Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

Copyright © 1986 by Michael Macrone.

The “I’s” Have It

Reflections on Edmund Burke’s Reflections

When the young French gentleman de Pont wrote to Edmund Burke in hopes of shoring up "Espérance" if the latter "Daign[erait] … assurer [son couer] que les françois sont Dignes d’être libres,"[1] he little suspected what sort of assurances Burke could make to himself. If Burke was, as he portrayed himself, all heart, that doesn't mean his sympathy was without limits. Certainly, by the time of Burke's cruel second epistle in reply, de Pont must have wished the Englishman had just sent what would have at least seemed kinder—a nice, short, rejection slip. What he and the world got instead were Burke's lengthy Reflections on the Revolution in France, which reflect on French affairs only as they are reflected where the heart is.

Burke begins his letter, fittingly enough, not with any immediate estimation of the the Worth of the French, but with its reflection in an indigenous group called The Society for Constitutional Information. Burke claims to have shared the public indifference to this "club" until, to his "inexpressible surprize," he "found them in a sort of public capacity, by congratulatory address, giving an authoritative sanction to the proceedings of the National Assembly in France" (Reflections, 87-8). Burke's "surprize" has less to do with the club's act of congratulation than with its presumption to act seemingly as repre­sentatives of the English people, to appear "in some sort of corporate capacity, [as if] acknowledged by the laws of this kingdom, and authorized to speak the sense of some part of it" (88).

As Burke sees it, such an appearance can only be calculated. And the proof that seals the point as well as the petition is its anonymity: the address lacks a proper signature—proper names. But as Burke recognizes, lack of personal attribution is still a "mode of signature," one, he tells de Pont—who is anonymous in the text—"to which you have thrown open the folding-doors of your presence chamber, and have ushered [the petition] into your National Assembly, with as much ceremony and parade, and with as great a bustle of applause, as if you had been visited by the whole representative majesty of the whole English nation" (89).

The odd thing about this last complaint is, for one, its second-person address—the "you" Burke upbraids is both de Pont and the whole French nation. The other odd thing is his own ambiguous mode of signature. Throughout the Reflections, which is subscribed only with a "finis," Burke blurs the addresses and signatures of messages, his own and others. He implicitly exploits an alternation—and often an identity—between the singular and plural forms of the first and second persons in direct address; and he brings this tension home to the problem of representation. I repeat here a central question of the Reflections—the question of the representative status of the address of the individual and of his signature.

At first, Burke claims to divest himself of any collective or plural authority in his address to the singular-plural "you" of the Reflections. Much of his irritation in the early pages of the work seems to stem from Burke's own vulnerablity to the ambiguous signature of the Constitution Society petition; he strenuously objects to his mistaken incorporation into the unauthorized societé anonyme. And while disassociating himself from the Constitution Society, he puts forth his general policy on representative legitimacy:

For one, I should be very sorry to be thought, directly or indirectly, concerned with [the] proceedings [of the Constitution Society]. I certainly take my full share, along with the rest of the world, in my individual and private capacity, in speculating on what has been done, or is doing, on the public stage; in any place antient or modern; in the republic of Rome, or the republic of Paris: but having no general apostolic mission, being a citizen of a particular state, and being bound up in a considerable degree, by its public will, I should think it, at least improper and irregular, for me to open a formal public correspondence with the actual government of a foreign nation, without the express authority of the government under which I live. (88)

Burke differentiates, at least in theory, a private from a public (authorized, representative) interest. Further, as he had said in the very first paragraph of the letter, it's only the "public" interest that counts:

I will not give you reason to imagine, that I think my sentiments of such value as to wish myself to be solicited about them. They are of too little consequence to be very anxiously either communicated or withheld. ... In the first letter I had the honor to write to you, and which at length I send, I wrote neither for nor from any description of men; nor shall I in this. My errors, if any, are my own. My reputation alone is to answer for them. (85)

But it is simply impossible to take seriously Burke's assertion of the private, unauthorized status of his correspondence with the singular-plural "you." This is so because Burke deeply believes in his own epitomizing not just of Englishmen, but further of a national social structure. And it is also because the Reflections seems very much an address from the British to the French people. At moments Burke forgets that he has qualified his representative authority, collectivizing his meditations on the national character:

I assure you I do not aim at singularity. I give you opinions which have been accepted amongst us, from very early times to this moment, with a continued and general approbation, and which indeed are so worked into my mind, that I am unable to distinguish what I have learned from others from the results of my own meditation. (197)

Burke's sentiments and knowledge and those of the nation are one, indissoluble. Yet at the moment Burke speaks in the first person plural, he necessarily quali­fies the plurality of his speech; if he indeed trusted the hearts of his country­­men, he would have no reason to speak at all—and still less reason to speak his distress for the length of a three-hundred page open letter, which addresses itself beyond the singular-plural "you" to the very "we" within which Burke's voice originates and grounds itself.

At first glance problematic, the rhetoric maintains itself as an effective orchestration of the very consolidated self it seems to presume. The tension between Burke's breezy intimacy with the English Zeitgeist and his claims to a humble individuation from the imperatives of his government is produc­tive: it produces a space of self-reflection which serves as a model for an "us" that Burke may at once embody and address. It both domesticates and alienates the subjects of the Reflections in making events abroad closer to home, and events at home the yardstick for those abroad.

Given the complex indissolubility of the "private" from the "public" Burke, it might seem misguided if not impossible to locate any individual "self" at all in his Reflections . And yet, Burke's writings seem to us radically individual, and they have earned him a distinct place in English letters. And this, in turn, makes it seem imperative that we should find in Burke some evident gap between individual "self"(-interest) and his insistent dissolution of the individual self into the natural and social orders which preceded it. As we, with Burke's contemporaries, well know, an "I" speaks despite its conspicuous claims to its own plurality.

