Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 10. Burke’s Political Philosophy

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

I. Edmund Burke

§ 10. Burke’s Political Philosophy

It is in his attack on the abstract and individualistic doctrine of the “rights of man” that Burke develops most fully this philosophy of society, and breaks most decisively with the mechanical and atomic political theory which, inherited from Locke, had dominated the thought of the eighteenth century. Over against the view of the state as the product of a “contract” among individuals, whose “rights” exist prior to that contract, and constitute the standard by which at every stage the just claim of society on the individual is to be tested, he develops the conception of the individual as himself the product of society, born to an inheritance of rights (which are “all the advantages” for which civil society is made) and of reciprocal duties, and, in the last resort, owing these concrete rights (actual rights which fall short in perfection of those ideal rights “whose abstract perfection is their practical defect”) to convention and prescription. Society originates not in a free contract but in necessity, and the shaping factor in its institutions has not been the consideration of any code of abstract pre-existent rights (“the inherent rights of the people”) but “convenience.” And, of these conveniences or rights, two are supreme, government and prescription, the existence of “a power out of themselves by which the will of individuals may be controlled,” and the recognition of the sacred character of prescription. In whatever way a particular society may have originated—conquest, usurpation, revolution (“there is a sacred veil to be drawn over the beginnings of all government”)—in process of time, its institutions and rights come to rest upon prescription. In any ancient community such as that of France or Britain, every constituent factor, including what we choose to call the people, is the product of convention. The privileges of every order, the rights of every individual, rest upon prescription embodied in law or established by usage. This is the “compact or agreement which gives its corporate form and capacity to a state,” and, if it is once broken, the people are

  • a number of vague, loose individuals and nothing more. Alas! they little know how many a weary step is to be taken before they can form themselves into a mass which has a true politic personality.
  • There is, therefore, no right of revolution, or rebellion at will. The “civil, social man” never may rebel except when he must rebel. Revolution is always the annulment of some rights. It will be judged in the last resort by the degree in which it preserves as well as destroys, and by what it substitutes for what it takes away. At its best, revolution is “the extreme medicine of the constitution,” and Burke’s quarrel with the Assembly is that they have made it “its daily bread”; that, when the whole constitution of France was in their hands to preserve and to reform, they elected only to destroy.

    Burke’s denunciation of the spirit or temper of the revolution follows as naturally from his philosophy of the state as that from the doctrine of the revolutionists. “The rights of man” was a religion, a fanaticism expelling every other sentiment, and Burke meets it with a philosophy which is also a religion, no mere theory of the state but a passionate conviction. He and the revolutionists were at one in holding that there is a law, a principle superior to positive law, by which positive law must be tested. Had he not declared that there were positive rights which, in their exercise, were “the most odious of all wrongs, and the most vexatious of all injustice”? But, whereas they sought this law in abstract rights prior to, and independent of, the state, for Burke, the essential condition of every “right” is the state itself. There can be no right which is incompatible with the very existence of the state. Justice is not to be sought in or by the destruction of that which has given us the idea of justice, has made us the moral beings we are, for it is the privilege of “that wonderful structure Man” “to be in a great degree the creature of his own making,” and “He who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue willed also the necessary means of its perfection; He willed therefore the state.” The state is no mere prudential contract for material ends, security of property and life (though these are its primary ends and fundamental conditions); it is the partnership between men from which has sprung science and art and virtue—all human perfection; a partnership which links one generation to another, the living to the dead and the unborn. It is more; “each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society,” which is the law of God and “holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.” To the religion of the natural man, Burke thus opposes the religion of the state, of man as civilisation has made him, for “Art is man’s nature.” The established church is the recognition of the sacred character of the state. The prejudices and sentiments which attach us to the community are not to be abolished by the “conquering light of reason,” but cherished as the very substance of the moral reason. It is this thought which underlies Burke’s defence of prejudice. Following, as it does, the highly coloured threnody on the fate of the queen of France and the decay of the sentiments of loyalty and chivalry, Burke has exposed himself to the charge of identifying moral feeling with fleeting and artificial sentiments. But this is only partly just. Burke does not really confound the sentiments which adorn life with those which sustain life, the draperies of the moral life with its flesh and blood. His defence of prejudice against the claims of a fanatical abstract reason is just such a recognition of the nature of moral reason as that which turned Wordsworth from Godwin’s “political justice” to the emotions and prejudices of the peasant.

    To Burke, thus encountering the philosophy and fanaticism of the French revolution with a deeper philosophy and an equal zeal, war with France was a crusade; and he pressed for it passionately before Pitt’s hand was forced by the invasion of Holland. The rest of Burke’s life was mainly devoted to the crusade against Jacobinism at home and abroad, and it is well to understand what he understood by the term. It is not republicanism, nor even democracy, though it is, he seems to think, that to which a pure democracy inevitably tends. Burke did not believe that this country was at war with the French people, for there was no French public. “The country is composed but of two descriptions; audacious tyrants and trembling slaves.” By Jacobinism, he understood the tyranny of unprincipled and irresponsible ability or talent—talent divorced from religious awe and all regard for individual liberty and property, supporting itself by appealing to the passions and ignorance of the poor. This was the character of the government of France as one set of rulers succeeded another in what he calls “the tontine of infamy,” and the war which it waged was a war of conquest essential to its own existence. Peace with such a power could only be made on the same conditions as it was to be made with the Saracens in the full tide of conquest. This is the burden of the impassioned and lurid Letters on a Regicide Peace (1797), which, like the denunciations of Warren Hastings, tend to weary us, by the reiteration of shrill vituperation, the want of coolness and balance of judgment. Burke was, in himself, “the counter-revolution,” and, as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, excess begat excess.

    This is not the place for a full discussion of Burke’s treatment of the French revolution. He died before any final issue was even in sight. It might be urged, with some justice, that he was so moved by the furious symptoms of the disease that he never thoroughly gauged its deeper sources or foresaw the course it must ultimately run, clearly as he did foresee its immediate issues. It might be contended that, fleeing from one abstraction, he drew near to another, and consecrated prescription, inherited right, when judged and condemned by that expediency which is the sanction of prescription. In a history of literature, it is more interesting to note that he had not enough faith in his own principles; for the deficiency reveals the writer’s temperament. Believing, as he did, that society and the particular form which society has taken is of divine origin, that in the history of a nation was revealed the working of providence shaping the moral and spiritual being of those who composed it, he is singularly fearful of the issue. Was the British constitution which the political wisdom of generations had shaped so wanting in elasticity that it could endure no change, adapt itself to no new conditions? Could the folly of the Assembly, the madness of the Terror, the cynical corruption of the Directory undo, in a few years, the work of centuries and permanently alter the character of the French people? The France which emerged from the revolution was, in all essential respects, De Tocqueville has argued, the France of the ancien régime. What disappeared was already dead. In the Code Napoléon, which embodied the legal outcome of the revolution, law became “the expression of settled national character, not of every passionate and casual mood.”