Burke’s Revolutionary Writings
Cambridge University Press, 2014
Very few politicians have been political philosophers. America’s Founding Fathers are an exception. Machiavelli was a politician, albeit of the bureaucratic variety, but his works were written in reflective exile. Aristotle and Hobbes were tutors to monarchs. John Stuart Mill was, for a while, an unsuccessful radical MP. But it is the cloisters and the lecture hall which have been the preferred habitat of political philosophers. Edmund Burke is extremely rare in having being a front-line politician who is remembered by posterity as a political philosopher. Whilst a collection of speeches, pamphlets, and extracts from novels could be assembled for a volume on Disraeli’s political thought, few would consider the Victorian Prime Minister a political thinker on a par with Hobbes, Locke, or Mill. That Burke would not embarrass such company testifies to his ability to mix the universal with the contemporary, abstraction, and reality.
Any new volume of well-known writings, in this case Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which forms the bulk of Ian Hampshire-Monk’s book, needs some justification for the repetition. This one is part of the Cambridge History of Political Thought series. It complements an earlier volume on Burke’s pre-Revolutionary writings which implies, somewhat unreasonably, a jarring difference between the two. It is, of course, decidedly topical—the Arab Spring has put the debate about revolutions firmly back on the agenda. Questions about the legitimacy of overthrowing governments; whether reform within existing institutions is possible; the instability caused by revolution, and how far popular violence is justified by exceptional circumstances; the propriety of foreign interference in foreign revolutions; and the process of rebuilding the structure of society and the institutions which girder it—all are as relevant today as they were in Burke’s time.
Before turning to consider the Reflections, it is worth considering the value of Ian Hampshire-Monk’s introduction. Burke has been subjected to thought-provoking study, notably by Jonathan Clark in 2001, and by Frederick Lock in his 1985 book on the Reflections and his subsequent two-volume biography. So does Hampshire-Monk complement them? His essay fulfils the necessary but insufficient requirement of an introduction of sketching the context of the author and the works being published. But it also goes further by adding a pleasing tincture of new insights to enrich the understanding of those re-reading Burke. Hampshire-Monk describes four contexts in which Burke was writing: the immediate partisan wish to reclaim his ebbing authority in the Whig party; radicalism’s threat to property and religion in France and in England; an intellectual clash between what the editor terms “rationalist, reformist politics and a procedurally conservative politics”; and the idea of a Christian commonwealth of European nations imperilled by the French Revolution, whose preservation through war Burke furiously expounded in the First Letter on a Regicide Peace. Yet perhaps the most interesting point Hampshire-Monk makes is how Burke viewed the French Revolution not as an epoch on the path to modernity, but as a form of regression, challenging modern interpretations of that event. Through footnotes, Hampshire-Monk highlights Burke’s linguistic association of French reforms with the occult and alchemy. The warning against assuming a linear notion of “progress” in political and social thought, which the calamities of the twentieth century brought starkly into focus, is one which cannot be repeated enough.
Any short review of so multi-faceted a work as Burke’s Reflections can only offer impressionistic ruminations. One odious anachronism is the handful of casual references to “Jew” as a synonym for money-lender, indicative of the casual anti-Semitism of the age. Burke’s admiration for aristocracy, his belief that France’s Ancien Régime could have been reformed, and his prioritising of property over talent are liable to leave the modern reader cold. But we should persevere with Burke. His much maligned account of the French Revolution—with its factual inaccuracies, notable omissions (the Bastille is never directly mentioned) and rhetorical rhapsodies about Marie-Antoinette—have tended to obscure the deeper insights he offered into the hegemony of violence in directing the Revolution and the rickety nature of the French constitution of 1791. He famously foresaw the revolution would terminate in a military coup—as ensued under Napoleon. The disappointed hopes of the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, shout the topicality of an author whose superabundance of literary and historical allusions, Latin quotations, and epistolary structure initially seem to make him the Don Quixote of political philosophy.
