Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke. London: 1815.
Burke’s writings on the French Revolution are probably less known than they deserve to be by every one who cares to understand the nature of his political philosophy. We have shown that his general theory upon constitutional questions might be resolved into a belief that every constitutional arrangement must be accepted as an existing fact, and so managed, by the application of the general maxims of political prudence, that the greatest possible public advantage might be derived from it. We have also tried to point out the limitation under which this is quite true, and even self-evident; which limitation is that the constitutional compromise must represent an actually existing state of society, and that the principles on which it is founded must be regarded as true.
In all the questions which had come under Burke's notice in reference to the British Empire and the English nation these conditions had been observed.
The King of England, the Lords, and the House of Commons were each real powers in the State, and represented, by no means unfairly, different branches of English society as it was then organised. The Parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland, and the various Colonial Assemblies, also represented, with sufficient accuracy, real independent sections of the empire competent to enter into relations and treaties with each other; and the various questions which from time to time arose between them were in all cases either matters of practical arrangement, or else questions of principle which it was possible to discuss without going to the very foundations of civil society.
Though the Americans chose to dignify their contest with England by the enunciation of general principles about the inalienable rights of man, it was quite possible to advocate their cause upon much narrower grounds; and even in America, and amongst the Americans themselves, the principles announced obviously went very considerably further than the actual necessities of the case required. The difference between such questions as these and the questions which were agitated by the French Revolution is too broad and too well known to require to be pointed out.
The French Revolution brought at once into issue all the deepest questions as to the nature of society, and the position and destinies of the human race, which can exercise men's minds. The Revolution was essentially opposed to every maxim and every dogma, on which existing forms of society in France and in Europe at large had theretofore been based; and when Burke came to consider it with his usual shrewdness and clear-sightedness and practical acquaintance with facts, he found himself obliged to do what he had never found it necessary to do before —to descend to the foundations of things, and throw into a distinct and more or less systematic form his own political creed. He must no doubt have held it all along, but it is nowhere to be found in his works in a definite systematic shape till we come to the Reflections on the Revolution in France, and the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. Burke's later writings on the French Revolution are so little read in the present day that, in order to set his political creed in the relief which properly belongs to it, and to show its practical nature, it will be necessary to follow rather more fully than we have hitherto done the course of his teaching on the subject.
The Reflections on the Revolution in France, which begin the series, are sufficiently well known. The glories of the British Constitution, the absolute satisfaction of the British nation in its perfections, and the magnificence of its results, are first held up to the admiration of the French with a contemptuous 'Go and do thou likewise,' and with a pitying admonition to the effect that if they had been wise they might have done likewise. The course of events in France is then depicted with infinite scorn and indignation, and the new Constitution is criticised with merciless severity. The nature of the British Constitution is unfolded and explained in order to point the contrast between it and the proceedings in France.
The Reflections are vehement enough, but they are tame to the writings which followed. The Letter to a Member of the National Assembly goes much further. France is mad—' the deluded people of France are like other madmen who to a miracle bear hunger and thirst, and cold and confinement, and the chains and lash of their keeper, whilst all the while they support themselves by the imagination that they are generals of armies, prophets, kings, and emperors.' 'These madmen, to be cured, must first ... be subdued.' This must be 'an act of power' by men ' who will lay the foundation of a real reform in effacing every vestige of that philosophy which pretends to have made discoveries in the terra australis of morality; men who will fix the State upon those bases of morals and politics which are our old, our immemorial, and I hope will be our eternal, possession.' France is 'a college of armed fanatics for the propagation of the principles of assassination, robbery, rebellion, fraud, faction, oppression, and impiety.' The princes of Europe should interfere, not, indeed, for the annihilation of France, but for its punishment. Moreover, unless the system of terror is given up (this was written in 1791, long before the Reign of Terror began), 'if ever a foreign prince enters into France, he must enter it as into a country of assassins. The mode of civilised war will not be practised, nor are the French, who act on the present system, entitled to expect it' . . . 'All war which is not battle will be military execution.'
Further on we learn that the revolutionists have succeeded by 'the practices of incendiaries, assassins, housebreakers, robbers, spreaders of false news, forgers of false orders.' This is bad enough, but as time goes on the scene gets, if possible, darker.
