Burke’s Reflections: Institutions, Progress, and Practical Fools

burkeIn the Reflections on the Revolution in France[1] (1790), Edmund Burke scorns the “philosophy of this enlightened age”, which, alongside his defence of French hierarchical institutions, led to criticism from his contemporaries that his thinking was reactionary.[2] Yet, as we shall see, Burke criticizes the revolutionary philosophers’ metaphysical abstractions and not what is presently associated with Enlightenment ideals, such as progress, science or liberty. Compared to Rousseau, whose views on absolute freedom from social institutions fuelled the French revolution, Burke is considerably more devoted to a modernity rationale. Nonetheless, his political adversaries disputed his commitment to social progress, at the expense of fortifying established privileges. Thomas Paine, a strong advocate for the French revolution, criticized the Reflections for being a “pathless wilderness (…) in which [Burke] asserts whatever he pleases, on the presumptions of it being believed, without offering either evidence or reason for doing so.”[3] Conceivably, the pathless wilderness is an allusion to Burke’s reactionary thinking, to which Paine asserts, “Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and privileges of the living”.[4]

Criticism upon the publication of the Reflections has undoubtedly influenced subsequent critics and readers. Notably, there is a prevalent notion that Burke wanted to preserve institutions, manners, and customs as a form of historical loyalism. For example, historian John Whale maintains that Burke’s “greatest legacy for conservative thinkers has been the argument for the political wisdom inherent in history”.[5] Arguably, however, Burke opposed the revolution precisely because he saw it as a threat to civilization’s progress. This paper, then, explores the basis for Burke’s defence of established institutions, in conjunction with how he esteems history. History was to Burke just as potentially destructive as any anti-empirical abstraction, “licentious philosophy”, which the passages discussed below demonstrates. Burke’s passionate defence of the contested French political and religious elites is hence also instrumental, and not as a lingering pledge to the past. Burke rhetorically connects the nascent Enlightenment philosophy with a speculative radicalism, which he saw as a threat to human flourishing because it was not rooted in the existing culture. Civilization and social order, to Burke, is a prerequisite of his political aim of preserving and advancing real freedom and human happiness.

This essay focuses on Burke’s ideas on social progress, though it occasionally compares these passages with the Reflection’s main ideas. Burke defence of the French social hierarchy – notably the monarchy, nobility, and clergy – reflects profounder philosophical ideas beyond a criticism of the French revolution. The Reflections was written as a retorting letter to a young Frenchman, but with an intended British bourgeois audience and, specifically, Burke’s fellow political class in mind. Its principles on human nature, history’s potential for delusions, and the invariable need for social authority were equally relevant to Burke’s contemporary Britain. Precisely because the Reflections’ ideas are widely applicable to social events across periods, there is a persistent potential of interpreting the text through contemporary intellectual prisms instead of contextualizing Burke’s thinking. Still, the Reflections’ central ideas have endured in spite of industrialization and radical shift in social hierarchies, and hence impacted Western philosophy and political events to the present day.

The Reflections was published a mere fourteen months after the storming of the Bastille, and well before the ensuing terror. It has become Burke’s most famous text precisely because of its inadvertent forecast that mass uprising likely would result in violent breakdown of the social order. As a Whig Party Member of Parliament, Burke chose, unexpectedly for many of his political associates, to propagate a position that granted little tolerance for revolutions under most societal circumstances. Thus he sided with a minority in his own party and the mainly conservative statesmen in the dispute over the legitimacy of the French revolution. However, Burke was initially positive to the revolutionary outbreaks in Paris.[6] It was after learning about the revolution’s seemingly uncontrolled direction, particularly church and property purging and the exile of the Monarch family from Versailles to Paris, that he became deeply critical of its prospects.[7]

Hence, Burke was not opposed to revolutions on principle. On the contrary, the “Glorious Revolution” was largely a self-identified foundation for his political thinking. Its fruitful outcome for British material and cultural progression is proclaimed intermittently in the Reflections. Burke’s fellow Whigs, who shared this ideological basis[8], frequently argued that the French uprising mirrored their own Glorious Revolution; hence, by insisting on the differences between these revolutionary events, Burke is contesting this assessment. Only decadent rulers, according to Burke, can justify political mass uprisings. Burke’s comparisons are a means of turning the revolutionary mirror on the British aristocracy. The revolution was not an expression of reason, but a dreadful result of a “despotic democracy” signifying a triumph “over the principles of a British constitution.” Burke’s observation that French nobility is less elitist in their approach to the lower classes than their British counterparts is a criticism of the notion that the revolution was merely a result of France’s immobile hierarchy. Relatedly, by arguing that the revolution was not essentially about the Monarch’s transgressions, Burke concurrently implies that such an uprising could occur in Britain.

