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Burke and Locke

November 9, 2010

After reading Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, one is left with a bittersweet mouthful of cynicism. This is not to say that Burke doesn’t bring up good points, and a rant writer (I especially like his concept of the swine multitude), but he writes with a cynical look on society, underscored by his endorsement of limiting estates’ involvement in the government. Burke’s skepticism is justified in his writing, with exhaustive explanation. However, I believe much of Burke’s argument can be answered by John L

The Estates General, where a deviation of tradition caused the French Revolution

ocke, who some note as the father of Liberalism.

Writing in reflection of the French Revolution, Burke attempts to enlighten the French, who he feels acted wrongly by rebelling against justified success of the French monarchy. In support of the monarchy, Burke claims,

“[The monarchy] appears to me to be the result of profound reflection, or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views” (p. 503).

Here, Burke is arguing that the monarchy is a form of government that has been proven to work by previous reflection. Predecessors have thought through the process of governing and the end result was a monarchy. Burke urges the people of France that they need not think of new ways to govern themselves, stick to the system laid down by inheritance and royal blood. It is notable that Burke is more conservative than most political theorists we have previously encountered. Burke’s main point is that of tradition, and how estates should do anything to avoid deviating from the path laid-down by preceding monarchs.

Locke, a political theorist, looks through a different lens when analyzing the effectiveness of a government. Locke suggests that the point of civil society is to protect private property. Problems with the sovereign arrive when the government infringes on the public’s private property. The governed and the sovereign reach an agreement when they make their social contract. The governed agree to relinquish certain privileges they had in the state of nature in exchange for the government’s order and protection. However, once the government oversteps these bounds, the social contract is voided. When the sovereign does this, Locke believes, “when either the legislative is changed, or the legislators act contrary to the end for which they were constituted, those who are guilty are guilty of rebellion” (p. 347). To relate this back to Burke, the government breaks tradition by overstepping it’s bounds by violating a laid down social contract–in this situation the government is rebelling, not the people. The people have the right to rebel, but Locke suggests a more passive response to escape a state of war.

Burke describes the French government as traditionally sound and faithful, but one of the reasons the French Revolution came about was because of the Estates General of 1789. In this assembly, the Parliament of Paris pushed for equal representation of all three estates (clergy, nobility, commoners) with the Third Estate having double representation, which is how the Estates were organized in 1614. Parliament was afraid the government would rig the voting, which soon happened. The first order of business changed the voting from the traditional “by head” system. This gave each of the three estates the same representation, causing the double representation the commoners held to be rendered meaningless.

A deviation from tradition that ultimately led to the creation of the National Assembly of the people and the French Revolution was a rebellion move by the government, not the people. Burke, a man of tradition, suggests a conservative, traditional government. In the case of the French Revolution, said government was not preserved. Burke vs. Locke would be a great argument if they lived in the same time period. Especially if Locke decides to respond to Burke’s denouncing of all of the political theorists, “The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false” (p. 514).


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