Reflections on the Revolution in France
VOLUME 2. REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE
by Francis Canavan
Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France is his most famous work, endlessly reprinted and read by thousands of students and general readers as well as by professional scholars. After it appeared on November 1, 1790, it was rapidly answered by a flood of pamphlets and books. E. J. Payne, writing in 1875, said that none of them "is now held in any account" except Sir James Mackintosh's Vindiciae Gallicae.*1 In fact, however, Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, Part 1, although not the best reply to Burke, was and remains to this day by far the most popular one. It is still in print.
Burke scorned to answer Paine directly, but in 1791 he published a sequel to his Reflections under the title An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs.*2 In it, he quoted several pages from Paine's book without acknowledging their source, and took them as representative of the views of all the British sympathizers with the French Revolution. Paine came back with The Rights of Man, Part 2. Burke ignored it, so in fact there was no debate between him and Paine. The two men talked past each other in appeals to the British public.
The Radical Democratic Ideology
Burke had been personally acquainted with Paine, but it is unlikely that he had him in mind when he wrote the Reflections. He already knew the radical democratic ideology that inspired part of the demand for expanding the people's right to vote for members of the House of Commons. Typically but wrongly, he attributed that ideology to most of the parliamentary reformers, as he did in his Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament in 1782.*3
The premise of the radical ideology was that men by nature are individuals endowed with natural rights but not, as Aristotle had thought, political animals designed by nature to live in organized political societies. In the prepolitical "state of nature," there was no government and every man was a naturally sovereign individual with an absolute right to govern himself. Only he could transfer that right to a government, and even he could not transfer it totally. The only civil society that he could legitimately enter was one in which his natural right to govern himself became the natural right to take part on equal terms with every other man in the government of civil society.
This view translates into the principles of political equality and majority rule. Civil society is a purely artificial institution created by independent individuals who contract with one another to set up a government whose primary purpose is to protect them in the exercise of their natural rights. Its basic structural principles are dictated by the nature of man as a sovereign individual. In this theory, natural rights are prior to social obligations.
Burke's Reaction to the French Revolution
Burke encountered this theory also in A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, a speech which a Dissenting minister, Dr. Richard Price, delivered on November 4, 1789, to the Revolution Society, a group that met annually to celebrate the English Revolution of 1688. This speech (which Burke did not read until January) was delivered two days after the French National Assembly confiscated the estates of the Catholic Church in France. Burke's reaction to the French Revolution had been slow in forming, but events in France in the fall of 1789, such as the confiscation of Church property, opened his eyes to how radical the Revolution there was. Dr. Price's speech awakened a fear in Burke of a similar ideology's bringing about a similar revolution in Great Britain.
On February 9, 1790, he gave a speech in the Commons on the Army Estimates that marked the beginning of his eventual complete break with his political party, the Whigs, now led by Charles James Fox, who admired the French Revolution. In the meantime, Burke was working on what was to become Reflections on the Revolution in France. It had begun with a letter, written in November 1789, to Charles-Jean-François Depont.*4 Depont, a young Frenchman who had visited the Burke family in 1785, now wrote to ask Burke to assure him that the French were worthy of the liberty that their Revolution was bringing them. Burke's reply was a calm and cool analysis of the Revolution. When Dr. Price spurred him to respond to his praise of the French Revolution, Burke couched his reply in the form of another letter to Depont. But it grew into a book addressed in reality to the British public in a highly rhetorical style.
Yet there is more, much more, to the Reflections than rhetoric. E. J. Payne, the editor of this set of volumes, who was very English and very much a man of the nineteenth century's Victorian age, could say, "No student of history by this time needs to be told that the French Revolution was, in a more or less extended sense, a very good thing."*5 (When the bicentenary of the Revolution was celebrated in 1989, scholars were no longer quite so sure about that.)*6 Payne also, like most students of Burke who were educated in the British Isles, reflects the empiricism and positivism that are so strong a strain in English thought and make it difficult for British students of Burke to perceive that there is a genuine philosophy wrapped in the gorgeous rhetoric of the Reflections.
It is not that Burke was or claimed to be a philosopher. Nor is his book a detached philosophical reflection on a great historical event. It is designed not merely to explain the event, but to persuade a reading public that the French Revolution is a menace to the civilization of Europe, and of Britain in particular. Yet, since the Revolution was built upon a political theory, Burke found himself obliged for the first time to organize his own previous beliefs about God, man, and society into a coherent political countertheory.
Burke's Constitutional Theory
The Reflections begins with an attack on Dr. Price and his speech.*7 According to Dr. Price, as quoted by Burke, George III was "almost the only lawful king in the world, because the only one who owes his crown to the choice of his people."*8 Popular choice, then, was the criterion of legitimacy. This followed from what Dr. Price said was a basic principle established by the Revolution of 1688, namely, the right of the people of England "1. 'To choose our own governors.' 2. 'To cashier them for misconduct.' 3. 'To frame a government for ourselves.' ";*9 Burke read this declaration of the right of the people as an assertion of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, and he denounced it as unknown to and incompatible with the British constitution.
Certainly, he said, it was unknown to the leaders of the Revolution in 1688. He admitted that it would be "difficult, perhaps impossible, to give limits to the mere abstract competence of the supreme power, such as was exercised by parliament at that time." But there was no doubt in the minds of the revolutionary leaders or in Burke's about the limits of what they were morally competent to do:
The house of lords, for instance, is not morally competent to dissolve the house of commons; no, nor even to dissolve itself, nor to abdicate, if it would, its portion in the legislature of the kingdom. Though a king may abdicate for his own person, he cannot abdicate for the monarchy. By as strong, or by a stronger reason, the house of commons cannot renounce its share of authority. The engagement and pact of society, which generally goes by the name of the constitution, forbids such invasion and such surrender. The constituent parts of a state are obliged to hold their public faith with each other, and with all those who derive any serious interest under their engagements, as much as the whole state is bound to keep its faith with separate communities.*10
The Principle of Inheritance
For this reason, Burke continued, "the succession of the crown has always been what it now is, an hereditary succession by law." Originally, succession was defined by common law; after the Revolution, by statute. "Both these descriptions of law are of the same force," however, "and are derived from an equal authority, emanating from the common agreement and original compact of the state, communi sponsione reipublicae, and as such are equally binding on king, and people too, as long as the terms are observed, and they continue the same body politic."*11
The operative moral principle, it will be noticed, is that the terms of the constitution, once set, must be observed. But the reason for accepting hereditary government as a constitutional principle is a practical one: "No experience has taught us, that in any other course or method than that of an hereditary crown, our liberties can be regularly perpetuated and preserved sacred as our hereditary right."*12 It was this consideration that made Burke a monarchist, not devotion to any abstract principles of royal right parallel to abstract principles of popular right. Burke explicitly rejected the notions that "hereditary royalty was the only lawful government in the world," that "monarchy had more of a divine sanction than any other mode of government," or that "a right to govern by inheritance [was] in strictness indefeasible in every person, who should be found in the succession to a throne, and under every circumstance."*13 But he considered hereditary monarchy justified as an integral part of a constitution that was wholly based on the principle of inheritance and historically had served the people well.
"We have," he said, "an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and a house of commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors." Indeed, "it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right."*14
This passage may seem to imply that there is no standard of natural right anterior and superior to the constitution. But it will be noticed that Burke is speaking here, not of the objective moral order, but of "the uniform policy of our constitution," and that he praises this policy, not as a statement of ultimate moral principles, but as a manifestation of practical wisdom "working after the pattern of nature."*15
It will be further noticed that throughout this passage Burke contrasts inherited rights, not with natural rights (to which he could and did appeal on other occasions), but with "the rights of men," which are the original rights of men in the state of nature. Dr. Price and others presume that it is possible to appeal to those rights in order to determine what rights men ought to have now, in an old and long-established civil society. It is this appeal that Burke says English statesmen of the past rejected in favor of the historic rights of Englishmen.
These statesmen wisely "preferred this positive, recorded, hereditary title to all which can be dear to the man and the citizen, to that vague speculative right, which exposed their sure inheritance to be scrambled for and torn to pieces by every wild litigious spirit."*16 It is advisable, therefore, to have some viable definition of what men's rights are. Positive and recorded rights are better than original rights, in Burke's view, because they have been defined, nuanced, and given sure modes of protection through long historical experience. Original rights, which are objects of speculation rather than of experience, can give rise to conflicting absolute claims that can tear a society apart.
The True Rights of Man
Furthermore, it is to misunderstand the social condition to think that men's claims on society and one another can be reduced to rights which they enjoyed in abstract and unqualified forms before civil society came into being. Burke never denied that there had been a state of nature, that men had original rights in it, or that civil society had been formed by a compact. Either he accepted these beliefs as one tends to accept the commonplaces of his age or he knew that others accepted them so generally that to deny them would be to lose the argument at the outset. For whatever reason, he restricted himself to arguing that the original rights of men were not unreal, but irrelevant to civil society. The change they underwent in the civil state was so profound that they no longer furnished a standard for judging the rights of "civil social man."*17 In Burke's own words:
These metaphysic rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are, by the laws of nature, refracted from their straight line. Indeed in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns, the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections, that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction. The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature, or to the quality of his affairs.*18
We must think, then, of men's rights in society in another way:
If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right. It is an institution of beneficence; and law itself is only beneficence acting by a rule. Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to do justice; as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in politic function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry; and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour.*19
Civil society is "an institution of beneficence"; its purpose is to do good to its members, and the good that it can do for them becomes their right or legitimate claim upon it. But their civil rights are not merely the legal form taken, after the social compact, by their original natural rights. Nor is government derived from every man's original right to act according to his own will and judgment.
The purposes of government are specified by the natural wants of men, understood not as their desires, but as their real needs. "Government," according to Burke, "is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom."*20 But among these wants is the education of men to virtue through legal as well as moral restraints upon their passions. "In this sense the restraints on men as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights." Burke, one sees, is moving toward rational moral ends as the legitimating principle of government, and away from original rights and their corollary, consent. But his immediate concern in this passage is to point out that, "as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle."*21
Rather, one must say: "The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of good; in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil."*22 To clarify what Burke is getting at, let us agree by way of example that it is not good for human beings to be starved, beaten, humiliated, deprived of human affections, or intellectually stultified. There are conceivable circumstances in which any of these, in a limited degree and for a limited time, might do someone more good than harm. But they could be justified only as a means to good ends, for these things are not in themselves human goods. Therefore, they cannot constitute the ends of life or the purposes of society. On the other hand, one can name human needs that do specify, in a general way, what civil society is for, and Burke did name some of them.
The Goals of Civil Society
Civil society exists to guarantee to men justice, the fruits of their industry, the acquisitions of their parents, the nourishment and improvement of their offspring, instruction in life, and consolation in death. These are among the advantages that civil society exists to provide for men. But it is impossible to define antecedently, in the abstract and for all possible circumstances, the concrete forms in which these advantages are to be acquired and safeguarded. That must be left to social experience and the gradual development of custom and law.
