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

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C.Fear of Chaos

Burke’s third and final great fear is that of chaos. In many ways, this is the natural evolution of the previous two: when one moves away from a known, stable tradition to an intangible, dangerous model, chaos inevitably has the opportunity to reign. If a people lose their tradition and venture into the nebulous unknown, Burke thinks “men would become little better than the flies of a summer.”66 The word “chaos” itself is only mentioned twice explicitly: once within the first few pages as the author sets context, and once later on to describe the unconnectedness of France new political system.67 However, its presence is one of the overarching themes of the letter, and in some ways it is the sum of all fears written here.

The most direct manifestation of chaos is the actions of an unthinking mob, the characterization that is so often associated with the French Revolution. Consider the following two excerpts:

It is thus with all those who, attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under color of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions.68

These writings and sermons have filled the populace with a black and savage atrocity of mind, which supersedes in them the common feelings of nature as well as all sentiments of morality and religion, insomuch that these wretches are induced to bear with a sullen patience the intolerable distresses brought upon them by the violent convulsions and permutations that have been made in property. The spirit of proselytism attends this spirit of fanaticism.69

Both of these address mobs with the two fears already broached: loss of religion and disdain for academia. Certainly Burke does not approve of unthinking masses, but they aren’t feared as explicitly as in other contemporary texts as one might expect. On the surface, it is a fairly benign disdain that is forced upon the reader in this sense. A joke about how the French currency “cannot raise supplies, but they can raise a mob,” and a snide dig at the National Assembly (“is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies”) is mostly the context in which mobs are mentioned.70

The real fear of the masses requires more nuance to access. The worry about mobs is not that they are mobs, but what those mobs do. Burke believes “Justifying perfidy and murder for public benefit” lasts “until rapacity, malice, revenge, and fear more dreadful than revenge could satiate their insatiable appetites.”71 In short, if violence for the greater good becomes the norm, then the violence only grows worse. In fact, Burke often refers to mobs indirectly, through their actions instead of directly tackling their existence. Referring to propaganda efforts, he believed their purpose “was to stimulate their cannibal appetites (which one would think had been gorged sufficiently) by variety and seasoning; and to quicken them to an alertness in new murders and massacres.”72 Another rant about Parisian delusions concludes “It has been the effect of their sense of perfect safety, in authorizing treasons, robberies, rapes, assassinations, slaughters, and burnings throughout their harassed land.”73

One might notice after that last quote that Burke has a habit of listing off evils. Another example has the author condemn “the frauds, impostures, violences, rapines, burnings, murders, confiscations, compulsory paper currencies” of the movement.74 The effect of these grammatically questionable rants is to provide gravity for his fear. Instead of simply instructing readers that the chaos of revolution is bad, he associates a wide variety of awful things to its actors: rape, pillage, murder, treason, robbery, and a host of others. The audience is naturally fearful of these things, and by connecting these evils with the French masses Burke is able to turn the Parisian commoners into a straw man of evil, with no regard for human life.

Is this characterization accurate? Perhaps not, but it is understandable why Burke takes such offense to it. Much of the author’s fear of chaos can be construed from the way he talks about structure and stability. Again, he writes about England and revolutionary France in very opposite terms, with the former being lauded for its consistency and reliability. The British “conceive the undisturbed succession of the crown to be a pledge of the stability and perpetuity of all the other members of our constitution.”75 Another section describes the current British system, where “the institutions of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of providence are handed down to us, and from us, in the same course and order.”76 Perpetuity and continuation are ideas consistently associated with the English crown. Burke reiterates his preference for hereditary monarchies by saying “no experience has taught us that in any other course or method than that of an hereditary crown our liberties can be regularly perpetuated and preserved sacred as our hereditary right.”77

None should be surprised that Burke thinks the stability of the British model is good for the happiness of a people. However, what is striking is that he uses similar language to describe the pre-revolutionary monarchical traditions in France. Here, Burke describes the Estates General:

They had been a safe asylum to secure these laws in all the revolutions of humor and opinion… They were the great security to private property which might be said (when personal liberty had no existence) to be, in fact, as well guarded in France as in any other country.78

He goes on to say that “if the parliaments had been preserved, instead of being dissolved at so ruinous a charge to the nation, they might have served in this new commonwealth.”79 In a later section bemoaning the fall of the house of Bourbon, he laments that “in the monastic institutions, in my opinion, was found a great power for the mechanism of politic benevolence.”80

The parallels in terms of language between his descriptions of the two houses is striking, and its purpose is evident enough. Burke aims to sees the parallels between the two systems as evidence that revolution can spread across the sea. He sees very little fault with the old French system, instead focusing the blame on the commoners for becoming caught up in new ideas and forgetting old traditions. But by drawing such stark similarities, a contemporary English reader could not help but think that this could happen to them too. Nothing can stop the chaos once it breaks out, and unless we value the traditions we have, we run the risk of falling into the same trap as France.

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