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Burke is Backwards

March 20, 2011

“Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle.”

What about tyrannical Kings that are just power hungry (and insane) such as Muammar Gaddafi?

I think that Burke’s statement need be changed to “subjects will be rebels from principle when kings are tyrants”. Just think about it, which happens more often? Do we see just kings that have their people attempt to rise up against them in our world today, or do we see civilians in oppression attempting to find justice and fairness in their lives? Even in Burke’s day and age– the French Revolution era, which followed the American revolution, civilians fought to overthrow unjust governments in order to escape oppression and obtain democratic leadership. Burke doesn’t seem to understand why the French people felt oppressed, as he said:

“If it could have been made clear to me that the king and queen of France (those I mean who were such before the triumph) were inexorable and cruel tyrants, that they had formed a deliberate scheme for massacring the National Assembly (I think I have seen something like the latter insinuated in certain publications), I should think their captivity just.”

Maybe, if Burke had been in the french working class, he would have realized the effect of the huge taxes that Louis XVI placed on them in order to pay back the debt from his ridiculous spending problems. And maybe he would have realized that this led to famine for the french working class, and that hungry people get angry easily. Maybe, Burke should have lived 100 more years and read “A Tale of Two Cities” like we all had to in high school in order to understand the plight of the french working class and consequently the build-up to a revolution.

On a more recent note, after his military coup in 1969, Gaddafi was dictator of Libya and has been until this day. Very recently, however, Libyan citizens started their attempt to overthrow their corrupt government. The Libyan people have lived for over 40 years in a police state that tries to keep its people in a bubble, as Libyans can be put in jail for extensive periods of time for expressing any anti-Libya view or even attempting to learn a different language. Finally, after the people of Libya have had enough, they begin to revolt against their government and only now are trying to overthrow it.

So, back to Burke, will the already tyrannical Gaddafi become more of a tyrant now that his subjects are rebelling from principle? I think that in one sense, Gaddafi’s “subjects” are lacking any principle to rebel from, considering Gaddafi’s own lack of such a thing. Further, Burke’s statement is proved semi-legitimate in the sense that if Gaddafi could possibly become more of a tyrant, he has done so using militias to assassinate officials and kill innocent civilians. But even if the Libyan people had not attempted to overthrow him, Gaddafi is 40+ years of proof that “Kings” can be tyrants far, far before their “subjects” rebel from principle.

  1. Zack Orsini permalink
    March 20, 2011 6:41 PM


    Hmmmmm. . . .“’Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle.’” You bring up a killer quote from Burke here, Mollie. Burke is quite possibly the most conservative political thinker whom we have read this semester (it’s a pretty close call between Burke and Hobbes). He questions the liberal ideas of Rousseau and the French revolutionaries and appears to have his right foot anchored on the “Divine Monarchy” circle on the “Twister” game mat (that metaphor went a little bit farther than I wanted it to).

    Despite my general agreement with your post above, I must say that I have a bit more trouble than you do simply brushing his statement aside as ludicrous. There are two questions we must answer in regard to this quote:
    1.) Is his statement factual according to what we can observe in history?
    2.) Is his statement normatively reasonable?

    Here are my quick answers to the above questions (a lot more can be said):
    1.) One historical example that comes to mind is Abraham Lincoln suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus around the time of the “Civil War” in the United States (I forget the exact details/circumstances of this scenario, but I’m fairly certain it took place). In order to keep the Union intact, Mr. Lincoln decided that it was necessary to disregard the right that American citizens have to not be held in prison unjustly (without reasonable charges). This is just one example, but I think it is reasonable to assume that this situation that is described by the quote from Burke (above) does, in fact, take place. It is factually true.
    2.) This is the more difficult question to answer. As Americans, we are taught about our own glorious “Revolutionary War” against the English crown. Essentially, we are born and raised to disagree with Burke. But is his idea really that illegitimate? Sure, people have the right to start a revolution against the government when the government disregards the social contract; but what about the government? Does the government have the right to “be tyrants from policy” when the people don’t hold up their end of the bargain of the social contract (by following the laws and being principled)? Can the government start a revolution? Without giving any reasons, my quick response to these questions is “No,” but I would be interested to see what other people think about this. Do you agree with me? Why or why not?

  2. Jacob Saslow permalink
    March 20, 2011 10:04 PM

    I think this post is extremely provocative. As the comment above points out, this quote goes contrary to what we as young, insightful students want to believe. We believe in the freedom to hold a government accountable, and to revolt when acceptable and necessary. However, just like the comment above, I believe that Burke deserves us giving his comments a second look. Yes, Burke would be opposed to the revolutions that have been going on in the Middle East over the past weeks and months. He would have supported refraining from revolution at most costs. However, I also agree that governments deserve the same opportunity to “revolt” against their peoples. I am not sure the exact intentions of Burke’s comments, but I’m not sure he was saying that is the only way tyrants come to be. I think instead, possibly because I want to believe in a more applicable idea, that Burke was pointing out one way in which a ruler can become a tyrant. I would agree with this, as I think a ruler retains the right to take excessive power at monumental times, and can be held accountable after the danger has passed (ideally.)

