I’m thinking about moving to Omaha, Nebraska

R.R. Reno has a first rate article ‘on the square’ over at First Things today. Under the heading of “Conservatism and the Culture Wars”, he provides a nice introduction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and what lessons might be taken from it with regard to the ever-deepening split between progressives and conservatives – red vs. blue, reactionaries standing in the way of liberals, Hollywood and the Heartland. Whatever you want to call it. Here’s an excerpt:

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke helps us see beyond our usual moral sentimentalism. He recognized the way in which abstract principles can become objects of devotion. The great patrons of liberty and equality in revolutionary France loved their ideas of justice, so much so that they would willingly destroy the actual goods of their imperfect society in order to implement an imagined state of perfection. Nothing is so selfish as to attack reality—and to do so on the basis of one’s own ideals.

Burke had an epithet for these selfish idealists. They were “men of theory,” and they so often seem to have the rhetorical advantage. The imagined world is shiny and spotless, unlike the real world and its hopelessly compromised institutions. It’s easy to compliment your moral insights when you juxtapose the ideal with the real.

“The pretended rights of these theorists are all extreme,” he wrote, “and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.” And more than false. Reflections on the Revolution in France is a very passionate book, urgent and strident in tone, because Burke thought the “men of theory” wicked.

I haven’t heard the term “men of theory” since college, and though I’ve long been an admirer of Burke, I’ve also been sympathetic to theorists: french thinkers such as Levi-Strauss, Derrida, and of course Girard. Maybe these modern men of theory – especially Girard – don’t exactly qualify as Burke’s ideological enemies, but they’re certainly French. In any case, there’s a lot to chew on in this article.


  1. 1. Not sure Burke’s main argument against abstract princples are that they are selfish? Instead rooted in human imperfection and particularism.

    2. Not sure Burke would have been too pleased to be called ‘strident’!

    3. Derrida might even be a descendant of Burke in that both are anti enlightenment – don’t know much about him or the other thinkers you mention.

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