Edmund Burke’s Critique of the French Revolution

Edmund Burke looms large in the history of political philosophy and the philosophy of critique for a divided legacy of either being the first modern conservative or a very moderate liberal.  Likewise, he offered up one of the first systematic critiques of the French Revolution which began the “Pamphlet Wars” in England which divided the English intelligentsia between pro- and anti-revolution intellectuals.  Rather than engage in the debates of Burke’s conservatism and moderate liberal institutionalism, we will examine three key ideas to Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, the revolutions’: anti-institutionalism, anti-humanism, and anti-property sentiment.  I should also point out these these three key ideas come from the first part of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  I will, as time permits, explore the rest of the text in due time – but it is this first part which is most famous of Burke’s timeless text.

I: First Critique, the Revolution’s Anti-Institutionalism (On Constitutional vs. Revolution Societies)

The beginning of Burke’s critique of the French Revolution begins with his analysis of “Revolution society” and contrasts a revolution society with a “constitutional society.”  This marks the debate between moderate liberals and conservatives as to Burke’s proper placement in political philosophy.  That is, does a defense of institutionalism necessarily mean one is a “conservative.”  What if you are defending liberal institutions, that is, institutions that promote liberal ends rather than conservative ends?  Can one honestly call such a defender of liberal order a conservative?  (Conservatives would say no and liberals would say the same.)  However, we are not going to concern ourselves with this discussion – what we will concern ourselves with is Burke’s analysis of “revolution society” and “constitutional society” and what is entailed in both.

Burke’s constitutional society is a well-ordered society from organic evolution with ancient and longstanding roots; a quintessentially conservative disposition.  A constitutional society is the particularized manifestation of universal truths: such as the right to associate, right to organize government, right to dismiss corrupt rulers, etc.  A constitutional society is a society of laws and “regulated liberty” for without laws and proper regulations no society can be orderly, effective in its composition and conduct, and have the legal means and juridical precedents to maintain itself while also allowing the means of dismissal, improvement, and ingenuity.

One of Burke’s key arguments in favor of organic institutionalism is how institutionalism has a transcendent character to it.  That is, it is larger than the self.  Organic institutionalism is our inheritance.  It is what our ancestors worked and bequeathed to us.  We honor our ancestors in accepting this inheritance.  And we honor our ancestors in improving what they have bequeathed to us.  We do this so as to bequeath to our progeny, children, a future too.  In this manner the chain of history is tied together: past, present, and future are all linked together in the contract between dead, living, and to be born:

This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection, or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection and above reflection. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temperament and limited views. People who never look back to their ancestors will not look forward to posterity. Besides, the people of England know well that the idea of inheritance provides a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement. . . . Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement, held tight for ever. By a constitutional policy that follows the pattern of nature, we receive, hold, and transmit (i) our government and our privileges in the same way as we enjoy and transmit (ii) our property and (iii) our lives.

As Burke so poignantly reflects, a society that looks upon its ancestors with scorn, or doesn’t look upon its ancestors at all, doesn’t concern itself with the future either.  It becomes selfish and self-centered and works only for oneself rather than others.  Atomization results when one becomes self-absorbed and lifts oneself up as the center of the world and of history.

A constitutional society, however imperfect, is something ultimately good and that evolves in progress.  It is good because it has established and worked to improve, the legal traditions, rights, liberties, and traditions which any society’s first principle of organization and development need.  For Burke, the rejection of the organic and constitutional society is not only a rejection of nature, it is a rejection of humanity’s creaturely nature – it makes humans into God as humans believe they can create, from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) the perfect society.

Burke argues that France had its opportunity to transform itself.  As a result of missing this opportunity, however, the “revolution society” is the opposite of an organic and constitutional society.  The impetus of revolution is to destroy.  The goal of an organic and constitutional society is to grow and improve.  As Burke highlights, the revolution overturned laws, ancient customs and traditions, ancient institutions, it attempted to create, from the blank slate, a new man and new society premised on mechanical laws and belief that humans, being machines, could be forced into perfection.  The revolution society has had the unintended consequences of poverty, death, and anarchy.  Not to mention the countless tens of thousands killed in the dream of the revolution’s utopian fantasy.

Was all of this necessary Burke asks us as the defenders of revolution always end up proclaiming – that the end justifies the mean?  Burke soundly answers no!  Burke rejects the utilitarian and, minimally, amoral (to otherwise immoral) impetus of revolutionary thinking.  The bloodshed, Burke argues, was not necessary.  Moreover, Burke argues that the revolution society, and its perpetrators, make a conscious choice of evil, “This unforced choice, this foolish choice of evil, would seem perfectly inexplicable if we didn’t consider the composition of the National Assembly.”

