- The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Vol. VIII: The French Revolution 1790-1794 edited by L.G. Mitchell
Oxford, 552 pp, £65.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 19 822422 2
- Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke, edited by J.G.A. Pocock
Hackett, 236 pp, $5.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 87220 020 5
- A Philosophical Enquiry by Edmund Burke, edited by Adam Phillips
Oxford, 173 pp, £4.95, June 1990, ISBN 1 928180 87 6
Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was published on 1 November 1790. By then, Burke had long ceased to be the dominant intellectual influence in the Whig Party. He hoped the work would restore him to that position. Instead, it began the long process of his transformation into the patron saint of a later Toryism, rooted in nostalgia, in a feeling for the evolution rather than revolution of national structures, gradualist in reform, empirical rather than abstractly ideological, and moderate rather than extremist in its principles of political action. He would have loathed Thatcherism, as Tories of that sort seem to do. His best-known political champion today is probably Sir Ian Gilmour. The type, though not lately in the ascendant, is closer to the model which has evolved over time, as Burke might have seen it, who would certainly have seen Thatcherism as the convulsive aberration. It seems only yesterday that it was possible to think of Burke as a ‘natural Tory’, both for those who liked the label and those who didn’t.
To Burke himself, as J.G.A. Pocock points out in an outstanding introduction which should not be allowed to remain buried in a paperback textbook, excellent though it is, the word ‘Tory’ suggested an antediluvian extremism: ‘Jacobites ... or Anglican ultras who silently held that the monarchy of 1689 or 1714 enjoyed only a provisional authority ... partisans of exploded ideas of patriarchal monarchy and divine right’. Burke’s allegiances were to a Whig aristocracy, and it was only ‘after Burke’s time that “Tories” came to mean the last-ditch defenders of the 18th-century Whig regime, which Whigs themselves were then prepared to modify’. Nor, as Pocock compellingly suggests, were these aristocratic sympathies anti-bourgeois. They included a strong sense not only of the economic value but of the civilising properties of commerce. Burke held ‘that public virtue is nowhere better displayed than in the management of the public revenue,’ and ‘that there was no reason why a modern commercial economy should not be stabilised and rendered more dynamic through control by a landed aristocracy who knew their business.’ The Yeatsian mythology of a haughty-headed Burke unsoiled by burgherly instincts is an innocent fantasy which reveals more about Yeats than about Burke. Pocock is probably right to question even the somewhat less untenable idea ‘that aristocracy and “bourgeoisie” were at war in his mind or his world.’ He despised financial speculators, however, and was appalled to see in France ‘a monstrous paper-money despotism being installed on the ruins of the Church’. In this and in other ways, he wrote in a tradition of earlier literary ‘Toryism’ whose best-known spokesmen were Swift and Pope. Yeats had a point of sorts when he said Burke, and Swift, ‘hated Whiggery’, if Whiggery was ‘a levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind’: but Burke wouldn’t have called this Whiggish (though Swift might).
Stirrings of Burke’s posthumous metamorphosis into an official prophet of Toryism might, with the hindsight of history, be detected in 1790, when the sacred book first appeared. Immediate reactions were of surprise, on both left and right, that the friend of liberty and supporter of American rights had turned round. A Tory writer in the Critical Review praised the book while remarking that ‘revolutions, or the calamities of kings have not formerly been odious to Mr Burke.’ Thomas Jefferson, who had been an eye-witness in Paris as Burke had not, declared that ‘the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution of Mr Burke.’ Supporters of the Revolution like Paine and the Baron (‘Anacharsis’) Cloots had earlier assumed Burke to be on their side. There have been many later attempts to articulate an underlying consistency between the anti-Revolutionary Burke and the more libertarian spokesman of earlier times. His role in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, ‘my old conflict with the corruptions and oppressions which have prevailed in our eastern dominions’, ran concurrently with his counter-revolutionary activism in French affairs.
