No Trousers

Claude Rawson

  • 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 0 19 281807 4

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.’

These were distinguished writers, all of them well-connected socially or intellectually or both, and their opinions circulated in letters and conversation. Their politics were not identical, and none could be described as extremist or hot-headed. If some of them seem a shade overheated, as though on a rebound from panic or rage, this may be an accidental effect of the selective quotation of quotable phrases. Even so, it’s hard to escape an impression of emotional release, a feeling that private and disorientated anxieties had found an eloquent collective spokesman. Whatever the actual gravity of the events of 1789, and however benign these might have been compared to what came later, there were people throughout Europe who felt affronted or appalled at the prospect of an entirely new order, brought about by rebellious force. It is partly to them that the Reflections spoke, though Burke himself may have had a narrower agenda; and it is their response that must be assumed to have formed at least part of the European impact referred to by the Critical Dictionary. That Burke was a declining force in practical politics in England and no force at all outside it hardly diminishes this.

Mitchell has no difficulty in showing that it was easy to fault Burke’s expertise on the subject. His French was imperfect, as he admitted (so, on the evidence of this edition, is Mitchell’s). He was an armchair commentator, who ‘had visited France little’. His French connections were provincial and from circles occupationally predisposed to take a lurid view of disruptions of traditional modes of life. Other commentators had reliable intelligence from the capital, and to them, Mitchell says, ‘Burke had the predictably misguided views of a man who preferred to observe France “from the Pier of Ramsgate”.’ There may be something in this, but what Burke actually said (in 1791) was not that he ‘preferred’ to see France from afar, but that France was so near (i.e. near enough to see from the Pier) that one was bound to be concerned. If Burke’s original account of the events of 1789 was exaggerated (he was already mentioning regicide in the Reflections and in his correspondence), it is also a fact that events fairly quickly overtook the most lurid parts of his narrative. Uninstructed readers have been known to assume that the book referred to the violent bloodshed of 1792 or 1793. More knowing readers talk of prescience, or counter-revolutionary hysteria, according to taste, but it’s hard to deny a certain insight into the dynamics of revolutionary process even though some of the ‘facts’ hadn’t yet occurred. It didn’t restore Burke’s political fortunes, but it has been seen as compelling in its way, and not only by counter-revolutionary bigots.

Burke made it clear that the Reflections had an English agenda: to warn the Whig Party ‘that the principles of a new republican, frenchified Whiggism was gaining ground in this Country.’ He added that ‘I cannot say it was written solely with a view to the Service of that Party. I hope its views were more general. But I am perfectly sure, this was one of the Objects ... and I am hardly less sure, that ... it was well calculated for that purpose.’ That the ‘more general’ objectives were perhaps more successful provides an ironic reversal to Goldsmith’s quip in earlier years that Burke ‘to party gave up what was meant for mankind’.

Mitchell’s description of the Reflections as ‘a literary hyperbole designed to point out political lessons to Englishmen’ is more flattening than it needs to be, but Burke’s rhetoric of cultural pessimism is in the tradition of the great masterpieces of Augustan satire. The apocalyptic forebodings of cultural extinction may recall the close of Pope’s Dunciad, and Burke’s correspondence shows that he thought of the Revolution quite specifically in Miltonic-Dunciadic terms, as a ‘progress thro’ Chaos and darkness’. Burke’s contemporaries sensed the connection, and Carlyle, who spoke of ‘Great Burke ... eloquently demonstrating that the end of an Epoch is come, to all appearance the end of Civilised Time’, absorbed as if by osmosis an imagery of Cimmerian gloom from the same apocalyptic source. Even the social observation, however grounded in immediate particularities, is structured on the stereotypes of Scriblerian satire: the revolutionary mob as a reincarnation of Dissenting fanatics, the takeover by scribblers and money men of the citadels of intellect and power. And Burke’s Quixotic determination to recall the Whigs to their true character as an ‘aristocratick Party’ has much of the paradoxical and insecure fervour, the edgy combination of urgency and hauteur, with which non-patrician authors like Swift and Pope, or for that matter Yeats, made themselves spokesmen of a lordly ethos which could hardly be thought of as part of their birthright.

