Jan 23, 2020 in Exploratory

Burke’s Response to Paine’s Criticism

The Revolution in France remains one of the most impactful events in European history. The revolutions in Netherlands and England preceded it, but the French case demonstrated a fundamental transformation of basic social, political, legal, and religious concepts. Certainly, the thinkers from England and the United States were aware of this important feature of the Revolution and interpreted it differently. One of the best examples that show a typical contradiction in such interpretation is a very short discussion between the Britain politician Edmund Burke and an American philosopher Thomas Paine. Burke represented a traditional point of view concerning the issue, while Paine, who was already the author of Common Sense, tried to oppose Burke through American liberalism. In fact, the contradiction between Burke and Paine may show a particular example of a worldview conflict between conservative English thinkers and their liberal American counterparts. Thus, their treatises remain classic examples of these two positions concerning the same object – the French Revolution. The mentioned discussion includes Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine’s response, the book called Rights of Man, to which Burke never responded. Besides, through both texts, it is possible to assume Burke’s response to Paine’s criticism. The main point of Burke’s possible response would be appeal to the limitations of the Enlighteners’ rationalist position and a proposition to take into account other sides of human nature, not only the reason with denial of any possible social order except for monarchy.

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It is important to describe briefly the central ideas Burke proclaimed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France in order to determine the main accents of his text. This conservative thinker tried to interpret the French Revolution through the prism of English view, and such approach was correct, because the Englishmen had already had their revolution and they had established a constitutional monarchy. In fact, Burke’s treatise was an attempt to compare two revolutions and demonstrate the superiority of the English one over the French one. The difference, according to Burke, was in French radicalism, which allowed the French people to destroy the fundamentals of their state in order to create a new one. The English people did not make any radical changes. For example, Burke claims that after the first revolution in England, the Englishmen have accepted the rights to “choose our own governors, to cashier them for misconduct, to frame a government for ourselves”. At the same time, he adds that after the revolution in 1688, the authors of the Declaration of Rights did not mention any of these three rights. According to Burke, the difference between those who led each revolution is the fact that the second one was the result of the activity held by educated and experienced class. As for the first one, most of its participants were not lawyers or professional politicians. That is why the crowd who realized the first English Revolution could not proclaim anything correctly. As Burke writes, the people of England had always mentioned those rights, but delegated the establishment of order and social contract to the king. In such a way, Burke draws a parallel between the English puritans who followed Cromwell, and French socialists who had no experience of governing the state and could only destroy it. Burke rhetorically asks, “Who but the most desperate adventurers in philosophy and finance could at all have thought of destroying the settled revenue of the state, the sole security for the public credit, in the hope of rebuilding it with the materials of confiscated property?”. In such a way, through many other rhetorical devices, such as the comparison of the royal France with Eastern states like Turkey with its despotism, Burke demonstrates that those who organized the Revolution in France did not understand the political and economic reality. Thus, according to Burke, this Revolution is a result of French people’s ignorance and unprofessionalism in an attempt to destroy the social structure, which has existed before the Revolution.


Paine in his Rights of Man responded that French people had a right to change the social order in accordance to their needs and preferences. He comments on the mentioned Burke’s passage about English having their rights denied in order to preserve the state. In Paine’s opinion, those people whom Burke describes “should take up arms and spend their lives and fortunes, not to maintain their rights, but to maintain they have not rights”, because Burke created a cunning paradox of making them act in such a way. Paine’s criticism at first particularly concerns the unnatural character of monarchy and every state in general. In such a way, he shows that Burke is not right when claiming that the Revolution in France will be defeated, because, according to Burke, the society has only one possible way of development, and it is not a republic. At the end of his work, Paine divides all possible ways of social development into two groups: those based on reason, and those based on ignorance.

Through this context, it is possible to state that Burke’s response to the Rights of Man includes several elements. Among them are doubt concerning everyone’s ability to use reason properly and doubt of the prevalence of reason in a human being. Both elements of his response are the attempts to criticize the fundamentals of Enlightenment. The XVIII century was the epoch of Rationalism or, as Paine called his last book, The Age of Reason. Thus, reason is the main feature that differentiates people from animals. It is clear that the main point of Paine’s criticism is an attempt to offend monarchy and aristocracy, as they make some people obey others instead of their own reason. Burke would show that some people cannot govern themselves, and they need a ruler who can make them obey for their own sake. Burke also could develop this argument through the appeal to human diversity. The understanding of all people through their reasonable nature makes all people equal. Besides, an approach, which considers every individual as a specific and unique personality, may provide an interpretation of the society through the prism of natural inequality. Assuming that everyone has a talent, Burke could claim that some people have a talent to govern a state, and others have to obey them by nature. Besides, the argument that appeals to the differences is very similar to the second one, which is discussed below.

The second Burke’s argument would be the statement that reason is not only one characteristic differentiates humans from animals. Through such statement, Burke would assume that reason is not the main human characteristic of, as other virtues can replaced it, for example, faith, loyalty, humility or obedience within the monarchy. Furthermore, Burke could use the metaphor of a body to describe a state. Some people have the function of its head (the rulers), when others represent different parts of the body. Through this metaphor, it is clear that all parts of the body have to obey the head by nature instead of trying to elect another part of the body as the ruler. Both ideas would offend the position of Paine, because his only strong argument concerns the implication of teaching of Enlightenment in the concrete situation. Thus, Burke had to criticize Enlightenment instead of Paine as one of its representatives and show an elaborate alternative of the interpretation of human nature instead of trying to fight Paine within this system of philosophy.

As a result, it is clear that Burke had to criticize the methodological fundamentals of Paine’s position. Without the total denial of reason, he would show that some people have a natural inclination to use it for the sake of the state. Such statement concerning each person’s uniqueness would deny the theoretical basis of teaching about natural human equality. The idea of a traditional monarchy as the only one natural social order that contradicts all other possible unnatural alternatives would demonstrate the rightness of Burke’s conservatism through the social prism. In such a way, the defense of Burke’s point of view presupposed criticism of the most influential and developed intellectual movements of the epoch. Possibly, his understanding of that fact did not allow him to respond to Paine’s Rights of Man, because an attempt to criticize the fundamentals of Paine’s philosophy would involve too many intellectual adversaries that represent the whole tradition of the European Rationalism.

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