"a loathsome Plague Called Reaction": Fear in Prescriptive Conservative Thought

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A.Fear of Intangibility

Burke’s most obvious misgiving is with all things he cannot personally interact with or understand. He believes that science and advanced concept are a waste of time, especially when compared to what has worked in the past and what “feels” right. This fear of intangibility and preference for the known as opposed to the unknown is used in his arguments against the rationalism used to justify the revolution, his defense of religion against atheism, and the emphatic antagonism he feels for academia (perhaps a result of his earlier failures). After all, as one scholar said, “Burke is famous for reviling theory.”27 This rhetoric is used to convince the readers that the more complicated something is, the less it is to be trusted.

One example of this phenomena is his derogatory use of the word “metaphysics”. The actual term relates to a section of philosophy that discusses topics not of the physical world. However, for Burke that intangibility makes the discipline illegitimate and an example of over thought nonsense. In fact, Burke uses the term “metaphysics” in some conjugation 25 times in the text.28 “Metaphysical abstraction”, “metaphysical sophistry”, “Political metaphysics”, and “metaphysical principles” are all common examples of his use of this term, each time associating the concept with overly complicated thought.29

Whole books have been written about Burke’s conception of metaphysics alone.30 His particular understanding likely comes from early studying of St. Thomas Aquinas, and can best be summarized as the pursuit of the unknowable, or as the aforementioned book on metaphysics describes it, “the science of being as being.”31 However, one of the most dangerous aspects of this is not the ideology itself, but what people are able to do with it. He seems especially concerned with leaders using complex concepts to convince common folk that their direction is the best one. For example, at the end of an extended metaphor on mixing science and faith, he said that religion “will be perfumed with other incense than the infectious stuff which is imported by the smugglers of adulterated metaphysics.”32 Another instance saw him referring to the chaos of revolution as “the fruits of metaphysic declarations wantonly made, and shamefully retracted!”33 Comparing the leaders of the 1688 revolution in England to the French, he exclaimed “As the first sort of legislators attended to the different kinds of citizens and combined them into one commonwealth, the others, the metaphysical and alchemistical legislators, have taken the direct contrary course.”34 In that example, he conjoins metaphysics with alchemy, the medieval “science” of changing common metals into gold. By associating these two concepts, he is insinuating that the new intelligentsia has no better idea of what is right than those who sought riches through magic centuries before. Why trust those who speaks of greater truths when those who have spoken those truths before have been misguided?

Interestingly, Burke’s fear of the unknown also manifests itself in an economic context. Throughout Reflections, he shows a strong dislike for paper currency, believing that its usage in France is irresponsible, because it is not used to supplement real coin, like it is in Britain. In this, Burke agrees with Adam Smith, who viewed paper money as a more exciting and productive currency, but more dangerous.35 Burke is not opposed to paper currency as a whole, but the way in which it is used in France worries him, as it is not backed by “real” wealth, also known as gold and silver. The National Assembly was using money that was supported instead by reclaimed church property, which had a value estimated in gold- hence the use of the term “alchemist.” Language scholar Tom Furniss summarized it as such in his article on Burke’s word choice in relation to assignats:

Paper money, then, is a ruinous, inflationary, ‘dangerous’ supplement in France, where it is ‘a badge of distress’ indicating a ‘want’ or absence and supplanting ‘real’ wealth. But in England, it is a benevolent ‘symbol of prosperity’, having ‘a tendency to increase’, -or supplement- ‘real coin’.36

This is a clear connection to that Burkean fear of intangibility- if money isn’t attached to solid coin then it simply cannot be trusted. There is no evidence that leads the reader to believe that he has any real knowledge about economics, but having money that is not linked to a gold standard sounds like a bad idea. Burke’s choice of language is meant to scare the reader into believing that the French economy will fall apart, the inevitable consequence of a misguided revolution.

The writing style in the book also reveals a deep distrust in academic authority. Burke tries to show that newfangled ideas are simply a justification for leaders to take power. “We are generally men of untaught feelings,” and scholars do not know any better than the common man.37 Describing teachers, he explains “his zeal is of a curious character… It is not for the diffusion of truth, but the spreading of contradiction.”38 Later, he espouses “let them be their amusement in the schools… but let them not break prison to burst like a levanter, to sweep the earth with their hurricane.”39 Burke also noted the absence of emotion in education, saying “fashionable teachers have no interest in giving their passions exactly the same direction.”40

Ultimately, Burke did not think knowledge mattered that much.

We are so made as to be affected at such spectacles with melancholy sentiments upon the unstable condition of mortal prosperity and the tremendous uncertainty of human greatness; because in those natural feelings we learn great lessons; because in events like these our passions instruct our reason.41

Without feelings, knowledge does not matter. What we think we know is relative to how we feel, and reason is secondary to passions. If this is taken to be the case, then justifying revolution with logic is deeply problematic. Either the revolutionaries in France are deeply misguided in their faith in reason, or those promulgating Enlightenment thought are intentionally deceiving the public.

Burke does not take a clear stance on which he thinks is the case, but he does not need to here. The greater fear is that this trend toward reason is not only apparent in France. British readers could easily see this in 1789 and think reflexively about their own position. Burke is not only speaking against the French, he is speaking against the entire modern epistemological zeitgeist. It is with that connection that he is truly able to inspire fear in his readers.

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