The most notorious case of ‘hyperbole’ concerns the account of the October Days, when the royal family were, according to Burke, ‘forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcases’, and when the Queen ‘had but just time to fly almost naked’. The casualties were contested by some who had closer access to the facts, and there seems to be broad agreement that the account is greatly in excess of what happened, though what was to happen later was in excess of the account. It has in particular been claimed that the Queen had almost certainly not fled ‘almost naked’, and that she probably wasn’t seen fleeing anyway, so no one knew whether she was naked or dressed; and that the passage had more to do with Burke’s obsessive preoccupation with the ‘defiling of feminine rank by sexually aggressive upstarts’ than with any factual realities he was purporting to describe. The previous year, in the course of his long involvement in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, he had made impassioned speeches in Parliament about Indian women maltreated by Hastings’s men, some of them ‘stripped naked’ and some ‘of the first rank’. It was reported that his concern for naked women aroused derision in the House. The passage in the Reflections generated much emotion. Burke wept while he wrote it, and each time he reread it, and Marie Antoinette herself ‘Burst into a Flood of Tears’ before she had read half.

When the Reflections appeared, satirists seized on Burke’s sentimental account of the Queen. One caricature shows him kneeling ‘ecstatically at a vision of Marie Antoinette’ on a cloud, ‘wearing Greek draperies’ and graciously lifting a veil at him. Another portrays him as Don Quixote (a common anti-Burke joke) with a medallion of the Queen hanging round his neck and positioned over his heart. Philip Francis told Burke the account was ‘pure foppery’. Jefferson said the real-life queen bore little resemblance to ‘the rhapsodies of Burke’. They might or might not have agreed with recent commentators who see Marie Antoinette’s nakedness, like that of the Indian princesses, as a projection of Burke’s psychopathology, sublimated into political solicitude about ‘the passing of chivalry and the old order’. Such outbursts of chivalric anxiety were certainly beyond anything you’d expect to find in the Augustan satirists of an earlier generation, but they had no comparable events to come to terms with; and on the plane of foreboding, Burke’s account does at least match up with the fact that the Queen was put to death within four years.

The culmination of the account of the October Days is the passage in which Burke passes from the person of the naked queen to a wider meditation on ‘the decent drapery of life’ and its vulnerability to mob violence. ‘But now all is to be changed ... All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination ... necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature ... are to be exploded.’ It is Burke’s purplest passage. It instantly became and has remained notorious: thrilling or repellent, according to taste, and a locus classicus of the convergence of a poetry of crisis with the politics of nostalgia. It was much taken up by Yeats, the great modern master of the catastrophic imagination, in whose mythologised pantheon of Georgian Ireland Burke came to assume a special place. Its opening words echo strongly in two of his poems, and the passing of ‘traditional sanctity and loveliness’ is registered in one of them in Burkeian accents of exalted wistfulness. A draft of another, ‘The Second Coming’, written in January 1919, shows Yeats to have been especially exercised by the rough handling of Marie Antoinette, which he saw as prefiguring the slaughter of the Russian royal family in 1918, a year in which Yeats was reading Burke a good deal: it names Burke, and speaks of the Queen as having ‘brutally died’, perhaps another example of the anachronistic conflation of Burke’s account with events later than those he was referring to.

Burke’s passage, and indeed the whole of the Reflections, gave enhanced currency to an imagery of nakedness, dress, drapery and veils which is quite central to the political discourse of the period, on both sides of the revolutionary question. Its roots lie deep in the cultural prehistory of his polemic. The ‘decent drapery of life’ looks back to older ideas of the ‘garment of style’, of language as the ‘dress of thought’, which students of literature often read in a specialised way, as implying an ornamental rather than ‘organic’ model of literary creation, or as being preoccupied with a decorum of matching styles (making the expression appear, as Pope said, ‘more decent as more suitable’). A closer look at the evidence, not only in critical writings but in the literature of manners and elsewhere, suggests that such terminology often reflects a primary preoccupation with the ‘clothing’ of bare fact as such (sometimes in real or apparent contravention of a narrower stylistic decorum), and that this was closely bound up with an anxiety to protect the culture from the menace of some notionally ‘naked’ pre-civilised or (worse still) post-civilised state.

The most systematic adversary of such thinking, as it applied not only to the arts but to the entire system of polite civilisation, was the Rousseau of the first Discourse (1750, on ‘arts and sciences’) and later of the Confessions. Burke was its most insistent champion in the late 18th century, and the French Revolution was their ideological battleground.