While I (uneasily) accept that such biographical and literary-historical motivations necessitate working out a "self" for Burke, I by no means wish to imply that there is a unitary and controlling referent for the author's voice. I am putting pressure on Burke's inconsistencies not, or not only, to foreground a gap between rhetoric and reality—a move that ultimately confirms the biographical imperative to precipitate a "private" self behind the work. I wish rather to press the inconsistencies to show how they necessitate the rhetoric and teleology of their vehicle, the Reflections . In the end, the ambiguity of the various selves within Burke's letter calls forth and reconfirms the consolidating force of a controlling, integrative model of individual essence.

The “I” that Reflects

What would it mean for there to be an "I" speaking from within the Reflections? This question calls for an analysis of Burke's narrative of the mechanics of self-formation.

Burke's philosophy of the self is grounded in an almost neo-Platonic notion of a "chain of being,"[2] a notion which is in turn a philosophy of the social contract, "linking the lower and higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and moral natures, each to their appointed place" (195). That individual will—the primal appetite of being—is born appointed by primal contract to a specific "place" in the social order is the tenet at the foundation of Burke's defense of inherited position, "priveleges, franchises and liberties":

This policy appears to me to be the result of a profound reflection; or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. … People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. … Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims, are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement; grasped in a kind of mortmain for ever. By a constitutional policiy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our priveleges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. The institutions of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of Providence, are handed down, to us and from us, in the same course and order. (119-20)

By this account, in a proper and natural social structure, as exists in England, there is no effective difference in the "transmissions" of Providence, ownership and policy. Nature, fortune and society operate within homologous laws. The imperative embedded in this vision of the chain of being is that the laws social perpetuation must be structurally fixed, beyond the invasions of individual will or even individual reason. "Reflection" is both limited and transcended by structural, unquestioned givens in an immutable correspondence of being.

In Burke's account the fixed contours of generational identity ensure a happy stasis of a transhistorical social constitution. "Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts … [which,] in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation and progression" (120).

Such a timeless state, impervious to any change "from below" in the order, has, as Burke well knows, yet to emerge. The "parts" meant to plug directly, indifferently and interchangeably into the system often have a will of their own, or think they do. The problem of will, if not central, is essential to the argument of the Reflections . And indeed, it would seem imperative for Burke to account for the origin and function of will within the divine scheme of the natural order he proposes. But will is simply given as axiomatic—it is an inherent weakness that preconditions natural laws, laws necessary to harmonize competing drives and elevate collective interest.

Before their national travesty, the French had "all that combination, and all that opposition of interests, yet had all that action and counteraction which, in the natural and political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe" (122). While "interest" seems different from will—it arises from the mechanics of social position and representation—it is often hard to make clear distinctions. Whatever distinctions there may be, it is in any event clear that the recuperative "balance of interests" is given both as a product of and control upon the fact of conflict of interests. The conflict, while harmonized, plays on. And will seems to represent for Burke that which remains outside the contract of personal or class interest with the laws of nature and of the polity. Will is that which demands the primacy of its own demands; it is what makes individuals think they have a right to count the way they want to. It knows what it wants, but it doesn't know that it can't always get it. The "second nature" of the self—its formation within law—takes care of weakness in the "first nature" of the organism, whose will seeks to centralize and control phenomena from within its own erratic desires.

All "antient institutions," says Burke, are "set in opposition to a present sense of convenience, or to the benefit of a present inclination" (110). When the latter prevails, disaster is sure to follow. Speaking on behalf of the whole English nation, Burke approves of the sober proceedings of parliament on the event of the glorious English Revolution. Their restraint from "bold changes" speaks for their recognition of the "limits of moral competence, subjecting, even in powers more indisputably sovereign, occasional will to permanent reason, and to the steady maxims of faith, justice and fixed fundamental policy" (104). The "permanent reason" Burke speaks of here is a very different thing from the "cold" rationalism of the National Assembly and their ilk; it is the accumulated and institutionalized wisdom of the ages. It is the prejudice that it is in the nature and duty of man to cherish and mine without end:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. (183)

What Burke implies above all is that the tragicomic flaw of the current revolutionaries is their hubris, their delusion as to the ability of individual will (to reason), their delusion that there is indeed something new and better for one man or one age to learn about the individual, society, and nature. This hubris is the intersection of individual fancy and individual will; it is the drive to escape the law of the fathers.

Such will and pride take the form of "floating fancies or fashions," and combine in the breaking of prescribed bonds to destroy the "original fabric of … society," leaving to posterity a "ruin instead of a habitation." With the trusted compass points of the forefathers inverted, "the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth [is] broken. No one generation [can] link with the other. Men … become little better than the flies of summer" (192-3). If the currency minted at the origins of civil society should be devalued,

Personal self-sufficiency and arrogance … would usurp the tribunal. Of course, no certain laws, establishing invariably grounds of hope and fear, would keep the actions of men in a certain course, or direct them to a certain end. Nothing stable in the modes of holding property, or exercising function, could form a solid ground on which any parent could speculate in the education of his offspring, or in a choice for their future establishment in the world. No principles would be early worked into habits.… Who would insure a tender and delicate sense of honor to beat almost with the first pulses of the heart, when no man could know what would be the test of honor in a nation, continually varying the standard of its coin? (193)

In short, without a fixed and certain standard, people would have no way of coining either their offspring or themselves. In this, the clearest statement of Burke's teleology of self, property creates people in its own image. Burke calls "second nature" those local determinations of the phenomenon of self: class, education, professions, period of life, habitation, the "several ways of acquiring and of fixing property," and, "according to the quality of the property itself, all which renders [individuals] as it were so many different species of animals" (299).

