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Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Reflections On The Revolution In France (1790)

June 25th, 2011 Posted in Liberal Philosophy by

Edmund Burke is often referred to as the founder of modern conservatism.  Nevertheless,  he certainly has a part in the history of liberal thought (as understood by classical  liberals and libertarians).  How much is a matter of discussion.  Two of the reasons for  considering Burke in the liberal tradition are William Ewart Gladstone  and Friedrich Hayek.

Gladstone (1809-1898) one of Britain’s most distinguished Prime Ministers in four  terms adding upto 14 years, and the greatest political figure in nineteenth century British  liberalism.  Gladstone was a life time reader of Burke from his early ultra-Tory years, to  his later years as a Liberal with a contempt for the Tory British establishment that it  returned.  Gladstone’s progress can in part be traced to his belief that the aristocracy  pursued sectional interests, in betrayal of its legitimate role as provider of disinterested  national leadership.  In some degree, Gladstone was the converse of the stereotypical  socialist whose view changes on encounter with harsh reality.  He did not agree with  everything in Burke, seeing him as too resistant to political change, but did read him  frequently, maybe daily, for a large part of his life.

Hayek as in the economist and political thinker, who was probably the greatest figure in the twentieth century revival of classical liberalism.  As we have seen in earlier posts, Hayek also had a highly appreciative view of John Rawls, the political philosopher often associated with  left liberalism and social democracy.  One lesson here is that traditions of political thought overlap and interpenetrate, so that we cannot, and should not, try to isolate liberalism as an immaculate doctrine with a completely self-contained existence.

The issues on which Gladstone disagreed with Burke included the French Revolution.  Burke was a fierce opponent of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, passed through its most radical  phase in the years 1792 to ’94 , and came to an end with Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in 1798 (or maybe Bonaparte’s coronation as Emperor in 1804).  Burke’s opposition came as a surprise to many, and alienated him from the more radical Whigs in Parliament, like Charles Fox and the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, with whom he had been associated.  Whig refers to the more parliamentary of the two main political forces of the time, along with the Tories.

Burke himself, like Sheridan, came from Ireland, spending his adult life in England.  He made a name as a writer early on, particularly for his 1757 book on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.  The connection between that book and his political ideas is that Burke, like many Enlightenment thinkers, including his friends David Hume and Adam Smith, thought of a taste for beauty and for the sublime, as growing in history, in conjunction with the growth of commerce, law, and civil society.  Burke moved to England and became one of the great parliamentarians of British history, though more for the content of his speeches than any capacity for exciting delivery.  He was often on the most radical side in parliament, most famously with regard to the treatment of Ireland, India and the American colonies.  Nevertheless, this did not extend to a wish to change the aristocratically dominated  political system, or challenge national traditions.  This became clear in his reaction to the French Revolution.  Though he claimed to be still a Whig, he was closer to the Tories now than to his old Whig associates, or the radicals, republicans, and liberty lovers of the time, who were often what we would now call classical liberals.

Burke’s attitude to the French Revolution surprised many, but also came to seem prophetic.  Burke might be taken to have exaggerated the violence of the first three years of the Revolution, but the Jacobin Terror of 1792 to ’94 and the rise of the young army officer Bonaparte to absolute power, also made Burke seem like a seer, who grasped the violent forces that the Revolution was unleashing.  Burke encountered ridicule when he famously lamented the failure of French men to follow medieval traditions of chivalry in defending Queen Marie Antoinette, but also correctly perceived that the Revolution would brutally crush any royal, or aristocratic opposition, and that of the most humble people whose rights it claimed to advance.

Burke explained that he thought liberty must be an ordered liberty, which requires the rule of law, and that the rule of law requires respect for traditional institutions, and authority.  The state needs to be restrained from exercising absolute power, through the plurality of dispersed, and localised, institutions and customs, which grow over time.  Those restraining forms also required deference from the lower classes, and a sense of mystique, to reinforce intellectual and moral respect.

Burke claimed that the radicalism and violence of the French Revolution was in contrast with British history, where even revolutions came in legal forms respectful of legal traditions, and which reflected the understanding of most people of all classes about rights and authority.  This claim of continuity, and unity, in British history certainly does not command universal assent. All the horrors that Burke identifies in the French Revolution have equivalents in British history, from Henry VIII’s confiscation of church lands (1536-41), through the Civil War (1642-51), the Glorious Revolution (1688), the crushing of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, and so on.  Where Burke refers to such events, he goes to implausible lengths to describe them as legal, and as continuous with time worn traditions.

Whether we think these thoughts belong more to the liberal or conservative tradition, Burke certainly had an impact on liberal thinking.  He ought to be read by anyone who cares for the use of good English literary style in presenting political ideas, the history of political ideas, and a rounded understanding of liberal thought.



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