Edmund Burke

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The great Burke.
Thinking hard
or hardly thinking?

Philosophy
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Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Edmund Burke (1729–1797) was an Irish political philosopher, writer, parliamentarian and intellectual champion of the anti-Jacobin movement in revolutionary Europe. He changed his views often throughout his life, veering from anarchism to traditionalist conservatism. Therefore, he is claimed by people on both the left- and right-wings as one of their own.

Considered the "heart of the Whig party" up until his split with Charles James Fox in 1794, he then became a Tory and campaigned against the extremism of the French revolutionaries. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) were remarkably insightful and prophetic, predicting the Reign of Terror with talk of descent into violence by unrestrained mobs and all of the associated terror in a world which lauded liberty but did little to protect it.

He was also memorable in his defence of the American Revolution, even if he did not support their independence per se. The American Revolution and the French Revolution offer interesting contrasts; the American Revolution was broadly liberal, built around ideas of a government constrained in power by checks and balances. The French Revolution started with a loose coalition of every faction thinkable but later drifted to a more authoritarian socialist ideology, built around the idea of attaining "liberty, equality and fraternity" by smashing the living daylights out of the ruling class of the ancien régime. But this of course is a crass generalisation.

For years Burke railed against the Penal Laws restricting the civil rights of Irish Catholics; his son, Richard Burke Jr., was sent to work on behalf of the Catholic committee in Ireland in the early years of the 1790s. Although competent, and inheriting his father's passionate and earnest conscience, he lacked Edmund's strength of mind and judgement. (His appointment was a complete disaster and he returned to Britain in ignominy.) Ironically for Burke, considering his developing counter-revolutionary campaign, the Irish Republican Wolfe Tone would replace his son. Richard died in 1794, distracting Edmund somewhat from the haughty business of re-arranging the British government following the split with the Foxite Whigs. Burke was himself of partial Catholic descent, his mother being a Catholic Gael from the distinguished Nagle family, and (according to, i.e., Conor Cruise O'Brien) his father only an opportunistic Anglican convert. The conversion rolls show a Richard Burke Sr. converting from Roman Catholicism to the established church at roughly the same time as he qualified to be a lawyer (Catholics were barred from the legal profession in Ireland for much of the 18th century).

Burke led a campaign to bring down Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India during the period of British dominance. This revolutionised the colonial government in the subcontinent, although it would take fifty years or so before the British government introduced direct rule in the form of viceroys. Furthermore, Burke is also noted for his lifelong devotion to the anti-slavery movement, being good friends with the abolitionist William Wilberforce. He is not known to have commented on the total irreconcilability of his abolitionist attitude toward slavery and his gradualist criticism of the French Revolution (on the basis that tradition has some undefined intrinsic value — see below), so it's not known how he might have resolved this cognitive dissonance.

Perspectives[edit]

Smelling out a rat; or the atheistical-revolutionist disturbed in his midnight "calculations"[notes 1]

Modern[edit]

Historians are split over Burke's denunciation of the French Revolution.

Modern analyses view Burke's "chivalry" for Marie Antoinette ("I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult") as somewhat quaint and archaic, a well-meaning (if meaningless) devotion to an anti-Enlightenment, hereditary monarchy. However, they also see a general abhorrence of the violence of the Revolution, as well as the cutting away of the "constraints" imposed by the ancient laws; for Burke, change by definition had to be organic and gradual. Revolution, especially violent revolution, was inherently dangerous since it stripped away long-established constraints on government power and led to abuse of that power by the new revolutionary elites.

Historiographer Lewis Namier brought about a 40-year moratorium on Burke's 'importance' to history in the revolutionary period. Putting Burke in context, he made a few snide claims that he was only a mere Whig turned Tory, and never had any active role to play in government.[notes 2]

It was not until the groundbreaking publication in 1992 of The Great Melody by Irish renaissance man Conor Cruise O'Brien that this tragedy was rectified. O'Brien looked at Burke from a strictly thematic view and rehabilitated him in public discourse. Characterised as the 'soul' of the Whig party, Burke stood for a set of principles which set him at odds with most of his country. His moral force, both as an intellectual and as a politician came to bear on many issues important to the Whig interpretation of history. Burke wasn't liberal or radical on just the Catholic question; his philosophy shaped revolutionary Europe and America in ways unthought of before. His aversion to the reckless political violence of the French Revolution must make him stand as one of the great moral forces of the revolutionary period.

Marxist[edit]

Karl Marx compared Burke to a lady of the night, although he did not put it so delicately. This was due to the fact that Marx considered anyone who was not a communist like himself to be, by definition, a hack in some big shot's pay. Marx was skeptical of the idea that power could be constrained, arguing that it needed to be abolished instead, which certainly put him at odds with Burke.

Influence[edit]

Burke was a major influence on Russell Kirk, who is credited, alongside William F. Buckley and others, with reviving the American conservative movement in the years after World War II. For both these thinkers, conservatism was "the negation of ideology"[1] and all about caution and prudence in altering the social order; recently it has been remarked that the radical, ultra-partisan strains in modern American conservatism, exemplified by Newt Gingrich, have hijacked the conservative movement, which now denounces the Burkean style of conservatism as communism a compromise with non-conservatives.[2]

Buckley et al. did much to restore conservatism's hitherto absurdly anti-intellectual base, by harking back to Burke and finding a suitable champion for their cause. Nonetheless, since the advent of the New Right, it has been thrown out of the window again. We can rest assured that Burke would have found the Tea Party to be both dangerous and insane, in equal measure.

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. Print shows Richard Price seated at a desk, he turns to look over his right shoulder at a vision of an enormous Edmund Burke, his spectacles, nose, and hands emerge from the haze, a crown in one hand and a cross in the other, on his head an open copy of his "Reflections on the Revolution in France..." Hanging on the wall is an illustration of the beheading of Charles I titled, "Death of Charles I, or the Glory of Great Britain."
  2. This was partly due to cynicism; Namier was skeptical whether ideas as an abstract concept existed at all. Instead, he felt that political systems work best when elites muck around together to form the least disheartening compromise between their (often) self-interested biases. Therefore, the idea of a principled parliamentarian was alien to Namier, and would have contradicted his entire historiography.

References[edit]