Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Main Ideas

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Inheritance and Succession

For Edmund Burke, the value of inheritance and succession is intimately related to the intrinsic worth of institutions. Burke begins Reflections on the Revolution in France by challenging the Rev. Richard Price's assertions about the Glorious Revolution in England of 1688–89. The Glorious Revolution resulted in the forced abdication of King James II. Contrary to Price, Burke maintains that James II inherited the throne in a thoroughly constitutional, legal mode of succession.

It is for a similar reason that Burke upholds inheritance and succession as the polar opposite to the French confiscation of ecclesiastical lands. The confiscation of church property, in Burke's opinion, is arbitrary, irrational, and abominable.

Inheritance and succession, for Burke, are concepts that are not just limited to the spheres of political power and landed property. They are also concepts that extend psychologically to a mindset of order and harmony. They are consistent with Burke's characteristic emphasis on tradition as a key element of equilibrium in society.

Religion

Burke has comparatively little to say about the specifics of religious belief to which he would subscribe. But religion as a component of society looms large in his vision of benevolent government. He is unequivocal in his approval of religion as an ally of good government. He goes so far as to define human beings as fundamentally religious creatures.

This is an issue on which political theorists have differed to a great extent. At the time that Burke wrote these lines, the founding fathers of the US Constitution, for example, provided for a separation of church and state. This was despite the fact that many of their forebears in colonial Massachusetts had established a Puritan theocracy 150 years before. In the 1830s, the French analyst of political theory Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) applauded religion as a strong ally of democracy in his magisterial survey Democracy in America (1835–40).

Like Tocqueville, Burke regards religion as a stabilizing, orderly force in society, an impulse that is naturally allied with government. Burke goes so far as to defend an established church in England as an institution that is cherished by the British people.

Moderation and Restraint

One of Burke's most stringent criticisms of the French revolutionary leaders is their indulgence in excess. The National Assembly's lack of restraint, he declares, is a critical fault in their failure to provide coherent leadership for their country.

Of the numerous passages in the Reflections that could be cited to illustrate this theme, three will suffice here. In Section 3 Burke draws attention to the complexity and delicacy of the science of government. He points out that governmental affairs require an intimate and precise knowledge of human nature. In Section 5 he devotes a powerful argument for the proposition that gradual reform—as opposed to catastrophic upheaval—was possible in France. He says this reform was possible even at the start of 1789. And in Section 13 he expands his argument in favor of moderation to make the claim that it is actually self–restraint that engenders civil liberty.

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