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Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 2 Sep 1999

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  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks; New edition edition (2 Sept. 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192839780
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192839787
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 2 x 13 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,072,650 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Oxford does the student and scholarly world a service by making Reflections available in an affordable edition."--Barbara B. Davis, Antioch College"Print is clear and the price is right."--Dr. V. Lyle Haskins, Northeastern State University"Burke's views are as pertinent today as they were 200 years ago. His comments and criticisms of the French Revolution can be applied to 20th century revolutions. It is interesting that his reflections are echoed by so many revisionist French Revolution historians in the past several years. This work allows students to evaluate the events of the revolution from a different perspective."--Professor Jeanne A. Ojala, University of Utah"I have hoped someday to find a "Reader's Digest" version of Burke. You have produced one, a real service to the profession! Great introduction and bibliography."--Professor Brian E. Strayer, Andrews University"The annotation of this text will be a great help to students. Mitchell's introduction is likewise clear and to the point."--Marilyn Morris, University of North Texas

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You are pleased to call again, and with some earnestness, for my thoughts on the late proceedings in France. Read the first page
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By reader 451 TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 9 July 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
To begin with: this book is a pamphlet, not a treatise. It is a call to action about a specific event, not a political programme. Burke enthusiasts may maintain it is; but let's not forget he remained a Foxite still, when he wrote this. Yes this was addressed to English, not French audiences, and was a warning to revolutionary sympathisers, but Burke had yet to cross the floor and would not do so for several years. Nor does this read stylistically, anyhow, like a treatise, even like Locke's highly contextual Two Treatises. Readers expecting a statement of the conservative creed may be disappointed. Hence the 4, not 5 stars.

As a historical document, however, the Reflections are invaluable. Burke published his point-by-point assault on the French Revolution in 1790, when the revolution was still widely popular in Britain. He was an English MP and his public, even if the Reflections are formulated as two letters to a French aristocrat, was British political opinion.

First, his book contrasts admirably the gradual, and ultimately more successful, British path to democracy to the French. Indeed the core of his argument is that the revolution laid waste to tradition, depriving its end system of the essential legitimacy that stems from it. Second, Burke was the first to warn - years before the 'terror' - that radical change, once initiated, would be exceedingly difficult to stop. Third, he makes penetrating (and scathing) observations on the role of class renegades; his dissection of their motivations is striking and finds application in all situations of political upheaval. Burke's warning on radical change was vindicated not just in France, but repeatedly in Europe through the 19th and early 20th centuries.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Excalibur on 8 April 2006
Format: Paperback
Edmund Burke's tour de force, demolishing Jacobin upstarts and naive aristocrats alike, is a witty, intelligent and lively work which has rightly gone down in history as a seminal conservative text.

These reflections were first published in 1790, around a year after the Revolution began; before the monarchy had been overthrown and before the King was executed; before the Reign of Terror began which would result in great bloodshed. Burke was initially dismissed as an alarmist reactionary by many but as the Revolution culminated in the grotesque abuses of the guillotine and the rise to power of a military dictator, which he predicted in this text, Burke was hailed as a prophet and was vindicated in his wise warnings.

Without regard to fashionable and trendy abstract theories Burke defended prejudice, tradition and custom against the 'enlightened' intellectuals who thought they ought to rule in place of those born in the purple. Burke claimed that society is a contract, although a contract between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born. Those who are alive must not posses dictatorial powers over the majority constituents of this contract, the dead and the unborn, but must work in accordance with traditions and be aware that they are but trustees of an inheritance which they must pass on to the next generation.

For Burke prejudices were the 'bank and capital of nations and of ages' which make habits out of virtues. Prejudices give people instinctive responses in moments of decision and do not leave people hesitating in an emergency.
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5 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 4 Aug. 2004
Format: Paperback
This book draws many comparrissons between the English government and the French during the eighteenth century. However, if you are looking for detailed information or concise opinions you may find Burke's writing hard to digest (I certainly did). Although valuable as a source of the time, it was, for my purposes, a bit light on the facts.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 20 reviews
68 of 70 people found the following review helpful
A Warning to Those in Love with Unbridled Power and Vulnerable to Anything New 13 Aug. 2006
By James E. Egolf - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Edmund Burke (1729-1797)wrote REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE in 1789 which was four years before the rise of the fanatical Jacobins and the execution (murder)of Louis XVI. This book was not only well written but very prophetic on the tragic events that were part of the French Revolution. Burke showed historical insight and warned both the British and the French what was going to happen.

