Burke and the French Revolution II
Introduction by E. J. Payne
The famous letter or pamphlet contained in this volume represents the workings of an extraordinary mind at an extraordinary crisis: and can therefore be compared with few things that have ever been spoken or written. Composed in a literary age, it scarcely belongs to literature; yet it is one of the greatest of literary masterpieces. It embodies nothing of history save fragments which have mostly lost their interest, yet no book in the world has more historical significance. It scorns and defies philosophy, but it discloses a compact and unique system of its own. It tramples on logic, yet carries home to the most logical reader a conviction that its ill-reasoning is substantially correct. No one would think of agreeing with it in the mass, yet there are parts to which every candid mind will assent. Its many true and wise sayings are mixed up with extravagant and barefaced sophistry: its argument, with every semblance of legal exactness, is disturbed by hasty gusts of anger, and broken by chasms which yawn in the face of the least observant reader. It is an intellectual puzzle, not too abstruse for solution: and hence few books are better adapted to stimulate the attention and judgment, and to generate the invaluable habit of mental vigilance. To discover its defects is easy enough. No book in the world yields itself an easier prey to hostile criticism: there are thousands of school-boys, “with liberal notions under their caps,” to whom the greatest intellect of our nation since Milton,1 represented by the best known parts of the present work, might well seem little better than a fool. After a time, this impression disappears; eloquence and deep conviction have done their work, and the wisdom of a few pages, mostly dealing in generalities, is constructively extended to the whole. But the reader now vacillates again: and this perpetual alternation of judgment on the part of a reader not thoroughly in earnest constitutes a main part of that fascination which Burke universally exercises. It is like the[vi] fascination of jugglery: now you believe your eyes, now you distrust them: the brilliancy of the spectacle first dazzles, and then satisfies: and you care little for what lies behind. This is what the author intended: the critical faculty is disarmed, the imagination is enthralled.
What did Burke propose to himself when he sat down to write this book? The letter to Depont is obviously a mere peg upon which to hang his argument: the book is written for the British public. He believed himself to foresee whither the revolutionary movement in France was tending: he saw one party in England regarding it with favour, the other with indifference: he saw clear revolutionary tendencies on all sides among the people: and not a single arm was as yet raised to avert the impending catastrophe. Burke aimed at recalling the English nation to its ancient principles, and at showing the folly and imprudence of the French political movement. Burke’s independence led him even to the extent of revolting from his own party. The great historical Whig party, the party of Somers, of Walpole, and of Chatham, was slowly passing through a painful transformation, which many observers mistook for dissolution. Burke found himself constrained to desert it, and that upon an occasion which afforded an opportunity of rendering it material support. From that time forward he became a marked man. Even for Burke the act of thinking for himself was stigmatised as a crime. While the events of the French Revolution commended themselves to the leaders of his party, he ought not to have allowed it to be seen that they aroused in him nothing but anger and scorn; nor ought he to have appealed to the nation at large to support him in his opposition. Such an appeal to the general public was characteristic of definite change of allegiance. Hence the obloquy which overwhelmed the last years of his life, raised by those who had been his associates during a career of a quarter of a century. Hence his counter-denunciation of them as “New Whigs,” as renegades from the principles of the English Revolution, by virtue of the countenance they gave to the political changes which were taking place in France.
Are Burke’s opinions in the present work consistent with those contained in the first volume? Notwithstanding that fundamental unity which may be justly claimed for Burke’s opinions,[vii] it would be idle to deny that the present treatise, like his subsequent writings, contains, on comparison with his earlier ones, certain very great discrepancies. They are, however, but few; they are obvious, and lie upon the surface. It is hard for those who live a hundred years after the time to say whether such discrepancies were or were not justifiable. Scrutiny will discover that they turn mainly upon words. The House of Lords, for instance, in the first volume of these Select Works, is asserted to be a form of popular representation; in the present, the Peers are said to hold their share in the government by original and indefeasible right. Twenty years before, Burke had said that the tithes were merely a portion of the taxation, set apart by the national will for the support of a national institution. In the present work, he argues that Church property possesses the qualities of private property. In the former volume it is asserted that all governments depend on public opinion: in the present, Burke urges that public opinion acts within much narrower limits. On the strength of such differences, it has been supposed that Burke had now either completely abandoned the political principles which had guided him through a career of twenty-five years, or else that he really was, what a Tory writer has called him, “the most double-minded man that ever lived.” But a man who is not thus far double-minded can never be a politician, though he may be a hero and a martyr. Abstract truths, when embodied in the form of popular opinion, sometimes prove to be moral falsehoods. And popular opinion in the majority of cases proves to be a deceptive and variable force. Institutions stand or fall by their material strength and cohesion; and though these are by no means unconnected with the arguments which are advanced for or against them, the names and qualities with which they are invested in argument are altogether a secondary consideration. The position of the Church, for instance, or the Peerage, has not been materially influenced by either way of regarding them. They have stood, as they continue to stand, because they are connected by many ties which are strong, though subtle and complicated, with the national being. They stand, in some degree, because it is probable that the stronger half of the nation would fight for them. “National taxation” and “private property,” “descendible right” and “popular representation,” are, in point of fact, little more than ornamental antitheses.
[viii]It is not to such obvious discrepancies that we owe the fact that the connexion between the present treatise and those contained in the former volume is less easily traced by points of resemblance than by points of contrast. The differencing causes lie deeper and spread wider. In the first place, Burke in the present volume is appealing to a larger public. He is appealing directly to the whole English Nation, and indirectly to every citizen of the civilised world.
In his early denunciations of the French Revolution, Burke stood almost alone. At first sight he appeared to have the most cherished of English traditions against him. If there was one word which for a century had been sacred to Englishmen, it was the word Revolution. Those to whom it was an offence were almost wholly extinct: and a hundred years’ prescription had sanctified the English Revolution even in the eyes of the bitterest adversaries of Whiggism. The King, around whom the discontented Whigs and the remnant of the Tories had rallied, was himself the creature of the Revolution. Now the party of Fox recognised a lawful relation between the Revolution of 1688, and that which was entering daily on some new stage of its mighty development in France. There was really but little connexion between the two. Burke never said a truer thing than that the Revolution of 1688 was “a revolution not made, but prevented.” The vast convulsions of 1789 and the following years were ill-understood by the Foxite Whigs. Pent in their own narrow circle, they could form no idea of a political movement on a bigger scale than a coalition: to them the French Revolution seemed merely an ordinary Whiggish rearrangement of affairs which would soon settle down into their places, the King, as in England, accepting a position subordinate to his ministers. Nor were Pitt and his party, with the strength of Parliament and the nation at their back, disposed to censure it. There was a double reason for favouring it, on the part of the English Premier. On the one hand, it was a surprise and a satisfaction to see the terrible monarchy of France collapse without a blow, and England’s hereditary foe deprived, to all appearance, of all power of injury or retaliation. On the other, Mr. Pitt conceived that the new Government would naturally be favourable to those liberal principles of commercial intercourse which he had with so much difficulty forced on the old one. Neither side saw, as[ix] Burke saw it, the real magnitude of the political movement in France, and how deep and extensive were the interests it involved. Burke, in the unfavourable impression which he conceived of the Revolution, was outside of both parties. He could find no audience in the House of Commons, where leading politicians had long looked askance upon him. They laughed, not altogether without reason, when he told them that he looked upon France as “not politically existing.” Discouraged in the atmosphere of Parliament, Burke resolved to appeal to the whole nation. He had in his portfolio the commencement of a letter to a young Frenchman who had solicited from him an expression of opinion, and this letter he resolved to enlarge and give to the world. He thus appealed from the narrow tribunal of the House of Commons to the Nation at large. It was the first important instance of the recognition, on the part of a great statesman, of the power of public opinion in England in its modern form. Burke here addresses his arguments to a much wider public than of old. He recognises, what is now obvious enough, that English policy rests on the opinion of a reasonable democracy.
The reader, in comparing the two volumes, will notice this difference in the tribunal to which the appeal is made. Public opinion in the last twenty years had gone through rapid changes. The difference between the condition of public opinion in 1770 and in 1790 was greater than between 1790 and 1874. In 1770 it was necessary to rouse it into life: in 1790 it was already living, watching, and speaking for itself. The immorality of the politicians of the day had awakened the distrust of the people: and the people and the King were united in supporting a popular minister. There was more activity, more public spirit, and more organisation. In England, as in France, communication with the capital from the remotest parts of the kingdom had become frequent and regular. London had in 1790 no less than fourteen daily newspapers; and many others appeared once or twice a week. No one can look over the files of these newspapers without perceiving the magnitude of the space which France at this time occupied in the eye of the English world. The rivalry of the two nations was already at its height. The Bourbon kingdoms summed up, for the Englishman, the idea of foreign Powers: and disturbances in France told on England[x] with much greater effect than now. In England there prevailed a deceptive tranquillity. Burke and many others knew that the England of 1790 was not the England of 1770. The results of the American War were slowly convincing people that something more was possible than had hitherto been practised in modern English policy. Democracy had grown from a possibility into a power. Whiggism, as a principle, had long been distrusted and discredited. With its decline had begun the discredit of all that it had idolised. The English Constitution, against which in 1770 hardly a breath had been raised, was in the succeeding twenty years exposed to general ridicule. Under a minister who proclaimed himself a Reformer, the newly awakened sentiment for political change was extending in all directions. Seats in Parliament had always been bought and sold; but, owing to the increased wealth of the community, prices had now undergone a preposterous advance. Five thousand pounds was the average figure at which a wealthy merchant or rising lawyer had to purchase his seat from the patron of a borough. The disgraceful history of the Coalition made people call for reform in the Executive as well as the Legislative. Montesquieu had said that England must perish as soon as the Legislative power became more corrupt than the Executive; but it now seemed as if both branches of the government were competing in a race for degradation. Corrupt as the Legislative was in its making, its material, drawn from the body of the nation, and not from a corps of professed intriguers, saved it from the moral disgrace which attended the Executive. Many were in favour of restoring soundness to the Executive as a preliminary reform; and many were the schemes proposed for effecting it. One very shrewd thinker, who sat in the House, proposed an annual Ministry, chosen by lot. Others proposed an elective Ministry: others wished to develop the House of Lords into something like the Grand Council of Venice. No political scheme was too absurd to lack an advocate. Universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and electoral districts were loudly demanded, and Dukes were counted among their warmest supporters. The people, as in the times of Charles I, called for the “ancient Saxon constitution.” What it was, and what right they had to it, or how it was to be adapted to modern requirements, they did not very well know, but the lawyers were able to tell them. The[xi] lawyers demonstrated how greatly the liberties of the nation had fallen off, and how grossly their nature was misunderstood. They proved it to be the duty of the People to reclaim them, and that no obstacle stood in the way. In this cry many Whigs and Tories, members of both Houses of Parliament, were found to join.
This liberal movement was not confined to England. It spread, in a greater or less degree, all over Europe, even to St. Petersburg and Constantinople. In England, Reform was rather a cry than a political movement; but in France and Austria it was a movement as well as a cry. In the latter country, indeed, the Reform was supplied before the demand, and the Emperor Joseph was forced by an ignorant people to reverse projects in which he had vainly tried to precede his age. But the demands abroad were for organic reforms, such as had long been effected in England. England, after the reign of Charles II, is a completely modern nation; society is reorganised on the basis which still subsists. But France and Germany in 1789 were still what they had been in the Middle Ages. The icy fetters which England had long ago broken up had on the Continent hardened until nothing would break them up but a convulsion. In France this had been demonstrated by the failures of Turgot. The body of oppressive interests which time and usage had legalised was too strong to give way to a moderate pressure. A convulsion, a mighty shock, a disturbance of normal forces, was necessary: and the French people had long been collecting themselves for the task. Forty years a Revolution had been foreseen, and ten years at least it had been despaired of. But it came at last, and came unexpectedly; the Revolution shook down the feudalism of France, and the great general of the Revolution trampled to dust the tottering relics of it in the rest of Western Europe. Conspicuous among the agencies which effected it was the new power of public opinion, which wrought an obvious effect, by means of the Gazettes of Paris, throughout the western world. Burke saw this, and to public opinion he appealed against the movement, and so far as this country was concerned, successfully. It was he whose “shrilling trumpet” sounded the first alarm of the twenty years’ European war against the French Revolution.
It was hard, at such a crisis, to sever general ideas from the[xii] immediate occasion. Burke tells us less about the French Revolution than about English thought and feeling on the subject of Revolutions in general. On the applicability of these general views to the occasion of their enunciation, it is not necessary for the reader to form any definite judgment. Properly speaking, indeed, the question depends only in a small degree on grounds which demand or justify such a mode of treatment. To condemn all Revolutions is monstrous. To say categorically that the French Revolution was absolutely a good thing or a bad thing conveys no useful idea. Either may be said with some degree of truth, but neither can be said without qualifications which almost neutralise the primary thesis. No student of history by this time needs to be told that the French Revolution was, in a more or less extended sense, a very good thing. Consequently, the student is not advised to assent, further than is necessary to gain an idea of Burke’s standpoint, to the summary and ignominious condemnation with which the Revolution is treated by Burke. But it must be remembered that whatever may have been its good side, it was not Burke’s business to exhibit it. No one was better qualified than Burke to compose an apologetic for the final appeal of a people against tyranny: but nunc non erat his locus. Burke’s business was not to cool the pot, but to make it boil: to raise a strong counter-cry, and make the most of the bad side of the Revolution. Burke appears here in the character of an advocate: like all advocates, he says less than he knows. It was his cue to represent the Revolution as a piece of voluntary and malicious folly; he could not well admit that it was the result of deep-seated and irresistible causes. Not that the Revolution could not have been avoided—every one knew that it might; but it could only have been avoided by an equally sweeping Revolution from above. In default of this there came to pass a Revolution from below. Though the Revolution brought with it mistakes in policy, crimes, and injuries, it involved no more of each than the fair average of human affairs will allow, if we consider its character and magnitude; and we must pay less than usual heed to Burke when he insists that these were produced wholly by the ignorance and wickedness of the Revolutionary leaders. The sufferers in a large measure brought them on themselves by ill-timed resistance and vacillating counsels.
[xiii]From the present work the student will learn little of the history of the Revolution. It had barely begun: only two incidents of importance, the capture of the Bastille and the transportation from Versailles to Paris, had taken place: of that coalition of hostile elements which first gave the Revolution force and self-consciousness, there was as yet not a trace. It was not only in its beginnings, but even these beginnings were imperfectly understood. School-boys now know more of the facts of the matter than was known to Burke, and thanks to the pen of De Tocqueville, most persons of moderate literary pretensions can claim a closer familiarity with its fundamental nature. Wherein, then, consists the value of the book? what are the merits which won for it the emphatic commendation of Dumont, the disciple and populariser of Bentham—that it was probably the “salvation of Europe”? How came this virulent and intemperate attack to have the wide and beneficial effect which attended it? What was the nature of its potent magic, which disarmed the Revolutionists of England, and exorcised from the thinking classes of Europe the mischievous desire of political change?