He was thought to be over the top on both issues. The latest volume of the Clarendon Press’s Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke (which includes the nearest thing we have to a full-dress modern edition of the Reflections, somewhat disappointingly executed) is concerned to make this clear, and especially to deflate any suggestion that the Reflections made any significant impact. They had, L.G. Mitchell argues, some support in Pittite circles, but not from Pitt himself, who is reported by Wilberforce to have called them ‘rhapsodies in which there is much to admire, and nothing to agree with’. Burke’s hopes of securing a place in Pitt’s entourage after his momentous break with Fox were unsuccessful, and continued so when events in France began to match his apocalyptic forebodings, and even when, in 1792 and 1793, Pitt took counter-seditious measures in England and entered into armed conflict with France. Mitchell comments that at the end of the period covered by this volume, ‘as Burke withdrew to the seclusion of Beaconsfield in 1794, he had to recognise that his massive writings on the French Revolution had had a minimal impact on the nature of English policy, and had not restored him to that status in English politics which he believed his due. For him there was only the bitterness of the dishonoured prophet.’
He may be roughly right if ‘impact’ is measured in terms of immediate practical consequences, but his insistence that the book was widely derided by supporters of the Revolution, and did not cut much ice with the political Right, whether in England or France, seems overstated or overinterpreted. The recent Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution offers a contrary emphasis from a French perspective, claiming that the book instantly established Burke as the seminal theorist of counter-revolution: ‘all Europe seized upon his facts and assimilated his ideas.’ Two thousand copies were snapped up in Paris in two days, there were 11 editions in less than a year, it was one of the best-selling books of the age. The Dictionary concurs with Mitchell that the Reflections made some French monarchists uncomfortable, and Mitchell also reports big English sales. But his view that ‘Burke’s book was rarely taken seriously’ is hard to take seriously. Even the hostile answers, which included Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Men, Paine’s Rights of Man and Mackintosh’s Vindiciae Gallicae, suggest the contrary.
A more balanced account of the critical reception in F.P. Lock’s study of the Reflections in the Unwin Critical Library lists a selection of reviews on both sides which took the book very seriously indeed. Lock says that ‘it was mainly those who differed from Burke who set down their opinions at length. Few who agreed with him felt the need to say so in print.’ Many said it in private. Mitchell follows Lock in citing some of them: Horace Walpole, though generally antagonistic to Burke, thought it ‘the wisest book I ever read in my life’, read it twice within ten days of publication, and praised it in letter after letter for having ‘given a mortal stab to sedition’, and for showing that ‘the savage Gauls’ and their ‘unmitigated and execrable injustices ... have made almost any state preferable to such anarchy and desolation’. Fanny Burney called it ‘the noblest, deepest, most animated, and exalted work that I think I ever read’. Gibbon said, ‘I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can even forgive his superstition.’
Vol. 13 No. 2 · 24 January 1991
Reading Claude Rawson’s powerful essay on Burke (LRB, 20 December 1990), and in particular what he had to say about ‘Burke’s purplest passage’, I was reminded of an ancient discontent with the sentence in that passage that begins ‘Without force, or opposition’ and ends: ‘[This mixed system of opinion and sentiment] compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a domination vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners.’ It would be surprising if so famous a passage contained an undetected corruption, but ‘a domination’ is very odd. I have heard ‘dominating’ conjectured, but my own guess is that Burke wrote ‘a Domitian, vanquisher of laws, to be subdued …’
I write in the hope that people learned in Burke will wish to comment on the plausibility of this reading, propose alternatives, or defend the received text.
Vol. 13 No. 3 · 7 February 1991
Readers of Claude Rawson’s fascinating review of some recent editions of Burke (LRB, 20 December 1990) may be interested to know that the accusation of sansculottisme was once turned against Burke himself – significantly, after the Revolution. Richard Payne Knight’s Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805) includes a critique of Burke’s psychologistic aesthetics, and particularly of his analysis of the experience of the sublime as a combination of astonishment and terror. If, Knight argues, Burke ‘had walked up St James’s Street without his breeches, it would have occasioned great and universal astonishment; and if he had, at the same time, carried a loaded blunderbuss in his hands, the astonishment would have been mixed with no small portion of terror: but I do not believe that the united effects of these two powerful passions would have produced any sentiment or sensation approaching to sublime.’ Like Kant, Knight believed that the sublime was partly ethical: Burke, he argued, had demonstrated it in his attempt to defend the Indians against the depredations of the imperial government even if he had failed to define it in the Philosophical Enquiry.