Burke cited conditions in France prior to the French Revolution. He certainly did not give a false representation of the economic and social conditions in France, but he was clear that, while not perfect, the French had advanced culture and tolerable living standards. He also warned the French that abrupt changes without recourse to tradition and legal norms were dangerous and would end in tyranny. Readers should be aware that Burke's assessment of the French political system was that the French had reasonble politcal freedom and prosperity. To destroy this political system would end in political disruption, social and political violence, lack of law-and-order, and the rise of tyrannical military leaders.

One should note Burke's assessment of the members of the French National Assembly which was vacilating and subject to the whims of any "political interest group" was serious. He suggested that military officers would be among those "pleaders" would be military officers who would be difficult to control. He also warned that when someone who understood the art of command got control of the military officers, the days of the French Republic and the National Assembly were over. The military commander would be in total control, and this is exactly what happened when Napolean I (1769-1821)started to exhibit military genius, he quickly got power by a coup d' etat in 1799 and became the French Emperor by 1804.

Burke's warnings of disaster and tragedy were fullfilled. From at least 1792 until 1815, the French were almost constantly at war with most Europeans. While the French Empire expanded beyond anything prior French monarchs ever dreamed of, the collapse of the French Empire came quickly, and the French empire was ended by 1815 at terrible cost in both blood treasure. Burke warned of these dangers, and his predictions were accurate.

Burke lived just long enough to see the rise and fall of the maniacal Jacobins which included the Reigh of Terror (1792-1794)and the execution of King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie antionette. Had Burke lived a few more years, he could have resorted to remarking, "I told you so."

Edmund Burke has been defined as a conservative which is true. However, Burke was not a reactionary. Burke realized that progress, whatever that may mean, is often slow and within the confines of historical tradition, legal norms, and established law. Burke warned his readers, to use modern parlance, against "wipe the slate clean." Burke clearly understood that to "wipe the slate clean, meant mass dislocation of men and ultimately mass executions (mass murder). Subsequent modern political revolutions vindicate this view.

Readers may wonder why Burke expressed support for the American Revolution but strongly opposed the French Revolution. A careful examination of these revolutions provides the answer. The American "revolutionaries" were arguing for their "Rights of Englishmen" which had a long tradition in Great Britain. Henry II (1154-1189) started the use grand juries. The English had the right of trial by jury by the time of Edward I (1272-1307). The fact is the American colonists wanted to rules of common law and long established legal traditions to apply to them. The British wanted to rule the American colonists with administrative law using clever bureaucrats, as Burke would probably have called them, rather than use British Constitutional Law and the Common Law which many American colonists demanded. The French, on the other hand, wanted to replace a weak monarch with "clever bureaucrats" which Burke knew very well could not work in France.

Readers should note that Thomas Paine (1737-1809)wrote a response to Burke's REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION titled THE RIGHTS OF MAN. While Paine's views were different than those of Burke's Paine's book was just as brilliant as Burke's. Readers should read both works if they want exposure to profound political thought and excellent writing. This is much preferred to the current political nonsense that is pushed by media talking heads and journalists who cannot think or write. Burke and Paine were well read men and offered readers history lessons as well as politcal lessons.

Edmund Burke's REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE is highly recommended regardless of one's political persuasion. This book is not a light read and takes time. However, one will be better informed and wiser for doing so. Again, this reviewer suggests the reader should read Thomas Paine's THE RIGHTS OF MAN to draw comparisons and contrasts.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating historical work 23 Oct. 2009
By reader 451 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
To begin with: this book is a pamphlet, not a treatise. It is a call to action about a specific event, not a political programme. Burke enthusiasts may maintain it is; but let's not forget he remained a Foxite still, when he wrote this. Yes this was addressed to English, not French audiences, and was a warning to revolutionary sympathisers, but Burke had yet to cross the floor and would not do so for several years. Nor does this read stylistically, anyhow, like a treatise, even like Locke's highly contextual Two Treatises. Readers expecting a statement of the conservative creed may be disappointed. Hence the 4, not 5 stars.

