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Conservatism is defined as a philosophy that upholds tradition, looking to the past for future choices. Romanticism, on the other hand, centers on the improvement of the human condition, emphasizing self-awareness and feeling and often has spiritual connotations.

A History of Ideology

During the French Revolution in the late 1700s, the monarchy and feudalism were challenged by so-called democratic rebels as unnecessary and parasitic establishments. In the attempt to establish a democratic state, King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were beheaded, the Reign of  Terror claimed civilian lives, and soon Napoleon emerged as an emperor of France. These developments were unsettling in the Western world, and Edmund Burke was one voice condemning French revolutionaries. Burke’s 1790 essay, Reflections on the Revolution in  France, is a scathing critique of the French pull from conservatism, an essay which contends that valid law must both be inspired by human nature and not change established ways of life, but in all its conservatism the essay’s basis rests upon Romanticism’s ideals.  

Arguing against Burke’s Conservatism views

How can a law that serves people stay the same if popular thought is prone to change? 

Burke begins his essay by lamenting over the French cause as simplistic and idealistic, these two attributes serving as the basis for the failures of the revolution. He writes:

Circumstances …  give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect … Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed among the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman … on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty?

Burke argues that liberty is not worth fighting for if it is followed by social unrest.  Liberty is better off being abandoned for the sake of social stability, even when people are subjects to absolute monarchs and feudal societies.

King Louis XVI was an unpopular monarch for his reckless spending and lavish lifestyle as the poor in France suffered, but Burke disagrees that the poor should have fought for the abolition of the monarchy, and his argument is solely based on the descent into chaos that France experienced.

Burke’s argument is hard to swallow when thinking about the socioeconomic divide the poor were suffering under at that time, but  Burke understood the effects of unsanctioned power at the hands of those claiming to represent the masses. It is conceivable that Burke would have supported the French Revolution only if a less radical change had been enacted, within existing institutions, to support instead of subjugating the masses. Asa Burke also said :

I should, therefore, suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, … with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion … with peace and order  …

Burke believed that revolution bears no fruit, but the preservation of social norms proves less destructive but more powerful. Conservatism can be easily defined as the preservation of social norms, therefore Burke advocates for a conservative approach to the  French question of- Monarchy or no monarchy.

Burke’s Argument for Conservatism

 Burke also argues that conservatism is most suitable for society because lessons from past experience hold more bearing than theories merely tested.

The French Revolution was really a revolution of thought, where the establishment was cast aside by the claim that the French masses were taking power, which was at first an attractive development. Burke, on the contrary, writes that people’s rights are inherited from a wisdom that has been ever-present in human history, not a sudden philosophical awakening. Burke contended:

You will observe that from Magna Carta to the  Declaration of Rights it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity … We have an inheritable crown … and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.

Burke clearly states the validity of law rests on the laws and work of forefathers who have already discovered the best method of governing society.  Their institutions are viable enough to be passed down through generations, therefore there is no sufficient explanation for leaving these institutionalized ways of life to the wind.

This sounds as though Burke is arguing that the nature of man is the most important factor in society because human nature is widely regarded as immutable.

Burke believes that law must consider human nature and serve it in a way that humanity can satisfy its general wants and needs, while each individual is free to follow his or her own path; whilst the general peace remains unthreatened. This societal contract is the most successful out of all forms of government seen throughout history, according to Burke. Therefore, he intends to put conservatism in the light of using past experiences and taking what has worked for centuries.

If the monarchy has stood firm throughout history, then it must possess qualities that contribute to its resilience, and surely bringing it down altogether would only be counterproductive in stabilising society.

Burke advocates for the improvement of the establishment as he recognizes that many things do change as time passes, such as population, distribution of wealth, and other socioeconomic patterns. Burke wanted the French to retain their monarchy, but change certain aspects of it that were not serving the people well. 

Burke contends that the nature of man is the driving motive behind the creation and enforcement of laws, a Romantic theory in many aspects.

An arguement for Romanticism

Romanticism as a philosophy advocates for improving the human condition and, as an individual, being aware of oneself.

Burke writes in his reflections, that the French cannot change the condition of their society in such a short span of time. Awareness of the monarchical and feudal traditions is, per Burke, the key to solving the problems of government and liberty. Burke advocates that the French keeps to tradition as that is who they are as people, an argument akin to Romanticism’s idea that people must be cognizant of themselves.

Burke believes that the French Revolution would have been more successful had the French paid attention to the immediate problems of their human condition such as the effects of hunger and high taxes, rather than killing a king and queen. Yes,  King Louis XVI’s careless spending negatively affected France as a whole, but killing him and  Marie Antoinette proved ineffective since the French people still experienced other totalitarian powers following the monarchy’s collapse.

An introspective look at this part of French society would have made them realize that the monarchy was a big part of how the country was run, and only minor changes would have been sufficient to fix the superficial mistakes of King Louis  XVI. Both kings and peasants are greedy for power because greed is part of human nature. The  French’s inability to understand this places the revolution in the face of Burke’s ire, and so it is plausible that Burke would have preferred a more romantic introspective approach to the French  Revolution.  

Burke has a Romantic proclivity to use spiritual implications when arguing for what he believes is a conservative society. He writes:

Each contract of each particular state is but a  clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures,  connecting the visible and invisible world, … sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, …

In this, Burke is saying that people’s morals and the society built upon them stem from some invisible, higher authority. Invoking the idea of the  ‘invisible world’ from which human nature draws is quite Romantic because it echoes the abstract idea of some spiritual authority.

Burke implies that there is some higher power that keeps people in check, and going against it will only mean the destruction of an orderly society.

God is perhaps being invoked here, even if not explicitly, and this does seem to be a good argument because nobody can argue with the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, and monarchies have used  God as the uncontestable reason for their power. Burke must be aware of this, and therefore he is using the same argument to uphold the supremacy of the law, another gesture of his inclination towards traditional argument.  

Final thoughts…

Edmund Burke makes great points in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France because he combines conservatism and romanticism in a pragmatic way. Burke correctly purports that the French Revolution was flawed because French society failed to understand the implications of their political situation, and how they could improve their socioeconomic condition. Instead, the French exacted anger outward toward the monarchy, which was the cause’s downfall.

Burke realistically suggests that these institutions, like the monarchy, must be altered with time to meet the people’s needs but their bases must be preserved. He provides justification for this argument by basing it on the Romantic idea that human nature cannot change as it is supplied by some higher power. Common human nature, therefore, to Burke, is most important when contemplating how society evolves, which means that any social change should not be radical. This perspective is rational because the change that comes with time and constant human nature must be balanced to maintain a good society.

Published by Althea Chokwe

Masters student currently in England | Native New Yorker

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