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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the greatest works of politics; a classic.,
This review is from: Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics) (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. The revolutionaries rejected all ideas repugnant to their individual reasoning and were bigotedly self-satisfied in their own way of thinking; they had 'no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own'. By destroying established authority on the grounds that it was irrational or unjust the revolutionaries eroded the stability of their country and made the intervention of a 'popular general' who would restore order inevitable. This was borne out when General Napoleon took control over France on the 18th Brumaire in 1799 and proceeded to try and conquer all of Europe until finally defeated by the counter-revolutionary forces of Britain and Prussia at Waterloo in 1815.
The description of Burke's visit to the French court where he witnessed Marie Antoinette on the horizon is probably one of the finest pieces of English literature I have ever read. The emotions; awe, outrage and anger all wrapped up to express Burke's indignation that 'the age of chivalry is gone' and that the 'glory of Europe is extinguished for ever'. According to one of Burke's correspondents Marie Antoinette was shown this passage whilst she was held captive and before she could finish reading it she had burst into tears and took considerable time to recover before she could read the rest.
One must remember that Burke was writing this letter to a French nobleman who obviously knew more than Burke on what was happening in France and so would not have needed a narrative of the political goings-on. My only complaint is that this Oxford edition index is inadequate. It lists names but no concepts whatsoever, which makes it practically useless for students. I recommend the critical edition edited by J. C. D. Clark and published by Stanford University Press.
7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating historical work,
This review is from: Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics) (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.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A polemic on the French Revolution that also makes the case for conservatism,
This review is from: Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)"Reflections" is 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 added that change should be for "proved abuses". Burke saw society as organic, as a "partnership" bridging all generations. In typical Burkean language he declared 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 opposed abstract theories, which 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.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Classics of Political Philosophy,
This review is from: Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)Originally written as a long letter, "Reflections on the Revolution in France" is Edmund Burke's response to the French Revolution of 1789. Filled with historical inaccuracies, long and tiresome sentences, old fashioned English, and sometimes comical upper-class comments, one justifiably would wonder if "Reflections" has any value left for the reader of today.
The answer is that it has. This book outlines through its analysis (factually correct or not) the philosophy of Edmund Burke, the British MP that is credited as the father of conservatism. Burke expands the argument of the preservation of tradition, and the gradual change and reform of political institutions, against the radical re-organisation of them. This book is not about monarchy against democracy, or freedom against tyranny. It is rather an argument between gradual reform of traditional institutions against the implementation of abstract philosophical ideas (which were a product of the Enlightenment), and the complete abolition of traditional forms of political organisation that have stood through time. For this, "Reflections" deserves its place next to other great classic works on political philosophy, and should be read by conservatives and supporters of other ideological traditions alike.
However, it can be proven a difficult and frustrating read. The book is not separated into chapters, but is instead a long essay, since it was originally written as a letter with Burke's comments on the Revolution. Another point is the many references to events and people that Burke makes, which can be entirely unknown to the reader. The Oxford edition is excellent, as it has references and footnotes explaining the people and events Burke refers to, and is advised.
Overall, "Reflections" is a classic work on political philosophy, and a founding document of what conservatism should be about. I would gladly advice it to anyone interested in learning about a new point of view concerning political issues, or to anyone interested in understanding the core principles of the philosophy of conservatism.
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars pass the after-dinner port,
This review is from: Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)This book is like a ramble through a dark forest on a summer's day. There is no sense of climbing to get a good view of the surrounding countryside. Every now and then a gap opens up and the sunlight floods in filtered by the green leaves. For example:
"By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than flies of a summer."
Mr. Burke uses his eloquence to make the following points:
1.) We should be forgiving of other people's faults.
2.) Reforms need to be thought through and should not be so rapid as to destroy people's lives.
3.) Separation of powers and independence of the judiciary
4.) Religion is a useful tool for making people sacrifice their lives for the greater good, and to make people obey the government.
It's the last point that irritates me. Nowhere does Mr. Burke indicate that he actually believes in Christianity. Even though he seems to regard "atheistical philosophes" as mad, amoral and conniving, it can hardly be said that he takes theology for granted. So his model of government is that the aristocracy and clergy should paternalistically lie to the vast mass of the population. This model might be the best that can be achieved in an agricultural illiterate peasant economy. Maybe even this is a step forward over the slave-based economy of ancient times. However surely if society progresses at all, it must be a reduction in the slavery of the mind as well as that of the body. If not then surely trouble is being stored up and the revolution - when it does come - must surely be all the more terrible.
Maybe that is what really made the French Revolution so terrible. But I would not know because almost all that I know about the French Revolution I have learnt from reading this book. The notes and introduction are adequate and the book might be seriously misleading and obscure without them. However more space devoted to context in the introduction would not have gone amiss.
In conclusion I feel sure that - perhaps over a beer or brandy - I would enjoy Mr. Burke's company and that if I managed to discuss with him all the reasons for atheism, I would succeed in convincing him that I am quite mad and possibly dangerous.
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Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics) by Edmund Burke (Paperback - 26 Mar 2009)