Standpoint: Burke’s Warning
Originally published in Standpoint.
News of the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could not have arrived at a better time. It provided, literally, a teaching moment.
In the Western Civilisation course that I teach at the King’s College in the Empire State Building, New York, we were discussing the bloodsoaked saga of the French Revolution, circa 1790. Halfway through the lecture, on February 11, we got word of Mubarak’s departure. Students who doubted the relevance of any historical event before the arrival of smartphones were in for a shock.
Like the revolution unfolding on the streets of Cairo, the French version was steeped in the language of “justice”, “freedom”, and “the rights of man”. As in Egypt, an ageing and despotic monarch was toppled by a popular rebellion in which the military chose not to intervene. Among the French revolutionaries were the Jacobins, ideological zealots whose radicalism was not fully appreciated. Like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, they were a minority party but they were better organised and disciplined than their competitors.
We all know the rest of the story: the Jacobins seized control of the National Assembly and set up the Committee of Public Safety-the organ that launched the Reign of Terror. Within a year, at least 30,000 people were dispatched by the guillotine. This “democratic revolution” was applauded by many enlightened minds of the day, including Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Others, such as Edmund Burke, saw in the French experience a rapid descent from freedom to barbarism. This is a major theme of his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
Burke’s work is noted for its conservatism, but it was a conservatism that went much deeper than a regard for the monarchy. He praised the “little platoons” — the civic and religious institutions outside the State — that produce citizens capable of representative government. “By this means,” he wrote, “our liberty becomes noble freedom.” By contrast, a revolution with no respect for custom, tradition or fundamental rights will not create a more just society. For Burke, without a realistic view of human nature — without the Christian concept of sin — liberty becomes a dangerous metaphysical abstraction.
Now that Mubarak is under arrest, will he share the fate of Louis XVI? “Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle,” wrote Burke. What would Burke say about the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Muslim states? He might warn that a revolution launched by utopians — secular or religious — will lead only to grief. The lust for power will overwhelm good intentions. “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please,” he wrote. “We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.”
Joseph Loconte, PhD., is an assistant professor of history at The King’s College in New York City.