Burke’s “Revolutionary Book”: Conservative Politics and Revolutionary Aesthetics in the Reflections
James Madison University
This essay explores the seemingly disjointed relationship between politics and aesthetics in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), questioning why the first articulation of conservative traditionalism would be announced in a shockingly new, experimental style. One of Novalis’s aphorisms suggests that Burke’s Reflections inverts common assumptions about the relationship between politics and aesthetics: “Many antirevolutionary books have been written for the Revolution. But Burke has written a revolutionary book against the Revolution.” As Novalis observed, Burke’s Reflections defies the formal conventions of political prose; Burke outlines his defense of traditional British institutions in an idiom that approaches the excesses of modernist montage in its patchwork of genres. His unsystematic style juxtaposes and blends, often in seemingly incongruous ways, diverse literary genres and rhetorical forms: the legalistic-latinate idiom, the captivity narrative, the biblical epistle, the political tract, the gothic novel, enthusiastic prophecy, chivalric romance, and tragedy. While these disparate literary forms erupt unpredictably in the Reflections, they do so in a fragmented, at times even grotesque manner, revealing what Burke himself admitted, that his conservative project is premised on an invented tradition devoid of all referential consistency and stability. In the face of an economy that was changing the very nature of value as such, Burke aesthetically revives fragments of tradition from the past and arranges them in an anti-utilitarian way that might conserve what he understood to be their pre-capitalist, non-relative value.
The Revolution in France does not astonish me as much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.
Thomas Jefferson, after reading the Reflections
If the French Revolution is a pivotal point in history as the initiator or accelerator of modernity, it is during this period of rapid modernization that the “anti-modern” political position emerges as a site of resistance to industrialization, urbanization, materialism, and utilitarianism. Reacting against both the industrial and French revolutions, the anti-modern, anti-progressive political position will, by 1830, be called “conservative,” since those who hold that position wish, ostensibly, to “conserve” traditional institutions, values, and land. Widely considered to be the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke’s first articulation of the principle of “conservation” is put forth in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). At the same time, the Reflections gained much attention from the date of its publication until the present for its shocking literary qualities, as Burke outlines a defense of traditional British institutions in an idiom that approaches the excesses of modernist montage in its patchwork of genres. One of Novalis’s aphorisms summarizes the illogical juxtaposition of tradition and anti-tradition in Burke’s Reflections: “Many antirevolutionary books have been written for the Revolution. But Burke has written a revolutionary book against the Revolution” (43). Novalis’s aphorism suggests that Burke’s conservative theory inverts common assumptions about the relationship between politics and aesthetics, in particular the assumption that radically liberal or progressive politics alone produce radical aesthetics. What follows will explore the seemingly disjointed relationship between politics and aesthetics in Burke’s Reflections, questioning why the first articulation of conservative traditionalism would be announced in a shockingly innovative aesthetic form.
As Novalis observed, Burke’s Reflections defies the formal conventions of political prose. Burke’s deliberately unsystematic style juxtaposes incongruous forms of language: the legalistic-latinate idiom, the captivity narrative, the biblical epistle, the political tract, the gothic novel, enthusiastic prophecy, the grotesque, chivalric romance, and tragedy. Far from merely exhibiting Burke’s alleged mental instability and rage at the Revolution, his combination of wildly varying genres deliberately disorients both the progressive, liberal reader who expects a short, methodical political tract and the Enlightenment reader who expects to find a neoclassical purity of style. In The Politics of Language, Olivia Smith observes: “Its [the Reflections] vehemence, its disorder, and its disregard of elegance were the characteristics of his prose that did not accord with prevalent appraisals of the refined language” (37). Beyond confounding the boundaries of traditional literary genres, the mixing of vulgar and refined styles unravels the social divisions that are intrinsically tied to the various types of language. In fact, Smith concludes that Burke’s unanticipated mixing of rhetorical styles made “the radical position more capable of being articulated” and deeply influenced Paine’s attempt to create “an intellectual vernacular prose” (36-37).
While he may have unwittingly aided the radicals in finding a language to match their politics, Burke’s juxtaposition of violently fragmented literary styles does not serve as a democratization of language as much as it demonstrates his understanding that the established permutations of language encode class and ideological stances. By mixing and juxtaposing genres and by implication class, Burke not only disorients the reader but also emphasizes the aesthetic and moral beauty of difference (or the legitimacy of inequality) in both class and language. The emphasis on difference in class and language mirrors an organic theory of society, in which “society is enormously complex, far more than the sum of its parts and the simple mass of its relationships” (O’Gorman 2). Thus Burke confounds stylistic discriminations as an attempt to reaffirm their traditional value. Furthermore, Burke’s refusal to use language within accepted generic styles tears language away from the increasingly dominant language, the “plain” language of the emerging middle class, legal codification, and commercial trade.
As the French Revolutionaries, on the basis of ostensible rational principles, were dismantling the ancient French institutions of political power—the monarchy, the aristocracy and the Church—Burke’s position was that England needed to maintain aesthetically those traditions so as to circumvent a similar violent uprising in England. Yet once traditions need to be actively cultivated and encoded in writing, they have at the point of their attempted revival ceased to be genuine traditions, which are spontaneous and obvious to a particular group and thus need no conscious maintenance. Burke’s attempt to “conserve” tradition amounts to reconstituting or simulating tradition at an aesthetic level, as “pleasing illusions” and “the decent drapery of life” (171). In doing so, Burke implicitly announces the end of authentic tradition, which has already lost its original function within the community.
Burke’s Reflections emerges from precisely this looming crisis—the end of tradition—which means he must create or simulate those traditions in the aesthetic form of his text. The Reflections’ aesthetic is best understood as a “rage for order”: a violent disordering of progressive Enlightenment thought that is necessary to the traditionalist and anti-modern project. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin observes that “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it” (255). Admittedly Benjamin refers to leftist possibilities for using history and tradition as a way of countering rapid and alienating progress, yet I want to claim that Burke’s conservative project is similarly anti-modern. Burke’s rich use of performative and figurative language simulates the impulsive eruptions of an authentic history of tradition threatened by modernity itself.
Of all the affairs in the history of Europe, Burke writes in the Reflections, the French Revolution was the “most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world” (92). The Revolution, compounded by Richard Price’s exultant representation of it in his sermon “A Discourse on the Love of Country,” provokes Burke’s rage for order in the Reflections. According to Ronald Paulson, “The sheer novelty of the French Revolution required new forms of representation and even more basically raised the central aesthetic challenge: how to represent the unprecedented” (26). However, in its early stages, the revolution appeared to be unprecedented only by those who were appalled by it; the French Revolutionaries and their sympathizers represented revolution in revived neo-classical styles, taking the term revolution in its traditional sense, in harmony with natural and astronomical cycles, as they understood the current revolution to be a hearkening back to the Roman republic. By representing the current British monarch and Church as the direct outgrowth of ancient tradition, Burke interprets the French Revolution as a complete and violent break with the past. His redefinition of the revolution as an unnatural and astonishing “great change of scene” (65) without precedent concurs with Napoleon’s assertion that the revolution should not be defined as part of a cycle but as a “complete social rebirth.” Burke thus anticipates in France’s early revolutionary thought an ideology that Napoleon, after the revolution had come to its fruition, would explicitly acknowledge. Such discernment foregrounds an essential mode of Burke’s discourse: that of prophecy. Burke predicts that the Revolution in France is pressing history towards modernity at an unrelenting pace “leaving a ruin instead of a habitation” in its wake (192), and in 1790 he also predicts the coming violence: “Troops again—Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights of men!” (345). This is not to say that Burke was interested in documenting accurate events at all—past, present, or future. In that sense, the inaccuracies of Burke’s text are myriad, but as Ian Balfour points out, “Poets as prophets may not know the form of an event—even future events but they do know their spirit, which is surely the most essential thing” (39).
