Revolution vs. Conservatism: “The Nature of Man is Intricate”

The French Revolution was a time of great reform from monarchy to republic. Liberty, equality and freedom were the essence of  revolution after the Third Estate (led by the bourgeoisie) took their stand against the privileged aristocracy. Consequentially, the Revolution invoked great thinkers to put quill to paper, pondering the effects led by the somewhat devastating yet arguably successful Reformation. From Voltaire and Rousseau to Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, these great minds took to their podiums to demonstrate their political ideologies; the concerns they held, and the concepts of what  man should embrace once the Revolution subsided.

Edmund Burke, an 18th century Anglo-Irish conservative watched on, perhaps aghast, as the French Revolution unfolded. The political excitement of the time didn’t influence Burke’s pondering on the purported great things ahead, but rather it provoked an essay titled Reflections on the Revolution in France, a conservative view of considerations and a call for a return to a more traditional society.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of many philosophers during the mid to late 1700’s. “Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains. This man believes that he is the master of others, and still he is more of a slave than they are.” – On The Social Contract.

Burke’s position is pragmatic in approach. He understood how change was necessary, but argued for a conservative approach with strong hierarchical tendencies and a heavy reliance on aristocracy to develop a society fit for human habitation.  He argued for a soft approach rather than a revolt. Upheaval is disagreeable to most, but to the conservative we find in Burke, he considered revolution a dangerous step towards the precipice; with upheaval comes risk—a risk of moving in the wrong direction very quickly and without a safety net.

One observation Burke made when the French streets were bloodstained during the Reign of Terror, was how  “the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate.” Burke,  of course, was referring to the deaths of revolutionaries by their own political device, reiterating how the full effects of the French Revolution were yet to be realised at the time of his writing.[1]

For Burke, the government should avoid overlooking the obvious, and careful considerations should always be weighed. He acknowledged how “the nature of man is intricate,” but that government and the monarchy are necessary to restrain the natural laws of man and must act as council to humanity. If such a concept was adhered to, Burke believed the revolution and its blood lust might have been more restrained. [2]


Rather than a call for revolution in the name of the starving peasant; trade towards capitalism; or the church moving from monarchy to a republic, Burke reacted to the Revolution, crowing his conservative views for the country to return to its glory days. Both Burke and Joseph de Maistre share this view – a return to a more traditional governing of the people. However, de Maistre was more extreme than pragmatic, calling for a return to a ‘golden age’ of religion and divine governance instead, whereas Burke accepted change occurring, despite good and bad outcomes.[3]

The framework in which both Burke and de Maistre write, pertains more to the nature of man and natural law, and how a social structure encompassed by state and religion can restrain the natural instinct of violence and carelessness. Man, Burke argues, must be governed. Government in its correct form will provide for man and in turn man has a right to hold certain expectations. [4]  Consequently, hierarchy is needed to assist in this maintenance, along with a fundamental understanding of human nature, he explains throughout his essay, “…the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.” [5]

Though Burke regards the value of tradition as something to be esteemed, and that all those past, present and those to be born are responsible for society, Burke isn’t as radical as de Maistre. It’s important to acknowledge that though he considers government as a societal strength, he is also quick to attack those in power within these institutions—Burke is not blinded by the reality that those in power can also be guilty of abusing it, and thus can create as much damage as those revolting in the Revolution at the time of his writings.[6]  This is Burke at his best: arguing his ideology of government and hierarchy. He admits to its flaws, unlike de Maistre, where the arguments tangent into radical religious lines rather than moderate considerations like Burke’s.

A portrait of Edmund Burke

Burke also argues that man is born into the hierarchy he best serves. Some are natural-born leaders for aristocracy and some are born to be peasants. Social structure has a very real and serious role in maintaining a civil approach to a nation. According to Burke, to sway from government wisdom is detrimental to its children. But the State isn’t the only instrument necessary to facilitate order in society. Religion, connected to the State, is imperative —what sits at the top of the hierarchy is God. He refers to religion as the “one great master, author and founder of society.”[7]

Burke’s reasoning has validity. It’s difficult to argue when you consider the outcomes of the Terror, as he does, where government and monarchy are absent and the natural laws of man’s violence are unleashed and unbridled. For Burke, government and religion should be respected and perhaps revered, and hierarchy obeyed as a natural consequence for order in society.[8]

Joseph de Maistre, a devout Catholic, expanded on Burke’s essays with his own thoughts. A conservative in his own right, he once supported the French Revolution, but on becoming a refugee of the revolt, de Maistre stated in his essay Considerations on France that the effort of reform was imprudent. De Maistre argues how violence is inevitable, and that terror is the consequence in a contemporary world. It is with this argument that he calls for a return to a golden age of religion to guide and if necessary, punish the masses.

