As noted previously, there was criticism of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. Thomas Paine in his “Rights of Man” condemns the book. “It is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry”, says Paine, “that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope, and the Bastille are pulled down”. Paine is unimpressed with Burke’s lament for the age of chivalry, and says, “in the rhapsody of his imagination, he has discovered a world of windmills, and his sorrows are, that there are no Quixotes to attack them.”
Paine’s criticisms are illustrated in the caricature above (from the Library of Congress). Burke is depicted riding a donkey whose head is human and adorned with the papal crown. In his part as Don Quixote Burke is armoured and bears a shield labelled “Shield of Aristocracy and Despotism”, bearing illustrations of torture, death, and the Bastille. Tied to his saddle is a copy of his “Reflections”, and the door he is emerging from is “Dodsley Bookseller” the publisher of the book.
Continue reading “Burke as Don Quixote”
Burke’s hatred of the French revolutionaries was not, at root, reactionary. He opposed them not so much because he disagreed with their political views, though he certainly did, but because he thought those views spelt the death of political society as such. For Burke, the French revolution was an assault on the very conditions of possibility of political culture, a kind of transcendental error, because in destroying, as he saw it, the institutions of civil society, it did away with the very medium by which political power is tempered and rendered tolerable.
Burke’s conservative colleagues were quick enough to endorse this criticism when it came to France, but hardly when it concerned the miserable colony on their own doorstep. His animus against autocrats was indeed in one sense conservative: he feared that they would breed mass disaffection, and so threaten the status quo. The British, by failing to extend the blessings of the Whig settlement to their Irish colonials, were obtusely driving this traditionalist religious nation into the arms of an unholy revolutionism, just as they did with their American dependents. If Burke did not approve of Irish republicanism, he saw precisely how the British were responsible for creating it.
Terry Eagleton, Saving Burke from the Tories
Magazine article from New Statesman (1996), Vol. 126, No. 4341