10 September 2006 - Sunday

Carried away

Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is by turns fascinating, amusing, irritating, and utterly boring.

Particularly in its first 50 pages or so, the book articulates vividly the general principles of Burke's conservatism: "A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know, that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement." These pages make for good reading, even as Burke attacks his English opponents rather more forcefully than one might think necessary.

However, in his passion, Burke keeps writing much longer than necessary. And in his enthusiasm for the old order, he occasionally seems to lose his wits entirely. When he suddenly turns to the topic of the Queen of France (about 75 pages into my copy of the book), all good sense gives way:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in, -- glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.
Were Louis still in a position to do such a thing, one suspects he might have wanted to keep an eye on Mr. Burke.

| Posted by Wilson at 19:49 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk