Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France

Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in FranceBurke's Reflections on the Revolution in France by F.P. Lock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“In these gentlemen there is nothing of the tender, parental solicitude, which fears to cut up the infant for the sake of an experiment” (314).

So wrote Edmund Burke in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”

I’m giving this book a very rare five stars. Burke’s rejection of the French revolution is an exhaustive and principled articulation of political conservatism, a perspective very badly needed in today’s political conversation. As I write, frustration with politics is pushing many good people over the edge into radical revolution, when a return to ordered liberty is needed.

Burke offers up some refreshing insights.

“Far am I from denying… the real rights of men… to do justice,… to the fruits of their industry,… to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death….. All men have equal rights; but not to equal things” (207).
Bernie Sanders, beware.

“Till power and right are the same, … [people have] no right inconsistent with virtue” (210).
Which leaves out abortion.

"What is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils.... To give freedom is still more easy... it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint..." (394).

"When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents... will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people" (394).

“Men have been sometimes led by degrees, sometimes hurried, into things of which, if they could have seen the whole together, they never would have permitted the most remote approach” (275).
Burke saw haste, immaturity, even childishness at work in France’s revolution.

"They cannot raise supplies, but they can raise mobs" (388).

Burke’s writing style is notably 1790’s. Long sentences, some archaic vocabulary, but exquisite use of the English language that any aspiring writer should read. One quick example:

“Difficulty is a severe instructor, set over us by the supreme ordinance of a parental Guardian and Legislator, who knows us better than we know ourselves, as he loves us better too” (315).

He detested the “throw the bums out” sentiment. Good governance and lasting reform takes time, maturity, moderation, and compromise with the powers at play. Meanwhile, don’t destroy things just you’re frustrated. We call that a temper tantrum. Respect the institutions and wisdom of your forefathers.

Toward the end, Burke gets more detailed than my novice history could comprehend, but I picked up enough to realize he was devastating the revolution’s record of basic competence in governance, regarding currency, the army, representation in the legislature, the power of the puppet-king, etc.

A final quote:
"Our forefathers... acted under a strong impression of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind.... Let us imitate their caution" (396).

(I read an old Harvard Classics edition, 1909, so the pages quoted might not match more recent editions.)

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