Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution (The Wisdom of History)

One criticism aimed at Edmund Burke by some readers is inconsistency.  They assume since he’s passionately opposed to the French Revolution he must be opposed to any revolution, including the American one.  Not so.  Burke “wrote influential essays, letters, speeches, and statements advising British reconciliation with American revolutionists.”  How can this be?  Some readers believe Burke is being inconsistent and shows blatant prejudice against the French.  Not so.  Here’s why.  The situations in America and France were vastly different.  It’s unfortunate they both used the term “revolution” because they were not at all alike.  They started from different principles, proceeded using different methods, and ended with different results.  The Americans wanted to build a social order grounded in a pattern of life established in colonial times; the French wanted to tear down an ancient social order and replace it with an entirely new one.  The Americans wanted to graft a new branch onto the tree and receive nourishment from an old trunk with deep roots; the French wanted to chop down the whole tree and start over from scratch.  They wanted to create a brand new perfect democracy.  The Americans wanted democracy too but accepted the wisdom best expressed by Benjamin Franklin when he said nothing human is perfect.  This is where Burke steps in and takes sides.  He agrees with the Americans.  Burke says “A perfect democracy is the most shameless thing in the world.  As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless...”  The French mistake was trying to create a perfect form of government.  They misread the nature of Man.  Man as an individual is not a perfect creature so how can we possibly expect men to be perfect by banding together in large groups?  In large groups men do not become perfect.  They tend to do the opposite and turn into dangerous mobs.  Men are afraid when they’re alone but in a mob they’re fearless.  That’s why Burke believes “it is of infinite importance that they should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong.”  Here’s the unpleasant fact Burke wants us to ponder: in mobs the “will of the people” is jut as dangerous as the tyranny of any tyrant-king.

Here’s something else to ponder: if we can’t turn to kings or to “the people” for standards of right and wrong, where do we turn?  Wisdom is hard to come by but Burke thinks our best path to it is through religion and the study of history.  He says men cannot become anything “other than what God, and nature, and education, and their habits of life have made them.”  Burke admires “manly liberty” and also thinks a manly religion is a solid foundation for government.  Life is hard and governing is even harder.  But Burke says “difficulty is a severe instructor, set over us by the supreme ordinance of a parental Guardian and Legislator, who knows us better than we know ourselves, as he loves us better, too.”  Without this bridge of religion and history “No one generation could link with the other.  Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.”  What would happen then?  They would tend to view history and religion “as a heap of old exploded errors” and before long “barbarism with regard to science and literature, unskillfulness with regard to arts and manufactures, would infallibly succeed to the want of a steady education and settled principle; and thus the commonwealth itself would, in a few generations, crumble away, be disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality, and at length dispersed to all the winds of heaven.”  This is why Burke was consistent in his thinking.  He knew how the American and French republics would end because he knew how they started.  He had studied the lessons of history and learned its wisdom.


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