In speculating on how Edmund Burke would respond to Thomas Paine’s repudiation of his analysis of the French Revolution, it is first and foremost clear that Burke holds a wholly and fundamentally different view of the inherent relationship between the people and their government, and this must dominate his reaction to Paine.
For Paine, the Revolution epitomized the natural and right, if violent, upheaval that must occur when a despotic government is recognized as such by the people; for Burke, this moral reasoning dangerously subverts the realities of government and public interaction, because it essentially “romanticizes” violence that ultimately harms all concerned. This being the case, Burke’s challenge to Paine would likely be based on an assault of the latter’s consistent tendency to glamorize, in the “Rights of Man,” a Revolution that was a horrific, bloody and unnecessary explosion of civic brutality. Paine documents the events of the storming of the Bastille and the actions of the National Assembly in an almost sensational style, clearly taken with what he perceives to be heroism on the part of the people: “On one side, an army of nearly thirty thousand men; on the other, an unarmed body of citizens” (262).
Moreover, Paine justifies this heroic portrayal of actions he himself describes as brutal by laying the blame on the corrupt government, which “instructs” the lower classes in the vile treatment of others. In Paine’s view, the grotesque executions committed by the French people are in a sense purely retributive and right: “They inflict in their turn the examples of terror they have been instructed to practice” (266). He then upholds an organic process in play, which renders concerns regarding maintaining or creating justice irrelevant, at least temporarily.
Burke, conversely, would vehemently oppose this as irresponsible and dangerous support for practices both inhuman and nonconstructive. What Paine chooses to ignore, and what Burke emphatically reinforces, is that the “Revolution” itself had largely occurred before the outrages in the streets. The French government had essentially fallen through bankruptcy and the convocation of the Estates, thus enabling the public the opportunity to reform without recourse to revolution, which he insists must be the last, desperate measure of the oppressed people. The French citizens essentially replaced one monstrous form of government with another, and one ironically lacking in real purpose:
“They have a power given to them, like that of the Evil Principle, to subvert and destroy,—but none to construct, except such machines as may be fitted for further subversion and further destruction” (322). Moreover, Burke would refute Paine’s championing of the violence by noting how, in the processes of recreating authority, the mob mentality in sway was despotic itself. Men of reason were ejected, insulted, or faced assassination if they deviated from the dominant feeling of the “coffee house” government forming itself (322). Consequently, Burke’s response to Paine would center on this fundamental contrast in their perceptions of the Revolution.
Then, Burke would object to Paine’s interpretation of his belief in prescriptive rights. Paine has a tendency to condense Burke’s views into categorical imperatives, as in his refutation of Burke in regard to any nation choosing to exist as it deems right at any given age. For Paine, and notwithstanding the vagaries of just government: “That which a whole nation chooses to do, it has a right to do. Mr. Burke says, No” (251). To some extent, Paine’s criticism is correctly founded on Burke’s undue emphasis on the wording of the English government’s laws which reflect a binding and eternal obedience on the part of the people to their king. This is questionable, at least ostensibly, of Burke and his support of prescriptive rights is easily challenged, simply because it is in the nature of such laws to be written as expressing perpetuity, and the reality of changing conditions is accepted as apart from this. At the same time, Paine goes too far in his criticism of Burke here: “He tells the world to come, that a certain body of men, who existed a hundred years ago, made a law; and that there does not now exist in the nation, nor ever will, nor ever can, a power to alter it” (252). To this Burke would surely reply that his own meaning is lost in such a blanket interpretation because he very much insists on prescriptive rights as simultaneously inevitable and correct, and subject to alteration:
“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation” (260). Hereditary rights are absolutes, but only in the sense that they provide a consistent whole, or a foundation for the shifts naturally evolving in governments and societies. In plain terms, he asserts that conservation and correction are interacting and cooperative principles, and he is thus enabled here to discount Paine’s criticism as unfounded.
Then, and importantly, Burke would be effective in challenging Paine based only on the latter’s extreme contempt for the British government in place. Paine does not present England as antipathetic or supportive regarding French interests in keeping with the responses of other nations to the Revolution; he does emphasize how universally critical the conflict is to the entire continent, but he creates a distinction so radical, his judgment itself may be questioned. The people of England, Paine feels, are in excellent solidarity with the people of France who have overthrown their corrupt government, while the government of England is, in the harshest terms, a travesty.
For Paine, its King is a “feeble and crazy personage,” and Prime Minister Pitt is given to slander and invective (247). In a sense, the issues at hand are irrelevant, simply because Paine’s bias against England’s government is so intense, his reasoning is inherently suspect. There is in Paine absolutely no room for a vindication of English governmental policy, as he is convinced that England, denied an enemy in the form of the French government, must create hostility with Russia or another nation in order to unjustly tax its people (248). Burke, potential shortcomings aside, is not vehement in this way regarding any government, and such vehemence indicates perspectives, not merely unwilling to change, but based on flawed rationale. Put another way, Burke exhibits a more expansive understanding of all governments as subject to weakness, while Paine attaches to the British government an inflexible injustice and inadequacy which, it may be argued, prompts his admiration for the uprisings in France.
Equally enabling Burke to respond is how Paine attacks Burke in ways promoting ideology – and sentimentality – over reality. This is the schism between the men noted earlier, but Paine’s insistence on focusing on only theoretical ideals is vastly reduced when set against what must be called Burke’s consistent pragmatism. Virtually irresponsibly, Paine is appalled by what he perceives as Burke’s lack of compassion for the oppressed French; he is disgusted by Burke’s absence of pity, and he strongly implies that this in effect presents Burke as a champion of the vile government harming so many (260). Burke is then more than equipped to inquire as to, not only how this perception of his views is obtained, but what bearing it has on an analysis of the nature of the Revolution and the inherent quality of it.
Then, Paine literally offers himself up for assault by taking the extraordinary stance that the bloodshed of the Revolution, so idealized by himself, went to principles, rather than people (259). Three primary issues then lie within these stances. The first is the unreasonable assessment of Burke as dismissible because he does not share Paine’s esteem of the actions of the French people, which is a completely invalid means of true argument; it relies, again, on sentimentality, and it is beneath Paine. Secondly, Burke is entitled to wonder at extreme violence enacted to attack principles, and the implication – surprising, given Paine’s emphasis on sentiment – that the “persons” sacrificed in the process are ignored.
Most importantly, Paine neglects the practical imperatives behind Burke’s perceptions of all kinds, in that no action of the people or the government is correct if the welfare of the people is not the primary consideration, and Paine’s “heroic” Revolution brought chaos to France. Paine refuses to acknowledge Burke’s central thrust, which is that theory is meaningless when the civic good is not consistently viewed as crucial. “The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind” (241). Paine is fixated on moral reasoning and conjecture; he examines the Revolution and the rights of man from idealized perspectives. Burke, similarly inclined to theorize, nonetheless insists on a guiding factor behind all such reasoning. He judges the worth of all such human efforts by the degree to which any, from revolution to Parliamentary processes, safeguard human interests, and this would be his ultimate response to Paine’s criticisms.
- Burke, Edmund. “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Retrieved 30 Aug. 2014 from gutenberg.org; sections 236 – 398)
- Paine, Thomas. “Rights of Man,” in The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine, edited by Philip S. Foner (The Citadel Press, New York). 249 – 400. Retrieved 29 Aug. 2014 from http://mises.org/books/paine1.pdf