All this "second nature" is really just so much first nature, as, at least ideally, the institutions in which the individual is formed are structured by the laws and properties of nature itself. And all these institutions clearly proceed from one fundamental—property, which itself determines class, education, professions, etc. Essential to Burke's account in general is the naturalization of property, the erradication of any trace of its conventional constitution from unprescribed land.

Because second nature and first nature are both nature, one is led to the question of how the centralizing source of the just and the right could be so divided as to transmit such mixed signals. Within the model of a chain of being whose beginning and end is the Creator, the question is, again implicitly, the introduction of sin into creation. I think this approaches to some motivation for the insistent representations of the revolution and its cannibal selves as a hellish, demonic monstrosities.

But the question remains: if anarchistic will precedes and necessitates social order, how can order come to seem to the self as prior to disorder, and law prior to will? Such a chiasmus is a practical necessity for the triumph of what Burke calls "habitual native dignity" over "upstart insolence" (121), "permanent reason" over "occasional will" (104). So how, again, are the acquisitive desires of the will made to submit to what has become prior collective interest?

Burke's answer seems to be that by tying property to family, the heart will be tied to the law. "Heart" is in fact domesticated desire, and law the maintenance of a certain relation of a family group to a particular place . Acquisitive will is thus captured in an extensional investment in law, which proceeds from family identity. The self is thus put on a path (family-land-town-nation-race-natural realm-God) that reverses the declension of being from the divine. This in turn regulates certain terms in which the individual may conceive himself and his goal:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind. The interests of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage. (135)

Because the relationship between collective bonding/perpetuation and individual will is formulated as a literal extension of filial fealty, this model permits autonomous desire to be conceived only as a threat to ones very origins, and by extension to oneself. Collective claims by this metaphor are indeed prioritized and made preconditions for the desiring self. Yet that priority must continually be reasserted, and it is efficiently done so through an integration of the transhistorical material of collective dominion—land—into the structure of generational perpetuation. "The power of perpetuating our property in our families is that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself. It makes our weaknesses subservient to our virtue; it grafts benevolence even upon avarice" (140).

Yet even here, self-will ("avarice," "weaknesses") asserts a certain priority, at the moment the priority of its claims is being denied. And if property and prescription are decreed as efficient correctives — imbedded as law in the structure of the self-forming mechanism of the family—they paradoxically exacerbate the acquisitive desires of social subjects. Among those prominent selves with property en masse, property inclines them to acquire and consolidate ("[Property] must be represented … in great masses of accumulation, or it is not rightly protected"; 140). Among the producing and circulating classes, property generates envy ("The great masses therefore … excite envy, and tempt rapacity ..."). It then becomes a matter of political skill to "keep a balance between the power of acquisition on the part of the subject, and the demands he is to answer on the part of the state" (372). But whatever "demands" means here—responsibilities and/or priveleges of power—"[t]he means of acquisition are prior in time and in arrangement."

If acquisitive will is the fundamental truth of the Burkean subject, then the laws invested with the task of perpetuating order, "demands" and self seem doomed to submit to the "demands" of the subject himself. This dynamic both confounds and itself perpetuates the dreams of a propertied self so much a creature of imposed habit that it is a self without any occasion to have a will. This is the dream of the self as a pure natural object.

Burke's mistrust of the viability of the individual—and even of the individual age—leads therefore to a variety of complications in his tautological definition of the propertied self. Burke's empirically derived selves already exceed nature's "unerring and powerful instincts" (121). In fact, Burke's appeal against the French Revolution puts in question any permanent and empirically obvious decree of natural controls and limitations for self and society. According to Burke, God and tradition have bestowed, with and to civil society, natural and immutable forms and modes of representation. Yet what the French Revolution demonstrates is the susceptibility of men, in large quantities, to the sway of false represen­tations, dramatic deceits. And in turn a markedly paranoid suspicion of the visibility of the "unnatural" provokes Burke's loud defense of the way things really are.

It must be said that, although there is evident in the Reflections a strong desire for an utter homeostasis of state, society and self, Burke makes provisional allowances in his Anti-Republic for change and even ambition. Their place in the order — which is politcal rather than metaphysical—will be addressed more fully later in this paper. But the condition for change is that it proceed slowly enough so that it seems organic; resistance must be built in to the system so that if and when change does occur, it is sure to have been defered long enough so that it cannot be the result of impulse, i.e., an exertion of present desire or will. That is: change cannot be marked. The surface of phenomena, undisturbed by any perceptible break, therefore retains a necessary familiarity. Familiar objects are at the core of the Burkean self, and they are familiar because they have assumed a habitual relation to place . Places, colonized by objects, and vice versa, come to seem naturally fit domains and definitions for those objects.

The "I" that Sees

What marks itself, by this model, is thus that which stands out as not in its place, not really "in place" at all. What is marked is what defamiliarizes habitual vision, and calls attention, phenomenologically, to the act of seeing itself. These consequences of Burke's operative model come to assume a highly charged significance in the Reflections, in which acts of marking, including writing, "speculation," class vaulting and of course revolution, assume a stigmatized alignment.

Of course, Burke's outstanding text is itself an act of stigmatic marking. In bringing forth his letter to de Pont, or rather to the world at large, Burke confronts and complicates a regret of the act of marking, the coming into visibility, the announcement of difference. At base, Burke's conservatism—which is primal—is founded on the fact that change is that which announces its own difference, its own temporality, its status as an "event," the fact of its historicity. And the fact that change and difference have an intimate link with visibility is what marks his particular paranoia and animus against the theatrical visibility of the French Revolution and its performance for the world.

