As revolutionary as they claimed to be, the French Revolutionaries were as old as sin, Edmund Burke assured his readers. “Trace them through all their artifices, frauds, and violences,” he argued, and “you can find nothing at all that is new.”
Roughly four-fifths into his spectacular Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke paused. “This letter is grown to a great length,” he admitted, “though it is indeed short with regard to the infinite extent of the subject.” Various interests caused numerous detours as he wrote the book, he confided. He had intended, he thought, to look only at first principles and primary causes. Yet, further exploration and thought about the incipient revolution only made Burke more curious and frustrated with its progress—or, regress, as it actually had proceeded. “It was my original purpose to take a view of the principles of the National Assembly with regard to the great and fundamental establishments; and to compare the whole of what you have substituted in the place of what you have destroyed.”
Unlike the Americans who had continued their ancient institutions—at least going back to the earliest colonial settlements, some 170 years earlier—in defiance against British innovations, the French revolutionaries had done nothing greater than seize power. “They have assumed another of a very different nature; and have completely altered and inverted all the relations in which they originally stood.” They have done so armed only with presumption and ego, never with the sanction of God, nature, or man.
Yet, as revolutionary as they claimed to be, the French Revolutionaries were as old as sin, Burke assured his readers. “Trace them through all their artifices, frauds, and violences,” he argued, and “you can find nothing at all that is new.” In no way, shape, or form, do they “depart an iota from the authentic formulas of tyranny and usurpation.” Whatever beauty one might find in the eloquence of the Revolutionaries, one will fail to find any corresponding wisdom. Tellingly, whenever their eloquence fails to persuade, they resort to a “plentitude of force,” and when that initial force fails, the “multiply and thicken” that force. Exactly because the Revolutionaries are unoriginal in all that they do, they lose the ability for real imagination and real creativity, losing all sense of proportion and nuance in the human condition. Because they lack the ability “to wrestle with difficulty,” they approach every problem with only the thought of “abolition and total destruction.” At destruction, they excel.
But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. The shallowest understanding, the rudest hand, is more than equal to that task. Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in an hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together. The same lazy but restless disposition, which loves sloth and hates quiet, directs these politicians, when they come to work, for supplying the place of what they have destroyed. To make every thing the reverse of what they have seen is quite as easy as to destroy. No difficulties occur in what has never been tried. Criticism is almost baffled in discovering the defects of what has not existed; and eager enthusiasm, and cheating hope, have all the wide field of imagination in which they may expatiate with little or no opposition.
In the greater scheme of things, destruction proves easy. Having destroyed, they also hope to rebuild, quickly and easily. In their rush to fix that which they broke, Burke lamented, the French Revolutionary will turn to any solution, no matter how superstitious, wrong, or idiotic. In “defiance of the process of nature,” they turn to “every projector and adventurer, to every alchymist and empiric.” Most damningly, Burke thought, even Jean-Jacques Rousseau—arguably, the author of the whole sorry French mess—himself would be embarrassed by what his followers had done in his name and with his ideas. Were he lucid, Burke claimed, Rousseau “would be shocked at the practical phrenzy of his scholars, who in their paradoxes are servile imitators.”
Real creation, however, is a matter of discovery, labor, and trial and error. Burke is more than worth quoting at length here.
Our patience will atchieve [sic] more than our force. If I might venture to appeal to what is so much out of fashion in Paris, I mean, to experience, I should tell you, that in my course I have known, and, according to my measure, have co-operated with great men; and I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business. By a slow but well-sustained progress, the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first, gives light to us in the second; and so, from light to light, we are conducted with safety through the whole series. We see, that the parts of the system do not clash. The evils latent in the most promising contrivances are provided for as they arise. One advantage is as little as possible sacrificed to another. We compensate, we reconcile, we balance. We are enabled to unite into a consistent whole the various anomalies and contending principles that are found in the minds and affairs of men. From hence arises, not an excellence in simplicity, but one far superior, an excellence in composition. Where the great interests of mankind are concerned through a long succession of generations, that succession ought to be admitted into some share in the councils which are so deeply to affect them. If justice requires this, the work itself requires the aid of more minds than one age can furnish. It is from this view of things that the best legislators have been often satisfied with the establishment of some sure, solid, and ruling principle in government; a power like that which some of the philosophers have called a plastic nature; and having fixed the principle, they have left it afterwards to its own operation.
As Burke understood it, in a very Thomistic fashion, the true leader must love those he leads as well as “fear himself.” He must also see the best in his people while identifying the worst in himself.
The stability of a society and the happiness of its members came not from fighting nature, but in understanding her and living with her and within her limitations. The real man accepted the gifts and the flaws of himself and his neighbor, knowing that perfection could never be reached in this world of sorrows.
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The featured image is “L’Assassinat de Marat” (1880), by Jean-Joseph Weerts (1847-1927), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.