Reflections On The Revolution In France Summary and Study Guide

Edmund Burke

Reflections On The Revolution In France

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Reflections On The Revolution In France Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 43-page guide for “Reflections On The Revolution In France” by Edmund Burke includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 5 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Political Conservatism and The Attack on Radicalism.

Plot Summary

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published in 1790, is written as a letter to a French friend of Burke’s family, Charles-Jean-François Depont, who requests Burke’s opinion of the French Revolution to date. Burke is a well-connected politician and political theorist of the late eighteenth century, though this tract would become his first significant work on the subject. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke speaks at length on the development of the French Revolution, and notably, the developments of the French Assembly; the detainment of the French monarch Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette; the seizure of church and aristocratic property and funds; and other subsequent radical changes unfolding in France to date.

Burke’s reply to Depont is in the epistolary tradition. He directs his response to the addressee (Depont), but it is clear that Burke’s audience is more than just Depont. Throughout the letter, Burke offers his summary on the actions taken by the French Assembly; however, he frequently reminds the reader that his knowledge of France is limited, and his accounts are often not of a firsthand nature. The account, being in the epistolary tradition, often takes the form of spontaneous effusions and uses an informal tone; however, what Burke offers here is his opinion on the revolution in France based on his opinion of what constitutes the best-working society available to humankind. In this, he distinguishes what he believes in (abstractions like Rights of Man—that men have dignity and may pursue happiness) and what he believes will work in practice(how a government can equally provide for those rights among its citizens).

This treatise on political theory, as it would come to be known, would be widely read by Burke’s political contemporaries, with polarizing reviews. Burke, a Whig, alienates himself from his party regarding the letter’s negative response to the French Revolution. A previous proponent of several revolutions, notably in the newly-minted United States, Burke elicits shock from his contemporaries in proposing the French err in pursuing their new government. Reflections on the Revolution in France receives a positive review, however, from England’s monarch, George III, establishing Burke as a political conservative. Ultimately, as Burke urges readers to retain established institutions like the monarchy, church, and the aristocracy, he implores his countrymen to seek the wise, if reactionary, course of their ancestors. Reflections on the Revolution in France earns itself a lasting place as one of the most influential arguments for conservatism in political philosophy.

The letter overall questions many popular theories of the Enlightenment, a period that flourished during much of the eighteenth century and was spearheaded by writers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, who spoke out against establishments like the monarchy and church, accusing them of corruption and oppression. Burke also brings himself into conflict with the Enlightenment and the sentiments of the French Revolution because he maintains that prudence is a wiser course of action than any radical act: he repeatedly uses the letter to denounce clubs like Jacobin and the Revolutionary Society in London, known for disseminating radical ideas opposing long-standing establishments like monarchies, inherited powers, and the church. Such radical thinkers, including Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, would be Burke’s loudest detractors, and would establish Burke as an opponent to a popularly held theory of the time: the Rights of Man.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke expounds on the folly of this particular revolution based on what he sees as a series of fundamental misunderstandings by those championing the Rights of Man. He cautions any country to remember its character and society over any single entity. He uses France as an analogy, but it is clear that he sees the character of the French and English—the chivalry and civility—as relatable. By forgetting their character, and by disbanding the representations of it—the crown, the manners and aristocracy—and by placing their faith in a new kind of man (sophisters, as Burke refers to them), not only will the country, but so will each man, lose his noble character. He then argues that revolutions of this kind, ironically built on the rights of men, misunderstand greatly the character of man, and particularly his tangled relationship with power.

Burke uses much of his letter to explain how after civility is lost, there is nothing to check and balance the character of each man, just as there is nothing to check and balance the corruption in government without the proper distribution of power. He wants to emphasize the point that freedom is positive, but it traditionally—and therefore, in Burke’s mind, rightfully—exists within a system: people can maintain relative freedom because they have a social contract to behave in a civil manner—this is the reciprocal exchange they make. He argues that radical thinkers seem to think that there is no reciprocation between being free and yielding a level of power to social law; Burke believes this lays the foundation for mob rule, in which people are free in one sense, but never free from fear of lost livelihood or safety.