It was obvious that the movement in France was accompanied by a general distrust of the existing framework of society. Something of the same kind was prevalent in England; but it belonged to a narrower class, with narrower motives and meaner ends. From his earliest years Burke had been familiar with the idea of a nation of human savages rising in revolt against law, religion, and social order, and he believed the impulse to such a revolt to exist in human nature as a specific moral disease. The thing which he greatly feared now seemed to have come suddenly upon him. Burke manifestly erred in representing such an element as the sole aliment and motive force of the French Revolution. Distrust of society was widely disseminated in England, though less widely than Burke believed, and far less widely than in France; but Burke had no means of verifying his bodings. Jacobinism had prevailed in France, and a Revolution had followed—it was coming to prevail in England, and a Revolution might be expected. England had in France the highest reputation for political progress, liberty, and good government. England’s liberty was bound up with the fact of her having passed through a Revolution, which, after the lapse of a century, was considered[xiv] a worthy object of commemoration. It was represented in France that the French Revolution was proceeding on English principles. It was further understood that England sympathised with and intended to benefit by the broader and more enlightened Revolution which was being accomplished in France. This Burke takes all pains to refute. He shows that this famous English Revolution was, in truth, a Revolution not made, but prevented. He aims to prove by conclusive evidence that English policy, though not averse from reform, is stubbornly opposed to revolution. He shows that the main body of the British nation, from its historical traditions, from the opinions and doctrines transmitted to it from the earliest times, from its constitution and essence, was utterly hostile to these dangerous novelties, and bound to eschew and reprobate them. Though mainly sound and homogeneous, the body politic had rotten members, and it is the utterances of these, by which the intelligent Frenchman might otherwise be pardonably misled, that Burke in the first instance applies himself to confute.
The earliest title of the work (see Notes, p. 369) indicates that it was occasioned proximately not by the events in France, but by events of much less importance in England. Knowing little of Europe in general, by comparison with his intimate knowledge of England, Burke can have been little disposed or prepared to rush into print, in the midst of absorbing state business at home, with a general discussion of the changes which had taken place in a foreign nation. This was not the habit of the time. In our day a man must be able to sustain an argument on the internal politics of all nations of the earth: in that day, Englishmen chiefly regarded their own business. Had the Revolution been completely isolated, it would never have occupied Burke’s pen. But the Revolutionists had aiders and abettors on this side of the Channel, and they openly avowed their purpose of bringing about a catastrophe similar to that which had been brought about in France. Finally, some of these English “sympathisers” were persons long politically hateful to Burke and his party. Hence that strong tincture of party virulence which is perceptible throughout the work. Burke writes not as a Hallam—not as a philosophical critic or a temperate judge, but in his accustomed character as an impassioned advocate and an angry debater. Indeed anything like a reserved and observant[xv] attitude, on the part of his countrymen, irritates him to fury. He bitterly attacks all who, with the steady temper of Addison’s Portius,
- Can look on guilt, rebellion, fraud, and Caesar,
- In the calm lights of mild philosophy.
His real aim is less to attack the French than the English Revolutionists: not so much to asperse Sieyes and Mirabeau, as Dr. Price and Lord Stanhope.
The work, then, professes to be a general statement, confessedly hasty and fragmentary, of the political doctrines and sentiments of the English people. It was, on the whole, recognised as true. The body of the nation agreed in this fierce and eloquent denunciation. The Jacobins steadily went down in public estimation from the day of its publication. Burke’s fiery philippic seemed to dry up their strength, as the sun dries up the dew. Nothing could stand, in public opinion, against Burke’s imperious dilemmas. But it is the moral power of the argument, and the brilliancy with which it is enforced, which give the work its value. The topics themselves are of slighter significance. Half awed by the tones of the preacher, half by his evident earnestness and self-conviction, we are predisposed to submit to his general doctrines, although we cannot feel sure of their applicability to the occasion. Unfair as this denunciation was to France, we sympathise in its effects on the malcontents in England. The tone of the book was well suited to the occasion. A loud and bitter cry was to be raised—the revolutionary propaganda was to be stayed—and to this end all that could be said against it was to be clearly, sharply, emphatically, and uncompromisingly put forth. With Hannibal at the gates, it was no time for half-opinions, for qualification, and for temporisation. No wise man could hesitate to do his best to discredit the Jacobins, without any very scrupulous regard to absolute justice. They were unjust and unscrupulous, and it was perhaps pardonable to attack them with their own weapons. From all this we deduce the critical canon, that properly to understand Burke’s book we must look on him not as a critic, but as an advocate. The book is not history, nor philosophy, but a polemic. It is a polemic against Jacobinism, particularly English Jacobinism.
What is, or rather was, Jacobinism? In the usage of the day,[xvi] it was a vituperative term applied summarily to all opposition to the dominant party. He who doubted Mr. Pitt was set down as a Jacobin, much as he who doubted the Bishops was set down as an infidel. But the Jacobin proper is the revolter against the established order of society. What those who stood by this established order understood by the term is roughly expressed in Burke’s phrase of Treason against property. “You have too much, I have too little—you have privileges, I have none—your liberties are essentially an encroachment upon mine, or those which ought to be mine.” These formulas constitute the creed of Jacobinism in its simplest and rudest form, the sentimental antagonism of poverty against wealth.
- Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail,
- And say, There is no sin but to be rich:
- And being rich, my virtue then shall be
- To say, There is no vice but beggary.1
This creed will never lack exponents. It is founded on an ancient tale, and in a certain sense, a tale of wrong; but whilst the human species maintains its vantage above the lower animals, it is a wrong that will never be completely righted. In Burke’s view, it is of the nature and essence of property to be unequal. The degrees of social prosperity must always exhibit many shades of disparity, “Take but degree away, untune that string,” and you destroy most things which set man above the brutes. Degree is inseparable from the maintenance of the artificial structure of civilisation. The last phrase leads us to note the fundamental fallacy of the doctrine in its next stage of philosophical or speculative Jacobinism. Civilisation, social happiness, the comfortable arts of life, are no gift of nature to man. They are, in the strictest sense, artificial. The French philosophers, by a gross assumption, took them to be natural, and therefore a matter of common right to all.
We notice here a fundamental antagonism alleged by Burke to exist between the Revolutionists and the English school of politicians. The former base their claims upon Right; Burke, following the traditions of English statesmanship, claims to base his upon Law. It is not that Law has no basis in natural Right: it is rather that Law, having occupied as a basis a portion of[xvii] the space naturally covered by Right, all outside it ceases to be right in the same sense in which it was so before. In other words, realised Right, in the shape of tangible and enforceable Law, is understood to be so material an advance upon abstract Right, that your acceptance of the former amounts to a renunciation of the latter. You cannot have both at once. Now Jacobinism may be regarded as the sentiment which leads man to repudiate Law and take his stand upon natural Right. The difficulty is that in so doing he limits himself, and seeks to reduce his fellow-men, to the right of the naked savage, for natural right cannot extend beyond the state of nature. As Jacobinism is the repudiation of Law, Burke takes his stand upon the Law; and one of the defects of the present work is that he carries this too far. It has been said of his attitude in this work that he begins like a pettifogger and ends like a statesman. The argument of the first thirty-eight pages of this volume, by which he claims to prove that Englishmen have irrevocably bargained away their liberties for ever, is unquestionably one of the weakest passages in the whole of Burke’s writings. Hallam has proved it untenable at many points: and the refutation may, it is believed, be completely made out by reference to the notes at the end of this volume. A British statesman may, however, plead a closer relation between law and liberty than is usual in most countries, and claim to be leniently criticised for defending himself on the standpoint of the lawyer.
Men of the law were the statesmen under whom the British Constitution grew into shape. Men of the law defended it from Papal aggression, a circumstance to which Burke complacently alludes (p. 183): and one of his main ideas is the thoroughly lawyer-like one that liberty can only proceed “from precedent to precedent.” This onward progress he admitted as far as the epoch of the Revolution, but there, in a way characteristic of him, he resolved to take his stand. Magna Charta, the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, and the Act of Settlement, were his undoubted chain of English constitutional securities, and he declined to admit any further modification of them. So far he was in harmony with popular ideas. When he went beyond this, and declared that the Act of Settlement bound the English nation for ever, his reasoning was obviously false. The whole procedure of Burke throughout this book is, as has been observed,[xviii] avowedly that of an advocate. In his apology called the “Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” he states as the reason that when any one of the members of a vast and balanced whole is endangered, he is the true friend to them all who supports the part attacked, “with all the power of stating, of argument, and of colouring, which he happens to possess, and which the case demands. He is not to embarrass the minds of his hearers, or to incumber or overlay his speech, by bringing into view at once (as if he were reading an academic lecture) all that may and ought, when a just occasion presents itself, be said in favour of the other members. At that time they are out of court; there is no question concerning them. Whilst he opposes his defence on the part where the attack is made, he presumes that for his regard to the just rights of all the rest, he has credit in every candid mind.” Burke’s overstrained reverence for the Act of Settlement may be partly due to the general feeling of uncertainty which, during his own century, prevailed as to party principle. As early as Swift’s time, parties and their creeds had become thoroughly confused and undistinguishable. But Burke demanded something positive—something to which men could bind themselves by covenant. Casting a glance back upon the history of parties from Burke’s time, the Revolution is the first trustworthy landmark that we meet with. In the apology from which we have just quoted, he proclaims the speeches of the managers of the impeachment of Sacheverel, as representing those who brought about the English Revolution, to be the fountains of true constitutional doctrine. After this epoch he seems to have distrusted all political creeds. There is hardly one notable political work of the day immediately preceding him to which he makes allusion, and then only in terms of censure.
As an illustration at once of Burke’s instinctive retreat to the shelter of legal orthodoxy, and of the charm which his pen could throw over the driest statement of first principles, let us observe how he has worked up a well-known passage of a well-known legal classic.
|“The design of entering into society being the protection of our persons and security of our property, men in civil society have a right, and indeed are[xix] obliged to apply to the public for redress when they are injured; for were they allowed to be their own carvers, or to make reprisals, which they might do in a state of nature, such permission would introduce all that inconvenience which the state of nature did endure, and which government was at first invented to prevent; hence therefore they are obliged to submit to the public the measure of their damages, and to have recourse to the law and the courts of justice, which are appointed to give them redress and ease in their affairs.” (Bacon’s Abridgment, art. Actions in General.)||“One of the first motives to civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is that no man should be judge in his own cause. By this each person has at once divested himself of the fundamental right of uncovenanted man, that is, to judge for himself, and to assert his own cause. He abdicates all right to be his own governor. He inclusively, in a great measure, abandons the right of self-defence, the first law of nature. Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice he gives up his right of determining what it is, in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty, he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it.” (Page 151.)|
The practical jurisprudence of England in Burke’s time stood sadly in need of Reform. That of France was in a still worse case. Burke fully recognised the necessity of removing the “defects, redundancies, and errors” of the law (p. 191), though he still maintained it to be the “collected reason of ages,” and the “pride of the human intellect.” Whether in France “the old independent judicature of the Parliaments” was worth preserving, in a reformed condition, as Burke so strongly insists, admits of doubt. Scandalous as were the delays, the useless and cumbrous processes, and the exaction which attended the management of the English law, those who administered it were at least able men, and men who had honestly risen to their places, in virtue of their native and acquired qualifications. It was not so in France. In France judges purchased their places and suitors purchased justice. In cases where this may not be absolutely true, justice at the hands of the “sworn guardians of property” was a doubtful commodity, and few will now deny that the Assembly were justified in making a clean sweep of it (see p. 222). As to the common law which they administered, its condition will be best gathered from the articles on the subject contained in the Encyclopédie. It is enough to say of it that it exhibited the worst characteristics of English law before the time of[xx] Richard II. The general system of English law he thought entitled a qualified commendation. His views on the subject were however very different from those of his contemporary, Lord Eldon. He did not systematically discountenance all enquiry, and scout all proposed reform. He had taken the lead in 1780, in advocating reforms dealing with the Royal property, which have since been carried out with general approval. He had commenced, early in his career, a treatise advocating that reform of the Irish Penal Laws which, when carried through by his friends Savile and Dunning, produced the awful riots of 1780. His judgment on the question of how far reform was admissible, and at what point it degenerated into innovation, coincides with that of Bacon and Hale, rather than with that of Coke and Eldon.
Conceiving the English nation as a four-square fabric supported on the four bases of the Church, the Crown, the Nobility, and the People, it is natural to find the author insisting most on the excellences of those elements which were then assailed in France. The People, of course, needed no defence, nor was the Crown as yet overthrown. The dream of the moment was a constitutional monarchy, based on elements similar to those of the English Constitution.1 Only the Church and the Aristocracy were as yet threatened: and, next to the defence of the Church, the best known section of the present treatise is that which relates to the Nobility. On this subject, independently of constitutional law and of theory, Burke cherished prejudices early formed and never shaken. He had lived on terms of intimacy with, and was bound by ties of mutual obligation to some of the worthiest members of the British aristocracy. It is mainly to them personally that his panegyric is applicable. Nobility, however, possessed claims which he was as eager to recognise, as an important establishment of the common law of the country, and as justified by universal analogy and supported by the best general theories of society. “To be honoured, and even privileged, by the laws, opinions, and inveterate usages of our country,” was with him not only a noble prize to the person who attained it, but a politic institution for the community which conferred it. Why? Because it operated as an instinct to secure property, [xxi] and to preserve communities in a settled state (p. 241). But Burke’s reasoning is vitiated by a cardinal fault. It is pervaded by his own conception of an aristocracy, derived from his own personal friends and fellow-workers. The aristocracy of France differed from that of England as substance differs from shadow. In England, nobility had long implied privileges which are merely honorary; in France it implied privileges substantial in themselves, and grievous to those who were excluded from them. Practically, though Burke in the duties of his advocacy denies the fact, the nobility were untaxed. To use a sufficiently accurate expression, the feudal system was still in operation in France. If not aggravated by natural growth during successive centuries, it exhibited a growing incompatibility with what surrounded it. In England it had practically been extinct for two centuries, and it was now absolutely out of mind. Barons and Commons had long made up but one People; the old families were mostly extinct, and the existing Peers were chiefly commoners with coronets on their coats of arms. At the present moment not a single seat in the House of Peers is occupied in virtue of tenure,1 and the Peerage, saving heraldic vanities and some legal and social courtesies, practically confers nothing but a descendible personal magistracy, exercised at considerable expense and inconvenience. The status of a Peer generally involves, in addition, the maintenance of the bulk of a fortune not always large in the least remunerative of investments. The qualification for a Peerage has long been limited to a long-continued course of service to the State. Every one of these conditions was reversed in France. The nobleman was a member of a decaying privileged class, who clung to their unjust and oppressive privileges with the most obstinate tenacity. It was the idle noble who spent the hard earnings of the peasant. Taxation in England fell lightly in the extreme upon the poorer classes; in France they bore almost the whole burden of the national expenses. Society in France thus rested on a tottering and artificial frame: while in England the frame had gradually and safely accommodated itself to the change of social force.