In his groundbreaking study of Romantic prophecy (in which he does not mention Burke), Balfour usefully defines prophecy as a phenomenon arising out of great political and social turbulance that “runs literally para doxa—that is counter to the dominant belief” (2). Accordingly, Burke’s Reflections would arise in response to the demands of history, to the demands of resisting a Revolution that is at once unprecedented and inescapable. As a mode rather than a genre, prophecy ventures beyond the confinement of established generic conventions and thus proves to be a useful literary tool for creating unsystematic, highly figurative forms of cultural and political critique.
Early in the Reflections, Burke announces his prophetic discernment of the political and social crisis looming within the Revolution:
The beginnings of confusion with us in England are at present feeble enough; but with you [France], we have seen an infancy still more feeble, growing by moments into a strength to heap mountains upon mountains, and to wage war with Heaven itself. Whenever our neighbour’s house is on fire, it cannot be amiss for the engines to play a little on our own. Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than to be ruined by too confident a security.
Burke represents social and political change of the Revolution as ecological and organic destruction: a throwing of “mountain upon mountain” and a potential conflagration spreading through the European community. Jacobin politics are at once unnatural and destructive for the community, and Burke’s “anxious apprehensions” for the political, communal, ecological, and moral future of England prompt him to publish, for the warning and instruction of the public, an ostensibly private letter written to a young friend in France.
The advantage of publishing a political pamphlet in the form of a personal letter, according to Burke, is that the “freedom of epistolary intercourse” allows him to “throw out my thoughts, and express my feelings, just as they arise in my mind with very little attention to formal method” (92). By responding in a prophetic, epistolary mode to the events in France, Burke gains freedom from the rhetorical conventions of political writing, a freedom that permits the throwing out of thoughts and feelings “just as they arise in my head,” a method that, I argue, counters Jacobin reason and systematic language, which Burke deplores because it strips away “the decent drapery of life” to expose the “naked, shivering nature of man.” Only aesthetic and traditional illusions might control increasingly ruthless, economically-driven foreign and domestic politics, a phenomenon Burke understood all too well as a former laissez-faire Whig. Yet instead of reading the violent contradictions in Burke’s text as evidence of the inevitable deconstruction of his language and ideology, I want to claim that the aesthetic aspect of Burke’s experimental pastiche of multifarious genres is in fact necessary in the creation of conservative anti-theory.
By his own admission, Burke adopts the epistolary form because it allows a greater measure of freedom in writing. Burke’s choice of form may recall the popular eighteenth-century genre of the epistolary novel of sensibility, notably Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. As it counters reason with sentiment, Burke’s language often veers towards the language of sensibility, which Jerome McGann claims emphasizes “the mind in the body” and valorizes humans “who live and move and have their being through affect, through sympathy” (7). Yet since the epistolary novel constitutes itself as a series of letters written by different characters, and the Reflections is composed as a singular letter, I argue that Burke’s sensibility functions as persuasive type of rhetoric within the larger mode the prophetic Biblical epistle. The form of the prophetic epistle creates the literary space for Burke to write an ostensibly private letter to the public containing multifarious styles, or many voices, but all with the intention to instruct and to warn. Even in the sense of prophecy, Burke vacillates between the model of the pastoral Pauline epistle that guides the faithful in the tradition they have received and the Old Testament prophecy that utters judgments of ruin and apocalypse to those who have forsaken their national traditions.
If Burke is writing in a prophetic mode, then he meets Richard Price in his “pulpit style, revived after so long discontinuance,” which Burke claims had “the air of novelty, and of a novelty not wholly without danger” (94-5). By comparing Price’s “pulpit style” in “A Discourse on the Love of Country” to the seventeenth-century radical dissenters who supported the beheading of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth, Burke evokes England’s traumatic history so as to present the events in France as uncanny, pointing to signs of political danger. Burke thus adopts a prophetic style, as Tim Fulford points out, to mark Price as a false prophet (349). As a result, instead of simply condemning Price’s prophetic mode, Burke exploits the rhetorical power of prophecy’s “air of novelty” to support and re-establish the current monarchy and church, as they were established by the Glorious Revolution in 1688. However, when discussing the foundation of the Glorious Revolution, Burke states his case clearly in the legalistic-latinate idiom:
Unquestionably there was at the Revolution, in the person of King William, a small and temporary deviation from the strict order of a regular hereditary succession, but it is against all genuine principles of jurisprudence to draw a principle from a law made in a special case, and regarding an individual person. Privilegium non transit in exemplum.
Here Burke’s argument is conducted not by rhetoric but by reference to the law and factual history. Yet when representing the French Revolution, particularly the mob-led transport of the royal family from Versailles back to Paris, Burke abandons eighteenth-century legalistic discourse to meet Price’s prophetic representations of the event.
Price views the capture of the monarchy as “auspicious” and as a sign of the imminent end of all “slavish governments and slavish hierarchies” (22). By utilizing two biblical allusions that prophecize humanity’s eventual redemption by Christ—Simeon’s exclamation when Christ was presented at the temple, “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation” and Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem before his death—Price describes how the French mob captured the royal family and “led [them] in triumph, the arbitrary monarch surrendering himself to his subjects” (21). In comparison to Price’s unequivocal glorification of the Revolution, Burke’s reference to the same scene elicits his abandonment of eighteenth-century stylistic convention. According to Burke, the return of the royal family to Paris is:
a spectacle more resembling a procession of American savages, entering into Onondaga, after some of their murders called victories, and leading into hovels hung round with scalps, their captives, overpowered with the scoffs and buffets of women as ferocious as themselves . . .
In the style of the American captivity narrative, best exemplified by the enormously popular A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), Burke represents the French revolutionaries as heathen “savages” so as to ascribe “shame and horror” to the event. It is not just the violence of their procession, but the fact that women seem to be equally or more violent than men that creates this horror. Like the captivity narrative that inspires admiration for the faith and innocence of the captives and provokes horror at the sight of the violence of the uncivilized and heathen Native Americans, Burke employs similar rhetoric to re-encode the capture of the royal family as gruesome and irrational rather than a triumphant, rational, political move towards liberty. The representation of the return of the royal family to Paris in the style of a violent captivity narrative is not only vivid, but performative as it attempts to invoke fear of a European degeneration into savagery.
Later in the text Burke will describe the same scene slightly differently: the royal family is forced to travel “amidst the horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell . . .” (165). Here Burke shifts slightly from representing the crowd as a scalping war-party to the genre of the gothic novel. The gothic, according to Judith Halberstam, “deploys monstrosity to condense negative meaning into bodies with highly specific sexual, racial, and class codings” (59), and Burke’s gothic codings seem to be aimed at French women who, as violent rather than maternal creatures, represent revolutionary activity as unnatural and monstrous. Burke’s employment of both the captivity narrative and the gothic can be understood as instances of the sublime, which is, in Burke’s own words, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror” (Enquiry 86). Although the sublime covers many styles of writing and while this argument deals more specifically with the juxtaposition of specific genres, the sublime nevertheless comes to bear significantly in the Reflections as a swerving away from eighteenth-century, neo-classical conceptions of the beautiful.
