Edmund Burke here describes the combination of monied interests and what we might call the intelligentsia in an effort to overthrow the existing power structure composed of the king, the nobility and the clergy in France. They were brutally successful. There are some scholars who will argue that the horrifying brutality of the French Revolution was a necessary precursor to modern democracies – badge of pride that they apparently are. Perhaps there is some truth to that. Nevertheless, when studying the period, one seems to come across a great deal of sympathy and apology for the horrors that occurred simply because they reflected “the will of the people” and because they brought about “change.”

Burke was certainly not one of the apologists. I find this particular passage relevant today because like other excerpts on this site, it seems eerily familiar. It is indeed true (and visible today) that “to command the opinion, the first step is to establish a dominion over those who direct it.” Many arrogant, wealthy people of learning in this country today, “fond of distinguishing themselves,” can often be found “endeavouring to confine the reputation of sense, learning and taste to themselves or their followers.” If you are not sensitive (read: partial) to their way of thinking, well then you just aren’t intellectual. Intelligence leaves no room for dissent dont’ you know.

Burke also speaks of the religious zeal with which irreligious aims are pursued, the unification of “obnoxious wealth and restless, desperate poverty,” and the Machiavellian indifference to the means in favor of presumably desirable ends (“To them it was indifferent whether these changes were to be accomplished by the thunderbolt of despotism, or by the earthquake of popular commotion”). All of these evils can be seen in various manifestations across the political spectrum today, from the relentless and fanatical pursuit of global warming policies at all costs to the instigation of the poor and unfortunate against the “rich.” The tools of class envy, mass propoganda, fanatical and immoderate zeal, and the arrogance of status, education and wealth are as present today as they were in revolutionary France.

I will not argue here that any members of the modern intelligentsia are trying to foment violent rebellion in this country – though it is not hard to find people who would argue otherwise. There is no doubt however that the modern cause of “change” is an object dear to the hearts of many “intellectuals” who generally regard the values and standards of the past with great contempt – and that really is the point of Burke’s Reflections. Change in a country, while often a good thing, should be carefully considered. He who seeks to fundamentally alter the work of the state should go about it “as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.” In other words, with all due respect to those who came before you.

The great flaw of statesmanship – in every age – is a propensity to get so caught up in “new” ideas and modes of thinking that one is wont to callously disregard the work of great minds that came before him. This has proven (France is but one of many examples) to usually have disastrous consequences. We bandy about terms like progress, advancement, evolution. The Supreme Court once referred to it as “the progress of a maturing society.” Progress is fine but not all change is good and not all maturity is desirable. For example, Nazi Germany could be described as the maturity of the Weimar Republic. An extreme example to be sure but perhaps a lesson that mankind continues to disregard in its myopic focus on progress and change.

George Will, speaking about baseball with his usual eloquence, recently opined “The problem is, progress always goes on too long, leaving us waist deep in unintended consequences. Soon we are saying ‘adios’ to cherished familiarities.”

Arrogance after all is not the belief that you know more than the next guy. Nor is it even the belief that we now know better as a society than those who preceded us. No, arrogance is the certainty with which one thinks that he knows anything at all. As Thomas Edison once wrote, “It’s obvious that we dont’ know one millionth of one percent about anything.” That is the wisdom that is too often cast aside in the name of progress. The past is not always better, but neither is it always worse.

“Along with the monied interest, a new description of men had grown up, with whom that interest soon formed a close and marked union; I mean the political men of letters. Men of letters, fond of distinguishing themselves, are rarely averse to innovation. Since the decline of the life and greatness of Louis the Fourteenth, they were not so much cultivated either by him, or by the regent, or the successors to the crown; nor were they engaged to the court by favours and emoluments so systematically as during the splendid period of that ostentatious and not impolitic reign. What they lost in the old court protection, they endeavoured to make up by joining in a sort of incorporation of their own; to which the two academies of France, and afterwards the vast undertaking of the Encyclopaedia, carried on by a society of these gentlemen, did not a little to contribute.

The literary cabal had some years ago formed something like a regular plan for the destruction of the Christian religion. This object they pursued with a degree of zeal which hitherto had been discovered only in the propogators of some system of piety. They were possessed with a spirit of proselytism in the most fanatical degree; and from thence, by an easy progress, with the spirit of persecution according to their means. What was not to be done towards their great end by any direct or immediate act, might be wrought by a longer process through the medium of opinion. To command the opinion, the first step is to establish a dominion over those who direct it. They contrived to possess themselves, with great method and perseverance, of all the avenues to literary fame. Many of them indeed stood high in the ranks of literature and science. The world had done them justice; and in favour of general talents forgave the evil tendency of their peculiar pirinciples. This was true liberality; which they returned by endeavouring to confine the reputation of sense, learning, and taste to themselves or their followers. I will venture to say that this narrow, exclusive spirit has not been less prejudicial to literaure and to taste, than to morals and true philosophy. These atheistical fathers have a bigotry of theri own; and they have learnt to talk against monks with the spirit of a monk. But in some things they are men of the world. The resources of intrigue are called in to supply the defects of argument and wit. To this system of literary monopoly was joined an unremitting industry to blacken and discredit in every way, and by every means, all those who did not hold to their faction. To those who have observed the spirit of their conduct, 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.

The desultory and faint persecution carried on against them, more from compliance with form and decency, than with serious resentment, neither weakened their strength, nor relaxed their efforts. The issue of the whole was, that, what with opposition, and what with success, a violent and malignant zeal, of a kind hitherto unkown in the world, had taken an entire possession of their miinds, and rendered their whole conversation, which otherwise would have been pleasing and instructive, perfectly disgusting. A spirit of cabal, intrigue and proselytism, pervaded all their thoughts, words, and actions. And, as controversial zeal soon turns its thoughts on force, they began to insinuate themselves into a correspondence with foreign princes; in hopes, through their authority, which at first they flattered, they might bring about the changes they had in view. To them it was indifferent whether these changes were to be accomplished by the thunderbolt of despotism, or by the earthquake of popular commotion. The corresondence between this cabal and the late king of Prussia will throw no small light upon the spirit of all their proceedings. For the same purpose for which they intrigued with princes, they cultivated, in a distinguished manner, the monied interest of France; and partly though the means funrished by those whose peculiar offices gave them the most extensive and certain means of communication, they carefully occupied all the avenues to opinion.

Writers, especially when they act in a body, and with one direction, have great influence on the public mind; the alliance, therefore, of these writers with the monied interest had no small effect in removing the popular odium and envy which attended that species of wealth. These writers, like the propogators of all novelties, pretended to a great zeal for the poor, and the lower orders, whislt in their satires they rendered hateful, by every exaggeration, the faults of courts, of nobility, and of priesthood. They became a sort of demagogues. They served as a link to unite, in favour of one object, obnoxious wealth to restless and desperate poverty.”