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High minds at the table: “A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s”, 1851, by James William Edmund Doyle, featuring Boswell (far left) and Burke (centre, in glasses)

Burke knew that one way to judge a man was by the quality of his enemies.  As early as 1770, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, he had served notice about the principles which would guide his conduct in public life. He would strive, he said:

To bring the dispositions that are lovely in private life into the service and conduct of the commonwealth; so to be patriots, as not to forget we are gentlemen. To cultivate friendships, and to incur enmities. To have both strong, but both selected: in the one, to be placable; in the other, immoveable.

So it would have given Burke great pleasure to have known that perhaps the most powerful tribute paid to him after his death came from an avowed enemy who was also a perceptive admirer, namely the radical philosopher and novelist William Godwin.

Burke died in 1797, when Godwin was busy seeing the third edition of Political Justice through the press. On receiving the news of Burke’s death, Godwin stopped the press and added a long footnote. In Book VII of Political Justice Godwin had imagined a conversation with a representative of “the rich and great” in which he had tried to persuade that class of men to employ their merits for the general good of mankind. In the footnote added to the third edition of 1798 Godwin explained what lay behind this imagined dialogue:

While this sheet is in the press for the third impression, I receive the intelligence of the death of Burke, who was principally in the author’s mind while he penned the preceding sentences.

Godwin began by paying lavish tribute to Burke’s powers of mind: “In all that is most exalted in talents, I regard him as the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of earth; and, in the long record of human genius, I can find for him very few equals. In subtlety of discrimination, in magnitude of conception, in sagacity and profoundness of judgement, he was never surpassed.” But Burke was also flawed in the very superabundance of his strengths. “Boundless wealth of imagination” was, for Godwin, Burke’s characteristic excellence as a writer.  But his imaginative brilliance was also an ignis fatuus that prevented him from reaching the very highest levels of attainment:

Of this wealth he was too lavish; and, though it is impossible for the man of taste not to derive gratification from almost every one of his images and metaphors while it passes before him, yet their exuberance subtracts, in no inconsiderable degree, from that irresistibleness and rapidity of general effect which is the highest excellence of composition.

Burke’s moral character was also imperfect. No one, Godwin conceded, could ever doubt that Burke was “eminently both the patriot and the philanthropist”; but these noble sentiments were “tinctured with a vein of dark and saturnine temper” which detracted from his stature.

These literary and temperamental blemishes, however, were as nothing compared to the great failure of political judgment which, for Godwin, had vitiated Burke’s life:

the false estimate as to the things entitled to our deference and admiration, which could alone render the aristocracy with whom he lived unjust to his worth, in some degree infected his own mind. He therefore sought wealth and plunged in expense, instead of cultivating the simplicity of independence; and he entangled himself with a petty combination of political men, instead of reserving his illustrious talents unwarped, for the advancement of intellect, and the service of mankind.

For even his contemporaries, then, Burke could seem a puzzling instance of great gifts misapplied.

Richard Bourke’s careful and learned account not just of Burke’s political life, but also of the intellectual commitments and inclinations which Burke set in motion in his public career, brings new clarity to our understanding of a thinker and man of letters who, as we have seen, could baffle those who knew him. Burke lived through, as Bourke puts it, “vicissitudes of empire and revolution”, and this shifting background of successive crises in different theatres of the world — Britain, Ireland, America, India, and finally, France — inevitably required a certain flexibility on the part of those, such as Burke, who attempted to navigate safely through the resulting turbulence. 

For many of Burke’s contemporaries, the result of his intellectual subtlety was simply apostasy. As a result of some obscure reactionary reflex the defender of the American colonists had become the unappeasable enemy of the French revolutionaries; the champion of Indians oppressed by the rule of the East India Company was able eventually to turn a cold eye on the sufferings of the French peasantry. This was the conclusion to which Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine (whom, as Bourke reminds us, Burke had entertained at Beaconsfield as late as 1788) were driven. Bourke, however, argues that Burke had a set of intellectual and moral commitments which did not change over time, and allegiance to which explains the apparently contradictory stances Burke adopted in the midst of different crises:

Burke’s achievement was to analyse the conditions of freedom in minute practical and constitutional detail. His analysis drew on a historical vision of the character of modern politics. This book tries to capture the subtlety of that vision as it was expressed over the course of a parliamentary career. It aims to achieve this by reconstructing Burke’s political thought in relation to the major developments of the age. This requires a full examination of current affairs as well as careful attention to intellectual context.

Such is the ambitious and demanding programme Bourke has set himself in this long and searching book.

Bourke’s forensic anatomising of both the underlying consistency of Burke’s commitments and also of the repeated misreadings to which his career has been subjected is a pleasure to read. Time and time again Bourke skewers a misinterpretation with an acute discrimination. Was Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution an apostasy from his support of the American colonists?  On the contrary, both were dictated by Burke’s aversion to a particular way of doing politics:

Twelve and a half years before the publication of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, in the midst of his defence of the American Revolution, and in the context of a bid for reconstituting the Empire on the basis of a new covenant for the distribution of its powers, Burke was trying to expose purely speculative theories of government and the abstract conception of freedom that accompanied them.