It’s not clear when Burke became convinced that Rousseau was the Great Satan. They have been paired as archetypically antithetical figures, but neither man seems to have been strongly aware of the other. Burke reviewed, critically but not without respect, the English translations of the Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles and Emile in the Annual Register (1759, 1762). As late as the Reflections, Rousseau (now dead, but alive as a tutelary spirit of the Revolution) remained a marginal figure in Burke’s thinking, and the main reference to him portrays him as a bit of a crank, who, if he were still ‘alive, and in one of his lucid intervals’, would be shocked at the ‘practical phrenzy’ of his revolutionary disciples. It was only after the National Assembly resolved in 1790 to erect a commemorative statue to Rousseau that Burke wrote the Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (1791), which contains his extended diatribe against Rousseau as the Assembly’s ideological mentor and their model of personal conduct. This is said to have established Rousseau as the principal bogeyman of English counter-revolutionary polemics.

Even here, Burke’s attack on Rousseau was more concerned with his personal character than with his political theories. The two works Burke alluded to were the Nouvelle Héloïse, described as a ‘famous work of philosophic gallantry’, and the Confessions, with what he saw as its appalling revelations of a vicious life. There are scattered references elsewhere to Rousseau’s constitutional doctrines, including one or two in the present volume, but they are perfunctory, and in 1790 he referred in correspondence to the Contrat Social as a work ‘read long since’ which has ‘left very few traces upon my mind’. Burke undoubtedly had principled objections to many of the doctrines, but he chose in a political denunciation of Rousseau’s influence to reserve his fire for a volume of autobiography. The Confessions not only restate Rousseau’s boast of having dared to lay bare the nature of man, but repeatedly claim an unprecedented and absolute veracity of personal disclosure. And what affronted Burke most deeply was the unabashed and uncensored recording of Rousseau’s ‘faults and vices, as what will excite and surprize and draw attention, and what will pass at worst for openness and candour’.

Burke attributes this to a species of vanity, which he sees, much as Rousseau saw hypocrisy, as ‘the worst of vices’, which ‘makes the whole man false’. He says hypocrisy itself is abused and perverted by the confessional mania this vanity induces. This and not any constitutional theory was the feature of Rousseau’s work which was the most subversive of the cultural ideal Burke was committed to promoting. The complaint was in some ways less against the indecencies which were the subject of Rousseau’s frankness than against the sheer indecency of the frankness itself. The anxiety is analogous to that which made Lady Mary Wortley Montagu complain about the confessional exhaustiveness of Richardson’s heroines, saying, ‘Fig leaves are as necessary for our Minds as our Bodies,’ where, contrary to expectation, the fig leaves do not signify mainly that Clarissa’s thoughts were improper.

The attitude connects with the more upmarket conduct literature, which discouraged confessional conversation and sometimes urged an element of decorous dissimulation in social intercourse, though what was at stake for Burke (as, in an opposite way, for Rousseau) was more than the mechanics of social behaviour. Rousseau’s Confessions derived much of their tenor and emphasis from ideas sketched out in a more baldly doctrinal form in the first Discourse of 1750, which offers a critique of the arts of civilisation on a much more comprehensive front. The theory was that not only the arts and sciences, but the cultivation of taste and politeness, were adjuncts of tyranny. This bears an eerie resemblance to the position of latterday ideologues who regard the privileging of high art or the literary canon as a hegemonist enterprise, sustaining what is no longer the ancien régime, however, but a bourgeois society which is part of the legacy of the French Revolution itself. The later version is more specialised. It is largely confined to academic coteries in countries rich enough to have overpopulated departments in the less disciplined disciplines, and marginal to society as a whole: the self-absorption of the guild and its detachment from social reality may be gauged by the occasionally overheard reflection that literary theory, as practised by expensive pedagogues in universities of the affluent West, is a ‘revolutionary’ act. Rousseau’s views as expressed in 1750 were a challenge to every cultural assumption which Burke was still proclaiming in beleaguered anguish forty years later. The voile ... perfide de politesse is a negative version of Burke’s ‘politic, well-wrought veil’, as his dangereux manteau de l’hypocrisie is of the ‘decent drapery of life’.

Burke said drapery, not dress, and his use of the term evokes a formal classicising cover, specifically distinguishable from ‘realistic’ garments. Yeats, praising stylised as against naturalistic draperies in sculpture, said loftily that ‘realism is created for the common people’ (the idea that realism was connected with ‘democratic ideas’, in an honorific sense, had been in circulation in the 19th century). Burke’s friend Sir Joshua Reynolds said in 1786 that painting ‘is, and ought to be ... strictly speaking, no imitation at all of external nature’, and ‘ought to be as far removed from the vulgar idea of imitation, as the refined civilised state in which we live, is removed from a gross state of nature’. Burke’s idea of drapery was the one long propounded in Reynolds’s Discourses, whose ‘political theory of painting’, as John Barrell phrases it, was closely bound up with his support of Burke’s attack on revolution. Blake, who said of the Discourses, ‘This Whole Book was Written to Serve Political Purposes,’ also spoke of what might be concealed in the decent drapery of Marie Antoinette:

The Queen of France just touchd this Globe
And the Pestilence darted from her robe.