Joseph de Maistre

Where Burke demonstrates an understanding for change; to navigate it in a direction suitable for the State where freedom should be restrained, de Maistre calls for the radical notion of resisting change altogether. It is as though de Maistre is calling for a revolution of conservatism to overturn what has happened in revolutionary France.

Divinity is the key to a successful society, according to de Maistre in his essay, “It is the anger of the kings that arms the earth; it is the anger of heaven that arms the kings.” It is with this he references the plausibility of a monarch, namely King Louis XVI having the ability to save the people – and how the Revolution became a misguided failure.[9] Reading his essay, you get the express feeling that de Maistre is asking for people to learn from history and trust only in religion. The State is still important, but unlike Burke, it is the divine right that permits a government to govern successfully. Joseph de Maistre rejects the rule of the State as absolute power. Inherently, man is weak and requires religious structures to suppress his violent nature, and in turn, war and revolution. It is the destiny, claims de Maistre that “animals…die a violent death.” [10]

Robespierre, who fell victim to his own Reign of Terror’s guillotine

Both thinkers are frustratingly conservative, but for the age they wrote in their insights into the nature of man are strikingly similar, acknowledging the need for a greater authority to reign over society so order becomes achievable. There is no doubt, displayed by these essays, that de Maistre is the more radical thinker of them both. It is also acknowledged that de Maistre was considered by his peers as not being traditional enough to be considered conservative.

Human nature is the precursor to their thoughts: social hierarchy being the defining answer where everyone has their place. For Burke, aristocrats are entitled to have their control for they are natural born leaders who are intelligent and educated, which isn’t surprising given his own status in the British parliament. His essay reflects his own social status, as does de Maistre’s, with his devout Catholic upbringing and belief that a return to God as the divine ruler is the only positive alternative that can preserve social order.

In conclusion, both authors maintain that the outcomes of the French Revolution left a lot to be desired, convincing their audience that the bloodshed could have been avoidable. But where one displays his allegiance to the government and monarchy accepting moderate change over time, de Maistre places his conviction to God, only to be judged by divinity.

[1] Burke, E 1969, ‘Extracts from Reflections on the revolution in France’, CC O’Brien (eds.) in Reflections on the revolution in France: and on the proceedings in certain societies in London relative to that event, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England, p. 152.

[2] Burke 1969, p. 152.

[3] de Maistre, J 2005, ‘Considerations on France’, in M. Festenstein & M. Kenny (eds.) Political ideologies: a reader and guide, Oxford University Press, Oxford,  p. 133.

[4] Burke 1969, p. 151.

[5] Burke 1969, p. 183.

[6] Norman, J 2003, ‘Burke, Oakeshott and the intellectual roots of modern conservatism’, London School of Economics, 12 November 2013. p. 4

[7] Burke 1969, p. 190.

[8] Burke 1969, p. 195.

[9] de Maistre 2005, p. 133.

[10] de Maistre 2005, p. 132.


  1. Camcastle, C 2005, ‘The more moderate side of Joseph de Maistre: Views on political liberty and political economy, McGill-Queen’s Studies in the History of Ideas, Montreal.
  2. de Maistre, J 2005, ‘Considerations on France’, in M. Festenstein & M. Kenny (eds.) Political ideologies: a reader and guide, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Burke, E 1969, ‘Extracts from Reflections on the revolution in France’, CC O’Brien (eds.) in Reflections on the revolution in France: and on the proceedings in certain societies in London relative to that event, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England.
  4. Norman, J 2003, ‘Burke, Oakeshott and the intellectual roots of modern conservatism’, London School of Economics, 12 November 2013.


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