An Analysis of the Beliefs Espoused by Burke in “Reflections on the Revolution in France”
Edmund Burke’s famous essay “Reflections on the Revolution in France” has been an important influence on classical conservatism since its creation in 1789. In it, Burke argues against enlightenment and rationality, while simultaneously arguing in favor of private property and tradition. I will examine his arguments to see if I concur after subjecting them to my scrutiny.
One of Burke’s biggest arguments is in favor of tradition. He argues that “by adhering…on those principles to our forefathers, we are guided not by the superstitions of antiquarians”, and thus he attacks the liberals of the time (antiquarians in this case were the philosophers who promoted enlightenment” (Wootton, 503). He continues with his exaltation of their tradition by stating that “through the same plan of conformity to nature in our artificial institutions…..we have derived several benefits from considering our liberties in light of our inheritance” (Wootton, 503). To some extent, I can see the value of his arguments. Having strong institutions can help maintain stability, and if the institutions are able to avoid corruption, than they can be a strong force to help the populace. In additions, many traditions and customs often have good reasons for existing as they are, and provide benefits for society. However, a counterpoint to this must be mentioned as well. While institutions and tradition have their roles to play, one should not believe that they are infallible, or that they should never be changed. The world is constantly changing, and slavish adherence to tradition eventually leads to practices that inhibit society and lead to stagnation. Therefore, I believe that while Burke is correct, it is only to a certain extent.
Another important argument that Burke makes against the revolution in France (and against the enlightenment in general) is that it disregards the value of private property. He states that “the power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances, and is that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself” (Wootton 512). This is justified according to him because “men have a right to the fruit of their industry, and to the means of making their industry fruitful” (Wootton, 513). In this particular example, Burke and I are in almost total agreement. Private property is an important cornerstone of a working society, and no one deserves to have what is their taken away and portioned out unfairly. It is true that laws should be put carefully in place to prevent men from acquiring property and wealth unfairly, but as long as that condition is met, Burke is right to believe in the value of private property.
A large part of Burke’s argument is his discussion against reason. He argues that reason alone is an inadequate substitute for the power of the institution, saying that “that sort of reason which banishes the affections (for the state and institution) is incapable of filling their place” (Wootton, 516). Burke is essentially arguing that when people employ reason, it strips away the majesty and mystery that helps give these institutions their power, removing the loyalty they may have had to them. I disagree with Burke completely here. People, if properly educated, can effectively make use of reason to judge their institutions and government, for there are times when they WILL need to be judged. Burke’s argument here rings of sentimentality and nostalgia towards his existing civil institutions.
To conclude, I agree with Burke’s arguments for the respect of property as a cornerstone of society, and I also agree with his beliefs about tradition and custom, though with certain reservations. However, I disagree completely with his beliefs on reason, as I believe it is an essential tool for every human being.
Wootton, David. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub, 1996. Print