Romantic Circles stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Read our statement.

John Whale, ed., Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France: New Interdisciplinary Essays

Wednesday, July 4, 2001 - 12:58
John Whale, ed., Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France: New Interdisciplinary Essays. Texts in Culture Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. xii + 228pp. £40.00/$69.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-7190-5786-8).   £13.99/$24.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-7190-5787-6).

Reviewed by
Steven Blakemore
Florida Atlantic University

John Whale's collection of interdisciplinary essays is important given the rich variety of Burke's language and thought, which often embrace a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives--historical, literary, sociological, and cultural. In the first chapter, Whale traces the historical reception the Reflections has met, stressing the ways in which the text has been appropriated by a variety of writers and hence has taken on a kind of secondary afterlife. Aware that the contributors to his volume are also involved in these appropriations, Whale emphasizes the complex negotiations that occur whenever the Reflections is read.

F. P. Lock, who may be Burke's definitive biographer, endeavors to bring modern readers back to a historical understanding and reading of the Reflections in the context of how it was read and understood by his contemporaries. Dealing with modern readings that stress the emotional and theatrical elements of the Reflections, Lock makes the fundamental point that the Reflections is a work of rhetoric--a work that endeavors to persuade--and hence the historical accuracy of its representations was central to Burke's contemporary readers. Lock highlights the discrepancy between modern readings of the Reflections as a work of theater and fiction as well as a work of rhetoric by focusing on the tendency of modern critics to employ Burke's aesthetic treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), to explain the theatrical essence of the Reflections. Indeed, the Enquiry has emerged as a kind of fetish text which supposedly explains Burke's political writings. Lock shows that such a reading is problematic since more than thirty years separated the Enquiry from the Reflections and that Burke's ideas "about persuasion had changed significantly by the time he wrote the Reflections" (20). Burke, in fact, considered the Enquiry a juvenile work and had no interest in revising it. The appeal of connecting the two works, however, resides in its simplicity, since Burke's complicated and complex thought can be reduced to a facile binary by which the sublime and beautiful reductively explain everything, or, in another modern strategy, Burke's Reflections can be deconstructed by supposedly exploiting the contradictions between the work of theory and the work of revolution. Lock is thus concerned with returning us to a historical understanding of the Reflections' primary genre--a rhetorical rather than a theatrical or aesthetic one. Indeed, while he acknowledges that a theatrical or aesthetic response can be part of the rhetorical gesture, he insists that the rhetorical is the dominant mode by which the Reflections was read by Burke's contemporaries. What emerges in modern interpretations is a kind of interdisciplinary hybrid (an aesthetic interpretation imposed on Burke's reading of the Revolution based on a kind of post hoc fallacy) that has been yoked together conveniently--a hybrid that is reductively unhistorical. Lock needs to consider, however, that this modern reading of the Reflections was first utilized by his contemporary enemies. Consequently, there is an interesting genealogy between Burke's eighteenth-century enemies and his modern critics.

Gregory Claeys provides an overview of the reception of Burke's Reflections, emphasizing how it was received and read by Burke's contemporaries. Starting with those who were favorable to Burke (both publicly and privately), most of the examples are well known to even casual students of Burke, including the comments of his ambivalent correspondent Philip Francis. Most of Burke's admirers, not surprisingly, thought the Reflections was one of the most significant political documents ever published. Likewise, the critics of Burke that Claeys cites initially are fairly well known. The rest of the review, however, is important as Claeys crystallizes the principal arguments of Burke's opponents, quoting from the first four volumes of his own very important eight-volume edition of The Political Writings of the 1790s: The French Revolution Debate in Britain (Pickering & Chatto, 1995). Summarizing a series of criticisms common to Burke's opponents--inter alia Burke was inconsistent and had betrayed his own principles as well as the revolutionary principles of 1688--Claeys argues that this collective assault on Burke and his Reflections turned the tide, at least in print, in favor of the Revolution until the exponential events of the late 1792-93 period silenced Burke's critics via government or public pressure. Claeys makes several minute errors in the section devoted to Burke's critics, quoting, for instance, Burke's dismissal of James Mackintosh's Vindicae Gallicae as "Paine at bottom," when Burke, who did not read Vindicae, was actually quoting his son, Richard, who had. Claeys, however, establishes the central themes of Burke's opponents and hence illustrates, even though he does not say so, that these arguments have constituted the core indictments of Burke ever since the 1790s. The citations of Burke's admirers and antagonists underscore that in fundamental ways the terms of the revolutionary debate have remained the same.

