Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 3 : Property; Nature of Government; Religion and Politics; October 6 at Versailles | Summary

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Summary

Burke's central concern in the first part of this section is property. As he asserts, "Nothing is a due and adequate representation of a state that does not represent its ability as well as its property." Property laws and their enforcement were notorious in 18th–century England. Even minor offenses such as trespassing and poaching were punished by branding, deportation, and even hanging. It is against this background that Burke scathingly criticizes the French revolutionaries' confiscation of ecclesiastical property. In November 1789, the French National Assembly ruled that all clerical property was to be placed "at the disposal of the nation." A new paper currency, called the assignats, was issued, with its value pegged to the value of these lands and estates. Burke strongly disapproved of both these measures. In a series of rhetorical questions, Burke urgently explores the possibility, and consequences, of similar actions in England.

Burke next passes to a consideration of the new catchphrase "the rights of men." The phrase was made even more modish in 1791 by the publication of Thomas Paine's pamphlet, The Rights of Man. Here he contrasts what he regards as an abstract, theoretical phrase with the solid realities of the science of government and the art of statecraft. Burke makes the foundational claim that government "requires a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities." The science of government is practical, requiring those who participate in it to be persons of experience and prudence. Burke enjoins "infinite caution" on those who engage in either pulling down or building up any part of the edifice of government. Since human nature is intricate, government is inevitably complex, and its problems or challenges are not likely to have simple solutions. In Burke's opinion, the sweeping, oversimplified theories spun by present–day advocates of "the rights of man" have failed to address these realities. In particular, some of these advocates have confounded religion with politics, teaching "wild and dangerous politics" under the name of religion. (Elsewhere, Burke asserts his firm belief that religion is an essential ally of government.)

In the final portion of this section, Burke turns to the mob invasion of the palace of Versailles on October 6, 1789. He discusses the treatment on that occasion of King Louis XVI (1754–93) and Queen Marie Antoinette (1755–93). Burke presents a suspenseful, somewhat lurid narrative that seems highly biased in favor of the royal couple and against the ruffians who assailed the palace. In particular, Burke describes Marie Antoinette in a highly laudatory fashion. He brands the events at Versailles as an "atrocious spectacle." With romantic nostalgia, he laments the demise of the age of chivalry. In a dig at the title of Richard Price's sermon, Burke soberly opines, "To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely."

Analysis

Burke's writing in Section 3 reveals some of the uneven quality of his Reflections on the Revolution as a whole. His discussion of property in the opening pages of the section contains solidly logical argumentation—the link between property and the notion of inheritance. But the discussion is also distinctly emotional. He wonders what might happen if the practice of confiscating property should spread to England. The importance of the historical relationships between England and France never conceals the lurking doubts that Englishmen must have felt about the Revolution. These misgivings must have been considerably further complicated by the dimensions of the American Revolution and of the English Glorious Revolution of 1688. Burke composed his work against a mosaic or tapestry of revolutionary backgrounds. To conclude that he was concerned about British stability and continuity in such a context would be an understatement.

Burke's emotional involvement in the issues reaches its height in the closing pages of Section 3. There he delivers an extremely sympathetic portrait of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, victims of a mob invasion of Versailles on October 6, 1789. Some contemporaries dismissed this account as inaccurate, and Thomas Paine called it a mere "dramatic performance" in The Rights of Man (1791).

It is in the middle pages of this section—the discussion of the science of government—that Burke is at its best. Burke's writing is elegant but plain–spoken, restrained, and incisive. He makes a case for government as one of the most delicate and complex of sciences, requiring experience, finesse, and a profound knowledge of human nature. Burke sweeps aside both excess and abstraction and writes without a hint of anti–intellectualism. He brings his pragmatic approach to government in a simple, telling summary. He says, "In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics."

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