Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, November 19, 2010

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution in France

The French Revolution is one of the pivotal events in the history of Western civilization. Some folks were elated when the old established order fell; some folks were horrified when the old established order fell. Edmund Burke was horrified. In this selection he explains why the change brought about by the Revolution was personally revolting to him. Those who were elated by the French Revolution felt that “the people” had finally obtained the political power they deserved. But in Burke’s view the whole revolution was an illegitimate exercise in massive criminal activity. He feels that no name, no power, no function, no artificial institution whatsoever can make the men of whom any system of authority is composed other than God, and nature, and education, and their habits of life have made them. Capacities beyond these the people have not to give. For Burke the only legitimate authority for political power is the authority given by God, nature, education and individual talent. “The people” as a group aren’t qualified to distinguish who is and who is not ready to take on the awesome task of governing society. The reason they can’t distinguish is partly because of inexperience but also because they tend to be ruled by their passions. This was certainly the case in the French Revolution. Passions got out of hand. Burke believes that society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected…the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. Most people aren’t capable of controlling their passions. Plato said the same thing when he laid out his famous Republic. Burke agrees with Plato that controlling people’s passions can only be done by a power outside of themselves… In the political sense the power outside of themselves is the law. Burke thinks the purpose of civil law is to restrain our unruly passions and desires. Most of us think of civil rights as freedom to do some things and from coercion into doing others. But Burke says that the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. In a certain sense we have a contract with other members of society that we’ll all follow the same set of restraints. But civil society isn’t an ordinary business deal. Burke points out that Society is indeed a contract… but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee… In Burke’s view those who perpetrated the French Revolution were guilty of breaking a sacred contract by unlawful means. Of course those who “perpetrated” the revolution believed they were doing good. They believed they were overthrowing the shackles of tyranny. For them, change was good. Burke counters that they were too hasty and undermined the foundations of their French traditions. This is not good in Burke’s eyes. He feels like the French people were disrespectful, even contemptuous, of their own heritage. The way Burke sees it, a spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors. The only reason Frenchmen were capable of rebelling in the first place is because they had a certain amount of freedom to do so. But liberty doesn’t just spring up out of the ground. Instead, Burke says that Liberties… are an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers and to be transmitted to our posterity. We inherit freedom from our parents and pass it on to our children. This is what Burke calls tradition. That’s what the French rejected when they took to the streets and started a long spree of killing and terror. Burke thinks rejecting your own traditions is a fatal flaw in any social order. That’s because without tradition No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of summer. For some folks, that’s ok. They would rather shed the burdens of tradition. For Burke, tradition links individuals with history, and that’s what gives meaning to our lives. Rebellious types were elated by the French Revolution; Burke was horrified by it.


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