"a loathsome Plague Called Reaction": Fear in Prescriptive Conservative Thought

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B.Fear of Losing Tradition

Burke’s hatred of reason is closely related to his concern for the loss of tradition. This is the second great fear in Reflections, the fear that these intellectual movements are causing society to drift away from its roots, the things that make it work. “When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment, we have no compass to govern us.”42 Losing the history of nationhood is dangerous in this sense, as it sets the world on a new trajectory unattached to everything we know to promote stability and to prevent chaos. “But the age of chivalry is gone,” he bemoans, “That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”43 A proponent of a more unchanging model of governance, Burke believes that the French are destroying the good with the vague notion of what may be great.

The classic example of this tenet of the conservative world view is religion, and the author spends a healthy portion of the book belaboring that topic. “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.”44 Unsurprisingly, he holds the British up as a paragon of piety: “We are Protestants, not from indifference, but from zeal.”45 “Man is by his constitution a religious animal,” he continues, channeling Aristotle, and thus atheism is unnatural.46

The expected progression would entail Burke fearing atheism, the opposite of a strong religious base and thus the dangerous ‘unknown’. However, a careful reading of the text reveals that is not the case. Atheism is only mentioned 11 times, and none of those instances seem particular frightening. “Atheistic libellers” are mentioned, but only as “trumpeters to animate the populace.”47 “Speculative and inactive atheists” are not to be engaged by clergy, as they are not worth the time.48 Burke tells a story of a man named Burnet’s visit to France in 1683, where he described a group that overthrew Christianity for atheism, but that “atheism has succeeded in destroying them.”49

Therefore, it is not a world without religious tradition that concerns Burke, it is what replaces it in that section of men’s hearts.

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.50

We have seen this time and again from Burke: his conception of the average citizen is so low that he feels they can be swayed by anything. Once the “good” religion is gone, humans will naturally succumb to whatever comes in next- superstition is, after all, "the religion of feeble minds."51 The average Frenchman is likely unable to know the difference between the two: “From the general style of your late publications of all sorts one would be led to believe that your clergy in France were a sort of monsters, a horrible composition of superstition, ignorance, sloth, fraud, avarice, and tyranny.”52 Again, it is unclear whether or not leaders are intentionally manipulating people into believing these fabricated superstitions, or if the leaders are a victim of this as well, but the fear inspired is the same either way. If the French Revolution points to a post religious age, as Burke suggests, society is going to be cast down a dangerous and uncertain road. This goes for both France and England.53

The author also maintains a quasi-religious adoration of royalty. In one of the more seemingly counter-intuitive aspects of the letter, Burke seems talk down the more democratically elected parliaments and assemblies, and to glorify both the British and French royal families, despite the fact that he himself was a representative in one of these bodies. William and Mary of the Revolution of 1688 are referred to with their “merciful goodness”, “most happily to reign over” over English people.54 Even more surprisingly, he describes seeing the now deceased French royal family at Versailles and being astounded by their presence. Marie Antoinette was “glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendor, and joy.”55 He notes “the beauty, and the amiable qualities of the descendent of so many kings and emperors,” and finds it a shame that these individuals are disliked “instead of being the subject of exultation.”56

Meanwhile, the National Assembly is held in the exact opposite esteem. He thinks “to form a free government… requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind. This I do not find in those who take the lead in the National Assembly.”57 Not only that, but the body is too strong, saying “the power… of the House of Commons, when least diminished, is but a drop of water in the ocean, compared… to your National Assembly.”58 In fact, according to Burke, the form of government was a bad idea in the first place: “I believe the present French power is the very first body of citizens who, having obtained full authority to do with their country what they pleased, have chosen to dissever it in this barbarous manner.”59

To him, the National Assembly is just a handful of “country clowns” trying to control a nation.60 The choice of who is better suited to govern is simple: those who have done so successfully for centuries, or those who have not. Burke seems to make no attempt to hide his dislike for republican systems of governance, even when he himself is a part of one. “When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents… will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators. ”61 Hereditary systems, where succession is fixed, is preferable for stability’s sake. Any group that disregards a preexisting chain of command is denying what is known to work and hoping that an unproven system will work better. Burke finds that unwise.

Reflections also holds a severe reverence for the knowledge of “the ancients.” It seems as though the only ideas Burke has any respect for are the classical world views that shaped contemporary existence. Burke prefers “ancient institutions when set in opposition to a present sense of convenience.”62 It is important to note, the ancient tradition articulated is not made up of a single set of ideas. Instead, much like the English Constitution he values so much, “ancient” knowledge is made up of several components. One crucial part of that convention is “the ancient charter, the Magna Charta of King John.”63 The document in question, the first Magna Carta of 1215, is generally considered the beginning of English common law and an early example of a social contract. To him, it implies “the stationary policy of this kingdom in considering their most sacred rights and franchises as an inheritance.”64 While this is poor history on Burke’s part, it is unsurprising considering his noted positive regard for the British tradition. He also includes the Declaration of Right, a key component of the 1688 Revolution, as a part of the pantheon of traditional documents. In addition to the two British documents, he adds chivalry, Aristotle, and the thinkers of Rome to the conversation at various points in his letter.

None of those things is closely related to France. In fact, the words “ancient” or “antiquity” are only used in reference to France when combined with either the royal family or religion. Burke’s view of tradition is highly Anglocentric. This is understandable, considering his intended audience. However, an understanding of that bias provides an important context for quotes like this:

Do these theorists mean to imitate some of their predecessors who dragged the bodies of our ancient sovereigns out of the quiet of their tombs? Do they mean to attaint and disable backward all the kings that have reigned before the Revolution, and consequently to stain the throne of England with the blot of a continual usurpation?65

Yet again, the fear comes not from a concern over the future of France- although he does certainly hold the French royal family in oddly high regard –but from what this means for Britain. If the disease of disregarding history spreads across the channel, then all hope for the home country may be lost.

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