While it is important to recognize Burke's anxiety of the visible—at least, of that which has not already been seen—it is perhaps more important to acknowledge complications in any general account of vision and spectacle in his work. The visible can have its salutary as well as debilitating effects, but it is difficult to clearly distinguish them. One need only refer to the Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful to appreciate the primacy of the visible in Burke's thought. Vision assumes there a central role within a general and mechanistically behavior­istic account of the self, by which "our ideas" themselves are products of the senses' invasion by the world. Consciousness is a side-effect of context, and has no proper place in any "individual" sense.

Yet the visible in this account of consciousness is compromised in a number of ways. It is bound most centrally to Burke's idea of beauty, which, clearly, does the self more damage than good. Further, in the Enquiry the visible becomes indivisible from the tactile, as Burke asserts implicitly and explicitly in a framework whereby the encounter (even with the tongue) of the self with the world is a collision of mass with mass. Finally, the visible is mastered by the verbal in Burke's account of the sublime and its concomitant self-preservative reaction. It is precisely the transparency of the visible that renders it a little too seemingly within our purview;[3] the innate opacity of language is supremely suited to the evocation of that which masters us. Obscurity provokes in us a sense of danger, an antagonistic power;[4] we fill the gaps of perception with more self, because gaps signify above all the discontinuation of the individual. God, that force which sees all but is never seen, is finally an idea of fear. The other in general is fundamentally our enemy. Burke's phenomenology of the self is, in the end, not that far from Sartre's.

Being comes to the fore by its passage through nothingness, the gap in the seen and felt that we fill with our worst fears, and then survive. According to the "plot" of the Enquiry, the self is constituted as a reaction to sensible phenomena; the self forms along resistance points to the pressure of experience. The sublime, which triggers sensations of power and danger, is merely more honestly dangerous than the beautiful, which triggers complacency and relaxes resistance.[5] Where the sublime forces the self to push back, and thus to secure itself,[6] the beautiful gives us no cause to resist, and therefore tempts the self into dissolution. The beautiful — the domestic—is that which is commensurate with the individual's field of vision and that which contracts it by habituation; the sublime that which exceeds, escapes and expands it.

Within the schema proposed by the Enquiry, we may perhaps better understand the very different project of the Reflections. Burke never surrendered his action/reaction model of the self, yet it underwent two significant mutations: (1) The essential reaction against phenomena which guarantees our existence is localized, domesticated, and restricted in time. The contours of the individual are early determined and soon sedimented by habit. The self now seems perfectly agreeable to this arrangement. The social affections resulting from the ambiguous beautiful in the Enquiry [7] are represented in the Reflections as the origin and bedrock of the social order. (2) At the same time Burke reduces the temporal imperative to reiterate pressure against gaps in the self, he moves the atomistic and singular self of the Enquiry into a larger and more ontologically secure social context. As long as the individual remains in a local enough subcontext, he is secured by its forms, which remain familiar and become easily internalized. These forms, embedded in and transmitted through a nested sequence of contexts, are ultimately ratified by and comprised in a well-regulated natural order.

Yet that order may be, somewhere along the line, disturbed; despite the innate security of such an ingenious mechanism for producing individuals, gaps will arise or be forced open. In a sense, the Reflections is itself a reconfirmation of the mechanics of the Enquiry; it is itself a resistance-point to the pressure of a threatening other; the "letter" is very clearly a call for consolidation of the self. If in the Enquiry, the worse things look, the more self there must be to resist, in the Reflections, the worse things look, the more pronounced the effect of defamiliarization, the less the self has a purchase on. In the Enquiry, stasis was the enemy; in the Reflections, stasis is all we have any claim to at all. We know we're still there if everything we see has been there before; the recognized, the déjà vu, produces a recognizable self.

The observation most pertinent to my argument here is that, at the level of the visible, the categories of sublime and beautiful have been realigned if not overturned in the Reflections. In Burke's analysis of taste, what was at stake was accounting for the power and necessity of that which is obscure, unfamiliar, out of its place, unknown, no-thing. What is at stake in Burke's reading of the French Revolution, on the other hand, is accounting for the monstrousness of the out-of-place, the out-of-context, that which has no right to present itself and make itself visible to the world. First, consider Burke's account of the National Assembly's grotesquely bad theatre:

The Assembly … acts before [the criminal populace] the farce of deliberation with as little decency as liberty. They act like the comedians of a fair before a riotous audience; the act amidst the tumultuous cries of a mixed mob of ferocious men, and of women lost to shame, who, according to their insolent fancies, direct, control, applaud and explode them; and sometimes mix and take their seats amongst them …. As they have inverted order in all things, the gallery is in the place of the house. (161)

The advocates for this revolution, not satisfied with exaggerating the vices of their antient government, strike at the frame of their country itself, by painting almost all that could have attracted the attention of strangers, I mean their nobility and their clergy, as objects of horror. (240)

What appalls Burke in the actions of the revolutionaries is not just the visibility of their acts, but the wresting of those acts and their agents out of the proper context—rewriting, to the horror of the stranger, the script of the ages. Burke is angry not just that his heroes have been cast in the rôles of the villains, but that "miscasting" should even be possible. In Burke's world-view, character is ideally a transparent function of rôle, and rôles are both the expression and constitution of social sentiments fixed since the Middle Ages. "This mixed [civilizing] system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the antient chivalry; and the principle … subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations, even to the time we live in. … It is this which has given its character to modern Europe" (170). And it is only such character that it is fit for civilized man to assume.