A country in which the “population flourishes and is in progressive improvement”, as Burke judged France, could not be ruled under “a very mischievous government”. Contemporary students of the French Revolution might detest that late eighteenth century France was flourishing. Yet France, alongside England, was among Europe’s most advanced states at the time of its revolution. Burke’s assessment of France as “second to none” besides Britain itself was not misguided by his standards. Burke supported his views on France with its healthy population growth, among other “facts”, which corresponds with his allegory of nations undergoing a delicate maturing process similar to humans. Anything that might diminish this process is not only contrary to human nature, but also to the nature of society.

In contrast to Burke’s intertwined society, Jean Paul Marat, chief revolutionary propagandist, viewed French society as riddled with conflict. His writings illustrate the extent to which many French revolutionaries regarded the highest authorities as their focal adversaries; the elites were the “enemies of liberty” solely responsible for all the “evils that afflict our Fatherland.”[9] Well before he began publishing L’Ami du peuple, Marat formulated his “aristocratic plot” suppressing the population in his widely influential book Les chaînes de l’esclavage.[10] This thinking impeccably corresponds with Rousseau’s views that man’s nature is being corrupted by artificial social constructs. According to Rousseau, whose popular discourses were widely read in England, “most of our ills are of our own making”, and “we might have avoided nearly all of them if only we had adhered to (…) the way of life that nature ordained for us.”[11] The idea of a chained humanity was foundational for the revolutionary agitation. In order to undermine the basis of the revolution, it follows that Burke would defend the prime targets of the revolution, the monarchy, nobility, and clergy, against pervasive allegations.

Significantly, Burke’s support of the French ruling hierarchy is above all a means of demonstrating the interdependence between individuals and their institutions, and thus protecting the social order. A main basis for Burke’s scepticism of revolutions is the notion that “the causes of evil are permanent”. This assessment of an indispensible human nature is the backbone of Burke’s binary between the causes of evils and its pretexts. To Burke, the historical causes of social misery are man’s vices, such as lust, revenge and hypocrisy. These vices are merely expressed in institutions, such as in the aristocracy, just as they are revealed in people’s failure to uphold liberties, rights, morals, and laws. Hence, institutions can only be changed by cultural and self-improvement, not by “rooting out” the “occasional organs by which [human vices] act”. Otherwise, they will merely be “renovated in its new organ.” This view on human nature fundamentally differs from the revolutionaries’ radical ideas, expressed in Marat and Rousseau, where institutions suppressed human nature, which may change in accordance with a transformation of the institutions.

The revolutionaries merely justified the uprisings on theoretical systems detached from cultural realities and wisdom; hence, their aim is motivated by destructive purposes. Curiously, to Burke, such theoretical systems included history itself. People do not only fail to “draw the moral lessons we might from history”, without empirical considerations, history could be “used to vitiate our minds and to destroy our happiness.” Burke’s illustration here is equally relevant to British politics. By evoking history, Frenchmen and Englishmen could both claim to be “mutually justified in this exterminatory war upon each other”, grounded in each other’s unjust invasions. Burke applies this allegory to describe the moral fallacy of the revolutionaries themselves, who pervert history in order to justify plunders and religious persecutions. He compares their actions with the St. Bartholomew massacre, which Frenchmen were “brought up to abhor”. Similar to how this event was realized by the incitement of the masses’ “cannibal appetites”, Burke sees “no difference” with contemporary revolutionaries, who have the “glory of being the “murderers of the eighteenth” century.

Burke’s view of history as a source for social evils above a source of social order differs from what many contemporary readers associate with Burke. History, however, can be a source of good, but it is always a futile source for wisdom if it is not grounded in experience and reason. As a sure criticism of the “philosophy of this enlightened age”, Burke deems advocates of eradicating institutions in order to cure their evils to be “historically wise, but a fool in practice.” A society is, according to Burke, not a theoretical artefact, but a long cultural state of development affecting each person within the given society. The individual cannot separate himself from society any more than he can separate from himself. To Burke, then, it appears that the spirit of the people embodies the cultural institutions, reflecting both their good and evil. Revolutionary uprisings against the social hierarchy, then, create a void for human vices to exploit.

