As Edmund Burke began to wind down his very long letter—that which would become 1790’s Reflections on the Revolution in France—he returned to the question of first principles and right reason, especially in regard to the nature of the human person. At his best and most natural, Burke argued, men understood themselves as spirited and not as mere passive members of a republic. A safe republic relied upon the natural habits and goodness of a man’s soul, as much as a man’s soul found itself safe and secure in a well-ordered republic. Burke, unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau, did not believe man perfectable, but he did believe that through virtue and habit, a man could attenuate his darkest longings. Counter-Rousseau, Burke was an ancient as well as a Christian in his understanding of human nature, in private and in public. As Plato had so often argued, the order of the soul and the order of the commonwealth are inseparable one from the other. If the republic is disordered, man will attempt to live by whatever means necessary, even ill ones. If the soul is disordered, man cannot hope to govern himself or others, thus rendering a republic decrepit and corrupt.
As Burke looked across the English Channel, he saw the revolutionaries of France behaving in dangerously idiotic fashion. As they quickly rearranged the country into political units completely counter to the traditions of the people and the Church, they were militarizing the culture, treating its citizens and residents as members of a military order rather than a civil one. They were, indeed, calculating the will of man and of men. As such, all persons within France were becoming mere individuals, separated from each other and even from themselves. At best, men were becoming mere calculations in an equation of supposed rationality.
Once, Burke argued, real scholars sought to study nature, community, and virtue. Understanding of these things accounted a man wise. Those who apply equations and theories to the human person, Burke lamented, were mere “undergraduates”, children, and gamesters. In their desire to know, such manipulators, by necessity, “leveled and crushed together” all they encountered. After diving into their own rational madness, they became incapable of doing anything else or seeing the world in its proper shades of gray. Extremists, they divided all into “us” or “them.”
The great object in these politics is to metamorphose France from a great kingdom into one great play-table; to turn its inhabitants tiny a nation of gamesters; to make speculations as extensive as life; to mix it with all its concerns; and to divert the whole of the hopes and fears of the people from their useful channels, into the impulses, passions, and superstitions of those who live on chances.
Whereas the English constitution had grown and evolved over hundreds and hundreds of years, slowly, gradually, and gothically—just as ancient Rome’s constitution had—the French Revolutionaries had come to believe the past not only dangerous immoral but also intellectually barren. They saw that only a new science of politics and rationality could construct a constitution for the modern man. Granted, Burke concedes, the Revolutionaries create festivals, holy days, and pageants to appeal to the passions of the population, but each of these, he understood, served only as a poor shadow of the real thing the Church and the community had once provided. These were mere mockeries, and not even very good ones.
In opposition to free choice and an informed citizenry, the Revolutionaries sought a society based on Gnostic rule, allowing only the elect to understand the game and, consequently, to rule. “The many must be the dupes of the few who conduct the machine of these speculations,” Burke warned. The result of the Revolution could never be democracy, but, instead, oligarchy, the rule of the few.
In attacking the ideas as well as the motives of the Revolutionaries, Burke also makes positive claims in the nature of man and the nature of community. In one of the most beautiful passages of the eighteenth century, he wrote:
We begin our public affection in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill. The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality.
If for nothing else, this just quoted paragraph reveals exactly why one should rightfully consider Edmund Burke the father of modern Romanticism. After all, the good life comes from the soul and looks upward, not from a group of manipulators who look down.
Even those well-intentioned Revolutionaries, Burke cautions, have become too comfortable with their own power “in which [they] would have heaven and earth to bend.” To borrow from C.S. Lewis, these conditioners have become something other than men, neither beasts nor gods, but something purely materialistic, cold, and automatonic. The more games they play, the more they drown in their own subjective rationalisms. With each attempt at power, they become less men, and, as less men, they cannot possibly understand those they try to rule.
Communities of able and passionate men, informed by tradition and reason, Burke powerfully argues, are the only sure bulwarks against the arbitrariness of the mechanized men. Only in real and organic communities, surrounded by norms, habits, and traditions, is there a “safe asylum to secure these laws in all the revolutions of humour and opinion.” When the innovations fail or fly in the face of all that came before it, the neighbors know, and they temper the excesses of one another. Habit and custom, after all, have placed these men in close communion with one another. Each knows the failings, follies, and successes of all surrounding him. Prejudice is present, to be sure, but a salubrious prejudice.
This essay is one of a series of reflections on Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Tennis Court Oath” (1848), by Auguste Couder, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.