But in the method of Burke every argument in favour of a[xxii] particular element of the State, based upon the special excellence of that element, is subordinate to his general doctrine of the nature of the State as a grand working machine. A machine, he thought, to attain the end for which it was devised, must be allowed to work fairly and continuously. To be perpetually stopping its system for the purpose of trying experiments, was an error venial only in a child. To destroy it, in order to use its parts in the construction of some other ideal machine, which might never be got to work at all, was criminal madness. The strictures of Burke with reference to this great and central point in his political philosophy are only partially applicable to the French Reformers of his day; nor are they at any time unexceptionably appropriate. Yet they constitute a profound and necessary substructure in every intelligent conception of civil matters, and as such they will never cease to be worthy of the remembrance of the most practised statesmen, as well as an indispensable part of the education of the beginner in politics. Every student must begin, if he does not end, with Conservatism; and every Reformer must bear in mind that without a certain established base, secured by a large degree of this often-forgotten principle, his best devised scheme cannot fail to fall to the ground. The present work is the best text-book of Conservatism which has ever appeared.
Burke claims for his views the support of the English nation. Political events and the popularity of his book alike proved that this was no idle boast: but it necessarily indicated nothing more than that the party of progress was in England in the minority, while in France it was in the ascendant. Burke’s claim, however, involves far more. It asserts that the doctrines of the revolution had long been well known in England: that the belief in the “rights of man” had long been exploded, and its consequences dismissed as pernicious fallacies: and that in this condemnation the best minds in England had concurred. To examine the justice of this claim would involve the whole political and religious history of the stirring century between the Spanish Armada and the Revolution of 1688. This is far beyond our present purpose, which may be equally well served on ground merely literary. Taking English literature as our guide, we shall find that, two hundred years before, conclusions very similar to those of Burke were formed in the minds of philosophical[xxiii] observers. The significance of those conclusions is not impaired by the historical results of the contest. They throw no shade upon the glorious victories of the spirit of English liberty. They rather illustrate and complement them. They rather tend to justify the partial adoption, by sober and reasonable men, when the substance of English liberty began to be attacked under the Scotch kings, of ideas which were previously limited to intemperate and half-educated minds. But these ideas never penetrated the mass of English contemporary thinkers. Milton, in his proposed organisation of the republic, followed Italian, not English ideas: and the honour due to Milton will not prevent our recognising the beauty and propriety of doctrines from which, under other circumstances, even he might have drawn his practical deductions.
That Conservatism is compatible with philosophical statesmanship can be illustrated in a remarkable degree from the great work of Hooker. Hooker and Grotius allow a view of the general rights and obligations of civil society, which goes far beyond what Burke, in the present work, will admit.1 But the great English divine, while discerning the necessity of forsaking the narrow political theories of the middle ages, fortified himself in his enlarged position by a clear definition of the limits of political change. In the state, Hooker saw distinctly reflected the order and discipline which he believed to have been impressed upon the natural face of the universe by an all-wise and beneficent Creator. The reign of law on earth reflected the reign of law in heaven. Hooker ridicules the turbulent wits of old, to whom, in the words of the Roman historian, quieta movere magna merces videbatur. “They thought the very disturbance of things established an hire sufficient to set them on work.” The reader of Hooker can hardly fail to be struck by his coincidence with Burke’s mode of thought and argument. Both point out the value of what the English nation regards as an everlasting possession; both lay bare the deep foundations of law, order, and temporal polity; and seek, by the united force of truth and reason, to display and vindicate in the eye of the world the gradations, the dignities, and the majesty of a well-balanced state. The limits of the application of general principles in politics are[xxiv] admirably sketched out by Hooker. Following Aristotle, he remarks the fallacies which occur from disregarding the nature of the stuff which the politician has to work upon.
These varieties [the phases of human will and sentiment] are not known but by much experience, from whence to draw the true bounds of all principles, to discern how far forth they take effect, to see where and why they fail, to apprehend by what degrees and means they lead to the practice of things in shew, though not indeed repugnant and contrary one to another, requireth more sharpness of wit, more intricate circuitions of discourse, more industry and depth of judgment than common opinion doth yield. So that general rules, till their limits be fully known (especially in matter of public and ecclesiastical affairs), are by reason of the manifold secret exceptions which lie hidden in them, no other, to the eye of man’s understanding, than cloudy mists cast before the eye of common sense. They that walk in darkness, know not whither they go.—Book v. ch. 9.
Such conceptions are naturally generated in a comprehensive mind, as soon as the world is stirred by the impulse to shake off old evils. Wisdom consists in no inconsiderable degree, says Burke, in knowing what amount of evil is to be tolerated. “Il ne faut pas tout corriger,” says Montesquieu. “Both in civil and in ecclesiastical polity,” says Hooker, “there are, and will be always, evils which no art of man can cure, breaches and leaks more than man’s art hath hands to stop.” This may be: but it is certain that breaches and leaks which one age has regarded as incurable have been stopped in another. The science of politics, unlike most other sciences, is too often regarded as having reached its final stage: many a specious conclusion is vitiated by this assumption. The defect of such aphorisms as that of Montesquieu obviously lies in their extreme liability to abuse: and Burke cannot be absolved from the charge of abusing the principle which the aphorism embodies. But it cannot be denied that Hooker and many another Englishman whose authority English people held in high respect, had done the same thing before him. The following passage of Hooker strikingly reminds the reader of a mode of argument frequently employed by Burke:
For first, the ground whereupon they build, is not certainly their own, but with special limitations. Few things are so restrained to any one end or purpose, that the same being extinct[xxv] they should forthwith utterly become frustrate. Wisdom may have framed one and the same thing to serve commodiously for divers ends, and of those ends any one be sufficient cause for continuance, though the rest have ceased, even as the tongue, which nature hath given us for an instrument of speech, is not idle in dumb persons, because it also serveth for taste. Again, if time have worn out, or any other mean altogether taken away, what was first intended, uses not thought upon before may afterwards spring up, and be reasonable causes of retaining that which other considerations did formerly procure to be instituted. And it cometh sometime to pass, that a thing unnecessary in itself as touching the whole direct purpose whereto it was meant or can be applied, doth notwithstanding appear convenient to be still held even without use, lest by reason of that coherence which it hath with somewhat more necessary, the removal of the one should indamage the other; and therefore men which have clean lost the possibility of sight, keep still their eyes nevertheless in the place where nature set them.—Book v. ch. 42.
The ground of this philosophical or rational conservatism mainly consists in seeking to contemplate things with reference to their dependency on an entire system, and to have regard to the coherence and significance of the system. It is liable to abuse: and many may think that the whole conception belongs to the domain of poetry rather than to that of philosophy. The poetry of the time, indeed, reflects it in more than one place. The idea is clearly traceable in Spenser’s Cantos of Mutability, the “hardy Titaness,” who, seduced by “some vain error,” dared
- To see that mortal eyes have never seen.
The poet foreshadows a calamitous break-up of the established order of things, a mischievous contortion of the “world’s fair frame, which none yet durst of gods or men to alter or misguide,” and a reversal of the laws of nature, justice, and policy. It reminds us something of the bodings of the Greek chorus, when they sing that the founts of the sacred rivers are turned backward, and that justice and the universe are suffering a revolution. Such notions are unquestionably more than the over-wrought dreams of poets. They have their key in the defective moral tone of their age: but it by no means follows that the moral defect which this implies covers the whole ground to which they extend. Slumber seems natural to certain stages of human history: and a slumbering nation always resents the first signs of[xxvi] its awakenment. We may trace a similar vein of feeling, stimulated by the same revolutionary agencies, though in a later stage, in the poems of the philosophical and “well-languaged” Daniel. The faculty of looking on an institution on many sides enabled Daniel to point out
- How pow’rs are thought to wrong, that wrongs debar.
Daniel had trained himself in an instructive school, in the preparation and composition of his History of the Civil Wars. Like Burke, he was of opinion that political wisdom was not to be obtained à priori. The statesman must study
- The sure records of books, in which we find
- The tenure of our state, how it was held
- By all our ancestors, and in what kind
- We hold the same, and likewise how in th’ end
- This frail possession of felicity
- Shall to our late posterity descend
- By the same patent of like destiny.
- In them we find that nothing can accrue
- To man, and his condition, that is new.1
It is an apt illustration of Burke’s vehement contention that Englishmen will never consent to abandon the sense of national continuity. The English nation is emphatically an old nation: it proceeds on the assumption that there is nothing new under the sun. It is always disposed to criticise severely any one who labours, as Warburton says, under that epidemic distemper of idle men, the idea of instructing and informing the world. The heart of men, and the greater heart of associated bodies of men, has been radically the same in all ages. In the laws of life we cannot hope for much additional illumination: new lights in general turn out to be old illusions. There is no unexplored terra australis, whether of morality or political science. The great principles of government and the ideas of liberty “were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law upon our pert loquacity.”1 In a literary and scientific age, it is impossible that[xxvii] this dogmatism can pass unchallenged: but Burke is right in asserting an antagonism between the beliefs of the best minds of England, as represented in a great historic literary past, and those of the existing literary generation in France. Englishmen have in all times affected a taste for public matters and for scholarship: and this affectation is not ill exemplified in one who was a man of letters, with the superadded qualities of the philosopher and the politician. Curious illustrations of a normal antagonism between these elements may be derived from Daniel’s Dialogue entitled “Musophilus.” Musophilus is the man of letters, Philocosmus the man of the world. Philocosmus taunts Musophilus with his empty and purposeless pursuits, to which Musophilus replies by a spirited defence of learning. Philocosmus changes his ground, and lays to the charge of the professors of learning, who overswarm and infest the English world, a general spirit of discontent, amounting to sedition.
- Do you not see these pamphlets, libels, rhimes,
- These strange compressed tumults of the mind,
- Are grown to be the sickness of the times,
- The great disease inflicted on mankind?
- Your virtues, by your follies made your crimes,
- Have issue with your indiscretion joined.
Burke insists on identifying the “literary cabal” as the chief element in the ferment of Revolution: “Men of letters, fond of distinguishing themselves, are rarely averse to innovation” (p. 208) . See how a retired observer in the time of the first Stuart anticipates the effects of the same misplaced activity.
- For when the greater wits cannot attain
- Th’ expected good which they account their right,
- And yet perceive others to reap that gain
- Of far inferior virtues in their sight;
- They present, with the sharp of envy, strain
- To wound them with reproaches and despite.
- Hence discontented sects and schisms arise;
- Hence interwounding controversies spring,
- That feed the simple, and offend the wise.
Action, Philocosmus goes on to say, differs materially from what is read of in books:
- [xxviii]The world’s affairs require in managing
- More arts than those wherein you clerks proceed.
Men of letters, in the indulgence of the tastes which their pursuits have fostered, lose those faculties which are necessary to the conduct of affairs.
- The skill wherewith you have so cunning been
- Unsinews all your powers, unmans you quite.
- Public society and commerce of men
- Require another grace, another port.
Beware of the philosopher who pretends to statesmanship. The Scholar replies, that the Statesman, with all his boasted skill, cannot anticipate the perils of the time, or see
- how soon this rolling world can take
- Advantage for her dissolution,
- Fain to get loose from this withholding stake
- Of civil science and discretion;
- How glad it would run wild, that it might make
- One formless form of one confusion.
The mysteries of State, the “Norman subtleties,” says the Scholar, are now vulgarised and common. Giddy innovations would overthrow the whole fabric of society. But what is the remedy? To “pull back the onrunning state of things”? This might end in bringing men more astray, and destroy the faith in the unity and continuity of civil life, which is
- that close-kept palladium
- Which once remov’d, brings ruin evermore.
Investigation would discover much the same vein of thought in many of Daniel’s contemporaries. Compare, for instance, Fletcher’s portraiture of Dichostasis, or Sedition,
- That wont but in the factious court to dwell,
- But now to shepherd swains close linked is.
- A subtle craftsman fram’d him seemly arms,
- Forg’d in the shop of wrangling sophistry;
- And wrought with curious arts, and mighty charms,
- Temper’d with lies, and false philosophy.
The Purple Island, Canto vii.
[xxix]Among Shakspere’s most obvious characteristics is that which is often called his objectiveness. He does not task his characters to utter his private sentiments and convictions. His characters are realities, not masks. But no one who has endeavoured to penetrate the mind of Shakspere as reflected in his whole works will deny to him a full participation in Burke’s doctrine of faith in the order of society. To borrow the words of Hartley Coleridge,1 Shakspere, as manifested in his writings, is one of those “who build the commonweal, not on the shifting shoals of expedience, or the incalculable tides of popular will, but on the sure foundations of the divine purpose, demonstrated by the great and glorious ends of rational being; who deduce the rights and duties of men, not from the animal nature, in which neither right nor duty can inhere, not from a state of nature which never existed, nor from an arbitrary contract which never took place in the memory of man nor angels, but from the demands of the complex life of the soul and the body, defined by reason and conscience, expounded and ratified by revelation.” So exact is the application, one might think he was speaking of Burke. A book might be made up by illustrating the political conceptions of Shakspere out of his plays: but it will be enough for our purpose to consider one or two specimens. The following extract from the speech in which Ulysses demonstrates the ills arising from the feuds of the Greek champions is alike remarkable for the compass of its thought and for the accuracy with which it reflects a feeling which has always been common among Englishmen. A narrower conception of the same argument is summed up in a famous epigram of Pope commencing “Order is heaven’s first law.”
- The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre,
- Observe degree, priority, and place,
- Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
- Office and custom, in all line of order:
- And therefore is the glorious planet, Sol,
- In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
- Amidst the other: whose med’cinable eye
- Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
- And posts, like the commandment of a king,
- Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planets
- [xxx]In evil mixture to disorder wander,
- What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
- What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
- Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
- Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
- The unity and married calm of states
- Quite from their fixture! O, when degree is shak’d,
- Which is the ladder of all high designs,
- The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
- Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
- Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
- The primogenitive and due of birth,
- Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
- But by degree, stand in authentic place?
- Take but degree away, untune that string,
- And, hark! what discord follows! Each thing meets
- In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
- Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
- And make a sop of all this solid globe:
- Strength should be lord of imbecility,
- And the rude son should strike his father dead:
- Force should be right: or rather, right and wrong,
- (Between whose endless jar justice resides)
- Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
- Then everything includes itself in power,
- Power into will, will into appetite:
- And appetite, an universal wolf,
- So doubly seconded with will and power,
- Must make perforce an universal prey,
- And, last, eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,
- This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
- Follows the choking.
Troilus and Cressida, Act i. Sc. 3.
No passage in literature reflects more faithfully the general spirit of the present work. The grave tone of mingled doctrine and portent, and the two contrasted moral effects, are in each exactly similar.
Jack Cade and his rout, and the mob in Coriolanus, will doubtless occur to the student as instances of sharp satire against Democracy. Shakspere always conceives political action, especially in England, as proceeding from a lawful monarch, wielding[xxxi] real power under the guidance of wise counsellors: and this does not differ greatly from the Whig theory to which Burke always adhered.
