the imaginative conservative logo

For the “hive” that is the democratic mindset, the very spirit of democracy pushes its adherents to surmount limits, and to behave as one man with the will of a god…

Maximilien-Robespierre-008Writing of France in 1790, Edmund Burke asked exactly how one might categorize the revolutionary government. Is it a monarchy of the democracy, a democracy of the monarchy, some form of pure democracy, or a nasty oligarchy? Whatever it claims to be, Burke continued, the intelligent person can simply dismiss that label as a manifestation of, at best, poor thinking, and, at worst, malicious and willful falsehood. Certainly, the revolutionary government and society had veered far away from the course of nature, creating nothing but a mere contrivance and shadow of reality.

The Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher noted that it is worth considering the notion that Revolutionary France is a modern attempt at democracy. Drawing explicitly upon the writings of Aristotle, Burke asked what the real difference was between a monarchy and a democracy: “Of this I am certain, that in a democracy, the majority of its citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of policy, as they often must.” However constituted, few forms of government are more oppressive than a democracy armed with self-righteous fury at all who oppose the will of the majority.

In his own analysis written at the very beginning of the revolution, Burke followed Plato and anticipated his greatest nineteenth-century follower, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Because the king is only one man, several things will restrain him (relatively speaking, of course, for a monarch can easily go bad). First, by tradition, he will recognize that while he might have mastery over things temporal, he cannot fully control things spiritual. Second, by being one person, he cannot extend his imagination beyond his own ego, thus having the limitations of his own mind and his own experience. None of this is to suggest that a king cannot be ruthless, brutal, and ferocious. Of course, he can, as Burke well understood. After all, Burke had just spent a considerable amount of time writing and speaking on the evils and follies of Henry VIII. Still, no matter how far the king goes in each of these things, he will encounter limits. For the “hive” that is the democratic mindset, however, the very spirit of democracy pushes its adherents to surmount such limits, and to behave as one man with the will of a god. The very animalistic thought process of the collective lends it toward a righteous stand against any opposition, internally or externally. When opposed, they react with “fury.”

To bolster his point, Burke turned to a writer he generally disliked, Lord Bolingbroke, typically a “presumptuous and a superficial writer.” On this point of democracy vs. monarchy, however, Bolingbroke understood a vital truth: “You can better ingraft any description of republic on a monarchy than anything of monarchy upon any republican forms.” Burke agreed.

Here, Burke wisely noted that any person can readily be a critic. Yesterday’s sycophant easily transforms into today’s most severe opponent. Do not, Burke asked, judge himself so. Instead, as with all good men, he hoped the reader would recognize that he looked at all things—men as well as institutions—with prudence. As such, he did his best to determine what is good, what is ill, and what is a mixture of both. After arriving at a conclusion, Burke hoped he would not be regarded as a defender of the French monarchy. As with all forms of government, it had its numerous problems, several of them perhaps insurmountable: “I am no stranger to the faults and defects of the subverted government of France.” To some degree, however, this subversion (in various forms) is true of all governments and all men. Each of us is good, bad, and a mixture of both. At what point, then, do we have the right to decide to execute, rather than chastise, imprison, or reform? The default position should be the later, not the former. The wise man would seek innovation and adaptation, not destruction.

Armed with the insane fury of the democratic will, the revolutionaries believe themselves pure enough to pass absolutist judgments against the corrupt. While the corrupt might be only eighty to ninety percent corrupted, it is easiest for the presumed pure to claim it totally corrupt, destroy it utterly, and begin anew. There is no cost to claiming the need to begin anew because there yet exists no basis by which to judge that which has yet to come. As that which has yet to come does not exist—except in the hearts of men—it therefore has no weight or substance. By definition, that which has yet to come must be perfect, as it exists only in our perfect thought and hopes, not in reality. How then, can one ever compare that which is unreal but perfect with that very real thing which, by its very existence in a fallen world, must be imperfect? Wisdom would and should allow us to realize this, but democratic fury and passion dismiss such reason as doubtful, traitorous, and, perhaps, insane.

Listening to its opponents, one might think the French monarchy akin to the bloodthirsty god-kings of the ancient Orient or, perhaps, to Satan himself (though many of the revolutionaries, of course, did not believe in such “superstitions” as God and the Devil). In the descriptions of the contemporary French monarchy, one might envision a world at constant war, ignorant of all arts and sciences, devoid of any economic securities—in manufacturing and agriculture—and “where the human race itself melts away and perishes under the eye of the observer.”

Though not a proponent of the monarchy, Burke could not in good conscience look away from the goodness—however limited—to be found in much of France’s religion, laws, manners, and opinions. Could not some corrective to the corruption of the monarchy be found in these? Why did men fail to see the good and focus only on the evil?

What sort of madness had gripped the revolutionaries? The madness of democracy and its arrogant totalitarianism.

Books by Bradley Birzer essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. There always exists a kernel of the revolutionary in any state, the question is what safeguards and policies restrain or isolate the would be malcontent. We have had a recent taste of rebellion taken to the streets, we may yet see more.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: