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Burke vs. Paine

In: English and Literature

Submitted By jmc0063
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Many texts and writings appeared in response to the violence and political disruption of the French Revolution. From the beginning, the French Revolution was built on conflicting ideas; men could act for their own self-interest, but not if that interest did not support the common benefit of everyone. Driven by this conflict, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine were two specific English writers that engaged in this debate. With their argument specifically dealing with where the natural rights of men are derived from and the responsibilities of the government to their people. Having conservative views, Burke wanted to see change that respected tradition and happened slowly over time. He certainly did not want to see the state overthrown by the common man. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wanted to show his concern for the British people based on his reactions to the events in France. Thomas Paine responded to Burke’s theories with Rights of Man. Paine believed the monarchy was unnatural and evil, and the people had the right to take over a government like this at any given time. He saw the revolution as a change that developed a new state which represented the people, even ignoring or justifying the injustice of some of its actions. As the French revolution intensified with the execution of King Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror, Burke’s arguments proved more consistent than Paine’s. Edmund Burke’s interpretation of natural rights better represented the outcome of the French Revolution, ultimately being the factor that makes his argument more effective than Paine’s delusional fight for principle. The treatment of the monarchy, the disregard for social order, and the disrespect for tradition all contributed to the violent turn that Burke predicted. Edmund Burke was a Whig deeply invested in political life and in the monarchy in Britain. He viewed the revolution as an obligation by the government to fix some of the problems faced in society, but he had an issue with the violence and anarchy that the French Revolution caused. Burke disliked the French Revolution because of its overlooking of tradition which led to political instability. With tradition comes stability and to move so quickly from a monarchical state to chaos damaged French society. Burke argued that, unlike Paine, he believed a person can only count on experience and what he knows, not just reason alone. Whether or not people judged the monarchy as good or evil, it still maintained order. If a society is not based on its structure and traditions and abandons its history, it will ultimately lose its form. Burke was big on mechanism, the actual happenings of a situation. He did not assume and used reason to justify his beliefs like Paine did. Instead, he presented what he saw in front of his eyes and the outcomes of past revolution to shape his ideas. The Glorious Revolution respected tradition and the past, whereas the French Revolution did not. The French Revolution completely destroyed the power of the throne, the Glorious Revolution did not. Burke noted that the French Revolution grew out of a crisis in government and tradition and was radical compared to Britain’s Glorious Revolution. Though the Glorious revolution had a temporary change from the strict order of the regular hereditary succession, another King still succeeded. This was only a slight modification from tradition. The practice of hereditary succession immediately resumed and brought stability. As opposed to past revolutions, Paine wanted society to shift from the state’s historical foundation toward a radical change. Paine criticized Burke’s push for gradual reform with the traditional hierarchy, describing him as “contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedoms of the living” (133). During this time, governments were responsible for responding to the practical needs of the people, but this was not happening in France. Rather than moderately changing traditional practices, like the past had proven effective, revolutionaries were deriving their motivation from unproven theories. Burke knew that things in the present cannot simply change by fixing things spontaneously. Precedent and history had to be taken into consideration to better understand the needs of the people. Burke knew in the end without tradition and history living in France would turn disastrous. Another problem that foreshadowed Burke’s violent prediction of the French Revolution was society’s disregard for social class. One problem that heightened tension during the revolution was people’s newfound demand for entitlement and equal rights. These were two important things that Paine emphasized. He believed “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good” (132). Burke knew the chase for these natural rights that Paine and his supporters wanted was dangerous and could lead to violence. He thought that all parts of a society were independent and that each class should play their “natural role.” Burke states:
Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour. In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things. (116)
Burke supported that we have entitlement, but it had to be in lines with one’s role in society. He believed people should only try to be fruitful in their own industry instead of fighting for other people’s entitled positions. Burke was terrified of the idea of seizing someone’s rightful place and had sympathy for people who had their fortune and rank unjustly taken away from them during the revolution. Paine agreed with the National Assembly decision to order the Catholic Church to sell its property to pay off the state’s debt. Even though the Church illegally tithed the people, seizing what they rightfully owned was not the solution. This is where Paine’s logic was weak. According to him the law must apply to all subjects. If the liberties of the French citizens cannot be taken, the liberties of the noblemen should not be taken either. The “eye for an eye” method did not work for the revolutionaries, it only led to a short resolution and long term violence as Burke predicted. Finally, the execution of King Louis XVI marked the violence that Burke knew France could not return from. Burke knew the monarchy was not perfect and welcomed improvement, but as long as it did not disrupt the natural order of things. While he did support change to an extent he also respected inheritance as well stating, “…it has been uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers…” (115). Most noblemen inherited their position from their ancestors. Burke did not believe it was right to punish people for their place in society. Many criticized Burke’s account of bringing the King and his family back to Paris as being overdramatic, but Burke always emphasized on the mechanisms of a situation. This is what I think allowed him to predict the horrible outcomes of the French Revolution; he saw things for what they really were. He bitterly asserted, “Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights of men!” (117). Burke opposed the brutality and disruptive nature of the French Revolution. His intention of dramatic prose was to warn the people of England against being swept up in the same type of passionate yet chaotic movement that was corrupting France. Burke’s recall of the brutality of the monarchy allowed British readers to feel the emotions of this violent turn. Paine’s argument again had shortcomings when the violence Burke expected came to light. Paine claimed the revolution does not attack the king himself but the principles of the monarchy. Somehow Paine’s theories on pamphlets did not prove well in actual life. The king was attacked by the people he was obligated to protect, but the principles of a violent France continued. At the end of the Revolution many lives were lost due to the chaotic mess and violence that erupted. Although revolutions on paper sound practical in the way Paine discussed it, Burke focused on what was actually happening and was able to give an elaborate prediction of violence that held true. Burke was able to independently form his argument, whereas Paine spent most of his writing simply opposing things Burke said. While some did not agree with Burke’s observations, his beliefs were consistent and followed up with the mechanism of the revolution. These consistencies and spot on predictions gave Burke an effective argument that society can use for the revolutions of today.…...

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