W. J. McCormack is interested in the strange "Burke-shaped silence of 1797-1800" (79), in Ireland, in a period actually covering 1790-1800. Burke, in effect, ceased to be quoted during the climactic debate over Ireland's union with Britain, consummated in 1801. Noting that editions of the Reflections failed to appear after 1791, McCormack argues that Burke's "presence" was nevertheless palpable. After reviewing Burke's position on Ireland in the period just before his death in 1797--Burke feared that France would inspire rebellion in Ireland, but he had categorical contempt for Dublin Castle and a Protestant Ascendancy that he believed would ironically expedite a French Revolution in Ireland--McCormack argues that there was a secret policy of the administration to bribe and suborn book publishers and newspapers to support the Union, and thus to ignore Burke, and he supports this by citing a record (CO 904/2) in the account books preserved in the Public Records Office during this period. McCormick formulates a hypothesis from this particular record suggesting that the strange silence from the establishment, not only regarding Burke as a tacit supporter of Union, which Burke, had he been alive, would probably have embraced, but the strange silence regarding the "Jacobin" Revolution of 1798, which Burke certainly could have been quoted to have predicted--and to have opposed--had he lived. That the Burke of the Reflections would obviously not be a sympathetic figure for the Irish revolutionaries of 1798 is commonsensical, but why wouldn't the Protestant establishment have used Burke in context of both the 1798 Revolution and the 1801 Union? McCormack suggests that Burke's well-known hostility to the Protestant Ascendancy made him an unsympathetic figure and, more interestingly, that Burke's descriptions of the practices of the revolutionaries in France and their sympathizers in England (inter alia engaging in ideological and mutual quotation of each other) was too close to the practices of the establishment in Dublin for comfort. Burke's Reflections, in this context, would have perhaps have reminded readers of the radical change--the Union--that Dublin Castle was promoting. McCormack imaginatively evokes a historical explanation for this silence which may not convince all readers but which nevertheless makes palpable the problem of Burke's absence in the Irish debate over the rebellion of 1798 and the Union of 1801.

Claire Connolly is also interested in Burke in context of the Act of Union (1800), and she explores Burke's much discussed prescience (his apparent prediction of the Terror, for instance) in his tendency to read the future out of the past and not vice versa, as many commentators have maintained. She sees Burke as anticipating a nineteenth-century understanding of history in which a historian writing about the past endeavors to calculate its meaning for both the present and future. Viewed this way, Burke emerges as a historical figure on the cusp of a more self-reflective understanding of history in which effects precede causes because historical events necessarily have their significance imputed to them retrospectively. History is necessarily anachronistic. Connolly herself engages in such a retrospective reading of the Reflections in context of his view of the complex Anglo-Irish relationship. Quoting Burke's view of this relationship in the 1790s, she argues that Burke supported a closer union with Ireland but that he mistrusted legislative acts that compelled unnatural unions--that Burke wanted a radical change in men's minds and hearts, especially the dominant Protestant Ascendancy--and would, therefore, have opposed the Act as coercive legislation having no relation to the practical realities of Ireland. Both McCormack and Connolly engage in a new and ongoing rethinking of Burke by Irish intellectuals and writers in which Burke is beginning to be seen as a crucial figure in context of Irish modernity and the past.

