Though rarely considered, Psychology is perhaps the most important aspect of politics. Mentality determines how we view and process information and ideas. That process will be influenced by our character and our circumstances. In my experience, the ideas people will accept as true or normal tend to be filtered according to their predisposition.
Let us take two historical and critical statements explaining the Right and Left wing disposition, respectively Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790 and Thomas Paine’s remarkable Rights of Man published in 1791 in reaction to Burke’s Reflections.
If we consider Edmund Burke’s mindset in his landmark definition of Conservatism, Reflections on the Revolution in France, we find adherence to the familiar and proven. We find caution with regard to change. We find a strong sense of morality based on the idea of Christian chivalry. We find approval of the religious and political paradigm of his day.
We find too a mind which recoils at the idea of violence and upheaval. We see someone who wants existing political arrangements to work effectively and to work for the general welfare of all.
All this can be explained by Edmund Burke’s background. His Christian worldview gave him a predisposition to accept his circumstances as ordained by God. He was a highly intelligent man who by 1790 was associated with the leading thinkers and personalities of his day.
Edmund Burke was an Anglican, born in Ireland of Irish parents. His father was a lawyer and convert to Protestantism. His mother was Roman Catholic and Edmund also married a Roman Catholic. He was educated and grew up in Ireland. He therefore saw and understood the very real divisions and concerns which existed in that country. But Burke sought to bridge such divides. He broadly accepted the existing system, and worked within it for reform and justice. He saw the factors that unite, the common ground; he chose not to accentuate division.
In religion, Burke’s God commends the peacemakers in Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In politics, Burke clearly agreed with the thinking later expressed in the 19th century by politician and ‘whig’ historian, Lord Macaulay in chapter 10 of his History of England.
“Logic admits of no compromise. The essence of politics is compromise“.
In Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, we find a stark contrast. The logic of Thomas Paine’s Rights “admits of no compromise”. The logic of Rights automatically dismisses the centuries of traditional political constructs which had manifestly failed the ideology of Rights. For Paine, “a mouldy parchment” like Magna Carta or the 1689 Constitutional Settlement totally failed the basic needs of the poor: the poor remained poor and thus oppressed.
Although by 1791 Paine was a famous political campaigner, his origins were very ordinary and his fascinating biography demonstrates true commitment to principle above personal convenience. He detested the unmerited class privilege granted to the descendants of the biggest bullies in history. Pensions for placemen were notorious in 18th century Britain. Why should the sons of the aristocracy get state handouts when the aged working poor had to beg for bread ?
It is hardly surprising then that he wanted to erase the system of privilege and establish universal suffrage – seen as the mechanism to make politics work for the people.
But Paine doesn’t open Rights of Man with a wonderful declaration about Human Dignity demanding Human Rights. The Prefaces of both Parts and the main body of the work open with a full blown ad hominem attack on Edmund Burke. Paine starts with insult, outrage, contempt, and distortion. It is personal, it is angry, it is prejudiced. It is pure MORAL OUTRAGE AT SOCIAL INJUSTICE.
Paine knew Burke well. They had worked together. Paine had been to Burke’s home. Yet Paine indicts Edmund Burke as a traitor, condemning Burke’s reputation to be hung, drawn and quartered at the Tyburn of outraged Social Justice.
In reality, however, Edmund Burke was a Christian gentleman with a track record for consideration of the rights of the oppressed. Indeed he so lived out his values that he had a common purse in his own household where he gave a home to friends. He was a philosopher and one of the foremost political thinkers of all time – indeed his political philosophy remains particularly pertinent today.
But Thomas Paine dismisses and insults Edmund Burke, and continues to do so at intervals through his impressive and historic text on the Rights of Man.
Thomas Paine does not treat Edmund Burke as the man he actually was, or engage with his fundamental thesis. Instead, Paine sees and comments from his own sense of outrage and betrayal. And when he comments, he does not engage with the fundamental burden of what Burke explained in his Reflections, but repeats his own idealistic standpoint.
Reality does not enter into it. There is no common ground. There is now only an enemy who must be discredited and destroyed. Paine moans on about Edmund Burke and how stupid he is page after page. Paine is obsessive and abusive. Why ? Because to Paine, Burke symbolises the wicked existing system.
Paine opens his main text with an outrageous accusation that Burke’s Reflections were “an unprovoked attack” on “the People of France” and on their “National Assembly”.
The truth is that Edmund Burke’s treatise was in response to a repeated request from a Frenchman for Burke’s thoughts on the Revolution taking place in France in 1789/90.
Edmund Burke was deeply concerned about the dangerous developments in France and about false comparisons between England in 1688/9 and France in 1789. Burke suggested the English example was better – and he was right in view of the terrible events which ensued and precipitated the dictatorship of Napoleon, foreseen by Burke in his Reflections at paragraph 360 [see Note below].
Edmund Burke was manifestly concerned for the French people in 1789/90, just as he had been about the Irish, the Indians, Americans and other peoples. He was perfectly consistent. But Paine refuses to see Burke’s consistency.
Academic admirers of Thomas Paine still insult Edmund Burke with Paine’s libellous opinion that Burke hated the French. Dr Emily Jones 2017 book titled “Edmund Burke and the Invention of Modern Conservatism, 1830-1914” calls Burke’s Reflections “a kind of anti French totem” [page 28 of the 2019 Oxford University Press paperback edition].
