Just Finished Reading: The Evils of Revolution by Edmund Burke
This book (another in the Penguin Great Ideas series) was actually extracts from Burke’s much larger work Reflections on the Revolution in France published in 1790. I think it might have been published in response to something Tomas Paine wrote or Paine’s book was in response to this. Either way I think they both produced some heated debate on the subject.
I had expected to find Burke’s views to be less than palatable as I understood him to be both very right-wing and deeply traditional. Surprisingly I found that he made a great deal of sense. Part of the problem I did have with these extracts (I intend to read the full work at some point) was the rather strange prose – and spelling – used in the late 18th Century. It certainly took a while to get used to though I couldn’t help thinking that at least some of the spelling was modernised for 21st century readers. A larger problem I found was that my knowledge of that era is somewhat limited. I certainly knew of some of the events mentioned in this volume – specifically the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – but almost nothing of the detail. My knowledge of the French Revolution is certainly much better but nothing like that of Burke’s who lived with it every day.
Burke’s critique of the Revolution in France is quite damming. Even though, as far as I know, the Terror had yet to take hold he clearly saw the way things were already going. Being a traditionalist his idea of societal change was gradual, orderly and British. Revolution, he saw, went against everything he knew to be true or respected. What is worse, he believed, it just didn’t work. Tearing a society down to its foundations in order to build a better one was clearly insane and could only lead to disaster. Much better he thought was to change things through evolution – though he wouldn’t have used that word probably – than revolution. One of the more interesting sections in this regard was his deep distrust of democracy as a reasonable way to run a country. He actually made a good case for restricting suffrage. All in all this was a very interesting slice both of 18th Century history and political philosophy. I shall see about acquiring the full work and look forward to his detailed analysis. Before that, however, it might be a good idea to bone up on the period a bit more some I don’t feel so lost next time.