The Ever Quotable Edmund Burke

My favorite political philosopher is without a doubt Edmund Burke.  The reasons why I set forth in a post which may be read here.  Any day is a good day for some Burke quotes, and here are a few:

We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.

For I must do it justice;  it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts.   It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man. (Burke on the Irish Penal Laws)

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 of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that 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 for ever.

The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.

Hypocrisy, of course, delights in the most sublime speculations; for, never intending to go beyond speculation, it costs nothing to have it magnificent.

But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.

Difficulty is a severe instructor, set over us by the supreme ordinance of a parental Guardian and Legislator, who knows us better than we know ourselves, as he loves us better too. Pater ipse colendi haud facilem esse viam voluit. He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.

Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.

A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it, but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.

Laws, like houses, lean on one another.

It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the publick to be the most anxious for its welfare.

Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.

Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither, in my opinion, is safe.

Tyrants seldom want pretexts.

When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

All who have ever written on government are unanimous, that among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. I was about to give one of my faves from Billy Joe Shaver, but I moderated myself.

    Camus: Something to the effect that the common good is the alibi of all tyrants.

    Beware the ides of September.

  2. “Camus: Something to the effect that the common good is the alibi of all tyrants.” and the Constitution is the refuge of all reprobates or something to that effect, does not nullify the common good or the Constitution, nor do these reprobates and tyrants, besmerchng our principles, founded on TRUTH, have any claim on either.

  3. Robespierre was equally scathing about atheism, which he called “wholly aristocratic” “The idea of a great Being, who watches over oppressed innocence and who punishes triumphant crime is the belief of the people… censured only among the rich and the guilty.” [Discours pour la liberté des cultes: Prononcé aux Jacobins le 21 novembre 1793 – 1er frimaire An II]

    Unlike Burke, or us today, Robespierre knew that in attacking the militant atheists of that time – Hébert and the Énragés – he was staking his life on the issue. He did it, even though few would challenge his admission to being « un assez mauvais catholique » (a pretty bad Catholic).

  4. “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” This is a good thought for our bishops– and for all who love the Church.

    I think we agree that Robespierre and his Club did not attack atheism in defense of the Faith.
    We sometimes remark that it takes a lot of faith to be an atheist.. and in that they are like us. Despite claiming to believe in nothing they still seem to constantly seek order and explanations, sometimes in secular humanism. Organized atheists can work toward some kind of social order sans the Lord.
    The real lack of belief has no form. Terror and chaos reign. Diabolical.
    De-Christianizing France- he was more than a pretty bad Catholic.

  5. Burke, speaking against proposals to coerce the American colonies: “If liberty be not countenanced in America, it will sicken, fade away and die in this country”.

  6. Robespierre despised and persecuted the Church. However, he was opposed to the atheist faction among the French revolutionaries. He attempted to start a new Deist religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. It died when he did.

    “Is it not He whose immortal hand, engraving on the heart of man the code of justice and equality, has written there the death sentence of tyrants? Is it not He who, from the beginning of time, decreed for all the ages and for all peoples liberty, good faith, and justice? He did not create kings to devour the human race. He did not create priests to harness us, like vile animals, to the chariots of kings and to give to the world examples of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery and falsehood. He created the universe to proclaim His power. He created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue.”

  7. Robespierre did say that those who wanted to stop the mass were more fanatical than those who said it. « Celui qui veut les empêcher est plus fanatique que celui qui dit la messe »

    He denied that the Convention had proscribed Catholic worship; on the contrary, he declared its intention had been to maintain freedom of worship. As Hilaire Belloc shows, he used his influence to remove the names of Non-Juring priests from the proscription lists. In fact, Belloc is one of the few historians to give a balanced portrait of him.

    His belief in the Supreme Being was perfectly sincere, as Danton said, Robespierre worshipped l’Etre Suprême every morning, in his shaving mirror.

    The reason I cited him was to show that, like his master, Rousseau, he believed “ it matters very much to the community that each citizen should have a religion. That will make him love his duty; but the dogmas of that religion concern the State and its members only so far as they have reference to morality and to the duties which he who professes them is bound to do to others. Each man may have, over and above, what opinions he pleases, without it being the Sovereign’s business to take cognisance of them; for, as the Sovereign has no authority in the other world, whatever the lot of its subjects may be in the life to come, that is not its business, provided they are good citizens in this life.”

    This is a view that some of America’s founding Fathers would have shared. Any Republic will best thrive, where the citizens believe in “the existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws.” A lot of what passed for Christianity, over the past two centuries has been of this character.

  8. “He denied that the Convention had proscribed Catholic worship; on the contrary, he declared its intention had been to maintain freedom of worship. As Hilaire Belloc shows, he used his influence to remove the names of Non-Juring priests from the proscription lists. In fact, Belloc is one of the few historians to give a balanced portrait of him.”

    Belloc never gave a balanced portrait of anything, especially anything related to his true native country, France. I have all of Belloc’s “historical” works and he is not to be trusted as an historian, although he can be read for amusement. Robespierre was a devotee of terror and contra “Old Thunder” that terror fully applied to the Church.

