A turgid, incoherent, mean-spirited confusion of barely readable proto-teabaggery and ancient dogmatic douchebaggery. Written in the form of a letter to a Frenchman, without captions or other markers of manifest internal organization. Best part of this volume is the academic's lengthy introduction. Text is top tier anti-semitism, with frequent references to "Old Jewry" and Jews in general when he needs a negative example.
He opens by implying that he is unable to congratulate France on its new post-revolutionary liberty: "[A]m I seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate an highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, upon the recovery of his natural rights?" (90). The association of the ancien regime with prison is significant.
Dismisses as either nonsense or "a most unfounded, dangerous, illegal, and unconstitutional position" the thesis that "if his majesty does not owe his crown to the choice of the people, then he is no lawful king" (97). Rather, the good people of England "look upon the legal hereditary succession of their [!] crown as among their rights, not as among their wrongs; as a benefit, not as a grievance; as a security for liberty, not as a badge of servitude" (111).
Even though he has distaste for revolutions, Burke's at pains to preserve the British revolution of 1688--and so suggests that it was "made to preserve our antient indisputable laws and liberties, and that antient constitution of government" (117), which strikes me as a fairly self-serving and silly statement. But, on the contrary, the "very idea of the fabrication of a new government is enough to fill us with disgust and horror" (id.). Instead, "we wished at the period of the [Glorious] Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers" (id.). This is the famous inheritance thesis of civil rights, which he seeks to establish by cherry-picked and misconstrued references to British legal history. The upshot is that "by constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature [!], we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives" (120). Perhaps it's persuasive to know-nothings, but his presentation of the legal history leaves much to be desired, unless it's simply intended as sophistry targeted at the weak-minded. The government-as-property is however key to his understanding, and much of the Reflections
is a property-owners' jittery subliterate manifesto.
(Comical side note: he attempts to dismiss the French Revolution as the work "not of distinguished magistrates," "not of leading advocates," "not of renowned professors," but "for the greater part, as it must in such a number, of the inferior, unlearned, mechanical, merely instrumental members of the profession" (129-30). I think that means "the ambulance chasers have taken over OH NOS!" So: this is basically an early version of the limbicile complaint that "the trial lawyers are ruining America!!!1")
Next worthy of comment is the famous defense of property inequality: "Nothing is a due and adequate representation of a state, that does not represent its ability, as well as its property. But as ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it can never be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it be, out of proportion, predominant in the representation. It must be represented too in great masses of accumulation, or it is not rightly protected. The characteristic essence of property, formed out of the combined principles of its acquisition and conservation, is to be unequal. The great masses therefore which excite envy and tempt rapacity must be put out of possibility of danger" (140). And so on. It's like Ayn Rand complaining that rich people are oppressed--but older and accordingly possessing a higher and greater lineage of stupidity.
Burke shows himself to be anti-evidence by declaring "our representation has been found perfectly adequate to all purposes for which a representation of the people can be desired or devised. I defy the enemies of our constitution to shew the contrary" (146). Nevermind the problems in Ireland that were otherwise dear to Burke; this formulation appears to ignore the very recent war for independence that the British lost to the United States.
After complaining so much about innovative rights in France, he gives us an inventory of those "real rights of men," which he likes: the right to live by the rule of law, the right to justice, right to fruits of industry and to making industry fruitful, the right to acquisitions of their parents, to the improvement of offspring, to instruction in life and consolation in death--"whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself," leaving trespass
undefined (149). He declaims that "in this partnership, all men have equal rights, but not to equal things. He that has but five shillings in the partnership has as good a right to it as he that has five hundred pounds has to his larger proportion. But he has not a right to an equal dividend of the product of the joint stock; and as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of man in civil society" (150). So, there's the philistine libertarian idea that rich votes are better than poor votes because the government is a joint stock corporation, &c.
Burke generally has nothing pleasant to say about atheists, but he is very similar to Marx in statements such as "religion is the basis of civil society and the source of all good and all comfort" (186) and "They must labour to obtain what by labour can be obtained; and when they find, as they commonly do, the success disproportioned to the endeavor, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice. Of this consolation, whoever deprives them, deadens their industry, and strikes at the root of all acquisition and all conservation. He that does this is a cruel oppressor, the merciless enemy of the poor and wretched; at the same time that by his wicked speculations he exposes the fruits of successful industry, and the accumulations of fortune, to the plunder of the negligent, the disappointed, and the unprosperous" (372). This is an amzing piece of proto-fascist crap--it is the contrary of marxism's "opiate of the people" argument insofar as it recognizes the role of religious lies in placating the impoverished, keeping them at work, and thereby allowing them to be exploited by the wealthy--but Burke recommends this as the proper state of affairs, and designates as oppressors those who would correct the lies with truths and liberate the minds of the impoverished, who might thereafter disposses the wealthy of their ill-gotten gains. It's nasty sophistry, and exposes well Burke's true interests.