Kevin Gilmartin revives the conventional idea that Burke was an elitist writer opposed to "the swinish multitude," identifying himself with the nobility, and in an idea embellished from Hazlitt, the monarchy, after George III complimented him on the Reflections and recommended it to all "gentlemen." Consequently, Burke was irrelevant to the political forces that were emerging, specifically a conservative "plebeian counter-public sphere in Britain" that was less respectful of the dominant aristocratic order that Burke favored (100, 111). That Burke had contempt for people in any class (not just the lower class) pronouncing on public policy by way of connecting themselves to revolutionary movements outside their own country is correct, but to suggest that he had a general contempt for the lower class is questionable to anyone who considers Burke's life and thought outside of selected quotations. In addition, the conservative plebeian counter-movement which Burke supposedly missed was not ostensibly present when the Reflections was published, and the writers and organizers who did appeal to that public such as Hannah More and John Reeve's Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property (95) were not in operation until later in the revolutionary debate. Moreover, Gilmartin fails to consider the context in which Burke was writing: he was trying to convince those who had power or influence in England because only they could affect English foreign policy with regard to revolutionary France. The audience that he supposedly missed was simply not the object of his rhetorical strategies.

Tom Furniss, in his essay, argues convincingly that Burke, in the Reflections, crystallized a nationalist ideology in response to both the Revolution and radical British discourse--specifically Richard Price's Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789). In the Discourse, Price had criticized the Glorious Revolution for not having gone far enough with its reforms and had argued for a civic nationalism in which people saw themselves as citizens of the world rather than people of a particular country. Burke was indeed responding to a concept of citizenship that was so elastic and expanding as to have none of the concrete peculiarities that he believed connected us to both our "littlest platoon" and our country. In this context, Burke's response to Price was even more extensive than the excellent examples that Furniss discusses, but Furniss is mistaken that Burke's distinction between the national characters of the English and that of French was a way of "coaxing the English people into reimagining who they are" (125). In Furniss's reading, Burke reinvents the English character as a way of making the English identify themselves with his traditional terms. But the terms Burke uses--the Englishman as a slow, steady, and traditional man of filiopietistic sensibility--were cultural commonplaces about "John Bull" that Burke crystallized into a recognizable national portrait with which his countrymen could re-identify. Furniss's essay, in general, is replete with a variety of fruitful commentaries, although his conclusion that Burke radically "refashions, reinvents, the national character . . . in response to an emergency which is largely of his own imagining" (141) has the snug security of two centuries and belies the reality of 1790 when practically everyone was reacting towards a "revolutionary" or "counterrevolutionary" emergency that, read it as you will, convulsed Europe throughout the next decade.

While Susan Manly has interesting things to say about anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism in context of Burke's position on Dissenters and his personal experience in the Gordon Riots of 1780, she is more interested in Maria Edgeworth's novel Harrington (1817) than Burke's Reflections. She sets up two intertextual interchanges which lead to the novel, starting with Burke's emphasis on the centrality of both family and prejudice and his apparent allusive, hostile response, in the Reflections, to John Toland's attack on family prejudice in Letters to Serena (1704). Later, she considers Maria Edgeworth who is responding to Burke's familial ideology and his supposed anti-Semitism in the Reflections. In this context, Manly contends that she will consider "the insidious anti-Jewishness of his attacks on men of speculation and their role in Revolution" (158), but the evidence for such a large statement is conspicuously missing. She refers to one passage in which Burke makes an anti-Semitic remark referring to Jewish stock jobbers which she couples with another reference to "literary caballers" and argues that the latter is a snide anti-Semitic smear since "caballers" has Jewish associations with "'cabbala,' the rabbinical oral tradition of mystical interpretations from the scriptures" (157-58). Burke's reference to Jewish stock jobbers is, in fact, anti-Semitic, but hardly startling in context of the eighteenth-century in which a whole series of really vicious anti-Semitic statements could be easily culled from innumerable writers on both sides of the revolutionary controversy. With regard to "caballers" (a word originally associated with Jewish oral tradition as it came down from Moses and later, pejoratively, with pretensions to mysticism), one would think that the centrality of "Cabal"--in the sense of a conspiratorial association--in the eighteenth-century vocabulary--would be another semantic candidate for something other than anti-Semitism. For instance, Dr. Johnson, in his 1755 Dictionary, has one definition for "Caballer": "He that engages in close designs; an intriguer." Manly's two exiguous examples make a fragile case for such a sweeping statement. Likewise, Maria Edgeworth might be responding to Burke in her novel Harrington--she does allusively refer to, at one point, Burke's "little platoon" in the Reflections--and the novel does deal with virulent family prejudice in context of anti-Semitism. However, even granting the tenuousness of Manly's thesis, it would say more about Maria Edgeworth than Edmund Burke.

