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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Reflections on the Revolution in France

Reflections on the Revolution in France should be understood as shaped by four main influences: the events in France leading up to its publication in 1790, the social situation of Britain during the Industrial Revolution, the Irish Enlightenment, specifically Berkeley’s rejection of abstract reasoning, and Burke’s place in an ongoing philosophical conversation about the role of the passions in political life.

Storming of the Bastille and Arrest of the Governor M. de Launay by Jean-Pierre Houël, 1789. (Wikimedia Commons)Storming of the Bastille and Arrest of the Governor M. de Launay by Jean-Pierre Houël, 1789. (Wikimedia Commons)

To begin with the historical: in 1790 the outcome of the French Revolution was still in question and many of its key events, most significantly the execution of Louis XVI, were yet to come.  Several important turning-points had already occurred.  First, in May of 1789 the Estates General met to address the profound economic crisis France found itself in, which had been precipitated by its support of the American Revolution.  The meeting was ultimately unsuccessful, largely because of cumbersome protocols and the uncooperativeness of the Second Estate, or aristocratic class, which had a disproportionate amount of power, despite only representing two percent of the population.  In response, the Third Estate, whose representatives came from the bourgeoisie and constituted the overwhelming majority of the population, met alone and renamed themselves the National Assembly, with the goal of creating a French constitution.  Though the king objected to these events, he was eventually forced to acquiesce.  Shortly thereafter, on July 14, 1789, the Paris populace "stormed the Bastille"--the prison that symbolized royal authority.  When Burke published his Reflections, then, France was still a constitutional monarchy and the threat of violence, while certainly present, was by no means seen as foreordained.

Despite this, the events that had taken place were enough make Burke deeply alarmed about the possibility of a similar revolt taking place in Britain, particularly given the volatile social conditions of the time.  The Industrial Revolution had begun in Britain earlier that century within major innovations in the textile industry.  This led to the development of factories, urbanization, and the destruction of old working patterns.  Living conditions often declined as peasants moved to cities for factory jobs and tuberculosis, among other diseases, became rampant in the new crowded cities.  Given all of these factors, Burke thought that the possibility of the idea of revolution taking hold was a very real one.

Intellectually, Burke shared with thinkers such as George Berkeley a deep suspicion toward abstract ideas, dissassociated from any actual things, in reasoning.  This is most evident in Burke's rejection of natural law and human rights, as advocated by thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau.  In contrast to a vision of society as a collection of individuals held together by rational self-interest, Burke argued that society is actually constituted by feelings of affection and identification with one’s immediate social unit that expand outward to encompass the whole of the nation.  In this, Burke had similarities with Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), as well as, ironically enough, Mary Wollstonecraft’s insistence on the importance of the family for forming and educating the autonomous rational individual.


Written by Liane F. Carlson, Department of Religion, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford Reference Online. 

"Edmund Burke," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Encyclopedia of European Social History, Gale Virtual Reference.

Turner, Frank M, Ed.  Reflection on the Revolution in France: Edmund Burke. New Haven: Yale     University Press, 2003