TCS Daily


Reflections on the Revolution

By Paul J. Cella - April 13, 2005 12:00 AM

"We are in a war of a peculiar nature. It is not with an ordinary community, which is hostile or friendly as passion or interest may veer about; not with a State which makes war through wantonness, and abandons it through lassitude. We are at war with a system, which, by its essence, is inimical to all other Governments, and which makes peace or war, as peace or war may best contribute to their subversion. It is with an armed doctrine that we are at war."

So Edmund Burke wrote near the end of his days, describing the awful marching modern spirit that animated Jacobin France -- a spirit which has beset us with its morbid vigor ever since. Burke went on to identify the enemy with an energetic precision. First, it was Revolutionary France, the Regicide commonwealth, "which lays it down as a fixed law of nature, and fundamental right of man, that all government, not being a democracy, is an usurpation." Second, it was Jacobinism, "the revolt of the enterprising talents of a country against its property," or "private men form[ing] themselves into associations for the purpose of destroying the pre-existing laws and institutions of their country." Finally, it was Atheism, or irreligion. These three forces, present though wraithlike and isolated throughout Christendom for centuries, had finally united under one power, and in one State. It was against this power that Burke set himself with all the power and subtlety of his ample mind.

We might say that the French Revolution was the culmination of a brewing revolt: the final break-up of Christian Europe and the debut of the Modern Age. I am well aware that I speak in strange and sweeping terms; but when we look backwards across history through the prism of the twentieth century -- in particular through the prism of Revolution, so central to the twentieth century -- I think we begin to see this previous revolution in France, to which the Communists and a hundred other mad malcontents harkened back, in a more sinister light; the light, namely, that Edmund Burke cast upon it.

My edition of Burke's selected works (purchased from the invaluable Liberty Fund) is a reprint of a late nineteenth-century collection, edited by one E. J. Payne. Now Mr. Payne composed fine introductions to each of the three volumes, and his notes are genuinely illuminating; but Payne, being a man of his age, must concede certain things to conventional thinking. And convention dictated that he must concede Burke's greatest error of judgment, which was in fact his greatest judgment: the emphatic judgment against the Revolution in France.

Payne writes, delicately and decisively contradicting Burke, "No student of history by this time needs to be told that the French Revolution was, in a more or less extended sense, a very good thing." What is most interesting about this is that it is no longer true: students do need to be told just that, repeatedly, for their teachers tremble and fret that they might, if given the opportunity, guide themselves to the opposite opinion. As with many other cases in our day, the progressive or even radical view of things, which once shook the settled world in its implications, has become the conventional wisdom; and indeed, not conventional wisdom of the truism sort, like "Aristotle was a wise man," but conventional wisdom of the dusty, mildly-embarrassing sort, like "permanent class war is inevitable." All manner of folly stands behind our great public arguments as unchallenged assumptions, for the simple reason that no one has challenged them in some time. And thus it is hardly surprising to note that many defiant young people, reversing the trend of the 1960s, revolt against their elders' ridiculous old heresies and dreary radical slogans; and return with all the joy of youthful discovery to virtues of orthodoxy. As Chesterton wryly put it, defending virtue today has all the exhilaration of vice.

An example still fairly near comes to mind: How unutterably silly the aging mandarins of mainstream film criticism looked in castigating the most genuinely countercultural movie in years -- a movie depicting with biblical brutality the greatest, most "challenging" and "edgy" story ever told. Fuddy-duddy or even reactionary is the proper word for those secularist gray hairs for whom The Passion of the Christ was an unspeakable scandal.

So it is with the conventional wisdom on the French Revolution: The Reign of Terror cannot be so easily brushed off, what with its ferocious progeny in Russia, China, and a dozen other nations. Students of history do indeed question whether the French Revolution was a good thing; they question it because its offspring proved among of most evil things ever to blacken the world of men. The whole idea of revolution stands darkened by blood and massacre. In short, Burke stands taller today than Payne, though a hundred years his senior.

I repeat that Mr. Payne's editorial labor over Burke's works is superb, and we are all rewarded by its being reprinted. I harbor no ill will toward so thoughtful, magnanimous and diligent a critic of the great Irishman; Payne's blunder, indeed, is part of his inheritance to us. For it was Payne's judgments that were wrong, and to look upon those judgments in light of Burke's own towering and mysterious genius is to perceive, in one electric flash as it were, the great modern doctrine of Progress flipped on its head.

