Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France

Reflections on the Revolution in France was written by Edmund Burke in the form of a letter penned to a family friend, regarding his thoughts on the recent French Revolution, and was published in 1790. Reflections on the Revolution in France has great significance to a modern-day political ideology, in this case classical and modern conservatism. Burke’s letter takes a scathing tone, criticizing several points of the Revolution and giving his own beliefs regarding what should have happened. Burke explores several key themes within his work, each used to justify his negative view on the French Revolution – three of which will be covered here.

First, Burke refers to the nature of government – he believes that rulers (or governments) should not be placed into power by the people, and he instead supports the older system of hereditary monarchy. He claims to support monarchies due to the basis in tradition, and this emphasis on tradition is a major theme throughout his work, and one that many of his other ideas are based upon. Burke draws upon the historical idea of the Divine Right of Kings6 here, as he refers to England’s monarchy and puts forth the view that people are in positions of power because God wants them there.

He also refers back to England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution. After the Glorious Revolution, the new Declaration of Rights granted power to parliament, but also reinforced that the people could not choose their king – providing the “tradition” that Burke argues society should follow. Burke argues that the presence of a monarch grants much-needed stability to society, and thus he believes that England’s governmental system is far superior to post-Revolution France’s.

Burke’s next major theme is freedom – the idea that people are free to live life as they choose to, without the unjust influence of their government. Burke acknowledges that the French Revolution’s goal was to achieve freedom, and he also supports it as an idea. However, where he differs is on how freedom should and could actually be attained, claiming that the Revolution was misguided in its efforts. He puts forth the argument that freedom is not seized in one action but rather comes naturally over time, through traditions that are passed through generations – once again repeating the first theme of tradition.

An example is how the British system slowly gave more power to parliament over time, while the royalty’s absolute power over

commoners diminished. Because the revolutionaries effectively destroyed France’s old traditions, and ended up with a blank slate, Burke argues that they ensured that the freedoms they wanted would be unattainable. The idea of liberty and how it should be attained pervades the entire text, and also ties into the next major theme.

The final significant theme Burke expresses is his distaste for violent revolution. Multiple times in his letter, he refers to the disorder and bloodshed caused by the revolution – from civil to the execution of nobility and royals. In saying this, Burke also expresses his viewpoint that, if the dissatisfied French could have waited and attempted to achieve slower, peaceful change, then the end result would be better for all actors involved. This calls back to the idea he expresses regarding freedom- although he supports the concept, he sees the method as unjust. He once again argues that the French would have been better off trying to restructure the system they had instead of tearing everything down – connecting to both the themes of liberty and the importance of tradition.

Ultimately, the question of Reflections on the Revolution in France’s relevance is a little more complex than Locke’s. In many ways, the ideas he expresses are no longer tenable in many areas – for example, his emphasis on the importance of tradition comes at a time where developing new ideas and casting off the chains of the past is at an all-time high, and his support of monarchs when much of the developed world considers them an outdated, irrelevant institution.

However, one part of Burke’s text that absolutely rings true today is his view on violence. Burke expresses his distaste for violent revolt and supports peaceful change, which couldn’t be more relevant today, as one of the examples of revolution we look to the most was Gandhi’s salt march, one of the most famous peaceful protests in history7. Today, we have peaceful protests opposing regimes and policies in Iran8, among many others – Burke’s idea that violence isn’t the answer is a view adopted by more and more people every day. In the end, although many of Burke’s ideas are outdated and even contrary to modern society, his work is still relevant today.