Edmund Burke: The Political Actor Thinking

Frank M. Turner. "Edmund Burke: The Political Actor Thinking," introduction to Reflections on the Revolution in France (Yale University Press, 2003).


The value of Burke’s analysis … does not really lie in what many from the 1790s onward have regarded as its prophetic insights into the eventual judicial murder of the French royal family, further terror against French citizens from all social classes, the drive toward dechristianization, and the rise of a military dictatorship. The lasting command of Burke’s polemic is his recognition that the appeal to visionary political goals in the name of the rights of man or another political or religious ideology must necessarily result not in justice but in destruction and death, because rational utopians under the banner of light and reason would define and redefine political terms and social categories to advance their own tyrannical aims. It is exactly that essentially unrestrained power to proclaim law and to define its interpretation that Hobbes assigned to his sovereign and that Burke saw at work in the France of his own day. Burke believed that revolutionary governments would exercise that authority either in the name of idealistic abstract rights or in the name of abstract rights concealing selfish ends. The present would be sacrificed for an imagined future. While composing the Reflections, Burke told a correspondent, “I confess … that I have no great opinion of that sublime abstract, metaphysic revisionary, contingent humanity, which in cold blood can subject the present time, and those whom we daily see and converse with, to immediate calamities in favour of the future and uncertain benefit of persons who only exist in idea.”

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