  3. cfrankel permalink
    March 20, 2011 10:17 PM

    I think you present a very thought-provoking issue here by altering Burke’s statement that, “Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle,” to, “Subjects will be rebels from principle when kings are tyrants.” I can think of numerous events in history where the common men rebelled against a tyrannical, oppressive leader. This exact scenario can be seen where Mexico overthrew the conquistadors in the 1800s when they tried to keep Mexico under the control of Spain. A more recent example that comes to mind is when the rebels in Cairo protested long enough to make the oppressive dictator Mubarak to step down. Subjects rebelling against tyrannical government is a common occurrence, dating back hundreds of years ago. I agree with your point that kings can be tyrants before subjects take action, but you must consider that the reason why a ruler can be a tyrant for so long is that it takes time to assemble a large enough group of rebellions to make a impacting change. Overall, your post presents a very modern viewpoint on of Burke’s ideals.

  4. justinwilliamsgsi permalink*
    March 21, 2011 10:49 AM

    Great post, and great ensuing discussion.

    One of the issues at stake in this conversation is how we read history, and relatedly what we expect history to show us. Mollie wants to flip Burke on his head, claiming that he mistakes cause and effect. In brief, Burke and Mollie break on the question of empirical causality: do people get angry because they’re mistreated, or do people get mistreated because they’re angry? Mollie takes the first position; Burke takes the second.

    How do we settle the dispute? Mollie and others want to turn to history to offer some evidence one way or another. Mollie says we can turn to 1780s France to get the evidence we need to condemn Louis. Not coincidentally, Burke offers the same period – 1780s France – to glorify the magnificent king and queen.

    So we’re no closer to the causal mechanism of revolution: pissy subjects or nasty rulers? Part of this difficulty no doubt lies in the limitations of history. When we turn to history to settle disputes, we can only ask it to do so much. History is not just a set of facts; history involves interpreting those facts and assembling them into stories. So history always involves human knowledge (and therefore is an epistemic question). This acknowledgement need not lead us into a vain or defeatist downward spiral: some stories are more plausible than others, and we ought to take that distinction seriously, doing our best to tell the best stories we can.

    Since facts pass through a human, epistemic mill on their way to history, we ought always to observe the machinery inside that mill. In other words, as Zack points out, Burke and Mollie seem to be operating with two different frameworks, two different millstones that will grind the same facts into different histories. It’s hard to know – perhaps impossible – which history more accurately represents the true nature of the facts. This is a persistent problem for all sorts of empirical scholars (whether or not they admit it), and the brightest among us are incapable of definitively proving the “TRUTH” of any given causal claim. So an appeal to history probably can’t settle political debates, but it can offer us with new facts to consider.

    Here’s my plug for political theory: at the very least, we ought to study the machinery that grinds the facts and know how the miller harvests the grains of truth.

  5. chelseahoedl permalink
    March 21, 2011 1:01 PM

    “’Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle.’”

    I agree with you that in many situations Kings are simply tyrants for their own benefit, leaving policy at the wayside, however, instead of throwing out Burke’s sentiment completely, I would venture to amend it. Perhaps it would be more accurate and all encompassing to say that ‘Kings will be tyrants whether from immorality or policy when subjects are rebels from principle or self interest.’ (I feel it is also important to note that citizens act on “principle” that comes often from some form of self interest, i.e. they are concerned for their own property not necessarily the property of others).

    In some situations it seems fitting to suggest that Kings are seen as tyrants because they act upon policy. Often policies are not viewed favorably by the general public and when this is the case, anger is often taken out on the ruler who perpetuates it. The King becomes a tyrant because he does what he is meant to do. This is not to say however, that the citizens are wrong for acting out. They should act on principle whether it is the fault of the King or the fault of the law.

  6. Brian Fisher permalink
    March 21, 2011 4:24 PM

    very well said. I think you provide adequate evidence to argue Burke’s point in the case of Gaddafi and Libya’s current uprising. furthermore, you successfully differentiate how subjects in essence can have a right to rebel against a tyrant while you maintain your position that Burke’s argument is in fact backwards. You seem to suggest that ““Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle” is in fact incorrect because authoritative figureheads should be more worried about their populous than act out with vengeance and oppress these individuals. on the other hand, subjects have more than enough right to rebel against their leader if they believe that they are being restricted of everyday humane essentials. great post and i agree with your assessment of Burke

  7. drutchas permalink
    March 21, 2011 4:49 PM

    In the end of your first paragraph you say Burke didnt understand what they were having a revolution for. But, is it that he didnt understand, or just didnt agree? But that is just a little point. More importantly we in America are being confronted with the same sort of questions about taxes in our politics. America has a huge deficit and who should be left to pay. This is an interesting question to approach from a Burkian approach to. Should the rich be taxed more heavily because they can hold the burden, should the money come out of other social institutions like schools or social welfare programs. This debate is deep seeded in our politics. I wonder what Burke would say

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