The end of civil society, then, in global terms, is to promote what is good for human beings. Human goods are "not impossible to be discerned"—Burke was not a radical cultural relativist—and they can serve as the general goals that guide law and public policy. They will therefore set the outer limits of what government may do to people and define what it may not do to them. Burke was not inconsistent when he denounced the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland and Warren Hastings in India for violating natural law by their treatment of the populations subject to their power. To deny that natural law is an abstract code of rights is not to say that it forbids nothing.
But when it comes to specifying in the concrete the claims on society that its goals confer on people, it becomes evident that the rights of men "are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition." They cannot be defined, that is, in the abstract and in advance. Human goods must be limited and trimmed in order to be simultaneously attainable in society. Not only that, but evils, which are negations of good, must be tolerated, sometimes even protected, in order that any good at all may be attained. A society ruthlessly purged of all injustice might turn out to be a vast prison. So, for that matter, might a society single-mindedly devoted to the individual's liberty.
The Right to Govern
These considerations are particularly relevant to the right that was fundamentally at issue between Burke and his opponents. They held that every man in the state of nature had a sovereign right to govern himself and for that reason had a right to an equal share in the government of civil society. Burke held that what was important in the civil state was not that every man's will should be registered in the process of government, but that his real interests (advantages, goods) should be achieved.
By entering civil society, Burke insisted, man "abdicates all right to be his own governor."*23 Hence, "as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of man in civil society." On the contrary, "it is a thing to be settled by convention."*24 "The moment you abate any thing from the full rights of men, each to govern himself, and suffer any artificial positive limitation upon those rights, from that moment the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience." But to organize a government and distribute its powers "requires a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities, and of the things which facilitate or obstruct the various ends which are to be pursued by the mechanism of civil institutions."*25 The allocation of power in the state, in other words, ought to be made by a prudent judgment about that structure of government which will best achieve the goals of civil society, not merely in general, but in this historically existing society. But this implies that purpose, rather than original rights and individual consent, is the organizing and legitimizing principle of a constitution.
A further conclusion about the nature of political theory follows: "The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science."*26 Moral and political theory may enlighten us on the ultimate ends of social life, but the means thereunto are the object of a practical science that relies on experience.
Who, then, shall make the practical judgments of politics? The question cannot be answered by appealing to the rights of men. "Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit."*27 But as to what is for their benefit, Burke said: "The will of the many, and their interest, must very often differ."*28 The first duty of statesmen, indeed, is to "provide for the multitude; because it is the multitude; and is therefore, as such, the first object... in all institutions."*29 But the object is the good of the people, not the performance of their will. The duties of statesmen, in consequence, do not belong by right to those whom the many have chosen, but ought to be performed by those qualified by "virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive,"*30 for the task of government.
Burke's View of Democracy
Burke was undoubtedly what today is called an elitist and, in his own terminology, an aristocrat in principle. He had a very low estimation of the political capacity of the mass of the population, and when he agreed that the people had a role in government, he meant only a fairly well-educated and prosperous segment of the people. But the main object of his attack on the democratic theory of his day was not so much the idea that the populace at large was capable of exercising political power as the principle that it had an inherent right to do its own will.
He certainly rejected the notion "that a pure democracy is the only tolerable form into which human society can be thrown."*31 But it could be an acceptable one, though not often:
I reprobate no form of government merely upon abstract principles. There may be situations in which the purely democratic form will become necessary. There may be some (very few, and very particularly circumstanced) where it would be clearly desirable. This I do not take to be the case of France, or of any other great country.*32
Democracy as a mere form of government, then, would be sometimes, if only rarely, acceptable to Burke. What would never be acceptable was that the people "should act as if they were the entire masters."*33 Burke explained his objection to this conception of popular sovereignty in the course of his defense of the principle of a state establishment of religion. Under a "mixed and tempered government"*34 such as that of Great Britain, "free citizens... in order to secure their freedom,... must enjoy some determinate portion of power." But "all persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great master, author and founder of society."*35
Authority and Order of Creation
This sense that authority is a trust given by God is all the more necessary "where popular authority is absolute and unrestrained." No one can and no one should punish a whole people, Burke said, but this conclusion followed: "A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world." It is essential, then, that the people "should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong." To exercise political power or any part of it, the people must empty themselves "of all the lust of selfish will, which without religion it is utterly impossible they ever should." They must become "conscious that they exercise, and exercise perhaps in a higher link of the order of delegation, the power, which to be legitimate must be according to that external immutable law, in which will and reason are the same."*36
The phrase concerning the place of the people in the order of delegation is interesting because it may refer to a theory of the origin of political authority which was generally accepted in Late Scholasticism and was most elaborately presented by the sixteenth-century Jesuit Francisco Suarez. In this theory, all political authority comes from God, not by any special divine act, but simply as a consequence of God's having made man a political animal by nature. This authority consequently inheres in the first instance in the body politic or whole community. But the community can and, for its own common good, normally will transfer its authority to a king or a body of men smaller than the whole.*37
In any case, God plays a larger role in Burke's political theory than in Paine's. For Paine, once God had given man his original rights at the creation, His work was done. Men then were able to create political authority out of their own wills. But for Burke, the authority of even the people was a trust held from God. They were accountable to Him for their conduct in it, and they must perform it in accordance with "that eternal immutable law, in which will and reason are the same." In Burke's thought, arbitrary will was never legitimate, because will was never superior to reason, not even in the sovereign Lord of the Universe. In God, however, will is always rational because His will is identical with His reason. The people, for their part, must make their will rational by keeping it in subordination to and conformity with the law of God.
The Moral Order of Creation
The law of God that Burke has in mind is not only or primarily His revealed law but the natural moral law, because it is a law that follows from the nature of man as created by God. The Creator is
the institutor, and author and protector of civil society; without which civil society man could not by any possibility arrive at the perfection of which his nature is capable, nor even make a remote and faint approach to it.... He who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection—He willed therefore the state—He willed its connection with the source and original archetype of all perfection.*38
There is an entire metaphysics implicit in this passage. God, as Creator, is the source of all being. The infinite fullness of His being, therefore, is the archetype of all finite being and becoming. All created beings reflect the goodness of their primary cause and tend toward their own full development or perfection by approaching His perfection, each in its own mode and within the limits of its potentialities. The state, as the necessary means of human perfection, must be connected to that original archetype. In Burke's philosophy, there can be no merely secular society, because there is no merely secular world.
The end of the state, for Burke, is divinely set and in its highest reach is nothing less than the perfection of human nature by its virtue. (According to Burke, "in a Christian Commonwealth the Church and the State are one and the same thing, being different integral parts of the same whole."*39 He thus found it easy to attribute to the state, or commonwealth, or civil society, the totality of men's social goals, whereas we today should be inclined to divide them between the political and religious spheres.)
Hence Burke could say, "Society is indeed a contract,"*40 but with a difference. The constitution of civil society was a convention whose shape and form was not a necessary conclusion drawn from principles of natural law. Nonetheless, society was natural in the sense of being the necessary and divinely willed means to achieve the perfection of human nature. If one equates the natural with the primitive, one will say that it is more natural to live in a cave than in a house; that is what is usually implied in the phrase "back to nature." But if one equates the natural with the mature perfection of any species of being, one will say that it is more natural for human beings to live in houses than in caves. Houses are undeniably artificial works of human hands, but they are a natural habitat for men because they more adequately satisfy the needs of human nature than caves can do. Similarly—and this was Burke's meaning—civil society is artificial, conventional, even, if you will, contractual. But it is natural to man because "he is never perfectly in his natural state, but when he is placed where reason may be best cultivated, and most predominates.*41 The Aristotelian teleology of this remark seems obvious.
The Social Contract
Society, then, is indeed a contract, but not one to be regarded in the same light as a commercial contract that is entered into for a limited and self-interested purpose and can be dissolved at the will of the contracting parties. Paine could look upon human society as rather like a vast commercial concern, potentially worldwide in scope, that was held together by reciprocal interest and mutual consent. Burke could not share this utilitarian view of society:
It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.*42
Because of the nature of its purposes, the contract of society has a character and a binding force that are different from those of ordinary contracts. "As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."*43 This sentence offended Paine's commonsense mind and led him to ask what possible obligation can exist between those who are dead and gone, and those who are not yet born and arrived in the world; a fortiori, how could either of them impose obligations on the living? In a literal sense he was, of course, quite right. But if one turns one's attention from contracting wills to the rational moral ends which those wills are bound to serve, one may conclude that, in the light of those ends, obligations descend upon the present generation from the past, and there are obligations in regard to generations yet unborn.
Men achieve their natural social goals only in history. The structures inherited from the past, if they have served and still serve those goals, are binding upon those who are born into them. These persons are not morally free to dismantle the structures at pleasure and to begin anew from the foundations. For the goals in question are not those alone of the collection of individuals now present on earth, but also those of human nature and of God.
The constitution of a society, conventional and historically conditioned though it is, becomes a part of the natural moral order because of the ends that it serves. This is the thought that lies behind Burke's rhetorical language in the next part of the passage on the contract of society:
Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law.*44
The "great primaeval contract" and the "inviolable oath" are, of course, the moral order of the world as established by God. That moral order furnishes a law to which civil societies as well as individuals are obliged to conform.
When Revolution is Justified
But are people never free to change the constitution and their government? Burke does not quite say that. "The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles."*45 The key phrase in this statement is "at their pleasure." There is also the unspoken assumption, characteristic of Burke, that a political revolution would be tantamount to a dissolution of society as such. Underlying that assumption was a conception of the constitution which one writer has well described in these words: "Burke... understood 'constitution' to mean the entire social structure of England and not only the formal governmental structure.... Included in his concept of constitution was the whole corporate society to which he was devoted."*46 No people, Burke said, had the right to overturn such a structure at pleasure and on a speculation that by so doing they might make things better.
Nonetheless, he could not and did not deny that a revolution was sometimes necessary. He only insisted that it could not be justified but by reasons that were so obvious and so compelling that they were themselves part of the moral order:
It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion, and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule; because this necessity itself is a part too of that moral and physical disposition of things to which man must be obedient by consent or force. But if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken, nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.*47
One may think that here Burke has gone beyond rhetoric into rhapsody. Yet the lines of his argument are clear enough. In An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, he made them more explicit and clearer still. It is difficult, therefore, to understand why Frank O'Gorman says: "The present writer has always found it strange that Burke rarely refers, either explicitly or even implicitly, to the principles that are supposed to have been the foundations of his thought. Burke was, indeed, uninterested in the workings of the Divine power."*48 It seems obvious to this writer that, particularly in the Reflections and An Appeal, Burke not only refers to but also elaborates in detail the principles that are the foundation of his theory of civil society and political authority. He was, it is true, a practicing politician, not a philosopher, and in these two works he wrote a polemic, not a dispassionate treatise on political theory. But his polemic included the presentation of a countertheory to the theory he was attacking. The countertheory depended in turn on explicitly stated premises of a moral and metaphysical nature. The premises are expounded, one must admit, in rhetorical language, especially in the Reflections. But they are, to borrow Burke's words, not impossible to be discerned.
