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On Enlightenment and Revolutionary Ideology

On Enlightenment and Revolutionary Ideology

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Reviews
and
Comments
On Enlightenment andRevolutionary Ideology
Steven Blakemore
Edmund Burke: The Enlightenment
and
Revolution,
by Peter
J.
Stanlis,
New
Brunswick,
N.J.:
Transaction
Pubs.,
1990.
290
pp.
$34.95.
PROFESSORETER
.
STANLIS’
ew book con-sists of
a
series
of
essays reassessing theantirevolutionary critique Edmund Burkeunleashed against the French Revolu-tion two centuries ago. Clearly, Burke’scritique challenged and eventuallyhelped change the European perceptionof
a
revolution celebrated initially
as
anevent that would regenerate the world.Burke was the first prominent public manto argue that the Revolution was, in
es-
sence,
a
militant, messianic ideologyreified in frightening new forms ofpower-a revolution that constituted
a
radical break with European history.Burke was then, the first to recognize theRevolution’s importance
as
an epochalevent in world history.Stanlis approaches Burke’s critiquefrom three perspectives: he establishesBurke’s prerevolutionary vision of Euro-pean civilization and then shows how
it
impinges on his critique of both the En-lightenment and the Revolution. Withregard to the first, he responds to thosewho have criticized Burke for being con-sistent in defending the Americans, theIrish, and the people
of
India from
op
pressive state power, while attacking
a
revolution that had supposedly liberatedthe French people from
a
repressive re-gime. Stanlis maintains that, given Burke’svision
of
a
collective European order andhis revolutionary critics’ propensity toinsist on superficial similarities, Burkeresponded consistently to
a
revolutionthat was radically antihistorical.In the books first part, he reviewsBurke’s traditional understanding
of
themoral Natural Law-a tradition reflectedin Aristotle, Cicero, and
a
series of Chris-tian texts underpinning Burke’sworldview.Burke’s dialogue with the past and withthis tradition ensured its inherited pres-ence in his
own
works; indeed, Stanlis wasthe first
to
illustrate the importance
of
theNatural Law in Burke’s thought and tosuggest how Burkeconfronted theRevolu-tion with the collective weight of Westerntradition.
He
is
especially perceptive indocumenting how Burke envisioned the
Modem
Age
359
 
moral Natural Law incarnated into theconcrete circumstances
of
different Euro-pean countries and cultures-the com-mon law and corporate institutionsthrough which an eternal principle, the“Word”,was made flesh. Indeed, for Burkethe Incarnation was the principal para-digm of man’s concrete interaction with atranscendent order. Stanlis, hence, high-lightsacontrast between the way in whichBurke fleshed out
a
principle accommo-dating the concrete circumstances of aparticular time and place and the ten-dency of Enlightenment and revolutionaryideology to reduce concrete complexitiesto mathematical formulas and rationalistabstractions.Since Burke saw the Revolution
as
anextension
of
Enlightenment ideology, hecontended that it was paradoxically pro-pelled by old ideas enforced by new insti-tutional forms of power-the Commit-tees of General Security and Safety, therevolutionary courts and armies-inshort, the entire revolutionary appara-
tus
and the endeavor to compel concretepeople to fit impossibly abstract ideo-logical categories. Thus,
as
Stanlis notes,the language of “natural rights”-a lan-guage reappearing
as
“the rights of manin the Revolution-first appeared duringthe Enlightenment and was criticized byBurke in his prerevolutionary writings.Later, Burke saw that
as
the Revolutionconstantly clashed with reality, it wouldcontinually redefine
itself
as
well as uni-versal “rights” now exclusively “revolu-tionary,existing only for those citizenswho fit the shifting ideological catego-ries
of
citizen and patriot. To Burke theRevolution was the Enlightenment mili-tant; it was
a
mutation in the body politic
of
Western Europe, a communal Europeinterconnected by its common sources:Roman law, Christian morality, and Teu-tonic customs-the
respublica christiana
which had succeeded the Roman em-pire. Since Europe was connected by
a
series
of
historical, corporate links, Burkeunderstood that the Revolution’s attackon any “link (for instance, the tradi-tional French constitution) was an
as-
sault on the entire historical structure
of
Europe.
In
his chapter on “Burke and the Lawof Nations,” Stanlis stresses this Euro-pean interconnectedness by discussingspecific international laws conformingto the concrete realities of individualEuropean states. Thus, in reaffirming “theLaw of Nations,Burke followed the tra-dition
of
Suarez, Grotius, and others whocontended that
a
law of nations reflectedNatural Law, but he also recognized thatindividual countries often failed to com-ply with these international laws. Stanlisreminds
us
that Burke
also
criticizedBritish deviations from the Natural Law;in
1780,
for instance, he condemned theBritish East India Company for violatingthe international principle that neutralships have free access to world trade.
A
decade later, however, Burke realizedthat the new revolutionary crisis hadradically changed traditional Europeanagreements and understandings. Con-vinced that the survival
of
Britain andthe European commonwealth was atstake, he soon called for a collective,interventionist war against revolution-ary France. Having broken
a
series
of
traditional European understandings,France was, according to Burke, “out-sidethe moral boundaries of Europe.But his call for an international war wasagain based on the precedent of NaturalLaw, specifically Vattel’s axiom thatthreatened nations have the collectiveright to intervene in any country jeopar-dizing international stability. Even whenhe made exceptions, Burke thoughtwithin the context of the Natural Lawtradition.In the two chapters titled “Burke andthe Rationalism of the Enlightenment”and “Burke and the Sensibility
of
Rous-
seau,” Stanlis discusses how Burke’s cri-tique
of
the Revolution was an extension
360
Summer
1992
 