Subsequent to the captivity narrative and gothic evocation of the royal family’s return to Paris, the text shifts to the biblical scene of Christ’s Via Dolorosa: “After they had been made to taste, drop by drop, more than the bitterness of death, in the slow torture of a journey of twelve miles, protracted to six hours . . .” (165). Here the innocent royal family turns into a Christ-like sacrifice; Furniss observes that here Burke utilizes Price’s tactic of applying “images commonly sacred to great occasions for ideological effect” (145). By alluding to the way of the cross, Burke rewrites Price’s representation of the revolutionaries “leading in triumph” into a representation of the revolutionaries as the Jews who tortured and killed Christ, thus exploiting the powerful paranoia attached to anti-Semitic rhetoric. In all the representations of the mob scene, potential sacrifice is a common theme, and indeed, Burke explicitly worries about the sacrificial and ritual possibilities that could be associated with this scene: “Is this a triumph to be consecrated at altars? To be commemorated with grateful thanksgiving?” (165). By comparing the revolutionaries’ activities to the “massacre of innocents” (166), alluding to Herod’s slaughter of all the children under two in Bethlehem, Burke strives to ensure that the revolutionaries near approach to “regicide and sacrilegious slaughter” does not become a sacrifice serving to form a new community in England.
The Reflections’ unpredictable generic fluctuation, even in the representation of a single event, points to a radical break from established political prose. The forced journey of the royal family back to Paris is described in a pastiche of the captivity narrative, the gothic novel, and a biblical sacrificial scene—all of which are presented in the prophetic mode. Frans De Bruyn notes “Burke's rhetorical virtuosity: his ability to press into service the full compass of eighteenth-century cultural discourse, from the high, polite, and exalted to the low, popular, and scurrilous” (577), yet I argue that the Reflections’ conflation and combination of eighteenth century discourse with other discursive modes amounts to a radical break with, rather than a “full compass” of, eighteenth-century discourse. In his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1762-3), Adam Smith puts forth the “overall rules for the description of Objects,” which requires that the representation of objects display only one sentiment: “Where the chief design is to excite mirth or chearfullness nothing should be brought in that is gloomy or horrible . . .” (71). The combination or confusion of sentiments in a description, Smith warns, breaks the boundaries of acceptable rhetoric. Burke’s pastiche description, which uses three different genres to describe one event in order to provoke both horror and admiration in unseemly conjunction, thus breaks forcibly with acceptable eighteenth-century polite rhetoric.
Essayist William Hazlitt admired the Reflections as a genuinely powerful aesthetic innovation: “He had nothing of a set or formal style, the measured cadence, and stately phraseology of Johnson, and most of our modern writers. This style, which is what we understand by the artificial . . . The words are not fitted to the things, but the things to the words” (60). Instead of using words to accurately describe events, Burke’s discourse performatively creates the event or at least creates a perception of the event. Thus Burke’s represents the Revolution as an irrational “monstrous tragic-comic scene” wherein “the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror” (92). Even though Burke describes the revolution here, it seems as though this model—the monstrous conflation and mixture of oppositions—becomes his own model of discursive representation as he attempts textually to match the “magnificent stage effect” of the Revolution.
The conflation of images and genres further points to the use of the grotesque as a mode of historical perception. According to Geoffrey Galt Harpham, the grotesque leaves “our understanding stranded in a “liminal” phase, for this image appears to have an impossible split reference, and multiple forms inhabit a single image” (13). The French Revolution and the events surrounding it are portrayed by Burke in “split references” simultaneously conjuring senses of horrific monstrosity and sublime fascination. The Reflections’ use of the grotesque, which deploys unnatural images of humans combined with animals, also disrupts Smith’s neoclassical emphasis on the unity of nature. The use of the grotesque allows Burke to create a shocking image conveying the degeneration of the revolutionaries:
In England we have not yet been completely emboweled of our natural entrails; we still feel within us, and we cherish and cultivate, those inbred sentiments which are the faithful guardians, the active monitors of our duty, the supporters of all liberal and manly morals. We have not been drawn and trussed, in order that we may be filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with chaff and rags, and paltry, blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man.
As the revolution discards social traditions, its rational system disembowels humanity. Those who are motivated by reason instead of their gut intuitions are represented as mere shells of human beings, “stuffed” with their disintegrating paper theories about the rights of man. Extending the metaphor to game trophies slaughtered and preserved as prizes create a public spectacle, these stuffed/human birds are filled not only with the typical straw and rags but also with the French National Assembly’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man” (August 26, 1789) all of which serves to apply an appalling, animalistic image of the secular, rationalist Revolution.
Burke’s split representations create the much commented on violent, imaginative conflation of Marie Antoinette—as the “persecuted woman” whose bed is penetrated and as a glittering “morning-star, full of life, and splendor, and joy” (169). In these scenes, the conjuring and confounding of two literary genres, tragedy and chivalric tales performatively invoke a sacrificial crisis and ritual sacrifice that Burke hopes might prevent the spread of Jacobinism in England. Both depictions of the Queen are political representations: one is dramatized as a tragedy: after a simulated, dramatic, figurative rape as “an hundred bayonets and poniards” pierced the queen’s bed, the Queen then flees “almost naked” from “the most splendid palace in the world . . . swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcasses” (164). This bloody didactic ending recalls political tragedy, yet this scene also reflects tragedy in its most primitive sense, closely allied with scapegoat and sacrifice. That this violent scene can demonstrate two forms of tragedy—the primitive ritual and highly refined political—further manifests a grotesque aesthetic that, as Harpham argues, “most fully embodies this tension between the archaic and the advanced” (49).
The second representation of Marie Antoinette evokes the chivalric style, elevating her person to a “delightful vision” who “hardly seemed to touch” the earth and who cheered “the elevated sphere” of her existence (169). Burke’s split representation of the queen both idealizes and denigrates her. Merging the tragic “rape” and abduction of the queen with her chivalric status so as to set the stage for his final shock tactic, he famously declares, “But the age of chivalry is gone.—That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever” (170). Burke’s declared end of European manners and custom is based entirely on the performative rhetoric of his two previous tragic-chivalric representations of the Queen of France. Furthermore, in the very next paragraph Burke states that the system of “antient chivalry” still underlies most of the governmental systems of Europe. If Burke himself admits that his declaration is false, then his narration of the demise of chivalry in his previous representations of Marie Antoinette is not factual but performative, designed to evoke horror and fear that chivalry as such might well be in jeopardy. In this way, Burke rhetorically enacts a sacrificial crisis, which occurs, according to Rene Girard, when “the collapse of the cultural structure of society leads to reciprocal violence and this collapse encourages the spread of violence everywhere” (52).
Through performative language, Burke simulates a sacrificial crisis, which will be brought about by the lack of distinctions and cultural dismantling begun by the French revolutionaries. First the royal family is transformed into a Christ-like sacrifice by encoding their historically-accurate forced return to Paris with the Way of the Cross. Then Burke sacrifices the institution of chivalry hoping it will miraculously rise again. By way of this figural sacrifice, Burke attempts to elicit a response of horror from the community of readers in England that will at once serve to bind the community back together (which is also one of the functions of the invented tradition). Girard explains, “internal violence—all the dissentions, rivalries, jealousies, and quarrels within the community . . . sacrifices are designed to suppress. The purpose of sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric” (8). Thus, the apparent melodrama of Burke’s much commented on descriptions of Marie Antoinette serves a complex textual function within the context of conservative anti-theory.