Why is the revolution society evil and chooses evil?  Because Burke agrees with the ancient understanding of evil inherited by Christianity.  Evil is the privation of the good, true, and beautiful, which results from a lack of proper reasoning or understanding of the world (as St. Augustine argued in Confessions).  In choosing destruction and murder, the revolution society consciously chooses the privation of all that is good and beautiful with the deluded belief that utopia is just over the horizon.

The result of the revolution society is the complete and utter destruction of institutions, ancient juridical systems, customs, and traditions, and the overturning of constitutional and organic societies.  We can see Burke providing a dialectical contrast between the two different societal types.  The revolution society chooses destruction, forced creation, overturns laws and institutions, and attempts to forcibly re-create society after this destruction is completed.  For Burke, the driving impetus of the revolution society is destruction.  The constitutional society, by contrast, chooses improvement, inheritance, and growth.  The constitutional society understands its shortcomings and imperfections and tries to build and improve where it has its shortcomings.  The constitutional society, additionally, has built in mechanisms to dismiss corrupt rulers and justices of the peace, ensuring a certain power of the people (like the Magna Carta in England’s specific example) while not being reduced to anarchy and destruction as happens revolution.

Something that all political philosophers know is that, from Burke, organic conservatism changes all the time because it is about growth.  Conservatism grows from seeds and roots, and builds from the existing structures that emerge from these roots.  Conservatism, as Burke knows, changes all the time; it changes because growth is a constant in the world.  The difference between constitution and revolution society is that, in a constitution society, change accrues through organic growth and development.  In a revolution society, change is consummated through terror, tearing down existing systems, abolishing the roots and seeds of a society, and attempting to create – anew, from nothing – the new utopian society from scratch.  Burke’s constitution society is about organic change and evolutionary adaptation.  Revolution society is about social engineering.  This is a derivative of two competing scientific views: conservatism’s reliance on organic and rhizomatic science (biological) and the Enlightenment’s reliance on mechanistic constructionism.

II: Second Critique: Anti-Humanism (Defending the “Little Platoon”)

Humanism is not the term that most people who use it today mean.  Humanism, today, means something akin to anti-religious free thought egoist (individual) ethics.  In philosophy humanism is the philosophy of human nature.  It is essentialist to the core.  Humanism argues that humans have a nature and that humans, to flourish and have happiness, need to live in accord to their nature.

Already Burke has shown signs of his humanism in his praise of constitutional society and critique of revolution society.  For Burke, humans flourish best when they are part of the “little platoons” which are the first principles of any society.  Burke’s phrase of the “little platoons” has been one of his lasting phrases from Reflections, and has become a sort of battle-cry for conservatives ever since.

We see in Burke’s phrase and commentary over the little platoons that Burke understands human nature as being communitarian in nature.  The individual places himself into a little platoon for his own well being and contributes to the development of that little platoon through his helping hand and cations upon association with it.  The first little platoon, that first germ of society from which all other mediations in society stem, is the family.  In the context of Reflections Burke is first talking about the filial nobility, but the filial nobility is blood relation.  To love family is the first aspect of the good human life and good society.  Family is the first communitarian bond humans experience and associate with.  Without the family there can be no extension to the country and mankind for family is where love first grows and is experienced.

(Revolution society, in contrast to the little platoon, forcibly places the individual into a homogenous construct.  The individual serves the military.  The individual serves the state.  The individual serves the revolution, etc.)

It is in the little platoon that we learn the first principles of love and sacrifice from which all future development depends: 

It is the first link in the chain by which we move toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interests of that portion of social arrangement (the ‘little platoon’ we belong to) are a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and just as only bad men would justify it in abuse, only traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.  

The absence of the little platoons of society prevents growth and love to inculcate itself into individuals.  Individuals, in the utilitarian end of revolution society, are abused and used for an abstracted “greater good” or end (the utopia).  You don’t matter in revolution society.  What matters is the revolution.  In the little platoon you do matter.  Your actions benefit you and your group members who, hopefully, come to appreciate and love you more as you live and act help said platoon.

In essence, human nature is about association in community.  We seek out communities.  And we flourish in communities.  But we decide what little platoon, or little community, we want to spend our time and direct our energies to.  Revolution society determines this for us.  Whatever claim of “freedom” a revolution society uses, it is really totalitarian at its core.  It will determine for you what your role is and what purpose you serve in the broader revolutionary end.

