Disillusioned but not disenchanted…
During the late 18th Century in the nation of France underwent a time of turmoil and strife which is now known as the French Revolution. Many thinkers of the time gave their thoughts and support of this revolution. One thinker, Dr. Richard Price, made clear his views upon the French Revolution in relation to the Glorious Revolution in England and it was against these views that Edmund Burke argued in his Reflections.
The Reflections are written as a rebuttal to Price, as a defense of the English system of government, and as an opposition to the ideas and practices of the French Revolution. Price had brought offense to Burke through his statement that nearly the only ruler who was lawful in the world was that of France due to the fact that the French ruler had been elected by the people; Burke however was in support of his own King whom had not been elected by the common populace and Burke thought well of this (Burke, p. 12). In this same line of thought Burke spoke out against those who pushed for abstract thought, politics based on metaphysics, those who would put together the church and the state as well as human rights as a basis for political theory.
Burke’s audience in his Reflections are at once the thinkers of the age, the propagators of the French Revolution as well as those that would seek to find meaning in both the French and the Glorious Revolutions. More specifically, Burke’s Reflections are written in response to a Frenchman who inquired upon Burke’s views (Burke, p. 3).
Throughout his Reflections Burke makes clear his objections to different political philosophies as well as factions which found themselves on the basis and doctrine of abstract rights. He argues against both the metaphysical ideals for government and abstract concepts of authority. His basis for this argument is that these abstracts cannot account for all the nuances which are present in the political process. According to Burke what works in government is too circumstantial for these ideals proposed by the theorists; it is the circumstances that will make or break any idea of political process (Burke, p. 7). Furthermore Burke argues against political philosophies on the basis that liberty allows people to act as they please and that before we allow them act as they please that we should know what it is that pleases them (Burke, p 8).
Apart from the subjectivity due to circumstances and lack of knowledge of how people will react if certain liberties are given to them through political processes, Burke continues his arguments against the doctrine of abstract rights. According to Burke because of these circumstances as well as the way in which liberties change with time these liberties cannot be discovered and founded through abstract rules; Burke even goes so far as to say that “nothing is so foolish as to discuss them (the liberties) upon that principle (that based on abstract rules) (Burke, p. 53).” These abstract rights are a certainty that the government finding its authority in these rights will not be able to be sure of its continuance (Burke, p. 51). Even further Burke rebukes these ideas on the basis that it is an innovation resulting from selfishness and ignorance. He finishes this line of thought with the statement that “people will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” In this he brings about his admiration of tradition rather than these abstract rights as the proper way of political process (Burke, p. 29).
In furthering his grievances with the French Revolution Burke speaks of how using “metaphysical” principles have caused the French problems. In this one of the first ways in which these principles have gotten the French into trouble is in the creation of their National Assembly. According to Burke in their abstract views of an ideal in representative assembly they managed to create an assembly of completely unqualified people. When looking at who was upon their assembly he notes that none had experience in the state but rather that the best among them only excelled in creating theory (Burke, p. 35). He continues to say that the men that these ideals would put in power, those that they would have creating the new state, are those men that “never had seen the state so much as in a picture” and knew nothing of the world or governing (Burke, p. 40).
Next to this folly of their principles they have also gotten into trouble through their loss of character, nobility, and more specifically chivalry. He speaks of the age of chivalry being past (Burke, p. 66), of how the people of France in the apparent blindness created in their metaphysical pursuits have made plots, massacres and assassinations trivial matters in their goals; simply means to an end (Burke, p. 57). With this they have gone through measures of removing authority for petty reasons and killed for them as well. They have lost their unity through the loss of their customs and lost their heroics as well. In their loss of chivalry their country has lost its loveliness and thereby the desire to love it (Burke, p. 68).
Finally they have put their faith into a paper currency. France has lost the sanctity of its property. Through effect of their abstracts they have come to put their faith in the worthless, a paper currency which is only as good as the government which backs it up. In this case that government that is fragile with no guarantee of continuance due to its weak and faulty representative standing that removes tradition.
As he rejects those abstract theories and human rights as a sound basis for political theory and practice he instead turns to tradition. Burke is in support of those systems which are time tested and have been filtered through generations as the way of legitimizing government. Burke proposes tradition in all aspects of politics and speaks of how the Glorious Revolution was done to preserve those traditions; the traditional liberties and the ancient constitution which as Burke states “is our only security for law and liberty (Burke, p. 27).”
Burke places the processes in the rights of Englishmen rather than in any “rights of men (Burke, p. 28).” He places the power in the standard line of succession which he says the foundations of unity and peace depend as well as on the traditions of property which is the natural way of the world. It is only in those traditions that have been instituted by the forefathers and made sturdy over time that the government can be truly legitimized. Burke believes, in opposition to the human rights theories of the revolutionaries, in equal rights but not necessarily to equal things (Burke, p. 51).
One objection which one might be able to make to Burke’s views is one in the realm of the people choosing their own governors, one of the revolutionaries abstract rights of man. In this objection one could argue that the people in what knowledge that they have, would indeed elect a representative of good qualifications. The realm of election does indeed allow for professional politicians in similarity to the professional aristocrats which Burke admires. Through working in the government and being re-elected these representatives would learn the processes of government and excel in them, especially as they would be the ones creating that government; one that suits the needs of themselves and therefore the majority.
In argument against this a Burkean would probably note that in the time that it would take for these peasants turned politicians to become accustomed to the government that they would do it more harm than good, especially given their loss of chivalry. Furthermore, they would be running a defunct government should that government had been created by them who have no good idea of what a government should do. In this they would be selfish and simply satisfy their own needs. Burke speaks of the spirit of innovation being the result of selfishness and confined views (Burke, p. 29). Rather than risk this faulty government the people should stay to the time tested traditions which they know to work instead of inciting change simply for the sake of change.
In the case of the French Revolution and the situations surrounding it Burke most likely has the better position. He has witnessed the lack of skill in those whom are governing and has seen the rashness with which they act. Traditions are what they are for a purpose and according to reason should the traditions be defunct then they would have been done away with. The traditions give order and structure to society, they allow for it to follow its natural path and they also create a unity within a society through common culture, customs and even prejudices. It is this unity rather than the many representative bodies which are accounted for in France that should allow for the good running of a nation.