Burke’s violent sacrificial descriptions of Marie Antoinette are more radical than the radical Jacobin descriptions of her (at this point in time). This phenomenon, according to Furniss, demonstrates Burke’s inability to stop his aesthetic ideology from deconstructing itself: “By obsessively returning to the scene of that which it seeks to repress, the difference between Burke’s text and the ‘criminal’ text [Richard Price’s Discourse on the Love of Country] it works to condemn threatens to collapse” (140). Admittedly, Burke’s utilization of deliberately artificial and literary representations of the monarchy have another darker side—his elevated traditional institutions are exposed as mere artifice; the power those institutions wield is anything but genuine and indisputable. Burke’s revolutionary aesthetics openly acknowledge the illusory nature of his aesthetic ideology, admitting the institutions of the monarchy, aristocracy, and established church amount to “pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which so beautify and soften private society . . .” (171). Indeed Burke seems forthcoming in defending traditional political institutions as artifice and because they are artifice. In a Nietzschean move avant la lettre, Burke believes in the possibilities for good that lie within illusions. Moreover, the non-utilitarian value of aesthetic illusions also challenges the calculating value of capitalist economics, and this challenge is a central strategy of Burke’s conservatism.
Burke synthesizes the British language of the commercial and professional classes with the experience of voracious capitalism, demonstrating the alienating, irrational underside of the Industrial/French revolutions. Burke’s Reflections move beyond politics into art, for art, as Theodor Adorno elaborates, is “the truth of society insofar as in its most authentic products the irrationality of the rational world order is expressed” (84). According to Burke, the French revolutionary bourgeoisie:
have found their punishment in their success. Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigour; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid; yet the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and a state not relieved; civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom; everything human and divine sacrificed to the idol of public credit, and national bankruptcy the consequence; and to crown all, the paper securities of a new, precarious, tottering power, the discredited paper securities of impoverished fraud, and beggared rapine, held out as a currency for the support of an empire, in lieu of the two great recognized species that represent the lasting conventional credit of mankind.
Here, the French revolutionaries are portrayed as rapacious and unpredictable as capitalism itself. Speculative capitalism, bourgeois competitiveness, and revolutionary fervor combine to take on the status of an unquenchable ravenous God, to whom all tradition and emotional ties must be sacrificed. Using the language of sacrifice, Burke demonstrates how speculative capitalism, the “idol of public credit,” creates a crisis of value as such that touches all aspects of life: economic, moral and political. Even more shocking is Burke’s figurative demotion of the institutions of the aristocracy and the clergy to mere economic capital, a “species of lasting conventional credit.” Yet in this way, Burke distinguishes between two models of politics reproduced as two paradigms of economic value: one recklessly speculative and the other permanent, secure, and tangible.
The exceedingly complex nature of the Reflections, with its simultaneous desecration and idealization of political social ideals, is part and parcel of Burke’s defense of multifarious, localized traditions, which he understands to be threatened by a rapidly globalizing capitalist economy that is erasing class and ethnic distinctions. In the 20th century, Walter Benjamin bore witness to the difficulty of writing history in a commercially dominated society: “To articulate historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was.” . . . It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger” (255). Far from a mere imitation of aristocratic anti-systematic style, Burke’s pastiche of different literary genres in the Reflections bespeaks his attempt to take hold of cultural memories and values at the moment that they are being erased by capitalist and industrialist expansion. Paradoxically, in a radical move to save the past, Burke must first liberate language from banal commercial and political usage. Employing a full arsenal of styles—the legalistic-latinate idiom, prophecy, the epistle, the captivity narrative, the gothic, chivalric romance, the grotesque, tragedy, and sensibility—Burke creates an aesthetically innovative new form of writing while writing the first articulation of a conservative tradition. Turning to responses from Burke’s contemporaries, we can see just how alienating Burke’s prose was to the liberal “progressives” of his own time period.
Although the Burke/Paine debate is most often recalled as a debate between tradition and innovation, such a dichotomy does not accurately convey the nuances of the debate. Innovation is not only progressive and radical, but innovation also belongs to the order of capitalism and imperial expansion. As Burke sees it, the French Revolution cannot be disentangled from the capitalist, industrial revolution, which would mean the transference of power from the inherited classes to the nascent bourgeoisie, or “the new monied interest,” not the masses at large. If the French Revolution is understood as a natural outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution, then the Reflections respond to the voracious nature of capitalism, with its foundation on speculation and other spurious forms of value. “It seems arguable” according to J.G.A. Pocock, “that Burke is presenting religion, chivalry, and commerce as trodden down together by the hoofs of paper-money despotism” (Virtue 200). In the face of an economy that is changing the very nature of value as such, Burke scrambles to grasp fragments of tradition from the past and arrange them in an unsystematic and anti-utilitarian way that will conserve what he understands to be their pre-capitalist, non-relative, and stable value. The liberals’ vehement rejection of Burke’s language in the Reflections reinforces my thesis that liberal-progressive politics tends to rely on oddly “conservative” (in a formal sense) models of representation, whereas Burke’s conservative political view is far more inventive, experimental, and even iconoclastic in its rhetorical habitus.
Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man critiques the aesthetic style of Reflections because it “degenerates into a composition of art” (51) rather than factually recording the events surrounding the fall of the Bastille or distinguishing between the French and English constitutions. Instead, Burke has “endeavored to lead his readers from the point by a wild unsystematical display of paradoxical rhapsodies” (74). By asking Burke to argue rationally and point by point, Paine asks Burke to submit himself to the increasingly dominant liberal, contractual, plain language. As Paine’s plain language mirrors his pro-capitalist, egalitarian political goals, Burke’s language, with its wild displays and paradoxes, reflects the difficulty (and even absurdity) of the conservative political position. Paine’s language, far from revolutionary in style, is the simplified form of commercial language which is informed by a capitalist ethic. Middle class industrialists and radicals sought “alphabetic and grammatical reform,” according to Kramnick, which was “symptomatic of ideological imperialism at work” (Republicanism 32). In short, the simplification of language and communication facilitates capitalism by smoothing the progress of trade and “equalizing” the path for a capitalist “race” to be run.
By disregarding plain language and historical facts, Burke resorts to simulating representative fragments of tradition that might, symbolically and linguistically at least, temper the rapid social and economic change Paine and other radicals advocate. Thomas Pfau notes that in the context of German conservative politics and Romanticism, “Both languages are preoccupied with a traumatic disjunction of past and present, memory and experience” (64). Therefore, in an emerging capitalist society, the attempt to return to tradition requires innovation and provocation, for writing tradition requires a confrontation with the traumatic disjunction from the past. Eric Hobsbawm writes, “Indeed, the very appearance of movements for the defence or revival of traditions, ‘traditionalist’ or otherwise, indicates such a break . . . Where the old ways are alive, traditions need be neither revived nor invented” (78). If the consciousness of “tradition” indicates a break with real traditions or the “old ways,” then Burke’s theory of conservatism must be anti-theory, for the redemption of the past in writing or language, both markers of the absence of experience, admits to the futility of such an objective task. In the Reflections Burke admits, “It has been the misfortune (not as these gentlemen think it, the glory) of this age, that everything is to be discussed . . .” (188). Burke’s Reflections acknowledges its ambivalent project of encoding conservative thought, which sets it within historical time while at the same time arguing for its own timelessness.