Angela Keane engages in a new-left reading in which she proposes to deconstruct "the connection between the poetics and politics of Burke's letter in a historically particular way" (194). Concerned initially with the Reflections as a familiar letter, Keane ranges through a variety of topics as she ostensibly shows how Burke is "haunted" by a variety of contradictions. Focusing on Burke's belief in correspondences in which signifier and signified (in politics and society) supposedly reflect each other, she argues that ultimately this unifying fiction falls apart and is "haunted by things which do not correspond" (194). Burke, she maintains, forces correspondences that do not cohere. But this belief in correspondence, which is not as neat as she contends, was a belief that Burke's respondents from the Left also believed as they presented their reciprocal fictions of reality in politics, language, and host of other phenomena. Similarly, she writes about Burke's preoccupation with the new monied-interest, reminding us that speculating in paper money and fictions have no correspondence to reality without apparently realizing that this was also a standard argument of the Left in the 1790s and had a history stretching back to the 1690s. This argument, in fact, had been the formalized language of critics of the Whig oligarchy--on both the Left and Right. Likewise, her discussion of Burke's preoccupation with "luxury"--a preoccupation that both the Left and Right shared and which also has a long history--illustrates the absence of the very historical "base" from which the Marxist critic apparently works. Keane, in effect, continually privileges by assertion one term over another and hence replicates an ideology that is similar to the one that she is allegedly exposing. Not surprisingly, Burke's Enquiry becomes the ghost text through which she conjures up all the contradictions in his "correspondences" by extrapolating onto the Reflections categories from his earlier aesthetic treatise as a way of explaining Burke's discrepancies. Later, in a strange misreading of a passage in the Reflections--where Burke argues very specifically that old evils take new shapes (but have in reality the same essence), and that the new embodied "spirit" continues its "ravages" while people are "terrifying" themselves "with ghosts and apparitions" and that, consequently, their houses become the haunts of real robbers--Keane contends that actually the "re-embodied spirit" does not "correspond" with the past, "with what has gone before" (212). But this is a case of saying makes it so, just as her subsequent connection of Burke's "haunted" language with the image of a "vast, tremendous, unformed specter" that rises at the beginning of the First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796) apparently reappears as Burke's "revenant"--the previously quoted "ghosts and apparitions" of the Reflections--but which does not, to use Keane's own haunted language, "correspond with what has gone before" (212). In the Regicide Peace citation, Burke had radically changed his thinking on the Revolution and was arguing that the Revolution, in fact, resembles nothing in the past. But resemblances, in Manly's essay, become correspondences ipse dixit. In the end, the progressive exorcist engages in forced correspondences that ironically replicate the contradictions and disparities that she contends exist in Burke's Reflections and which return to haunt her own text.

Like most collections of essays, Whale's edition is uneven. It possesses numerous strong, suggestive, and luminous insights into the form and substance of Burke's Reflections, and it illustrates the appropriations of Burke's text in ways that sometimes tell us more about the writers than Burke and the late eighteenth century.