Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, the author’s only important work of political thought, has assured him a place in the Pantheon of modern conservatism. Burke’s critique, which seemed overwrought in 1790 but prophetic in 1793, marks the end of Enlightenment confidence in scenic hypotheses. WhereHobbes, at the beginning of this era, was driven by the English rebellion of the 1640s to construct an originary model in defense of the monarchical order it challenged, Burke’s experience of this rebellion’s more radical French descendent leads him to condemn all such models as products of the worst kind of hubris. What he offers in their place is not traditional thought but a self-conscious appeal to historical tradition, a reasoned defense of historical gradualism that the twentieth century might have done better to heed. For Burke, the revolutionary scene is a demonstration that implementing the Enlightenment’s radical anthropology produces not a more rational human order but a return to originary chaos:

All circumstances taken together, the French revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world. The most wonderful things are brought about, in many instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous, in the most ridiculous modes, and apparently by the most contemptible instruments. Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies. In viewing this monstrous tragicomic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed and sometimes mix with each other in the mind: alternate contempt and indignation, alternate laughter and tears, alternate scorn and horror. (11-12; all page numbers refer to the first [1790] edition)The emotions associated with this scene vary between “laughter and tears” insofar as their subject feels himself or not in danger; their object is “out of nature” in either case. Our feeling toward the Revolution alternates not between love and hate, but between distant “contempt” and proximate “indignation.” “Tragicomic” is not taken in its literary-historical sense; it is a “monstrous” mixture of tragedy and comedy–a blend of sublimity and ridiculousness that, a couple of generations later, Victor Hugo would extol as the romantic “grotesque.” (I will touch on Burke’s own theory of the sublime in conclusion.)

For Burke, the scene that founds the political order lies outside it. His concept of the “social contract” is in deliberate opposition to the scenic models of the Enlightenment:

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure–but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement . . . to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. (143-44)The contract that binds us to the state is a “partnership in every virtue and all perfection” across many generations; it cannot be figured as a scene of human accord. In the place of such an accord, Burke substitutes a scene explicitly both originary and transcendental, “the great primeval contract of eternal society.” This is no mere rhetorical gesture but the postulation of an originary hypothesis as required by the logic of Burke’s argument. The foundation of human society lies “outside” it, at its unique and unrenewable point of origin. The “eternality” of the human society thus founded is what guarantees in turn the “clauses” that define individual states. Burke’s originary scene is theistic because only an external sacred can guarantee both the universality of what is in effect a model of morality and the value of its specific historical manifestations. (This is the point of Kant’s far more explicit argument that the existence of God is necessary to individual moral existence.) If the “social contract” is indeed a partnership between the living, the dead, and the yet to be born, then it is ananthropological rather than merely political contract; it legitimizes no particular social order, but denies legitimacy to any order that disregards its specific place in the continuum that links it with its origin.

But I cannot stand forward and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. (7-8)Burke’s characterization of the construction of a political model on the basis of a “simple view” of human actions and concerns as metaphysical  is the first of the long series of such critiques that mark the bourgeois era’s emerging awareness that the originary function of human “reason” is the cultural deferral of violence. The Enlightenment had identified metaphysics with scholasticism, opposing Reason’s clarity to the obscurities of the historical sacred. (“Let us put at the end of nearly every chapter of metaphysics the two letters used by Roman judges when they didn’t understand a plea: N. L., non liquet, this is unclear”–Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, 1764.) For Burke, what is metaphysical is precisely these Enlightenment appeals to reason. Metaphysics hypostatizes the philosophical proposition, the context-free declarative sentence, as if it sprung full-fledged from the brow of homo sapiens instead of evolving from more elementary forms, the most primitive of which is the ostensive re-presentation of what is already present. (SeeRichard van Oort’s Epistemology and Generative Theory in Anthropoetics I, 1.)


“Restraint upon [the] passions” rather than their sacrifice on the altar of “reason” is the central operation in Burke’s political anthropology :

Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it, and exist in much greater clearness and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances and admit to infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle. (88-89)Men’s potentially violent “passions” and “inclinations” must be subjected to “a power out of themselves.” For Burke, in contrast to Hobbes, subjection to central authority does not arise from voluntary self-interested agreement. Its modalities “vary with times and circumstances” and cannot be determined by an “abstract rule,” but the source of this power is always external to the political scene. Pace the French revolutionaries, man is a “religious animal.”

All other nations [than France] have begun the fabric of a new government, or the reformation of an old, by establishing originally or by enforcing with greater exactness some rites or other of religion. (54)We know, and what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society and the source of all good and of all comfort. In England we are so convinced of this, that there is no rust of superstition with which the accumulated absurdity of the human mind might have crusted it over in the course of ages, that ninety-nine in a hundred of the people of England would not prefer to impiety. . . . If our religious tenets should ever want a further elucidation, we shall not call on atheism to explain them. . . .  Violently condemning neither the Greek nor the Armenian, nor, since heats are subsided, the Roman system of religion, we prefer the Protestant, not because we think it has less of the Christian religion in it, but because, in our judgment, it has more. We are Protestants, not from indifference, but from zeal.

