Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 6 : Nobility and Clergy; Debt and Superstition | Summary



Burke trains his sights on an analysis of the two classes, or "estates," most reviled by the revolutionaries in France: the nobility and the clergy. These had long been perceived as allies associated with each other to oppress the common people.

Burke vigorously contests the view that the French nobility is justly portrayed as "objects of horror." On the contrary, he contends, his experience suggests that French aristocrats, by and large, are individuals of "high spirit" and "a delicate sense of honor." They have behaved toward the "inferior classes" with "good nature." Nevertheless, Burke admits that French nobles have been guilty of "considerable faults and errors."

As for the clergy, Burke is skeptical about their portrayal as corrupt when those who defame them stand to profit from their downfall. He cannot bring himself to believe that the current profile of the French clergy as monstrous is accurate. Burke recalls his personal contacts with the clergy in France (on his visit of 1773). He remembers the clergymen he encountered as "liberal and open," "with the hearts of gentlemen." Burke declares that of the 120 French bishops, "the instances of eminent depravity [were] as rare amongst them as those of transcendent goodness." He protests again against the "present ruling power" (the leadership of the Revolution) for its punishment of all prelates. Burke reiterates his suspicion that schemers are plotting to abolish the Christian religion. This is being done through the agency of a secular or "civic" educational system associated with Rousseau (1712–78) and the Comte de Mirabeau (1749–91), both whom Burke disliked and distrusted.

Burke voices his worry that confiscations similar to the seizure of ecclesiastical property in France may be undertaken. This would be accomplished to remedy the "ocean of boundless debt" into which nations have waded deeper and deeper. Revolutions favor confiscation, Burke warns. He adds a warning against the dangers of superstition.


Perhaps more than any other section in Burke's Reflections, this part of the work may strike the reader as special pleading. Burke attempts to make the case in favor of a moderate and sensible French nobility, as well as a learned and well–disposed clergy. His argumentation is vulnerable on several counts. In particular Burke exaggerates the vilification of the French nobility and clergy in order to make his defense of these orders seem more credible.

On the other hand, this section includes some thoughtful remarks on the use and abuse of history. Notable is Burke's juxtaposition of the current situation in Paris and the massacre of St. Bartholomew, the slaughter of French Protestants in Paris in August 1572.

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