Blake’s brutally reductive unveiling corresponds on a satirical plane to the project Rousseau adopted in the Confessions in the mode of self-exposing autobiography. Burke would find them both repellent not mainly because he thought them ‘untrue’ but because they blew the cover. For all his rhapsodic romancing about the French queen and the chivalry due to her, his social and political doctrines were grounded on the conviction of a ‘pestilence’ within. He implies in a letter that he would not find it necessary to retract his celebration if it were demonstrated that the Queen was personally vicious. This had something to do with her royal status, and with that civilising ‘veneration for Women of condition and of Beauty’ which chivalry had contributed to the manners of Europe. But the important underlying sentiment is that the ‘decent drapery’ exists and is ‘necessary’ not because queens don’t have faults but because ‘the defects of our naked shivering nature’ need to be covered. Burke recognised as Rousseau did that the institutions of royal power and the arts of civilisation were fictions of concealment and of self-deception (‘pleasing illusions’), as well as conspiracies of containment; and that they shared these functions with the sanitised dissimulations and decencies of quotidian social intercourse. In insisting on the need for such things he was part of a conservative tradition whose greatest and most unillusioned 18th-century exponent was Swift.

What Burke or Swift saw as mechanisms of survival, Rousseau repudiated, in the political realm as well as the private, as ‘hypocrisy’. To the question whether he would wish to see a social order in which vice revealed itself openly he replied that indeed he would: assurément je le voudrois. His worst offence, in Burke’s account in the Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, was that he chose to record his depravities for the ‘attention of mankind’. Burke adds that Rousseau flung his confessions ‘with a wild defiance ... in the face of his Creator’, which sounds even more opprobrious, but what really exercised Burke was the subversive potential in human affairs.

Whether or not Rousseau’s influence on the French Revolution was a decisive one in this regard, the revolutionary regime seems to have been the first in history to set up hypocrisy as the chief political crime. Hannah Arendt wrote in her book On Revolution that in earlier political thought, from Socrates to Machiavelli, hypocrisy was not thought a serious political offence if it did not involve ‘wilful deception and ... false witness’ or the concealment of a ‘criminal act’. Inner motives were less important provided the public actions were right. Many 17th and 18th-century thinkers accepted that a degree of hypocrisy was inherent in all political activity and indeed required by ‘the common duties of society’. The idea that hypocrisy might even be a friend to virtue, paying it the compliment of imitation, and able also to induce virtuous habits through habituation of the pretence, may be found not only in cynical aphorists like La Rochefoucauld but in some devout and severe moralists, including Pascal and Swift. None of these thinkers admired hypocrites. But they accepted, in a way Rousseau could not, that a civic value might exist in behaviour which was reprehensible on absolute grounds, because the human mind is a dark place that does not bear looking into, and good conduct could more usefully and more surely be insisted on than purity of motive. It became a habit of the Romantic mentality (Rousseau and Hazlitt offer examples) to speak of hypocrisy as the worst of vices, inclusive of all others, and especially ineradicable: formulations which Burke, in his attack on Rousseau, applied to the opposite vice of ‘vanity’, whose impulse of comprehensive and egocentric display extended to and subsumed hypocrisy itself.

The puritanical zeal for confessional exposure during the French Revolution was a public replay of Rousseau’s insistence on baring his âme déchirée. The auto-critiques exacted by revolutionary regimes, then and subsequently, is one of the ugly derivatives of that accentuated predilection for confessional exposure which is a feature of European Romanticism. Rousseau evidently contributed to the political as well as to the literary tradition. It resulted in a new style of ‘purge’. When Burke or other 18th-century authors spoke of the arts of civilisation ‘purging’ the depraved elements in man’s nature, they assumed that the agencies of a decent concealment would either purify people of these elements or at least prevent them from coming to the surface, which is where the later purges wished to force them. Rousseau denied, from the first Discourse onwards, that the arts or a polite culture could purify manners (épurer les moeurs). What the later purges ended up eradicating were not the vices but the person in whom they existed – one of the more unexpected consequences of Romantic notions of the integrity of the self. The old readiness to settle for a notion of man as a radically flawed animal made it easier for conservative thinkers to speak in terms of piecemeal correctives or the purging of individual vices. Where a more absolute view is taken of the wholeness of the self, the inner corrosion created by hypocrisy may seem to justify radical solutions which purge the world of the hypocrite himself.