Quitting the Elizabethan period, it would be easy to continue the historical vindication of Burke’s claim. The popular party of the Commonwealth and the Revolution were the true conservatives of their age. They fought, as Burke had pointed out in a previous work, for a liberty that had been consecrated by long usage and tradition; and outside this memorable strife the greatest of English minds, with a few exceptions, surrendered themselves to the general tide of anti-revolutionary opinion. Dryden, always a favourite authority with Burke, is an obvious instance. One passage from his prose works may be adduced to show that the worst arguments employed by Burke in the present treatise do not lack the authority of great and popular English names:
Neither does it follow that an unalterable succession supposes England to be the king’s estate, and the people his goods and chattels on it. For the preservation of his right destroys not our propriety, but maintains us in it. He has tied himself by law not to invade our possessions, and we have obliged ourselves as subjects to him and all his lawful successors: by which irrevocable act of ours, both for ourselves and our posterity, we can no more exclude the successor than we can depose the present king. The estate of England is indeed the king’s, and I may safely grant their supposition, as to the government of England: but it follows not that the people are his goods and chattels on it, for then he might sell, alienate, or destroy them as he pleas’d; from all which he has tied himself by the liberties and privileges which he has granted us by laws.—Vindication of the Duke of Guise, p. 53.
It may be truly objected that the course of English political events destroys the authority of these Tory formulas. But it is well known that the Whig policy of England since the Revolution had not been supported by a majority of the English people. The majority of English people, told by the head, would down to the beginning of the reign of George III have been found to be Tory: and Burke was in a strong position when he averred that such was the disposition of the English nation as a whole. Among Dryden’s poems, the famous “Absalom and Achitophel” will illustrate the Tory feeling which the English people[xxxii] cherished: but it will be found in its most compendious form in the pendant of “Absalom,” the matchless satire called “The Medal.” The lines following the portraiture of Shaftesbury, and bitterly ridiculing the appeal to the people as a test of truth, sum up in a masterly form the historical and philosophical topics commonly urged in this belief:
- He preaches to the crowd that power is lent,
- But not conveyed, to royal government:
- That claims successive bear no binding force:
- That coronation oaths are things of course:
- Maintains the multitude can never err:
- And sets the people in the papal chair.
- The reason’s obvious: Interest never lies,
- The most have still their interest in their eyes,
- The power is always theirs, and power is ever wise.
- Almighty crowd! thou shortenest all dispute,
- Power is thy essence, wit thy attribute:
- Nor faith nor reason make thee at a stay:
- Thou leap’st o’er all eternal truths in thy Pindaric way!
Phocion and Socrates are satirically instanced as examples of popular justice. Then follows a remarkable forecast of an opinion first elaborated and given to the world by the French philosophers in the next century:
- The common cry is even religion’s test,
- The Turk’s is at Constantinople best,
- Idols in India, Popery at Rome,
- And our own worship only true at home.
- A tempting doctrine, plausible and new:
- What fools our fathers were, if this be true!
- Who, to destroy the seeds of civil war,
- Inherent right in monarchs did declare:
- And, that a lawful power might never cease,
- Secured succession, to secure our peace.
- Thus property and sovereign sway at last
- In equal balances were justly cast:
- But this new Jehu spurs the hot-mouthed horse,
- Instructs the beast to know his native force,
- To take the bit between his teeth, and fly
- To the next headlong steep of anarchy.
[xxxiii]In the conclusion of the “Medal” the poet foreshadows what is called the “bursting of the floodgates”; the inevitable strife of the “cut-throat sword and clamorous gown,” the abolition of “Peerage and Property,” and the supremacy of a popular military commander. Such vaticinations had in Burke’s time been familiar to the world for a century: and he now imagined that he saw them about to be fulfilled in France.1
It would be easy to pursue the same track in Butler and Swift, in the vast field of the Essayists, and in English theological and historical writers, among whom most of the popular names will be found on the same side. The Whigs and Tories of the century, if we except a few clerical politicians, alike avoid professing extremes. The popular poets of Burke’s own generation kept up the idea of a grand historical past closely connected with the existing political establishment. English poetry, from Spenser and Drayton to Scott and Tennyson, has in fact always been largely pervaded by this idea, and a retrospective tendency, tinged with something of pride and admiration, has generally accompanied literary taste in the Englishman. Milton and Spenser revelled in the antique fables which then formed the bulk of what was called the History of England. Shakespeare dramatised the history of the ages preceding his own, with even more felicity than the remote legends of Lear and Cymbeline. Little of this is to be noticed in the taste of any foreign nation, and the literature of France has always been eminently the offspring of the moment. French minds have never dwelt with the interest derived from a sense of identity upon the events or products of the past. Continental critics have, as might be expected, traced the love of the English for the English past to a narrow insularity. They ought also to point out how intense was the contrast, down to the French Revolution, of insular and continental institutions. In Burke’s time, religious and political liberty were to Frenchmen entirely foreign ideas. National greatness was a conception common to both the Englishman and the Frenchman: but England had of late repeatedly humbled that of France, and the Frenchman was just beginning to enquire into the causes which had given the smaller country its superiority. There was a contrast, and a[xxxiv] disposition to enquire into it: the English and French people, during the eighteenth century, observed the social and political tendencies of their neighbours with curious watchfulness. The antagonism was heightened by the commencement of social intercourse between them in the intervals of war. We may learn something of the contrast which was believed to subsist between the normal tendencies of the English and the French mind from the criticism of a thoroughly English man of letters upon De Vertot, whose works during the last century were so eagerly read by the French people.1 Warburton,2 himself an early friend of Burke, marks out among the cheats adopted to catch the popular ear, that “entirely new species of historical writing” which deals with the revolutions of a country. De Vertot had put together in a popular style the story of those violent changes which had taken place in ancient Rome, and in modern Sweden and Portugal. His sensationalism had secured him an extraordinary success. Warburton, indignant at “the present fondness for the cheat, and its yet unsuspected importance,” proves the system false in itself, “injurious to the country it dismembers,” and destructive to all just history.
That this form should wonderfully allure common readers, is no way strange. The busy active catastrophe of revolutions gives a tumultuous kind of pleasure to those vulgar minds that remain unaffected with the calm scenes that the still and steady advances of a well-balanced state, to secure its peace, power, and durability, present before them. Add to this that the revolution part is the great repository of all the stores for admiration, whose power and fascination on the fancy we have at large examined; whereas the steady part affords entertainment only for the understanding, by its sober lessons on public utility.
It is not only passively useless; it tends to disgust us with the system of society altogether; “to think irreverently of it, and in time to drop all concern for its interests.” But, it may be objected, this kind of history best discovers the nature and genius of a people. “Ridiculous!” says the critic, “as if one should measure the benefits of the Trent, the Severn, or the Thames, by the casual overflowing of a summer inundation.” He goes on to complain of the injustice inflicted on Englishmen[xxxv] by this “historical method.” We, “the best natured people upon earth,” are branded by these charlatans, on the score of our struggles to preserve our inherited liberties, “with the title of savage, restless, turbulent revolutionists.” It is easy to trace here the argument of Burke. For fifty years and more, when Burke was writing, the French people had been coming to believe in Revolutions, and to look to their neighbours on the other side of the water for authentic revolutionary methods. The facts on which this belief was based were ill selected and ill understood. But the craving for change had developed into a social necessity. The Frenchman still turned in his desperation to England, and the Englishman at once repulsed him as an enemy and despised him as a slave. In Warburton’s time, the “Anglomania” of which this was but one form was a novelty. Innovation is always jealous of rivalry: and this circumstance no doubt helped to attract Warburton’s wrath. But that which was a novelty in 1727 had become inveterate in 1789. The sense of historical and political truth had become more and more obscured, and the morbid demand for change had grown little by little into a madness. Practical political life, the soul and school of true political doctrine, was extinct. The old fabric of the state was decayed, and none knew how to repair it. But this, fact as it was, was hardly within the comprehension of Englishmen.
To this day it may be said that the mutual criticisms which Englishmen and Frenchmen have bandied at each other are generally based on some misunderstanding. It was far more so a century ago. In more than one topic of the present work Burke transfers to French matters ideas which were really only proper to England. In Burke’s famous delineation of European society, at its best, as he believed, in this country, there was little or nothing to interest or instruct the Frenchman. Those parts of the work which are best calculated to their end are the arguments which are to be found scattered up and down the book which deduce from English society the higher laws which ought to govern civil life in general. On this ground we have Burke at his strongest.
To the cherished tradition of the English philosophy of the State, the incidents of the French Revolution administered an unexpected and powerful impulse. Burke conceived the English[xxxvi] political creed to be threatened and misunderstood: his ready intellect at once traced this creed to its most imposing deductions, and his fiery and poetical fancy moulded it into new and more striking forms. We have in the present work, for the first time, a deliberate retrospect of what European society in its old-fashioned and normal shape has done for the human race, heightened by all that passion and rhetoric can do to recommend it. Burke had caught inspiration from his opponents. Just as the Revolutionist in his dogmatism displays all the bitterness and the intractability of an ecclesiastic, so Burke communicates to his philosophy of society something of the depth and fervour of religion. The state, according to his solemn figure, which reflects alike the mode of thought of the great statesman and philosopher of Rome, and of our English philosophical divines, is an emanation of the Divine Will.1
The political philosophy of Burke, though in itself systematic and complete, makes no pretence to the character of what is understood by a scientific theory. It rests on ignorance, and, in technical language, may be described as sceptical. The best formula afforded by the present work to express it is that which describes the human race as a “great mysterious incorporation.”2 Society, though a changeable and destructible system, is not like a machine which can at will be taken to pieces, regulated, and reconstructed. Its motive force is as incomprehensible as that of the individual man. All analysis is evaded by those ties which bind together the obligations and affections of the individual into an intelligible and operative whole; and it is exactly so with those which bind together the system of the State. Society, to repeat a trite formula, is an organism, not a mechanism. As life itself is an insoluble mystery, so is the life of that invisible entity which is understood by the term “society.” The attempt to defy this mystery is as fatuous and presumptuous as would be, in the mechanical world, the attempt to animate a mass of dead parts. Society is not made, it grows; and by ways as dark and mysterious as those which from its earliest germ conduct and limit the destination of life in the individual. Φύσει πολιτικὸν ζω̑ον ἄνθρωπος. The elementary nature expressed in each word of this profound expression of Aristotle, is involved in an equal degree[xxxvii] of obscurity. Neither Man nor the State can escape from the character of original mystery impressed upon them by the life and the nature in and by which they are generated. Frankly admitting this, and drawing our conclusions only from the positive character which the moral and political man in his several aspects actually reveals, we shall be safe; but in the fruitless effort to lift the veil we cannot but err. The true method of politics, as of all branches of practical knowledge, is that of experiment. Examine the face of society. Observe, as Newton did in the planetary system, the strong gravitating forces which draw its particles into congruous living shapes; but with the wisdom of Newton, discard all tempting hypotheses, and penetrate no further. Trust and cherish whatever you find to be a motive power, or a cementing principle, knowing that, like the wind that blows as it lists, it is a power over which you have no control, save to regulate and to correct. Deal reverently, as one that has learnt to fear himself,1 and to love and respect his kind, even with the errors, the prejudices, the unreasoned habits, that are mixed in those powers and principles. You cannot understand them, you cannot disregard or defy them; you cannot get rid of them. You must take the frame of man and of society as a Power above you has made them. To guide you in dealing with them, you have the experience of many who have gone before you, presumably not your inferiors in qualifications for the task, and who may have been free from special difficulties which stand in your own way.
Burke’s doctrine on the origin of society corresponds to this view of its nature and foundation. More than one of the uses which help to keep society together have in theory been adopted as its possible origin, but these uses all germinate from the instinct of congregation. Aristotle and Cicero had each in their time maintained, against contemporary theorists, that in this instinct is to be traced the true germ of social organisation; and their view was revived, at the revival of letters, in the remarkable tract of Buchanan, De Jure Regni. According to this view, the uses and advantages of social life are entirely an aftergrowth upon the results of the unreasoned tendency, operating through the rude channels of the feelings, of individual human animals to[xxxviii] gravitate together. “Ea est quaedam naturae vis, non hominibus modo, sed mansuetioribus etiam aliorum animantium indita . . . congregandorum hominum caussa longe antiquior, et communitatis eorum inter ipsos multo prius et sanctius vinculum.” It is this law of nature (pp. 121, 122) which true political philosophy ever follows: the varied utilities of life grow out of nature, as out of a living stock. The State then, says Buchanan, is no device of the orator or the lawyer, but an immediate emanation of the Divine Power and Goodness: and he proceeds to cite the beautiful sentiment of Cicero, quoted in these pages of Burke, “nihil eorum quae quidem fiant in terris acceptius quam concilia et coetus hominum jure sociati quae civitates appellantur.” The same belief, that society rests on the developement of a mysterious instinct under the guidance of divine law, colours Burke’s view of the duties of the statesman. In his mind these duties invested him with something of the character of a religious teacher, and it was natural that this conception should be heightened by his belief that the theorists whom he was opposing were principled atheists. The great principles of faith and duty were in Burke’s imagination equally threatened, and he boldly takes his stand upon both for the defence of both. It is enough for us to observe that this theory of the State, though reflecting in a great degree doctrines which seem to belong chiefly to theology, is neither inconsistent nor improbable. While he despises, as Buchanan had done, the beggarly theory which would make society exclusively dependent upon the utilities which attend it, and rests it upon the simpler and higher basis of nature, he does not go beyond the lines of evidence and of legitimate presumption, and he makes the domain of political philosophy a wider and a more interesting field.
In Burke’s philosophy, God, Nature, and Society are conceived as three inseparable entities. Burke thus followed the pagan philosopher Cicero in fortifying his political creed by reference to that religious sentiment which is so nearly akin to it. Religion, according to Burke, is a necessary buttress to the social fabric. It is more than this: it pervades and cements the whole. It is the basis of education: it attends the citizen in every act of life from the cradle to the grave. Religion is part of man’s rights. The exact form of religion which the State should authorise was believed by Burke to be an entirely secondary matter.[xxxix] It is probable that he would have had the Roman Catholic Church established in Ireland, as the Anglican Church was established in England. In common with many English churchmen of his age he had thus entirely abandoned the position of a century ago. For religion in some positive form Burke always argued strongly, in opposition to the contrary opinion which was then fast spreading both in France and England. Philosopher though he was, the arguments of the Freethinkers were to him entirely inconclusive. It is no solid objection, in Burke’s method, to any element of doctrine that it rests more or less upon what is artificial, or upon what cannot be wholly sustained by reference to scientific laws. When we find any more or less dubious doctrine tenaciously cherished by reasonable and civilised men, it will mark us for true politicians, perhaps for true philosophers, not uselessly to denounce it as a ridiculous fancy, but to treat the apparent error, to borrow a beautiful expression of Coleridge, as the uncertain reflection of some truth that has not yet risen above the horizon. It should be enough to secure our respect, if not our total approval and our sincere enthusiasm, that any element has so inwrought and domesticated itself in the human mind, as to become an inseparable part of the heritage of successive generations. Something of this kind, uniting our civil and social instincts with a faith in some Divine order of things, can certainly be recognised in the highest as well as in the lowest order of minds. At any rate, the explanation of the “obstinate questionings” of nature obtained by this way of looking at them was good enough for Aristotle and for Bacon, for Milton and for Newton, for Cicero and for Burke, and it is good enough for ordinary people. How it enters into the present argument may be summarily expressed in the words of Hooker, as taken down by an anecdotist from the mouth of Burke himself.1 “The reason why first we do admire those things which are greatest, and second those things which are ancientest, is because the one are least distant from the infinite substance, the other from the infinite continuance, of God.” It is the germ of political theory contained in the present volume. A man asked Grotius what was the best book on Politics. The best,[xl] said Grotius, is a blank book. Look around you, and write what you see. The first thing which a man sees is, that men do not in general reason upon Politics. Their reason seems to exhaust itself upon other subjects. Their best reasoned conclusions are often forced to give way to instincts and sentiments for which they have no rational account to give. Even so it is with reason and instinct in matters of religion. It is a paradox, but when we speak of things above ourselves, what is not paradox?