Basic Premises of Burke's Thought
Briefly, the ultimate premises of Burke's political thought are provided by the metaphysics of a created universe. They assume the superiority of reason or intellect to will in both God and man. Part of this universe is the natural moral order based on the nature of man as created by God. Man's nature is oriented by creation toward ends that may be globally described as its natural perfection. Since civil society is necessary to the attainment of that perfection, it too is natural and willed by God.
The authority of the state derives from the rational and moral ends that it is intended by nature to serve. Consent plays a role in the formation of the state and the conferral of its authority on government, since both involve human acts of choice. But the obligation to form a civil society is prior to consent, and, for those born under a constitution, consent to the constitution is commanded by the previous obligation to obey a government that is adequately serving the natural goals of society. Rights also play a part in Burke's political theory. But the basic political right is the right to be governed well, not the right to govern oneself. In Burke's thought, purpose and obligations are more fundamental than rights and consent.
Notes for this chapter
This document is included in Further Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992), edited by Daniel E. Ritchie.
This speech is included in Miscellaneous Writings, companion to this set of volumes.
This letter is included in Ritchie, ed., Further Reflections on the Revolution in France.
See, for example, Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989).
The pages that follow are taken, with the permission of the publisher, from my Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press; Claremont, Calif.: Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, 1987). All page references from this point on, unless otherwise specified, are to the text of the Reflections in this volume.
That Burke was acquainted with Suarez's writings is indicated by his quoting Suarez at some length in his Tracts Relating to Popery Laws, in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, ed. Paul Langford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1981-), 9:457-58.
Speech on the Petition of the Unitarians, in The Works of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke (London: Rivington, 1812), 10:44.
An Appeal From the New to the Old Whigs, in Ritchie, ed., Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, pp. 168-69.
R. B. Ripley, "Adams, Burke, and Eighteenth-Century Conservatism," Political Science Quarterly 80 (1965): 228.
Edmund Burke: His Political Philosophy (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973), p. 13, n. 5.
Volume 2, Introduction, by E. J. Payne
End of Notes
In this volume, the pagination of E. J. Payne's edition is indicated by bracketed page numbers embedded in the text. Cross references have been changed to reflect the pagination of the current edition. Burke's and Payne's spellings, capitalizations, and use of italics have been retained, strange as they may seem to modern eyes. The use of double punctuation (e.g., ,—) has been eliminated except in quoted material. We have corrected Payne's occasional confusion of Charles-Jean-François Depont to whom the Reflections on the Revolution in France were addressed and Pierre-Gaëton Dupont who translated the Reflections into French.
All references to Burke's Correspondence are to the 1844 edition.
Volume 2. Chronology
by Francis Canavan
1729 Burke born in Dublin, January 12.
1735-40 Lives with mother's relatives in countryside of County Cork.
1741-44 Attends Abraham Shackleton's Quaker school in Kildare.
1744-48 Attends Trinity College, Dublin, and graduates A.B.
1750 Moves to London to study law in Inns of Court, abandons it for a literary career.
1756 Publishes A Vindication of Natural Society, a satire on Enlightenment political and religious reasoning.
1757 Publishes A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, an essay in aesthetics.
Marries Miss Jane Nugent.
1758 Richard Burke, Jr., born.
Becomes editor of The Annual Register.
1761 Returns to Ireland as secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant.
Begins but never finishes Tracts Relative to the Laws Against Popery in Ireland.
1764 Returns to London, has bitter break with Hamilton.
Becomes a charter member, along with Johnson, Reynolds, Goldsmith, and others, of The Literary Club.
1765 Becomes private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham.
George III reluctantly appoints Rockingham Prime Minister.
Burke elected to House of Commons from borough of Wendover.
1766 Rockingham dismissed as Prime Minister after achieving repeal of Stamp Act that inflamed the American colonies.
1768 Burke buys an estate in Buckinghamshire.
1770 Publishes Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, the political creed of the Rockingham Whigs.
1771 Becomes parliamentary agent for the colony of New York.
1773 Visits France.
1774 Elected Member of Parliament for city of Bristol, delivers classic speech on the independence of a representative.
Delivers Speech on American Taxation, criticizing British policy of taxing the colonies.
1775 Delivers Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies.
1780 Because of opposition, withdraws from election at Bristol. Is elected M.P. from borough of Malton through Rockingham's influence.
Speech on the Economical Reform advocates Whig policy of reducing the king's influence on Parliament.
1782 Rockingham again appointed Prime Minister to end the American War.
Burke becomes Paymaster of the Forces.
Rockingham dies in office.
1783 Rockingham Whigs under Charles James Fox form a government in coalition with Lord North.
Burke, again Paymaster, delivers Speech on Fox's East India Bill, attacking East India Company's government of India.
Coalition falls from power and is replaced by William Pitt the Younger's Tory ministry, leaving the Whigs out of power for rest of Burke's life.
1786 Burke moves the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Company's Governor-General of Bengal.
1788 Trial of Hastings begins, led by Burke.
1789 French Revolution begins.
1790 In November, publishes Reflections on the Revolution in France.
1791 Breaks with Fox, leader of the former Rockingham Whigs, over the French Revolution.
A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly [of France], An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, and Thoughts on French Affairs.
1793 War breaks out between Great Britain and France.
Burke criticizes failure to prosecute the war vigorously in Observations on the Conduct of the Ministry and Remarks on the Policy of the Allies.
1794 Prosecution of Hastings ends; Burke retires from Parliament.
Burke's son dies.
1795 Hastings is acquitted.
Thoughts and Details on Scarcity.
1796 Burke defends his public life in A Letter to a Noble Lord.
1796-97 Letters on a Regicide Peace protest British willingness to make peace with Revolutionary France.
1797 Burke dies, July 9.
The famous letter or pamphlet contained in this volume represents the workings of an extraordinary mind at an extraordinary crisis: and can therefore be compared with few things that have ever been spoken or written. Composed in a literary age, it scarcely belongs to literature; yet it is one of the greatest of literary masterpieces. It embodies nothing of history save fragments which have mostly lost their interest, yet no book in the world has more historical significance. It scorns and defies philosophy, but it discloses a compact and unique system of its own. It tramples on logic, yet carries home to the most logical reader a conviction that its ill-reasoning is substantially correct. No one would think of agreeing with it in the mass, yet there are parts to which every candid mind will assent. Its many true and wise sayings are mixed up with extravagant and barefaced sophistry: its argument, with every semblance of legal exactness, is disturbed by hasty gusts of anger, and broken by chasms which yawn in the face of the least observant reader. It is an intellectual puzzle, not too abstruse for solution: and hence few books are better adapted to stimulate the attention and judgment, and to generate the invaluable habit of mental vigilance. To discover its defects is easy enough. No book in the world yields itself an easier prey to hostile criticism: there are thousands of school-boys, "with liberal notions under their caps," to whom the greatest intellect of our nation since Milton,*49 represented by the best known parts of the present work, might well seem little better than a fool. After a time, this impression disappears; eloquence and deep conviction have done their work, and the wisdom of a few pages, mostly dealing in generalities, is constructively extended to the whole. But the reader now vacillates again: and this perpetual alternation of judgment on the part of a reader not thoroughly in earnest constitutes a main part of that fascination which Burke universally exercises. It is like the
What did Burke propose to himself when he sat down to write this book? The letter to Depont is obviously a mere peg upon which to hang his argument: the book is written for the British public. He believed himself to foresee whither the revolutionary movement in France was tending: he saw one party in England regarding it with favour, the other with indifference: he saw clear revolutionary tendencies on all sides among the people: and not a single arm was as yet raised to avert the impending catastrophe. Burke aimed at recalling the English nation to its ancient principles, and at showing the folly and imprudence of the French political movement. Burke's independence led him even to the extent of revolting from his own party. The great historical Whig party, the party of Somers, of Walpole, and of Chatham, was slowly passing through a painful transformation, which many observers mistook for dissolution. Burke found himself constrained to desert it, and that upon an occasion which afforded an opportunity of rendering it material support. From that time forward he became a marked man. Even for Burke the act of thinking for himself was stigmatised as a crime. While the events of the French Revolution commended themselves to the leaders of his party, he ought not to have allowed it to be seen that they aroused in him nothing but anger and scorn; nor ought he to have appealed to the nation at large to support him in his opposition. Such an appeal to the general public was characteristic of definite change of allegiance. Hence the obloquy which overwhelmed the last years of his life, raised by those who had been his associates during a career of a quarter of a century. Hence his counter-denunciation of them as "New Whigs," as renegades from the principles of the English Revolution, by virtue of the countenance they gave to the political changes which were taking place in France.
