Monday, July 16, 2012

"Regicide Republick" — Edmund Burke

AM | @HDI1780

While reading Dermot Ryan's excellent article on Edmund Burke and the "Republic of Letters" (*), I stumbled upon this remarkable passage:

Comparing the constitutional experiments of the National Assembly to the sorcery of Medea, Reflections had cast the Republican constitution as a form of depraved reanimation: "[W]e are taught to look with horror on those children of their country who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces and put him into a kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds and wild incantations they may regenerate the paternal constitution and renovate their father's life" (p. 9).

I take these lines as convincing proof that Burke read the third edition of Histoire des deux Indes, which features one of the most explosive statements of the whole book: "Une nation ne se régénère que dans un bain de sang. C'est l'image du viel Aeson, à qui Médée ne rendit la jeunesse qu'en le dépeçant & en le faisant bouillir ... Il semble que se soit l'ouvrage d'une longue suite de révolutions" (HDI 1780, xi.4, pp. 23-24). Clearly, Burke was struck by what had already become one of the rallying cries of the French Revolution: the notion of régénération.

This rhetorical élan, I venture to suggest in my book, was Diderot's dialectical counterpoise to Raynal's sometimes absurd views on human 'degeneracy' in the New World. Régénération vs. dégénération! But it was a risky move, to say the least [see]. Burke understood this from the get-go.

(*) Dermot Ryan: "A New Description of Empire: Edmund Burke and the Regicide Republic of Letters",
Eighteenth-Century Studies. Vol. 44, Number 1, Fall 2010. On Burke and Raynal, see Gianluigi Goggi: "Le voyage de Raynal en Angleterre et en Hollande", Recherches sur Diderot et sur l'Encyclopédie, Vol. 3, Numéro 3, 1987, pp. 86-117.

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