Resolved into their elements, the mainspring both of rational religion and of rational politics seems to be the sentiment of dependence. The effect traceable to this no other theory of life or of society will account for. The sum-total of rational metaphysics has been held to consist of but two propositions. The first, which is involved in the Cogito, ergo sum, of Descartes, may be expressed as “Here I am.” The second as “I did not put myself here.” To cut ourselves off, even in thought, from our dependence on our surroundings, is to commit moral suicide. But our dependence on what is outside us, is not limited to our contemporaries. It passes on from generation to generation: it binds us to the past and to the future. Society, says Burke, in his grand Socratic exposure of the imbecile logic which confounded two meanings of one word,1 is a partnership in all science, in all art, in every virtue, and in all perfection: 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. There is, says a poet who had fed upon this sublime thought,
- One great society alone on earth,
- The noble living and the noble dead.
The fair mansion of civilisation which we enjoy was not built with our hands, and our hands must refrain from polluting it. Being mere life-tenants, we have no business to cut off the entail, or to commit waste on the inheritance.2 On both sides of us extends a vast array of obligations. Millions as we may be, we stand as a small and insignificant band between the incalculable mass of those who have gone before us, and the infinite army of those who follow us, and are even now treading on our heels. Our relation to the great structure in which we are privileged to[xli] occupy a niche for a while, is as that of the worm and the mollusc to the mysterious and infinite totality of universal life. We stand there as the undertakers of an awful trust. Like the torch-players in the stadium, it is our business to transmit the precious fire which we bear, unquenched and undimmed, to those who succeed us. This is what Burke explains as “one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated.” To deny it is to reduce men to the condition of the “flies of a summer” (p. 191) .
It is an observation of Hume that one generation does not go off the stage at once, and another succeed, as is the case with silkworms and butterflies. There is a perpetually varying margin, into which the men of one age and those of that which succeed are blended. In this everlasting continuity, which secures that the human race shall never be wholly old or wholly new, lies the guarantee for the existence of civilisation. No break in this continuity is possible without the lapse of mankind into its primitive grossness. Imagine for a moment such an intermission. The shortest blank would be enough to ensure the disappearance of every pillar, buttress, and vault, which helps to sustain the lofty and intricate structure of civilised society. We can hardly figure to ourselves the horrible drama of a new generation of utter savages succeeding to the ruins of all that we enjoy. Yet so soon as the work of moral and political education flags, this result is immediately hazarded. In the imagination of Burke, France was well on the highroad to this awful situation: to a solution of moral continuity as disastrous in its effects as a geological catastrophe. All the facts of history prove that civilisation is destructible. It is an essence that is ever tending to evaporate: and though the appreciation of all that is precious in the world depends on the feeling of its perishability, it is seldom that this fact is realised. We come to regard our social life as a perpetual and indestructible possession, destined, like the earth on which we move, to devolve, without any trouble or care on our part, upon our posterity. But the whole tenour of history is against us. The Greeks little dreamed of the day when their broken relics, once more understood, would repair a decayed world, and to those who come after us, things which to us are almost as valuable, and quite as little valued as the air we breathe, may be the[xlii] objects of curious conjecture, or of contemptuous neglect. Regard our inheritance in its true light, as a precious thing that we should fear to lose, and we begin to estimate it at its true value. Regard our own title to it as a solemn trust for the benefit of our descendants, and we shall understand how foolishly and immorally we act in tampering with it. How such anticipations as Burke’s wrought on kindred minds, might be aptly illustrated from Wordsworth’s well-known Dream of the Arab,1 who, forewarned by prophecy, is hastening to bury, for preservation from the approaching deluge, the precious talisman that
- Had voices more than all the winds, with power
- To exhilarate the spirit, and to soothe,
- Through every clime, the heart of human kind.
This conception of great intersecular duties devolving upon humanity, generation after generation, reflects on a large scale an instinct which has undoubtedly been strong in the English people. The disposition rather to recur in thought upon the value of the social life and social character which we inherit, than to strain discontentedly for some imaginary ideal, has largely entered into the temperament of those races which have been chiefly instrumental in superinducing civilised society over the face of the earth. “Moribus antiquis res stat Romana, virisque,” says Ennius. So says Burke, in effect, of the civilised life which the English race have now spread over the four quarters of the globe. With the English race have universally gone the old English ideas on religion, on politics, and on education; America and the rest of the new world have taken them from us and are giving them a new and fruitful development. After the lapse of nearly a century, America and England still exhibit on the whole the highest political and social ideals. The English type, during the present century, has been more widely imitated than the Greek or the Roman at the height of their fame. Our social ideas, poor as they may be by comparison with the creations of ingenious speculation, clearly have some very remarkable value of their own. One element of this value is that effect upon the individual which is attributed to them by Burke. They tend to, or at any rate favour the development of a certain “native plainness and directness of character.” They keep a man face to face with life[xliii] and reality. They include a moral code which fits all times and seasons, all ranks and conditions of life; which hardens a man where it is good that he should be hardened, and softens him where it is good that he should be softened. The same may perhaps be said, in a less degree, of some moral codes of the ancient world; but it certainly cannot be said of those of modern paganism. The lives of some of the best and most earnest of modern Englishmen may not be fairly comparable with that of Socrates; but we may justly boast of a standard far transcending that of Rousseau and of Goethe. A high standard of character cannot be independent of some corresponding standard of politics; and every name which keeps the name of England respected throughout the world, will be found, in a greater or less degree, to confirm that aspect of English character, private and public, which Burke puts forward.
Burke is at his best when enlarging thus on the general philosophy of society: he breaks down when he proceeds to its application. There are few topics in the present volume of which this is not true: and, as has been already noticed, it is conspicuously true of the opening argument on the British Constitution. Pitiful as it is to see the fine mind of Burke self-devoted to the drudgery of Tory casuistry, it is even more so to find his usually ready and generous sympathies, as the work advances, remorselessly denied to the cause of the French people. It was not for any liberal-minded Englishman, rich in the inheritance of constitutional wisdom and liberty, to greet the dawn of representative institutions in France with nothing but a burst of contempt and sarcasm. Least of all was this attitude towards the National Assembly becoming to Burke. His opening address to the French politicians1 is more than ungenerous: it is unjust. It seems incredible that any one should have been found to declare that the path of reform in France was “a smooth and easy career of felicity and glory,” which had been recklessly abandoned.2 To[xliv] do Burke justice, he quickly saw how falsely he had judged in discerning no effect of the Revolution upon France save mutilation and disaster. Two years more, and we hear nothing about the “fresh ruins of France,” and the French nation “not politically existing.” Under that guidance which at first appeared so contemptible, France speedily acquired a power far more formidable than had been known in the most vigorous period of the monarchy. Burke then ceased to call the leaders of the Revolution fools, and declared them to be fiends.
Burke’s contemptuous parallel of the representatives of the[xlv] Tiers Etat with the English House of Commons1 is typical of the whole argument. This herd of country clowns and pettifoggers, as he declares it to have been, certainly forms an effective contrast by the side of the British Parliament in the days of Pitt and Fox. We trace here the beginning of a secondary thread of sentiment which runs quite through the book. A sense of triumphant hostility to the French as a nation had been produced by a century of international relations: and Burke could hardly avoid displaying it on the present occasion. His purpose was not merely to instruct the French nation, but to humiliate, if not to insult it. Englishmen had long looked on the French as a nation of slaves: he now strove to show that a nation of slaves could produce nothing worthy of the serious attention or sympathy of a nation of freemen. Burke might have taken the opportunity of exhibiting that keen sympathy for freedom by which most of his political career, as he himself declares in a moment of compunction,2 had been guided. He knew that France was peopled by a race as oppressed and down-trodden as Ireland or India. Was freedom to be the monopoly of England? Had Burke no sympathy for any sufferings but those of royalty? Here we touch another point of some interest. Popular instinct at once seized on Burke’s famous description of the transportation to Paris of the 6th of October1 as the key to the whole work. That picturesque incident had inspired the jubilations of Dr. Price:2 and Burke naturally invested it at once with the very opposite character. But his description was borrowed from prejudiced witnesses. The people still trusted the King, however much they may have distrusted the Queen: and there was nothing extraordinary in their insisting on the abandonment of Versailles. Burke frankly admits that this gloomy foretaste of the change in the royal fortunes coloured his whole conception. Endowed with the imagination and sensibility of the poet, this melodramatic spectacle sank deeply into his mind; and the consciousness that it yet remained undenounced was too much for one ever swayed, as Burke was, by
- . . . stormy pity, and the cherished lure
- Of pomp, and proud precipitance of soul.3
[xlvi]Philip Francis at once declared this exhibition of sympathy for the Queen to be mere affectation, or in his own phrase, “foppery.” He knew Burke well; better, perhaps, than any contemporary: but this particular charge Burke declared to be false. He averred that in writing this famous passage tears actually dropped from his eyes, and wetted the paper. It is likely enough. Burke carried the strong feelings which were natural to him into most things that he did: and his tears for Marie Antoinette were as much part of the inspiration of the moment as his triumphant declaration, when his own lawful sovereign was stricken down by the saddest of maladies, that “the Almighty had hurled him from his throne.” Burke’s persistency exposed him to a keen repartee from Francis. “No tears,” wrote the latter, “are shed for nations.” This was altogether unjust, and Francis knew it, for he had long been associated with Burke in the gigantic effort that was being made to ameliorate the condition of the oppressed millions of India by the prosecution of Warren Hastings. But it was in vain to beguile Burke from his chosen attitude. There was the tyranny of the despot, and the tyranny of the mob: and he declared that it was his business to denounce the one as well as the other. If the champion of Ireland and of India had to choose between the French people and the French queen, he would choose the latter: and he declared that history would confirm his decision.1 It has not been so: history has transferred the world’s sympathies, engaged for a while on the opposite side by the eloquence of Burke, to the suffering people. Nor can it be said that history has confirmed Burke’s judgment on a political question which he treats at some length, and which concerned England far less than it concerned France. The Church question, which in different shapes has ever since the French Revolution vexed the whole Christian world, had been suddenly raised from the level of speculation to that of policy by the attempted reforms of Joseph in Austria. It needed no great sagacity to foresee the impending storm, when the ancient principle of ecclesiastical establishments was repudiated in its very stronghold. Burke here carries to the extreme his principle of saying all that could be said in favour of whichever side of a doubtful question is most in need of support. Burke’s vindication of Church establishments,[xlvii] echoed, as it has been, by two generations of obscurantists, is based on half a dozen bad arguments adroitly wrought into the semblance of one good one. But no logical mystification could avert the impending ruin: and Burke committed a mistake in parading before an English public arguments which were so little likely to impose upon it. A cotton-mill, in the eyes of a French economical theorist, might be an institution as unproductive to the state as a monastery:1 but no Englishman could treat such an argument with respect. Devoted pupils of the school of Bossuet might rejoice to hear Burke’s fervid eulogy of a state consecrated, in all its members and functions, by a National Church: but no candid Englishman could aver that Church and State were ideas inseparable to the English mind. The French ecclesiastic might fairly claim as private property the estates on which his order had thriven unchallenged ever since France had been a nation: no reader of Selden could think the argument applicable to the Church of England. “When once the Commonwealth,” says Burke, “has established the estates of the Church as property, it can, consistently, hear nothing of the more or the less.” Such has been the claim of the clerical party in every country of the Western world: and there is not one in which it has been accepted. There is not one in which lawfulness of the secularization of Church property has not by this time been practically admitted. Burke’s argument is confuted by each successive step of that long series of unwillingly enforced reforms which has enabled the English Church to stand its ground. In reading Burke’s account of the Church of England, we must bear in mind the peculiar circumstances of his education. Burke was the son of an Irish Catholic and an Irish Protestant. He was educated by a Quaker: and by trustworthy testimony2 he valued no Christian sect above another, and believed in his heart that no one then existing represented Christianity in its normal or final shape. Stoutly as he had opposed the famous Latitudinarian petition a few years before, Burke was in all religious matters liberal to a degree which trespassed on what would now be called rationalism. His picture of the Church is really painted from the outside: and, though a country squire of a quarter of a century’s standing, it is from the outside that he conducts his defence of the Establishment.
[xlviii]It would be impossible to follow Burke’s impatient and stormy career over the whole broad field of his “Reflections.” A minute criticism of such books defeats its own object. Burke is here an advocate and a rhetorician. Though an attitude of discursiveness and informality, admitting of striking and rapid change, is of the essence of his method, there are many isolated passages in which this is less apparent than usual, and these passages have historical value. Armed with the twofold knowledge of history and of human nature, it was impossible for Burke not to hit the mark in many of his minor observations on the course of events in France. His description of the growth of the monied interest, of the hostility of the Paris literary cabal to the Church, and of the coalition of these two elements for its destruction,1 stands forth as a bold and accurate outline of an actual process. His retrospect of the past glories of France2 is no mere exercise in declamation: and his observations on the government of Louis XVI3 prove that he had studied antecedent events perhaps as accurately as to an Englishman was possible. Those observations are illustrated by the circumstances which attended the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848. A mild and constitutional régime, as Burke concluded, predisposes to revolution: if this régime is rudely interrupted, or its sincerity rendered doubtful, a revolution is certain. No monarch has a harder part to play than a king of France. Under Louis XVI, Charles X, Louis Philippe, and Louis Napoleon, the French people have abundantly proved themselves to be the same. But few would now draw from the fact the conclusion which was drawn by Burke. An unusual show of “patriotism,” such as Burke praised in the government of Louis, affords unusual matter of suspicion: and the causes of a restless jealousy for liberty, which Burke had exposed so admirably in his speech on American Conciliation, operated as surely in the nascent freedom of France as in the ripe liberty of America. Burke was equally correct in auguring an alteration in the internal balance of power in France from the changes introduced into the army. The substitution of a popular for a merely mercenary force has always been a measure necessary to secure great political reforms: and it leads, as Burke pointed out, to the ascendancy of popular generals. There is nothing astonishing in this. When the old bonds of loyalty are[xlix] as thoroughly worn out as they have proved to be in France, military genius, allied with civil prudence, necessarily becomes the head of all authority: and the rise of Bonaparte proved the truth of Burke’s surmise.1 Burke applied his knowledge of France and French policy with good effect in turning from domestic to colonial policy.2 The history of Hayti amply verified all that he foretold would follow on the assertion of the rights of men in the French colonies. Hayti asserted its right to a constitution and free trade: and as the colonists rose against the Government, the negroes rose on the colonists. Ten years later, and Burke might have written a telling conclusion to the tale which he sketched out: for when Republican France had defeated the whole of Europe, she was herself beaten by the despised negroes of the plantations. Such were the consequences of what Burke called “attempting to limit logic by despotism.” Among Burke’s historical forecasts none is more remarkable than that which relates to the organisation throughout Europe of secret political societies.3 Contemporary critics laughed the argument to scorn; but its accuracy is testified by the history of liberal movements all over Catholic Europe and America. Thirty years more, and the world rang with the alarm. It was by the aid of these secret organisations that Mexico and South America threw off the yoke of the priesthood. We know the history of similar clubs in Spain, Italy, and Switzerland between 1815 and 1848: and the great power for attack provided by these means justifies the hostility with which the Catholic Church still regards all secret organisations.