What are the little platoons? Family, community, church, and nation. Family, as established, is that first cornerstone of society.  Collections of family constitute a local community which we find ourselves to be part of.  Families and communities are united in a spiritual center of worship where love and sacrifice are reinforced through religious ritual and teaching.  Finally, family, community, and religion come together in the nation but a nation is not whole unless there is a healthy family cornerstone where from all else flows as Burke said, “It is the first link in the chain by which we move toward a love to our country and to mankind.”

In these platoons we grow in community, sacrifice, and love. It is in family, community, and church that we also flourish as individuals, and, as a result, society as a whole flourishes with functioning families, towns, and churches.  The problem of the revolution’s anti-humanism is that it was forcibly attempting to recreate the human and the person’s relationship to society.  It was something unnatural – something merely conjured up in the mind with no bearing or basis in history and nature, and, therefore, no basis in reality.

III: Third Critique: Why Property Matters

The last major critique of the French Revolution is it’s anti-property attitude.  Burke was a strong defender of private property because property ownership allows for attachment, rootedness, growth, and inheritance.  People need more attachment not less.  And the best means of attachment, for Burke, is property.  It gives something to people to work for, to build from, to preserve, and to pass on.  Like with constitutional society, property has a transcendent character to it insofar that, ideally, the property you own and live in came from your ancestors and you work to honor your ancestors through attachment to property and you will work to maintain it because that reflects honoring your ancestors but also links you with progeny because you will pass it on to your children.

The attack on property, Burke suggests, is a perversion of the natural order of things.  That is to say that Burke is arguing that property ownership is completely natural.  People attachment themselves to property and seek to preserve their property.  All society is based on property.  Property allows for attachment, work, development, and growth.

To take away, or to seize property, is not only a display of force, it is also something that leads to impoverishment.  As Burke said earlier, part of the unintended consequence of the revolution was the impoverishment of the people of France.  This is related to the seizure of property and replacing people who know how to work and develop property with people who do not.

To be sure, Burke’s defense of property is also a defense of the nobility.  The nobility is criticized for its actions, but the nobility should not be willingly exterminated because of its shortcomings.  This is what the constitutional society knows.  There are means to ensure better nobles and improvements.  The revolution society destroys everything in one fell swoop.  The replacement of the old aristocrats will just result in new aristocrats, and often times these new aristocrats are worse than the old aristocrats who have been swept away.

Taking away property gives no reason for the nobility to care about the society of which they are nobles in and for.  Why would property owners care to help those who hate them and threaten their very existence?  Why would they act in their noblesse oblige when their estates are constantly endangered and under threat by revolutionaries who, in all likelihood, in seizing their property, will also kill them?  Without property the very functioning order of society disappears.


The most enduring contribution to political philosophy from Burke was his initial commentary over the difference between a revolution society and a constitutional society.  For Burke, the constitutional society is the ongoing and constantly evolving relationship of a society with its history, identity, and traditions.  It is the union of past, present, and future.  The constitutional society is the society of laws, rules, and regulations that exist for the development and flourishing of a society.  The constitutional society is about growth and development, it is about inheritance and improvement.

Revolution society is the opposite of the constitutional society.  The revolution society chooses destruction first, in the (false) hope that after wiping the slate clean a new beginning can commence.  For Burke, only further destruction and anarchy can come from this belief in revolution.  The revolution society destroys laws, constitutions, norms, customs, and traditions and attempts to forcibly create anew laws, constitutions, norms, and customs that will reflect the “ideal” society.  Does it sound good or “make sense.”  Perhaps.  But that doesn’t mean it has any basis in reality.  Anything can sound good, but if it it premised on a false metaphysic it will always fail precisely because it runs contrary to nature.

In between the lines of this enduring dialectic, Burke presents the understanding of conservatism and revolution as such: conservatism is about organic development and evolution, it is something that cannot be forced but organically and spontaneously develops overtime.  Revolution is about forced creation and tinkering; revolution is based on the mechanical understanding of the world and of nature: that humans are essentially machines that can be programmed to perfection.  Conservatism is, and has always been, to those who know political philosophy, the philosophy of nature.  Revolution and all non-conservative traditions are the philosophies of “pure reason” detached from nature.  Burke is articulating the view that revolutionary society is premised on unfounded reason which is why it ends with destruction and, in time, failure.

Burke’s analysis and criticism of the French Revolution sparked the Pamphlet Wars in England, dividing British intellectuals into pro- and anti-revolution camps.  Burke situated himself firmly in the anti-revolution camp.  He ended up looking the best when the French Revolution turned to Terror and the Revolutionary Wars engulfed Europe.  But his commentary over the difference between constitutional and revolution society, and what is entailed between the two, is something that has interested writers, philosophers, and political scientists ever since.

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