Edmund Burke’s work “Reflections on the Revolution in France” touches on the importance of technological and philosophical progress and the potential danger of unquestioned tradition.
Edmund Burke, with well-groomed word and adamant attitude, proclaims in Reflections on the Revolution in France the merit of the English political system. While late 18th century parliamentary England was among the most politically progressive societies of the day, Britannia was not without flaw; in the writings of Burke the faults of England are made blatantly obvious. The great blunder of Burke and his colleagues is that they regard the purpose of society as singular and in oversimplifying society’s function they produce an environment of stagnant philosophy in which art is a decrepit remnant no longer capable of higher expression.
In accordance with Enlightenment belief, Burke presumes that the ultimate and sole end of society is protection. Of course the protective function of society is a critical element of human association, but Burke’s error is that he recognizes protection as the exclusive goal of society. Burke fails to recognize that society has the ability to teach and enlighten-to expand and improve.
John Stuart Mill wrote, “[Man] is capable of correcting his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone.” As Mill emphasizes, society allows individuals to collaborate, and in this process of discovering and evaluating alternative perspectives individuals refine (or perhaps define) their own personal conceptions.
The exclusion of the collaborative function of society renders Burke’s world philosophically stagnant. In his society, where history is perceived as the sole guide and the only example to be acted upon, metaphysical development and philosophical questioning is crushed under the weight of tradition. Burke himself writes, “We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality, nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty.” With such an ill-tolerance for progressive ideas culture becomes stale and the individual is molded into nothing more than a fresh copy of his or her ancestors. Burke summarizes this cultural paralysis in writing, “Thanks to our sullen resistance to innovation, thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we bear the stamp of our forefathers.”
Burke’s single-minded belief in tradition over cultural progression is fully realized in his conception of art. Art (literature, painting, sculpture, music, etc) is an artist’s perspective of reality based upon their own philosophical values; in other words, art is the visual expression of highly personalized abstract conceptions. As such, art must be interpreted by the viewer and once interpreted either challenges or affirms, refines or expands the perspective of the individual observer. Consequently, art is a means of collaboration and cultural development. Burke wrote, “[The arts] facilitate the carrying of many points of moment; they keep the people together; they refresh the mind in its exertions; and they diffuse occasional gaiety over the severe brow of moral freedom.” In this statement, Burke fails to recognize the ability of art to inspire and enlighten. For Burke, art is a sort of tool for propaganda through which culture can be reminded of the old ideologies; in other words, art can indoctrinate but not illuminate. Hence through Burke’s treatment of art, his singular concern for tradition is fully realized, for in Burke’s world the ability of art to enlighten is completely lost.
In conclusion, the work of Burke is a manifestation of society as an exclusively protective unit. While protection is critical, perhaps paramount, the ability of society to bring people and ideas together is among civilization’s most magnificent and chivalric capacity. Burke trampled collaboration under the necessity of tradition and security, and as a result he degrades art into a tool of assimilation. Pablo Picasso wrote, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” However, Burke desires to keep this debris piled upon mankind, for to him this weight is better than the disappointment caused by dreams and higher ideas. He made this point quite clear when he wrote, “[The] monstrous fiction, which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter…inequality.”