In the Thoughts on French Affairs, published in December 1791, which is quieter in style, it is pointed out that the French system is proselytising, and that it is spreading to England. Louis XVI. is severely blamed. 'This unfortunate king was deluded to his ruin by a desire to humble and reduce his nobility, clergy, and his corporate magistracy.' He hopes to regain his power 'by various mean, delusive intrigues, in which I am afraid he is encouraged from abroad.' Under the fear of death 'this unhappy man has been guilty of all those humilities which have astonished mankind.' He is 'captive in mind as well as in body,' and all this has thrown the European sovereigns into great difficulties in dealing with France. How can you deal properly with the Revolution as a huge crime, when the very king for whom you fight is more or less of a revolutionist?
When the interference has fairly begun, matters get still worse. The Allies are so far from going heart and soul into the war, as into a crusade, that they virtually acknowledge the Revolutionary party to be in the right, by recognising them as the people of France:
'If we consider the acting power in France (October 1793) in any legal construction of public law as the people, the question is decided in favour of the republic, one and indivisible. ... If we look for the corporate people of France existing as corporate in the eye and intention of public law (that corporate people, I mean, who are free to deliberate and decide, and who have a capacity to treat and conclude), they are in Flanders and Germany, in Switzerland, Spain, Italy, and England. There are all the princes of the blood, there are all the orders of the State, there are all the parliaments of the kingdom.'The 're-establishment of royalty and property' ought to be the one object of the Allies. Not only ought the emigrants to be restored to their estates, but the clergy, as 'physicians and magistrates of the mind,' ought to be reintroduced to their parishes 'as missionaries of. peace and order,' by the side of the 'well-informed, sensible, ingenious, high-principled, and spirited body of cavaliers' who formed the 'expatriated landed interest of France.' The corporations of the great towns were to be re-established, in order that all might co-operate to 'restrain and regulate the seditious rabble.'
In short, 'we cannot, if we would, delude ourselves about the true state of this dreadful contest; it is a religious war.' So completely is it a religious war, that Burke goes to the edge of recommending a persecution of the French Protestants: 'There may be perhaps half a million or more, calling themselves Protestants. . . . They have behaved shockingly since the very beginning of this rebellion, and have been uniformly concerned in its worst and most atrocious acts. Their clergy are just the same atheists with those of the Constitutional Catholics, but still more wicked and daring.'
The treatment recommended for them is characteristic:
'As the ancient Catholic religion is to be restored for the body of France, the ancient Calvinistic religion ought to be restored for the Protestants, with every kind of protection and privilege. . . . The Presbyterian discipline ought to be established in its vigour, and the people professing it ought to be bound to its maintenance. No man, under the false and hypocritical pretence of liberty of conscience, ought to be suffered to have no conscience at all. I am conscious that this discipline disposes men to republicanism; but it is still a discipline, and it is a cure (such as it is) for the perverse and undisciplined habits which for some time have prevailed.'It is hardly necessary to follow further this account of Burke's appreciation of the Revolution. One sentence in the pamphlet from which we have been quoting sums it all up:—'France, such as it is, is indeed highly formidable. Not formidable, however, as a great republic, but as the most dreadful gang of robbers and murderers that ever was embodied.'
The Letters on a Regicide Peace are all sermons on this text. It is a doctrine with which we are at war.
'It is a war between the partisans of the ancient, civil, moral, and political order of Europe against a sect of fanatical and ambitious Atheists which means to change them all.' All Europe is 'virtually one great State, having the same basis of general law with some diversity of provincial customs and local establishments,' and as such it is its duty to put down and to punish crimes which tend to destroy its fundamental laws.‘The present system in France is not the ancient France.' It was a fatal mistake to hold any terms at all with the revolutionary powers, or to admit that the people in France were in any sense the French people; but unhappily the princes of Europe will not take that view of the subject. They are lukewarm and selfish. They strike, not at the heart of their enemy, but at outlying members which may be severed from the main body without weakening it, and even to its advantage. Hence they have betrayed the common cause, and will all be destroyed in their turn, for France is not lukewarm, France is not a country of balance and compromise: 'What now stands as government in France is struck out at a heat. The design is wicked, immoral, impious, oppressive; but it is spirited and daring; it is systematic; it is simple in its principle, it has unity and consistency in perfection. ... To them the will, the wish, the want, the liberty, the toil, the blood of individuals is as nothing. Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The State is all in all.'
Such is Burke's conception of the French Revolution. An acquaintance with it is necessary, as an introduction to that view of the principles of government and foundations of society, which he was first led to express systematically by the horror and aversion with which the Revolution inspired him. The standing-ground from which so fierce a condemnation of such an event could be hurled had of course to be a strong one.