Are Burke's opinions in the present work consistent with those contained in the first volume? Notwithstanding that fundamental unity which may be justly claimed for Burke's opinions,
In his early denunciations of the French Revolution, Burke stood almost alone. At first sight he appeared to have the most cherished of English traditions against him. If there was one word which for a century had been sacred to Englishmen, it was the word Revolution. Those to whom it was an offence were almost wholly extinct: and a hundred years' prescription had sanctified the English Revolution even in the eyes of the bitterest adversaries of Whiggism. The King, around whom the discontented Whigs and the remnant of the Tories had rallied, was himself the creature of the Revolution. Now the party of Fox recognised a lawful relation between the Revolution of 1688, and that which was entering daily on some new stage of its mighty development in France. There was really but little connexion between the two. Burke never said a truer thing than that the Revolution of 1688 was "a revolution not made, but prevented." The vast convulsions of 1789 and the following years were ill-understood by the Foxite Whigs. Pent in their own narrow circle, they could form no idea of a political movement on a bigger scale than a coalition: to them the French Revolution seemed merely an ordinary Whiggish rearrangement of affairs which would soon settle down into their places, the King, as in England, accepting a position subordinate to his ministers. Nor were Pitt and his party, with the strength of Parliament and the nation at their back, disposed to censure it. There was a double reason for favouring it, on the part of the English Premier. On the one hand, it was a surprise and a satisfaction to see the terrible monarchy of France collapse without a blow, and England's hereditary foe deprived, to all appearance, of all power of injury or retaliation. On the other, Mr. Pitt conceived that the new Government would naturally be favourable to those liberal principles of commercial intercourse which he had with so much difficulty forced on the old one. Neither side saw, as
The reader, in comparing the two volumes, will notice this difference in the tribunal to which the appeal is made. Public opinion in the last twenty years had gone through rapid changes. The difference between the condition of public opinion in 1770 and in 1790 was greater than between 1790 and 1874. In 1770 it was necessary to rouse it into life: in 1790 it was already living, watching, and speaking for itself. The immorality of the politicians of the day had awakened the distrust of the people: and the people and the King were united in supporting a popular minister. There was more activity, more public spirit, and more organisation. In England, as in France, communication with the capital from the remotest parts of the kingdom had become frequent and regular. London had in 1790 no less than fourteen daily newspapers; and many others appeared once or twice a week. No one can look over the files of these newspapers without perceiving the magnitude of the space which France at this time occupied in the eye of the English world. The rivalry of the two nations was already at its height. The Bourbon kingdoms summed up, for the Englishman, the idea of foreign Powers: and disturbances in France told on England
This liberal movement was not confined to England. It spread, in a greater or less degree, all over Europe, even to St. Petersburg and Constantinople. In England, Reform was rather a cry than a political movement; but in France and Austria it was a movement as well as a cry. In the latter country, indeed, the Reform was supplied before the demand, and the Emperor Joseph was forced by an ignorant people to reverse projects in which he had vainly tried to precede his age. But the demands abroad were for organic reforms, such as had long been effected in England. England, after the reign of Charles II, is a completely modern nation; society is reorganised on the basis which still subsists. But France and Germany in 1789 were still what they had been in the Middle Ages. The icy fetters which England had long ago broken up had on the Continent hardened until nothing would break them up but a convulsion. In France this had been demonstrated by the failures of Turgot. The body of oppressive interests which time and usage had legalised was too strong to give way to a moderate pressure. A convulsion, a mighty shock, a disturbance of normal forces, was necessary: and the French people had long been collecting themselves for the task. Forty years a Revolution had been foreseen, and ten years at least it had been despaired of. But it came at last, and came unexpectedly; the Revolution shook down the feudalism of France, and the great general of the Revolution trampled to dust the tottering relics of it in the rest of Western Europe. Conspicuous among the agencies which effected it was the new power of public opinion, which wrought an obvious effect, by means of the Gazettes of Paris, throughout the western world. Burke saw this, and to public opinion he appealed against the movement, and so far as this country was concerned, successfully. It was he whose "shrilling trumpet" sounded the first alarm of the twenty years' European war against the French Revolution.
It was hard, at such a crisis, to sever general ideas from the
It was obvious that the movement in France was accompanied by a general distrust of the existing framework of society. Something of the same kind was prevalent in England; but it belonged to a narrower class, with narrower motives and meaner ends. From his earliest years Burke had been familiar with the idea of a nation of human savages rising in revolt against law, religion, and social order, and he believed the impulse to such a revolt to exist in human nature as a specific moral disease. The thing which he greatly feared now seemed to have come suddenly upon him. Burke manifestly erred in representing such an element as the sole aliment and motive force of the French Revolution. Distrust of society was widely disseminated in England, though less widely than Burke believed, and far less widely than in France; but Burke had no means of verifying his bodings. Jacobinism had prevailed in France, and a Revolution had followed—it was coming to prevail in England, and a Revolution might be expected. England had in France the highest reputation for political progress, liberty, and good government. England's liberty was bound up with the fact of her having passed through a Revolution, which, after the lapse of a century, was considered
The earliest title of the work (see Notes, p. 369) indicates that it was occasioned proximately not by the events in France, but by events of much less importance in England. Knowing little of Europe in general, by comparison with his intimate knowledge of England, Burke can have been little disposed or prepared to rush into print, in the midst of absorbing state business at home, with a general discussion of the changes which had taken place in a foreign nation. This was not the habit of the time. In our day a man must be able to sustain an argument on the internal politics of all nations of the earth: in that day, Englishmen chiefly regarded their own business. Had the Revolution been completely isolated, it would never have occupied Burke's pen. But the Revolutionists had aiders and abettors on this side of the Channel, and they openly avowed their purpose of bringing about a catastrophe similar to that which had been brought about in France. Finally, some of these English "sympathisers" were persons long politically hateful to Burke and his party. Hence that strong tincture of party virulence which is perceptible throughout the work. Burke writes not as a Hallam—not as a philosophical critic or a temperate judge, but in his accustomed character as an impassioned advocate and an angry debater. Indeed anything like a reserved and observant
Can look on guilt, rebellion, fraud, and Caesar,
His real aim is less to attack the French than the English Revolutionists: not so much to asperse Sieyes and Mirabeau, as Dr. Price and Lord Stanhope.
The work, then, professes to be a general statement, confessedly hasty and fragmentary, of the political doctrines and sentiments of the English people. It was, on the whole, recognised as true. The body of the nation agreed in this fierce and eloquent denunciation. The Jacobins steadily went down in public estimation from the day of its publication. Burke's fiery philippic seemed to dry up their strength, as the sun dries up the dew. Nothing could stand, in public opinion, against Burke's imperious dilemmas. But it is the moral power of the argument, and the brilliancy with which it is enforced, which give the work its value. The topics themselves are of slighter significance. Half awed by the tones of the preacher, half by his evident earnestness and self-conviction, we are predisposed to submit to his general doctrines, although we cannot feel sure of their applicability to the occasion. Unfair as this denunciation was to France, we sympathise in its effects on the malcontents in England. The tone of the book was well suited to the occasion. A loud and bitter cry was to be raised—the revolutionary propaganda was to be stayed—and to this end all that could be said against it was to be clearly, sharply, emphatically, and uncompromisingly put forth. With Hannibal at the gates, it was no time for half-opinions, for qualification, and for temporisation. No wise man could hesitate to do his best to discredit the Jacobins, without any very scrupulous regard to absolute justice. They were unjust and unscrupulous, and it was perhaps pardonable to attack them with their own weapons. From all this we deduce the critical canon, that properly to understand Burke's book we must look on him not as a critic, but as an advocate. The book is not history, nor philosophy, but a polemic. It is a polemic against Jacobinism, particularly English Jacobinism.
What is, or rather was, Jacobinism? In the usage of the day,
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail,
This creed will never lack exponents. It is founded on an ancient tale, and in a certain sense, a tale of wrong; but whilst the human species maintains its vantage above the lower animals, it is a wrong that will never be completely righted. In Burke's view, it is of the nature and essence of property to be unequal. The degrees of social prosperity must always exhibit many shades of disparity, "Take but degree away, untune that string," and you destroy most things which set man above the brutes. Degree is inseparable from the maintenance of the artificial structure of civilisation. The last phrase leads us to note the fundamental fallacy of the doctrine in its next stage of philosophical or speculative Jacobinism. Civilisation, social happiness, the comfortable arts of life, are no gift of nature to man. They are, in the strictest sense, artificial. The French philosophers, by a gross assumption, took them to be natural, and therefore a matter of common right to all.
We notice here a fundamental antagonism alleged by Burke to exist between the Revolutionists and the English school of politicians. The former base their claims upon Right; Burke, following the traditions of English statesmanship, claims to base his upon Law. It is not that Law has no basis in natural Right: it is rather that Law, having occupied as a basis a portion of
Men of the law were the statesmen under whom the British Constitution grew into shape. Men of the law defended it from Papal aggression, a circumstance to which Burke complacently alludes (p. 183): and one of his main ideas is the thoroughly lawyer-like one that liberty can only proceed "from precedent to precedent." This onward progress he admitted as far as the epoch of the Revolution, but there, in a way characteristic of him, he resolved to take his stand. Magna Charta, the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, and the Act of Settlement, were his undoubted chain of English constitutional securities, and he declined to admit any further modification of them. So far he was in harmony with popular ideas. When he went beyond this, and declared that the Act of Settlement bound the English nation for ever, his reasoning was obviously false. The whole procedure of Burke throughout this book is, as has been observed,
As an illustration at once of Burke's instinctive retreat to the shelter of legal orthodoxy, and of the charm which his pen could throw over the driest statement of first principles, let us observe how he has worked up a well-known passage of a well-known legal classic.
The practical jurisprudence of England in Burke's time stood sadly in need of Reform. That of France was in a still worse case. Burke fully recognised the necessity of removing the "defects, redundancies, and errors" of the law (p. 191), though he still maintained it to be the "collected reason of ages," and the "pride of the human intellect." Whether in France "the old independent judicature of the Parliaments" was worth preserving, in a reformed condition, as Burke so strongly insists, admits of doubt. Scandalous as were the delays, the useless and cumbrous processes, and the exaction which attended the management of the English law, those who administered it were at least able men, and men who had honestly risen to their places, in virtue of their native and acquired qualifications. It was not so in France. In France judges purchased their places and suitors purchased justice. In cases where this may not be absolutely true, justice at the hands of the "sworn guardians of property" was a doubtful commodity, and few will now deny that the Assembly were justified in making a clean sweep of it (see p. 222). As to the common law which they administered, its condition will be best gathered from the articles on the subject contained in the Encyclopédie. It is enough to say of it that it exhibited the worst characteristics of English law before the time of
Conceiving the English nation as a four-square fabric supported on the four bases of the Church, the Crown, the Nobility, and the People, it is natural to find the author insisting most on the excellences of those elements which were then assailed in France. The People, of course, needed no defence, nor was the Crown as yet overthrown. The dream of the moment was a constitutional monarchy, based on elements similar to those of the English Constitution.*51 Only the Church and the Aristocracy were as yet threatened: and, next to the defence of the Church, the best known section of the present treatise is that which relates to the Nobility. On this subject, independently of constitutional law and of theory, Burke cherished prejudices early formed and never shaken. He had lived on terms of intimacy with, and was bound by ties of mutual obligation to some of the worthiest members of the British aristocracy. It is mainly to them personally that his panegyric is applicable. Nobility, however, possessed claims which he was as eager to recognise, as an important establishment of the common law of the country, and as justified by universal analogy and supported by the best general theories of society. "To be honoured, and even privileged, by the laws, opinions, and inveterate usages of our country," was with him not only a noble prize to the person who attained it, but a politic institution for the community which conferred it. Why? Because it operated as an instinct to secure property,
But in the method of Burke every argument in favour of a
Burke claims for his views the support of the English nation. Political events and the popularity of his book alike proved that this was no idle boast: but it necessarily indicated nothing more than that the party of progress was in England in the minority, while in France it was in the ascendant. Burke's claim, however, involves far more. It asserts that the doctrines of the revolution had long been well known in England: that the belief in the "rights of man" had long been exploded, and its consequences dismissed as pernicious fallacies: and that in this condemnation the best minds in England had concurred. To examine the justice of this claim would involve the whole political and religious history of the stirring century between the Spanish Armada and the Revolution of 1688. This is far beyond our present purpose, which may be equally well served on ground merely literary. Taking English literature as our guide, we shall find that, two hundred years before, conclusions very similar to those of Burke were formed in the minds of philosophical
That Conservatism is compatible with philosophical statesmanship can be illustrated in a remarkable degree from the great work of Hooker. Hooker and Grotius allow a view of the general rights and obligations of civil society, which goes far beyond what Burke, in the present work, will admit.*53 But the great English divine, while discerning the necessity of forsaking the narrow political theories of the middle ages, fortified himself in his enlarged position by a clear definition of the limits of political change. In the state, Hooker saw distinctly reflected the order and discipline which he believed to have been impressed upon the natural face of the universe by an all-wise and beneficent Creator. The reign of law on earth reflected the reign of law in heaven. Hooker ridicules the turbulent wits of old, to whom, in the words of the Roman historian, quieta movere magna merces videbatur. "They thought the very disturbance of things established an hire sufficient to set them on work." The reader of Hooker can hardly fail to be struck by his coincidence with Burke's mode of thought and argument. Both point out the value of what the English nation regards as an everlasting possession; both lay bare the deep foundations of law, order, and temporal polity; and seek, by the united force of truth and reason, to display and vindicate in the eye of the world the gradations, the dignities, and the majesty of a well-balanced state. The limits of the application of general principles in politics are
These varieties [the phases of human will and sentiment] are not known but by much experience, from whence to draw the true bounds of all principles, to discern how far forth they take effect, to see where and why they fail, to apprehend by what degrees and means they lead to the practice of things in shew, though not indeed repugnant and contrary one to another, requireth more sharpness of wit, more intricate circuitions of discourse, more industry and depth of judgment than common opinion doth yield. So that general rules, till their limits be fully known (especially in matter of public and ecclesiastical affairs), are by reason of the manifold secret exceptions which lie hidden in them, no other, to the eye of man's understanding, than cloudy mists cast before the eye of common sense. They that walk in darkness, know not whither they go.—Book v. ch. 9.
