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August 10, 2014

Edmund Burke: teacher of mankind


We are in a war of a peculiar nature. It is not with an ordinary community, which is hostile or friendly as passion or interest may veer about; not with a State which makes war through wantonness, and abandons it through lassitude. We are at war with a system, which, by its essence, is inimical to all other Governments, and which makes peace or war, as peace or war may best contribute to their subversion. It is with an armed doctrine that we are at war.”

So Edmund Burke wrote near the end of his days, describing the marching modern spirit that animated Jacobin France — a spirit which has plagued us ever since. Burke went on to identify the enemy with an energetic precision. First, it was Revolutionary France, the Regicide commonwealth, “which lays it down as a fixed law of nature, and fundamental right of man, that all government, not being a democracy, is an usurpation.” Second, it was Jacobinism, “the revolt of the enterprising talents of a country against its property,” or “private men form[ing] themselves into associations for the purpose of destroying the pre-existing laws and institutions of their country.” Finally, it was Atheism, or irreligion.

These three forces, present throughout Christendom in isolation for centuries, had finally united under one power, and in one State. It was against this power that Burke set himself with all the power and subtlety of his ample mind.

This image of an armed doctrine appears as in contrast. It is not an armed clan, or an armed banditry, or an armed mob, though it will make use of all these. It is far less localized, and far less human. It combines the brute practicality of a guillotine with the ghostly abstraction of the loftiest Marxist conjectures. A good précis may be discerned in the career of John Reed.

We might say that the French Revolution was the culmination of a brewing revolt: the break-up of Christian Europe and the dawn of the Modern Age. When we look backwards across history through the prism of the twentieth century — in particular through the prism of Revolution, so central to the twentieth century — we begin to see this previous revolution in France, to which the Communists and a hundred other mad malcontents harkened back, in a more sinister light. The armed doctrines were indeed on the march, and we have not heard the last of them.

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