It is stated with great vigour in two places—first, in the Reflections on the Revolution in France; and afterwards, even more fully and plainly, in the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. There was a good deal of justice in Bentham's observation, that he hated metaphysics because he hated to be tied down to anything definite. In the writings in question emphasis and not clearness is his object, yet he expresses himself with abundant force, and in a manner sufficiently intelligible to any one who really wishes to understand him, though open to all sorts of objections.
The first point to be observed is that Burke's intense hatred of the Revolution was founded, to a great degree, upon the fact that, between himself and the Revolutionists there was at least one cardinal point in common. It may look at first sight like a contradiction to what we have said already, that Burke was emphatically an a priori reasoner on politics. Practical utility is no doubt, in his system, the object at which all reformers ought on all occasions to aim. To work with existing materials, and to reverence prescription and possession, are the great practical rules towards the general end. At the basis of the whole, however, lie a set of principles without which these practical directions would be sterile.
Like Berkeley — whose philosophy harmonises singularly well with Burke's writings, and in all probability had powerfully affected his mind—Burke makes duty to God the foundation of everything else; and, also like Berkeley, he referred to the will and disposition of God all the principal relations between man and man, and regarded the great moral duties, and the rights which arise out of them, as divinely instituted, and superior in kind and degree to all other obligations whatever.
No one ever wrote more earnestly, strange as it may appear, about the rights of man. The question between him and the Jacobins was not whether men had natural rights, but whether they had the rights which were claimed by the Revolutionists, and especially the right of cashiering governments, and altering the whole existing distinctions of property and authority at the will of the majority. Thus he says:
'If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made are his right. . . . Whatever each man can separately do without trespassing upon others he has a right to do for himself, and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour.'In one of his posthumous tracts on the Popery Laws he goes even further: 'In all forms of government the people is the true legislator, and whether the immediate and instrumental cause of the law be a single person or many, the remote and efficient cause is the consent of the people, either actual or implied, and such consent is absolutely essential to its validity.' Though the consent of the people is necessary to the validity of a law, the popular will is not omnipotent. There are things to which the people cannot consent, laws which they cannot make.
Burke says that a law' prejudicial to the whole community' would be 'null and void,' even if the whole community collectively and actually assented to it, 'because it would be made against the principle of a superior law, which it is not in the power of any community, or of the whole race of man, to alter—I mean the will of him who gave us our nature, and in giving, impressed an invariable law upon it.' There are two foundations of law 'without which nothing can give it any force.' They are equity and utility. Equity 'grows out of the great rule of equality, which is founded upon our common nature, and which Philo with propriety and beauty calls the mother of justice.' 'All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory. They may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice.'
This notion of a justice antecedent to, and by right formative of, all law, and made binding on all men by an immutable divine decree, lies at the root of every part of Burke's political theories. It had much in common with the Jacobin view. Hobbes and Bentham are in principle further from Burke than Rousseau or Voltaire (whom he vehemently abuses, without, as far as we can judge, any special acquaintance with his writings).
The point of divergence between them lies in the question, What does justice prescribe? Burke answers this by saying that God had appointed a certain order for the whole human race:
'A mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts, wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole at one time is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, full of renovation and progression. . . . The awful Author of our being is the Author of our place in the order of existence; and having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to his, he has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us.'The result of all this is, that the existing order of things is entitled to intense reverence because it is mediately the work of God; on the other hand, it is to be, step by step and progressively, improved, because it was designed by God for the benefit of man, and because every man has a right to take the benefits which it can give him. Civil society, it is true, is a contract, but it is a contract which we cannot alter, and as to which we cannot choose whether we will enter it or not. 'Its continuance is under a permanent standing covenant co-existing with the society; and it also lies upon every individual of that society without any formal act of his own.'
Our duties to Government, like most of our other duties, are by no means matter of choice, and the sanction on which they depend is not matter of human institution:
'Look through the whole of life, and the whole system of duties. Many of the strongest moral obligations are such as were never the result of our option. I allow that if no Supreme Ruler exists, wise to form, and potent to enforce the moral law, there is no sanction to any contract, virtual or even actual, against the rule of prevalent power.'If, however, such a ruler exists, then mere popular will is in no sense the ultimate test of all things; and if it infringes general principles, breaks through established rights, neglects prescription and possession, and thinks itself at liberty to destroy every institution which it does not happen to like, it is just as tyrannical, as unjust, as wicked, as any other tyrant. In all this we can see nothing but a cumbrous and obscure, because needlessly eloquent, way of enunciating the truism that revolutions ought not to be made needlessly, and that, except in extreme cases, men ought not violently to disturb the existing state of things, or to disappoint existing expectations.
