Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 4 : Church and State | Summary



Burke focuses on the subject of the proper relationship between church and state. The framers of the new American constitution were about to enshrine the separation of church and state in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights (1791). Although Burke had vigorously supported the American Revolution, he firmly endorses the establishment of the Church of England in his own land. The bitterly anticlerical stance of many of the French revolutionaries seemed deplorable to Burke. His dislike of anticlericalism extended to many of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment. These included Voltaire (1694–1778), Rousseau (1712–78), and Diderot (1713–84), whom he suspected of wanting to abolish Christianity altogether.

Burke devotes much of this section to comparing and contrasting England and France. He first addresses the British. He says, "We know, and what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society and the source of all good and of all comfort." He adds, "Man is by his constitution a religious animal." The English do not hesitate to grant preferment, privilege, and wealth to their senior clergy. He says, "They can see, without pain or grudging, an archbishop precede a duke."

In stark contrast, the National Assembly of France has approved what Burke labels a "dishonest, perfidious, and cruel confiscation" of church property. Burke believes that there is not a single public official in England who would grant assent to this action.

The French confiscation of church lands was on an unprecedented scale. Burke believed that it was the product of unscrupulous financial interests. He suggests a "literary cabal" (or conspiratorial group) had for some years been pursuing a plan "for the destruction of the Christian religion." He mentions the project of the Encyclopédie in this connection. There is little doubt that Burke refers to the philosophes, or major thinkers of the French Enlightenment, some of whom professed either atheism or agnosticism.

The standard propaganda of the French Revolution held that the clergy had joined with the nobility to oppress and defraud the commons. They did this to keep the commons in a state of poverty and semiservitude. For this reason, the revolutionaries found it relatively easy to whip up anticlerical sentiment in France.


Early in this section, Burke includes a striking, counterintuitive passage on prejudice in his praise of English religious beliefs and practices. Readers are conditioned to think of the word prejudice as possessing wholly negative connotations. Burke turns expectation on its head when he affirms that "prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit."

The broad range of Burke's rhetorical devices in this section include extended metaphor. An extended metaphor is a prolonged, direct comparison of two dissimilar things. For example, Burke affirms that the English, who formerly steered clear of French affairs, must now take an active interest in events in France. They must consider whether the events amount to a panacea or a plague. The latter case would warrant the establishment of "precautions of the most severe quarantine." Burke develops an elaborate analogy. He likens the productions of "petty cabals" to the "importunate chink" of half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern. He says this occurs "while thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent." Verbal irony is especially prominent in this section, as Burke mocks the French "enemies to property." In verbal irony, a speaker or writer's true meaning reverses what he or she says on the surface. Burke says, "These professors of the rights of men are so busy in teaching others that they have not leisure to learn anything themselves." He continues that "otherwise they would have known that it is to the property of the citizen ... that the first and original faith of civil society is pledged."

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