Perhaps the great merit of Burke’s view of the changes in France consisted in his perception of their actual magnitude, and of the new character which they were likely to impress upon French policy. He was right in supposing that revolutionised France would become the centre of a revolutionary propaganda, and that success would transform the representatives of French liberty into the tyrants of Europe. Burke knew well how often vanity and ambition become leading motives in national action. He rightly guessed that their appetite would not be satiated by mere internal successes, and that the conquest of France by its own ambitious citizens would be only the first[l] in a series of revolutionary triumphs. Burke rightly judged that the spirits of the old despotism and of the new liberty were quite capable of coalescing. Under the Revolution and the Empire, France was as much a prey to the lust of empire as in the days of Louis the Fourteenth. The illusions of the days of the Grand Monarque have subsisted indeed down to our own times, not only undiminished, but vastly heightened by the events of the period which was just opening. France has not increased in physical resources so fast as her neighbours: and her comparative weight in Europe has therefore been diminishing. In proportion as this fact has been made plain, the French people have resented it: and until very recently the mass of the people probably believed themselves to be a nation as powerful in the world for good or evil as in the days of the First Empire. In England, the country of all the world, whatever else may be alleged against it, where illusions are fewest, this attitude on the part of her near neighbour has always been conspicuous.
On the general question of the great political principle involved in the present volume the reader may safely take it for granted that it was neither true in itself nor natural to Burke, who was employing it merely for purposes of what he believed to be legitimate advocacy. Burke’s real belief is contained in the following passage from his “Address to the King” (1776): “The revolution is a departure from the antient course of descent of the monarchy. The people, at that time, entered into their original rights; and it was not because a positive law authorized what was then done, but because the freedom and safety of the subject, the origin and cause of all laws, required a proceeding paramount and superior to them. At that ever remarkable and instructive period, the letter of the law was suspended in favour of the substance of liberty. . . . Those statutes have not given us our liberties; our liberties have produced them.” Coleridge says that on a comparison of Burke’s writings on the American War with those on the French Revolution, the principles and the deductions will be found the same, though the practical inferences are opposite; yet in both equally legitimate, and in both equally confirmed by results.1 This estimate is coloured by the natural sympathy of political partisanship. Burke was always Conservative in his instincts:[li] but it is undeniable that he thought the present a legitimate occasion for shifting his ground. The historical value of the “Reflections” is thus unequal in the different parts. In characterising English political instinct and doctrine, it falls back on a vanishing past; it repudiates that which possessed life and growth. It represents the sentimental rather than the intellectual side of its author’s character: and hence it will be used by posterity less as an historical document than as a great literary model. Burke, in a higher degree than any other Englishman, transferred to his writings the force and vigour which properly belong to speeches; and there is scarcely a single rhetorical device which may not be learned from his pages. The art of language had been wrought by thirty years of incessant practice into Burke’s very soul: and the mere voluntary effort of expression acted upon his powers like touching the spring of a machine. Burke wrote as he talked, and as he spoke in the senate: we have here the man himself accurately reflected, with all his excellencies and all his imperfections. Burke’s was not only a mind large and spacious, but endowed with an extraordinary degree of sensibility, and these qualities were well adapted to produce a vast convulsion of feeling at the contemplation of incidents and prospects so strange and portentous as those which now presented themselves to view. Burke’s was a mind in which those objects sank most deeply, found the readiest reception, and were perceived in their widest extent. We cannot wonder at the keenness and profusion of the sentiments which they first generated and then forced out trumpet-tongued to the world.
From what has been said it will be gathered that Burke’s book is by no means what is called a scientific book. Its roots touch the springs of the theology, of the jurisprudence, of the morals, of the history, and of the poetry of his age: and in this way it acquires an historical value resembling in some measure that of the famous “Republic” of Plato. Few books reflect more completely the picture of European thought as it existed a century ago. Nor is there any in which the literary expression of the age is better exemplified. Burke is careful to maintain a mode of expression which is untechnical. It is even occasionally indefinite. The essential antithesis in thought between science and poetry is curiously reflected in his habitual language. In employing words, he does not, like the man of science, keep in[lii] mind, in connection with them, any certain and invariable connotation. Like the poet, he rather takes pleasure in placing old words in new combinations, and in applying them with a changed or reinforced meaning.
- Dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum
- Reddiderit junctura novum.
To think with the wise, and to speak with the vulgar, to give in common and popular phrase the results of uncommon and studious thought, has always been counted among the rarest of rare accomplishments. A critic has observed that the main difference between our older and our modern literature, is that in the former we get uncommon ideas vulgarly expressed, and in the latter obvious and commonplace thoughts furnished forth with false ornament, and inspired with false refinement. Now as Burke often conveys his most admirable lessons under the guise of trite and vulgar topics, so does he clothe his most cogent arguments with the plainest language, and support them by the most familiar illustrations. But he continually surprises us by bursts of rhetorical appeal, by sudden allusions to some historical incident, by keen sarcasm, by a quotation which recalls a train of associations. Macaulay has characterised the contents of Burke’s mind as a treasure at once rich, massy, and various. Burke’s mature style reflects the rich contents of his mature mind, as displayed in daily conversation. Burke, who was, by the testimony of Johnson, the greatest master of conversation in his time, wrote as he talked, because he talked as the greatest master of writing need not be ashamed to write. He is a standing example of that fundamental axiom of style, too often forgotten by writers, that its excellence chiefly depends on the closeness with which it reflects the excellences of the vox viva. A “good passage” is simply one which, if delivered by the speaker to an attentive listener, would easily, certainly, and lastingly convey to the latter the meaning of the former. Men in general are neither scientific nor political: they are simply open to be impressed by clear statement, fair argument, and common sense. In the practice of the best masters what seem to be the ornaments of style are really its necessities. Figures and images do not belong to poetry, but to language—especially to the economy of language. It is possible to be lavish and[liii] fertile in the development and illustration of an argument, with great poverty of resources; but he who would be brief must be wealthy in words. Those who have tasted the enjoyment of fine conversation, know how nearly Burke reflects its essential manner. What is meant may be illustrated by saying that the great master of conversation avoids, tanquam scopulum, the odious vice which is commonly described as “talking like a book”; whereas the great master of the pen does in fact employ in turn all the methods and devices which a versatile mind and a practised tongue employ in conversation.
English and French literature have generally aimed at this character. When we pass to the yard-long sentences, the tangled notions, and the flat expression of an ordinary German book, we recognise the normal opposite. How is this? In the latter case the book has probably been written by a man of silent habits in the retirement of his cabinet; and there is consequently no habitual subordination, in the practice of the writer, to the conditions of convenient and intelligent reception on the part of the reader. Why are chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and phrases measured by a certain average of length? Simply on the principle which regulates how much a man can or ought to be eating or drinking at one time. The habits of Reception (or as the Scotch philosophers call it, Attention) and Assimilation proceed by morceaux or portions. It can make no difference whether the material is conveyed through the voice of another, or in a way at once more complex and more compendious, through the eye of the recipient. Burke’s age, like Cicero’s, was eminently an age of Conversation. A glance at Boswell is enough to prove its high range as a fine art, and to show how much it had assumed a palaestral character. Literary fame was distributed by a few men, who habitually weighed merit in a common-sense balance: and the atmosphere of the study thus came to be neglected for that of the club. The influence of academical models had long ago begun to yield to that of keen living criticism: and in the age of Johnson the change was well-nigh complete. The conditions of the best literary age of Greece, including a cultivated and watchful auditory leading the opinion of the general public, were thus nearly reproduced.
Writing is false and poor in proportion as those conditions are[liv] forgotten. Moreover, as composition is built upon spoken language, so the decline of the art of conversation has been accompanied by the decline of style. A century has produced vast changes in both. Every one who knows how perfect a harmony subsists between or among the two or more people who engage in true intellectual converse—how unconsciously and how delicately each responds to the touches of the other, knows also how exceedingly rare is the habit which produces it. The coarse deluge with which the pretentious sophist, whom in the person of Thrasymachus Socrates compares to a bathing-man, still overwhelms his hearers—the jar and wrangle proper to the Bar, and the prating of the foolish, conspire to thrust it from society. So is it of the harmony which ought to subsist between writers and their probable readers: and the social defect is reflected in the literary. Literature has become divorced from life, and the very term “literary” comes to connote something dull, dry, and undesirable. If we wish to see how life and letters can nevertheless go together, we have to refer to the De Oratore of Cicero, the Table Talk of Selden, and Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
The model of a letter, the form into which the present work, like nearly all Burke’s best compositions, is cast, gives the writer some valuable advantages. It represents a convenient medium between the looseness of common talk and the set phrases of deliberate composition. It enables him to preserve an even key through the body of his observations, while he may, with perfect propriety, descend to familiar and pointed phraseology, or mount at will into the region of rhetoric. Such a variety at once preserves that impression of a close relation between the reader and the writer which is necessary to secure attention, and enables the writer to make the best use of his opportunities. Where he fancies the reader yielding to a plain forcible piece of common sense, he can press on. He can repeat the approved thesis in some more studied phrase, approaching the philosophical style, and finally enforce it by a bold appeal to the feelings. He can gradually season and mingle his rhetoric with the gall of irony, or he can abruptly drop into that stimulating vein at a moment’s notice. Probably the greatest impression of power in the mind of the reader is produced by the ability to preserve an even balance of moderate discourse, ever and anon varied by these[lv] occasional diversions. Perpetual familiarities, perpetual didactics, or perpetual declamation would equally disgust and fatigue. The great artist so mingles them that each shall mutually relieve and enhance the effect of the other.
In the study of particular passages, it must be remarked that there is no mastering the secrets of style by the eye alone. The student must read aloud, repeat to himself, and transcribe. The fact is so much testimony to our canon that the standard of writing is the vox viva. It is necessary to make a strong effort of imagination, to force one’s-self into the author’s own place, and to construct over again his phrases and periods, if we would view his work in its full beauty and propriety.
Let us examine, as an example of Burke’s method, his remarks on the New Year’s Address presented to Louis XVI. They conclude with the following paragraph:
A man is fallen indeed, when he is thus flattered. The anodyne draught of oblivion, thus drugged, is well calculated to preserve a galling wakefulness, and to feed the living ulcer of a corroding memory. Thus to administer the opiate potion of amnesty, powdered with all the ingredients of scorn and contempt, is to hold to his lips, instead of “the balm of hurt minds,” the cup of human misery full to the brim, and to force him to drink it to the dregs. (p. 164.)
The exceeding strength and fulness of these lines depend on the fact that every word in them, saving mere auxiliaries, represents a distinct image. When we apply to them Burke’s well-known canon that the master sentence of every paragraph should involve, firstly, a thought, secondly, an image, and thirdly, a sentiment, we see how all such canons fail. The thought and the sentiment are clear enough, but they are completely enveloped in this congeries of images. Turning back, however, we shall see how it is prepared for in the preceding pages. The Address is introduced at the end of a previous paragraph (p. 163), as the climax of a sustained rhetorical arsis. Pausing to give this striking feature its due effect, the writer then drops suddenly in a fresh paragraph into a vein of irony, bitter and elaborate, but not strongly coloured. In fact, both the beginning and the end of this paragraph are relieved by something approaching very nearly to a quaint equivocation. It is slightly prosaic, diffuse, and familiar. We have another pause, and another change. The writer gathers[lvi] himself up for a strong effort, and pours out, in these half-a-dozen lines, a series of images coloured with all the depth which words can give, destined to unite with and deepen the effect of the preceding periods. The three paragraphs are, as it were, in three keys of colour, one over the other, the deepest, the most vigorous, and at the same time the most sparingly applied, coming last. Burke does not in general severely tax the memory. He may expect you to carry your vision through a dozen pages, but he lends you every assistance that art can give. He puts his most striking images last, that the reader may pause upon them, and see how they sum up and illustrate his previous argument. If this volume is opened at p. 191, the three terminations of the paragraphs, though in each case he ends with an image, will curiously illustrate the variety of his resources.
Let us see again how an image is varied, another is grafted upon it, and it disappears in the vein of pure irony to which it is intended to conduct:
“The ears of the people of England are distinguishing. They hear these men speak broad. Their tongue betrays them.1 Their language is in the patois of fraud; in the cant and gibberish of hypocrisy. The people of England must think so, when these praters affect to carry back the clergy to that primitive evangelic poverty,” &c. (p. 201.)
Burke excels in this preparation of transitions: and it always distinguishes the master. The passage on the Queen (p. 169), which is perhaps the most famous in the book, is intended in this way. It fitly concludes the reflections on the sufferings of the Royal Family, and prepares the way for the animated contrast which follows of ancient and modern modes of social and political feeling. In these pages (170–72) we observe Burke’s happiest manner, that progressive and self-developing method which distinguishes him among prose writers, as it does Dryden among poets. “His thesis grows in the very act of unfolding it.”2 Each sentence seems, by a kind of scintillation, to suggest the image contained in the next; and this again instantly flames and germinates into a crowd of others. There is no loss, however, of the ultimate aim, and the rich fancy never gets, so to speak, out of hand[lvii] or seems to burst into mere wanton coruscations. The boldest strokes come in exactly in the right places, and we acquiesce in the judgment with which the strain on our imagination is duly relaxed, and we are allowed to relapse into the strain of plain statement and direct argument. “Burke,” says Hazlitt, “is really one of the severest of writers.” Even in his half-prophetic mood we never miss a certain understood calmness, and a background of self-restraint and coolness: there is always a principle of restoration in the opposite direction. “In the very whirlwind of his passion he begets a temperance.” To this effect his habit of repetition very much contributes. He produces the same thought, first expanded and illustrated with all his imagery, then contracted and weighed with all his sententiousness. Fulness and brevity, ardour and philosophical calm, light and shade, are ever alternating.