The source of Burke's express anti-intellectualism is his sense that the now exemplary synecdoche – "He's all heart"—has a literal truth beyond the incursions of intellectual fancy, and beyond reason. If the French rationalists have their way, "All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason" (171). By a curious paradox—one Mary Wollstonecraft would repeatedly exploit in A Vindication of the Rights of Man—the faculty that traditionally was taken to separate man from the beasts, reason, is seen to threaten the reduction of mankind to the animal state, to threaten to uncover "the defects of our naked shivering nature." Burke sees the French playing out King Lear, but the only lesson to be gained is that, stripped for some "reason" of his crown, the king is certainly no more a "man," he is not even a man at all.

Burke defends "prejudices" on practical grounds, and on the grounds that their very endurance brings men to cherish them. Protected by the "coat of prejudice," without which all have is "naked reason," we have a ready-to-hand "motive to give action to reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision …. Prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit ..." (183). Once again we return, in contrast to the Enquiry, to the cherished power of habit, which renders action unerring because it renders it constant, coded and timeless: it obviates any moment of hesitation, and submits the pressure of event to a coded template of response. History repeats itself, which is much to say cancels itself.[8]

I shall return to these considerations momentarily, but I will now flip the coin and briefly observe the obverse of Burke's account of visibility. Although, as I shall claim, the significance to Burke of property is most importantly a certain invisibility, its conspicuous display is seen to have a salutary dramatic function. In defending the invidious luxuries to which inherited estate gives rise, Burke celebrates their display as "an oblation of the state itself" to "the sovereign of sovereigns," who "willed the state … willed its connexion with the source and original archetype of all perfection" (196). And by all means, visible luxuries reinforce archetypal rôles for the classes of a civil society. The luxury of individuals, he says,

is the publick ornament. It is the publick consolation. It nourishes the publick hope. The poorest man finds his own importance and dignity in it, whilst the wealth and pride of individuals at every moment makes the man of humble rank and fortune sensible to his inferiority, and degrades and vilifies his condition. It is for the man in humble life to raise his nature, and to put him in mind of a state in which the privileges of opulence will cease, when he will be equal by nature …. (197)

Once again, the visible is first and foremost dramatic; in the good theatre of England, land has molded a class of actors, or agents, whose duty is to render the renting audience sensible that the world is, after all, only a stage. But in pressing those of humble rank to the conclusion that theirs will only be the kingdom of Heaven, those holding the stage induce them into an identification—not with the actors, but with the luxuries, with the land itself. Just as in Wollstonecraft's account, desire for the carrot is necessary only to justify the stick: "They [the body of the people] must respect that property of which they cannot partake. They must labor to obtain what by labor cannot be obtained; and when they find … the success disproportioned to the endeavor, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice" (372). These resounding sentiments, which are the veritable climax of the Reflections, emphasize the double-bind of property which is resolved only in its dramatic representation. The people must find themselves in the land, and labor to become adequate to it; but they must be constantly reminded that, after all, they are only its spectators.

But haven't we returned to the fact that the visible fulfills its function only by deluding? The visible may usefully delude the subject into an identification with and disinvestment from land, and ritually portray for him his context-determined reader-response as a natural leap of the heart. Yet the visible easily admits to Satanic manipulation, perverting it from its proper role of producing individuals in the image of nature. If all went according to Burke's plan, tradition would not just form but be the individual. It is the failure of tradition to monopolize human will that necessitates a social control of the visible, by which proper response to the seen becomes habitually felt prejudice.

The "I"s that Buy

The theater of the French Revolution belies the conviction that man has through the ages been produced by regular laws as an epiphenomenon of the visible; that the ages themselves agree to a natural interpretation of events. History is reintroduced, and with it a sense that "feelings" and "sentiment" are up for grabs. Worse, the French Revolution asserts that the script of history is not a static epiphenomenon of land and the laws of nature; the theatre has been seized by individual and historical will, by the spirit of change itself.

When Burke celebrates "our men of speculation," who "instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them" (183), there is a curious dissonance in the word choice. His choice of the phrase "men of speculation" amplifies the economic metaphor that precedes it ("the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages"), and not altogether to the wished effect. Indeed the "new men" of France are "speculators" in the sense more common in the Reflections ; for Burke, speculation is finally an abuse of capital, a volatilization of the standards by which value is measured.

And thus it is the rendering of the determinate indeterminate, the erosion of faith in reigning standards, the undermining of prejudices, that haunt Burke here and in his later writings. Unchecked production of assignats and the conveyance of land into the open market have in France corrupted, and threaten ultimately to void, the established standard; what is worse, the corruption spreads. With it, its "floating fancies and fashions" take the stage.

The "circulation" of paper money gives it a fluid, self-propagating character. It attaches to and incorporates with things as it goes. And because paper money is openly conventional, it threatens, in incorporating with land, to reveal the conventional nature of the attachment of persons and their characters to property. As I have said, a Burkean state depends on the naturalization of property, the eradication of any trace of its conventional constitution from unprescribed land. It is necessary, in short, that the constitution of property have become invisible, naturalized, unquestioned, habitual. The horror of the National Assembly's confiscation of property is its assumption that property is, after all, conventionally constituted and transmitted as such.

If this were so, then the landed aristocracy would have no natural claim to privileges, which, if they were earned at all, were earned in a past that Burke would like to dissolve in a myth of the autochthonous generation of persons and their virtue.[9] The past in which one could locate origins as actions, and therefore as subject to evaluation, is as threatening as the future in which evaluation could pretend to have some claim independent of habitual associations and judgements (prejudices). The ideal time of the Reflections is a past not so distant as to be essentially distinguishable from the present; the time of forefathers whose features we recognize as the mirror images of our own.

