Today, Constitution Day in the United States, brings back the chief ideas of the American Revolution, an exceptional event that partly inspired the French Revolution, the latter upheaval said by its critics to be the blueprint for 20th century totalitarian states. On my Facebook page yesterday, I quoted Burke’s line “…the age of chivalry is gone.” Readers took it to mean chivalrous behavior by men toward women today, and generally did not recognize the quote, nor did all but one show concrete knowledge of the nature of feudalism and its knightly practices, made hollow by the Inquisitions and constant war/anarchy. Most did, however, distance themselves from 1970s feminism. So I quote the context of Burke’s lament, and note that Burke saw a written constitution based on universal human rights as an offense against Nature herself. Note the inversion of deference to established authority and “exalted freedom.” Orwell, anyone?
Before reading the Burke quote, here are two links that fill in some history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Antoinette, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man.
[Burke, writing about Marie Antoinette* after the natural rights/natural law doctrine embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), and four years before her execution by guillotine]:
“ It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in—glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! What a revolution! And what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles and veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace in her bosom! Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more [Poe’s “The Raven”?CS] , shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!….” [footnote: The quoted paragraph “has been called a landmark in the beginning of English literary romanticism.”][i]
Is there any doubt that Disraeli was writing about the Austrian noblewoman in his first novel? See https://clarespark.com/2011/05/04/disraelis-captive-queens/?
Edmund Burke, “Impractical Zealots,” The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations, ed. Frank A. Kafker, James M. Laux, Darline Gay Levy (Malabar, Florida: Krieger, Fifth Edition, 2002), 87-88. This was an excerpt from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), famously answered by Thomas Paine in a controversy that remains timely today.