In the first essay of this series, I discussed the three things that one must know about Edmund Burke in order to understand the cohesiveness of his vision, a vision which spanned his adult life. While he developed this vision, he never radically altered it, as many of his opponents claims. These opponents simply could not understand how Burke could have been the single most important supporter of the American War for Independence, as well as the single greatest opponent of the French Revolution. Not without some artifice, his opponents claimed that the elder Burke had gone insane, perhaps from senility and dementia. Most importantly, however, it is critical to remember that Burke did not reject the idea of Natural Rights; he merely rejected the ability of man to know the specifics of his Natural Rights. To know our natural rights would be akin to knowing our soul. Only God can and should know and understand such things, He being their author.
After Burke defined and defended his “love of a manly, moral, regulated liberty” in Reflections on the Revolution in France, he turned to other matters, some of which demand exacting attention. He warned against the manifestation of flattery as unbecoming to a people or a king, and he further noted that when men act “in bodies,” they generally serve power rather than liberty. The average Englishman, Burke continued, who believes in his neighborhood, his garden, and his hearth, wants to see the good in the equivalent person in France, but, because of radically different circumstances, history, and cultural mores, he cannot see it. For the French have not only done something the English cannot understand, but, truly, something the Western world cannot understand. The English desire to see the good in others has created a confusion that might grow into something with which the people of the West might use to “wage war with Heaven itself.”
Desiring to counter this, Burke stressed his point almost to the point of what must have seemed absurd to many of his contemporaries.
It looks to me as if I were in a great crisis, not of the affairs of France alone, but of all Europe, perhaps of more than Europe. All circumstances taken together, the French Revolution is the most astonishing revolution that has hitherto happened in the world. The most wonderful things are brought about in many instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous; in the most ridiculous modes; and apparently, by the most contemptible instruments. Every thing 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. In viewing this monstrous tragic-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind: alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.
Nearly two and half centuries later, Burke’s words seem prophetic. In just a few lines, he anticipated everything from the Nazi Holocaust to the Soviet Gulag.
In particular, Edmund Burke highlighted how a misplaced faith in the potential goodness of the French Revolution stems from a misunderstanding not just of the nature of things, but of nature herself. To support the French revolutionaries, Burke believed, one must deny the sin of man as well as the purpose of life. One must abstract himself so much from the history of the world that he becomes something utterly unnatural himself.
Real change, Burke argued, comes from reformation of a corrupt thing, not dissolution of the corrupt thing. Indeed, the true community knows wisely that being “without the means of some change is without the means of” conservation. Should we confuse idealism with reality, we would find that “no law be left but the will of a prevailing force.” Yet, properly understood, a society may bring about true goodness through regeneration of the “deficient part.” A true constitution recognizes that all of organic life—whether of the seasons, of the human person, or of political institutions—experiences the Plebeian cycles of birth, decay, and death. Yet, its death is rarely, if ever, final. Rather than the entire edifice falling into the abyss, parts die and are reborn.
In what is nothing less than an act of genius, the English people have fully understood that their laws, their liberties, and their political institutions serve not just the present, but the present because of the past, and the present looking toward the future. Elsewhere, Burke would refer to this as the “Contract of Eternal Society,” a means by which no single generation claims tyranny over past generations or future ones. Instead, as Alexis de Tocqueville will also claim in Democracy in America and C.S. Lewis in a variety of his writings, every generation must be the keeper of every other generation.
Without such an anchor in the eternal, time would become easily unhinged, and views would polarize to an extreme and unhealthy degree.
As in the last piece, it is well worth quoting Edmund Burke at length on this issue.
The third head of right, asserted by the pulpit of the Old Jewry [n.b., the name of a London Protestant Evangelical Church; nothing to do with Semitism or anti-Semitism], namely, the ‘right to form a government for ourselves,’ has, at least, as little countenance from any thing done at the Revolution, either in precedent or principle, as the two first of their claims. The Revolution was made to preserve our antient indisputable laws and liberties, and that antient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty. If you are desirous of knowing the spirit of our constitution, and the policy which predominated in that great period which has secured it to this hour, pray look for both in our histories, in our records, in our acts of parliament, and journals of parliament, and not in the sermons of the Old Jewry, and the after-dinner toasts of the Revolution Society. In the former you will find other ideas and another language. Such a claim is as ill-suited to our temper and wishes as it is unsupported by any appearance of authority. The very idea of the fabrication of a new government is enough to fill us with disgust and horror. We wished at the period of the Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers. Upon that body and stock of inheritance we have taken care not to inoculate any cyon alien to the nature of the original plant. All the reformations we have hitherto made, have proceeded upon the principle of reference to antiquity; and I hope, nay I am persuaded, that all those which possibly may be made hereafter, will be carefully formed upon analogical precedent, authority, and example.*
*Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, pages 93-119.