Paine astutely detects the rhetorical strategy of Burke’s “poetical liberties” which allow Burke the advantage “of omitting some facts, distorting others, and making the whole machinery bend to produce a stage effect” (59). While Paine accurately assesses Burke’s language as abandoning fact for a performative style of language, here Paine exploits the long-held British anti-theatrical prejudice—which, according to Jonas Barish, “fed on the puritanical distrust of qualities like mimicry, ostentation, and spectacle” (299)—to refute Burke’s style. Asserting the puritanical, moral superiority of plain language, Paine’s liberality in politics censors Burke’s “poetical liberties.” As an attempt to resist plain language, such “poetical liberties” create a simulacrum of unverifiable claims that emerge through the power of his virtuosic rhetorical performance, which created a solely textual, not factual, world from which his invented tradition of conservatism could emerge.
Similar derision of Burke’s prose style can be found in other responses to Burke’s Reflections, including those of John Thelwall and Mary Wollstonecraft. Thelwall criticizes the Reflections for the effects of its jarring juxtaposition of opposing styles:
What signify the lullabies of Burke—the narcotics and soporifics with which he would charm us to sleep? or the visions and frenzies with which he would disturb our slumbers? What signify his pious ravings and meditations of the rewards conferred upon us in another world?
Thelwall clearly sees the difficulty of Burke’s conservative rage for order: at once lulling the polity to sleep and then jarring that sleep with horrors. Asking repeatedly, “what signify,” Thelwall discerns that Burke’s conservative anti-theory brings the question of signification to the fore, as Burke understands language as plastic, to be molded at will by those using it. Jettisoning the concrete form of argumentation for a performance, the Reflections strikes at the very heart of “plain” language, deeply undermining the idea that language can ever offer adequate representation.
As her “indignation was roused by the sophistical arguments” of Burke’s Reflections, Wollstonecraft was prompted to write A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1791). Wollstonecraft disdains the Reflections’ artificiality and apparent inauthenticity (assuming language can be entirely authentic), judging the text to be “scattered artificial flowers over the most barren heath; or a mixture of verse and prose producing the strangest incongruities” (31). Wollstonecraft reacts vehemently against Burke’s paradoxical style because she has an overt prejudice in favor of the language of the rising professional and commercial middle class. Along with her radical peers, Wollstonecraft is part of the nascent bourgeoisie, in the process of actively defining her moral and social status in British society. From this staunch moral standpoint, Wollstonecraft expresses her fierce reactions to Burke’s figurative prose: “I glow with indignation when I attempt, methodically, to unravel your slavish paradoxes, in which I can find no fixed first principle to refute . . .” (14). Although they were “radicals,” Paine, Thelwall, and Wollstonecraft’s responses to the Reflections sounded strangely “conservative”; these reactions were conservative in their puritanical and moral tone and conservative in their stylistic and formal predictability. Their reactions were not just to Burke’s message, but to Burke’s use of language, demonstrating that the aesthetic form of Burke’s conservative anti-theory amounted to a radical departure from established political discourse.
In spite of the overwhelming response against the Reflections, several intellectuals of Burke’s generation recognized Burke’s unique literary talent, particularly in the strange juxtapositions that characterize Burke’s prose, the very quality that so aroused the radicals of Burke’s day. I have already mentioned that Novalis called the Reflections a “revolutionary book.” Likewise, William Hazlitt applauds Burke’s literary genius:
Burke also gave a hold to his antagonists by mixing up sentiment and imagery with his reasoning; so that being unused to such a sight in the region of politics, they were deceived, and could not discern the fruit from the flowers . . . His words are the most like things; his style is the most strictly suited to the subject. He unites every extreme and every variety of composition; the lowest and the meanest words and descriptions with the highest. He exults in the display of power, in shewing the extent, the force, and intensity of his ideas.
Here the very stylistic choice for which Thelwall and Wollstonecraft vilify Burke, namely his shocking juxtaposition of “every extreme and every variety of composition,” is lauded by Hazlitt as a unique display of literary power. Hazlitt also dismisses the criticism of Burke’s factual inaccuracy as irrelevant. For Burke, the facts of history are “the playthings of his mind” (61) which he uses to create his aesthetic, as opposed to theoretical stance. Hazlitt considered Burke “the most poetical of our prose writers,” and Burke’s poetic prose is unique because it “never degenerates into the mere effeminacy of poetry; for he always aims at overpowering rather than at pleasing; and consequently sacrifices beauty and delicacy to force and vividness” (66). Thus, according to Hazlitt, the aesthetics of Burke’s poetic prose in the Reflections consists of shocking qualities—overpowering force and vividness—that we now often associate with early 20th-century modernist poetry.
Burke’s conservative anti-theory is performatively enacted by his constructivist, aesthetically-innovative prose, according to which stability and loyalty must be secured by constructing a beautiful polity and so displacing the liberal concept of an adversarial public sphere (the “battle of ideas” model). In Letters on a Regicide Peace, Burke states, “We are at war with a system. . . . It is with an armed doctrine that we are at war” (76). Here Burke forthrightly accuses post-regicide France and any English revolutionary sympathizers of adhering to an abstract, rationalist system; it is that primarily discursive system of values with which England is at war and should continue to be at war. “They [the French] have much, but bad, metaphysics; much, but bad, geometry; much, but false, proportionate mathematic . . . nothing relates to the concerns, the actions, the passions, the interests of men” (296); the insufficiency and inhumanity of any abstract, mathematical, or mechanical base for politics is a central theme for the Reflections. Both the revolutionary and non-revolutionary writers, Steven Blakemore argues, “knew that the linguistic, ideological war was an extension of the military war—they sensed that language and ideology are intimately intertwined and that whatsoever controls language controls not only the terms of ‘war’ but the terms of reality itself” (2). Thus Burke’s anti-modern position in the Reflections is mirrored in his montage-like use of fragmented language—a language of figurative, disjointed sentiments set against rationality and system.
However eccentric his use of language, Burke’s antipathy for system is far from unique; the popular British rejection of system and theory has been outlined by David Simpson in Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory. Theory and system, as the British understood it, was marked by deductive reasoning, in which intellectuals simplify ideas and laws through a rational method. This simplified, rule-based theory culminates in the French embrace of Roman law, or law from principle rather than precedent. According to Simpson, “. . . the British way of doing things was predisposed, well before 1789, against the claims of system and theory and in favor of a mythology of common sense, including within it an ‘aristocratic’ component of freedom of maneuver and a more quotidian dimension of inductivism” (50). Burke clearly contrasts French revolutionary theory, which he understands as “mechanic” speculations and inventions, with British custom, multifarious but harmonious traditions already thoroughly established in nothing less than human nature itself. Emerging from a fundamental renunciation of system, Burke’s theory of conservatism is thus better understood as an anti-theory of conservatism which in turn adopts an intuitively associative linguistic method, engendering the Reflections’ highly aesthetic form.
Tom Furniss understands Burke’s anti-theory an “aesthetic ideology” that emerges from Burke’s earlier text, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). As “representative text of its moment,” Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France “constructs and is committed to an ideology which entails necessary contradictions, and his rhetoric is so fraught and energized because it recognizes and seeks to contain those contradictions without abandoning the ideology” (Furniss 12). Although Burke’s conservative position amounts to an aesthetic ideology with arguments based on conceptions of beauty (both in nature and tradition) rather than abstract “rights,” rather than seeking to “contain” contradictions in his thought, Burke expands and exploits those very contradictions both for rhetorical effect and as a symptom of his deeper belief in the complexities of historical and regional particularism. A central characteristic of conservative thought, as Jerry Muller points out, is its epistemological modesty, and that very modesty not only insists on “the limits of human knowledge,” but also warns “that society is too complex to lend itself to theoretical simplification” (10).