Hence, while the French revolutionaries seek to unchain the masses in the spirit of Rousseau, Burke sees such mass unleashing as a danger to civilization itself. Accordingly, Burke accuses the revolutionaries of being motivated by human vices under the “fraudulent pretexts” of ideals such as reason, liberty and rights. The latter pretext was surely a denunciation of the “The Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizens”, passed by the French Assembly in august 1789. It was instantly regarded as a fundamental revolutionary document, yet Burke conceivably saw it as a false justification for the masses’ vile outburst. According to historian François Furet, the Rights of Man signified a “radical individualism” that “destroyed aristocratic society from top to bottom”.[12] Importantly, however, Burke does not condemn the principles on human freedom advocated by the revolutionaries, or its products, such as the Rights of Man, only their fraudulent pretexts.

Arguably, Burke is not directing his criticism against the enlightenment goal of many of his fellow party members, which was shared by many French revolutionaries, but for neglecting the intricacy between individuals and society in pursuing their philosophical aims. Institutions, including the French aristocracy, are merely names signifying something deeper. That is, “a certain quantum of power” which “must always exists in the community in some hands”. By claiming that citizens must improve the “vices and not the names”, Burke simultaneously recognizes that there is no God-given order determining the natural positions. Burke does not express that a particular social hierarchy is legitimate by merit of its own position, but rather because it is a means of fulfilling necessary functions for civilization’s development. Ultimately, these historical roots must be cultivated and not destroyed.

An absolute monarchy is therefore illegitimate because of its inherent risk of doing “much evil”. However, the revolutionaries embellish the alleged despotism of Louis XVI, which exists in “appearance rather than in reality”. Monarchy, just as the nobility at large, is also a vital institutional “corrective” against ensuing evil. Its power protects the goods in society, such as “agriculture,” “science”, “laws,” and “religion;” in essence, it is the foundation of civilization, which Burke recurrently called “the Nature of Things”. Social hierarchy, then, is necessary for progress, but it depends on a gradualist approach. He applies this gradualist optimism to France where “the absolute monarchy was at an end (…) without struggle, without convulsion”. Burke’s furthers his conviction in the rational evolution of governance when he notes that there were not any abuses in France’s political institutions “which could not be removed by reform very short of abolition.”

Burke does not attribute France’s progress to the “deposed government”, but to the “habits of industry among the people”. Nonetheless, he maintains that the various “facts”, presented on French society and authority, undermine all sincerity of the revolutionaries’ professed ideology. His argument for the civilizing effects of legitimate authority as opposed to “despotic democracy” is characteristically enforced by rhetorical hyperboles. In his appraisal of the social order of pre-revolutionary France, Burke claimed that the “complete perfection the culture” was the reason for why “many of the best productions of the earth have been brought in France.” However, a year into the revolutionary outbreak, Burke already sees “a shocking and disgusting spectacle of mendicancy displayed in that capital.” Correspondingly, the French revolutionaries are “intoxicated with admiration at their own wisdom and ability,” claiming to represent a “nation of philosophers”, which to Burke equals anti-empirical imprudence. In contrast, therefore, his defence of the French social elites can at times appear categorical.

Nonetheless, Burke firmly acknowledges structural faults in the economic and social life in France that contributed to the uprisings. He is sympathetic to the notion that French nobility had decayed since the days of Henry the Fourth. Burke concedes that the lack of mobility within the French political nobility facilitated the revolution. It is difficult not to read these passages as a direct reference to his political background, and a defence of the hierarchal system that also served an outsider, like himself, well. As one of few “new men” in the British parliament, Burke frequently expressed pride in that his position was due to personal merits.[13] Correspondingly, and somewhat paradoxically, Burke’s perception that wealth and power in France was not distributed “equally with that of other nobility” appears to be at least a recognition of Rousseau’s radical egalitarian ideas: “The extreme inequality of our ways of life, the excess of idleness among some and the excess of toil among others (…) are the fatal proofs that most of our ills are of our own making, and that we might have avoided nearly all of them.”[14]

