Reflections In A Dusty Mirror
It has been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In Edmund Burke’s case, it would seem good intentions pave what is an otherwise unstable argument. In Reflection on the Revolution in France, his assertion that government should consist of a “permanent body composed of transitory parts” (Damrosch 115) is an admirable go at the ideal form of power transfer, and, indeed, survives this day in our own system of government. Despite this fairly logical principle, he goes on to ground it in praise of some of the very aspects of the times against which the revolutionaries of the time were fighting and does so in language which is inaccessible to the people at the heart of the revolution.
One of the largest missteps he made was his defense of Mary Antoinette. Burke describes her in grandiose terms, placing her “glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy.” (118) It is this over the top reverence of the queen that strikes at exactly why Burke’s otherwise fine principle is not well received with more radical minds. For those counterparts such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine, the French Revolution was about shirking the hoarded power of the nobility in favor of equalizing the classes and helping everyone prosper, not just those who inherited their good standing. For his part, Burke does his best to praise France, calling it “a nation of gallant men,” “a nation of men of honour,” and a nation of “cavaliers,” (118) but nearly immediately retracts his praise in favor of lamenting the treatment of Antoinette. He says the Revolution has not only lost France its own virtues, but those of the entirety of Europe because they did not treat the “glittering” Queen in a way that he felt lived up to those qualities. Here again, he fails to understand the revolution’s motivation. Antoinette, however splendorous she may have been, had become a symbol of what the revolutionaries felt was wrong with their country: extravagance, inheritance, and limited opportunity. He certainly did not help matters when he followed that with a bit of chauvinism and, drawing the ire of Wollstonecraft, went on to write that “woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order,” (119), but that particular travesty is best left for another time.
Though a great many people would likely have bought into the idea of Burke’s “body composed of transitory parts,” his Reflections become largely unpalatable to many of his contemporaries, who fault him for failing to acknowledge the need for reform and the reasons the people felt they needed to take action: the spirit of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. Though he started with a decent principle, his use of high language and desire to uphold the very traditions of which the people of France sought to rid themselves clouded his point. As Wollstonecraft so delicately puts it in her response, Burke’s “tears are reserved…for the declamation of the theatre, or for the downfall of queens.” (125) Unfortunately, these higher class concerns cause his effort to appear more like the outdated rhetoric of a bygone era and less like the product of a logical, level-headed mind the way he likely intended.
Damrosch, David, and Kevin JH Dettmar, eds. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Fifth ed. Vol. 2A. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.