Burke believes the entire foundation of the French Revolution is faulty because it is built on the ideal of individualism. Burke states it is the radical scholar, the writer, and the lawyer leading the Assembly in Paris—not the experienced politician or cleric, who work for the good of the people. He argues that a series of abstractions are promised, based on radical intellectualism and/or greedy opportunism. Burke predicts that these abstractions will fail in practice because the Assembly spurns the men of real learning and empowers those that possess no ancient knowledge of the responsibility that is required to officiate an army or manage estates of land. He notes that this revolt empowers men of opportunity: self-made men, jealous that they might not advance themselves by any other way than casting aside their competition and forming a monopoly of their own; in fact, Burke states on one occasion that a direct democracy is not far from a tyranny, when it goes awry.

By casting out the nobility and the clerics in favor of this new breed of leader, the French are also casting out the last of those that understand the import of that responsibility. Burke argues this will lead to chaos. He also suggests the Assembly decides to negotiate the country based on abstraction: into geometric and numerical proportions that don’t much take into account the character of the land they divide. Furthermore, the abstraction exists to Burke in the way of paper currency over silver or precious metal: he criticizes the figurative amount the Assembly places on money, which is just another war over abstract vs. concrete in Burke’s mind, with him always siding with the proven method.

Reflections on the Revolution in France can certainly be read as anti-rights; however, it is more accurately and overall a tract of anti-radicalism, in which Burke points out the difference between modifying a system (such as what England did during the Glorious Revolution, and replacing a bad monarch with a good one) rather than razing a system to the ground (such as what the French are doing by creating an entirely new government: legislature, executive, judicial power, etc.). Burke believes radicalism and radical thinkers create unrest; unrest, he maintains, creates division. Division, he argues, paves the way for mob rule. He ultimately predicts that the French government, being that it is built on no solid, existing foundation, will crumble. Theorists of the Enlightenment would urge for abrupt, radical action that aligns with the French Revolution, whereas Burke argues extensively for small, prudent changes over the course of many years.

To Burke, revolution, when unjustified by tyranny or some great suffering and begun under the grandest goals, can still be bad ideas masked as noble ones, perpetrated by bad men masquerading as good ones. Burke believes Louis XVI to be a mild king, and perhaps too indulgent; thereby, he sees the Assembly’s treatment of him and other aristocrats as simply retribution and cruelty: a weakness in character that will only grow meaner as the inhabitants of France grow unhappier.

As to the monarchy, Burke points out the necessity to amend these institutions in France, repeatedly pointing out their imperfect nature, but he argues that there is no need, based on the immediate absence of tyranny or neglect, to abolish these institutions altogether; in fact, he argues doing so will ultimately hurt France domestically (in the form of being able to collect revenue) and abroad (the ability to defend its colonies). Burke, though he maintains reform is necessary to both the monarch and the rules of nobility in France, believes those institutions have their necessity, just as they have in England.

Perhaps the greatest hallmark of conservatism in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France reveals itself as Burke’s preoccupation with Dr. Richard Price’s sermon and those that might sympathize with his words of praise for the French Revolution. Burke also takes great pains to explain how, with the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution more re-establishes the existing form of government England has, resorting time-honored traditions of their state: an inherited monarchy, peerage, the House of Commons, and Protestantism.

The French Revolution, on the contrary, offers, in Burke’s estimation, a completely new government, hereto “undone” in the storied European nations: unbound to any history, code, or religion. Unmannerly and disorderly, the architects are adventuring lawyers and intellectuals, not the sturdy lords and bishops Burke trusts. The only blueprint Burke depicts is a list of abstractions and a nation divided into squares around Paris. Reflections on the Revolution in France is, at its core, Burke’s cautionary tale against what he sees as this new political wasteland. This epistolary rant exists because he does not want England to similarly abolish its own noble institutions and rich historical convention for the promise of quixotic ideals, capitalized on by men of no inborn character.

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