Reflections On The Revolution In France

Submitted By DiannaNguyen
Words: 1885
Pages: 8

Amidst a wealth of metaphors and apocalyptic maxims, this line is perhaps the most memorable from Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. He masterfully employs the concept of chivalry to express his anti-revolutionary sentiment, and he dramatically connects it to images of land, sex, birth and money to express the widespread disorder that accompanies a loss of chivalry. Nowhere is this idea more explicit than in the following passage:
...–But the age of chivalry is gone. —That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, 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 defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprize is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage while it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness...
(Mellor and Matlack, 16).
To fully understand this passage, one must recognize Burke's rhetorical strategy as well as his choice of words beginning with the "age of chivalry" line. First, instead of declaring that this age of chivalry is "dead," he merely asserts that it is "gone." The temporality of this word is important as it sustains potential for chivalry to return. Burke lends permanence, however, to the line that follows: "...the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever." The ambiguity of the word "Europe" allows one to query if necessarily the glory of England or even France is dead. What it does imply is that the glory and bond of Europe as a conglomerate in which England and France are leaders may have been severed.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that Burke believes either of the aforementioned statements. Subsequent lines in the essay like, "...we still bear the stamp of our forefathers" and "We have not (as I conceive) lost the generosity and dignity of the fourteenth century..." suggest that English society still clings to its heritage and manners to some extent (18). Additionally, one cannot overlook the prophetic nature of Burke's claims; he predicts what will happen if chivalry is lost. He and the reader both recognize that chivalry survives at least in the minds of men and sometimes even in the practice of men (like Burke who acts chivalrous by defending chivalry), but also because Burke's motivation for writing his essay would be significantly diminished if the revivification of chivalry were an impossibility. Similarly, if he truly believed that the glory of Europe were gone forever and the ties permanently severed, it is less likely that he would choose a Frenchman as the recipient of his philosophical letter.
To comprehend Burke's argument based on chivalry, one must ascertain the meaning that chivalry holds for him. The language of the passage at hand unveils terms such as "loyalty," "dignified obedience" and "proud submission" all of which the codes of chivalry necessitate. But the idea of the importance of chivalry to Burke manifests itself best in the lines that immediately follow and summarize the "age of chivalry" passage: "This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in ancient chivalry" (16). Burke seems to view chivalry as a blending of opinion and sentiment or less specifically, of reason and emotion. Such blending creates a balance—a harmony in man that ultimately lends to harmony and order at all levels. One sees this microcosmic-macrocosmic relationship at work at various levels in other dictums of the work such as, "Our political system is placed in just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world" (14 ).
Indeed, chivalry functions as a representation of order for