Yet Reflections was in origin a reply to a young Frenchman, written out of a deep Christian concern for the consequences of the Revolution for the French people. It was a letter written in response to a Frenchman’s request for Burke’s thoughts – Burke states this in the very first sentence of his Reflections.
But such is the mentality influencing historiography in the University of Oxford in recent years that patently prejudiced opinion can become fact. Why ? Because intelligent and learned professionals like Dr Jones allow their personal political predisposition to eclipse their academic duty.
The second paragraph of Paine’s main text continues:
There is scarcely an epithet of abuse to be found in the English language with which Mr Burke has not loaded the French Nation and the National Assembly. Every thing which rancour, prejudice, ignorance or knowledge could suggest are poured forth in the copious fury of near four hundred pages.
This is typical of the politically correct mindset today. Casting their opponents as enemies, they make the unjustified and illogical assertion that their opponents are the enemies of “the People”. They arrogantly arrogate to themselves ‘the right’ to speak for “the People”.
It is such psychological legerdemain which Burke exposes in his Reflections, eg at paragraphs 186 and 208. Was it this that really needled Paine?
Thomas Paine’s text reflects how Thomas Paine views the matter, and how Thomas Paine wants the world to view Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
The fury and the prejudice are actually Thomas Paine’s attitude to Burke – not Burke’s. Thomas Paine refuses to engage with the substance of what Edmund Burke writes, with Burke’s explanations and with Burke’s concerns. Read Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790 and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man 1791 for yourself and make your own judgement.
In the rare instance Paine addresses what Burke writes, he goes off at a tangent to make Burke look foolish. See Paine’s discussion in the early pages of Rights of Man on Burke’s assertion that the 1689 Bill of Rights binds future generations.
The Whig settlement of the late 17th century gave England a constitutional stability for the 100 years to 1790, and confirmed the constraints of the 1215 Magna Carta. The famous Frenchman Voltaire pointedly praised English liberty ! The 1689 Settlement was a proven success. Both political and constitutional history justify Burke’s assertion and Burke states clearly the English constitutional position.
But Thomas Paine has no time for any mere “mouldy parchment” because to Paine such documents represent an immoral and illegitimate organisation of government. Paine hammers home that no generation can bind a subsequent generation – as if Burke did not know the facts of life !
For his source of authority, Thomas Paine references an ideological absolute which has no relationship to existing arrangements. Now, that is politically and philosophically a perfectly legitimate point of view. But it is one which refuses to consider the realities of existing arrangements, their legitimacy, and the necessity of their legitimacy for any government to have existed at all before. This Burke points out in his discussion of Dr Price’s sermon [paragraphs 22 to 55 of Reflections – see note below].
Again we recognise the same psychology at work today. Traditional political arrangements are allowed absolutely no moral legitimacy. Everything is assessed according to the Ideology of Absolute Rights. That is the yardstick for all political assessment. Reality, actual arrangements and how the world really works simply have no legitimacy and no relevance. This is the mindset of the outraged adolescent who has difficulty adjusting from the innocence of childhood to the realities of adulthood.
Edmund Burke outlines and addresses actual problems which had arisen in France. The real problems arising from ecclesiastical confiscations, from a paper money secured on those confiscations, from the abusive treatment of the Royal family, and from the signal failings of the National Assembly.
Thomas Paine on the other hand has only praise for the Revolution. He writes his own sanitised account, justifying the Revolution; excesses are overlooked – the means justify the ends ! [cf Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot]. In the rare event an overlap does occur between Edmund Burke’s account and Paine’s text, namely the call to hang the bishops from the nearest lamp post, Paine denies it ever happened !
This is typical of the politically correct mindset today. Its adherents are always morally right, whatever actually happens; and whatever its opponents do is ipso facto suspect and subject to condemnation. And where they cannot explain awkward evidence, they simply dismiss its veracity out of hand.
Thomas Paine published Rights of Man in 1791. In that book he patently whitewashes the disturbing events of the Revolution. The Revolution is wonderful. Burke is the real devil in the story – not events in France ! Burke is guilty of violence to the truth; the Revolution is blameless because the Revolution upholds THE CAUSE.
However, Edmund Burke’s analysis was proven right by events – the king’s execution in 1792; the Terror; the emergence of the authoritarian leader Napoleon in 1799. Burke was proven right by events; and events prove that Paine whitewashed the Revolution. The subsequent historical record gives the lie to Thomas Paine’s starry eyed assessment in his Rights of Man.
But Burke’s correct analysis is eclipsed by the fact that Thomas Paine called for universal suffrage and state pensions which both came to fruition decades later. Paine is therefore credited with historical and moral rectitude – a moral and historical rectitude which is erroneously applied retrospectively to all he wrote.
Paine is venerated, though his mentality should be treated with considerable caution.
Edmund Burke’s caution, concern and insights were right, but remain discounted.
Note: paragraph references to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France are to Ray Catlin’s edition with Introduction, Edited Highlights, Structure and Core Principles of Conservatism titled “Core Conservatism: Edmund Burke’s Landmark Definition” published by Westbow Press and available at Amazon
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