Though a classic in its own right, and arguably the first book on conservatism in the modern world, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France of 1790 is inconsistent as a coherent work. And, yet, even in its unevenness, it reveals an act of genius. Burke himself points out that the greatest and truest things in life are discovered through trial and error, over time, following the way they already exist in creation. We can see that the construction of this book follows this path of discovery. In other words, all truth that ever will or ever can exist already does exist. Such truth is for man to discover, uncover, understand, and contemplate, not to create, manipulate, and abuse. Burke approaches the subject of the French Revolution in this manner. He reveals that the French are doing nothing new: their experiments repeat the mistakes of the many others who counter the lessons of history, and of those who counter the very nature and purpose of man.
A statesman as well as a philosopher, Burke approaches his subject—the coming horrors of the French Revolution—beginning with the examination of one important topic, and, suddenly, as though Burke’s mind simply cannot help itself, he jumps to a new topic. At first glance, the transitions seem random, but a careful reading reveals that Burke’s thoughts flow readily, one to another, always building upon what came before.Moreover, Burke’s book is the equivalent of a cathedral not of a convenience store. The book is rooted so deeply in the Western Tradition as well as in the eternal truth that is reflected so poorly in this world, it will remain relevant as long as humanity exists. No mere pamphlet, the Reflections is written to last the ages.
Burke concludes his masterpiece by reflecting on what are seemingly two practical issues: the type of army the French Revolutionaries will build; and how the French plan to pay for their new, all-powerful, and omnicompetent state. As Burke wisely predicts, the army will need to be an “ideological” one. Though our author does not employ the actual term “ideology,” it is what he means, writing well ahead of that word’s entrance into the world. While armies in the West have traditionally defended or invaded at need, the new revolutionary army will need to be motivated by abstractions and philosophies. As with all armies, the revolutionary army will take an oath of loyalty and brotherhood to one another as soldiers. But, the oaths will not stop there, as the army will assume the function of a church and a religion:
They renew decrees and proclamations as they experience their insufficiency, and they multiply oaths in proportion as they weaken in the minds of men, the sanctions of religion. I hope that handy abridgments of the excellent sermons of Voltaire, d’Alembert, Diderot, and Helvetius, on the Immortality of the Soul, on a particular superintending Providence, and on a Future State of Rewards and Punishments are sent down to the soldiers along with their civic oaths. Of this I have no doubt; as I understand that a certain description of reading makes no inconsiderable part of their military exercises, and that they are full as well supplied with the ammunition of pamphlets as of cartridges.
Real armies, Burke claims, serve only as an instrument, not an end. With the French, however, the army will become so central to the authority of the revolution that it will quickly devolve into a mob and, then, a “political monster… devouring those who made it.” Prophetically acute, Burke’s fears proved correct not just in the case of the French, but also with the Soviets, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Cubans, the Mexicans, the Angolans, the Nicaraguans, the Cambodians, and the list goes on and on. The revolutionary armies of the French, guided by abstractions, will only be satiated with blood—the blood of others and of themselves.
Already deeply in debt, the French had no immediate way to pay for the new government, the new army, and the coming revolution. As if by divine revelation, the French Revolutionaries argued that they could have it all as long as they could confiscate that owned and controlled by the Catholic Church. In Burke’s mockery of this proposal, he must have been offering, at some deep level, a critique of the foundations of the modern English nation as first conceived and corrupted by Henry VIII. His arguments against the French of 1790 hold the same weight as against the English of 1534 with their “Act of Supremacy”:
Their fanatical confidence in the omnipotence of church plunder has induced these philosophers to overlook all care of the public estate, just as the dream of the philosopher’s stone induces dupes, under the more plausible delusion of the hermetic art, to neglect all rational means of improving their fortunes. With these philosophic financiers, this universal medicine made of church mummy is to cure all the evils of the state. These gentlemen perhaps do not believe a great deal in the miracles of piety, but it cannot be questioned that they have an undoubting faith in the prodigies of sacrilege.
Further, Burke notes, such a policy of confiscation will be merely and only a one-time grab. The wealth, he observes, would be spent quickly and on folly, with no purpose of building anything to remain in the long term. No government, he contends, has ever made itself permanently wealthy through the plunder of its people—which destroys not just the productive capacity of a country but also its moral foundations. Only the alchemist, Burke jokes, could make this all work.
Burke concludes Reflections with a discussion of liberty and its rarity in human societies:
The effects of the incapacity shown by the popular leaders in all the great members of the commonwealth are to be covered with the “all-atoning name” of liberty. In some people I see great liberty indeed; in many, if not in the most, an oppressive, degrading servitude. But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths. Grand, swelling sentiments of liberty I am sure I do not despise. They warm the heart; they enlarge and liberalize our minds; they animate our courage in a time of conflict.
As with all things, liberty is a good that can be easily perverted, especially when one takes it out of context, exaggerating its gifts at the expense of the gift giver. No free society can exist unless individual persons restrain their own passions and govern their own souls.
In my personal copy of Reflections—itself filled with innumerable scrawls, notes, and marginalia—I have written, “Thank you, Mr. Burke. Thank you, God, for making Mr. Burke. Pure genius.”
This essay is the last in 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 “Plundering of a Church during the French Revolution of 1793,” by Victor-Henri Juglar, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.