The mastermind of the Terror was the man who, of all the revolutionary leaders, was the one most dedicated to the war against hypocrisy, of whom Mirabeau said, ‘he will go far; he believes everything he says,’ and whom Carlyle called the Seagreen Incorruptible, ‘most consistent, incorruptible of thin acrid men’. Carlyle’s portrait of Robespierre evokes one of those Dissenting fanatics on whose hideous sincerities Swift and Burke showered contempt. His ‘instruments were the Sans culottes, or rabble’, as Burke put it in 1794, and it is an irony that this group should have gone by a name which proclaimed their lack of a ‘decent drapery’.

Strictly, the name denoted not nakedness but a principled refusal to wear breeches (culottes), regarded as aristocratic uniform, and the substitution of trousers (pantalons). But the name attracted to itself a poetry of deprivation, resonances of unaccommodated man, and in satirical portrayals they were sometimes represented as savages bare from the waist down. This is how they appear, for example, in Gillray’s Petit Souper à la Parisienne, where they are shown eating human flesh. Burke compared the revolutionary mob to ‘American savages’ with ‘cannibal appetites’ and cited a member of the National Assembly describing that body as a caverne d’ Anthropophages.

Mitchell is probably right that Burke thought they were literally cannibal. He wrote ‘cannibalism’ in the margin of a contemporary account of atrocities, one of the trouvailles of Mitchell’s book. Cannibal acts do seem to occur in situations of war, civil disturbance and mass hunger on a scale which we have an instinct to ignore or play down. Certainly imputations of cannibalism, both literal and figurative, were a prominent part of the propaganda of the Revolution, on all sides, and cannibal acts were reported by others than Burke. When Burke said in the first of the Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796), which falls outside Mitchell’s volume, that cannibalism was something of which ‘with the greatest truth, their several factions accuse each other’, the examples made plain that he had in mind literally anthropophagous acts of a ritual kind as well as ‘nameless, unmanly and abominable insults on the bodies of those they slaughter’.

But he was also pointing to a wider and recurrent phenomenon of the politics of imputation, as well as indulging in it himself. The habit of imputing cannibalism, accurately or otherwise, to the barbarian savage or domestic mob has been a constant in human history; as has the counter-accusation, that the imputing oppressor, the alien conqueror or domestic tyrant, is more savage than the cannibals. Burke exploits these ironies and hints at a further twist, for in his mythology the mob has become the tyrant and appropriated to itself both sides of the cannibal equation. The most remarkable turn is that the sans-culottes proudly appropriated the description to themselves. The Homeric phrase ‘people-devouring king’ (demoboros basileus), applied by Achilles to Agamemnon and later used as a generic term for exploitative tyrants, was picked up by a Jacobin cartoon entitled The People, Devourer of Kings. It shows, in Ronald Paulson’s description, ‘the giant sans-culotte Hercules roasting the king over a fire and preparing to eat him’. Burke said in the Reflections that ‘the sufferings of monarchs make a delicious repast to some sort of palates.’ Whatever the quality of Burke’s factual details, he was clearly au fait with the terms and atmosphere of the debate.

Mitchell’s long-awaited edition is in some ways disappointing. It is supercilious about Burke, and narrow in its emphasis on Burke’s personal motivations and political fortunes, as distinct from the content of what he said. It is Pocock’s introduction, stressing issues of policy and ideology, and not just a personal predicament of frustrated ambition, which offers the more persuasive and interesting account. (The same might be said of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s earlier and excellent Penguin edition, otherwise very different from Pocock’s.) Pocock also offers a more balanced sense of the reception and influence of the Reflections. Mitchell’s book, which forms part of an authoritative collected edition, has a commentary which in most respects supersedes previous ones, but the editorial material is full of slippages: mistranscriptions, typos, quotation from secondary or even tertiary sources where primary texts are easily available, some weak French. The index is particularly slipshod.

Adam Phillips’s edition of Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) is on a smaller scale, and does not pretend to supersede the standard edition by James Boulton. But it is concisely and efficiently annotated, and its vivid introduction brings out, among other things, the deep interrelations between Burke’s views on art and his political outlook, even in this early work.