Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) was an Irishman, member of the British House of Commons, and an eloquent critic of the republican revolution in France . This elegy on the occasion of the execution of Marie Antoinette under the National Assembly in France is beautifully melancholic and, while certainly a little nostalgic, it also displays Burke’s typical prescience and astute discernment of the zeitgeist.
“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 had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy. 0, 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 forever. 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 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.”
Edmund Burke – 1793
While I think most historically minded folks of a conservative bent can relate to most of Burke’s observations here, the last statement caught me a little off guard. I want to agree, and I can feel something percolating on the subject back between my ears, but I want to throw this out for your perusal while I think about it.
Does, can the nobility of a society cause “…vice itself [to lose] half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”? What might Burke mean?
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