If the generalities are reduced to special cases they look very much the reverse of imposing. Did Burke mean to say that God gave two members, to Old Sarum, and if not, what precisely did he mean? Probably in this, as in other cases, he would have found clearness an enemy to enthusiasm. His remarks about the social contract are only a roundabout way of saying that it is a mere fiction.
Such being the general theory of civil society, how is it to be applied to any existing state of things? At this point Burke has to introduce a considerable element of fiction. He preaches, in many places and under various forms, the doctrine that it is a sort of duty to take the very most favourable view of an existing institution which the imagination can with any plausibility form of it. If it appears that any existing institution answers directly or indirectly any good end, regard it as instituted for that end, and reform it, if it must be reformed, accordingly.
This principle is rather practised than distinctly enunciated; but the famous description of the Church of England 'raising her mitred head in Courts and Parliaments' and providing archbishops and bishops with salaries of £10,000 a year for the salvation of 'the miserable Rich,' is perhaps the strongest illustration which can be given of it. The way in which 'we,' the people of England in general, are described throughout the whole of the Reflections, as holding this or that, which Burke thinks we ought to hold, is another:
'We fear God; we look up with awe to Kings, with affection to Parliaments, with duty to magistrates, with reverence to priests, and with respect to nobility. . . . We think that no discoveries are to be made in morality, nor many in the great principles of government. . . . We are resolved to keep an established Church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater. . . . Our education is in a manner wholly in the hands of ecclesiastics.'It is worth observing, by the way, that in the first Letter on a Regicide Peace, he gives further particulars as to who 'we' are. He says that 'In England and Scotland I compute that those of adult age, not declining in life, of tolerable leisure for such discussions, and of the means of information more or less, and who are above menial dependence (or what virtually is such), may amount to about 400,000. This is the British public'
He adds, 'Of these 400,000 political citizens, I look upon one-fifth, or about 80,000, to be pure Jacobins, utterly incapable of amendment, objects of eternal vigilance, and, when they break out, of legal constraint.' The 'we,' therefore, who think all these fine things, are only that majority of a minority, which is obtained by taking credit for all the indifferent and undecided members who even passively adhere to what exists. The most active part of the minority are 'pure Jacobins,' and probably four-fifths of the adult males of the nation are not to be considered at all. This diminishes the force of the declamation about 'we.'
A second and a still more important rule with Burke is, that we are not only to make the best of all existing institutions, but are to accept as final the theoretical basis on which they rest. Utility, and not truth, is the object of politics; those who seek for truth, and-act upon the assumption that they have found it by attacking the existing state of things, are liable to every hard name which Burke lavished on the revolutionists. The relation between utility and truth as conceived by the great writers of the eighteenth century, and the question how far their theory on the subject was true, are matters of too much importance to be incidentally discussed, and would afford a curious subject of separate inquiry.
Such, if we rightly understand it, is Burke's general view of the nature of civil society and of the abomination of revolutions. What is to be said of it? The first remark to be made upon the matter is that, if by a lucky accident the state of things at a given time and place is such that such a theory can be accepted and acted upon, the theory is itself superfluous. No one pulls down his house when it is obvious that nothing is required beyond ordinary repairs.
In the case of the French the event showed that matters had gone far too deep to be treated in the manner which Burke suggested. It was impossible to take any real security against a counter-revolution without disabling, as well as dispossessing, the defeated party. The horrors of the struggle were the effect, not the cause, of its profundity, and of the irreconcileable difference between the two parties which were brought into fierce collision, without any sort of previous training in the arts which mitigate civil strife. To have got a British Constitution out of the Revolution, the history of France ought to have been the history of England.
It is, however, superabundantly proved, by the history of now nearly three generations, that Burke utterly misconceived the nature and durability of the particular temporary condition of things which he idealised under the name of the British Constitution. What he understood by those words, if indeed it ever existed at all except in his own imagination, has altogether passed away. The young physicians have got over the awe with which they used to look upon their fathers' liver and have treated the old man in a manner much more effective than reverential.
