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The French Revolutionaries, Edmund Burke rightly understood, sought not just the overturning of the old, but, critically, they also desired the destruction of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Only by lying about the nature of the human person could they accomplish their goals…

One of the most important duties of any good person, Edmund Burke argued, was to study, to understand, and to meditate upon the meaning of human nature, its consistencies as well as its gothic deviations from the norm across history. Granted, not everyone had the leisure to ponder this question as often as necessary or as deeply as possible, but this did not lessen the duty. For the vast majority of humanity, they would have to rest content with the vision of human nature as seen in themselves and in their neighbors, as observed in the market and the pub, and as heard from the pulpit.

For those who had the leisure, however, they should spend much of their time considering the nature, follies, and dignity of humanity as a whole as well as in its particulars. This was the first duty of a man of letters, a scholar, an aristocrat, and a priest. In the last decade of his own life, Burke admitted with some satisfaction, he had devoted a significant part of his own thought to the questions of humanity and its nature. “I should be unfit to take even my humble part in the service of mankind,” he wrote, had he neglected this first and highest duty of the good person. Such a study anchored one in humility as well as wisdom, noting that while there would always be those who lived at the margins, they were, while not marginalia, exceptions that proved the norm. Exceptions would always exist in nature, but to focus on them was to miss the essence and dignity of a thing. When studying only the margins, one would be apt to exaggerate the good or the evil, mistaking a particular truth to be a universal one.

When Burke examined the French Revolutionary arguments against the French aristocracy, he found, not surprisingly, that while the Revolutionaries had acquainted themselves very well with the particular evils as practiced by particular aristocrats, they had missed the norm, the essence of the aristocratic class.

Certainly, the Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher agreed, one could find mistakes, some of which might be horrendous. Of those French aristocrats who lived at the end of the eighteenth century, Burke observed three general failings. First, French aristocrats behaved as children long after they had attained adulthood. They took from their families more than they gave, well past the years of irresponsibility. Second, too many French aristocrats had absorbed and manifested the ignobility of enlightenment philosophy, themselves disgusted with the past and ready thoughtlessly to revolutionize society. They had come to see the past, tradition, mores, norms, and association as means by which to shackle rather than to promote human dignity and freedom. They had, in other words, Burke worried, read way too much Locke and Rousseau and not enough Socrates and Cicero. Third, he claimed, the old aristocracy has held onto its privileges too long and too tenaciously, not allowing the many who had earned it in the eighteenth century into their own ranks. Thus, Burke noted with regret, by being both ignorant in philosophy and selfish in position, they had failed to see the creation of their own enemy class, those who had worked and given, but had not received the titles and honors so richly bestowed. Nowhere in French society did this prove more blatant than in the military orders. There, the old aristocracy remained obnoxiously over-represented, endangering the internal as well as the external order of French society.

Despite these failings, though, Burke noted with much satisfaction that when the French Revolution began in 1789, the monarch as well as the majority of aristocrats apologized for their selfish errors and had been the first to admit that their own orders needed reform for the good and benefit of the whole of society.

Read their instructions to their representatives. They breathe the spirit of liberty as warmly, and they recommend reformation as strongly, as any other order. Their privileges relative to contribution were voluntarily surrendered; as the king, from the beginning, surrendered all pretence to a right of taxation. Upon a free constitution there was but one opinion in France. The absolute monarchy was at an end. It breathed its last, without a groan, without struggle, without convulsion.

Such an apology and a reform (or series of reforms) the real revolutionaries mightily feared. Never had they actually sought reform of French society, whatever their claims and protestations. Instead, from the moment they began the revolution in 1789, they wanted to destroy and overturn all that opposed them and to do so utterly and completely, leaving no remnant and no possible opposition. To destroy as violently and wholly as possible, they needed to make a caricature of the aristocrat and the monarch. They needed to take the particular evils of each and make the average person believe them the universal and norm of each. Rather than examining the human condition, the true revolutionaries exaggerated its faults as manifested in the elites of society. They, Burke claimed in true Aristotelian and Thomistic fashion, redefined the thing, claiming its accidents to be its essence. Being revolutionaries, they could not create, they could only mock and pervert. Though the revolutionaries claimed to hate the violence and errors of the aristocracy, they submitted themselves to the very same evils, creating excuses for their own sins, as if necessary to expiate all of those of the past.

Thus, by attacking the best as the worst, the revolutionaries sought to kill the very heart of France, those who gave it its fame. Were they flawed? Of course, what human being is not? Did they sin? Of course, what human being is without? But, they had done much good, as well, as most humans do. “All this violent cry against the nobility I take to be a mere work of art,” Burke sagaciously noted. In their cries, the revolutionaries proved that they hated not just the nobility but all nobility. Properly understood, “nobility is a graceful ornament to the civil order. It is the Corinthian capital of polished society,” Burke argued, and “Omnes boni nobilitati semper favemus, was the saying of a wise and good man. It is indeed one sign of a liberal and benevolent mind to incline to it with some sort of partial propensity.”

The French Revolutionaries, Burke rightly understood, sought not just the overturning of the old, but, critically, they also desired the destruction of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Only by lying about the nature of the human person could they accomplish their goals. In fighting evil (or, at least as they claimed), they not only absorbed and perpetuated evil, but they mocked the good.

This essay is the twelfth essay in a series.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Once again Bravo Good Sir.

    Your essay (and the others), I see as part of the most necessary task of the present time, inspecting for defects, and where necessary redefining the programs and policies of Conservatism, in order to rescue it from the opportunists, shills, and snobs who were once regarded as luminaries in the political firmament, and to redeem the time, that a Remnant might carry on. A remembrance of those necessary pillars found under the rubric of “Permanent Things” is a good starting place (And, like the fabled Caucus Race, may well end there also.)

    It was perhaps the tragedy of conservatism that it speared to be such a resounding success thirty years ago, as it kept people from re-examination and caused many to think of conservatism as an ideology. For example, your description of the Jacobins of yore could as easily apply to Progressivists on the Left as to certain Radical Rightists of today. Social destruction and shattering of community is bad, no matter from which direction the stones fly.

    Burke, I believe, did not venture to employ the neologism “Conservative”, and it was his French disciples who first spoke of Le Conservateur. At the present time, considering all the abuse which the term has received, and the reprehensible people who have sought it’s good name as a cover for despicable acts, I am considering changing my self-identification from “conservative”, to “conservator.”

    • David, as always, I love reading your comments. Thank you! And, I agree. The first thing we “conservatives” must ask is: what is it we’re conserving. Russell Kirk wrestled with this question rather seriously in the years following the success of The Conservative Mind. My guess is that if he could, knowing what we know, he might have adopted a different term, or he might have taken it in different ways than we have. He thought “conservative” was relative, but humanism was relatively absolute. Yours, BB

  2. For further enjoyable thought about the French Revolution see the film “the Scarlet Pimpernel” with Anthony Andrews or with Lesley Howard.

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