of his critique of the Enlightenment.Burke’s great insight was that both En-lightenment and revolutionary ideologyinevitably turned into what they ostensi-bly opposed. In this context, Stanlis pro-vides an historical overview of theEnlightenment’s cult of reason and theideological endeavor to methodize con-crete societies along mathematical, “ra-tional” lines. The result,
as
Burke noted,was the ironic deification
of
the irratio-nal, since the idea of shaping concreteinstitutions and people to fit abstracttheories culminated in the Revolution’sendeavor to make this Enlightenmentfantasy
a
reality. The Revolution, forBurke, was an unprecedented explosionof ideological insanity into European dis-course and ultimately into the Europeanworld. But in addition
to
this
cult
of
irrational reason, there was
a
contradic-tory cult of feeling that also had reper-cussions for eighteenth-century Eu-rope-a century that was
as
much anAge
of
Sensibility
as
a
so-called Age
of
Reason. Burke detected the schizo-phrenic transmutations
of
Enlightenmentthought (contradictory cults
of
reasonand feeling) in revolutionary ideology,and he underscored Rousseau’s role increating an ideology of sensibility.Stanlis evaluates this phenomenon in“Burke and the Sensibility
of
Rousseau.”
He
shows that Rousseau formulated anaesthetic theory based on “authentic”sentiment-a theory that subsequentlyinfluenced and colored the thought
of
revolutionaries such
as
Robespierre andSt. Just. They, in turn, fleshed out theauthoritarian tendencies on Rousseau’sthought. Although the importance
of
Rousseau’s influence in the subsequentformation
of
a
revolutionary ideologywas
a
cultural commonplace n the
1790’s,
it was rejected by various nineteenth-and twentiethcentury historians (mostlyFrench) who denied the role of theseideas in the making
of
the Revolution.This denial,
of
course, was itself basedon an idea classically formulated by Marxand Engels in the nineteenth century,that only material factors causally formthe ideological conditions of agiven soci-ety. This reductive premise has beensteadily discredited by recent scholar-ship, and Stanlis’ contribution comple-ments the studies of
Carol
Blum andothers who have established an incon-trovertible nexus between Rousseau andthe Revolution.Stanlis suggests how sensibility-thepublic display of sentimental, “humani-tarian” feelings in the eighteenth cen-tury-became politicized during theRevolution. The result wasan ideology offeeling that placed compulsive emphasison politically correct ways of expressingsentiment and emotion. The properrevolutionary response became, there-fore, an egotistical exercise
in
celebrat-ing one’s superior political sympathy forthe “oppressed”,while displaying indig-nant hatred for the “oppressors.”
To
Burke these divisions illustrated the con-tradictions within
a
Revolution continu-ally turning into what it supposedly op-posed. For instance, the failed enforce-ment of revolutionary abstraction in thename of “reason”was, for Burke, an exer-cise in ideological insanity, while theemphasis on true and “natural”emotionalresponses underscored the Revolution’sartificial, programmatic conformity. Sen-sibility turned into rage whenever ideo-logical abstractions failed, and a theoryof reason led with crazed logic to theguillotine. Burke saw a connection be-tween Rousseau’s love for an abstracthumanity and his hatred for concretehuman beings-a connection reproducedin the revolutionary rage against peoplewho did not correctly respond to revolu-tionary theory. In this context, he sawthe Revolution
as
the culmination of con-tradictions crystallized by Rousseau andthe process by which sympathy turnedinto
a
rationalization of hatred once itbecame “naturalto detest the enemies
Modem
Age
361

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