Reflections on the Revolution in France is doubly famous for the literary warfare it triggered. The most famous reply was by Tom Paine with his two-part Rights of Man. Other critics included Mary Wollstonecraft, who followed it with her Vindication of the Rights of Man (followed by her more familiar Vindication of the Rights of Woman); Joseph Priestley, the prominent chemist who contributed to the discovery of oxygen; and the author of the still underrated Vindiciae Gallicae, James Mackintosh.
At the heart of the debate between Burke and his critics may be considered two interconnected questions—the nature of government and the nature of man. Paine, quoting Jonathan Swift, was to write that “Government is a plain thing, and fitted to the capacity of many heads”. Burke would no doubt have argued that “Government is a complex thing, and fitted to the capacity of few heads”. Today we view these ideas through a glass darkly, and oxymoronically declare that “Government is a complex thing, and fitted to the capacity of many heads”. Burke calls government a science, and argues that it echoes all experimental sciences: it is “not to be taught a priori“. Whether governing be a science or an art there is surely more truth in this dictum than in appealing to ultimately subjective notions of reason, as Paine and Mackintosh did. Paine preferred appeals to reason and natural rights because history—the obvious experiment to observe—produced contradictory precedents. Yet, as Burke pointed out, human nature is messy. He extolled the appeal of custom, traditions and what he called “prejudice”. Given the negative connotations of this word today further explanation is called for. As Hampshire-Monk points out, Samuel Johnson had defined it as a “prepossession”, and he describes it himself as “a position held prior to any formal or quasi-technical process of appraisal”. In the modern age a favouring of human rights, or instinctive British admiration for the National Health Service, could equally fall under this definition—many of us may have the intuition that we have rights, but few of us bother to provide philosophical foundations for them. It is perhaps for this reason that so many politicians have been, not philosophers, but historians.
Burke’s First Letter on a Regicide Peace is known among historians largely for its calculation of 400,000 politically-engaged “people”, although unfortunately the edition used omits the explicit inclusion of women among that number (Burke’s acquaintance with the flamboyant, politically-engrossed Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire would have rendered it impossible for him to totally exclude women from political involvement). Otherwise this pamphlet tends to be derided as the extremist rant of a man rapidly approaching the grave, urging a dogmatic war to the death against revolutionary France after peace talks between Britain and France had collapsed in 1796. But Burke provides flashes of insight amid his lurid fears of peace ambassadors helping to spread the revolutionary contagion. Adding to the “prophecies” of the Reflections, he insisted that a long war would be necessary to overthrow the Revolution. This led him into a delightful extended historical analogy with the previous long struggle against Louis XIV from 1689 to 1713 (which, as with the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, was interrupted by a brief peace). Burke opined that “[m]anners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure the laws depend”. He later applies this idea to international relations, commenting that “[m]en are not tied to one another by papers and seals. They are led to associate by resemblances, by conformities, by sympathies. It is with nations as with individuals”. If a modern application is sought, we might perhaps think of that secularised “Christian Commonwealth” the European Union, and its flailing efforts to promote unity through treaties. Most intriguing of all is a short passage, removed from the final version but printed in a pirated copy, and here included in an appendix, where Burke justified political intervention in the matter of “opinions”, for, he declares,
[o]pinion is the rudder of human action; and as the opinion is wise or foolish, vicious or moral, the cause of action is noxious or salutary… They make manners—in fact, they make laws: they make the Legislator. They are, therefore, of all things, those to which provident Government ought to look most to in their beginnings.
Whether you think this sounds sinister or shrewd, it proves Burke throws up still original perspectives on contentious topics.
There are three levels on which any work of political thought can be read – the immediate, transitory context of its time, the topical lessons useful today, and the “eternal truths” of philosophical abstraction. Burke’s work, however florid, lurid and hyperbolic, was certainly a better guide to the Revolutionary era than that of his opponents. His warnings about the dangers of revolution, coupled with the need for prudent reform, eloquently reflect the contrasting fortunes of, say, Egypt and Jordan in recent years. The irrationality of man, the value of customs and prepossessions, and the importance of perpetually vulnerable order—those things most often dismissed by Utopians and planners (including the inaptly named neo-conservatives)—these will remain the lessons of Burke when the revolutions of today are as distant as the revolutions of his age.
Edward Hicks  is reading for a DPhil in history at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.