Wednesday, May 06, 2015

French Revolutions: Belloc and Burke (continued)

"Abbe Sieyes, could say, 'What is the third estate?  Everything.  What has it been hitherto in the body politic?  Nothing.  What does it demand?  To be something.'" - A Popular History of France from the Earliest Times, by Guizot

Guizot points out that the Third Estate - that is, everyone who wasn't clergy or nobility - had a long history of influence in the government, thus, the Third Estate had always been something.  What it demanded was to be everything, which was a nonsensical demand that doomed it to failure.

Burke delves more into the hypocrisy of the Third Estate, by first making it clear that a majority of the legislature were low-life lawyers, sophists, charlatans and others who stood to personally make a nice profit on the revolutionary upheaval.  In the end, the good among them were driven into exile.  He goes on to point out how these politicians routinely give grand speeches about the virtues of Democracy and popular choice, only to express within the elite cliques their utter contempt for the voting masses.  Some things never change.

Burke is really in a long-winded rant mode, so I have to try to remember the occasional point that falls out of a mass of words.  One point that stood out was that in almost all revolutions that preceded the French Revolution, the goal had been to reform morals and religion for the betterment of society.  The French Revolution stood apart for having been intended to do harm both to morals and religion, thus, leading to the frenzied mob that behaved in a manner similar to that of the St. Bartholomew massacre.  At the time Burke wrote, the king and queen were locked up and not yet executed.  Burke notes that of all the vicious tyrannical kings in history that perhaps deserved an ill fate, the king and queen of France were being persecuted for being too soft, while many of their retainers had been ruthlessly murdered by the mob without any due process.  In the end, those who boasted of the Rights of Man proved to be as frenzied and barbaric as any in history.  Combining Burke's observations with Guizot's, the sense is one of a bunch of ingrates.  The more they received, the more vicious they became towards the ones who gave to them.  A problem for the revolutionaries in arguing that any established institution should be overthrown because it is established is that a generation later, what the revolution established should then need to be overthrown again.  Or we can do what we do in the modern era, which is that the establishment cites a different group as being "the establishment", so that the mobs will be perpetually overthrowing what is not the establishment, while being content that they have done their riotous duty.

An amusing bit was Burke's claim that the French hardly understood England, and the works of great literature from earlier generations were wholly unknown to the educated of today.  This reminded me of Belloc's complaint that few had read Rousseau, and many did not understand Rousseau's French, or were too impatient and rushed through without processing the ideas.  My recorded books include a "rebuttal" by Thomas Paine of Burke's work, entitled The Rights of Man.  I suppose that this would be worth reading next.

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