Friday, April 10, 2009

Burke's Reflections -- "The age of chivalry is gone."


I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [Marie Antoinette, the French Queen] 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. Never, never more shall we behold the 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 months and years following the French Revolution in 1789 saw an intense political debate in England. Much of the controversy fell along predictably self-interested party lines—those who supported the traditional hierarchies of the English aristocracy claimed their traditional "right" to power and authority; those from the disenfranchised "lower orders" pointed to the structural inequities in the traditional hierarchy that undermined their "right" to better their own lot (let alone influence the government of their own country). Within the din of self-interested political rhetoric, however, several voices stand out as examples of thoughtful cultural and political analysis. Among these are Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, and later Wordsworth, Shelley, and a whole host of romantic-era writers and thinkers. In a way, though, it is possible to see much of the political analysis as a reaction to the claims of Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Perhaps the most famous line in the Reflections is Burke's claim that the French Revolution is evidence of an irreversible sea-change in modern cultural history: "The age of chivalry is gone." What exactly is this "age of chivalry"? Well, for Burke the phrase stands as a sort of short-hand for a social order founded on mutual respect and obedience to one's duty as defined by gender and social rank. The example he elaborates here is one of the noble courtier who, setting his own safety at naught, would stake all in the courageous defense of his queen. For Burke, this is not a self-interested figure who defends the queen (and, by extension, the state) because he expects some personal reward or because he is a salaried member of the court or the military. Instead, "chivalry" refers to a figure whose very identity is defined by this sense of fulfilling a proper place in the social order. That sense of "dignified obedience," to borrow Burke's words, leads rather paradoxically to "the spirit of an exalted freedom" which emerges "even in servitude itself." The crucial point here is that the courtier who exhibits some act of genuine chivalry is not motivated by some individual profit motive (whatever the rewards might be), but rather by a "generous loyalty" that finds meaning and satisfaction in fulfilling his role in the larger social order.

Burke is remarkable for his insight into the roots of the revolution in Europe. Most writers saw the conflict as one between older aristocratic norms and the "levellers" or republicans who sought (sometimes using violence) to expand the franchise of those persons who were, on the present system, excluded from any genuine political significance. But Burke identifies these renegades not as "levellers" or "republicans" or even as the discontented and disenfranchised "lower orders"; instead, he calls them "sophisters, economists, and calculators"—in other words people who consider their actions in the world in fundamentally selfish economic terms. Such a person, in Burke's view, would not jump to the queen's (or the state's) defense simply out of "generous loyalty"—no, these "economists" and "calculators" would spring to the queen's defense only if there was reason to believe such a daring act would be personally profitable.

In this assessment, Burke was prescient. In the American revolution, the French revolution, and eventually the British unrest that led eventually to the Reform Bill in 1832, what was really at stake was not so much a battle between the "haves" and the "have nots." Instead, it was a realignment of individuals' psychological and cultural relationship to the monarch in particular and the state in general. In Burke's view an older chivalric code of selfless devotion to the monarchy was giving way to a modern economic consciousness in which actions are motivated by self interest. The very fact that my students today tend to see paradox (or even self-contradiction) in Burke's claim that "freedom" is to be found in "dignified obedience" demonstrates just how thoroughly the ideology of the "economists and calculators" has won the ideological conflict. Burke is right—"The age of chivalry is gone." Whether that death ought to be mourned or celebrated is still an open question.

For useful comparison texts, readers may want to look at the excerpts from Charlotte Smith's Emigrants (which notices the causes of civil unrest in the 1790s) and from Wordsworth's Michael (wherein the title character represents an irretrievably lost agrarian life that is in some ways analogous to Burke's chivalry).

3 comments:

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Leslie Lim said...

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