If we had had several generations of statesmen passionately intent upon keeping up a proper balance between the three elements of the Constitution, where should we all have been at the present moment? Our course has in reality been a far simpler one than Burke ever thought it possible for the course of policy to be. That curious and fundamentally contradictory theory which taught on the one hand that a Constitution was something divine and mysterious, not to say uncreated and ineffable, and which, on the other, regarded it as an infinitely complicated and wonderful 'moral machine' which must never be touched except by the most skilful artists, imbued with a passionate reverence for the very things that they were going to alter, has pretty well ceased to influence the thoughts, though it still to a certain extent retains its place in the language, of men.
Very plain and simple notions have taken the place of Burke's refinements. 'We,' to use his own language, are for the most part willing to live and let live, and to interfere very little with the political powers, and not at all with the social position, of different classes, so long as they do not interfere with the general march of events, and with the deliberate opinions and feelings of the great mass of the people; but when those opinions and feelings assume by degrees—as they occasionally do—a definite shape upon any specific subject, they are altogether irresistible, and, happily for us all, serious and conscious attempts to resist them are no longer made.
This is pretty much the result of the constitutional and political discussions of the last seventy or eighty years. If Burke was right (as no doubt he was) as to the importance of prescription and possession, the respect due to existing facts, and the flimsiness of some of the metaphysical theories which he so much detested, still, on the other hand, the fact—for it is a fact—of the sovereignty of the people in the broadest sense of the words, has been established in this country by the general course of events, in a manner which is altogether unquestionable and conclusive. Nor can the struggles which led to its recognition, both in France and England, be denied to have been justified by the result, awful as they undoubtedly were in some of their details.
There is but one other remark which it appears to be necessary to make. Burke through the whole of his criticisms on the French Revolution regards it as an attack on the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, in whatever special form those doctrines might be expressed. To a certain extent this was undoubtedly true.
The old state of things in France was no doubt founded on the hypothesis of the truth of the Roman Catholic version of the Christian religion. It is equally clear that the new state of things is founded on the supposition that, whether that or any other form of positive religion is true or not, political society has a basis of its own, on which it can stand independently, according to which basis religion must, as between man and man, be regarded as a matter of, opinion—that is, as matter of doubt, whatever may, be the case as between man and God.
The theories, which we so often hear described collectively as the principles of 1789, amount in a few words to the assertion that men can and do associate, and in France amongst other places actually have associated, together for the purpose of conferring upon each other the elementary benefits of society —including all that is meant by the protection of person and property at least, and tending, as every one can see, to include a great deal more—on the simple principle that they find such an association highly advantageous with a view to this present life alone, and independently of the question whether or not there is any other.
It was the possibility and the morality of such an association which Burke denied, with almost frantic violence, and which he branded as atheism and anarchy. That point, however, has been established with immovable solidity, though no doubt at an awful expense. Like the sovereignty of the people, it is one of those matters upon which controversy between reasonable men is no longer possible; and it is beyond all doubt a point upon which Burke's most cherished doctrines are emphatically and directly contradicted by experience.
What may be the value of such an association, whether it will be final, and what will ultimately be its relations to associations of a different kind, and founded upon different principles, are questions of another order; and it appears eminently probable that the effort to obtain a proximate solution of them, will be the great leading feature of the history of Europe and America for generations, perhaps for centuries, to come. One fact, at all events, is clear. The questions which Burke, and those whom he represented, earnestly struggled to avoid, have been opened, never to be closed again till they are either solved or definitively renounced as insoluble. They are all included under one general head—Is the Christian, or any, and what, other system of religion and morals true? If an affirmative answer to this question is arrived at by the great mass of the population of any nation, or of any group of nations, there can be no doubt that political institutions will again be founded upon, or at all events, closely allied with, religion and morals.
So long as the question is practically regarded as insoluble, or at all events as unsolved, the present state of things will continue. Law proper will be founded upon simple temporal prudence, and government will have a growing tendency to become a mere affair of police, and to be separated from all moral control over the minds of men. Morals and religion, on the other hand, will suffer equally, though in different ways. Morals will tend to become a mere sentiment or a mere speculation; and religion will tend to be merged in superstition.
There neither will nor can be any other deliverance from these evils than that which lies in finding a solution of the great questions, which, so to speak, exploded now nearly ninety years ago. Whatever the final result may be, it can hardly admit of a doubt, that none of those who have handled them were so hopelessly wrong, as the writers and statesmen who thought that, because the discussion would be terribly dangerous, it either could or ought to be permanently avoided.
Saturday Review, February 29, 1868.