Reflections on the French Revolution, et al. by Edmund Burke

by Paul Mathers


Banish from your midst that demon Rand.

Dismiss the cultist Mormons out of hand.

And then, perhaps, I’ll willingly dissert

on Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke

and other of your ideas I’d like to lurk.

I wrote the bit of satirical verse above during the last presidential election. I am 35 years old. The “race to the bottom” culture disgusts me to the point where I almost feel the need to shower after being somewhere that isn’t work, home, or church. I am an American Protestant, which means that most of my peers presume Conservatism from their peers. I wear a tie most days of my own free will. I pay more in taxes than I can afford. I own a home right in the middle of a trail between a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, and the many liquor stores which opportunistically exist betwixt the two. In other words, I am fully aware that I am prime material to be a Conservative. But I am still not and, lately, in light of reading Burke and a few other elements, have taken to reflecting on why I am still not.

Much like Ben Franklin’s autobiography, this book has the strange distinction of not dealing with, due to the time of its writing, the details that we might be most inclined to expect on that topic. Madame Guillotine does not make an appearance in this book. Edmund Burke’s arguments deal with ideology and the problematic real-time implications, but never touch on the more gruesome manifestations (likely out of ignorance of those events and, as I said, the composition of the letter taking place while the snowball was still high on the hill). The pleasant side-effect of this ignorance is that the horror and emotions are dialed back a hair. This is helpful on a number of levels. First of all, it helps to dissect the issues underlying the horrors that came. Second, it helps the piece to speak across time and lend opinions to other situations.

As an example, Burke makes the argument for the great contributions to humankind that have come through religion. The French Revolution sought to abolish religion. The French Revolution, along with The Gulag Archipelago, are, in case you didn’t know, the immediate first stops on calling “B.S.” on the neo-atheist argument that religion has caused nothing but evil and that atheism has always been a benign and benevolent force in history. Burke shows the stripping of the country’s religion to be synonymous (and concurrent) with the stripping of the nation’s morality.

However, he also has very harsh words for one Reverend Dr. Richard Price, an English minister who abused the pulpit with a sermon in favor of the revolution. Burke is disgusted with the misuse of the house of God for political purposes. I am continually inclined to agree. Whenever I hear about, oh say, pastors who are planning an act of defiance of the United States government by revealing their political bents from the pulpit, I think of the likely hypothetical vistor in dire need of spiritual renewal or bare salvation who finally mustered the courage to show up in church on Sunday. What a detestable abuse of the office of shepherd!


“Smelling Out A Rat” A caricature of Burke hounding Dr. Price.

Another word that I felt Burke had for today is over those, some of his fellow countrymen included (of whom he says “Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour.”), who wish to rush to revolution with the fervor of a shark catching the scent of blood. This is a phenomenon I have observed in my own time. Revolution, he says, ought to be the very last resort. It was clearly not the last resort as France was not on the brink of failure. Reform is good. Overthrow is like amputating in the final sparse hope of saving the patient.

He also has some thoughts on the Democratic Ideal:

“I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases.”

This put me so much in mind of those who grossly misunderstand democracy in my own time and nation. Democracy is slow, cumbersome, and, at its very best, merely fair, BY DESIGN! It is intended to care for all who fall under its banner. It is not a place where the biggest bully gets his way and everyone else has to go with it.

Which brings me back to my initial comments. One of the reasons I haven’t gone towards the Right is that the party at present seems to have this bullyish attitude which I find reprehensible. It grates against everything I believe in to see an O’Reilly shout someone down or a Michael Savage resort to a lifetime of ad hominem attacks.

I hate bullies, regardless of whose side they are on.

Also, as I’ve said elsewhere, I am a believer in civilization. In fact, I try to vote pro-civilization. This generally means pro-science, pro-arts (and the funding thereof), pro-generous funding for education, pro-civil rights, anti-war… you see where this is going? If the modern American Conservative were Burkean in the level of respect for order, prudence, and custom, I might be convincible. At present, this bastardized hybrid which focuses on self-interest and “every man a whining-baby-king” is, in my mind, about as loathsome as those opportunists who subverted and murdered the old order for their own gain.

After reading this volume, I fully believe that Burke was also, above all, pro-civilization.

And I am reminded of a parallel to some recent conversations I’ve had with friends over the current state of Christianity in the public eye. What happens if someone finds out that you are a Christian and their only previous experience with Christianity is the Westboro Baptist Church or the child abuse scandals of the papists or the transparently avaricious TBN? At best there will be severe cognitive dissonance that they are faced with someone who does not actively hate them. At worst and more likely, all discourse will be squelched beneath the presupposition that, sharing the same title, you do hate them.

In the end it seems the same to me for what Christianity has settled for in the public sphere and what American Conservatism has settled for. They seem to me groups who have foregone the offered and fitting laurels of gold in favor of covering themselves in their own excrement. Which, really, in the words of another great philosopher, is human, all too human.