Edmund Burke again

Posted by Helen Sunday, May 07, 2006

In the days after local elections, while people are still mulling over what, if anything, the results might portend, it is worth looking at one of Burke’s famous and famously misquoted paragraphs.

How often have we heard that Burke spoke approvingly of “small platoons”? An enquiry on my part as to where that phrase might have come from elicited explanations from two members of the Anglosphere group.

The quotation does not speak of “small platoons” but of “little platoons”, the reference being, presumably, to what was then the smallest military unit. Burke clearly expected his readers to know military terminology even though the army was not precisely highly regarded in eighteenth century Britain.

So here is the full quotation:

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of allthose who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it inabuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.”
It comes from one of his greatest works: “Reflections on the Revolution in France” and is as good a summary of the conservative view of society as any has ever been produced. It also reminds one of that wonderful exercise most children get round to doing sooner or later: they write down their names, then their addresses, then the city they live in, then the country, the continent and finally, the world, the universe.


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