilarious salons over a million bottles of Bergerac. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has written that we can only have virtue as part of tradition. Careful men like Burke understood that.
Burke knew France wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t a Republic, and there wasn’t perfect justice. But it wasn’t a tyranny, either.
The revolutionaries, in contrast, “have no respect for the wisdom of others,” Burke wrote. They were making an uncorrectable error because they “began by despising everything that belonged to [them]…With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things because it is an old one.” And, Burke asked, what do they build in its place? Something shoddy, like a building thrown up in a day.
Burke can seem wildly old-fashioned. He called the poorer classes “the inferior classes” in a way that makes a modern reader cringe. But, you can ask yourself, is it any more rational to regard the poor as inherently superior, the way so many revolutions explicitly reckon common people to be better than nobility? Burke was wary of theories that heaped praised on the common man. “The mass of any description of men are but men,” he wrote. Rich men aren’t always evil, he suggested, and sometimes they deserve their riches; poor people aren’t always saints, and sometimes they haven’t done what it takes to be rich. Burke, always with an eye toward justice, didn’t like one segment of society taking things from another segment; it’s bad when a king steals property from peasants – it’s just as bad when peasants steal property from a king. Worse, he didn’t think those who seized power had the wherewithal to wield it properly. Burke wanted the citizens of any country, even the poor ones, to preserve and improve the society through continuous effort and a series of small changes. In other words, they needed to learn to play the game better, and not act like a poker players who, facing a short stack, flip over the table, sending everyone’s chips to the floor.
It may seem contradictory that Burke was sympathetic to the revolutionaries in America but not the French ones. But in his excellent introduction to the book, Peter J. Stanlis, the eminent conservative scholar, says that Burke is absolutely consistent. He was against oppression in all forms. In America, the oppressor was the king; in France, the oppressors were the general populace. In both cases, Burke stood with the oppressed.
It’s astounding to note that at the time Burke wrote this book, the worst excesses of the Revolution hadn’t yet arrived. Burke seems like an oracle when he writes that, by stealing property from the church and the nobility, by “refusing to submit to the most moderate restraints, (the revolutionaries) have ended by establishing an un-heard-of despotism.” He saw that the mob can be despots, just like a monarch can be. Soon, his prophecies came true, and the Reign of Louis XVI gave way to the Reign of Terror. The “Cult of Reason” edged out the Church; a new calendar changed the seven-day week to a much more “logical” ten days; the Reign of Terror spilled the blood of about 40,000 “enemies of the revolution.” The power vacuum the revolution created was soon filled by an ambitious young general named Napoleon; millions died during those Napoleonic Wars. After those wars were over, the monarchy was restored. And so what was the use of all that? What were those revolutionaries selling, after all? “They have found their punishment in their success,” Burke wrote. The idea of The Rights of Man was thrown aside in Europe soon after the French invented it, and it wasn’t until after World War II that human rights were officially established in Europe. Thank goodness the flame of that idea was carried on in America.
Burke’s book was a runaway bestseller in his time. It was read at gatherings and on the street. People especially liked his diaphanous description of the beautiful young queen, Marie Antoinette, dancing on a horizon, and loved how Burke contrasted this idyl with an account of the horror of her bedchamber being raided by revolutionaries. In this sense the book can be interpreted as a reaction against a specific incident at a specific moment in history, a gut churning reaction against ugliness. But it’s also a general warning about academics seeking change for the sake of change, employing abstract reasoning over concrete events and contexts, and being willing to seek that change by any means necessary. “In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows,” Burke wrote. Even if Marie Antoinette didn’t care about her people, did she deserve, in the end, to have her head shorn, be paraded through the streets on a leash, called a dog by the people and have her body thrown into an unmarked grave? Treatment like this can’t help but leave a person feeling sympathetic toward her; especially when you hear the story that her last words were, “Pardon me, sir, I didn’t mean to do it,” after she accidentally stepped on the foot of Henri Sanson, her executioner.
Conservatives often have mixed feelings about human nature. They often take the Hobbesian view that humans are animals that society trains. “Every new generation constitutes a wave of savages who must be civilized,” wrote Robert Bork in “Slouching Toward Gomorrah.” Without manners and forms, civilizing can’t happen. Great thinkers have disagreed with Burke. Immanuel Kant, for one, was a passionate supporter of the French Revolution. He wasn’t sure, writing in 1794, that the revolution would be a success. But Kant said that the enthusiastic response to the revolution across the world — the very response that made Burke so uneasy — was an unequivocally good sign: Hope for progress was a sign of progress. “Hope,” wrote the philosopher and Kant scholar Susan Neiman, “is as contagious as despair.”
Burke wasn’t opposed to all change; a society without the means to change is without the means to maintain itself, he wrote. He was ahead of his time on many issues, including being opposed to the slave trade and supporting the American colonists in their revolt against taxes. He was one of the first thinkers to predict that it was the American Revolution, not the French one, that would most affect the world.
“Reflections on the Revolution in France” has been called the cornerstone of conservatism. Stanlis writes that it lead to one of the deepest discussions in Europe about the first principles of politics. For centuries now, Burke’s book has been used by cautious people to argue against whatever revolution pops up today. And Burke’s thoughts on France seem to have played out during various revolutions, over and over again: The Soviet revolution starts with beautiful theories about “reason” and “history” and the goodness of the common people and, within decades, Stalin has struck down millions; some Cambodians study in France, learn similar ideas about the wisdom of crowds, and, in the flash of an eye, the Khmer Rouge have made two million souls vanish. Burke’s book gives people like me — and, possibly, like you — a bit of a vocabulary to describe why it is that you’d rather see gradual, thoughtful change in your society, rather than wholesale upheaval and destruction. Burke was one of the first to realize that some revolutions end up filling the people’s cups with wine, while others end up drowning the people in the blood of good intentions.
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