Fredric Jameson points out, albeit fleetingly, that “the initial critiques of the nascent world of capitalism emerge on the Right: in this sense, Edmund Burke’s seminal assault on Jacobinism can be read, less as a denunciation of social revolution, than as an anticipatory critique of emergent bourgeois social life” (18). When David Simpson conflates Burke’s conservative thought with the principles of laissez-faire capitalism—“Burke’s image of the nation as a self-adjusting system aligns the supervisory functions of the patrician class together with a laissez-faire rhetoric of natural evolution into a powerful conservative rationale” (59)—he exemplifies the common misunderstanding that conservatism, or the principle of conservation, as Burke would put it, is necessarily a defense of laissez-faire capitalism. In fact, conservatism arose in direct opposition to the laissez-faire capitalists, the Whig party. A long-time member of the Whig party and advocate of trade and capitalist growth, Burke supported the American Revolution and religious tolerance for Dissenters and Catholics in England and Ireland. Yet with the outbreak of the French Revolution, it is almost as if Burke’s unconscious fears about the rapid changes accompanying capitalism arose into his consciousness in the form of a terrible nightmare. Burke clearly interpreted the revolution in France as a bourgeois revolution, occasioned by the jealousy of “the commons, who approached or exceeded many of the nobility in point of wealth” but “were not fully admitted to the rank and estimation” of the nobility (244). This jealous rage started the French Revolution, and Burke understands the usurpation of the lands belonging to the church as a scheme for the rising class of commons to secure more credit for their speculative ventures.
In addition to pointing to the “state of real, though not always perceived warfare between the noble ancient landed interest and the new monied interest” (211), Burke opposed the use of speculation and paper credit as an aid to the growth of capitalism. He was not alone in this prejudice, as Pocock remarks, “Neither David Hume, Adam Smith, nor as we shall see Edmund Burke, was free of the nightmare that multiplying paper credit might end by destroying the value and even the meaning of property, the foundation of virtues and manners, and the natural relations of society” (Virtue 196). Thus Burke understood the entire new French republic to be set up on the most precarious aspect of capitalism: speculation, or as Burke calls it, “gaming.” Speculation, for Burke, implies that not just money, but by implication the concept of value itself is now invented and destroyed at whim. For Burke, speculation of this kind devastates the morals of the people: “The great object in these politics is to metamorphose France, from the great kingdom into one great play-table; to turn its inhabitants into a nation of gamesters; to make speculation as extensive as life; to mix it with all its concerns . . .” (310). For Burke, then, as the new French Republic tore down its inherited traditions instead of reconciling the new with the old in an aesthetic balance, it represented the worst possible excesses of capitalism. It is this perceived excess that prompted Burke to write the Reflections, and it is this aspect of wealth that continued to worry Burke until his death.
The inherited lands of an established upper class would be a “sure principle of conservation” (120) immune to changes brought about by a speculative economy. In this sense, early conservatives, unlike contemporary ones, believed that land should be protected from unregulated industrial expansion. Burke believes that land works as symbolic capital or fiscal value not subject to market variances. Furthermore, land encodes the values or the traditions and particularities that are indigenous to certain regions of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. This rootedness in rural landscape gives rise to the conservative prejudice for agrarianism and against urbanization. One of Burke’s objections to the new French Republic was its geometric organization that put Paris at the center, a city “strongly connected with the other cementing principle of paper circulation and confiscation” (314). In the city, stock jobbing and industrial capitalism are valued rather than land and agriculture. Burke claims, “the geometrical policy has been adopted, that all local ideas should be sunk, and that the people should no longer be Gascons, Picards, Bretons, Normans, but Frenchmen, with one country, one heart, and one assembly” (314-5). This destruction of the particular regional cultures of France Burke finds abhorrent, both politically and morally. As Hazlitt remarks: “To think of reducing all mankind to the same insipid level, seemed to him [Burke] the same absurdity as to destroy the inequalities of surface in a country, for the benefit of agriculture and commerce” (56); such an observation supports my assertion that Burke’s thought was both anti-utilitarian and proto-ecological.
By favoring a decentralization of state power in favor of smaller towns and communities, Burke thus anticipates contemporary experiments in agrarian economics, i.e. community sustainable agriculture. Burke’s emphasis on local agrarian communities demonstrates, according to Terence Ball, what modern environmentalists would call “intergenerational symmetry; the living have obligations both to the dead and the unborn.” Ball further notes that the Burke/Paine exchange is the first
self-conscious, systematic and public theoretical articulation of two competing ethics—an older (and essentially religious) ethic of stewardship and a new (and essentially secular) ethic of individualism . . . The older ethic emphasizes each generation’s responsibility for, and obligations towards, preceding and succeeding generations; the newer ethic holds that each generation is, or ought to be, autonomous and free to do as its individual members please, without regard to the wishes of earlier or the well-being of succeeding generations.
In an era of blind optimistic progressivism, Burke (and his early 19th-century followers, the Tory Radicals) warn against the possibly irrevocable and disastrous social and ecological consequences of exploiting the land tied to indigenous cultures for the sake of profit. For Burke, the urban center creates a moral and environmental disturbance, and the division of France along geometric lines is just another example of the way rationality and mathematics can destroy the uniqueness and particularity of people and their lands. This phenomenon has been called “disembedding,” by Anthony Giddens, because it involves “the ‘lifting out’ of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space” (21). Burke further argues that as the geometric abstractions of space invalidate the history of the various regions of France, such invalidation of tradition destroys the land and the morals of the people. Burke writes,
We begin our public affections in our families . . . We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. . . . Such divisions of the country are formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill.
In contrast to the urbanization and abstraction of social/local space, Burke’s conservative organicism favors the naturally evolving “habitual provincial connections” that are determined by the agrarian cycle instead of the more precarious trade cycle.
According to Raymond Williams, it is “perhaps one of the most important facts about English social thinking in the nineteenth century that there grew up, in opposition to a laissez-faire society, this organic conception, stressing interrelation and interdependence” (140). An organic society is based on the agrarian cycle rooted in the land that embodies cultural memories and habits instead of paper money based on purely speculative value. These memories and habits tied to certain land structures date back to time immemorial, and, when they are disembedded, the loss cannot be recuperated. Burke writes, “When the antient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer” (172-3). Thus moral and political decisions have no anchor or foundation if the unique culture of an area is destroyed by economic practices. When humans are attached to land out of a sense of tradition, they will not make decisions about that land based solely on profit.
The importance of maintaining and respecting indigenous traditions underlies Burke’s insistence on an aesthetic dialectic of change that does not eradicate the past. Williams points out that “Burke was perhaps the last serious thinker who could find the ‘organic’ in an existing society. As the new industrial society established itself, critics like Carlyle and Ruskin could find the ‘organic’ image only in the backward look: this is the basis of their ‘medievalism’ and that of others” (Williams 140). Yet Burke’s aesthetic championing of an ideal organic society already contains within it implicit pessimism about his own project. “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors” (119), he writes, and yet his admonition to look backward in order to proceed into the future reflects an alienated present, one with a longing for an always hazy yet idealized past which also implies a lack of sure vision for the future. In this way, Burke’s conservative aesthetic dialectic refuses a progressive, linear sense of time, yet as a result it has no telos and no goal for the future. Conservative poetry, according to Thomas Pfau, often proceeds by “projecting visions of social and cultural health into a hypostatized past and recovering such values through sophisticated literary forms and institutions concerned with allowing an embattled community to awaken its cultural memories” (57). This double movement of using the present to project visions onto the past and then recovering values from the simulated past points to a conviction that the past and future exist only in the present aesthetic and aesthetic work.