In style, as in everything else, the nature of things is best seen in their smallest proportions. The best writers are immediately discernible by their mere phrases, by the ability and the happiness with which they conjoin the simple elements of substantive and verb, adjective or participle. It is not that words are coerced into a strange collocation, or that the writer “will for a tricksy phrase defy the matter”; but that expressions are constructed which seem natural, without being common or obvious. Notwithstanding the depth and rapidity of the current of Burke’s ideas, it flows in general as clear as if it were the shallowest of rills. Still, the freedom with which he employs his extraordinary copia verborum occasionally leads him into obscurity. One passage has been often marked as an instance. It occurs near the end of the book (pp. 361–62) , where it is remarked that the little arts and devices of popularity are not to be condemned:
They facilitate the carrying of many points of moment; they keep the people together; they refresh the mind in its exertions; and they diffuse occasional gaiety over the severe brow of moral freedom.
The last sentence has been confidently pronounced to be nonsense in the strict acceptance of the word—that is, to have no meaning, and to be neither true nor false. The obscurity lies in the involution, in an abbreviated form, of a statement which occurs at page 126, that all nations but France had[lviii] begun political reformation in a serious and even severe temper. “All other people have laid the foundations of civil freedom in severer manners, and a system of more austere and masculine morality.” France, on the other hand, doubled the licence of her ferocious dissoluteness in manners. The contrast, in the passage criticised, is between the political licence of the demagogues of France, and the occasional condescension of the more austere English patriot to the humours of his constituents.1 It is not denied that Burke wrote, in the first instance, hastily, and that there are occasional blemishes in this book; but most of them disappeared before it issued from the press. Pages 149–50, for instance, were amended after the first edition, and might have been amended somewhat more. Burke was, however, averse from making any important alterations, and he refused to correct some palpable errors, on the ground of their non-importance. He himself considered that he had elaborated the work with even more than his habitual carefulness of composition; and it is known that large portions of it were recomposed, and the whole subjected to a never-satisfied revision, which excited the remonstrances of his printer. “The fragments of his manuscripts which remain,” says Dr. Croly,2 “show that not words but things were the objects of his revision. At every fresh return some fine idea found enlargement; some strong feeling was invigorated; some masculine moral was aggrandised into universal application, and coloured into poetic beauty.” The blemishes which are still left are partially shielded by the extraordinary compass of Burke’s writing. His great art and originality in putting together his phrases and sentences makes even his negligence seem less than it really is. We are often tempted to think that his most heedless combinations are rather studied than spontaneous. It cannot, however, escape notice, that the workmanship of the treatise is[lix] very unequal. Burke always relied much upon correction, and extensively pruned and altered his first draughts. On the strength of many marks of carelessness which this process has left on the face of the work, it has, from the merely literary point of view, been undervalued. Francis (Junius) wrote to Burke,1 “Why will you not learn that polish is material to preservation? . . . I wish you would let me teach you to write English!” Such expressions from Francis were mere impudence. It has been well remarked that compared to the athletic march of the writings of Burke, the best letters of Junius remind us irresistibly of the strut of a petit-maître. It is the ramp of the lion by the side of the mordacious snarl of the cur. Of literature, in the highest sense, Francis knew next to nothing. He represented, however, in some measure those current canons of literary taste which Burke recklessly broke through. But let it be remembered that Burke was not writing as an aspirant for literary or any other fame. It was not for this that day after day saw him dashing off these pages in his gloomy room in gloomy Gerard Street. The objects of earlier years had sunk below his horizon, and the fame of his book came as a mere corollary. What he wrote was the result of a mental convulsion, vast, though spontaneous. He alludes to it in his correspondence as “deeply occupying and agitating him.” His nerves were strung up to the pitch of the highest human sympathies. Tears, he averred, dropped from his eyes and wetted his paper as he wrote the passage on the Queen, which Mackintosh called “stuff,” and Francis “foppery.” Burke was a man of strong passions, and these passions mingled fiercely in all his pursuits.
Anger is said to “make dull men witty.”1 In excess, it far more frequently paralyses the intellect, or drives a man into mere verbal excesses.
- Some fierce thing, replete with too much rage,
- Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart.2
If Burke’s wrath sometimes lost him personal respect, and occasionally hurried him into grossness of metaphor, it gave such[lx] terrible fire to his expression, that the gain was greater than the loss. It scathed like lightning the men, the systems, or the sentiments which were the objects of his moral indignation, and marked indelibly those who had incurred his personal resentment. The tension and force gained from anger seemed often to sustain his style long after his direct invective had ceased. Though high-tempered, he seems to have been free from the sort of ill-nature which indeed belongs to colder temperaments, noticeable in Swift and Junius. Even in the case of political opponents, he was almost universally a lenient and generous judge. His anger towards those who had excited it, if not absolutely just, was felt to be the result of his own full conviction, and so carried with him the sympathy of his hearers and readers, instead of exciting them, as is usually the case, to seek excuses for his victims. It is rare for so much force to produce so little reaction. Burke sways the mass of intelligent and cultivated readers with almost as little resistance as a demagogue experiences from a mob.3
Burke suffers no sense of literary formality to veil and to break the force of his thoughts. He strives to stand face to face with the reader, as he would stand before a circle of listening friends, or on the floor of the House of Commons. To repeat a previous observation, Burke wrote as he talked. “Burke’s talk,” Johnson used to say, “is the ebullition of his mind; he does not talk from a desire of distinction, but because his mind is full.” As a mark of his style, this naturally has the effect of investing his chief writings with something of a dramatic character. They possess something of what we mean when we ascribe to works of art a general dramatic unity. The statesman and the man are so finely blended in the contexture of his thought that it is difficult[lxi] to distinguish between warp and woof. This character is reflected not obscurely in his diction. In discussions upon literary matters, he was fond of pointing out the dramatic writer as the true model, instancing Plautus, Terence, and the fragments of Publius Syrus as among the best examples. The hint was the more applicable in an age when the theatre was still a great school of style and of manners. Junius, as is well known, modelled his letters on the pointed dialogue of Congreve. Burke was familiar with the lessons of a higher school. Humble, from the aesthetic point of view, as is the work of a political writer, there is often an almost Shakespearian freshness and originality about the mintage of Burke’s phrases, and the design of his paragraphs. In reading him we are less than usually conscious of the mere literary element. Burke, in fact, though commonly understood to be one of the greatest masters of English prose, does not fall naturally into a place in any historical series of the masters of the art. The Spectator seems to have been his early model, the Treatise on the Sublime and Beautiful being evidently suggested by Addison’s beautiful and original essays on the Pleasures of the Imagination. But he soon deserted the school of polite prose. Hume, on the other hand, is an instance of an accomplished writer, who throughout his long labours never cast the slough of his first style. Wholly disregarding the models of the strict, polished, and academic writers of his day, Burke fell back upon a free and expansive method, which reminds us of the great poet and dramatist, Dryden. The fact that no student of literature now thinks of consulting Temple or Sprat, while such prose as that of Dryden and Cowley still retains a large measure of popularity, is some testimony to the correctness of his taste. The father of modern criticism had not been neglected by Burke, and the freedom and copiousness of Dryden’s pen cannot have escaped his notice. He still remains the great master of good pedestrian prose; and for the best specimens of the somewhat more elevated key of political reasoning, we are still obliged to recur to Bolingbroke, another of Burke’s models. In both Bolingbroke and Burke the habit of public speaking moulded and transformed their literary style: and we can scarcely point to any other writer who, though at once accurate, polished, and striking, reflects Burke’s disregard of the set literary manner. Addison must have proceeded to compose[lxii] a Spectator much as he was wont to set about making a copy of his inimitable Latin verses; and something of the same kind never forsook Johnson, and other great essayists. Burke has nothing of this. He goes back, though not consciously, over the heads of his contemporaries. He writes with the tone of authoritative speech. He employs alternately the profound, stately, philosophical manner of Hooker,1 the imaginative declamation of Taylor, the wise sarcasm of South, and the copious and picturesque facility of Dryden. We need not maintain that elements so multifarious never suffer in his hands. Burke lived in a time when literary ideals had degenerated. Both Hooker and Bacon—the former with his vast cycle of reasoning and his unapproachable compass of language, the latter with his dense, serried body of picked thought and his powerful concocting and assimilating style, represent a literary attitude which neither Burke nor any of his contemporaries ever dreamed of assuming. Burke, moreover, in his maturity, cared nothing for literature, except so far as it was useful in its effect on life; nor did he cherish the thought of living in his works.
These pages are intended rather to put many threads of independent study into the hands of the student, and to afford hints for looking at the subject on many sides, than to exhaust any department of it. Burke’s works will be found to be at once a canon or measure to guide those who will undertake the pleasurable toil of exploring the inexhaustible field of English prose-writing, and in themselves a rich mine of the most useful practical examples. They strikingly illustrate, among other things, the fact that the works of a great writer of prose, like those of great poets, must, so to speak, drain a large area. He must possess something of the myriad-mindedness which has been ascribed, as the sum and substance of his intellectual[lxiii] qualities, to Shakespeare. “The understanding,” says Shelley, “grows bright by gazing upon many truths.” In like manner the taste is only to be justly regulated by applying it to many and various beauties, and the judgment is only to be ripened by directing it in succession upon many objects, and in various aspects.
With one additional observation on a point of some moment, these hints on the general intention and style of Burke’s book are terminated. It has been said that the best styles are the freest from Latinisms, and it has been laid down that a good writer will never have recourse to a Latinism while a “Saxon” word will serve his purpose. The notion was first carelessly put forth by Sydney Smith. If it were true, Burke would often be liable to severe censure. The fact is, however, that the practice of almost every great master of the English tongue, from Chaucer downwards, makes very small account of any such consideration. Swift and Defoe, who are usually cited in illustration of it, count for little, and their authority on this point cannot be held to be exactly commensurate with the place in literature which their merits have earned them. Their vernacular cast is very much due to the fact that they were among the first political writers who aspired to be widely read among the common people. The same circumstance fostered the racy native English style of Cobbett, and had its effects on journalists like Mr. Fonblanque, and orators like Mr. Bright. But most of our great writers, unreservedly and freely as they use the Latin element in the language, are also thoroughly at home in the exclusive use of the vernacular. Brougham was wrong in saying that Burke excelled in every variety of style except the plain and unadorned. It is not a question of principle, but of art and of propriety. It may be worth while occasionally to study the art of writing in “pure Saxon,” but to confine ourselves in practice to this interesting feat, would be as absurd as for a musician to employ habitually and on principle the tour de force of playing the pianoforte with one hand. We should lose breadth, power, and richness of combination. The harmony of our language, as we find it in Hooker, Shakespeare, and Milton, is fully established. We must take it as we find it. At any rate it is not until the student is a considerable master in the full compass of our remarkable tongue, that he can venture with safety on the experiment of[lxiv] restricting himself from the use of the most copious and effective of its elements. The inimitable passage from Shakespeare already quoted1 is enough to prove how much the greatest writers of English have relied on Latinisms: yet Shakespeare was never at a loss for pure Saxon idioms. Burke generally puts the strength of his Saxon element into short, energetic, suggestive sentences, in the body of the paragraph, and concludes it with a few sonorous Latinisms. He often broke out, in the House of Commons, into a strain of farmer-like bluntness. In one of his great Letters on the Peace, in the midst of a complaint of the poverty and insufficiency of the political notions of the French, which he compares to their meagre diet, he suddenly exclaims that English people want “food that will stick to the ribs.” So in this volume (p. 314) he declares that a machine like the reformed French monarchy is “not worth the grease of its wheels.” We need not multiply examples. The so-called Saxon element is of immense use as a general source of energy; and a great master may employ it with great effect in the pathetic line. Upon its successful manipulation depends very much of the effect of all that is written in our tongue; but we act unwisely in neglecting to make much, if not the most, of our so-called Latinism. The extent of its use must depend mainly upon the ear.
Burke’s Tract, as it stands, exceeds the measure of what he intended when it was commenced, and falls short of the great idea which grew upon him as he proceeded with it—of exhibiting fully and fairly to the eye of the world the grand and stable majesty of the civil and social system of England, in contrast with the hasty and incongruous edifice run up by the French Reformers. The analysis which precedes the text in the present edition distinguishes it into two portions, the first including two thirds, the second, one third, of the book. The First Part is occupied with England. It is to this First Part that the foregoing observations chiefly apply. It differs in so many points from the Second Part, which is occupied with the new political system of France, that a critic of the omniscient school might well be excused for attributing it to another hand. Half of the First Part, or one third of the whole work, forms what may be called the Introduction. It answers strictly to the original[lxv] title “Reflections on Certain Proceedings of the Revolution Society.”1 It is sufficiently complete and coherent, and may be advantageously read by itself. The remainder of the First Part consists of several dissertations unequal in length and completeness. The most important is that which has been called Section I (the Church Establishment). It seems to be interrupted at page 223, and resumed at page 241, the intermediate space being occupied with a fragmentary vindication of the French monarchy and nobility. We have here the half-finished components of a greater work, the completion of which was prevented by the urgency of the occasion. The vindication of the English democracy, for Burke’s immediate purpose the least important part, but which would have perhaps possessed the highest interest for posterity, is omitted altogether. The “Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs” to some extent supplies its place. But the whole of the middle third of the work is incomplete, and requires to be read with caution. Burke probably wrote the pieces which compose it at different times, during the spring, and laid the work aside altogether during the summer, of 1790.
The Second Part, or Critique of the new French Constitution, was composed, according to appearances, as autumn approached, and the necessity for producing the work for the winter season, then the chief season of the year, whether for business or any other purposes, became apparent. This portion is rather a voucher or pièce justificative than a necessary part of the book. It is a piece of vigorous and exhaustive, though rapid and one-sided, criticism. It is a direct and unsparing diatribe on the new French statesmanship, viewing the system it produced wholly by the light of reason and common sense, and leaving out of account all the arguments which are adduced in the First Part of the work. It is, as might be anticipated, not altogether just. We may fairly demur, on the threshold, to the general spirit of Burke’s criticism.
- Dart thy skill at me;
- Bruise me with scorn; confound me with a flout;
- Thrust thy sharp wit quite through my ignorance;
- Cut me to pieces with thy keen conceit.
