The Reconstitution of a European Order | Romanticism, Reaction, and Revolution

The romantic movement was too intellectually scattered to provide a blueprint for the reconstruction of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. The general guidelines for reconstruction were to be found in the writings of the English orator Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who set the tone for counterrevolutionary conservatism.

Burke strongly believed that some form of divine intent ruled society and that through individual conscience a chain was forged between rights and duties; there were no rights for those who did not do their duty. He was convinced that civilized society required orders and classes, though movement should be possible between these groups. Because people were governed more by emotion than by reason (as the romantics also argued), some control must be put on the free exercise of the will.

Burke felt affection for the variety and mystery of tradition; reform, while at times desirable, should be approached with caution to preserve what was valuable from the past. He therefore welcomed American independence, which he viewed more as a reaffirmation of the glorious English tradition of 1688 than as a revolution. The same reasoning drove him to violently condemn the French Revolution, which destroyed everything, good, bad, and indifferent. Rage and frenzy, he observed, “pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”*

Burke’s doctrines were especially welcomed by the emigres. Among them was Joseph de Maistre (c. 17531821), a diplomat in the service of the king of Sardinia who had been forced into exile when the French overran Savoy and Piedmont. De Maistre combined Burke’s conservatism with a belief in the viciousness of the state of nature and a traditional Catholic view of human depravity and the need for discipline. The French Revolution, he believed, had been God’s punishment for the philosophes’ arrogance in believing that society could be remade without divine assistance. The post-revolutionary world needed firm control by an absolute monarch and inspired guidance from the church.

The force of tradition bore heavily upon the politics of post-Napoleonic Europe. Yet it was not so much ideological conviction as political realism that accounted for the conservatism of the man who presided over the actual reconstruction of Europe. That man was Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), Austrian foreign minister from 1809 to 1848.

Handsome, dashing, aristocratic, Metternich retained some of the eighteenth century’s belief in reform through enlightened despotism; but he also believed that reform should proceed with caution. Moreover, Metternich served a state that was particularly threatened by the liberal and nationalist energies released by the Revolution. Conservatism, he knew, was the cement that held together the very different parts of the multilingual, potentially multinational realm of the Austrian Habsburgs.

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