Such conceptions are naturally generated in a comprehensive mind, as soon as the world is stirred by the impulse to shake off old evils. Wisdom consists in no inconsiderable degree, says Burke, in knowing what amount of evil is to be tolerated. "Il ne faut pas tout corriger," says Montesquieu. "Both in civil and in ecclesiastical polity," says Hooker, "there are, and will be always, evils which no art of man can cure, breaches and leaks more than man's art hath hands to stop." This may be: but it is certain that breaches and leaks which one age has regarded as incurable have been stopped in another. The science of politics, unlike most other sciences, is too often regarded as having reached its final stage: many a specious conclusion is vitiated by this assumption. The defect of such aphorisms as that of Montesquieu obviously lies in their extreme liability to abuse: and Burke cannot be absolved from the charge of abusing the principle which the aphorism embodies. But it cannot be denied that Hooker and many another Englishman whose authority English people held in high respect, had done the same thing before him. The following passage of Hooker strikingly reminds the reader of a mode of argument frequently employed by Burke:
For first, the ground whereupon they build, is not certainly their own, but with special limitations. Few things are so restrained to any one end or purpose, that the same being extinct
The ground of this philosophical or rational conservatism mainly consists in seeking to contemplate things with reference to their dependency on an entire system, and to have regard to the coherence and significance of the system. It is liable to abuse: and many may think that the whole conception belongs to the domain of poetry rather than to that of philosophy. The poetry of the time, indeed, reflects it in more than one place. The idea is clearly traceable in Spenser's Cantos of Mutability, the "hardy Titaness," who, seduced by "some vain error," dared
To see that mortal eyes have never seen.
The poet foreshadows a calamitous break-up of the established order of things, a mischievous contortion of the "world's fair frame, which none yet durst of gods or men to alter or misguide," and a reversal of the laws of nature, justice, and policy. It reminds us something of the bodings of the Greek chorus, when they sing that the founts of the sacred rivers are turned backward, and that justice and the universe are suffering a revolution. Such notions are unquestionably more than the over-wrought dreams of poets. They have their key in the defective moral tone of their age: but it by no means follows that the moral defect which this implies covers the whole ground to which they extend. Slumber seems natural to certain stages of human history: and a slumbering nation always resents the first signs of
How pow'rs are thought to wrong, that wrongs debar.
Daniel had trained himself in an instructive school, in the preparation and composition of his History of the Civil Wars. Like Burke, he was of opinion that political wisdom was not to be obtained à priori. The statesman must study
The sure records of books, in which we find
It is an apt illustration of Burke's vehement contention that Englishmen will never consent to abandon the sense of national continuity. The English nation is emphatically an old nation: it proceeds on the assumption that there is nothing new under the sun. It is always disposed to criticise severely any one who labours, as Warburton says, under that epidemic distemper of idle men, the idea of instructing and informing the world. The heart of men, and the greater heart of associated bodies of men, has been radically the same in all ages. In the laws of life we cannot hope for much additional illumination: new lights in general turn out to be old illusions. There is no unexplored terra australis, whether of morality or political science. The great principles of government and the ideas of liberty "were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law upon our pert loquacity."*55 In a literary and scientific age, it is impossible that
Do you not see these pamphlets, libels, rhimes,
Burke insists on identifying the "literary cabal" as the chief element in the ferment of Revolution: "Men of letters, fond of distinguishing themselves, are rarely averse to innovation" (p. 208). See how a retired observer in the time of the first Stuart anticipates the effects of the same misplaced activity.
For when the greater wits cannot attain
Action, Philocosmus goes on to say, differs materially from what is read of in books:
Men of letters, in the indulgence of the tastes which their pursuits have fostered, lose those faculties which are necessary to the conduct of affairs.
The skill wherewith you have so cunning been
Beware of the philosopher who pretends to statesmanship. The Scholar replies, that the Statesman, with all his boasted skill, cannot anticipate the perils of the time, or see
how soon this rolling world can take
The mysteries of State, the "Norman subtleties," says the Scholar, are now vulgarised and common. Giddy innovations would overthrow the whole fabric of society. But what is the remedy? To "pull back the onrunning state of things"? This might end in bringing men more astray, and destroy the faith in the unity and continuity of civil life, which is
that close-kept palladium
Investigation would discover much the same vein of thought in many of Daniel's contemporaries. Compare, for instance, Fletcher's portraiture of Dichostasis, or Sedition,
That wont but in the factious court to dwell,
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre,
No passage in literature reflects more faithfully the general spirit of the present work. The grave tone of mingled doctrine and portent, and the two contrasted moral effects, are in each exactly similar.
Jack Cade and his rout, and the mob in Coriolanus, will doubtless occur to the student as instances of sharp satire against Democracy. Shakspere always conceives political action, especially in England, as proceeding from a lawful monarch, wielding
Quitting the Elizabethan period, it would be easy to continue the historical vindication of Burke's claim. The popular party of the Commonwealth and the Revolution were the true conservatives of their age. They fought, as Burke had pointed out in a previous work, for a liberty that had been consecrated by long usage and tradition; and outside this memorable strife the greatest of English minds, with a few exceptions, surrendered themselves to the general tide of anti-revolutionary opinion. Dryden, always a favourite authority with Burke, is an obvious instance. One passage from his prose works may be adduced to show that the worst arguments employed by Burke in the present treatise do not lack the authority of great and popular English names:
Neither does it follow that an unalterable succession supposes England to be the king's estate, and the people his goods and chattels on it. For the preservation of his right destroys not our propriety, but maintains us in it. He has tied himself by law not to invade our possessions, and we have obliged ourselves as subjects to him and all his lawful successors: by which irrevocable act of ours, both for ourselves and our posterity, we can no more exclude the successor than we can depose the present king. The estate of England is indeed the king's, and I may safely grant their supposition, as to the government of England: but it follows not that the people are his goods and chattels on it, for then he might sell, alienate, or destroy them as he pleas'd; from all which he has tied himself by the liberties and privileges which he has granted us by laws.—Vindication of the Duke of Guise, p. 53.
It may be truly objected that the course of English political events destroys the authority of these Tory formulas. But it is well known that the Whig policy of England since the Revolution had not been supported by a majority of the English people. The majority of English people, told by the head, would down to the beginning of the reign of George III have been found to be Tory: and Burke was in a strong position when he averred that such was the disposition of the English nation as a whole. Among Dryden's poems, the famous "Absalom and Achitophel" will illustrate the Tory feeling which the English people
He preaches to the crowd that power is lent,
Phocion and Socrates are satirically instanced as examples of popular justice. Then follows a remarkable forecast of an opinion first elaborated and given to the world by the French philosophers in the next century:
The common cry is even religion's test,
It would be easy to pursue the same track in Butler and Swift, in the vast field of the Essayists, and in English theological and historical writers, among whom most of the popular names will be found on the same side. The Whigs and Tories of the century, if we except a few clerical politicians, alike avoid professing extremes. The popular poets of Burke's own generation kept up the idea of a grand historical past closely connected with the existing political establishment. English poetry, from Spenser and Drayton to Scott and Tennyson, has in fact always been largely pervaded by this idea, and a retrospective tendency, tinged with something of pride and admiration, has generally accompanied literary taste in the Englishman. Milton and Spenser revelled in the antique fables which then formed the bulk of what was called the History of England. Shakespeare dramatised the history of the ages preceding his own, with even more felicity than the remote legends of Lear and Cymbeline. Little of this is to be noticed in the taste of any foreign nation, and the literature of France has always been eminently the offspring of the moment. French minds have never dwelt with the interest derived from a sense of identity upon the events or products of the past. Continental critics have, as might be expected, traced the love of the English for the English past to a narrow insularity. They ought also to point out how intense was the contrast, down to the French Revolution, of insular and continental institutions. In Burke's time, religious and political liberty were to Frenchmen entirely foreign ideas. National greatness was a conception common to both the Englishman and the Frenchman: but England had of late repeatedly humbled that of France, and the Frenchman was just beginning to enquire into the causes which had given the smaller country its superiority. There was a contrast, and a
That this form should wonderfully allure common readers, is no way strange. The busy active catastrophe of revolutions gives a tumultuous kind of pleasure to those vulgar minds that remain unaffected with the calm scenes that the still and steady advances of a well-balanced state, to secure its peace, power, and durability, present before them. Add to this that the revolution part is the great repository of all the stores for admiration, whose power and fascination on the fancy we have at large examined; whereas the steady part affords entertainment only for the understanding, by its sober lessons on public utility.
It is not only passively useless; it tends to disgust us with the system of society altogether; "to think irreverently of it, and in time to drop all concern for its interests." But, it may be objected, this kind of history best discovers the nature and genius of a people. "Ridiculous!" says the critic, "as if one should measure the benefits of the Trent, the Severn, or the Thames, by the casual overflowing of a summer inundation." He goes on to complain of the injustice inflicted on Englishmen
To this day it may be said that the mutual criticisms which Englishmen and Frenchmen have bandied at each other are generally based on some misunderstanding. It was far more so a century ago. In more than one topic of the present work Burke transfers to French matters ideas which were really only proper to England. In Burke's famous delineation of European society, at its best, as he believed, in this country, there was little or nothing to interest or instruct the Frenchman. Those parts of the work which are best calculated to their end are the arguments which are to be found scattered up and down the book which deduce from English society the higher laws which ought to govern civil life in general. On this ground we have Burke at his strongest.