Was Burke’s advocacy of reform in the context of India at loggerheads with his conservative stance towards the ancien régime in France? By no means:

His antipathy was not directed against the principle of natural rights or the contention that civil entitlements had a basis in the laws of nature.  Burke’s defence of property, his promotion of toleration, and his championship of values that ought to guide the government of India were all conducted on the assumption of fundamental rights. What disturbed Burke was the appropriation of the rhetoric of rights to serve the advancement of what he saw as two calamitous political programmes. The first was the goal of resorting to the natural right of self-government as a means of determining the shape of existing civil societies. . . . The second programme turned on the idea that the original rights of nature could challenge the distribution of wealth in established societies.  As Burke saw it, both these sets of pretensions to primordial “rights” in man compelled the French Revolution along its avid course, progressively diminishing the chances of securing any civil entitlements.

Was Burke’s willingness to support Indian or American resistance to the burdens imposed on them by administration undone by his attitude towards the French revolutionaries? Certainly not, because the French Revolution was an event of quite another kind:

Arbitrary power was an essential feature of the spirit of conquest. In Burke’s eyes, resistance or revolution was a legitimate response. Yet the French Revolution had begun not as a rebellion against an oppressive monarch but as a wilful campaign on the part of a faction to usurp the constitution of the state.

Did Burke’s deployment against Warren Hastings of the imperatives to be derived from an understanding of common humanity conflict with his abhorrence of the revolutionary doctrine of universal benevolence? Nothing could be less true:

Throughout the impeachment of Hastings, [Burke] appealed to universal morality founded on the sentiment of humanity. But this is not to be confused with the doctrine of “universal benevolence” that he later came to associate with the philosophy of Rousseau. Cosmopolitan generosity on the Genevan’s part seemed to Burke a notional commitment without any basis in genuine emotion: although a theoretical “lover of his kind,” Rousseau in fact comported himself as a “hater of his kindred.”

In passages such as these Bourke’s patient and reflective scholarship clears away the accumulated heaps of shallow assertion that have impeded for so long a proper understanding of Burke’s thought.

To cleanse the stables of Burkean commentary it is necessary to fight on several methodological fronts at once. At one level, Bourke has shouldered the Herculean task of undoing the strange condescension towards Burke on the part of academic historians. From the mid-20th century onwards plentiful enthusiasm for Burke could be found in faculties of literature and politics: but not in faculties of history. The historians of 18th-century politics, who had been weaned on the thin milk of Lewis Namier even when they distanced themselves from their predecessor’s more extreme positions, affected a de haut en bas loftiness towards both Burke and his associates. They, the historians, knew better. The Rockinghamites were naive and inexperienced, and Burke was nothing more than a wild Irish orator who was listened to with incredulity in St Stephen’s Chapel. The barren years of opposition that the Rockinghamites were forced to endure were their just deserts. The acme of this tradition of deliberate neglect is Leslie Mitchell’s astonishingly perfunctory edition of Reflections on the Revolution in France in the Clarendon edition of Burke: what should have been a landmark of scholarship and the centrepiece of the whole edition was defaced in order that a petty snub could be delivered. Bourke has wisely distanced himself from this tradition. The massive documentation in his narrative exposes the insubstantiality of its underpinnings.

Bourke also shuns another tradition of commentary on Burke, namely the psycho-biographical. As he points out, his is “not a work of psychological biography. It does not seek to uncover the hidden motives that drove its protagonist.” Here he takes aim at works such as Isaac Kramnick’s The Rage of Edmund Burke and Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Great Melody — both books now somewhat passed into the vale of years, yet still with the power to mislead. For, although Bourke initially presents his abstention from psychological speculation as nothing more pointed than a particular election of approach, in fact he understands very well that to succumb to psychobiographical temptations endangers genuine historical understanding:

Psychobiographical accounts . . . are prone to basic historical error.  They assume, first, that it is possible to determine the character of belief solely by specifying its social context.  Next, they suppose that a distinct and underlying set of attitudes can be surmised beneath the surface of expressed thought . . . This kind of hypothesis is, of course, a recipe for substituting one’s own ideas for those of one’s subject of study.

This is very well put; and it suggests too the severity of the salutary theoretical discipline Bourke has imposed on himself in this book.

Bourke’s chosen method is that of thick contextualisation as practised by the “Cambridge School”, and his book is a fine example of its virtues. At times, such was the range of Burke’s interests, and so extensive therefore the contextualisation required to do justice to it, that Burke himself can disappear from sight (though the helpful inclusion of “overviews” at the beginning of each section of the book helps to keep the major landmarks of the argument before the reader). Sometimes the analysis and description of the context is so elaborate and lengthy that the analysis of the text, when it comes, can seem brief and over before it has really begun. Contextualisation at moments side-steps its ancillary role of textual explanation, and becomes the primary activity. This is particularly true of Bourke’s accounts of the great parliamentary speeches (“American Taxation”, “Conciliation with the Colonies”) where the topics touched on are explained contextually, but the actual argument of the speech itself is, to my mind, sometimes insufficiently explored. 

Nevertheless, the result of this meticulous contextualisation is a richly-detailed account, not just of Burke’s political and moral thinking, but of the various intellectual worlds through which he moved.  The range and depth of Bourke’s research here, and his command of both the primary and secondary archives, is truly impressive.  All future historians of ideas who intend to work on Burke will need to engage with the arguments of this book.
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Alan Vanneman
July 30th, 2015
11:07 AM
The Younger Pitt, who knew Burke better than we do, said of one of his speeches, "As in all of that gentleman's efforts, I found much to admire and nothing to agree with." Burke's uncritical admirers, who are many, should take that to heart.

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