EDITOR’S NOTE: Edmund Burke biographer Conor Cruise O’Brien died this past weekend at the age of 91. The O’Brien piece below was the cover story in the December 17, 1990, issue of National Review.
I. TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES On November 1, 1790, Edmund Burke’s most famous book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, was published. It is important to get the title right. The book is often referred to as Reflections on the French Revolution. The book’s real title adequately reveals Burke’s intentions. Burke’s point, in wording the title as he did, was that this was not just a “French Revolution” but a general revolution begun in France but likely to spread to other countries, as indeed it began to do, through military expansion, less than two years after the publication of the Reflections.
But already well before the period of military expansion, and before Burke began to write his Reflections, the revolution that began in France was beginning to expand in another way. This was an expansion through the movement of ideas, and through the strong sympathy, admiration, and spirit of emulation which various revolutionary transactions and declarations in France had aroused in certain circles in other countries, including Britain, by the end of 1789. Burke’s Reflections was written with the deliberate aim of sounding the alarm against this form of revolutionary expansion. The Reflections resembles George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four in two important ways. Both books were written about a revolution in another country and its consequences, and both were directed against British sympathizers with that revolution, and intended to isolate them.
Philosophically, the origins of Burke’s opposition to French Revolutionary ideas go back a long way: to his first book, A Vindication of Natural Society, published in 1756 — 34 years before the publication of the Reflections.
A Vindication was a prophetic work. In it, Burke set out to show — in an ironic mode — that an attempt to substitute “natural religion” for revealed religion would have revolutionary consequences for civil society. Burke’s immediate target was Henry Bolingbroke, an English Voltairean of the early eighteenth century and a spiritual ancestor of the English sympathizers with the French Revolution, who are Burke’s targets in the Reflections. There is an impressive continuity of thought and perception between these two books, separated as they are by more than 30 eventful years. It is a continuity that refutes the superficial contention of so many of Burke’s detractors that he “changed his principles” over the French Revolution. He didn’t change his principles. He held to them with fierce tenacity in the Reflections, and in the rest of his writings and speeches against the French Revolution.
A Vindication of Natural Society, that remote predecessor, or ancestor, of the Reflections, is not a treatise against the Enlightenment as a whole. Burke was himself a child of the Enlightenment: a child, that is, of the early, English or English-inspired, phase of the Enlightenment. This was the Enlightenment of Locke and Montesquieu, an Enlightenment that was compatible with a tolerant version of Christianity. This was Burke’s Enlightenment. But from the second quarter of the eighteenth century on, a different strain of Enlightenment emerged, and became dominant in France by the mid 1760s. This was the Voltairean Enlightenment, radically hostile to all forms of revealed religion, and contemptuously rejecting the entire Judaeo-Christian heritage. Burke, who was a deeply religious man — although there is some doubt about what his religion actually was — attacked the anti-religious strain of the Enlightenment with A Vindication, just as with the Reflections he would attack what he saw as the results of that strain in the French Revolution.
As Burke had foreseen (in general terms) in A Vindication, the discrediting of religion had the effect of condemning the established social and political system in that country where the discredit of religion was pushed to the greatest lengths. That country was France. The discredit of religion automatically discredited the monarchy, since reverence for the monarch — His Most Christian Majesty — rested essentially on the theory that the monarch was God’s anointed. If there was no God — at least no God Who personally intervened in human politics — then the monarchy was a fraud. The monarch was delegitimized by being desacralized, and the way was laid open for his deposition and execution. Edmund Burke opposed that whole process, or project, from near its beginning, with A Vindication, to near its end, with the Reflections.
Philosophically, then, the Reflections has deep roots in Burke’s thought. Politically it is also in strict accordance with a principle that he had laid down as early as December 1783, explaining his initial — and protracted — unwillingness to attack the system of government of the East India Company. Burke, in that context, explained his “insuperable reluctance to destroy any established system of government, upon a theory.” That reluctance is at the root of the Reflections, politically speaking. And Burke had given expression to that reluctance nearly six years before the Revolution in France began. Those who seek to cast doubt on Burke’s sincerity and consistency over the French Revolution have a very poor case.