Friday, April 29, 2011

Burke: "Reflections on the Revolution in France"

Guest-blogger PJ here. Summer is approaching, and Eric has once again opened his blog for discussion of selected texts in the history of political thought. We begin with a short excerpt from Edmund Burke's _Reflections on the Revolution in France_. All quotations are from the Cohen and Fermon Princeton anthology.

Burke, writing about a year after the French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, is sharply critical of the principles of their revolution. No small part of the posthumous reputation of his book lies in the extent to which his criticisms were apparently vindicated by the subsequent descent of the Revolution into the bloody Terror a mere three years later. Interestingly, however, Burke was not anti-revolutionary in principle: he championed the American cause after initial efforts to effect a compromise failed to yield the desired resolution. Indeed, he is at pains to remind his reader (in amusingly dated parlance) of his wholehearted devotion to political freedom: "I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman" (349). What then are his objections to the republican ideals of the French? And why do they not apply to America?

The French Revolution was founded upon a declaration of the universal rights of man. The first article of the 1789 "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen" states, "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights" (347). These rights are "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression" (ibid). The revolutionaries go on, in article 6, to ground their conception of right in Rousseau's doctrine of the general will, according to which sovereignty consists only in the "common interest" shared by all citizens, i.e., that which they cannot help but to will in abstraction from any particular interests they might have as particular individuals ("On the Social Contract" esp. p.284; cf. our discussion on this blog from last summer through the sidebar). This sovereignty, Rousseau insists, cannot be alienated: "the moment there is a master, there is no longer a sovereign" (283). Claims to authority have legitimacy if and only if they express the general will. The revolutionary implications of this radically democratic republicanism are obvious: I have the right to resist any political claim that I do not recognize as the rationally self-imposed product of my own will.

Burke's objection is to the artificial abstractness of this ideal. True liberty, he claims, cannot be severed from its social and political "circumstances," which "give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect" (349). These "circumstances" are primarily historical. Burke views society as an intergenerational contract, such as the ideals and principles binding for a people are those handed down to them by their fathers and which they too are so bound to pass along to their children (353). European civilization, as he sees it, is dependent upon two principles: the spirit of a gentleman and the spirit of religion (352). It is the institutions of chivalry and church that preserve, sustain, and disseminate the various mores constitutive of European civilization. They are all that stand between culture and barbarism, the only means we have of keeping ourselves morally decent, so to speak. Furthermore, they are not subject to abstract proof or deduction. Such principles prove themselves only through history, and it is a dangerous conceit to ask for anything more.

The mistake of the French revolutionaries, then, was their effort to abolish history, starting from scratch on the basis of a metaphysical principle. They went so far as to institute a new calendar at year zero! The problem is that pure reason is incapable of providing concrete direction to the will. Burke is quotable on this throughout. For instance: "The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints" (350). The liberty of a gentleman or a Christian, by contrast, has a definite content in the sense that it offers a specific prescription as to the appropriate mode conduct for a given situation. It seems to me, in other words, that Burke is introducing a distinction between negative ("freedom from") and positive ("freedom to") liberty. All the French manage to assert is a negative liberty, the right to always say "no," a state of perpetual rebellion. It's a short path from here to Robispierre, for, as Burke puts it, "Kings will be tyrants from policy, when subjects are rebels from principle" (352).

The consistency of Burke's support for the American cause should then be clear. The American colonists could ground their declaration of independence and subsequent revolution upon historical achievement of the Glorious Revolution, laid down in the 1689 English Bill of Rights, which guarantees citizens parliamentary representation that the colonists were repeatedly denied.

That's all for now. Looking forward to your thoughts--



A Wiser Man Than I said...

They went so far as to institute a new calendar at year zero!

This might be the surest sign of the true revolutionary. Everything prior to the revolution is expunged from memory through this device.

The new calendar also removed the seven-day week. This was a direct attack on Sunday, the day of the Mass for largely Catholic France.

It seems to me, in other words, that Burke is introducing a distinction between negative ("freedom from") and positive ("freedom to") liberty.

That's a good way to put it. We might also frame it in terms of rights and reciprocal duties. We do not enjoy an unmitigated right to property: it must be used it in accordance with a duty, first to family, but also towards society in general.

troutsky said...

The very language of "duty" has to be interrogated.
Also, a historical view of the American revolution shows us that rights were a contingent,and still contested territory. Power takes many forms, some soft, some harder. A generational flow does nothing to dull it's sharp edge.

PJ said...

I think there's an obvious problem with this theory: what about rights or responsibilities not included in the Christian or chivalrous codes? It may be nice to hold doors for women, say, but what about their claim to be treated as equals with men in the public sphere with respect to wages and political participation, for instance? Or what about someone whose cannot accept the truth of Christian teachings, a Muslim, or an atheist, for instance? Burke's conservatism seems to require a great deal of social coercion, which I find extremely troubling.

Troutsky, could you elaborate on why and how you would interrogate the language of duty? Right now I can't quite see where you're coming from.

Cheers, PJ