Discussion: Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France

In his work Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke presents us with a theory of society that is vastly different than that of other modern thinkers both in its original assumptions about human nature and its picture of society as a whole. Whereas Hobbes and Smith created their theories of society 'scientifically' by studying the behavior of individuals and extrapolating their findings to create a vision of human society, Burke starts with far different assumptions. He sees society as something more organic than the mechanistic models proposed by other thinkers; to him, "the nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and, therefore, no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature or the quality of his affairs" (54). Burke's view of society as a 'living' thing rather than a simple machine causes him to come to different conclusions than earlier thinkers. Burke rejects the ideals of individualistic 'natural rights' in favor of a society that is united by mutual loyalty and tradition. While Burke's vision does not reject the idea of change, he feels that any lasting change must be accomplished within this social framework and gradually arrived at. Burke's critique of mechanistic social theory and its embodiment in the French Revolution brings up important issues about humans and their relationship with the societies in which they live.

Burke's view of social order stands in direct contrast to Hobbes and Smith, who viewed society as a 'machine' which operated on the basis of individual self-interest. Burke criticizes the views of individuals who insist on these theories, as "this sort of people are so taken up winth their theories about the rights of man that they have totally forgotten his nature. Without opening one new avenue to the understanding, they have succeeded in stopping up those that lead to the heart" (56). In his view, people are more than autonomous, self-interested beings; they have non-rational motives for behavior. The motives of any individual are shaped by immersion in a community and the development of loyalty more than by simple calculation. People in society are thus "men of untaught feelings, that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a considerable degree . . . because they are prejudices" (76). By noting human motivations that vary from ones of self-interest, Burke undermines earlier theories of society.

Because of his view of human society as an organic entity, Burke reaches different conclusions for how society ought to be run than other social thinkers or the Revolutionaries. Burke stresses a practical model, in which continuity is stresses and change must take place gradually and through traditional means. As existing societies have come about as "the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it" (29), members must be careful to preserve the vitality of the society. Whereas the Revolutionaries might see society as a machine that could be easily improved through the application of reason, Burke would see it as an organism, in which one would have to reform with respect to the organism in order to keep it from dying. This requires that there be traditions and authority as well as concrete social attachment to hold society together and allow its members to revere it, thus preventing dangerous overhauls of the social order. It is in this spirit that Burke laments the 'death' of chivalry, noting that its "pleasing illusions . . . made power gentle and obedience liberal . . . harmonized the different shades of life" (67). The emotional connection that is inherent in institutions such as chivalry strengthens the social fabric and prevents a chaotic, Hobbesian society from emerging. "The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and none but bad men would justify it in abuse" (41). Significantly, it is this traditional order, and not abstract theory, in which individuals are able to gain their rights; Burke observes that "it has been ther uniform policy of [the British] constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers" (29).

Burke's challenge to the figures that promoted a society based on natural rights and pursuit of self-interest is significant in the fact that it brings up human motivations that were previously ignored by modern theory. Burke's contention that society cannot be examined simply by looking at individual self-interest is a significant one that must be considered when looking at others' pictures of society. By exposing another range of human motivation, Burke forces us to reexamine our own assumptions about society and how it works.

Go back to my main page.