Underlying Burke's valorization of the habitual replication and reflection of the forms of the forefathers is a desire for a pastoral order in which all conventions become naturalized and invisible as such. In the approved scenario, conventions are generationally propagated enough times so that society forgets they are conventions. They are naturalized by habit and tradition as "givens," there where the self is when it comes to consciousness. Property then begins to make man over in its image. Language, law and currency have transparent and natural bonds to established referents and standards. In the antithetical scenario offered by the Revolution, "natural" bonds are revealed as revocable, and therefore merely conventional; convention announces itself as such. The bonds of language, law and currency to referents and standards are loosened and "volatilized"; rhetoricity infects and threatens to leave nothing unspoiled.

The contours of the latter scenario are suggested in Burke's analysis of the ruinous effects of the confiscation and marketing of land. Such practices subject land-as-property to ontological revision; it undergoes an essential metamorphosis, from a stable and standard source of the social character into a circulating, transitive effect of individual will. "Land-marks" (144), which shows us where we are going by showing us where we have already been, become monstrous emblems of cannibal drives. The transformation is effected through

a process of continual transmutation of paper into land, and land into paper. When we follow this process in its effects, we may conceive something of the intensity of the force with which this system must operate. By this means the spirit of money-jobbing and speculation goes into the mass of land itself, and incorporates with it. By this kind of operation, that species of property becomes (as it were) volatilized; it assumes an unnatural and monstrous activity, and thereby … [this land] has now acquired the worst and most pernicious part of the evil of a paper circulation, the greatest possible uncertainty in its value. (308)

Not far behind this account, of course, which represents land and paper as autonomous, animate beings, comes Burke's portrait of the individuals who are the products of paper: "The new dealers being all habitually adventurers, and without any fixed habits or local predilections, will purchase to job out again, as the market of paper, or of money, or of land shall present an advantage" (308). The dealers are walking assignats, or rather, wandering assignats, less genuine individuals than empty forms that plug into whatever value-base is handy. The reasons such persons are anathema to Burke is that they are monstrous perversions of the landed self; without any habituation or determination save the habituation to novelty, they undergo a series of metamorphoses, and have no true form of their own.

These adventurers exemplify the archenemies of Burke's social order: men of ambition without property. That Burke was in some sense just such a man may speak volumes for the rhetoric of the Reflections, but I defer this consideration. Money equates with ambition, which equates with visible change and threat to established habituations. "The monied interest is in its nature more ready for any adventure," Burke says philosophically; "and its possessors more disposed to new enterprizes of any kind. Being of recent acquisition, it falls in more with any novelties. It is therefore the kind of wealth which will be resorted to by all who wish for change" (211). The tone here is cool; but Burke warms up in the next paragraph when aligning the monied interest to the Men of Letters who are Burke's scapegoats for the French atrocities. Let me delay accounting for this alliance for just a moment. To do Burke's vilification of money justice, I should turn to his account of its role in the constitution of the state:

Nothing is a due and adequate representation of a state, that does not represent its ability as well as its property. But as ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it never can be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in the representation. It must be represented too in great masses of accumulation, or it is not rightly protected. The characteristic essence of property, formed out of the combined principles of its acquisition and conservation, is to be unequal. ... Its defensive power is weakened as it is diffused. (140)

As everywhere in the Reflections, both property and the structure it implies are represented more distinctly, and attributed with more active life, than people are. For Burke, people are always already the representatives of common nouns, unless they happen to be lucky enough to be the products of property with proper titles attached. And although he nods here to ability—which is legitimate enough to claim a representation in the state—that nod becomes a wink to property; ability is admitted so consolidation of property may be justified. Property is always greater than the sum of its parts; great masses of its accumulation are necessary as the buffer, or fat, to be set between property at large and the instincts to "rapacity" tempted by those masses of property.

Here, where Burke's argument is only more obviously circular than elsewhere, emerges the consolidating teleology of his justification of the "plunder of the few" (140). It is of practical necessity to give the monied interest its representation in a thereby moderately vigorous state; for if it finds its ambitions without institutionalized outlet, it is invited to revolt. When the men of money "find the old governments effete, worn out and with their springs relaxed, so as not to be of sufficient vigor for their purposes, they may seek new ones that shall be possessed of more energy; and this energy will be derived … from a contempt of justice. Revolutions are favorable to confiscation ..." (264). Yet the lurking threat of revolution, from the ambitious bourgeoisie or the envious masses, is the undercurrent and fuel of the Reflections ; its rhetorical project, if it has just one, is to intensify the anxiety of the British propertied interest, to find revolution in every shadow, in every mark of new distinction, and thereby to press on for further consolidation of property.

... [I]nnocence in proprietors may be argued into inutility; and inutility into an unfitness for their estates. Many parts of Europe are in open disorder. In many other there is a hollow murmuring under ground; a confused moment is felt, that threatens a general earthquake in the political world. Already confederacies and correspondences of the most extraordinary nature are forming, in several countries. In such a state of things we ought to hold ourselves upon our guard. In all mutations (if mutations must be) the circumstance which will serve most to blunt the edge of their mischief, and to promote what good may be in them, is, that they should find us with our minds tenacious of justice, and tender of property. (265)

This foreign murmur of extraordinary confederacies must be treated as the initial communiqués of a volatile epidemic. And although the threat might be invisible to the lax gaze, it marks itself clearly for those who know how to see.