To the cherished tradition of the English philosophy of the State, the incidents of the French Revolution administered an unexpected and powerful impulse. Burke conceived the English
The political philosophy of Burke, though in itself systematic and complete, makes no pretence to the character of what is understood by a scientific theory. It rests on ignorance, and, in technical language, may be described as sceptical. The best formula afforded by the present work to express it is that which describes the human race as a "great mysterious incorporation."*61 Society, though a changeable and destructible system, is not like a machine which can at will be taken to pieces, regulated, and reconstructed. Its motive force is as incomprehensible as that of the individual man. All analysis is evaded by those ties which bind together the obligations and affections of the individual into an intelligible and operative whole; and it is exactly so with those which bind together the system of the State. Society, to repeat a trite formula, is an organism, not a mechanism. As life itself is an insoluble mystery, so is the life of that invisible entity which is understood by the term "society." The attempt to defy this mystery is as fatuous and presumptuous as would be, in the mechanical world, the attempt to animate a mass of dead parts. Society is not made, it grows; and by ways as dark and mysterious as those which from its earliest germ conduct and limit the destination of life in the individual. Φ&uacgr;sei politik&ogrgr;n z&ohivrgr;on &apsacgr;n&thgr;r&ohgr;poς. The elementary nature expressed in each word of this profound expression of Aristotle, is involved in an equal degree
Burke's doctrine on the origin of society corresponds to this view of its nature and foundation. More than one of the uses which help to keep society together have in theory been adopted as its possible origin, but these uses all germinate from the instinct of congregation. Aristotle and Cicero had each in their time maintained, against contemporary theorists, that in this instinct is to be traced the true germ of social organisation; and their view was revived, at the revival of letters, in the remarkable tract of Buchanan, De Jure Regni. According to this view, the uses and advantages of social life are entirely an aftergrowth upon the results of the unreasoned tendency, operating through the rude channels of the feelings, of individual human animals to
In Burke's philosophy, God, Nature, and Society are conceived as three inseparable entities. Burke thus followed the pagan philosopher Cicero in fortifying his political creed by reference to that religious sentiment which is so nearly akin to it. Religion, according to Burke, is a necessary buttress to the social fabric. It is more than this: it pervades and cements the whole. It is the basis of education: it attends the citizen in every act of life from the cradle to the grave. Religion is part of man's rights. The exact form of religion which the State should authorise was believed by Burke to be an entirely secondary matter.
Resolved into their elements, the mainspring both of rational religion and of rational politics seems to be the sentiment of dependence. The effect traceable to this no other theory of life or of society will account for. The sum-total of rational metaphysics has been held to consist of but two propositions. The first, which is involved in the Cogito, ergo sum, of Descartes, may be expressed as "Here I am." The second as "I did not put myself here." To cut ourselves off, even in thought, from our dependence on our surroundings, is to commit moral suicide. But our dependence on what is outside us, is not limited to our contemporaries. It passes on from generation to generation: it binds us to the past and to the future. Society, says Burke, in his grand Socratic exposure of the imbecile logic which confounded two meanings of one word,*64 is a partnership in all science, in all art, in every virtue, and in all perfection: a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. There is, says a poet who had fed upon this sublime thought,
One great society alone on earth,
The fair mansion of civilisation which we enjoy was not built with our hands, and our hands must refrain from polluting it. Being mere life-tenants, we have no business to cut off the entail, or to commit waste on the inheritance.*65 On both sides of us extends a vast array of obligations. Millions as we may be, we stand as a small and insignificant band between the incalculable mass of those who have gone before us, and the infinite army of those who follow us, and are even now treading on our heels. Our relation to the great structure in which we are privileged to
It is an observation of Hume that one generation does not go off the stage at once, and another succeed, as is the case with silkworms and butterflies. There is a perpetually varying margin, into which the men of one age and those of that which succeed are blended. In this everlasting continuity, which secures that the human race shall never be wholly old or wholly new, lies the guarantee for the existence of civilisation. No break in this continuity is possible without the lapse of mankind into its primitive grossness. Imagine for a moment such an intermission. The shortest blank would be enough to ensure the disappearance of every pillar, buttress, and vault, which helps to sustain the lofty and intricate structure of civilised society. We can hardly figure to ourselves the horrible drama of a new generation of utter savages succeeding to the ruins of all that we enjoy. Yet so soon as the work of moral and political education flags, this result is immediately hazarded. In the imagination of Burke, France was well on the highroad to this awful situation: to a solution of moral continuity as disastrous in its effects as a geological catastrophe. All the facts of history prove that civilisation is destructible. It is an essence that is ever tending to evaporate: and though the appreciation of all that is precious in the world depends on the feeling of its perishability, it is seldom that this fact is realised. We come to regard our social life as a perpetual and indestructible possession, destined, like the earth on which we move, to devolve, without any trouble or care on our part, upon our posterity. But the whole tenour of history is against us. The Greeks little dreamed of the day when their broken relics, once more understood, would repair a decayed world, and to those who come after us, things which to us are almost as valuable, and quite as little valued as the air we breathe, may be the
Had voices more than all the winds, with power
This conception of great intersecular duties devolving upon humanity, generation after generation, reflects on a large scale an instinct which has undoubtedly been strong in the English people. The disposition rather to recur in thought upon the value of the social life and social character which we inherit, than to strain discontentedly for some imaginary ideal, has largely entered into the temperament of those races which have been chiefly instrumental in superinducing civilised society over the face of the earth. "Moribus antiquis res stat Romana, virisque," says Ennius. So says Burke, in effect, of the civilised life which the English race have now spread over the four quarters of the globe. With the English race have universally gone the old English ideas on religion, on politics, and on education; America and the rest of the new world have taken them from us and are giving them a new and fruitful development. After the lapse of nearly a century, America and England still exhibit on the whole the highest political and social ideals. The English type, during the present century, has been more widely imitated than the Greek or the Roman at the height of their fame. Our social ideas, poor as they may be by comparison with the creations of ingenious speculation, clearly have some very remarkable value of their own. One element of this value is that effect upon the individual which is attributed to them by Burke. They tend to, or at any rate favour the development of a certain "native plainness and directness of character." They keep a man face to face with life
Burke is at his best when enlarging thus on the general philosophy of society: he breaks down when he proceeds to its application. There are few topics in the present volume of which this is not true: and, as has been already noticed, it is conspicuously true of the opening argument on the British Constitution. Pitiful as it is to see the fine mind of Burke self-devoted to the drudgery of Tory casuistry, it is even more so to find his usually ready and generous sympathies, as the work advances, remorselessly denied to the cause of the French people. It was not for any liberal-minded Englishman, rich in the inheritance of constitutional wisdom and liberty, to greet the dawn of representative institutions in France with nothing but a burst of contempt and sarcasm. Least of all was this attitude towards the National Assembly becoming to Burke. His opening address to the French politicians*67 is more than ungenerous: it is unjust. It seems incredible that any one should have been found to declare that the path of reform in France was "a smooth and easy career of felicity and glory," which had been recklessly abandoned.*68 To
Burke's contemptuous parallel of the representatives of the
... stormy pity, and the cherished lure
Perhaps the great merit of Burke's view of the changes in France consisted in his perception of their actual magnitude, and of the new character which they were likely to impress upon French policy. He was right in supposing that revolutionised France would become the centre of a revolutionary propaganda, and that success would transform the representatives of French liberty into the tyrants of Europe. Burke knew well how often vanity and ambition become leading motives in national action. He rightly guessed that their appetite would not be satiated by mere internal successes, and that the conquest of France by its own ambitious citizens would be only the first
On the general question of the great political principle involved in the present volume the reader may safely take it for granted that it was neither true in itself nor natural to Burke, who was employing it merely for purposes of what he believed to be legitimate advocacy. Burke's real belief is contained in the following passage from his "Address to the King" (1776): "The revolution is a departure from the antient course of descent of the monarchy. The people, at that time, entered into their original rights; and it was not because a positive law authorized what was then done, but because the freedom and safety of the subject, the origin and cause of all laws, required a proceeding paramount and superior to them. At that ever remarkable and instructive period, the letter of the law was suspended in favour of the substance of liberty.... Those statutes have not given us our liberties; our liberties have produced them." Coleridge says that on a comparison of Burke's writings on the American War with those on the French Revolution, the principles and the deductions will be found the same, though the practical inferences are opposite; yet in both equally legitimate, and in both equally confirmed by results.*83 This estimate is coloured by the natural sympathy of political partisanship. Burke was always Conservative in his instincts:
From what has been said it will be gathered that Burke's book is by no means what is called a scientific book. Its roots touch the springs of the theology, of the jurisprudence, of the morals, of the history, and of the poetry of his age: and in this way it acquires an historical value resembling in some measure that of the famous "Republic" of Plato. Few books reflect more completely the picture of European thought as it existed a century ago. Nor is there any in which the literary expression of the age is better exemplified. Burke is careful to maintain a mode of expression which is untechnical. It is even occasionally indefinite. The essential antithesis in thought between science and poetry is curiously reflected in his habitual language. In employing words, he does not, like the man of science, keep in
Dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum
To think with the wise, and to speak with the vulgar, to give in common and popular phrase the results of uncommon and studious thought, has always been counted among the rarest of rare accomplishments. A critic has observed that the main difference between our older and our modern literature, is that in the former we get uncommon ideas vulgarly expressed, and in the latter obvious and commonplace thoughts furnished forth with false ornament, and inspired with false refinement. Now as Burke often conveys his most admirable lessons under the guise of trite and vulgar topics, so does he clothe his most cogent arguments with the plainest language, and support them by the most familiar illustrations. But he continually surprises us by bursts of rhetorical appeal, by sudden allusions to some historical incident, by keen sarcasm, by a quotation which recalls a train of associations. Macaulay has characterised the contents of Burke's mind as a treasure at once rich, massy, and various. Burke's mature style reflects the rich contents of his mature mind, as displayed in daily conversation. Burke, who was, by the testimony of Johnson, the greatest master of conversation in his time, wrote as he talked, because he talked as the greatest master of writing need not be ashamed to write. He is a standing example of that fundamental axiom of style, too often forgotten by writers, that its excellence chiefly depends on the closeness with which it reflects the excellences of the vox viva. A "good passage" is simply one which, if delivered by the speaker to an attentive listener, would easily, certainly, and lastingly convey to the latter the meaning of the former. Men in general are neither scientific nor political: they are simply open to be impressed by clear statement, fair argument, and common sense. In the practice of the best masters what seem to be the ornaments of style are really its necessities. Figures and images do not belong to poetry, but to language—especially to the economy of language. It is possible to be lavish and
English and French literature have generally aimed at this character. When we pass to the yard-long sentences, the tangled notions, and the flat expression of an ordinary German book, we recognise the normal opposite. How is this? In the latter case the book has probably been written by a man of silent habits in the retirement of his cabinet; and there is consequently no habitual subordination, in the practice of the writer, to the conditions of convenient and intelligent reception on the part of the reader. Why are chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and phrases measured by a certain average of length? Simply on the principle which regulates how much a man can or ought to be eating or drinking at one time. The habits of Reception (or as the Scotch philosophers call it, Attention) and Assimilation proceed by morceaux or portions. It can make no difference whether the material is conveyed through the voice of another, or in a way at once more complex and more compendious, through the eye of the recipient. Burke's age, like Cicero's, was eminently an age of Conversation. A glance at Boswell is enough to prove its high range as a fine art, and to show how much it had assumed a palaestral character. Literary fame was distributed by a few men, who habitually weighed merit in a common-sense balance: and the atmosphere of the study thus came to be neglected for that of the club. The influence of academical models had long ago begun to yield to that of keen living criticism: and in the age of Johnson the change was well-nigh complete. The conditions of the best literary age of Greece, including a cultivated and watchful auditory leading the opinion of the general public, were thus nearly reproduced.
