Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Symbols



In Burke's Reflections on the Revolution, monarchy is a paramount symbol of the dignity and stability of the state. Burke lets this be known as early as Section 1. In this section, he argues, in opposition to Rev. Richard Price, that there can be no such person as a king by election. Kings are monarchs by ancestral inheritance and succession. Even James II, forced to abdicate in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89, was "a bad king with a good title, and not a usurper."

Throughout his pamphlet, Burke shows himself as exceptionally sympathetic to the French king, Louis XVI, who was humiliated and imprisoned (and eventually executed) by the revolutionaries. Perhaps the most emotional passages evincing this sympathy are Burke's descriptions of the palace invasion at Versailles on October 6, 1789.

Burke insists, however, that to serve effectively as a symbol, a monarch must be accorded his due dignity and honor. Thus Louis XVI, having been hobbled by the National Assembly in France, is actually a negative force. He cannot serve as an effective commander of the army, for example, nor can he carry out an effective political role.


For Burke the constitution of a state comprises its overall framework, basic principles, and principal functioning components. Throughout Reflections he uses the term to signify the mechanisms that make a functioning government possible.

In Britain, unlike the United States and certain other countries, there has never been a formal written constitution. Yet English political theorists, including Edmund Burke, have not been reluctant to refer to their country's constitution. By this they have meant a mosaic of historic documents (Magna Carta of 1215) and landmark legislative acts passed by Parliament (e.g., the Act of Settlement of 1701). They also have included various legal decisions and precedents. This medley has, for centuries, comprised what the British mean by their "constitution."

In France on the other hand, Burke can discern no constitution whatever. The administration of the National Assembly is so chaotic that the government cannot be described as organized. Burke laments the anarchy that has befallen France.

Tradition of Antiquity

For Burke antiquity means the ancient history of Greece and Rome. The government and civilization of these ancient cultures provide a measuring stick for the evaluation of modern culture. This is one reason for Burke's frequent citation of the writings of ancient authors such as Terence (195–59 BCE), Cicero (106–43 BCE), Horace (65–8 BCE), Virgil (70–19 BCE), and Juvenal (c.55 – c.130 CE).

What did Classical civilization mean to writers like Edmund Burke, active in England during the so–called Neoclassical age? This was a period of rationalism and profound respect for the models of ancient Greece and Rome.

First and foremost, Greek and Roman culture offered inspiring models across a broad range of the arts and sciences. These include literature, rhetoric, philosophy, history, sculpture, architecture, astronomy, engineering, and mathematics. Second, Graeco–Roman mythology was a storehouse of commonly shared narratives second only to the sacred treasury of the Bible. Greek and Roman authors provided proverbial wisdom that had been cited for centuries, as well as timeless stylistic exemplars of expression in both prose and verse.

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