Yet Burke’s plea for mobility can primarily be understood as a precondition of progress. For example, he advocated a laissez-faire approach against the new legislators’ for their “imposition of a new tax to maintain the poor”; instead, “a brave people will certainly prefer liberty accompanied with a virtuous poverty, to a depraved and wealthy servitude”. Again, Burke enhances the principle that a country is collectively interdependent instead of an aggregate of individual rights or even privileges, which differentiate him from the radical Enlightenment individualists and indeed contemporary conservative market proponents.[15] Moreover, Burke’s elitism is simultaneously anti-elitist, in that he strongly limits philosophers and statesmen’s “intoxicated” faith in their ability to alter the course of history. Burke’s plea to a brave people is thus an appeal to reason over rash social experiments. Indeed, the foremost philosophers when Burke penned the Reflections were the Jacobin Club. Led by Maximilien de Robespierre, they would later become the central force in tearing down France social fabric in a desperate endeavour to reshape humanity.

In order to understand Burke’s views on the French revolution it is important to bear in mind that he battled several fronts; notably, the revolutionary spirit of Rousseau, embodied in Marat and the Jacobins, and against liberal intellectuals in his own party and across to the New World. Burke was right that the emergent enlightenment represented a decisive intellectual shift against tradition. An effective criticism against Burke, then, was to frame him as stuck in the past. To Burke, however, there appears to be no “inherent wisdom” in history. His negative argument in favour of social authority is indicative of his harmonizing rationalistic, though gradualist, view of progress. He is indeed opposed to what he considers radical enlightenment philosophers because of their confidence in their potential to change society by contesting its institutions, hierarchy, and cultural order, and not because he was against liberal enlightenment principles. Hence, Burke’s political aim was not to defend the privileges of French aristocracy, but  to protect the vulnerable social fabric of society. For Burke, historical institutions are the means of achieving progress; they must therefore evolve in accordance with the development of their times, but they can never bypass their cultural context.


[1] The pages quoted from Burke’s Reflections are mostly 127-44. I removed the cited pages for the sake of this format, but I can provide them upon request.

[2] Burke’s Appeal from the New to the Old Whig was written a year after the revolution from a marginalized position in his party precisely because of the Reflections’ stark criticism by pro-revolutionary Whigs, particularly Brinsley Sheridan and James Fox. Even old political friends and allies such as Phillip Francis eventually condemned the work (See Correspondence of Edmund Burke 1744-97, pages 128, and 163-4 and 168)

[3] Paine, Rights of Man, 46. Paine exemplifies Enlightenment principles in his defence of the Revolution’s natural rights and progress.

[4] Ibid, 12.

[5] Whale, “Introduction”, 3. However, this assertion is also present in contemporary progressive critique of Burke, as an example, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burk to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin.

[6] Burke, Correspondence VI, 9. In an ambivalent letter to James Caulfield in 1789, Burke called it a ”wonderful spectacle”.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Chapman, Edmund Burke, 76.

[9] Mason and Rizzo, The French Revolution, 203.

[10] Hammersley, Jean-Paul Marat’s “The Chains of Slavery”, 658.

[11] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 12.

[12] Furet and Ozouf, A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 112.

[13] Lock, Burke’s Reflections, 2.

[14] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 18.

[15] The most prominent example being Thatcher ”There is no such thing society”, who also listed Burke as one of her great inspirations.


Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Edited by L.G. Mitchell. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999.

Burke, Edmund. Correspondence of Edmund Burke VI. Edited by Robert A. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Burke, Edmund. The Works and Correspondence of Edmund Burke 1729-1797. Edited by Charles William, Earl Fitzwilliam. London: F. & J. Rivington, 1852.

Chapman, W. Gerald. Edmund Burke. Massachusetts: Harvard University, 1967.

Furet, François (ed.) and Mona Ozouf (ed.) A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Hammersley, Rachel. ”Jean-Paul Marat’s ‘The Chains of Slavery’ in Britain and France,

1774-1833.” The Historical Journal, Vol. 48, No. 3, pages 641-660. Cambridge University Press (Sep., 2005). https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/4091717.pdf

Lock, Frederick Peter. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Winchester: Allen and Unwin, 1985.

Mason, Laura and Tracey Rizzo. The French Revolution: a document collection. Edited by Laura Mason. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Paine, Thomas. Rights of Man. New York: Dover Publication, 1999.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992.

Whale, John. “Introduction” in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. New interdisciplinary essays. Edited by John Whale. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.

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