Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Quotes


We ought to see what [liberty] will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints.

Edmund Burke, Section 1

Throughout Reflections Burke maintains a cautious and prudent stance about such political catchwords as liberty, equality, and the rights of man. He insists that liberty entails responsibility and accountability, as well as a respect for the rule of law.


But King James was a bad king with a good title, and not a usurper.

Edmund Burke, Section 1

Here Burke refers to King James II (ruled 1685–88), whose abdication and the surrounding events were celebrated in England as the Glorious Revolution. Burke is at pains to argue that James assumed the kingship rightfully and legally by succession. He strongly rejects the notion supported by Dr. Richard Price that the people have the right to choose a king by election.


But the course of succession is the healthy habit of the British constitution.

Edmund Burke, Section 1

The British constitution—a combination of laws, judicial opinions, and traditional customs and norms—is the anchor of the nation's government, providing stability and continuity. One of the most important components of the constitution is its provision for an orderly succession, through inheritance, of the monarchy.


But an absurd theory on one side of a question forms no justification for alleging a false fact or promulgating mischievous maxims on the other.

Edmund Burke, Section 1

Here Burke takes note of the exaggerated and distracting arguments of "sophisters" (tricky users of spurious logic). They oppose rational policies and principles by distorting their adversaries' claims. As a trained lawyer and an accomplished parliamentarian, Burke had to deal with such clashes on a regular basis.


But all this guard and all this accumulation of circumstances serves to show the spirit of caution which predominated in the national councils.

Edmund Burke, Section 2

Once again, Burke refers here to the British Glorious Revolution of 1688. He has just introduced the second major issue of Dr. Richard Price's sermon—the people have the right to cashier (or discharge) their governors for misconduct. Once again Burke stresses the "guard" and the "caution" of those who opposed King James II. He concludes this lengthy, rhetorical sentence with a memorable antithesis, combining metaphors with balanced phrasing.


People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Section 2

For Burke, the concept of inheritance is primary. As he says in this context, it is a "sure principle" of both conservation and transmission. An awareness of inheritance is a hallmark of the British people, and this characteristic has favored the evolution and development of their government.


What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or to medicine? ... call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics.

Edmund Burke, Section 3

Burke presents one of his most important main ideas in this passage. He emphasizes his skeptical approach to abstractions such as "the rights of man." Like the philosopher Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753), Burke habitually steers clear of abstract, theoretical language and approaches, preferring pragmatic, concrete appeals to experience.


It is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again.

Edmund Burke, Section 3

In this key passage, Burke is unmistakably emphatic about the extreme caution that men must employ when they dismantle or reconstruct governmental frameworks. For Burke, government is an intricate, fragile structure, despite its inherent practicality. Experience, above all, is required of those who would pull down or build up such an edifice. Burke's implication here, of course, is that the revolutionaries in France have utterly ignored these fundamental truths about government. They prefer instead to rush pell–mell into a new regime without pausing to consider the consequences.


It is with them a war or a revolution, or it is nothing.

Edmund Burke, Section 3

Just as Burke distrusted abstraction, he despised absolutism and irrational extremism. Here he writes dismissively of polemical theorists who revel in extremism when they write or lecture about politics.


Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle.

Edmund Burke, Section 3

In context, Burke laments here the disappearance of the traditional notions of chivalry and loyalty between monarchs and their subjects. In his prose style, Burke is a master of the rolling, periodic sentence, whose lengthy, rhythmically balanced clauses fit well with rhetorical declamation in the House of Commons. Occasionally, however, he writes brief statements in which pithiness achieves the effect of epigram. In this quotation, note the threefold, concise antithesis of kings and subjects, tyrants and rebels, and policy and principle.


Man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long.

Edmund Burke, Section 4

Burke was firmly convinced that religion was an indispensable ally of good government. He steadfastly supported the existence of an established church in England. One reason that he so distrusted many of the leading figures of the Enlightenment was that he felt they were determined to do away with organized religion altogether. The French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1835–40), expressed much the same views about the relationship between religion and politics.


The majority of the people of England, far from thinking a religious national establishment unlawful, hardly think it lawful to be without one.

Edmund Burke, Section 4

These words again show Burke as an advocate of a strong religious presence in society and government. If Burke had adopted his mother's Roman Catholicism, he would have been disqualified for election to Parliament and for appointment to most university posts. The year after he completed Reflections, in 1791, the new American government, which Burke had supported, adopted the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment barred any "establishment of religion."


I believe the instances of eminent depravity may be as rare amongst them as those of transcendent goodness.

Edmund Burke, Section 6

In Reflections on the Revolution, Burke was especially critical of the revolutionaries' decision to confiscate all ecclesiastical property. In discussing the French bishops, Burke typically favors a moderate approach, avoiding extremism. Burke himself had paid an extensive visit to France in 1773, spending considerable time with his friend the Bishop of Auxerre.


Difficulty is a severe instructor, set over us by the supreme ordinance of a parental Guardian and Legislator.

Edmund Burke, Section 7

This assertion occurs within the context of a general critique of France's new National Assembly. Burke has declared that the members are generally unable to "wrestle with difficulty"—the intricate and challenging business of designing an effective government. This inability has led the Assembly down the road of "schemes of reform with abolition and total destruction." In the quotation, note Burke's typical acknowledgment of a supreme "parental guardian."


Your constitution has too much of jealousy to have much sense in it.

Edmund Burke, Section 8

Burke again contrasts the traditional British constitution with the new governmental arrangements in France after the Revolution. He discerns an utter dissimilarity between Britain and France. Burke is particularly critical of the cumbersome electoral procedures that have been set up for membership in the National Assembly in France.

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