Sabbatical Reading: Talking About a Revolution

Finishing Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was a bit of a personal triumph for me, so bear with some short musings as catch my literary breath for a moment.

Despite a predilection for complex sentence structures and multi-page paragraphs, Burke is brilliant. At the very least, I walked away with an new appreciation of the French Revolution that contrasted with the neo-Jeffersonian interpretation of events.

Histories I had read emphasize the excesses of the Reign of Terror. Burke acknowledges and decries the atrocities but does not use them to weave a polemic. Instead he focuses on the fundamental shortcomings of the revolutionary government itself. He does not embark on the kind of ideological screed that fills political tracts today as much as he delivers a cogent practical critique of the revolution, and by extension all scorched-earth paroxysms of change. Progress is essential, Burke emphasizes, but change is not the same as progress. and while for true progress to take place there must be change, that change must be modest and incremental.

The phrase that hung above my head as I watched Burke dissect the National Assembly was “consequences unintended, unforeseen but not unforeseeable.” No doubt I will return to his work in the future, but other exponents of the matured values upon which Burke expounded, like Russell Kirk, Max Weber, Leo Strauss, and Irving Babbit, now call for my attention.

A final note: I find it fascinating that Burke, who stands at the center of the Anglo-American conservative pantheon, sounds less like a right-wing icon than he does a moderate conservative, and someone who might well be dubbed a RINO.

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