The Context of Theatre, Nature, and Science in Burke’s “Reflections”

This art is titled "Smelling out a Rat" by Gillray, in 1790.

This art is titled “Smelling out a Rat” by Gillray, in 1790.

The French Revolution started in France in 1789 and lasted until 1799. It marked the upheaval and eventual abolition of the French monarchy. The ten year span saw major events such as the Storming of Bastille on July 14, 1789, the Women’s March on Versailles on October 5, 1789, the kidnapping and the imprisonment of the Royal family on August 10, 1792, and the Reign of Terror that lasted from 1793-1794. These events lead to the institution of a secular and democratic republic that became progressively more authoritarian and militaristic. This encouraged Edmund Burke to write the Reflections of the Revolution in France which became Burke’s most popular piece of writing. Burke wrote this text in November 1790, a year after Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were captured and taken prisoner (Damrosch, 113).

Edmund Burke viewed the French Revolution as “the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world” (Burke, 113). In his opening paragraph from the Reflections of the Revolution in France, Burke calls the events of the French Revolution “absurd,” “ridiculous,” and “monstrous” (Burke, 113). The use of this language sets the tone for the rest of the piece, because it automatically shows Burke’s opposition to the events taking place in the French Revolution. Burke believes that the French Revolution attacks the history of the monarchy and if it is allowed to continue will eventually tear that history down. Burke believed that the monarchy needed to be maintained in order to preserve the inheritance that the generations before us have established on our behalf. To have built that up just see it all broken down during a revolution is what disgusts Burke about “this strange chaos” (Burke, 113).

Compared to other texts that were published about the French Revolution during this time, Burke came across as a conservative, even though he was writing from a moderate’s perspective. This is evident in the theatrical language that he uses throughout the text. What interests me most about his choice in language is that throughout the piece he describes his viewpoint and the events in the French Revolution from a medical perspective. “Burke’s crucial gambit to invoke the human eye in order to make eighteenth-century medical science a natural, material foundation upon which to establish a viable transnational solidarity for British and French citizens opposing the Revolution’s excesses” (Barney, 1). I believe that he used anatomy and medical terms to address the people in his writing in a very strategic way, because it could be understood and relatable to the public. This aspect of the Reflections of the Revolution in France contributed to the overall success of the piece.

Burke’s use of scientific language helped appeal to his concept of the French Revolution being against nature and the natural order. In the opening paragraph Burke points out how “everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies” (Burke, 113). Burke believes that if we go against nature we are going against our ancestors, because “people will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors” (Burke, 115). His use of scientific language is never more abundant than in the section entitled Liberties as an Entailed Inheritance. In this section Burke is calling on our history of how we came to be as something that is essential to the future. Burke was known to be a supporter of the American Revolution because the people of America started with a fresh slate and were able to make their own history, but the people of the French Revolution supports the undoing of the monarchy which will erase all history for the people. He illustrates the change that people need in the French Revolution to a “permanent body composed of transitory parts” (Burke, 115). He doesn’t doubt, necessarily, that the people need change; it is just to what extent that that change needs to come about. Burke proposes that we change gradually and with care only when it is needed, but with nothing being taken completely off the table. I picture a body being autopsied, each piece is observed critically both as an individual, but also takes into account how it interacts with the body (history) as a whole and the bigger picture (our inheritance). This anatomical view of the policies taking place in France goes with nature, where a revolution goes against what is natural because it wipes the autopsy table clean and drains the peoples blood for a fresh start.

“His entire project of political critique was to put the spectacle of France’s dysfunction, as he put it, “under our eyes”—or, alternately, on what he several times called the “public stage” of European political life” (Barney, 1). Burke’s continuous references to the theatrical stages that were prevalent during the time were tactical, in my opinion, because it draws on what the public knows and is influenced by. He warns that this blatant going against of nature that is the French Revolution will lead “into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow” (Burke, 122). Burke uses his “stage” as a writer to allow the people of the French Revolution to use their vision “as the perceptual framework for what has been called his “dramatic” or “theatrical” political imagination—his characterization of Revolutionary politics as a morbid spectacle” (Barney, 1). Above all, Burke uses the language of theatre, nature, and science to point out how the morals and chivalry of a people are being called into to question. “Indeed the theatre is a better school of moral sentiments than churches, where the feelings of humanity are thus outraged” (Burke, 121). The French Revolution charged Burke’s passion of history and inheritance to write the piece Reflections of the Revolution in France. He called the people to “hold their public faith” and to use nature as their guide, but the Terror shows that they should have answered Burke’s call (Burke, 112).

Works Cited

Barney, Richard A. “Burke, Biomedicine, And Biobelligerence.” Eighteenth Century: Theory & Interpretation (University Of Pennsylvania Press) 54.2 (2013): 231-243.
Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the French Revolution. London, 1790.

Damrosch, David, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature Volume 2A: The Romantics
and Their Contemporaries. Longman: New York, 2003. Second Edition.

Gillray. Smelling out a Rat. 1790. Online. February 24, 2014. (Picture Used)