Posterity, however, in the words of Burke himself, written thirty[lxvi] years before, will not accept satire in the place of history. These pages contain more of Burke’s personal manner, and have a character less declamatory, more minute, and more to the immediate purpose, than what precedes. They evidently represent a great intellectual effort, and contrast strongly with the previous almost spontaneous ebullition of sentiment and doctrine. Yet they are marked, and by no means sparingly, with striking literary beauties, which the student will do well to search out for himself. The historical value of this part of the work is still considerable, though its interest is diminished by the fact that much of the constitution which it attacks speedily disappeared, and that Burke’s knowledge of it was not altogether correct or complete. As an instance we may take the ludicrous error at pp. 279–80, where it is assumed that the Departments and Communes were to be portioned out by straight lines with the aid of the theodolite. Burke was fond of a certain ponderous style of repartee, and something of this is traceable in his endeavours to show that the Liberty boasted by the Assembly was a mere semblance, and that they treated France “exactly like a conquered country.” Nothing can be more admirable than his applying to them the saying attributed to Louis XIV, “C’est mon plaisir—c’est pour ma gloire” (p. 214). Burke always had two favourite images, derived from the art of the house-builder, by which to illustrate the labours of the politician. One of these is the Buttress, the other the Cement, or Cementing principle.1 Both of these he applies unsparingly in his vigorous condemnation of the details of the novelties of French polity. The buttresses were shams, and the cement had no binding in it. The criticism on the reformed Office of the King, and on the new Judicature, is brief, but to the purpose; but the most remarkable is that which relates to the army, containing as it does a forecast of the condition of a military democracy, and an anticipation of the future despotism of Napoleon (p. 332). Only one Frenchman, Rivarol, appears to have expressed a similar foreboding. The value of the remarks on the financial system, which conclude the work, is clouded by the perturbation of the question which came with the lengthened[lxvii] wars, and the Republic early took care to avoid bankruptcy by enormous contributions levied on the countries which fell under its yoke. The main predictions of Burke, however, were literally fulfilled. “The Assignats, after having poured millions into the coffers of the ruling rebellion, suddenly sank into the value of the paper of which they were made. Thousands and tens of thousands were ruined. The nation was bankrupt, but the Jacobin Government was rich; and the operation had thus all the results it was ever made for.”2 On the appearance of M. Calonne’s work, “De l’Etat de France,” Burke considerably altered this Second Part of the work, and the text of the first edition differs, therefore, in many places, from the subsequent ones.
Burke’s Tract provoked, in reply, as is well known, a whole literature of its own, no single representative of which is now held in any account, if we except the “Vindiciae Gallicae,” the early work of Sir James Mackintosh. It had, of course, its replies in French literature; but its general influence on France is best traced in De Bonald,1 De Maistre, Chateaubriand, and other littérateurs of the reaction. The same kind of influence is traceable in German thought in the works of Goerres, Stolberg, Frederick Schlegel, and others. Burke’s true value was early appreciated in Germany, and A. M. von Müller, lecturing at Dresden in 1806, even remarked on the circumstance that Burke only met with his due honours from strangers. “His country but half understands him, and feels only half his glory, considering him chiefly as a brilliant orator, as a partisan, and a patriot. He is acknowledged in Germany as the real and successful mediator between liberty and law, between union and division of power, and between the republican and aristocratic principles.” Burke certainly has not been without his effect on the political notions of the non-theological philosophers, as Schelling, Steffens, Reinhold, &c.; and if the student should wish to set by the side of Burke for purposes of contrast the views of a competent professor of scientific theory, he should turn to the pages of Ancillon.2 He[lxviii] must, however, be prepared to encounter a vast army of desperate commonplaces. Gentz, the translator of Burke, himself a considerable politician, is well imbued with his model; and at home the school of Burke is represented by the names of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Macaulay, Arnold, and Whately.1 These few names will suffice to indicate approximately Burke’s peculiar place in general literature; but his influence in every way extends far more widely than any line which could be usefully drawn.
Considering that Burke stands unapproachably the first of our political orators, and indeed in the very first rank as a writer and a thinker, it seems strange that so few express and formal tributes have been paid to his memory. Had Burke been a Frenchman, nearly every French critic, great or small, would have tried his hand on such a subject, not in parenthetical allusion, or in a few brief words of ardent praise, but in regular essays and notices without number. Where we have placed a stone, they would have piled a cairn. Thus have the Cousins, Saint-Beuves, Guizots, and Pontmartins taken every opportunity for long disquisition upon their Montaigne, Pascal, Bossuet, Molière, La Fontaine, and the other great authors of France. With us, moreover, the editions of Burke have been few, considering his fame; and his direct praises have been for the most part confined, here to a page, there to a paragraph. It is necessary for an Englishman to know Burke’s writings well if he would be enabled to judge of the extent of his influence on the leading minds of this country. Only know[lxix] Burke, and you will find his thoughts and expressions gleaming like golden threads in the pages of distinguished men of the generations which have succeeded his own. This is the form in which Burke has chiefly received his honours, and exercised his authority.1
The art of speaking and of writing in that grand old style, of which Burke was so great a master, is now wellnigh unknown. As in the case of the English dramatists, and of the Italian painters, it is the fault of a broken tradition, of a forgotten training, and of changed habits of life. That which was once the treasure of the few has somewhat suffered in the general diffusion. Arts appear to languish in an atmosphere of contagious mediocrity. There is no one to teach, either by word or by example, the perfect design of Correggio, or the powerful brush-play of Tintoret. When we glance over the treasures of those great English masters of prose, among whom Burke stands almost last, our hearts may well sink within us. We have to study as well as we can, and strive to pick up piece by piece the fragments of a lost mystery. It may be said that we have developed qualities which are more real, more enduring, and more valuable. Cuyp and Hals were doubtless greater masters in certain departments of their art than Rubens; and Hallam presents us with a variety of political method which contrasts in many respects advantageously with that of Burke. It is an interesting task to represent faithfully and minutely the features of a distant scene, to magnify it and artificially to approximate it to the eye of the observer, to blend its shadows carefully and easily with a mild and uniform light, to balance the composition without the appearance of artifice, and so nearly to lose and discard the effects of perspective that the picture shall almost assume the proportions of a geometrical elevation. A sense of repose and of completeness mingles perceptibly with our satisfaction at these works half of art, half of antiquarianism. Burke is a Rubens rather than a Cuyp. The objects are distinct and near at hand: the canvas is large, the composition almost coarse in its boldness and strength, and the colours are audaciously contrasted and dashed in with a sort of gallant carelessness. The human face is exaggerated in its proportions, and we attribute more to the[lxx] quick imagination of the artist than to the mere influence of the objects which he proposes to himself to delineate. More than all, however, in the writing of Burke, is the effect due to a certain firm and uniformly large method of manipulation. His thoughts run naturally, as it were, into large type out of the “quick forge and working-house” of his thought. Profound as they are, they never appear as the forced and unmellowed fruit of study. Objective as they are, they come nearer to the lively impress of the man who thinks, than to the mere portraiture of the thing he is contemplating. We feel that we are in the presence of une âme à double et triple étage. Such is, in great measure, the general characteristic of what De Quincey has denominated the Literature of Power, the stimulating, fructifying, and if its seed should fall on a fit soil, the self-reproducing. On looking at a picture of Velasquez, said Northcote, you almost lose the powerlessness of the undisciplined and unassisted hand. “You feel as if you could take up the brush and do anything.” It is in like wise with the fine living and speaking performances of Cicero and Burke, of Virgil and Dryden. It is in writers such as these that we find the self-continuing impulse, the lost power of school and tradition, the communication of a precious secret, the touch of the coal from off the altar. But as in the case of a rapidly-touched work of a great painter, we see the genius, though we trace little or nothing of the intellectual and manual toil which has developed it. Let it never be forgotten that the greatest masters have been the most patient, anxious, and assiduous students, and he who aspires to be of their number must be prepared to accept the conditions. The nature and extent of the studies of Cicero and Burke can only be adequately estimated from their writings. They aimed at a close contact with realities, at uniting in themselves literature, philosophy, and a high standard of practical life, at facilitating this happy combination in others, and at justifying their position as statesmen by being the wisest as well as the cleverest men of their day. The conception of such aims is rarely found with power of mind and body to accomplish them, nevertheless; “So toil the workmen that repair a world.”
March 11, 1875.
In the Introduction to the previous volume was inserted an inscription, written by Dr. Parr, intended for a national monument to Burke. It may be interesting to add here the equally masterly one inserted by Parr in the Dedication to his edition of Bellendenus.
- edmundo . burke
- viro . tum . ob . doctrinam . multiplicem . et . exquisitam
- tum . ob . celeres . illos . ingenii . motus
- qui . et . ad . excogitandum . acuti . et . ad . explicandum
- ornandumque . uberes . sunt
- eximio . ac . praeclaro
- optime . de . litteris . quas . solas . esse . omnium . temporum
- omniumque . locorum . expertus . vidit
- optime . de . senatu . cujus . periclitantis
- ipse . decus . et . columen . fuit
- optime . de . patria . in . cives
- sui . amantissimos . eheu . ingrata
- nunquam . non . promerito
- librum . huncce . ea . qua . par . est . observantia
[1.]So Macaulay has styled Burke.
[1.]Shakespeare, King John, Act II.
[1.]See vol. i. Introduction, p. 21.
[1.]In one or two recent instances a claim to sit by tenure has been advanced and rejected.
[1.]Hooker, Book i. ch. 10; Grotius, Book i. c. 3. § 8. par. 2, &c.
[1.]Dedication of Philotas.
[1.]Essays, vol. i. p. 134.
[1.]Burke himself quotes “our political poet” Denham (p. 216).
[1.]See note, p. 367.
[2.]Tracts by Warburton and a Warburtonian, p. 99.
[1.]In an interesting breakfast-conversation with Burke, a year or two before the Revolution, detailed in an anonymous “Beauties of Burke,” 2 vols. 1798. The quotation is from Book v. ch. 69.
[1.]“Société,” meaning both society and partnership (pp. 192–93).
[1.]Prelude, Book v.
[2.]In the opinion that France possessed all the elements of a good constitution, which only required to be cleared of rust and obstructions and put in working condition, Burke erred with many intelligent and patriotic Frenchmen. We can now see that such was not the case, and further that France was not at that time in a condition to adopt any political system of the kind which was then meant by the term constitutional. The boasted English constitution of Burke’s time was a notorious sham. It has now been exploded; England, as every one knows, is a democracy ruled by the delegates of the Commons. But it was that very pasteboard show of interdependent powers which was fast losing its credit in England, which Burke wished to see imitated in France. Montesquieu was more clear-sighted. Intensely as he affected to admire the political system of England, his doctrine was that France ought to be left alone. “Leave us as we are,” is the constant theme of that hypothetical speaker by whom Montesquieu (De l’Esprit des Lois, Liv. xix. ch. 5–8) expresses his own opinions. “Nature compensates for everything.” Many smiled contemptuously when they heard people talk of liberty and a constitution. Montesquieu had said that a free nation only could have a liberator, an enslaved nation could only have another oppressor. He little knew the terrible awakening which was reserved for the French nation: but he was probably right in counselling that such an awakening should not be anticipated by a false political reformation. The reform which France wanted was a social one: the need penetrated to the very roots of the nation’s life. The selfishness and cruelty of whole classes had to be exorcised: a slumbering nation had to be aroused to a sense of political duty. It is hard in the present day to imagine how completely public spirit had vanished from the mass of the French nation, and how utterly void the French were at that time of political knowledge or experience. Turgot was as solitary a being in France as if his lot had been cast in the Sandwich islands. Except a few men of the type of Sieyes, probably few French politicians cared for politics otherwise than as an amusement, or a path to distinction. The Frenchman was repelled by what Burke calls the “severe brow of moral freedom.” Voltaire at Ferney looked on the political affairs of Geneva merely as a matter for satire and ridicule. “It is impossible,” said a Frenchman to Groenfelt, in 1789, “for a Frenchman to be serious: we must amuse ourselves, and in pursuit of our amusements we continually change our object, but those very changes prove us always the same. . . . Our nation is naturally gay. Political liberty requires a degree of seriousness, which is not in our character: we shall soon grow sick of politics.” (Letters on the Revolution, p. 4.) This gay incuriosity is still the characteristic of the vast majority; and hence France has ever since been, though in a diminishing degree, the prey of petty and interested factions.
[2.]That of his schoolfellow Shackleton.
[3.]Pages 176, 232.
[1.]Biog. Lit. ch. x: Friend, Sect. i. Ess. 4.
[1.]Cp. vol. i. p. 248, l. 33.
[1.]Bristle, in his dialogue with Sir Edward Courtly, describes the old practice in less plausible terms: “I think, Sir, that it’s very civil of you to come and spend fifteen hundred or two thousand pounds, besides being obliged to keep company with a parcel of dirty, drunken, ill-mannered fellows for two or three months together, without any other design but serving your country.” The Craftsman, No. 58. “Drunkenness, rioting, and insolence, on the one side, abject flattery, cringing and preposterous adulation on the other,” was the true meaning of the “little arts and devices of popularity.”
[2.]Memoir of Burke, vol. i. p. 292.
[1.]Correspondence of Burke, vol. iii. p. 164.
[1.]Bacon records this as a repartee of Queen Elizabeth to an insolent courtier. She sarcastically added—“but it keeps them poor.”
[2.]Shakespeare, Sonnet xxiii.
[3.]For this paragraph, for that which commences at the tenth line of page 78, and for many of the Notes at the end of the volume, the Editor is indebted to the accomplished pen of John Frederick Boyes, Esq. It may be added that Burke was deeply offended at the neglect his views from the first met with in the English political world. “Pique,” says Sir G. Savile, in a letter to the Marquis of Rockingham, “is one of the strongest motives in the human mind. Fear is strong, but transient. Interest is more lasting, perhaps, and steady, but infinitely weaker; I will ever back pique against them both. It is the spur the Devil rides the noblest tempers with, and will do more work with them in a week, than with other poor jades in a twelve-month.”
[1.]In a debate after the riots of 1780, Burke adverted to his early education at the school of Mr. Shackleton. “Under his eye I have read the Bible, morning, noon, and night, and have ever since been the happier and better man for such reading. I afterwards turned my attention to the reading of all the theological publications on all sides, which were written with such wonderful ability in the last and present centuries. But, finding at length that such studies tended to confound and bewilder rather than enlighten, I dropped them, embracing and holding fast a firm faith in the Church of England.”
[1.]See note, p. 369.
[1.]The substantive “cement,” by the way, unlike the verb “to cement,” should be accented on the first syllable. This trifle is essential to the harmony of more than one of Burke’s sentences. See vol. i. p. 287.
[2.]Croly, Memoir of Burke, vol. ii. p. 134.
[1.]The connexion, however, is rather conventional. There was little in common between Burke and De Bonald, who recommended despotism as the primitive and normal form of legislation, and objected to toleration.
[2.]“Ueber die Staats-wissenschaft, von Friedrich Ancillon. Berlin, 1820.” Political theory, like everything else, has its uses as well as its abuses. “The successful progress of reforms depends in a great measure on the political maxims which prevail among governors and governed, and on the advances of political science. False doctrines lead to erratic wishes, destructive misconceptions, and dangerous misinterpretations. Theory must combat and clear away the errors of theories, indicate the general direction of the right way, and establish the true goal; it will thus be easier for practical politics, conducted by experience, to construct every portion of the road with a sure hand and firm footsteps.” Ancillon, Preface, p. xxxi.
[1.]It would be unjust to pass over the name of Mathias, the author of the “Pursuits of Literature,” a clever satire, illustrated with instructive and amusing original notes. No one should omit to read it who would comprehend the direct effect of Burke on his own generation. At this distance of time, however, we do not tolerate idle panegyrics. Johnson once said, somewhat pettishly, “Where is all the wonder? Burke is, to be sure, a man of uncommon abilities; with a great quantity of matter in his mind, and a great fluency of language in his mouth; but we are not to be stunned and astonished by him!” Boswell, ed. Croker, p. 681.
[1.]See footnote, p. 68, ante.