Writing is false and poor in proportion as those conditions are
The model of a letter, the form into which the present work, like nearly all Burke's best compositions, is cast, gives the writer some valuable advantages. It represents a convenient medium between the looseness of common talk and the set phrases of deliberate composition. It enables him to preserve an even key through the body of his observations, while he may, with perfect propriety, descend to familiar and pointed phraseology, or mount at will into the region of rhetoric. Such a variety at once preserves that impression of a close relation between the reader and the writer which is necessary to secure attention, and enables the writer to make the best use of his opportunities. Where he fancies the reader yielding to a plain forcible piece of common sense, he can press on. He can repeat the approved thesis in some more studied phrase, approaching the philosophical style, and finally enforce it by a bold appeal to the feelings. He can gradually season and mingle his rhetoric with the gall of irony, or he can abruptly drop into that stimulating vein at a moment's notice. Probably the greatest impression of power in the mind of the reader is produced by the ability to preserve an even balance of moderate discourse, ever and anon varied by these
In the study of particular passages, it must be remarked that there is no mastering the secrets of style by the eye alone. The student must read aloud, repeat to himself, and transcribe. The fact is so much testimony to our canon that the standard of writing is the vox viva. It is necessary to make a strong effort of imagination, to force one's-self into the author's own place, and to construct over again his phrases and periods, if we would view his work in its full beauty and propriety.
Let us examine, as an example of Burke's method, his remarks on the New Year's Address presented to Louis XVI. They conclude with the following paragraph:
A man is fallen indeed, when he is thus flattered. The anodyne draught of oblivion, thus drugged, is well calculated to preserve a galling wakefulness, and to feed the living ulcer of a corroding memory. Thus to administer the opiate potion of amnesty, powdered with all the ingredients of scorn and contempt, is to hold to his lips, instead of "the balm of hurt minds," the cup of human misery full to the brim, and to force him to drink it to the dregs. (p. 164.)
The exceeding strength and fulness of these lines depend on the fact that every word in them, saving mere auxiliaries, represents a distinct image. When we apply to them Burke's well-known canon that the master sentence of every paragraph should involve, firstly, a thought, secondly, an image, and thirdly, a sentiment, we see how all such canons fail. The thought and the sentiment are clear enough, but they are completely enveloped in this congeries of images. Turning back, however, we shall see how it is prepared for in the preceding pages. The Address is introduced at the end of a previous paragraph (p. 163), as the climax of a sustained rhetorical arsis. Pausing to give this striking feature its due effect, the writer then drops suddenly in a fresh paragraph into a vein of irony, bitter and elaborate, but not strongly coloured. In fact, both the beginning and the end of this paragraph are relieved by something approaching very nearly to a quaint equivocation. It is slightly prosaic, diffuse, and familiar. We have another pause, and another change. The writer gathers
Let us see again how an image is varied, another is grafted upon it, and it disappears in the vein of pure irony to which it is intended to conduct:
"The ears of the people of England are distinguishing. They hear these men speak broad. Their tongue betrays them.*84 Their language is in the patois of fraud; in the cant and gibberish of hypocrisy. The people of England must think so, when these praters affect to carry back the clergy to that primitive evangelic poverty," &c. (p. 201.)
Burke excels in this preparation of transitions: and it always distinguishes the master. The passage on the Queen (p. 169), which is perhaps the most famous in the book, is intended in this way. It fitly concludes the reflections on the sufferings of the Royal Family, and prepares the way for the animated contrast which follows of ancient and modern modes of social and political feeling. In these pages (170-72) we observe Burke's happiest manner, that progressive and self-developing method which distinguishes him among prose writers, as it does Dryden among poets. "His thesis grows in the very act of unfolding it."*85 Each sentence seems, by a kind of scintillation, to suggest the image contained in the next; and this again instantly flames and germinates into a crowd of others. There is no loss, however, of the ultimate aim, and the rich fancy never gets, so to speak, out of hand
In style, as in everything else, the nature of things is best seen in their smallest proportions. The best writers are immediately discernible by their mere phrases, by the ability and the happiness with which they conjoin the simple elements of substantive and verb, adjective or participle. It is not that words are coerced into a strange collocation, or that the writer "will for a tricksy phrase defy the matter"; but that expressions are constructed which seem natural, without being common or obvious. Notwithstanding the depth and rapidity of the current of Burke's ideas, it flows in general as clear as if it were the shallowest of rills. Still, the freedom with which he employs his extraordinary copia verborum occasionally leads him into obscurity. One passage has been often marked as an instance. It occurs near the end of the book (pp. 361-62), where it is remarked that the little arts and devices of popularity are not to be condemned:
They facilitate the carrying of many points of moment; they keep the people together; they refresh the mind in its exertions; and they diffuse occasional gaiety over the severe brow of moral freedom.
The last sentence has been confidently pronounced to be nonsense in the strict acceptance of the word—that is, to have no meaning, and to be neither true nor false. The obscurity lies in the involution, in an abbreviated form, of a statement which occurs at page 126, that all nations but France had
Anger is said to "make dull men witty."*89 In excess, it far more frequently paralyses the intellect, or drives a man into mere verbal excesses.
Some fierce thing, replete with too much rage,
If Burke's wrath sometimes lost him personal respect, and occasionally hurried him into grossness of metaphor, it gave such
Burke suffers no sense of literary formality to veil and to break the force of his thoughts. He strives to stand face to face with the reader, as he would stand before a circle of listening friends, or on the floor of the House of Commons. To repeat a previous observation, Burke wrote as he talked. "Burke's talk," Johnson used to say, "is the ebullition of his mind; he does not talk from a desire of distinction, but because his mind is full." As a mark of his style, this naturally has the effect of investing his chief writings with something of a dramatic character. They possess something of what we mean when we ascribe to works of art a general dramatic unity. The statesman and the man are so finely blended in the contexture of his thought that it is difficult
These pages are intended rather to put many threads of independent study into the hands of the student, and to afford hints for looking at the subject on many sides, than to exhaust any department of it. Burke's works will be found to be at once a canon or measure to guide those who will undertake the pleasurable toil of exploring the inexhaustible field of English prose-writing, and in themselves a rich mine of the most useful practical examples. They strikingly illustrate, among other things, the fact that the works of a great writer of prose, like those of great poets, must, so to speak, drain a large area. He must possess something of the myriad-mindedness which has been ascribed, as the sum and substance of his intellectual
With one additional observation on a point of some moment, these hints on the general intention and style of Burke's book are terminated. It has been said that the best styles are the freest from Latinisms, and it has been laid down that a good writer will never have recourse to a Latinism while a "Saxon" word will serve his purpose. The notion was first carelessly put forth by Sydney Smith. If it were true, Burke would often be liable to severe censure. The fact is, however, that the practice of almost every great master of the English tongue, from Chaucer downwards, makes very small account of any such consideration. Swift and Defoe, who are usually cited in illustration of it, count for little, and their authority on this point cannot be held to be exactly commensurate with the place in literature which their merits have earned them. Their vernacular cast is very much due to the fact that they were among the first political writers who aspired to be widely read among the common people. The same circumstance fostered the racy native English style of Cobbett, and had its effects on journalists like Mr. Fonblanque, and orators like Mr. Bright. But most of our great writers, unreservedly and freely as they use the Latin element in the language, are also thoroughly at home in the exclusive use of the vernacular. Brougham was wrong in saying that Burke excelled in every variety of style except the plain and unadorned. It is not a question of principle, but of art and of propriety. It may be worth while occasionally to study the art of writing in "pure Saxon," but to confine ourselves in practice to this interesting feat, would be as absurd as for a musician to employ habitually and on principle the tour de force of playing the pianoforte with one hand. We should lose breadth, power, and richness of combination. The harmony of our language, as we find it in Hooker, Shakespeare, and Milton, is fully established. We must take it as we find it. At any rate it is not until the student is a considerable master in the full compass of our remarkable tongue, that he can venture with safety on the experiment of
Burke's Tract, as it stands, exceeds the measure of what he intended when it was commenced, and falls short of the great idea which grew upon him as he proceeded with it—of exhibiting fully and fairly to the eye of the world the grand and stable majesty of the civil and social system of England, in contrast with the hasty and incongruous edifice run up by the French Reformers. The analysis which precedes the text in the present edition distinguishes it into two portions, the first including two thirds, the second, one third, of the book. The First Part is occupied with England. It is to this First Part that the foregoing observations chiefly apply. It differs in so many points from the Second Part, which is occupied with the new political system of France, that a critic of the omniscient school might well be excused for attributing it to another hand. Half of the First Part, or one third of the whole work, forms what may be called the Introduction. It answers strictly to the original
The Second Part, or Critique of the new French Constitution, was composed, according to appearances, as autumn approached, and the necessity for producing the work for the winter season, then the chief season of the year, whether for business or any other purposes, became apparent. This portion is rather a voucher or pièce justificative than a necessary part of the book. It is a piece of vigorous and exhaustive, though rapid and one-sided, criticism. It is a direct and unsparing diatribe on the new French statesmanship, viewing the system it produced wholly by the light of reason and common sense, and leaving out of account all the arguments which are adduced in the First Part of the work. It is, as might be anticipated, not altogether just. We may fairly demur, on the threshold, to the general spirit of Burke's criticism.
