Make France Great Again: Burke, The French Revolution, and Conservatism
In today’s political landscape, the definition of conservatism has been corrupted by many people. Conservatism is often equated with the Republican Party, but this is not the case. The idea of conservatism is not inherently associated with any political party, but rather it is the defined by Merriam-Webster as, “A political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.” No one better understood this concept than Edmund Burke, who is deemed “the father of modern conservatism.” Burke was a powerful political voice during the American and French Revolutions. In his work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke airs his grievances on the French Revolution and puts forth his own political and philosophical ideas. By analyzing the key moments in his text, Burke’s qualms with the French Revolution can clearly display his conservative ideology.
Out of everything that had happened in the French Revolution up to 1791 (the year Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France), Burke seemed most appalled by the imprisonment of the King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He writes that it is an outrage that the king and queen were disgraced in front of their subjects. At first you might think that Burke is being shortsighted in his anger, and even point to the fact that the king and queen were responsible for the downfall of the nation of France. Burke is not being shortsighted here: his reverence for the king and queen is fundamental for his conservative beliefs. He would argue that by imprisoning the king and queen, the entire social order of France was destroyed. “On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not in the highest order.” (Burke 119) If the king and queen can just be taken prisoner, then they are being treated like equals by their subjects. Social institutions and the idea of reverence are fundamental tenants of Burke’s conservative beliefs. By taking away reverence in society, everyone will become self-centered and only worry about their own personal gain. “On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, […], laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find them from his own private speculations, or can spare from his own private interest.” (Burke 119) Burke believes that fealty (a mutual respect between rules and their subjects) is what holds a society together. He then states that kings are forced to become tyrants because their subjects rebel. Whereas liberals during the revolution might have argued that the king was tyrannical so the people rebelled, Burke would argue that the people rebelled and forced the king to be tyrannical. Burke argues that people need a cause greater than themselves in order to look beyond their own personal gain. He writes, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” (Burke 119) If a country is lovely, people will look beyond themselves and will work towards a greater purpose- this is the heart of Burke’s conservative message.
Just to be clear, Edmund Burke is not completely against any form of social or political change. Quite the opposite: he just believes that there is a certain way to approach these changes other than just completely overthrowing the government. As a conservative, Burke firmly believes that it is detrimental to upset the social stability of a nation. Therefore, his solution is to take things slow and try to pinpoint the specific problem. “[…] that he should never dream of beginning its [the state] reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solitude.” (Burke 121) Change indeed can come, according to Burke, but it should come slowly so as not to disrupt the social order. Burke compares his ideal political system to a “permanent body composed of transitory parts.” (Burke 115) When any part is broken, it can easily be changed without having to replace the whole system. Burke shows that conservatives are open to change, just not radical change. At one point in the future, society will look back and the “body” will be made up of completely different parts than it was centuries ago. This shows how change will come, but in small increments so as not to disrupt the entire body.
One of the biggest ideas questions provoked by the French Revolution was: what are the rights of man? Burke directly addresses the question in his essay. He writes that men have the right to do justice, to reap the fruits of their labor, to their inheritance from their parents, to raise and nurture children, and whatever you can do yourself as long as you don’t bother others. (Burke 116) These rights sound similar to Locke’s, “life, liberty, and property”, and Jefferson’s, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In his essay, The Case for Edmund Burke, Owen Aldridge argues that Burke believes that it is the job of the government to secure natural rights, but not special interests of its citizens. “Stanlis indicates how Burke stood for the presence of a moral force in society guaranteeing an equality of treatment by government without pandering to special interests, providing many inspiring passages in which Burke states the principle that ‘a conservation and secure enjoyment of our natural rights is the great and ultimate purpose of civil society’ (16)” Aldridge is arguing that beyond natural rights, there are no rights that should be inherently guaranteed. This conservative mindset still resonates with libertarians in the United States today, who believe that the government should have minimal interference in the lives of its citizens. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Burke draws the line between what rights that ought to be guaranteed because they are natural, and rights that are in the special interest of the citizen.
The question still remains: was Burke right about the French Revolution? Within the realm of political philosophy, nobody is completely correct. My answer to the question would be: sort of. It really depends on what aspect of the revolution you look at, either the philosophical or practical. Philosophically, the French Revolution implemented many of the core ideas of the Enlightenment. Many of the ideas that the revolution floated around still impact our world today. The French Revolution was a success from a philosophical standpoint. Someone, however, looking at the revolution from a practical perspective would argue that Burke’s condemnation of the revolution was correct. Following Burke’s essay, the radical Jacobins took power, the reign of terror began, and the king and queen were executed. Napoleon then took the throne and effectively established a new Aristocracy all over Europe. The takeaway here is that nobody is right about everything, and the right answer usually falls somewhere between the two extremes.
Burke, Edmund. “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed, vol. 2A, Pearson Education, 2012, pg. 113-122.
Aldridge, A. Owen. “THE CASE FOR EDMUND BURKE.” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 36, no. 1, 1995, pp. 83–90., www.jstor.org/stable/41467603.
“Conservatism.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conservatism. Accessed 6 March. 2017.