Written by Vladimir Moss




     At the beginning of the modern age, in the early years of the French Revolution, two Englishmen, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, had an argument over tradition that is still highly relevant today. Burke’s emphasized tradition and denounced the revolution as “satanic”, while Paine, having been one of the main agents of the American Revolution, supported the Jacobins. After fleeing from England to Paris to escape a trial for sedition, Paine was invited to sit in the National Assembly. But he was soon cast into prison by the Jacobins and barely escaped the guillotine. None the wiser for his experience, he fled to America, where he died in poverty and unpopularity.


     Burke turned the key liberal idea of the social contract on its head: “Society is indeed a contract,” he wrote, “[but] becomes a partnership… between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” As Sir Isaiah Berlin writes: “Burke’s famous onslaughts on the principles of the French revolutionaries was founded upon the selfsame appeal to the myriad strands that bind human beings into a historically hallowed whole, contrasted with the utilitarian model of society as a trading-company held together by contractual obligations, the world of ‘sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators’ who are blind and deaf to the unanalysable relationships that make a family, a tribe, a nation, a movement, any association of human beings held together by something more than a quest for mutual advantage, or by force, or by anything that is not mutual love, loyalty, common history, emotion and outlook.”[1]


     Society exists over several generations, so why, asked Burke, should only one generation’s interests be respected in the social contract? Another conservative in a still more revolutionary era, G.K. Chesterton, put the point as follows: “Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to the fact of their being disqualified by the accident of their death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross…”[2]


     Again, Sir Roger Scruton writes, “the social contract prejudices the interests of those who are not alive to take part in it: the dead and the unborn. Yet they too have a claim, maybe an indefinite claim, on the resources and institutions over which the living so selfishly contend. To imagine society as a contract among its living members, is to offer no rights to those who go before and after. But when we neglect those absent souls, we neglect everything that endows law with its authority, and which guarantees our own survival. We should therefore see the social order as a partnership, in which the dead and the unborn are included with the living.”[3]


     “Every people,” writes L.A. Tikhomirov, “is, first of all, a certain historical whole, a long row of consecutive generations, living over hundreds or thousands of years in a common life handed down by inheritance. In this form a people, a nation, is a certain socially organic phenomenon with more or less clearly expressed laws of inner development… But political intriguers and the democratic tendency does not look at a people in this form, as a historical, socially organic phenomenon, but simply in the form of a sum of the individual inhabitants of the country. This is the second point of view, which looks on a nation as a simple association of people united into a state because they wanted that, living according to laws which they like, and arbitrarily changing the laws of their life together when it occurs to them.”[4]


     Burke rejected the idea that the French Revolution was simply the English Revolution writ large. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, he claimed (not entirely convincingly), was not a revolution in the new, French sense, because it left English traditions, including English traditions of liberty, intact: it “was made to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty… We wished at the period of the Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers… All the reformations we have hitherto made, have proceeded upon the principle of reference to antiquity.”[5] In fact, far from making the people the sovereign power, the English parliament in 1688 had sworn “in the name of the people” to “most humbly and faithfully submit themselves, their heirs and posterities” to the Monarchs William and Mary “for ever”.


     The French Revolution, by contrast, rejected all tradition. “You had,” he told the French, “the elements of a constitution very nearly as good as could be wished…; but you chose to act as if you have never been moulded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.” “Your constitution, it is true,… suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls and, in all, the foundations of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations. Your constitution was suspended before it was perfected.” “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in an hundred years.”[6] The French Revolution was just another disaster “brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal”. The “rights of man” were just a “pretext” invented by the “wickedness” of human nature.[7]


     “It was Burke’s Reflections,” writes G.P. Gooch, “which overthrew the supremacy of Locke [for the time being], and formed the starting-point of a number of schools of thought, agreeing in the rejection of the individualistic rationalism which had dominated the eighteenth century. The work is not only the greatest exposition of the philosophic basis of conservatism ever written, but a declaration of the principles of evolution, continuity, and solidarity, which must hold their place in all sound political thinking. Against the omnipotence of the individual, he sets the collective reason; against the claims of the present, he sets the accumulated experience of the past; for natural rights he offers social rights; for liberty he substitutes law. Society is a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.”[8]


     This is one of the most important truths, not only of political philosophy, but, still more important, of the Christian faith: “Remove not the landmarks which your fathers have set” (Proverbs 22.28).


March 11/24, 2021.

Tsar-Martyr Paul of Russia.


[1] Berlin, “The Counter-Enlightenment”, in The Proper Study of Mankind, pp. 256-257.

[2]Chesterton, in Michael Hoffman, Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare, Idaho, 2001, p. 149.

[3] Scruton, Modern Philosophy, London: Arrow Books, 1997, p. 417.

[4] Tikhomirov, “Demokratia liberal’naia i sotsial’naia” (Liberal and Social Democracy), in Kritika Demokratii (A Critique of Democracy), Moscow: “Moskva”, 1997, p. 122.

[5] Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

[6] Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

[7] Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

[8] Gooch, “Europe and the French Revolution”, in The Cambridge Modern History, Cambridge University Press, 1934, vol. VIII, p. 757.

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company