In Burke’s conservative anti-theory, time collapses; the polity is represented as a “permanent body composed of transitory parts . . . the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression” (120). While this stylistically grotesque metaphor of a body that decays and regenerates refutes the linear, teleological model of history of the progressives, the ancient organic model of the polity as cyclic—all nations rise and fall in time—here becomes strangely inorganic since the body politic is young and old, renewing and decaying, incessantly and all at the same time, in the eternal present. In another instance Burke writes that society is a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (194-5). This aspect of Burke’s thought points to his proto-environmentalist belief in “intergenerational symmetry” which according to Terence Ball, means that “the living have obligations to both the dead and unborn. The line of obligation is continuous and unbroken from generation to generation, running backwards as well as forward in time” (73; emphasis added). Again past, present and the future are continuous, almost indistinguishable from each other, and are established only in the present social partnership.
Burke’s understanding of history and generational responsibility as existing only in the eternal present may be similar to Zarathustra’s (or Nietzsche’s) “abysmal thought” wherein “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again; eternally runs the year of being. Everything breaks, everything joined anew; eternally the same house of being is built” (217). Both Nietzsche and Burke understand history, using an organic metaphor of simultaneous growth and decay, to point to an incessant, interminable accumulation in the present. Neither Burke nor Nietzsche entertain a linear or developmental view of history with a final telos, nor do they hold a cyclic view of history, in which the same events happen in the rotations of cultures. The eternal recurrence model of history suggests, according to Alexander Nehamas, “that the universe is not progressing in any way, that there is nothing specific toward which it tends, and that it will continue now indefinitely—not the view that the very same individual events in it will be eternally repeated” (145).
While a concept of eternal recurrence underlies Burke’s emphasis on the importance of ancestors and traditions, it does not imply that the past can truly be recuperated. Pocock observes that “the conservative can unite the extremes of traditionalist veneration of a past and skeptical denial of the past’s relevance for the present” (Politics 268-9); for the conservative, tradition becomes decorative and comforting, not some letter of the law that must be followed. Yet such an aestheticization of politics and ethics has a reverse side: the pessimism within the aesthetic anti-theory of conservatism. According to Thomas Pfau, German conservatism, for example, puts forth an “aesthetic and often stridently anti-capitalist program,” and in this aesthetic program “the past is conjured up—in a medial form of Platonic allegory—as a system of values conceivable only from the shadowy (because irreducibly rhetorical) perspective of the modern, abject individual” (75). In a similar manner, Burke’s emphasis on custom and time immemorial reflects his comprehension that the past is hazy, already flaring up briefly.
The pessimism in conservatism is the metaphysical correlate of its profound aestheticism. The transient surface beauty and harmony of Burke’s conservatism covers his own lack of belief in any metaphysical foundation for thought. While Burke is said to advocate respect for authority, his authority figures are always aesthetic, not authentic nor authoritarian in nature. Burke prophetically marked his concern that once the French were stripped of their indigenous heritages they would not be motivated to obey the government. Burke predicts that the French bourgeoisie will eventually need “recourse to force” to coerce the masses to obey the laws of the new Republic (344). Here it seems that Burke is much more “liberal” in his tolerance than the French republicans, who will effect social change with force rather than through aesthetic ideologies.
Conservative tolerance comes from pessimism itself, from a deep distrust of perfect principles or of a telos for government. In outlining the debates between Burke and the Republicans, James Coniff observes that “what bothered Burke the most about Paine’s position was not its progressivism but its perfectionism. Where Burke sought reform as a means of preservation, Paine believed in a steady evolution toward an ideal state of freedom and posterity. Burke did not believe that perfection was possible” (308; emphasis added). As he resorts to aesthetic anti-theory to record conservative thought, Burke realizes the tenuous and linguistic nature of political institutions and relations of power. Muller argues that this epistemological skepticism amounts to one of the central ideas of conservatism in general: “While an orthodox defense of institutions depends on their correspondence to some ultimate truth, the conservative tends more skeptically to avoid justifying institutions on the basis of their intimate foundations” (4).
Burke’s epistemological skepticism manifests itself in his performative use of language, understanding that it is malleable and can be manipulated at will. Burke “recognized that language shapes our perception of world and reality,” according to Blakemore, “and he anticipated the beginning of a nightmare world of language in which words, as he saw them, deracinated from existential and moral facts, would become an awesome force of distortion and oppression” (106). Burke’s shocking disregard for the facts, which can be extrapolated from his representation of the royal family’s captivity, demonstrates his sense that telling the “truth” is impossible and should be supplanted by valuing the “pleasing illusions” of authority and tradition.
The latent pessimism found in the structure of conservatism arises from its self-conscious exploration of the difficulties and even absurdities of reviving tradition and communal ideals in a culture subject to rapid commercial, technological, and scientific modification. Burke’s entire conservative project is premised on a decline from an ideal past. Burke’s conservative “revolutionary book” arises out of his attempts to liberate language from reason and codification so as to reinvest language with its performative, ritualistic, and imaginative values. A language re-infused with such ritualistic power then may create a deliberately artificial textual and rhetorical drama that might ultimately invent stabilizing traditions. In this sense, conservatism and revolutionary aesthetic innovation, at least in Burke’s text, seem to be intrinsically entwined—Burke needs a radical aesthetic because as Hobsbawm points out, “objects and practices are liberated for full symbolic and ritual use when they are no longer fettered by practical use” (4). Secondly, conservatism and aesthetic innovation unite because in an age of unrelenting liberal optimism in progress, the anti-modern stance is radically alien to the dominant culture.
These revolutions may be an outgrowth of what J.G.A. Pocock calls the “financial revolution” in the 1690s. After the establishment of the Bank of England and “a system of public credit whereby individuals and companies could invest money in the stability of the government and expect a return varying in proportion to the success of the government’s operations,” a new class of speculators and creditors become involved in British politics (Virtue 108).
The Longman Anthology British Conservatism (1986) states that Edmund Burke is the “founding father” of conservative politics. Although this is a common assumption, it is not indisputable. Anthony Quinton (The Politics of Imperfection, 1978) believes that conservative thought begins long before Burke, namely with Richard Hooker’s defense of the Elizabethan Church Settlement, Law of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593). However, most commentators agree, including Quinton, that Burke’s Reflections was the first text to bring together the major tenets of the conservative political position: traditionalism, organicism, and skepticism.
In The Rage of Edmund Burke, Isaac Kramnick documents how Burke’s contemporaries repeatedly suggested that his manic responses to the Revolution indicated that he was mad (180-9). Kramnick argues that Burke’s fierce response to the Revolution and the Jacobins was in part due to his own implication (as middle-class) in the situation. Kramnick writes: “To his credit, Burke read the revolution more accurately than most; he saw it for what it really was, the victory of the bourgeois principle. His ability to see Jacobinism in this proper perspective was in part derived from its evocation in him of personal themes with which he had been wrestling since his youth” (Rage 144).
This is not to say the Paine imitated Burke’s style, but rather Burke’s use of vulgar language in political prose opened the door to forming a new type of political language that was accessible to the middle and professional classes.
Paulson cites the example of the French painter David’s allusions to the heroic Romans of the Republic (1-36).
