As Though Burke Saw It Coming

.::. 2-3-2011 .::. written for British Literature II .::. Abigail Morris .::.

+ As Though Burke Saw It Coming

          Richard Price offered praise for the “glorious” revolution of the French. While there are chunks missing from the selection, I feel that it was his misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the civil strife that France was suffering that brought about the angry retaliation of Edmund Burke. It was less than a month after the monarchy had been overthrown when Price wrote his address, but when Burke began working on his response, more than two months of the French drama had been played out and Burke had a deeper understanding of the facts of the revolution. There was no glory of which to speak. Burke had received a full account of the storming of Versailles by the mob of fishmonger wives bent on the utter destruction of the queen and any who had the courage to stand in their path. It seems to have been far beyond his comprehension that any could so hatefully risen against Marie Antoinette. It is very clear that Burke was passionately opposed to regicide and had likely spent a healthy portion of his time studying works by modern thinkers like David Hume’s’ Treatise on Human Nature from 1740 and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract and Discourse on Inequality. Burke would not have been the only person influenced by the works of such philosophers; their works were part of what gave such revolutions as both the American and French validation.

“The first man who had fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

While Rousseau and even Wollstonecraft viewed things like property rights as the equivalent of great evils, Burke seemed to realize them as necessities born into the species as a purely natural state of reason. He wrote that, “all men have equal rights, but not to equal things” and that all men had a “right to justice . . . right to the fruit of their industry . . . and right to the acquisition of their parents” (Burke 154), which seems perfectly reasonable in light of his rather firm belief in inheritance rights. Realistically, the individuals who are the most likely to support a complete and equal sharing of inheritance, wealth and hard work are those who have the least power to change their stars and suffer the greater share of daily physical hardships.

            It is sweet and, based on her own experiences as included in the section about her as an individual, a bit understandable that she would feel so much more deeply for the fishmongers wives than for the King, Queen, the royal children and the long list of nobility, guards, servants, etc. whose higher class blood painted the twelve mile road from Versailles to Paris. Her notion that “true happiness arose from the friendship and intimacy which can only be enjoyed by equals” whose can claim “mutual benefits, founded on respect for justice and humanity” (Wollstonecraft 161) is really very pretty. In a perfect world such fluffy, flowery, pretty ideas would be able to take root and flourish, but we, as a species, had yet—have yet—to present ourselves with such a world of opportunity and equality. Property may well be a “demon” which “encroach[es] on . . . rights . . . with awful pomp laws that war with justice” (Wollstonecraft 160), but such “demons” were often won at a high price to the acquirer, and not just in the form of money. As such, it is perfectly natural for the inheritor to wish to protect and preserve that inheritance which, by way of the natural order of entails and feudal concepts of primogeniture, served not only as a reminder of our human past, but as a promise for our futures. To discard all old ideas, means and methods of a civilization is to invite chaos and the potential for ruin. Burke is quite correct when he claims that “[w]hen antient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us” (Burke 157).

          Truly, it is almost as though Burke had seen the bloody and terrifying path the revolution of France would take far before others like Wollstonecraft. I would continue and launch into the appalling tragedy of the cursed monarchy of France and my own passionate belief that such abominable acts are more fully symbolic of a broken and diseased society than the responders to Price ever had experience of in their native land, but I am already at three pages. I would say that I can better understand Burke’s outrage than Wollstonecraft’s and have certainly taken a position quite similar to his.


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