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Edmund Burke - Reflections on the French revolution - Christopher Hitchens

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Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke

Tell us! The Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, and catastrophically, the French Revolution presented challenges of terrible proportions. They could promise paradise or threaten anarchy. Burke was acutely aware of how high the stakes were. The Reflections on the Revolution in France was a dire warning of the consequences that would follow the mismanagement of change. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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Earlier in his career, Burke had championed many liberal causes and sided with the Americans in their war for independence. Thus, opponents and allies alike were surprised at the strength of his conviction that the French Revolution was "a disaster" and the revolutionists "a swinish multitude". Published in November , the work was an instant bestseller as thirteen thousand copies were purchased in the first five weeks and by the following September had gone through eleven editions.

According to Stephen Greenblatt in The Norton Anthology of English Literature , "part of its appeal to contemporary readers lay in the highly wrought accounts of the mob's violent treatment of the French king and queen who at the time Burke was writing were imprisoned in Paris and would be executed three years later, in January and October " and Reflections has become the "most eloquent statement of British conservatism favoring monarchy, aristocracy, property, hereditary succession, and the wisdom of the ages".

Burke wrote that he did not like abstract thinking, that freedom and equality were different, that genuine equality must be judged by God and that liberty was a construct of the law and no excuse to do whatever one would like. In his opinions, the revolutionaries did not understand that "there are no rights without corresponding duties, or without some strict qualifications".

Reflections on the Revolution in France

With his view of what he believed would happen to the revolutionaries, one can see why Burke did not like change. Men cannot handle large amounts of power. In the Reflections , Burke argued that the French Revolution would end disastrously because its abstract foundations, purportedly rational, ignored the complexities of human nature and society. Further, he focused on the practicality of solutions instead of the metaphysics, writing: "What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or to medicine?

The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In this deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor". Augustine and Cicero , he believed in "human heart"-based government. Nevertheless, he was contemptuous and afraid of the Enlightenment , led by intellectuals such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau , Voltaire and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot , who disbelieved in divine moral order and original sin.

Burke said that society should be handled like a living organism and that people and society are limitlessly complicated, leading him to conflict with Thomas Hobbes ' assertion that politics might be reducible to a deductive system akin to mathematics. As a Whig, Burke expressly repudiated the belief in divinely appointed monarchic authority and the idea that a people have no right to depose an oppressive government.

However, he advocated central roles for private property, tradition and prejudice i.


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  4. He argued for gradual, constitutional reform, not revolution in every case, except the most qualified case , emphasizing that a political doctrine founded upon abstractions such as liberty and the rights of man could be easily abused to justify tyranny. He saw inherited rights, restated in England from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right , as firm and concrete providing continuity like tradition, prejudice and inheritable private property.

    By contrast, enforcement of speculative abstract rights might waver and be subject to change based on currents of politics. Instead, he called for the constitutional enactment of specific, concrete rights and liberties as protection against governmental oppression. In the phrase, "[prejudice] renders a man's virtue his habit", Burke defends people's cherished, but untaught, irrational prejudices the greater it behooved them, the more they cherished it.


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    8. Because a person's moral estimation is limited, people are better off drawing from the "general bank and capital of nations and of ages" than from their own intellects. Burke predicted that the Revolution's concomitant disorder would make the army "mutinous and full of faction" and then a "popular general", commanding the soldiery's allegiance, would become "master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic".

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      Most of the House of Commons disagreed with Burke and his popularity declined. After trying to loosen the Protestant minority's control of Irish government, he was voted out of the House of Commons with a great pension. He later adopted French and Irish children, believing himself correct in rescuing them from government oppression. Before dying, he ordered his family to bury him secretly, believing his cadaver would be a political target for desecration should the Jacobins prevail in England.

      To support or color his arguments, Burke uses several Latin quotations, the sources of which he does not cite. The bulk appear to come from Virgil or Horace. However, the following quotation from Cicero's De Senectute 83 is employed to underline the ludicrous idea, in his view, of placing soldiery in a state at a perfectly equal status as the rest of the citizenry: "Si isti mihi largiantur ut repueriscam, et in eorum cunis vagiam, valde recusem! An approximate translation is the following: "If they should grant to me that I might become a child again, and that I might wail in their cradle, I would vigorously refuse!

      Reflections on the Revolution in France was read widely when it was published in , although not every Briton approved of Burke's kind treatment of their historic enemy or its royal family. His English enemies speculated he either had become mentally unbalanced or was a secret Catholic, outraged by the democratic French government's anti-clerical policies and expropriation of Church land. Historically, Reflections on the Revolution in France became the founding philosophic opus of conservatism when some of Burke's predictions occurred, namely when the Reign of Terror under the new French Republic executed thousands including many nuns and clergy from to to purge so-called counter-revolutionary elements of society.