As Edmund Burke observed, real community begins with the free and natural choice to associate at the most personal, familial, and local level, with each community growing from the ground up. By misunderstanding this, the French Revolutionaries seceded not just from Christendom, but from the laws of nature.
In the final years of his life, the grand Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797) composed four long pieces he entitled Letters on a Regicide Peace (1795-1797). Though frequently marred by sarcasm that has not stood the test of time, the Letters, not surprisingly, reveals moments of absolute genius.
Overall, through the Letters, Burke hoped to convince the British public—that is, the 80% that had not already been corrupted—that it must wage all-out and total war against the French Revolutionaries. The Revolution, he wrote, represented not a nation, but a sect and a disease, one that had spread and infected other European powers. Only through a concerted effort could the British hope to rally all of Christendom (Burke used this term explicitly) against the Revolution itself. After all, he wrote, not only had the Revolutionaries made France a living hell, but they throve on mischief abroad. “The poison of other States is the food of the new Republick,” Burke asserted.
But out of the tomb of the murdered Monarchy in France, has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination and subdued the fortitude of man. Going straight forward to its end, unappalled by peril, unchecked by remorse, despising all common maxims and all common means, that hideous phantom overpowered those who could not believe it was possible she could at all exist, except on the principles, which habit rather than nature had persuaded them were necessary to their own particular welfare and to their own ordinary modes of action.
Vampire-like, the French Revolution needed a swift and pointed stake to the heart.
Contrary to the Western and Polybian notion that all governments and societies went through cyclical periods of birth, corruption, and death, Burke contended that even one heart beating demanded that faith and hope be applied to a people, even one that seemingly was lost to all good.
We are therefore never authorized to abandon our country to its fate, or to act or advise as if it had no resource. There is no reason to apprehend, because ordinary means threaten to fail, that no others can spring up. Whilst our heart is whole, it will find means, or make them. The heart of the citizen is a perennial spring of energy to the State. Because the pulse seems to intermit, we must not presume that it will cease instantly to beat.
History furnishes numerous examples of entire peoples saved by Providential intervention through the grace and agency (free agency, despite the Providential intervention) of free persons. Famously, Burke wrote:
At the very moment when some of them seemed plunged in unfathomable abysses of disgrace and disaster, they have suddenly emerged. They have begun a new course and opened a new reckoning; and even in the depths of their calamity, and on the very ruins of their country, have laid the foundations of a towering and durable greatness. All this has happened without any apparent previous change in the general circumstances which had brought on their distress. The death of a man at a critical juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his disgrace, have brought innumerable calamities on a whole nation. A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of Nature.
Truly, Nature and Nature’s God has shown favor upon those seemingly undone by the world.
Indeed, Burke reminded his readers, time and again, that “men are not tied to one another by papers and seals,” but rather were “led to associate by resemblances, by conformities, by sympathies.” Understanding this would prove vital to undoing the horrors wrought by the French at home and abroad. Christendom, Burke continued, had formed in such a way, and whatever civil wars might be raging within her, had the power to reconstitute the old and true alliances.
The cause must be sought in the similitude throughout Europe of religion, laws, and manners. At bottom, these are all the same. The writers on public law have often called this aggregate of nations a Commonwealth. They had reason. It is virtually one great state having the same basis of general law; with some diversity of provincial customs and local establishments. The nations of Europe have had the very same Christian religion, agreeing in the fundamental parts, varying a little in the ceremonies and in the subordinate doctrines. The whole of the polity and economy of every country in Europe has been derived from the same sources. It was drawn from the old Germanic or Gothic custumary; from the feudal institutions which must be considered as an emanation from that custumary; and the whole has been improved and digested into system and discipline by the Roman law.
Real community begins with the free and natural choice to associate at the most personal, familial, and local level, with each community growing from the ground up. By misunderstanding this, the Revolutionaries had seceded not just from Christendom, but from the very laws of nature. “They made a schism with the whole universe,” he proclaimed.
Manners, Burke reminded the English, meant much more than laws in the long run. If we behave properly because it was the right thing to do, we have not only verified nature, but we have done our duties as women and men.
Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.
Laws, however important, can never fully substitute for customs, norms, mores, and manners.
Finally, Burke argued in Letter I, Britain must decide to wage relentless and merciless war against the Revolutionaries, at home and abroad. In one of the most powerful statements ever made about just war theory, Burke proclaimed:
The calculation of profit in all such wars is false. On balancing the account of such wars, ten thousand hogsheads of sugar are purchased at ten thousand times their price. The blood of man should never be shed but to redeem the blood of man. It is well shed for our family, for our friends, for our God, for our country, for our kind. The rest is vanity; the rest is crime.
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The featured image is “Edmund Burke” by an unknown artist and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.