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Reading Edmund Burke at Georgetown

And learning to appreciate him in one of the least hospitable environments imaginable.
Edmund Burke

Though it may not reflect well on my credentials as a writer for a publication with “Conservative” in its name, I must admit that two weeks ago I had never read that pillar of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. And while I was excited to finally take in the 18th-century statesman’s attack on the soon-to-be regicidal National Assembly, I doubt I could have found a less hospitable environment for my first encounter with him.

After completing my undergraduate degree at the famously conservative Grove City College and spending a year teaching at a classical Christian school that Russell Kirk himself ranked among the finest in the nation, I enrolled this fall at Georgetown University, where my classmates carry coffee mugs labeled “Male Tears” and Jesuit spiritual practices are shamelessly appropriated to affirm LGBTQ+ identities.

In one of my classes this semester, we’re studying how the British literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries reflects and interprets the political tensions stemming from the revolution in France. Burke was placed towards the beginning of the course as the token reactionary in a syllabus otherwise packed with progressives like Thomas Paine and Mary Wallstonecraft.

As I worked my way through Burke’s lengthy text the night before class (mea culpa), I was struck by the melodrama of it all. His gloomy pronouncement that “the age of chivalry is gone,” his weird fetishization of Marie Antoinette (whose feet “hardly seemed to touch” the ground), and his insistence that the mob had butchered the French queen’s bodyguard (who was not only alive and well in London, but whose story had actually made him a minor celebrity there) all make the book ripe for mockery. And mocked it was, both in its day and in my classroom.

At the time of publication, even Burke’s ideological allies scrambled to put daylight between themselves and what my version’s introduction refers to as his “overblown hyperbole.” Over 200 years later, my professor warned us not to expect Burke to “completely make sense” and said it was “funny” that such an odd text is so valued by modern American conservatives, especially since our country was largely built on the same Enlightenment principles that drove the French Revolution.

Many of these criticisms are valid. In addition to his theatrical tendencies, Burke also writes in a rambling style that reflects the book’s origin as a personal letter that ended up being 300 pages long, and many of the issues he raises—like the importance of the hereditary aristocracy and the union of Church and state—are difficult to apply to 21st-century America.

At times, I even found myself scandalized. Burke gestures towards meritocracy when he insists that the state should not “impiously reject the service of [those]…that are given the grace to serve it,” but reveals his ingrained classism when he argues against instilling “vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life” unable to transcend the “real inequality” of class distinction. In other words, the lower classes may now and then produce an exceptional individual, but on the whole, merit resides with the upper classes, who he even refers to as a separate, naturally superior “race.” This is the exact opposite of G.K. Chesterton’s claim that the “great…merit of the English aristocracy is that nobody could possibly take it seriously” as a true indicator of a person’s inherent value.

As the two-and-a-half-hour seminar wore on, my professor made a strong case that Burke didn’t care about the poor and was writing solely for the benefit of the landed gentry, that .7 percent of the population who make up Jane Austen’s dramatis personae. After all, she argued, appealing to the values of feudal chivalry and metaphorically describing society as an “inheritance” and an “entailed estate” is unlikely to tug at the heartstrings of a disenfranchised Manchester factory worker for whom land ownership is about as achievable as space flight. In fact, at the time of Burke’s writing, Manchester’s 300,000 inhabitants were entirely without representation in Parliament, while several “rotten boroughs” with populations under 100 sent two MPs each. This toxic electoral map bothered Burke not one bit. He even defended the idea that those with property should be “out of all proportion, predominant in the representation.”

My professor rarely made any direct allusion to contemporary American politics, but the intended connections were clear: conservatives, then as now, ignore the sufferings of the poor, subvert democracy with gerrymandering and legal barriers, and exhibit an excessive attachment to “mouldy old parchments” and outdated traditions.

The next week, when we studied Thomas Paine’s response to Burke in The Rights of Man, our professor praised Paine for the way he deftly cast his conservative adversary as a laughably absurd old fogey, and although she insisted she doesn’t “think Burke’s an idiot,” she seemed happy to see him taken down a few pegs.

Despite my professor’s and Paine’s attacks on Burke, however, I managed to come away with a deep, though not uncritical, appreciation for his ideas and sentiments.

His fixation on property may be elitist, but Burke is undeniably onto something when he claims that the “power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable…and that which tends most to the perpetuation of society itself.” If the state is built on property rights, then property owners will naturally have a greater stake in society and therefore make better citizens, a principle evident in the home ownership policies of such modern-day, self-identified conservatives as Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush.

Property, Burke claims, helps us to see society not as the sole possession of we the living, but as a trust from our ancestors that it is our job to preserve and pass on intact to our descendants. Even if the vast majority of the population had nothing to bequeath their children, they could at least understand the value of leaving them a stable, peaceful future, undisturbed by violent and unceasing social experiments. While the philosophical abstractions of the French philosophes were sending their country barreling toward the Reign of Terror and the massacres of the Vendee, Burke reminded his countrymen of the “ignorance and fallibility of mankind” and scoffed at those Parisian men-without-chests who insisted upon the inherent virtue of the people.

To set the mood for the class and remind us of the history, our professor assigned us to watch “La Révolution française,” a six-hour French historical drama covering the time between the Estates General and the execution of Robespierre. As I watched well-dressed, rational men of culture holding up severed heads like Bronze-age savages, I wanted to scream at the characters to stop and think about what they were doing, to ask themselves how it came to this.

For me, these questions are at the heart of Burke’s critique. Those who neglected to ask them, from Marat to Lenin, have stepped outside the “chain and continuity of the commonwealth” and are capable of any atrocity. If our loyalty is to an abstraction rather than a community, we can never truly love our fellow man.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.