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Edmund BurkeWhen Edmund Burke surveyed the names of those leading the French Revolution in its first half year of existence in 1789, he despaired. Several were certainly good men, he noted, and many were quite accomplished. Yet, not a single man possessing any necessary experience in the world appeared on the list. “The best,” he lamented, “were only men of theory.” In terms of professions represented, he saw on the list many lawyers, some “country clowns” representing backwater areas with a degree of local tyranny, and a number of businessmen who had “never known anything beyond their county house.”

With no real leaders and no men of ability, he concluded, the movement would quickly meld into mediocrity, the leaders finding themselves subordinated to the will of the moment, and the will of the moment blunted by the inability to move beyond tapioca leadership. As a ball of confusion, the political and revolutionary state would simply become one homogenized mess.

If one combined this poor leadership with the tendency of the French to overthrow everything that had come before, nothing existed in history or nature or the supernatural to act as a check upon the progressive and radical impulses of the revolution. “Instead of finding themselves obliged to conform to a fixed constitution, they have a power to make a constitution which shall conform to their designs.” After all, Burke argued, “Nothing in heaven or upon earth can serve as a control on them.” By what will would they rule? By their own unimaginative tempers, desires, and proclivities? They—as a body—would become equal to their abilities, leading all toward the nothingness of the abyss.

It should be noted that Burke—while not incorrect in his assessment of the abilities of the French Revolutionaries—is coming from a very Celtic and Anglo-Saxon background, trusting in the norms and mores of common law and natural law, seeing history as gradual for the most part and not trusting in innovators. In his views of the French, he sounds as properly Stoic as Adam Smith (his ally and friend) in the second edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it: He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

Not surprisingly, as James Otteson has clearly shown, Smith took much of his own understanding of the “men of system” as quoted above from the second edition of his magnum opus from Burke. Though no word existed for it yet, soon scholars would refer to such systems as “ideologies” and the men who followed the systems as “ideologues.” Though no such term existed for Burke to use, and, given his temperament, he loathed introducing neoterisms into the language. Still, it’s quite clear in hindsight that he would have employed the term “ideology” had it existed. In the section of Reflections on the Revolution in France currently under discussion (p. 129ff), Burke claimed that the one thing that could hold such men together was their embrace of “envy” and the logical conclusion of “plunder.” The few would take from their opposition to give to the many. While the spoils would amount to nothing in reality, in the abstract, they could exceed the wildest imaginings of lust and avarice. Burke saw those who followed the path of lust and envy—whether to dangle in front of potential supporters or the supporters of such re-distribution themselves—as radical egalitarians, “levelers” who lived as nothing but perversions of the natural order of existence. Their crimes would be not just crimes against humanity, but against nature herself.

It is at this point in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolutions in France that he ingeniously reminded his readers and listeners what mattered most in society. Real community does not come from envy or abstraction or lust but from real, concrete friendships and needs.

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind. The interests of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.

Real allegiances are neither certain nor predictable by those outside of them. They come when they come, they come as they come, and they develop as they develop. No one person holds only one allegiance, but, instead, every person holds several overlapping and concurrent allegiances, each in its own stage of development. As human persons, we find ourselves in the unity that comes from balancing and maintaining the tensions of these allegiances. They are not merely accidental benefits of a functioning society, but the very heart of a real and meaningful existence.

This essay is the fourth essay in a series; the first essay may be found here; the second may be found here; the third may be found here Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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2 replies to this post
  1. As always, good sir, an excellent reflection on…err… the Reflections.
    And, as ever, I am amazed by those who have gleaned their Conservatism not from our goodly Burke, or Kirk, or Cicero, or from any of their ilk, but from those poor empty headed souls who have four hours of empty radio air time to fill with their empty words.
    I can no longer regard myself as a Conservative, due to the extreme ideologicalization of conservatism, and its replacement by the votaries of a politics of purity known as Conservatism, Inc. (TM).
    Not that I have changed my views, and truly time has only entrenched them, with the first abject principle being, “make no radical or massive changes to society/government/economy in an abrupt period of time”.
    Which principle I learned from Edmund Burke.
    Again, thanks.

  2. Burke was a giant, his understanding of tradition and precedence brought to the debates concerning France the realization that a moderate and honored government was of the highest importance, that a speculative, hence radical regime ultimately would lead to destructive tendencies, And as it happened ultimately it lead to Napoleon.

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