(What follows is a meditation on Bastille Day, a nationwide vacation celebrated in France on July 14 to commemorate the Storming of the Bastille. The primary half, on the horror and violence that ensued after the Storming, is right here.)
The Franco-Kantian Enlightenment, the ideological basis of the French Revolution, and the revolution itself, had an early and formidable critic in Edmund Burke. As early as 1790, earlier than the Terror began in earnest, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke challenged the reasoning underlying the proclamation of summary human rights. He rejected its declare to universality, its notions of pure regulation, its individualism.
Rejecting the revolutionary undertaking of a radical reconstruction of the social order, preferring empiricism to idealism, Burke upheld the English idea of rights step by step acquired over the course of historical past and legitimate for a given society at a given time. To today, his Reflections stay a defining tract of British conservatism as a self-conscious, absolutely conceived political philosophy.
Whereas Burke is understood to each correctly educated particular person within the English-speaking world, the thinker, author, diplomat, and prophet of the counterrevolution, Joseph de Maistre, will not be. Maistre (1753-1821) was not a liberal, like Burke. In reality, he wished “a counter-Revolution, which might not be a opposite revolution however the reverse of the Revolution.” For Maistre, the Revolution was the unlucky, if logical, end result of a godless century that idolized particular person achievement on the expense of divine order and custom. Taking a pessimistic view of historical past, he insisted that the person must be subordinate to his group and society, to authority, and to Windfall.
Falsely accused by Isaiah Berlin of being a forerunner of fascism, Maistre wished to see France’s return to the unwritten legal guidelines and to divine revelation whereas on the similar time admitting the tragically irreversible nature of the Revolution. Novelist Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, now forgotten however common within the Third Republic, memorably known as Maistre a “prophet of the previous.” Uncompromisingly anti-modern, Maistre stays to today the emblematic determine of the counterrevolution. Because of him greater than every other man, the idea of counterrevolution in France has developed an imagery hostile to the entire of the fashionable world for the reason that Reformation. To him, the Revolution was an irredeemably dangerous occasion, the one advantage of which was to punish France for its motion within the service of the Enlightenment.
Hippolyte Taine’s 1875 magnum opus, The Origins of Modern France, was important as a result of its creator—an immensely revered historian, literary critic, and thinker—couldn’t be dismissed as a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary. This gave him a credibility with the “fashionable France” of the early Third Republic that was denied to different authors hostile to the Revolution, resembling Maistre. Exasperated by the nation’s persistent instability and horrified by the Paris Commune, Taine didn’t content material himself with denouncing the Terror. He attacked the very ideas of 1789, each summary human rights and sovereignty of the folks.
Taine’s criticism of the main focus of the revolutionaries on abstractions—which led them to consider that society could be reworked by the reign of purpose as soon as it has damaged with prejudices—sounds eminently Burkian. Certainly, Taine’s criticism of the Revolution is inseparable from his reward of liberal England, which, in his view, knew the way to reform every little thing with out abandoning its constitutional legacy and knew that political freedom—which adapts to privileges and prejudices—is in actual fact “the fruit of accepted inequality and tolerated dysfunction.”
A conservative liberal, Taine had little in widespread with the prophets of the counterrevolution. In Maistre, he noticed above all a defender of the Pope and of the Vatican, whose energy and closed-mindedness have been for Taine one of many main causes of French misfortune. Against this, Taine defined, England knew the way to give itself a type of faith suitable with the liberty of the person and the scientific spirit. Aloof from the Catholic counterrevolution, Taine is not any much less distant from the next Motion Française of Charles Maurras, which noticed itself because the inheritor to royalist France.
Taine didn’t search to revive the monarchy however wished (with out believing in its practicality) to see in France a parliamentary regime modeled after Westminster. Nevertheless hostile he could have been to the Revolution and, in the end, to the left, Taine was not a person of the far proper and didn’t belong to the “basic” counterrevolutionary custom. He belongs to the slim lineage of conservative liberals who in the end rejected the necessities of French political tradition as a complete.
This trio—Burke, Maistre, and Taine—developed three distinct traces of criticism of the French Revolution within the first century after the autumn of the Bastille. For these curious, it could be rewarding to look into the criticism of the Revolution articulated within the first half of the 20th century by Charles Maurras, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt.
Picture: Edmund Burke (From Levan Ramishvili / by way of Flickr, within the Public Area)