We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it. (134-35)

. . . I beg leave to speak of our church establishment, which is the first of our prejudices, not a prejudice destitute of reason, but involving in it profound and extensive wisdom. I speak of it first. It is first and last and midst in our minds. For, taking ground on that religious system of which we are now in possession, we continue to act on the early received and uniformly continued sense of mankind. That sense not only, like a wise architect, hath built up the august fabric of states, but, like a provident proprietor, to preserve the structure from profanation and ruin, as a sacred temple purged from all the impurities of fraud and violence and injustice and tyranny, hath solemnly and forever consecrated the commonwealth and all that officiate in it. . . .

The consecration of the state by a state religious establishment is necessary, also, to operate with a wholesome awe upon free citizens, because, in order to secure their freedom, they must enjoy some determinate portion of power. To them, therefore, a religion connected with the state, and with their duty toward it, becomes even more necessary than in such societies where the people, by the terms of their subjection, are confined to private sentiments and the management of their own family concerns. All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust, and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society. (136-38)

Burke anticipates Durkheim in considering religion to be not only the foundation of government but the “basis of civil society,” one that can be replaced only by superstition. To abandon religion is to fall into the “drunken delirium” of revolution. Nor is Burke’s notion of religion that of the deist’s si Dieu n’existait pas, il fallait l’inventer [if God didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him]. Established religion is the foundation of society, provided this establishment is perpetually accessible to and renewable by the citizenry. When Burke says “[w]e are Protestants, not from indifference, but from zeal,” he is referring to the “zealous” affirmation of the Christian sacred by a community of Bible readers who make it part of their own experience–the religious equivalent of the electorate in England’s constitutional monarchy. This is about as specific as Burke gets about religion; the single word “Protestant” added to the overall institution of Christianity is the sum of his theology.

Burke is not, however, loath to define the Christian sacred by opposition to its “Other.” A corollary of his self-conscious traditionalism is an emergent modern anti-Semitism:

[The English revolutionaries] were not like Jew brokers, contending with each other who could best remedy with fraudulent circulation and depreciated paper the wretchedness and ruin brought on their country by their degenerate councils. (70)The next generation of the [French] nobility will resemble the artificers and clowns, and money-jobbers, usurers, and Jews, who will be always their fellows, metimes their masters. (72)

Are the church lands to be sold to Jews and jobbers or given to bribe new-invented municipal republics into a participation in sacrilege? (80)

These “councils,” like those of the Elders of Zion, make the Jews “sometimes [the] masters” of the French nobility and, presumably, of France itself–a harbinger ofDrumont’s France juive. Nor can Burke’s twelve-times-repeated reference to “Old Jewry,” the “dissenting meeting house” in which a Dr. Price delivered a pro-revolutionary sermon that is the proximate catalyst of the Reflections, be deemed a coincidence; it cements the association between the “bad scene” of Price’s un-Christian sermon and those who have rejected the scene of the Cross.


After Hobbes, with the exception of Vico, the Enlightenment abandons the idea of foundational violence. The conclusion of Voltaire’s Candide presents the exchange system as the means to defer the mimetic violence that predominated in the rest of the story–the produce of Candide’s famous garden is sold at the market in Constantinople–but the passage from violence to exchange is contrastive, not generative. Now Burke, having witnessed the reemergence in France of the Hobbesian state of nature, realizes that the preservation of human society from chaos cannot be achieved through politics alone. The scene on which representations are exchanged requires a guarantee beyond these representations themselves; society must have a sacred basis.

This intuition of the foundational status of the deferral of violence is already visible in Burke’s other major work, usually entitled On the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757, over thirty years before Reflections. In terms not uncongenial to evolutionary psychology, Burke derives the sublime from our terror of “pain and danger”:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of thesublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. (I, 7)The sublime is our “strongest emotion” because we are more concerned with “sublime” threats to survival than “beautiful” enhancements of it. It is not, however, the actual experience of “pain and danger,” but their “ideas” that generate the sublime, which typically characterizes not a source of uncontrolled violence but an ultimately benevolent power; the book of Job provides many of Burke’s examples. What we now call Burke’s “gendering” of the sublime-beautiful opposition is prophetic: in contrast with the general verdict of Enlightenment sensibilité in Condillac, Rousseau, Diderot, et al., Burke anticipates Girard in recognizing that (masculine) violence and its deferral are more central to our survival than (feminine) sympathy and beauty. The cultural memory of the revolutionary violence of seventeenth-century England provides Burke with an intuition that applies all the more to eighteenth-century France. TheReflections were a key influence on the post-revolutionary renewal of respect for the sacred cultural forms indispensable to human survival.