  9. Belloc sometimes almost intuitively hits the nail on the head but overall he is too opinionated to be a reliable historian. However, English historians of the day still subscribed to the ‘Whig’ view of history, with its skewed version of the Reformation and Glorious Revolution so at least he provided a corrective (which by its nature is generalized and overstated but should not be dismissed out of hand).

    I admire Belloc enormously but cannot agree with him that a) the French Revolution was a ‘good thing’ or b) that Dreyfus was guilty, a conviction he carried with him to the end of his life. His forays into history are at least far better than those of Lytton Strachey or HG Wells.

  10. “Lytton Strachey or HG Wells”

    He could hardly have been worse John, although I have always had a secret fondness for Well’s Outline of History which I read at the age of 8. Even then I knew that it was more Wells than History, but I did enjoy the melding of novelist with History, which is actually also the charm of Belloc. If one views his histories as novels they make for enjoyable reading.

  11. Don, so despite cutting off all those heads, Robespierre wasn’t such a bad guy after all? Any chance he will be in heaven along with deists Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin?

  12. I can only assume Joe, that you didn’t wipe your spectacles before reading what I wrote. No, I do not think that Robespierre was “not such a bad guy after all.” Few figures of the French Revolution I find more loathsome than “vile Robespierre”.

  13. Thank you for this discussion. A lot has been added already today!

    It seems the quotable Burke is for and about Good. Robespierre was perhaps as brilliant as Burke but his manipulation of polemics and his quotable quotes give us pause. Robespierre’s memory is not kept because of his quotes but because of what he presided over.

    Part of the quote Donald gave us showing his Deism: “He created the universe to proclaim His power. He created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue.” is galling seen in light of his actions as the head of the committee for public safety while presiding over the slaughter of the public.

    He admitted to being a pretty a bad catholic; he revolted against the Faith and rationalized deism out of any realm of the humane referred to in his quote above.

    It seems he was carried on the current of the fine words and as the meanings were clouded he tried always to find the reason or justification hidden in chaos, contriving terror to be an “emanation of virtue” and “ a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy” (Principles of Political Morality)
    I am learning more about him and the cautionary tale of our history as a result of this post.

  14. John Nolan

    I agree with your general assessment of Belloc as an historian. Occasionally, however, he shows remarkable insight. He was the first historian to grasp that Carnot, the War Minister, was the real power in the committee of Public Safety that was, in effect, the War Cabinet. Robespierre was never more than its spokeman in the Assembly – the Leader of the House, rather than Prime Minister.


    Before the Revolution, Robespierre refused a magistracy, because of his opposition to capital punishment. You might care to read his speech of 22 June 1791 to the Constituent Assembly, calling for the abolition of the death penalty. It anticipates the argument in Evangelium Vitae:

    “Outside of civil society, if a bitter enemy makes an attempt on my life or, pushed away twenty times, he returns again to ravage the field that I cultivated with my own hands; since I have only my individual strength to oppose to his I must either perish or kill him, and the law of natural defence justifies and approves me. But in society, when the force of all is armed against only one, what principle of justice could authorize it to kill him? What necessity can absolve it? A victor who kills his captive enemies is called a barbarian! A grown man who kills a child that he could disarm and punish seems to us a monster! An accused man condemned by society is nothing else for it but a defeated and powerless enemy. Before it, he is weaker than a child before a grown man.

    Thus, in the eyes of truth and justice these scenes of death that it orders with so much ceremony, are nothing but cowardly assassinations, nothing but solemn crimes committed, not by individuals, but by entire nations, using legal forms…

    It has been observed that in free countries crime was more rare and penal laws more gentle. All ideas hold together. Free countries are those where the rights of man are respected and where, consequently, the laws are just. Where they offend humanity by an excess of rigor this is a proof that the dignity of man is not known there, that that of the citizen doesn’t exist. It is a proof that the legislator is nothing but a master who commands slaves and who pitilessly punishes them according to his whim.”

    On 18 December 1792, on the trial of the King, he said, logical as always, “Yes, the penalty of death generally is a crime, and for that reason alone, according to the indestructible principles of nature, it can be justified only in cases when it is necessary for the safety of individuals or the social body. Public safety never demands it against ordinary offenses, because society can always guard against them by other means and make the offender powerless to harm it. But a dethroned king in the bosom of a revolution which is anything but cemented by laws, a king whose name suffices to draw the scourge of war on the agitated nation, neither prison nor exile can render his existence immaterial to the public welfare: and this cruel exception to ordinary laws which justice approves can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes.”

  15. Michael.
    “Before the Revolution, Robespierre refused a magistracy, because of his opposition to capital punishment.”
    Apparently his sensitivity to the subject was evolved… he didn’t leave the position for about 6 years and a death warrant for a murder with his signature on it still exists. (Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution)
    At any rate, people change their views to suit utility. His stated opposition to capital punishment did not describe his life.
    Were those fine words remembered by him in summer 1974 at the execution of a convent full of nuns? His deeds spoke louder than his elegant words.

    The speech concerning the Supreme Being was given shortly before his death, and of course, after the deaths of thousands of victims, even in the streets of Arras, his home town.

  16. Anzlyne

    It is pleasing to recall that, on 17 September 198, Robert Badinter read Robespierre’s speech of 22 June 1791 to the National Assembly. This time, it had the desired effect and capital punishment was removed from the Penal Code, by 363 votes to 117

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