Book Review: Reflections On The Revolution In France

Reflections On The Revelation In France:  A Critical Edition, by Edmund Burke, edited by J.C.D. Clark

One of the general indications of our own contemporary age’s moral and intellectual decline is the way that so few people genuinely write these days as if they are a part of a real conversation.  This book, as massive and as weighty and as historically significant as it is, was part of an actual conversation among English men of letters, in that it was a response to an actual work and the author of that original work responded to him and others (like Thomas Paine) responded in kind as part of a larger battle over the meaning and significance and legitimacy (or lack thereof) of the French Revolution.  That context gives this work a great deal of weight, even more than its own contents would indicate, which are good enough to make this an excellent work even if one is not reading a critical edition that comments on the people Burke was answering and who in turn answered him and sought to deal with his objections.  Regardless of the level of agreement of all of the people involved in this conversation, the conversation was a real one and it indicates a time and place where people wanted to seriously answer questions in dispute and address the real concerns of those whom they disagreed with rather than slaying strawmen and talking only to one’s allies as is the contemporary habit.

This book is more than 400 pages long, and a large part of that length springs from the book’s introduction, which is more than 100 pages long and covers Edmund Burke, the Glorious Revolution, Burke’s knowledge of France, the genesis and theory of the Reflections, and Burke’s later influence.  This context helps to ground the work in its time.  After a note on the text, biographical guide, and bibliographical guide, the rest of the book is written as one extremely long letter that the editor has thought to divide in the table of contents (but not the main body of work) into seven parts:  a discussion of the English constitution and Glorious Revelation (I), the French Revolution (II), English society (III), contrasting principles of the French Revolution (IV), French society before the Revolution (V), the expropriation of the French church by envious revolutionaries (VI), the (corrupt) proceedings of the National Assembly (VII), after which there is a conclusion and appendices that include textual variations as well as Richard Price’s reply to Burke that shows his inability to really get Burke’s point, after which there is an index.

As someone who tends to be temperamentally conservative in the way that the author is, I must admit that I found this work to be deeply compelling as an argument.  But as a reader, I found myself most interested not in the timeless concern of the conservative about the problematic aspects of any revolutionary change, and about the violence and theft and anarchy and tyranny that threaten a society when its political elite refuses to adopt a patient and gradualistic approach to change and impatiently demands fundamental and massive change now, but in the way that the author’s thinking came from his own experience.  Burke was a Whig, a descendant of an English political tradition that required the justification of the Catholic King James II and his replacement with his Protestant eldest daughter and her husband, William of Orange.  And this puts him in a position of ambivalence when it comes to the French Revolution, in that Burke is highly ambivalent about the French monarchy and ancien regime as well as the legitimacy of Revolution at all, and unwilling (and properly so) to equate the Glorious and American Revolutions, which had profoundly conservative elements that tempered their revolutionary nature, with the far less Christian French Revolution.  If not a perfect book, this book is both of its time and for all time, and that is the best way for any work to be.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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