Revolution in Rousseau and Burke: Term Paper

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Here, Burke argued that revolution in general, and the French Revolution in particular, must be matched with reason and a reluctance to completely give up to radical thinking.

Rousseau gave in directly to the revolution, arguing that it is a direct result of man's socialization, but Burke was much more cautious: Revolution is not automatically good for Burke, nor is it intrinsic to man.

Given Burke's record as a strong supporter of American independence and as a fighter against royalism in England, many readers and thinkers were taken aback when Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. With this work, Burke suddenly went on to became one of the earliest and most passionate English critics of the French Revolution, which he interpreted not as movement towards a representative, constitutional democracy but instead as a violent rebellion against tradition and justified authority and as an experiment dangerously disconnected from the latently complex realities of integrated human society, which would ultimately end in absolute disaster both in France and abroad.

Former admirers of Burke, such as Thomas Jefferson and fellow Whig politician Charles James Fox, then began to denounce Burke as a reactionary and an enemy of democracy. Thomas Paine penned The Rights of Man in 1791 as a response to Burke. However, other pro-democratic politicians, such as the American John Adams, agreed with Burke's assessment of the French situation. Many of Burke's pessimistic predictions for the outcome of the French Revolution were later borne out by the execution of King Louis XVI, the subsequent Reign of Terror, and the eventual rise of Napoleon's autocratic regime.

Burke's writing and these events, and the disagreements which arose regarding them within the Whig party, led to that party's breakup and to the rupture of Burke's friendship with Charles James Fox. In 1791 Burke published his Appeal from the New
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to the Old Whigs, in which he restated his criticism of the radical revolutionary programs inspired by the French Revolution and attacked the Whigs - his old friends -- who supported them. Eventually most of the Whigs sided with Burke and voted their support for the conservative government of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, which declared war on the revolutionary government of France in 1793.

But as mentioned above, Burke was not all reactionary - he believed in the power of revolution and the justification for some revolutions, but was just steadfastly against the French Revolution.


Ultimately, both Burke and Rousseau were proponents of revolution. Rousseau, for instance, wrote, "Europe had fallen back into the barbarity of the first ages. People from this part of world, so enlightened today, lived a few centuries ago in a state worse than ignorance. Some sort of learned jargon much more despicable than ignorance had usurped the name of knowledge and set up an almost invincible obstacle in the way of its return. A revolution was necessary to bring men back to common sense, and it finally came from a quarter where one would least expect it."

Burke agreed, as presented in the quotation on the previous page - however, he did not believe in the French Revolution, as he believed it was based only in economic inequity and not in political underepresentation and purity of ideals.

Rousseau, on the other hand, felt firmly that economic inequities translate directly to the need for revolution, and as amour de soi, revolution is motivated outside the dangerous regimes of pride. Pride, for Burke, was exactly what motivated the French Revolution, and therefore the reason he argued so powerfully against it.



Discourse On The Arts and Sciences, 1750

The Social Contract, 1762

Discourse On The Origin And…

Sources Used in Documents:



Discourse On The Arts and Sciences, 1750

The Social Contract, 1762

Discourse On The Origin And Basis Of The Inequality Of Men, 1754

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