As a historical document, however, the Reflections are invaluable. Burke published his point-by-point assault on the French Revolution in 1790, when the revolution was still widely popular in Britain. He was an English MP and his public, even if the Reflections are formulated as two letters to a French aristocrat, was British political opinion.

First, his book contrasts admirably the gradual, and ultimately more successful, British path to democracy to the French. Indeed the core of his argument is that the revolution laid waste to tradition, depriving its end system of the essential legitimacy that stems from it. Second, Burke was the first to warn - years before the `terror' - that radical change, once initiated, would be exceedingly difficult to stop. Third, he makes penetrating (and scathing) observations on the role of class renegades; his dissection of their motivations is striking and finds application in all situations of political upheaval. Burke's warning on radical change was vindicated not just in France, but repeatedly in Europe through the 19th and early 20th centuries. With respect to the French Revolution, he understood that any stabilisation depended on solving the question of church property, which the revolutionaries were already bungling (one smiles at a British MP springing in defence of the catholic church in the still popular days of `no popery!', but the analysis has to be cold-bloodedly correct).

The only rebuttal to Burke's argument is that the status quo was not an option either. His picture of pre-revolutionary France is on the rosy side; unlike the British, the French monarchy was in deep crisis. Nevertheless, I strongly believe this should be taught in France alongside the more hagiographical stuff. I am French, by the way, and an admirer of the events of 1789.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Ostensibly a polemic about the French Revolution but in reality the case for conservatism. 5 Feb. 2011
By Derek Jones - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"Reflections" is ostensibly a tract attacking the French Revolution of 1789 but in reality its importance is its case for conservatism. The polemical nature of the book means that it is not a systematic analysis so one has to search for Burke's conservative principles.

One of his most important principles is "prescription", by which the possession of property and authority are given (at least some) legitimacy by the passage of time. Burke did not oppose all change but believed that if things are going well then they are best left alone. He wrote "A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation", but believed that change should be for "proved abuses". Burke saw society as organic, as a "partnership" bridging all generations. In typical Burkean language he wrote that citizens "should approach the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude." As in any natural organism change must be slow and gradual. He observed that "I do not like to see anything destroyed, any void produced in society." He was, of course, opposed to abstract theories that he thought at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous. Society, thought Burke, needed not abstract reasoning but practical and pragmatic statesmen. He was even more opposed to revolution for it leads to excesses and unintended results.

Not surprisingly Burke stresses the importance of codes of conduct, custom and what he called "prejudice". He writes of the "pleasing illusions" that constitute "the decent drapery of life". These "antient opinions and rules of life" include politeness, deference, the chivalrous treatment of women, the "spirit of a gentleman" and the "spirit of religion". Much of this "decent drapery of life" plus respect for social superiors and authority depends on "prejudice", which is a settled inclination of mind that prompts an individual to act (virtuously) without thinking why. (Today we would call it social conditioning!) Burke argues that prejudice is not irrational for it allows people to draw on the nation's collective wisdom (which Burke calls its "bank and capital") to supplement their own inadequate powers of reason.

In using prescription to justify existing institutions, Burke defended the unequal division of property, wealth and power, plus the social hierarchy that characterised the age in which he lived. He declared (with the French Revolution in mind) that a state ruled by men such as hairdressers and tallow-chandlers would "suffer oppression", and though ability must be represented it was vital that property should "be out of all proportion predominant in the representation". He believed that in all states there are necessarily differences in status and power, and that power is best placed in the hands of men brought up from childhood with an appropriate education, status, and a sense of mission. In other words a "natural aristocracy" that had the duty of using authority for the good of all.

This support for inequality looks out-dated to 21st century readers but many of Burke's other ideas were to continue to flourish as canons of conservatism. "Reflections" is well worth reading not only for its exposition of conservative principles that so strongly influenced political thought in the following century but also as a powerfully written and prophetic polemic about the French Revolution.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Changed the way I look at the world 22 Oct. 2012
By venkat - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This book has caused me to start looking at the world and politics very differently. I am by temperament a progressive in politics; if certain aspects of tradition and the customs inherited from the past seem no longer to make sense, I am all for jettisoning them and starting anew along more rational lines. This, at least, was my view until I read Burke.