And we speak here not of some trivial controversy but of one of the greatest of the modern age. That Edmund Burke writing in 1789, knew better than E. J. Payne writing in 1875, means the life of the mind of man regressed in some palpable and central way, even as most everyone of stature proclaimed its progress. And the irony is that, as the hateful, soulless force of modern revolutionism rose out of the dreary despotism constructed by Richelieu and Louis XIV, drawing to it, in its zeal of youth, all the shining idealism of Progress, only a great "reactionary" was progressive enough to see it for what it really was.

It is an infuriating thing to the modern mind to be told that our ancestors knew us better than we know ourselves, but in some cases the proposition is simply true. Burke is one of those cases. I do not say that his affection for Europe's ancien regime -- itself an innovation derived from the revolution of the Reformation -- is something to really admire and emulate; but I do say that his denunciation of the Regicide commonwealth and its Jacobin sophisters stands yet today, perhaps even larger than it did two-hundred and twenty-five years ago.

Moreover, the charge that Burke was a complacent apologist for oppressive aristocracy is itself tedious caricature. I have been struck on occasion by the amusing and almost fanciful spectacle of some modern liberal or progressive having recently discovered Burke -- that is to say, having recently decided to actually read him. The discovery leads the progressive in question to speak with pomp and solemnity, almost as a scold: for the discovery is like that of a prosecutor coming upon a clutch of useful physical evidence -- better, as they say, than witness testimony. Perhaps he has uncovered the large fact that Burke (himself an Irishman) lent his considerable eloquence and intellect to the cause of Irish emancipation; maybe he has been amazed to learn that he prosecuted a prominent imperial abuser of the subjected Indians; more likely our progressive has stumbled upon the vivid fact that his sympathies were with the unruly American colonists. In short, our progressive has discovered the whole huge truth that Edmund Burke was way ahead of most of the progressives of his own day in endorsing progressive causes. And this truth is demonstrated best, we might say, by the fact that Burke's friends and admirers were simply dumbstruck when he so decisively and so forcefully judged the progressive cause of the day -- still indeed, perhaps, the progressive cause, as I have said, of the entire modern age -- to be a titanic catastrophe.

Like most great conservatives, Burke had no antipathy for genuine human progress; what he despised, and spared no effort to expose, was decline and barbarism masquerading as progress. He knew the secret truth: that a society usually must be civilized before it can really go bad; that great civilizations do not so much fall backward into barbarism, as march headlong into it with eager gleaming eyes and sophisticated sermons. Barbarism masquerading as progress is often the proud boast of a society grown morally rotten. Do not expect, dear reader, that when America goes bad -- as some of us fear she is perilously close to doing -- it will be recognized as badness. Nay: it will be cheered as glorious progress; and its denouncers themselves denounced as reactionaries. Some of the greatest reactionaries in this sense have names that sound like trumpets across the vast expanses of our history, names like Isaiah, Saint Augustine, Saint Benedict; and I recall the great defense of reaction given by the unjustly forgotten Paul Elmer More:

        "Reaction may be, and in the true sense is, something utterly different 
        from this futile dreaming; it is essentially to answer action with action, to 
        oppose to the welter of circumstance the force of discrimination and selection, 
        to direct the aimless tide of change by reference to the co-existing law 
        of the immutable fact, to carry the experience of the past into the diverse 
        impulses of the present, and so to move forward in an orderly progression. 
        If any young man, feeling now within himself the power of accomplishment, 
        hesitates to be called a reactionary, in this better use of the term, because 
        of the charge of effeminacy, let him take courage. The world is not 
        contradicted with impunity, and he who sets himself against the world's belief 
        will have need of all a man's endurance and all a man's strength."

After the publication of Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wandered in the wilderness. He prosecuted Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal, in the House of Commons, but the House of Lords acquitted. His intransigence toward Jacobin France alienated his Whig colleagues; yet he never yielded in it; indeed it only grew more vehement, until many came to dismiss him as a near madman.

But the puzzle to our progressive, when he comes to conclude that Burke might well have ended up a hero of the Left had he not turned against the Jacobins, will be resolved only when he abandons his lazy assumption that Burke was a mere partisan or polemicist and no philosopher; and comes to realize that so many great men fall under the label Conservative because they saw like prophets all the terrible madness in the fads and fashions and enthusiasms of their day.

Paul J. Cella III writes from Atlanta and edits Cella's Review.

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