Edmund Burke, the French Revolution, and What It Means to Be Conservative

When asked to define conservatism, the average person would likely rattle off a list of policy positions. Conservatives are for lower taxes, smaller government, stronger defense, and more traditional values. Liberals, on the other hand, favor higher taxes on the wealthy, a more generous welfare state, a smaller defense budget, and more progressive social norms. But this brings us no closer to understanding the essence of either term.

A casual glance through Wikipedia will reveal that not only are there conservatives and liberals, but liberal conservatives, conservative liberals, and libertarian conservatives. There are also fiscal conservatives, national and traditional conservatives, cultural and social conservatives, religious conservatives, progressive conservatives, and authoritarian conservatives. What do they all mean? Is it even possible to boil all these diverse strands into a single, essential conservatism? If so, what value does it offer today?

I would argue that there is such an essence, rooted not in policy but in outlook. When presented with a problem, conservatives look to past experience for guidance. They espouse a view of human nature that is basically fixed. Man has always been man, and will never be anything but. Therefore, any system of ordering society or government will accept the very real limitations imposed by human nature. Utopian schemes, be they Nazism or communism, are thus to be rejected out of hand. As psychologist E. O. Wilson said of communism, “Great idea. Wrong species.”

What do conservatives seek to conserve? Tradition is the most obvious answer. The accumulated wisdom of past experience. Virtues such as loyalty, obedience, and sacrifice – traits that have gone out of style in recent centuries.

Conservatives look to the past and find beacons of light that still illuminate the problems facing human societies, as human societies themselves reflect our unchanging human nature. Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Franklin, and Dickens stand ready to point the way with sage advice and observations. Though none would pass the test of today’s utterly liberal social norms, conservatives are willing to forgive these cultural icons for tolerating and even justifying certain evils of their day, including sexism and slavery. Conservatives lack some of the smug self-righteousness of today’s liberal social justice warriors. They understand that we are essentially no better than our ancestors in the moral sense, though we benefit from a necessarily larger pool of human wisdom.

What makes defining conservatism and liberalism so tricky is that the meanings of both terms have evolved over the decades along with the political debates of the times. Yet both ideologies trace back to the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and continues to reverberate to this day. In the nineteenth century, many conservatives favored absolute monarchy and maintaining the social hierarchy, while opposing revolutionary movements. Liberals espoused Enlightenment principles of liberty, democracy, and nationalism, while often supporting revolutionary change.

Edmund Burke, who many consider to be the founder of modern conservatism, had this to say about the French Revolution, in particular the execution of Marie Antoinette:

Oh, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! … little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

The relationships here described help explain why some liberals can’t stand Downton Abbey, the acclaimed PBS drama with a distinctly conservative bent. Why, they must wonder, do the servants appear to care for the family instead of organizing a labor strike, or at least spitting in their afternoon tea?

In Downton Abbey and Poldark, another PBS drama set a century earlier, it is the middle class that provides the chief villain. It is interesting that Burke’s assessment should be echoed by none other than Karl Marx, the founder of communism. He describes a similar historical process in his condemnation of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, denouncing Burke’s “economists and calculators:”

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence…

Marx would no doubt consider Burke one such “reactionary,” pining for the lost chivalry and glory of a bygone era. But Burke was not the mindless defender of the status quo that some of his liberal critics thought him to be. He supported the American Revolution, even making a pleading speech in Parliament to seek peace with America:

Again and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it…. Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it…. Do not burthen them with taxes… If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery…

Burke’s support illuminates the essentially conservative spirit of the American Revolution, as oxymoronic as this may at first sound. Our Founding Fathers saw themselves as restoring their ancient rights as Englishmen, rights that stretched back to the Magna Carta, and before that to God’s creation of man. Unlike the Jacobins of the French Revolution, they did not seek to redefine and reinvent every aspect of society. They were, for the most part, students of history and men of faith. The idea of overthrowing Christianity would have never occurred to them, although it was attempted with disastrous results in France.

Burke understood the forces that connect us to each other better than most of his more liberal contemporaries. He knew that the strongest bonds are with those closest to us, but that “to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon… is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” Any system of government must recognize that we exist not as isolated individuals or a single, uniform mass, but as members of families and communities first.

It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the chief inspiration of the French Revolution, who first rejected this essential truth, seeing even the family as an artificial, modern construct that society would be better off without. Efforts to isolate the individual from the family culminated in the communist movements of the twentieth century and can still be seen today. Recall “Julia” of President Obama’s infamous campaign ad, who moves through life relying upon the state to act as mother, caretaker, and spouse. In sum, conservatives are more likely to see the family, not the individual, as the basic unit of society.

Can one be too conservative? Certainly, just as one can be too liberal. At the extremes of conservatism, we find reactionaries who reject practically all change and long for a return to a past that is already gone. At the extremes of liberalism, we find radicals who are willing to tolerate any amount of violence to bring about necessary social change, even if it brings only equal misery. Liberals praise dictators like Fidel Castro because they judge people on their good intentions and lofty ideals, not on the human misery and deaths that often result from misguided policies.

In their rush to remake society, many liberals dismiss the Constitution and the Bible as outdated and irrelevant, obnoxious hindrances to progress. They mistakenly believe that human nature itself can be changed. In their rush to redefine marriage, they jettison millennia of human experience without a second thought. But it does not stop there (it never does), as “male” and “female” are now up for redefinition as well.

It is true that conservatives are more cautious about launching into massive social experiments of the sort that liberals desire. But this does not mean opposing change at all costs. Recall that Burke himself supported the American Revolution and its emphasis on natural rights, while rejecting the radicalism of the French. As we survey the current generation of campus activists ready to protest at the slightest offense, it is worth asking – are we raising a generation of Jefferson’s or Robespierre’s? Does our path lead to the Constitution, or the guillotine?

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