Edmund Burke: Information on the French Revolution



[THE MEN IN POWER - BURKE - FROM REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE]

THIS unforced choice, this fond election of evil, would appear perfectly unaccountable if we did not consider the composition of the National Assembly. If we were to know nothing of this assembly but its title and function, no colours could paint to the imagination anything more venerable. But no artificial institution whatever can make the men of whom any system of authority is composed any other than God, and nature, and education and their habits of life have made them.

Capacities beyond these the people have not to give. Virtue and wisdom may be the objects of their choice; but their choice confers neither the one nor the other on those upon whom they lay their ordaining hands. They have not the engagement of nature, they have not the promise of revelation, for any such powers.

Judge, sir, of my surprise when I found that a very great proportion of the assembly was composed of practitioners in the law. It was composed, not of distinguished magistrates, not of leading advocates, not of renowned professors; the general composition was of obscure provincial advocates, of stewards of petty local jurisdictions, country attorneys, notaries and the whole train of the ministers of municipal litigation, the fomenters and conductors of the petty war of village vexation.

From the moment I read the list I saw distinctly, and very nearly as it happened, all that was to follow. Who could but conceive that men who are habitually meddling, daring, subtle, active, of litigious dispositions and unquiet minds, would easily fall back into their old condition of low and unprofitable chicane ? Who could doubt but that, at any expense to the state, of which they understood nothing, they must pursue their private interests, which they understood but too well ? It was inevitable; it was planted in the nature of things.

Other revolutions have been conducted by persons who, whilst they attempted changes in the commonwealth, sanctified their ambition by advancing the dignity of the people whose peace they troubled. Such was our Cromwell, one of the great bad men of the old stamp. Such were your whole race of Guises, Condes, Colignys and Richelieus. These men, among all their massacres, did not slay the mind in their country. A conscious dignity, a noble pride, a generous sense of glory and emulation, was not extinguished.

But your present confusion, like a palsy, has attacked the fountain of life itself. Every person in your country in a situation to be actuated by principles of honour is disgraced and degraded. Property is destroyed, and rational liberty has no existence. If this be your actual situation, as compared to the situation to which you were called, as it were by the voice of God and man, I cannot find it in my heart to congratulate you on the choice you have made, or the success which has attended your endeavours.

FAR am I from denying in theory, full as far as my heart from withholding in practice, the real rights of man. Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.

But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle. The moment you abate anything from the full rights of men, each to govern himself, and suffer any artificial, positive limitation upon those rights, from that moment the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience. This it is which makes the constitution of a state, and the due distribution of powers, a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill.

When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade, or negligent of their duty. The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes, and in proportion as they are metaphysically true they are morally and politically false. The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. But this sort of people are so taken up with their theories about the rights of Man that they have totally forgotten his nature. Without opening one new avenue to the understanding, they have stopped up those that lead to the heart.

[THE DEATH OF CHIVALRY]

AS for the National Assembly, a majority, sometimes real, sometimes pretended, captive itself, compels a captive king to issue as royal edicts, at third hand, the polluted nonsense of their most licentious and giddy coffee-houses. It is notorious that all their measures are decided before they are debated. Amidst assassination, massacre and confiscation, perpetrated or meditated, they are forming plans for the good order of future society. Who is it that admires, and from the heart is attached to, national representative assemblies, but must turn with horror and disgust from such a profane burlesque and abominable perversion of that sacred institute ? Miserable king, miserable assembly !

History, who exercises her awful censure over the proceedings of all sorts of sovereigns, will not forget how the king, and his queen, and their infant children, who once would have been the pride and hope of a great and generous people, were forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left polluted by massacre and strewn with mutilated carcases, and were made to taste, drop by drop, more than the bitterness of death. Is this a triumph to be consecrated at altars ?

I rejoice to hear that the great lady, an object of that triumph, has borne that day--one is interested that beings made for suffering should suffer well--and that she bears the whole weight of her accumulated wrongs with a serene patience, in a manner suited to her rank and race; that she feels with the dignity of a Roman matron; that in the last extremity she will save herself from the last disgrace; and that, if she must fall, she will fall by no ignoble hand. It is now sixteen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles, and surely never lighted on this orb a more delightful vision. I saw her glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendour and joy. Oh, what a revolution !

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 honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leapt 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 for ever. 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. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, 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.

IF the King and Queen of France and their children were to fall into our hands by the chance of war, they would be treated with another sort of triumphal entry into London. We formerly have had a king of France in that situation; you have read how he was received in England. Four hundred years have gone over us; but I believe we are not materially changed since that period. We have not lost the generosity and dignity of thinking of the fourteenth century; nor as yet have we subtilised ourselves into savages.

We have not been drawn and trussed, in order that we may be filled with chaff and rags and paltry shreds of paper about the rights of man. We have hearts of flesh and blood beating in our bosoms. We fear God; we look up with awe to kings, with affection to parliaments, with duty to magistrates, with reverence to priests, and with respect to nobility.

Why ? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected; because all other feelings are false and spurious, and tend to corrupt our minds, to vitiate our primary morals, to render us unfit for rational liberty; and by teaching us a servile insolence, to be our low sport for a few holidays, to make us perfectly fit for, and justly deserving of, slavery through the whole course of our lives.

[PRINCIPLES OF STATESMANSHIP]

ONE of the first principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it should act as if they were the entire masters, hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation. By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. Men would become little better than the flies in summer.

First of all, the science of jurisprudence, the pride of the human intellect, which, with all its defects, redundances and errors, is the collected reason of ages, combining the principles of original justice with the infinite variety of human concerns, would be no longer studied. No certain laws, establishing invariable grounds of hope and fear, would keep the actions of men in a certain course. No principles would be early worked into the habits. Who would ensure a tender and delicate sense of honour, to beat almost with the first pulses of the heart, when no man could know what would be the test of honour in a nation continually varying the standard of its coin ?

To avoid, therefore, the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. Society is indeed a contract. But it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature.

It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible worlds, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.

THESE, my dear sir, are, were and, I think, long will be, the sentiments of not the least learned and reflecting part of this kingdom. They conceive that He Who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed, therefore, the state--He willed its connexion with the source and original archetype of all perfection. They who are convinced of His will, which is the law of laws, and the sovereign of sovereigns, cannot think it reprehensible that this, our corporate fealty and homage, that this our recognition of a signiory paramount--I had almost said this oblation of the state itself--as a worthy offering on the high altar of universal praise, should be performed with modest splendour and unassuming state. For those purposes they think some part of the wealth of the country is as usefully employed as it can be in fomenting the luxury of individuals.

It is on some such principles that the majority of the people of England, far from thinking a religious national establishment unlawful, hardly think it lawful to be without one. The commons of Great Britain, in the national emergencies, will never seek their resource from the confiscation of the estates of the Church and poor. Sacrilege and proscription are not among the ways and means of our committee of supply. There is not one public man in this kingdom, of any party or description, who does not reprobate the dishonest, perfidious and cruel confiscation which the National Assembly have been compelled to make of that property which it was their first duty to protect.

But to what end should we discuss all these things ? How shall we discuss the limitations of royal power ? Your king is in prison. Why speculate on the measure and standard of liberty ? I doubt very much indeed whether France is at all ripe for liberty on any standard. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.





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