Like our own daily Fox News screechings, Burke whines, in the face of disagreement with his superstitious bullshit, that the "literary cabal had some years ago formed something like a regular plan for the destruction of the Christian religion" (211). We are told that this is a "new religious persecution," carried our by "atheistic levellers" (246), after a lengthy description of alleged taxations and confiscation of ecclesiastical properties in France. (He has the good taste to discuss Henry VIII's Dissolution Acts, at least.) They are ultimately "philosophical fanatics" (256) and the "spirit of atheistical fanaticism" (262)--but people who believe that government is properly founded on a single person who is appointed by a guy born of a virgin and resurrected and so on--that's just reasonable common sense.
He also sounds like a marxist in diagnosing class warfare: "In the state of real, though not always perceived warfare between noble ancient landed interest, and the new monied interest, the greatest because the most applicable strength was in the hands of the latter" (211).
That aside, he appears to be a proponent of social contract theory: "Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure [!] - but the state ought not be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in the trade of pepper and coffee," but rather it is "a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of the partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by inviolable oath [&c.] [&c.]" (195-96). Goodness, what a load of shit.
Whatever else he thinks, he is a proponent of brainwashing: "Church and state are ideas inseparable in [English] minds. Our education is so formed as to confirm and fix this impression. Our education is in a manner wholly in the hands of ecclesiastics, and in all stages from infancy to manhood" (198). So, yeah, right?
He denies "that the nobility had any considerable share in the oppression of the people, in cases in which real oppression existed" (244). Later, of course, he has no problem admitting that "they worked from dawn to dark in the innumerable servile, degrading, unseemly, unmanly, and often most unwholesome and pestiferous occupations, to which by the social economy so many wretches are inevitably doomed" (271). Apparently that's not oppression, or, even if it is, it's not the fault of the aristocracy. Of course, he later suggests that "if the people are happy, united, wealthy, and powerful, we presume the rest," i.e., regarding good governance (285). Hard to reconcile these statements, it seems--unless we just ignore the working class.
Also famous is the tolerance argument: "Are the decorations of temples an expenditure less worthy a wise man than ribbons, and laces, and national cockades, and petits maisons, and petit soupers, and all the innumerable fopperies and follies in which opulence sports away the burthen of its superfluity? We tolerate even these; not from love of them, but for fear of worse. We tolerate them, because property and liberty, to a degree, require that toleration" (273). Yeah, so that's the rightwing origin of the modern "tolerance" argument. Leftists shouldn't touch it. Like much of the prior discussions of property, it essentially asks for special dispensation for rich persons. Typical. (Needless to add that the "temple decorations" are fopperies and follies equivalent to the other luxury goods that he does not like.)
otherwise have much local description of events in France and the revolutionary constitution (Burke doesn't like any of it). The revolution treats "France exactly like a country of conquest. Acting as conquerors, they have imitated a policy of the harshest of that harsh race" (297-98). So, a locus classicus
for the rightwing notion that certain ideas are "unamerican" or "anti-american" or somehow evil & foreign, or whatever.
It is also an ancient source for the objection to paper currency (306 ff.). It also makes objection to the centrality of Paris in the new constitution (314 ff.), which reminds one of the "Washington DC is corrupt and evil" jeremiads that we get all of the time in the US from the rightwing.
Overall, super-religious, simultaneously adherent to authority, especially executive authority, but distrustful of "mob rule" in the assembly, and also very jealous of property, anti-taxation, ignorant to real abuses, ready to cry about imagined abuses, desirous of special rights for rich persons and dismissive of equal rights for poor persons, and so on. It's a catalogue of rightwing policy objectives, an inventory of loss. That any non-aristocrat would like this stuff indicates the power of ruling class ideology over the mind.
Nothing really redeemable overall--some folks like his writing, but it strikes me as aesthetically consistent with the period.
Required reading for serious persons.