See Paulson (51-52).
Fulford claims that the ideology wars of the 1790s are characterized by vying for prophetic authority. Burke turns Price’s prophetic style against him, and in Religious Musings Coleridge adopts a prophetic style against Burke. Malthus finally adopts Burke’s prophetic style combined with empirical evidence to write his alarming Essay on Population.
There were reports of 17th c. French Jesuit missionaries who had been captured by this particular Iroquois tribe and brutally martyred. I have not been able to ascertain whether Burke had reference to these narratives, but if he is indeed alluding to the martyrdom of Jesuit priests, then this would further support allegations of Burke’s crypto-Catholicism (which emerged as early as Paine’s Rights of Man). The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610-1790 are currently available in translation at http://puffin.creighton.edu/jesuit/relations/.
The full title of the English edition of the text: A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister's Wife in New-England: Wherein is set forth, The Cruel and Inhumane Usage she underwent amongst the Heathens for Eleven Weeks time: And her Deliverance from them. Written by her own Hand, for her Private Use: and now made public at the earnest Desire of some Friends, for the Benefit of the Afflicted. This American text was enormously influential in England. Nancy Armstrong has noted the “unmistakable traces of a distinctively New England genre, the captivity narrative, in eighteenth-century British fiction,” and she cites Rowlandson’s text as the most influential. See Armstrong’s “Captivity and Cultural Capital in the English Novel,” Novel 31.3 (1998): 373-398.
I have not considered Burke’s Reflections or politics in light of his earlier study on the sublime and beautiful because the subject has already been taken up in Furniss’s Edmund Burke’s Aesthetic Ideology. Furniss argues that Burke’s Enquiry, as it was written during the crisis of the Seven Years War, already contains the ideology that will later be put forth in the Reflections. The more intense crisis of the French Revolution serves to stretch this aesthetic ideology to new extremes, revealing its contradictory nature.
Frans De Bruyn notes that Burke plays on the prevalent anti-Semitic belief that “the active agent of this alleged cultural decay is the deracinated, free-thinking Jew” (577). De Bruyn concludes that Burke unfortunately exploits “anti-Jewish feeling as a weapon in his rhetorical arsenal against the French Revolution” (596) in spite of the fact that Burke’s political career demonstrates an active and consistent defense of the rights of Jews.
Eighteenth-century academic rules stipulate that the author should write in a style that is “natural” to the writer’s (unified) character. For example, Adam Smith asserts: “when all other circumstances are alike the character of the author must make the stile different. One of grave case of mind will describe an object in a very different way from that of one of more levity, a plain man will have a stile very different from that of a simple man . . . And likewise here a rule may be applied that one should stick to his naturall character: a gay man should not endeavor to be grave nor the grave man to be gay, but each should regulate that character and manner natural to him. . .” (40).
Tom Furniss claims that these representations are extremely important to understanding Burke’s Reflections because “These passages constitute a moment in the Reflections when the interdependence between politics and aesthetics is critical in every sense” (139). For Furniss, these passages are important because they demonstrate how Burke’s aesthetic ideology deconstructs itself. Ronald Paulson claims Burke represents this scene to accentuate the uncontained sexual depravity of the revolutionaries. As the revolutionaries seize the King and Queen, they are acting out an unleashed oedipal desire to castrate the father and rape the mother. The representation of revolutionaries as sexually depraved hearkens back to the 17th century, when the English Civil War was ostensibly incited by the dissenters’ religious enthusiasm and sexual immorality.
Alan Liu claims that violent crisis of repetitive sacrifice is the dynamic that characterizes the Reign of Terror. If this is so, it would seem that Burke was correct in his anticipation of the possibility of such excessive reciprocal violence. See chapter 4, “The Poetics of Violence,” in Wordsworth: The Sense of History. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989. See also Lynn Hunt’s thesis in The Family Romance of the French Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. She claims the revolutionaries are like the band of brothers or primordial horde of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. This dynamic sets up a situation in which the “father” will need to be sacrificed.
Indeed, Nietzsche states in his essay “On Truth and Lie in the Non-Moral Sense” that “So long as it is able to deceive without injuring, that mast of deception, the intellect, is free; it is released from its formal slavery and celebrates its Saturnalia. It is never more luxuriant, richer, prouder, more clever, and more daring. With creative pleasure it throws metaphors into confusion and displaces the boundary stones of abstractions” (895). Likewise, Burke argues that liberty arises directly from believing in illusions, or especially as one understands that they are illusions.
Kramnick defines bourgeois radicalism as “the political program of middle-class men and women who were convinced that they had done more than the aristocracy, and they more than anyone else deserved social and political rewards” (Republicanism 27).
This is Eric Hobsbawm’s position in The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (Vintage, 1962). Hobsbawm understands the British industrial and French political Revolutions as a “dual revolution”: “If the economy of the nineteenth century world was formed mainly under the influence of the British Industrial Revolution, its politics and ideology were formed mainly by the French . . . France provided the vocabulary and the issues of liberal and radical-democratic politics for most of the world” (53).
A common misconception is that the radicals in England were nascent socialists. Most were, in fact, classical liberals, or what we would today call libertarians. Kramnick argues that Paine shared the ideals set forth in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: “Smith’s and Paine’s is the basic liberal vision. The social order and the economy are spontaneous and self-regulating mechanisms, peopled by rational, self-seeking individuals” (Republicanism 147). Even David Simpson admits briefly, “The kind of ‘theory’ that shook the establishment in the 1790s is now, in other words, the target of radical critique, and imagined as the ideology of the ruling interests” (13).
The anti-theatrical prejudice is further linked to anti-Catholic sentiment in England, see Barish pg. 161. Paine states in the Rights of Man that Burke had “shortened his road to Rome,” and he repeatedly accuses Burke of crypto-Catholicism. Thus Burke’s accusation of Burke as theatrical is linked to his belief that Burke had Catholic sympathies. Burke’s preference for his mother’s Irish Catholic family is discussed by Kramnick in The Rage of Edmund Burke, pp. 53-57.
“Representation” also intones the issue of widening the franchise, one of the key demands of liberal-progressive writers. If Burke claims that aesthetic representation can never be “true” or adequate, then perhaps that conviction extends to his rejection of the idea that the masses can ever have real “representation” in politics.
All forms of conservatism hold in common, according to Anthony Quinton, “a belief in the imperfection of human nature. This imperfection is both intellectual and moral” (13). The belief in intellectual imperfection produces a deep skepticism about the ability of human beings to create laws or intellectual principles ex nihilo.
In The Rage of Edmund Burke, Isaac Kramnick suggests that Burke linked “social and political aggression with sexual energy” and thus understood the bourgeoisie as “instrusive masculinity” and the aristocracy as a raped and “violated femininity.” In this case, the nightmare is not just financial, it is psycho-sexual as well (151-7).
Raymond Williams points out the convergence of socialist and conservative thinking around the term organicism in the nineteenth century: “One kind of conservative thinker, one kind of socialist thinker, seemed thus to use the same terms, not only for criticizing laissez-faire society, but also for expressing the idea of a superior society. This situation has persisted, in that ‘organic’ is now a central term both in this kind of conservative thinking and in Marxist thinking. The common enemy . . . is Liberalism” (140-1).
Pfau discusses conservatism in the German lyric tradition.
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|Auteur :||Katey Castellano|
|Titre :||Burke’s “Revolutionary Book”: Conservative Politics and Revolutionary Aesthetics in the Reflections|
|Revue :||, Numéro 45, février 2007|
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