All entries for Monday 30 January 2012

January 30, 2012

Edmund Burke, 'Reflections on the Revolution in France'

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Charlotte Smith's Desmond is, amongst many things, a response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, written in 1790. In this, he argued for gradual reform, rather than revolution. He believed that the French Revolution would end catastrophically, because it was underpinned by something that was abstract and therefore insecure-- the Enlightenment.

As outlined by Vincent B. Leitch et al., Burke inveighed against unfettered democracy and dangerous appeals to the universal "rights of man" as he defended tradition, monarchy, and a hereditary aristocracy: 'He resisted abstract speculation and (as he defined then) systems and schemes for social and political change that ignored the long history and organic interrelatedness of sociopolitical life, culture and institutions. Society, for Burke, means a "partnership" between "those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born." It is dangerously wrong to interfere with this partnership, however alluring the ideals invoked as justification.'

Against Burke, the French Revolution was defended by several important British radicals, besides Smith. Most notable of these was Thomas Paine, who, in 1791, published The Rights of Man, and also Mary Wollstonecraft, who reacted quickly and aggressively in 1790 with her Vindication of the Rights of Man, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France. Both attacked hereditary privilege and Wollstonecraft went further, attacking the very rhetoric that Burke employed.


Leitch, Vincent B. (gen. ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York; London: W.W Norton Company, 2001), p.537

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