Conservatives invoke Edmund Burke’s classic Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke argued that we can’t remake man, as the revolutionaries tried to do. When we try and inevitably fail, we keep trying, and get progressively more brutal as our frustration grows. The attempt to remake man always ends in tyranny.
But Chesterton praised the leading revolutionary Robespierre, despite his being responsible for so much bloodshed. He had a point, though an unusual way of making it. A point our world makes ever clearer. However much you agree with Burke, as a Christian you must live your life in part as a Robespierre.
Chesterton summed up Burke in his book What’s Wrong With the World. I’ll quote a lot, because it’s Chesterton. Burke, he wrote, “was certainly not an atheist in his conscious cosmic theory, though he had not a special and flaming faith in God, like Robespierre.” He used the two of them as symbols of two conflicting ways of engaging the world. Not, let me stress, really fairly to Burke, but a good way to make his point. He was being playful, as book reviewers like to say. Many people do think in the way he describes Burke thinking. He attacked a real thing.
“In the quarrel over the French Revolution, Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument, as Robespierre stood for the theistic,” Chesterton wrote. “The Revolution appealed to the idea of an abstract and eternal justice, beyond all local custom or convenience. If there are commands of God, then there must be rights of man.”
Burke attacked what Chesterton called “the Robespierre doctrine” not with a religious argument, but “with the modern argument of scientific relativity; in short, the argument of evolution. He suggested that humanity was everywhere molded by or fitted to its environment and institutions; in fact, that each people practically got, not only the tyrant it deserved, but the tyrant it ought to have.”
Burke famously said, “I know nothing of the rights of men, but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” In that line, Chesterton declared, “You have the essential atheist.”
“His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth,” Chesterton continued. Speaking as if he were Burke, he asks: “And why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God! We are born under a House of Lords, as birds under a house of leaves; we live under a monarchy as [Africans] live under a tropic sun; it is not their fault if they are slaves, and it is not ours if we are snobs.”
Burke was a darwinian before Darwin. “Man, said Burke in effect, must adapt himself to everything, like an animal; he must not try to alter everything, like an angel.”
The Anglican minister and novelist Laurence Sterne had famously said, not long before Burke wrote, “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” Chesterton concluded: “Burke, the iron evolutionist, essentially answered, ‘No; God tempers the shorn lamb to the wind.’ It is the lamb that has to adapt himself. That is, he either dies or becomes a particular kind of lamb who likes standing in a draught.”
Not, as I said, really fair to Burke, nor to his insights into human nature and the way people act when they want to change the world. Burke wrote wisely about loving the world we live in, the world we’ve been given, which oddly enough gave him sympathy for the American Revolution.
Chesterton spoke too cheerfully and too recklessly about the French Revolution. But here he offers an insight into what being a Christian in the world means. One that’s ever more important as Christianity loses its privileged place in society and Christians become one voice among many, and an eccentric — an annoying and awkwardly dissenting — voice at that.
It is: Be Robespierre. Be the theist who stands for principle no matter what. Don’t be the atheist who approves the way things are. The vulnerable and marginal depend on you. It’s easy to be Burke, if the way things are suits you. It was easy for Burke to be Burke, not so easy for the French peasantry.
Even Christians who are otherwise Burkes can see this. Christians today feel less like Burke than we did and more like the French peasantry. Society has moved well away from Christianity on matters like abortion and marriage, and now religious freedom, the rights of parents, and sexual identity. In political matters, it has always been at a greater distance from Christianity, as in the state’s continual use of violence to order the rest of the world to its interests. Most Christians haven’t felt that nearly as keenly, but more do now. (I leave to English readers the evaluation of their own nation’s history.)
As believers in a natural law the world flouts when it wants to, and a revelation the world doesn’t recognize, we can’t not be Robespierres. As the very Burkean Robert P. George says in an article appearing tomorrow, “If Catholic ethics stands for anything, it stands for the principle that good ends, even supremely good ends, do not justify bad (i.e., unjust) means.”
Right is right, even if it seems to work out badly. Wrong is wrong, even if it seems to work out well. No simple Burkean acceptance of the way things are. For the world’s good, for the good of the most vulnerable, like the unborn and the poor, speak like Robespierre.
David Mills is the Senior Editor (US) of The Catholic Herald. His previous article for Chapter House was Why Men Leave Their Dying Wives. His most recent article for the home page is The English team, he says, is the “enemy of truth, beauty, and goodness”. He is also the “Last Things” columnist for the New Oxford Review.
Photo credit: The storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
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