Dart thy skill at me;
Posterity, however, in the words of Burke himself, written thirty
Burke's Tract provoked, in reply, as is well known, a whole literature of its own, no single representative of which is now held in any account, if we except the "Vindiciae Gallicae," the early work of Sir James Mackintosh. It had, of course, its replies in French literature; but its general influence on France is best traced in De Bonald,*97 De Maistre, Chateaubriand, and other littérateurs of the reaction. The same kind of influence is traceable in German thought in the works of Goerres, Stolberg, Frederick Schlegel, and others. Burke's true value was early appreciated in Germany, and A. M. von Müller, lecturing at Dresden in 1806, even remarked on the circumstance that Burke only met with his due honours from strangers. "His country but half understands him, and feels only half his glory, considering him chiefly as a brilliant orator, as a partisan, and a patriot. He is acknowledged in Germany as the real and successful mediator between liberty and law, between union and division of power, and between the republican and aristocratic principles." Burke certainly has not been without his effect on the political notions of the non-theological philosophers, as Schelling, Steffens, Reinhold, &c.; and if the student should wish to set by the side of Burke for purposes of contrast the views of a competent professor of scientific theory, he should turn to the pages of Ancillon.*98 He
Considering that Burke stands unapproachably the first of our political orators, and indeed in the very first rank as a writer and a thinker, it seems strange that so few express and formal tributes have been paid to his memory. Had Burke been a Frenchman, nearly every French critic, great or small, would have tried his hand on such a subject, not in parenthetical allusion, or in a few brief words of ardent praise, but in regular essays and notices without number. Where we have placed a stone, they would have piled a cairn. Thus have the Cousins, Saint-Beuves, Guizots, and Pontmartins taken every opportunity for long disquisition upon their Montaigne, Pascal, Bossuet, Molière, La Fontaine, and the other great authors of France. With us, moreover, the editions of Burke have been few, considering his fame; and his direct praises have been for the most part confined, here to a page, there to a paragraph. It is necessary for an Englishman to know Burke's writings well if he would be enabled to judge of the extent of his influence on the leading minds of this country. Only know
The art of speaking and of writing in that grand old style, of which Burke was so great a master, is now wellnigh unknown. As in the case of the English dramatists, and of the Italian painters, it is the fault of a broken tradition, of a forgotten training, and of changed habits of life. That which was once the treasure of the few has somewhat suffered in the general diffusion. Arts appear to languish in an atmosphere of contagious mediocrity. There is no one to teach, either by word or by example, the perfect design of Correggio, or the powerful brush-play of Tintoret. When we glance over the treasures of those great English masters of prose, among whom Burke stands almost last, our hearts may well sink within us. We have to study as well as we can, and strive to pick up piece by piece the fragments of a lost mystery. It may be said that we have developed qualities which are more real, more enduring, and more valuable. Cuyp and Hals were doubtless greater masters in certain departments of their art than Rubens; and Hallam presents us with a variety of political method which contrasts in many respects advantageously with that of Burke. It is an interesting task to represent faithfully and minutely the features of a distant scene, to magnify it and artificially to approximate it to the eye of the observer, to blend its shadows carefully and easily with a mild and uniform light, to balance the composition without the appearance of artifice, and so nearly to lose and discard the effects of perspective that the picture shall almost assume the proportions of a geometrical elevation. A sense of repose and of completeness mingles perceptibly with our satisfaction at these works half of art, half of antiquarianism. Burke is a Rubens rather than a Cuyp. The objects are distinct and near at hand: the canvas is large, the composition almost coarse in its boldness and strength, and the colours are audaciously contrasted and dashed in with a sort of gallant carelessness. The human face is exaggerated in its proportions, and we attribute more to the
March 11, 1875.
In the Introduction to the previous volume was inserted an inscription, written by Dr. Parr, intended for a national monument to Burke. It may be interesting to add here the equally masterly one inserted by Parr in the Dedication to his edition of Bellendenus.
VIRO · TUM · OB · DOCTRINAM · MULTIPLICEM · ET · EXQUISITAM
TUM · OB · CELERES · ILLOS · INGENII · MOTUS
QUI · ET · AD · EXCOGITANDUM · ACUTI · ET · AD · EXPLICANDUM
ORNANDUMQUE · UBERES · SUNT
EXIMIO · AC · PRAECLARO
OPTIME · DE · LITTERIS · QUAS · SOLAS · ESSE · OMNIUM · TEMPORUM
OMNIUMQUE · LOCORUM · EXPERTUS · VIDIT
OPTIME · DE · SENATU · CUJUS · PERICLITANTIS
IPSE · DECUS · ET · COLUMEN · FUIT
OPTIME · DE · PATRIA · IN · CIVES
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Notes for this chapter
So Macaulay has styled Burke.
Shakespeare, King John, Act II.
See vol. i. Introduction, p. 21.
In one or two recent instances a claim to sit by tenure has been advanced and rejected.
Hooker, Book i. ch. 10; Grotius, Book i. c. 3. § 8. par. 2, &c.
Dedication of Philotas.
Essays, vol. i. p. 134.
Burke himself quotes "our political poet" Denham (p. 216).
See note, p. 367.
Tracts by Warburton and a Warburtonian, p. 99.
In an interesting breakfast-conversation with Burke, a year or two before the Revolution, detailed in an anonymous "Beauties of Burke," 2 vols. 1798. The quotation is from Book v. ch. 69.
"Société," meaning both society and partnership (pp. 192-93).
Prelude, Book v.
In the opinion that France possessed all the elements of a good constitution, which only required to be cleared of rust and obstructions and put in working condition, Burke erred with many intelligent and patriotic Frenchmen. We can now see that such was not the case, and further that France was not at that time in a condition to adopt any political system of the kind which was then meant by the term constitutional. The boasted English constitution of Burke's time was a notorious sham. It has now been exploded; England, as every one knows, is a democracy ruled by the delegates of the Commons. But it was that very pasteboard show of interdependent powers which was fast losing its credit in England, which Burke wished to see imitated in France. Montesquieu was more clear-sighted. Intensely as he affected to admire the political system of England, his doctrine was that France ought to be left alone. "Leave us as we are," is the constant theme of that hypothetical speaker by whom Montesquieu (De l'Esprit des Lois, Liv. xix. ch. 5-8) expresses his own opinions. "Nature compensates for everything." Many smiled contemptuously when they heard people talk of liberty and a constitution. Montesquieu had said that a free nation only could have a liberator, an enslaved nation could only have another oppressor. He little knew the terrible awakening which was reserved for the French nation: but he was probably right in counselling that such an awakening should not be anticipated by a false political reformation. The reform which France wanted was a social one: the need penetrated to the very roots of the nation's life. The selfishness and cruelty of whole classes had to be exorcised: a slumbering nation had to be aroused to a sense of political duty. It is hard in the present day to imagine how completely public spirit had vanished from the mass of the French nation, and how utterly void the French were at that time of political knowledge or experience. Turgot was as solitary a being in France as if his lot had been cast in the Sandwich islands. Except a few men of the type of Sieyes, probably few French politicians cared for politics otherwise than as an amusement, or a path to distinction. The Frenchman was repelled by what Burke calls the "severe brow of moral freedom." Voltaire at Ferney looked on the political affairs of Geneva merely as a matter for satire and ridicule. "It is impossible," said a Frenchman to Groenfelt, in 1789, "for a Frenchman to be serious: we must amuse ourselves, and in pursuit of our amusements we continually change our object, but those very changes prove us always the same.... Our nation is naturally gay. Political liberty requires a degree of seriousness, which is not in our character: we shall soon grow sick of politics." (Letters on the Revolution, p. 4.) This gay incuriosity is still the characteristic of the vast majority; and hence France has ever since been, though in a diminishing degree, the prey of petty and interested factions.
That of his schoolfellow Shackleton.
Pages 176, 232.
Biog. Lit. ch. x: Friend, Sect. i. Ess. 4.
Cp. vol. i. p. 248, l. 33.
Bristle, in his dialogue with Sir Edward Courtly, describes the old practice in less plausible terms: "I think, Sir, that it's very civil of you to come and spend fifteen hundred or two thousand pounds, besides being obliged to keep company with a parcel of dirty, drunken, ill-mannered fellows for two or three months together, without any other design but serving your country." The Craftsman, No. 58. "Drunkenness, rioting, and insolence, on the one side, abject flattery, cringing and preposterous adulation on the other," was the true meaning of the "little arts and devices of popularity."
Memoir of Burke, vol. i. p. 292.
Correspondence of Burke, vol. iii. p. 164.
Bacon records this as a repartee of Queen Elizabeth to an insolent courtier. She sarcastically added—"but it keeps them poor."
Shakespeare, Sonnet xxiii.
For this paragraph, for that which commences at the tenth line of page 78, and for many of the Notes at the end of the volume, the Editor is indebted to the accomplished pen of John Frederick Boyes, Esq. It may be added that Burke was deeply offended at the neglect his views from the first met with in the English political world. "Pique," says Sir G. Savile, in a letter to the Marquis of Rockingham, "is one of the strongest motives in the human mind. Fear is strong, but transient. Interest is more lasting, perhaps, and steady, but infinitely weaker; I will ever back pique against them both. It is the spur the Devil rides the noblest tempers with, and will do more work with them in a week, than with other poor jades in a twelve-month."
In a debate after the riots of 1780, Burke adverted to his early education at the school of Mr. Shackleton. "Under his eye I have read the Bible, morning, noon, and night, and have ever since been the happier and better man for such reading. I afterwards turned my attention to the reading of all the theological publications on all sides, which were written with such wonderful ability in the last and present centuries. But, finding at length that such studies tended to confound and bewilder rather than enlighten, I dropped them, embracing and holding fast a firm faith in the Church of England."
See note, p. 369.
The substantive "cement," by the way, unlike the verb "to cement," should be accented on the first syllable. This trifle is essential to the harmony of more than one of Burke's sentences. See vol. i. p. 287.
Croly, Memoir of Burke, vol. ii. p. 134.
The connexion, however, is rather conventional. There was little in common between Burke and De Bonald, who recommended despotism as the primitive and normal form of legislation, and objected to toleration.
"Ueber die Staats-wissenschaft, von Friedrich Ancillon. Berlin, 1820." Political theory, like everything else, has its uses as well as its abuses. "The successful progress of reforms depends in a great measure on the political maxims which prevail among governors and governed, and on the advances of political science. False doctrines lead to erratic wishes, destructive misconceptions, and dangerous misinterpretations. Theory must combat and clear away the errors of theories, indicate the general direction of the right way, and establish the true goal; it will thus be easier for practical politics, conducted by experience, to construct every portion of the road with a sure hand and firm footsteps." Ancillon, Preface, p. xxxi.
It would be unjust to pass over the name of Mathias, the author of the "Pursuits of Literature," a clever satire, illustrated with instructive and amusing original notes. No one should omit to read it who would comprehend the direct effect of Burke on his own generation. At this distance of time, however, we do not tolerate idle panegyrics. Johnson once said, somewhat pettishly, "Where is all the wonder? Burke is, to be sure, a man of uncommon abilities; with a great quantity of matter in his mind, and a great fluency of language in his mouth; but we are not to be stunned and astonished by him!" Boswell, ed. Croker, p. 681.
See footnote, p. 68, ante.
Vol. 2, Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke.
End of Notes
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