University of British Columbia
Vol. 13 No. 4 · 21 February 1991
I have read with interest Frank Kermode’s letter of tribute (Letters, 24 January) to Claude Rawson’s essay on Burke (LRB, 20 December 1990), which has reminded Sir Frank of his ‘ancient discontent’ with respect to Burke’s most famous passage. He proposes an alternative to a possibly undetected corruption in the concluding sentence of Burke’s meditation on the influence of the ‘antient chivalry’: ‘Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a domination vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners.’ Remarking that he has heard ‘dominating’ conjectured, Sir Frank guesses however that ‘Domitian’ rather than ‘domination’ was the original intent.
His letter reminds me of my own discontent with that sentence, which I first stumbled over during a Practical Criticism class I gave at Cambridge a decade or so ago. (When later I brought it to your contributor’s attention, thinking that ‘domination’ might erroneously have replaced ‘dominating’ somewhere along the line, he was indeed surprised that the awkwardness had not before been noticed; but since ‘dominating’ didn’t upon reflection seem right, he hit upon ‘Domitian’ as a good possibility. We agreed to delve deeper into the problem, but still it lay unresolved.) Rawson’s splendid commentary upon the discourse of ‘nakedness’ and ‘drapery’ has at the same time revived for me the context of my stumble. In the Practical Criticism course, I’d submitted to my students, for analysis and comparison, a lengthy passage from the Reflections (including Rawson’s ‘purple’ paragraph) together with one from Sartor Resartus (Carlyle’s fantastic development of the Transparent Clothing metaphor). This followed a similar exercise involving texts from Swift and Mandeville: that famous passage from A Tale of a Tub in which the ambush is sprung by Swift’s tremendous perversion of the ‘nakedness’ trope (‘Last Week I saw a Woman flay’d, and you will hardly believe, how much it altered her Person for the worse’); a passage from The Fable of the Bees which, if with less finesse and dizzying thoroughness, also achieves an ironic destabilising of normative oppositions between outside and inside, Rhetoric and Nature, through strategies of drastic reduction and divestment (‘and I am clearly of the opinion, that the malice and most severe strokes of fortune can do no more injury to a mind thus stripped of all fears, wishes and inclinations, than a blind horse can do in an empty barn’). These exercises were linked with several involving the poetry of Yeats, Stevens and Robert Lowell – lyrics all turning on that inexhaustible struggle between the seductions of metaphor and the no less seductive prospects of, in Lowell’s phrase, a ‘threadbare art’. My hope was to arouse my students to the apparently obvious but in fact very difficult perception that literary texts, as well as talk about them, are made out of words, and to do this by exploring the crucial debate that Rawson takes up – above all the consequences of playing the figure of a linguistic nakedness against that of a linguistic drapery, a polarity the more apt to get disturbingly out of hand the more consciously it is being exploited. My one reservation about Rawson’s essay concerns its implicit suggestion that Burke and Swift were firmly in command of their own side of the argument, once their figural polemics had been set in motion. That their side required belief in the possibility of linguistic mastery, I do not doubt.
As for Burke’s perhaps corrupted sentence, I did examine several of the early editions, all of which reproduce the text given in the first. I noticed, by the way, that ‘domination’ is there, and subsequently, broken at the end of the line, after the first syllable, and it has even occurred to me that an entire line of text might have been dropped in printing. Perhaps some agent docile or dolorous, in conjunction with some abomination, had been the original intention, and the awkward ‘domination’ had become accepted under the influence of ‘oblige’, ‘submit’ and ‘compel’ – an instance of how our expectation of syntactic good manners may be subdued by a more compelling desire for signs of mastery. But I dismissed that as a whimsy. (Nevertheless, the double but asymmetric appearance of ‘subdued’ in Burke’s sentence is another oddity; it too lacks elegance, and may have some relevance to the problem at hand.)