As I read the early parts of the Reflections, I struggled with intense feelings of irritation. I later realized that it was the result of a conflict between my desires - a strong wish to refute Burke, and an agonized realization of the impossibility of doing so.

Many of Burke's topical discussions about the French Revolution; the dispossession of the clergy, the reduced revenue of the state after the revolution, have only limited interest for us today. But the heart of his argument has a profound truth which is of permanent applicability. Societies and nations that have had a long history have built up customs and traditions and usages that exert a tremendous hold on the minds of the people living in them, and any changes that are proposed or set in motion in their political and social arrangements *must* be organized around these ancient traditions. It is futile to argue that these traditions are irrational. They have a legitimacy that is denied to radical change, no matter how much more "scientific" or "rational" the proponents of radical change believe or proclaim themselves to be.

The great danger inherent in radical change that is divorced from custom and tradition and usage is that it destroys what has legitimacy and puts something utterly inadequate in its place - reason. For reason has but a weak hold on the great mass of human beings. And once the legitimacy conferred by tradition has been destroyed, the only recourse left to control the mass is force - and that is a straight road to dictatorship.

This is no mere theoretical argument - history furnishes many examples of its truth. Apart from the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the Weimar Republic, all tried to impose political systems which had no hold on the minds of the people and they all failed.

Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man" is a very energetic answer to Burke's Reflections, but with all due respect to the great revolutionary, he fails to understand the essence of Burke's detestation of the French Revolution. He proves beyond all doubt that the monarchies of Europe are inferior in conception to republics and probably had their origin in conquest and so are illegitimate from the point of view of reason. Being of the tiny minority that is swayed by reason, he fails to notice that the vast mass of human beings do not think in this way. For them, all that matters is the fact that their systems of government are inherited from the remote past and that confers legitimacy on them, no matter what their actual origin.

It will take me a long time to fully digest the consequences of Burke's arguments. For now, I am going to content myself with the thought that for the first time, I am able to see the valid parts of conservatism as a political philosophy. The danger of conservatism is that it can all too easily degenerate into a mindless defence of the status quo. The danger of progressive thought or liberalism is that it can all too easily smash the valuable parts of the common inheritance. Wisdom consists in avoiding both extremes and attempting to steer a middle course.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Burke's Famous Thoughts on the French Revolution 13 Feb. 2010
By Eric Mayforth - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Reflections on the Revolution in France" is Edmund Burke's famous denunciation of the French Revolution. Burke opposed the Revolution because the French tried to reform society by completely breaking with their past, rather than by attempting in a gradual manner to reform and improve their existing institutions.

Burke was not opposed to all change, when it righted grievous wrongs and was in line with a country's culture and institutions--he did support the American Revolution, which our Founding Fathers believed was a revolution against "a long train of abuses" leading to "absolute despotism". Burke also believed that no factions in society "should be brought to regard any of the others as their proper prey". This led him to support the abolition of both slavery and the slave trade.

Given that Burke supported abolition when he lived, he almost certainly would have done so had he been a nineteenth-century American. For that matter, if the non-slaveholding yeoman farmers of the antebellum South had refused to be the planters' "prey", if they had simply told the planter class that they would not support secession if the planters attempted it, and had they refused to be cannon fodder merely so the planter class could keep its slaves, perhaps the whole slaveholding system would have imploded without war, and the U.S. could have rid itself of slavery without the cost of more than 600,000 dead and multitudes more maimed.

Many twenty-first century American liberals cynically describe Burkeanism as conservatives treating liberal precedents as sacrosanct, and refer to conservatives who refuse to do so as "not Burkean", "not real conservatives", "nihilists", or "revanchists". What these liberals want is a conservatism that does not fight against or attempt to roll back misguided left-wing initiatives. Again, Burke was not opposed to all change, as he is sometimes portrayed today. If no change is ever permitted, a society is cursed with what Margaret Thatcher referred to as the "ratchet effect"--a society that periodically moves leftward, but never moves rightward to correct liberal mistakes.

Because Burke is so often misrepresented today, it is important to study him as much to determine what he did not believe as to determine what he did believe. Conservatives interested in their intellectual pedigree should read this epic work of political thought at some point in life.
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