In fact, for Burke, the primary property of this amorphous confederacy is that it marks its distinction, inscribes its presence, calls attention to itself by standing out against the fixed field of the status quo. And this marking quality of the forces of ambition and change is embodied in a "new description of men" with whom the monied interest had formed in France a "marked union": "I mean the political Men of Letters … fond of distinguishing themselves, [and] rarely averse to innovation" (211). These men represent for Burke the catastrophe of the letter's division from the spirit, represent the circulation of marks (distinctions) without referents. As the free-floating marks displace the referential order, their propagators take center stage. As Burke says in Thoughts on French Affairs (1791):

The monied men, merchants, principle tradesmen, and men of letters, (hitherto generally thought the peaceable and even timid part of society,) are the chief actors in the French Revolution. But the fact is, that as money increases and circulates, and as the circulation of news, in politics and letters, becomes more and more diffused, the persons who diffuse this money, and this intelligence, become more and more important.[10]

Thus the circulation of texts figures and is figured by the circulation of money, and therefore of ambition; the attack on property finds in French letters the vehicle of its propagation. "To those who have observed the spirit of [the] conduct [of the Men of Letters], it has long been clear that nothing was wanted but the power of carrying the intolerance of the tongue and of the pen into a persecution which would strike at property, liberty, and life" (Reflections, 213). With the corrupt rhetorical tools of hyperbole and irony, these men have succeeded in "removing the popular odium and envy which attended that species of wealth [represented by the monied interests] … [I]n their satires they rendered hateful, by every exaggeration, the faults of courts, of nobility, and of the priesthood" (213-4).

The diabolic practices of the Men of Letters replicate the marking and defamiliarizing of habitual rôle, a marking epitomized for Burke in the theatre of the National Assembly. The crime of these men, as writers, intellectuals and public figures, is their attempt to colonize experience rather than to describe the beauty of the system that already works so well. This is not simply a case of the danger of life's imitating art; Burke's whole conception of the self and social ritual is bound up in a histrionics of character and setting. It is rather a problem of the referent of a represen­tation. French intellectuals, the National Assembly and the monied interest attempt to force lived experience into forms which have no direct or stable relationship to the already-lived, already-seen, and already-owned; with rhetoric, abstraction and paper money they infect the order of things with chance. Chance itself becomes the very character of experience, risk the thrill of living.

It is easy to understand how Burke could find in Rousseau, "the insane Socrates of the National Assembly,"[11] the arch-scapegoat, originator of the disease threatening to spread across the Channel. Rousseau looms large as a forefather of speculating revolution because, in Burke's eyes, he is a prophet of the visible—of surfaces and appearances—and, in bonding appearances to letters, provides speculative ambition with a mode of circulation. In his Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (1791), Burke elevates Rousseau's concern with appearances into an attempted erasure of the already-lived:

Under this philosophic instructor in the ethics of vanity, they have attempted in France a regeneration of the moral constitution of man. Statesmen, like your present rulers, exist by everything which is spurious, fictitious and false; by everything which takes man from his house, and sets him on a stage; which makes him up an artificial creature, with painted, theatric sentiments, fit to be seen by the glare of candle-light, and formed to be contemplated at a due distance. ...

If the system of institution recommended by the Assembly be false and theatric, it is because their system of government is of the same character. … (537-8)

According to Burke, the National Assembly, "political philosophers, systematic in everything" (538), begin their corruptions at the "source," with the family—and they achieve their end by erecting statues of Rousseau as a new model for the father. Rousseau, "a lover of his kind, but a hater of his kindred," to truly serve as a model of heartlessness, must be represented true to the letter—so, presumably, the corrupt statuary of the National Assembly must be able to achieve accurate and fully present representations of what is by nature "spurious, fictitious and false." The only way to cover for the paradox here is to infer that Rousseau is genuinely reproducible only because he was always already a surface phenomenon. Surfaces, because they are (like paper money) easily reproducible, lend themselves to infinite reproduction. Because they are false, their self-propagation becomes an infective, organic corrosion of the (true) organic.

The infection circulates across borders not only through carrier texts, but also through their embodied ministers, who come under direct attack in Thoughts on French Affairs :

[The French ambassadors are] the enthusiasts of the system …. These ministers will be so many spies and incendiaries; so many active emis­saries of democracy. Their houses will become places of rendezvous here, as everywhere else, and centres of cabal for whatever is mis­chievous and malignant in this country, particularly among those of rank and fashion. … The women who come with these ambassadors will assist in fomenting factions amongst ours, which cannot fail of extending the evil. (386)

To what lengths [the] method of circulating mutinous manifestoes, and of keeping emissaries of sedition in every court under the name of ambassadors, to propagate the same principles and to follow the same practices, will go, and how soon they will operate, it is hard to say; but go on it will—more or less rapidly. (392)

Yet even as the reaction in England to these threats of contamination became more and more violent, Burke's anxious rhetoric reached a new pitch. The apex of his hatred and hyperbole is certainly A Letter ... to a Noble Lord (1796), where the disease is most keenly and presently felt by the beleaguered Burke. The "death-dance of democratic revolution"[12] performs its innovations at the very heart of the nation; they are uncontainable and omnipresent:

