The name of Edmund Burke has long been a byword for political reaction. footnote1In the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) the young Whig James Mackintosh was quick to see and reject ‘the manifesto of a counter-revolution’—a consciously propagandist tract in which Burke summoned his uncommon rhetorical powers for an assault on the principles and policies of the French revolutionaries, to be followed, as he soon came to urge, by actual warfare, wholehearted and prolonged, against the country that had given birth to the ‘armed doctrine’ of Jacobinism. That episode alone would have won Burke a place in the pantheon of conservative thought. However, with the October Revolution in 1917, his polemic against democracy was recharged for a new era. Just rewrite ‘France’ as ‘Russia’, the English jurist A. V. Dicey suggested within a year of the Bolshevik victory, and Burke’s insights would shine forth in all their enduring truth. In the Cold War conditions of the mid-20th century, then, the appropriation was solemnized: Burke was elevated to the status of political philosopher, a prophet of the ‘new crusade’ against communism. (Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Great Melody (1992) concluded with a late exercise in this genre, notable as a surrender to an orthodoxy its author had fought against twenty years before.) In this and in his defence of custom, trans-generational obligation and ‘prudent’, piecemeal change, Burke was indeed a conservative for modern times.
Yet it has often been acknowledged that had Burke for some reason fallen silent in the early days of 1789, before the outbreak of the Revolution, he would have been remembered, less vividly, as a ‘liberal’ Whig parliamentarian with a record of tenacious effort in the service of causes that brought him no easy benefits: justice, conciliation and eventual independence for the thirteen North American colonies; opposition to the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland and relief of Catholic legal disabilities there and in Britain; and—a campaign that baffled and wearied even some of those closest to him—reform of the East India Company, ‘a state in the guise of a merchant’, to name some major instances. Burke was no democrat, at any time, even though he came to admire the temper of the American colonists over the years of their war against Britain; and his field of political action was an inter-continental empire whose essential legitimacy he did not question. Nevertheless, he deplored the government’s resort to force in dealing with the insurgency across the Atlantic and popular political agitation on the streets of the imperial capital in the period of the Wilkes affair. It was he who held that ‘the people’ are the only true judges of their oppression; and who wrote to a friend that his sole motive in pursuing the governor-general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, was sympathy with Indians, ‘who are images of the great Pattern as well as you or I. I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not.’
There are at least the appearances of paradox here, and it is the merit of David Bromwich’s long, detailed and learned study, with its unstinted use of Burke’s own words—notes, drafts and letters as well as the published writings and the reports of his speeches in parliament—and those of his contemporaries to establish this beyond the reach of convenient simplification, even if there remains considerable scope for doubt and disagreement over the character of the questions to be put and the possibility of resolving them. The meaning of Burke’s ‘return upon himself’, as Matthew Arnold termed it in the 1860s, may be a matter for dismay, as it was for the revolutionary Tom Paine at the time, or for affirmation, as it was for a conservative such as Russell Kirk in a later era. In another perspective again, it may be a touchstone of liberal disinterestedness—so Arnold believed—for its exemplary and most un-English fidelity to ideas. Marx, for his part, assumed simple venality: Burke was ‘a vulgar bourgeois through and through’. Bromwich’s emphases are manifest in his title, which Arnold would surely have approved. This is a study of Burke as a thinker—though the book contains a lot about 18th-century politics both parliamentary and extra-mural, inevitably, and a little about his social and family life—and, then, of the thinking rather than the thought. That phrasing is hyperbolic, granted, but it matches Bromwich’s opening statement of purpose, which some may think a little enigmatic itself: ‘I have tried to answer the question, What did it mean to think like Edmund Burke?’ The question has more than one meaning, in keeping, it may be, with Bromwich’s dual character as a writer: a literary scholar specializing in the Romantic period, with books on Hazlitt and Wordsworth and an edition of Burke’s speeches and letters to his name, he has made a second reputation for his activist-critical writing on us foreign policy and cultural politics today. (Appearing in the London Review of Books and Huffington Post, Raritan and Dissent among other venues, work of this kind makes up his recent collection, Moral Imagination: Essays, also 2014.) Over the past eight years Bromwich has been that rare thing: an unsparing commentator on the president he once witheringly described as ‘the world’s most important spectator’. In the arresting words of Samuel Moyn, reviewing this book in The Nation, he has been ‘a Burkean regicide’.
Here, in the first of two volumes, Bromwich pursues his question in more than one direction, beginning with his subject’s birth into the family of a Dublin lawyer in 1730 (if not 1729: authorities differ) and continuing ‘from the Sublime and the Beautiful to American Independence’, a span of just over fifty years ending with Britain’s final acknowledgement of the accomplished fact, in 1782. The order of treatment is broadly chronological—with one great, seemingly untameable exception, the Reflections, anticipations of which are so frequent as to leave that work with an index entry twice as long as some of those to which The Intellectual Life is nominally devoted.
In his first adult incarnation, Edmund Burke was a philosophically inclined man of letters. With a distinguished undergraduate career at Trinity College Dublin behind him, the twenty-one-year-old left for London, there to study for the bar. Seven ill-documented years later, that plan had come to nothing, but Burke had published two books and was working to commission on a third. They made a striking trio. The first, A Vindication of Natural Society, appeared anonymously in 1756; its thesis, that society as it existed was a corrupting environment for human life, which should properly be guided only by the laws of nature as these were disclosed to unaided reason, was taken up by contemporaries such as Paine—but was in fact parodically intended, in mockery of the apodictic manner and beliefs of the Tory philosopher Henry Bolingbroke. (Another such vindication, unknown to Burke at the time, had appeared the previous year: Rousseau’s Second Discourse, the work of a thinker he respected as preeminent in his generation but came to loathe as ‘the great professor and founder of the philosophy of vanity’. Montesquieu was always the more sympathetic point of reference for Burke.)