Saturday, June 23, 2012

More from Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution

Following are some more excerpts from Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and some comments inspired by them:

" To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. "

In the U.S.A., the subdivisions, the little platoons, seem to be withering into oblivion, washed away by the great flow of people hither and yon, all of them swept into a great vagrant search for career advancement or just some paltry job.  One result of this uprootedness has been the great decline in "civic culture" or "social culture" which has been documented in Robert Putnam's recent book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

" The share of infamy, that is likely to fall to the lot of each individual in public acts, is small indeed; the operation of opinion being in the inverse ratio to the number of those who abuse power. Their own approbation of their own acts has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favour. A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world. As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless. . . . for as all punishments are for example towards the conservation of the people at large, the people at large can never become the subject of punishment by any human hand. . . . It is therefore of infinite importance that they should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong. "

That microscopically small share of the infamy which is borne by an individual who is but one in a mass of millions of malefactors is a key factor in what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil."  All sense of responsibility is lost.  Burke here argues that the standard of right and wrong should be neither the will of kings nor the will of the people.  What can that standard be in a secular state such as the U.S.A.?  Burke affirms a standard which is beyond repeal by a majority or overthrow by a despot.  What can that standard be?  Can we know it?

" We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it. "

When I first read Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West almost fifty years ago, it seemed to me incredible that he predicted that the Russian people would overcome Marxism and return to Christianity.  At least the first part of this prediction has come to pass.  The atheism of Marxism was always one of its least attractive features to the masses of the Russian people.  Although secularism is still strong in Russia, it may be significant that Vladimir Putin has a spiritual advisor whom he takes seriously.  Religion expressed as a resurgent Islam was another of the major forces behind the fall of the Soviet Union.

" Of this I am certain, that in a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity, as they often must; and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre. In such a popular persecution, individual sufferers are in a much more deplorable condition than in any other. Under a cruel prince they have the balmy compassion of mankind to assuage the smart of their wounds; they have the plaudits of the people to animate their generous constancy under their sufferings: but those who are subjected to wrong under multitudes, are deprived of all external consolation. They seem deserted by mankind; overpowered by a conspiracy of their whole species. "

Again, Burke raises the issue of the injustice of a majority persecuting a minority.  Is the will of the people, democratically expressed, sufficient to justify any action?  This issue is becoming salient in more places than one might imagine.  Even supposedly conservative people are sometimes ready to defend a proposed policy by appealing to the will of the majority.  Many times I have been told that prayers should be said in the public schools and that such prayers should be representative of "the majority religion" in the area.  Aside from the injustice which might be involved in such a policy, it is one which would be certain to lead to civil conflict in many areas.

[ Written on March 2, 2007]


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