The consequences are before us,—not in the remote history; not in future prognostication; they are about us; they are upon us. They shake the public security; they menace private enjoyment. They dwarf the growth of the young; they break the quiet of the old. If we travel, they stop our way. They infest us in town; they pursue us to the country. Our business is interrupted; our repose is troubled; our pleasures are saddened; our very studies are poisoned and perverted, and knowledge rendered worse than ignorance, by the enormous evils of this dreadful innovation. The revolution harpies of France, sprung from night and hell, or from that chaotic anarchy, which generates equivocally "all monstrous, all prodigious things," cuckoo-like, adulterously lay their eggs, and brood over, and hatch them in the nest of every neighboring state. These obscene harpies, who deck themselves in I know not what divine attributes, but who in reality are foul and ravenous birds of prey, (both mothers and daughters,) flutter over our heads, and souse down upon our tables, and leave nothing unrent, unrifled, unravaged, or unpolluted with the slime of their filthy offal. (120-1)

I quote this passage at length because of its astounding richness and intensity. In it, several themes of this paper intersect: the potency, tenacity and contagion of the innovation; the vulnerability of civil institutions, which are instituted precisely to contain the infection; an implicit exhortation to a policing of modes of representation; the nested structure of natural laws, extending from God to the individual, through state and family; the unnatural, demonic origin of innovative ambition; the rhetoric of domestication/alienation, by which the radically other breeds within the self, the self appropriated to the radically other.

The passage also returns us to the question of the sublime and the visible. In a footnote, citing Virgil's description of the monstrous harpies (Book III of The Aeneid), Burke claims that the poet broke off his portrayal because he

had not verse or language to describe that monster even as he had conceived her. Had he lived in our time, he would have been more overpowered with the reality than he was with the imagination. … Had he lived to see the revolutionists and constitutionalists of France, he would have had more horrid and disgusting features of his harpies to describe, and more frequent failures in the attempt to describe them. (121)

Reduced to periphrasis, elision and obscurity, Virgil had confronted, with his mind's eye, the sublime. In acting out Burke's worst nightmares, the revolutionary Other[13] renders the sublime present and visible, yet beyond the naked eye because the monster is both above and within.

Perhaps we find ourselves here closer to the Enquiry than we had thought. It has been one contention of this paper that the visible, divisive, ambitious and infectious other must present itself so that the self-as-state (self-as-property) may understand its own need to consolidate and fix its boundaries. Clearly, if the nightmare of the French Revolution did not exist, Burke would have to invent it. From its passage through night and hell, the self comes to know itself, know it exists, and know its enemy, which is its own will. An "I" emerges in the break that will forces with the already-seen, within the already-constituted social field in which the self found itself when it first recognized its desire. This is the "I" that speaks, when, defending his own ambitious achievements in A Letter … to a Noble Lord, Burke says (124): “‘Nitor in adversum’ is the motto for a man like me.”


[1] From Burke's Correspondence, gen. ed. Thomas W. Copeland, VI, pp. 31-2; cited by Conor Cruise O'Brien in his introduction to Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Harmondsworth, 1969), p.14. All references to the Reflections are to this edition.

[2] "The great chain of causes, which linking one to another even to the throne of God himself, can never be unraveled by any industry of ours." Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. James T. Boulton (Notre Dame, 1958), p. 129. In very basic ways, the Enquiry shares with the Reflections deeply held conceptions of the natural order; yet the two texts are neither continuous nor coterminous, at least not directly. I shall extend my comparative analysis at length later in this paper. All references to the Enquiry are to this edition.

[3] "In reality a great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions, as it is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever." Enquiry, 60. This is exactly the point in the Reflections, but it carries a somewhat different weight there. "A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea." Enquiry, 63.

[4] "To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary." Enquiry, 58. "It is our ignorance of things that causes all admiration, and chiefly excites our passions"; 61.

[5] "... relaxation somewhat below the natural tone seems to me to be the cause of all positive pleasure. Who is a stranger to that manner of expression so common in all times and in all countries, of being softened, relaxed, enervated, dissolved, melted away by pleasure?" Enquiry, 150.

[6] "Now, as a due exercise is essential to the coarse muscular parts of the constitution, and that without this rousing they would become languid, and diseased, the very same rule holds with regard to those finer parts we have mentioned; to have them in proper order, they must be shaken and worked to a proper degree." Enquiry, 135.

[7] "I call beauty a social quality; … [women and men of beauty] inspire us with sentiments of tenderness and affection towards their persons; we like to have them near us, and we enter willingly into a kind of relation with them, unless we should have strong reasons to the contrary." Enquiry, 43.

[8] Burke's anti-historicism is clearly expressed in his approving metaphor of the body politic as a "permanent body with transitory parts." The function of traditional modes of transmission is to eradicate any questioning of the historical establishment of that body, to institutionalize a forgetting of origins and, ultimately, to render the passage of time invisible. The whole of the social body can thereby be, at one time, "never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy" (120).

[9] Such a myth serves to obscure the fact that either labor or an act of will, both historical phenomena, founded any original claim to land as property. This obscuring is necessary in maintaining the argument that civilization is in some sense the fruit of idleness (cf. pp. 270-2) and that proprietary claims have a transhistorical and divine basis.

[10] Bohn's Standard Library edition of Burke's Works, 8 vols. (London, 1888), III, 354.

[11] Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, in Answer to Some Objections to His Book on French Affairs, in Works, II, 536. Subsequent references are to this edition.

[12] A Letter from the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, to a Noble Lord, on the Attacks Made upon Him and his Pension, in the House of Lords, by the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale, Early in the Present Session of Parliament, in Works, V, 120. Subsequent references are to this text.

[13] Although I haven't addressed the issue here, it is clear that false appearances and revolution in general have something to do, for Burke, with women. W.J.T. Mitchell takes up this point in some detail in his useful and clear "Eye and Ear: Edmund Burke and the Politics of Sensibility," chapter 5 of Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago, 1986). Although not put directly to use in my essay, this chapter is in the back of my mind.

Originally written in 1986

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