In response to Sir Frank’s request for comment on his emendation, I must now doubt that Burke in fact wrote ‘and gave a Domitian, vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners’; and this for several reasons. The first is rhetorical: the sentence in question concludes a paragraph which relies on the power of generalisation to overwhelm resistance. ‘Modern Europe’ from its origins to the present day is Burke’s subject here, under ‘all its forms of government’, and through ‘all the gradations of social life’ (italics mine); not some kings but ‘kings’, in their totality, are evoked; and, finally, not even sovereigns as they embody or wield authority, but ‘stern authority’ itself. Could Burke, who was aware of the effects of bringing into an argument ‘abstraction and personification’ (a rhetorical turn he discusses elsewhere), have dished, at this point, his own effect by introducing any limiting particular, let alone a name associated with ‘the antique world’ which he has already distinguished from the case of ‘modern Europe’? It is the less likely given that – from his spectacular impersonation of the Queen of France down to the carefully restrained chiasmus ‘To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely’ – Burke’s performance here, turn by turn, has depended not only on an unabashed manipulation of rhetorical ‘drapery’ but on the crucial point he makes almost explicit at the end, that thus to understand and use language is the mark of ‘a wise man’. Principles governing the ‘construction of poems’ apply equally to ‘states’; rhetorical and political systems are one and the same; genuine wisdom consists in exploiting, rather than resisting, this truth.
Moreover, in a passage preparing for his denunciation of that ‘barbarous philosophy’ which justifies a regicide as no worse than ‘a common homicide’, is it likely that Burke would have singled out, as an instance of overly stern authority successfully chastened, a sovereign who met his end at the hands of an assassin? The Emperor Domitian, stabbed to death in his bedroom, was not subdued by elegance or manners. He was subdued as the result of a conspiracy led, tradition has it, by his own wife, who had reason to believe that he was going to have her murdered. Again, although Domitian’s name was for centuries blackened by the highly-wrought vilifications of his senatorial enemies Pliny and Tacitus, who fixed on him a reputation for terrorism and tyranny which recent historians have done much to correct, he was never charged, so far as I can tell, with being ‘a vanquisher of laws’. Suetonius, while believing him excessively cruel and arrogant, nevertheless credits him with industry and precision in administering justice; and he has even been praised for his legislative achievements, however severe many of them were.
Therefore I would question the plausibility of Sir Frank’s emendation, but never having hunted up the Burke MS or other detections of the suspected corruption, I, too, would welcome learned clarification of what is perhaps only a mote in my own eye.
Could it be that the corruption apprehended by Sir Frank in Burke’s famous passage is nothing more than a structural Gallicism used by Burke to sustain a passage worthy of Bossuet? The structure itself – a noun (‘domination’) qualified by a noun group (‘vanquisher of laws’) functioning as an epithet – is familiar enough in French Classical oratory. The verb ‘gave’ is clearly a variation on ‘subdued’, ‘obliged’ and ‘compelled’. My modern gloss would be: ‘caused a domination capable of overturning the laws to be subdued by manners’. The sentiment expressed is the echo of a commonplace in the tenets of French royal absolutism. The king is above the law (ex legibus solutus) in theory, but in practice his natural graciousness restrains him from using his domination to the detriment of his subjects. This may seem a slender argument on which to base a check to the otherwise unfettered power of the monarch (and it was duly if discreetly ridiculed by Montesquieu) but it played its part in that potent ‘mixture of opinion and sentiment’ that determined how educated conservative Frenchmen saw their country and their government. The mixture also, as Burke rightly points out, had a long history. From Estienne Pasquier’s Pourparler du Prince (1561): ‘our Kings, with their customary graciousness [débonnaireté], never undertook anything in France on the basis of their absolute power, but always preserving the Three Estates in their liberties and privileges they almost invariably, in matters of great moment, acted on their advice.’ The graciousness of the monarch is not necessarily a personal attribute (though inevitably claimed as such) but is the result of dialogue between the king and his public servants concerning laws for the good governance of the kingdom. The presence of this dialogue constitutes the ‘manners’ evoked by Burke, and thus prevents domination from degenerating into its pathological state, which is despotism the vanquisher of laws.