Edmund Burke’s Reflections On The Revolution In France

Reflections On The Revolution In FranceIn one of my favorite of William Hazlitt’s essays, “On The Character Of Mr. Burke,” Hazlitt takes on his rival politician while advancing what, to my mind, is a reliable test of a person’s political character: do they acknowledge Edmund Burke to be a great man? After finishing his Reflections On The Revolution In France, I know firsthand the wisdom of Hazlitt’s evaluative method, for anyone who does not find in Burke the most cogent challenge to their liberalism is simply not thinking hard enough. Burke advances two arguments, in particular, that I wish to elucidate, bearing as I think they do on our present political and cultural climate.

The first, a pillar of modern conservatism, is that the knowledge inhering in any individual or group of individuals pales in comparison with the knowledge invested in institutions and traditions, which have the benefit of accumulated experience. This second form of knowledge is difficult or even impossible to articulate (it might better be termed “wisdom”); it consists largely in doing things as they have always been done, the logic being that customs have the benefit of being proven to work. There is a type of person who abhors this line of reasoning, who conceives of knowledge as being only what can be rationally defended, and who harbors a deep skepticism towards received wisdom. In Burke’s age these men were called philosophers; today they are often derided as academics or intellectuals. The danger, Burke warns, is that their philosophizing will take on an increasingly abstract quality, divorcing itself from the realities of human nature. “The claims of experience,” Schiller tells us, “refute all the well-meant attempts of philosophy to bring into harmony what the moral world demands with what the real world does.” Revolutionaries, unlike reformers, tend to set afire to the established institutions, preferring not to model the future on the past, and Burke recognized in this tendency a grave danger.

The second challenge Burke issues might best be directed at modern libertarians, people who place their faith in loosening moral and legal strictures and allowing individuals the freedom of their desires, provided these do not impinge on anyone else’s. “The effect of liberty to individuals,” Burke tells us, “is that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.” Has a more concise rebuke to outright libertarianism ever been advanced? I have already argued that the sexual revolution is an example of a liberty whose debits and credits are overdue for reappraisal, but Burke’s warning holds in minor examples as well. When we are given the liberty to eat what we please, we overeat and under-exercise. When no state or employer pension is mandated, giving us the maximum control of our finances, we neglect to save for the future. We tend to the satisfaction of short-term wants over long-term necessities, and while this may not always be immoral, in the strictest sense, these tendencies are hardly conducive to social prosperity. In fact, they lead infallibly to stagnation and decay.

Here is Burke, once more summarizing his argument:

To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power; teach obedience: and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.

Burke looked in vain for such a mind among the revolutionaries of France’s National Assembly. He was also able to foresee a weakness in democratic governance that plagues us to this day: a tendency in politicians towards sycophancy rather than leadership. Why bother confronting the difficult social and moral questions head on, and risk displeasing a large portion of your constituency, when you can fall back on meaningless catchphrases or endless pandering?

But when the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides of the people. If any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular. Suspicions will be raised of his fidelity to his cause. Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards; and compromise as the prudence of traitors; until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper and moderate on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines, and establishing powers, that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.

Were he alive today, Burke would immediately see through the sham spectacle of our modern politics, the grandstanding politicians and partisan panderers. These he would view as the predictable symptom of a deeper malignancy, one in which all of us are complicit. Lately, I tend to agree with him.