Revolution and the Unsettling of Tradition

An Unworkable Armed Doctrine: Rousseau, Burke, and the French Revolution

A posthumous determination of a cause of death is the work of doctors and analysts.  Identifying the cause of death years in advance however, that is the work of prophets.  The French Revolution and its Revolutionaries were successful in overthrowing the social order, but were unable to establish a new political order that reflected the revolutionary virtues that they expounded.  If the success of a political system is to be determined not by its establishment - but by its longevity, stability, and virtues - the French Revolution was an abysmal failure.  Inspired by Rousseau and “his pupils”, the French Revolutionaries sought to establish a political order more akin to The Social Contract than traditional monarchies or republics.  Written in 1790, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France identified the flaws of the French Revolution in its infancy, flaws that would ultimately result in The Reign of Terror and the ascendency of Napoleon.  In this paper, I will argue, drawing largely on the works of Edmund Burke, that this failure was due to contempt for traditional values and the flawed view of human nature supported by Rousseau.

If one was to point to the philosophical father of the French Revolution, one needs to look no further than Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  In one of their first legislative actions, the French National Assembly chose Rousseau as the first person honored with a statue in Paris.  Edmund Burke referred to Rousseau as many things, but within the context of French Revolutionaries, Burke noted “Rousseau is their canon of holy writ”.  The Revolutionaries and reformers clearly drew much of their political philosophy from The Social Contract.  Article Six of “Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen” (approved by the National Assembly in 1789) clearly states: “Law is the expression of the general will,” a political philosophy obviously derived from Rousseau’s Contract.

The fundamental differences between Burke and Rousseau are rooted in their opposing views of human nature, primarily the role that the state should play in regard to human nature.  In Book 1 of his Social Contract, Rousseau outlines his views on the qualities and developments of human nature.  At the core of Rousseau’s philosophy is a belief in the innate goodness of human nature, but that it has been corrupted by civilization and its traditions.  In essence, Rousseau argues that in order for man to return to a state of actual freedom and intrinsic goodness, the individual or group must discard the corrupting powers of civilization and tradition.

The aims of Rousseau and the French Revolution were not the reestablishment of ancient liberties, but instead the construction of a new social order for all humankind.  While Rousseau and the French Revolutionaries sought to replace tradition (e.g. civilization, religion) with a “general will”, Burke found this approach ill conceived.  He argued that “Their great problem is to find a substitute for all the principles which hitherto have been employed to regulate the human will and action”.  By supplanting convention and tradition with an abstract idealism grounded in the belief that society (and human nature) can be perfected, the French Revolution established a system in which moral absolutism could flourish, for “fanaticism has no resting-place short of Heaven-or Hell”.  A potential for fanaticism later realized in the Reign of Terror (1793-1794).

Burke argued that change should be “organic”, firmly rooted in traditional, conventional and/or constitutional principles.  In its purposeful neglect of these principles, radical change – akin to the French Revolution – is likely to produce a system that is doomed to failure.  By replacing such firm principles with the “values” of abstract idealism, a society will inevitably gravitate towards contradiction and paradox.  Strewn throughout Rousseau’s Contract, paradox plays a large role in his philosophy (e.g. Individualism v. Collectivism).  Therefore, it seems only fitting that the aims and results of the French Revolution would be paradoxical as well.  Dissidents and Monarchists were jailed and executed in the name of Liberty and Equality; the revolutionaries had stormed the Bastille only to proverbially reconstruct it for different prisoners years later.  “Instead of better principles of equality, a new inequality was introduced of the most oppressive kind”.  Some men may have been freed from their “chains”, but they had simply been transferred to the wrists and ankles of another.

Though it cannot be deemed the main culprit for the failures produced by the French Revolution, the philosophy of Rousseau used by its proponents surely made a foundational contribution.  How would Rousseau or his revolutionary followers respond to these allegations?  Perhaps the failures of the Revolution expose the persistent corrupting power of civilization found in the absolutism of Robespierre and Napoleon.  The Revolution surely would have succeeded were it not for the exploitative impulses of such corrupt men.  If French society had fully restructured along the lines of Rousseau’s general will, in which there is no one absolute leader, the likelihood of the Revolution’s success would have increased.

Burke was not necessarily concerned with the inherent quality of Rousseau’s ideals, he was primarily concerned with – and frightened by – the implications for society if those ideals were adopted as a political system.  Many of Rousseau’s ideals are appealing, but that appeal in itself does not equate to political viability.  One cannot argue against the corrupt natures of Robespierre or Napoleon, but who is to say that that corruption can simply be removed from human nature through the perfection of society?  It was Burke’s (and mine) firm belief that society cannot be perfected, that human nature is constant in its “fallen-ness” and depravity.  Civilization and its traditions are not aberrations, but are instead the only sources from which liberty, equality, and political stability can emanate. 

Notes

Burke, Edmund. Letters to a Member of the National Assembly. Grand Rapids: Kessinger, 2005. 

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Minneapolis: Dover Publications, 2006. 

"Declaration of the Rights of Man - 1789." Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. 15 Mar. 2009 <http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp>. 

Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. Wilmington, Del: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1997. 

McClellan, James. Liberty, Order, and Justice. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000. 

O'Brien, Conor Cruise, Bruce Frohnen, and Peter J. Stanlis. The Enduring Edmund Burke Bicentennial Essays. Ed. Ian Crowe. Annapolis: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1997. 

Stanlis, Peter J. Edmund Burke. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction, 1991.

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