“A Sort of Refinement in Injustice”

Apropos of absolutely nothing, here is Edmund Burke on the injustice of punishing men for the crimes of their predecessors.

Burke, as a Christian thinker, knew that to do so was a product of the rationalism (which is, for that reason, irrational) of an “enlightened age,” birthed from a revolutionary spirit that, in its zeal to usher in the glorious millennium, makes a desert of a garden. There are lessons in this observation, of course; but few will heed them, as the reaper’s testimony of the last two centuries suggests.

In the quoted passage, Burke is writing of the French clergy.

If there had been any just cause for this new religions persecution, the atheistic libellers, who act as trumpeters to animate the populace to plunder, do not love anybody so much as not to dwell with complacence on the vices of the existing clergy. This they have not done. They find themselves obliged to rake into the histories of former ages (which they have ransacked with a malignant and profligate industry) for every instance of oppression and persecution which has been made by that body or in its favor, in order to justify, upon very iniquitous because very illogical principles of retaliation, their own persecutions and their own cruelties. After destroying all other genealogies and family distinctions, they invent a sort of pedigree of crimes. It is not very just to chastise men for the offences of their natural ancestors; but to take the fiction of ancestry in a corporate succession, as a ground for punishing men who have no relation to guilty acts, except in names and general descriptions, is a sort of refinement in injustice belonging to the philosophy of this enlightened age. The Assembly punishes men, many, if not most, of whom abhor the violent conduct of ecclesiastics in former times as much as their present persecutors can do, and who would be as loud and as strong in the expression of that sense, if they were not well aware of the purposes for which all this declamation is employed.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France


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