Once the British had returned to first principles and right reason, Edmund Burke argued, they would also be reminded of the practical things, such as good government, the cultivation of the middle class, and the protection of property. In other words, through the fight against the French Revolution, the British would return to being properly British.
For reasons that Edmund Burke (1729-1797) could not fathom, Providence had decided that Britain’s moment was now, as she had to choose how to deal with the French Revolution, its aftermath, and its infection. Whatever gifts God had bestowed upon Britain over her history, whatever favors, whatever freedoms, she must now prove her worth. It is, Burke wrote, “the awful hour that Providence has now appointed to this nation” the decision as to how to deal with the Revolution. “Every little measure is a great error, and every great error will bring on no small ruin.” Burke believed that though His reasons were His own, God desired Britain to declare herself in favor of Christendom and reveal her mettle. She must do everything possible to destroy—utterly and completely—the Revolution. For the Revolution itself was a “grim Moloch,” setting at the heart of Europe “vice, impiety, barbarism, and the most ignominious slavery of body and mind.”
Although the Revolution claimed to speak in the name of Nature, nothing could be further from the truth. “Never, no, never did Nature say one thing and Wisdom say another,” Burke wrote. Nature, after all, “is never more truly herself, than in her grandest forms,” he continued, and Nature had graced Britain—through her peoples, her laws, her resources—ceaselessly through the centuries. Now, Britain must pay back all that she had been given.
Written after the oligarchical Directory had assumed power, Burke’s third (out of four) Letter of a Regicide Peace begged Britain not to let down her guard. Whatever wishful thinking the British might engage in when considering the Revolution and its possibilities, the British must—by right as well as by Nature—judge the Revolution for what it is, what it has claimed, and what it will claim. There can be nothing but harm in trying to live by “what we wish him to be.”
If anything, the Directory was even more terrifying than the Revolution, as it had emerged from the Revolution honed and refined. “The Directory,” Burke noted, “will have that tenderness for the carcass of the country, by whose very distemper, and on whose festering wounds, like vermin, they are fed.” No hope can be found in the new government, itself merely the victorious offspring of the monster.
Is not the Directory composed of the same junto? Are they not the identical men, who, from the base and sordid vices which belonged to their original place and situation, aspired to the dignity of crimes; and from the dirtiest, lowest, most fraudulent, and most knavish of chicaners, ascended in the scale of robbery, sacrilege, and assassination in all its forms, till at last they had imbrued their impious hands in the blood of their Sovereign? Is it from these men that we are to hope for this paternal tenderness to their country, and this sacred regard for the peace and happiness of all nations?
Far from establishing liberty—even the contradictory liberties promised by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen—the Directory had established two classes in France, the masters and the slaves, destroying anything that might be considered even tentatively a public or middle class. We should, though, pity the slaves, the vast majority of the French in the wake of the Revolution and the Directory. They have become quiet, hoping to stay out of the way of the bloodshed. “Most of the slaves choose a quiet, however reluctant, submission to those who are somewhat satiated with blood, and who, like wolves, are a little more tame from being a little less hungry, in preference to an irruption of the famished devourers who are prowling and howling about the fold,” Burke explained.
Though Nature had bestowed many rights and many gifts, Burke believed, Nature now asked the British to speak not of rights or of gifts, but of duties and the means by which one may dutifully live. “Let us descend into our own bosoms; let us ask ourselves what are our duties, and what are our means of discharging them,” he proclaimed. In asking such questions, the British will come to realize that they reside at the heart of Christendom, at the heart of the “Christian World,” at the heart of the “Commonwealth of Europe.” There, the British will find the Spirit that animates all things.
It brings to light what, under the most discouraging appearances, I always reckoned on; that with its ancient physical force, not only unimpaired, but augmented, its ancient spirit is still alive in the British nation. It proves, that for their application there is a spirit equal to the resources, for its energy above them. It proves that there exists, though not always visible, a spirit which never fails to come forth whenever it is ritually invoked; a spirit which will give no equivocal response, but such as will hearten the timidity, and fix the irresolution, of hesitating prudence; a spirit which will be ready to perform all the tasks that shall be imposed upon it by public honour.
Should the British question their own fortunes and how they arrived by them, thus behaving selfishly, they must remember the classical virtue of temperance, defined as the “use of the created goods for the good.”
Indeed, the abuse of the bounties of Nature, much more surely than any partial privation of them, tends to intercept that precious boon of a second and dearer life in our progeny, which was bestowed in the first great command to man from the All-gracious Giver of all, whose name be blessed, whether he gives or takes away. His hand, in every page of his book, has written the lesson of moderation. Our physical well-being, our moral worth, our social happiness, our political tranquility, all depend on that control of all our appetites and passions, which the ancients designed by the cardinal virtue of Temperance.
Once the British had returned to the first principles and right reason, they would also be reminded—properly—of the practical things, such as good government, the cultivation of the middle class, and the protection of property. In other words, through the fight against the Revolution, the British would return to being properly British.
The ways of Providence are truly mysterious.
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The featured image is “The Battle of Fleurus” (1837) by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse (1784–1844) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.