‘You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.’ Dr Johnson’s remark on Edmund Burke, related in one of Hester Thrale’s anecdotes, is unforgettable. The greatest Tory of the 18th century takes off his hat and makes the lowest possible bow to the much younger Irish Whig (Burke’s dates are 1729-97, Johnson’s 1709-84). Johnson’s veneration started a fashion which lasted long after Burke’s death. By 1856, Karl Marx, who himself denounced Burke as a sycophant and ‘out-and-out vulgar bourgeois’, was also telling the readers of the New York Daily Tribune that he was ‘the man who is held by every party in England as the paragon of British statesmen’. Burke was revered by Tories and Liberals alike, if with rather different motives, not just for his torrential eloquence but as a politician who somehow transcended politics and as a philosopher who uniquely immersed himself in the world.
Then, quite suddenly, it all changed. For the next century or so, Burke was reviled with the same enthusiasm as he had been praised: he was a corrupt placeman, a party hack, a coward and a stick-in-the-mud, a reactionary mystagogue, his speeches and writings irredeemably tainted by his personal corruption and his superstitiousness. In his quirky but compelling book on Burke, The Great Melody, Conor Cruise O’Brien fingers James Mill in his History of British India as one of the first to put the knife in. On the question of India, Mill says, Burke
neither stretched his eye to the whole of the subject, nor did he carry its vision to the bottom. He was afraid. He was not a man to explore a new and dangerous path without associates. Edmund Burke lived upon applause … In the case of public institutions, Mr Burke had also worked himself into an artificial admiration of the bare fact of existence; especially ancient existence. Every thing was to be protected, not because it was good, but because it existed.
Such a tirade might be expected from Utilitarians. Bentham dismisses Burke as ‘a madman, an incendiary, a caster of verbal filth’. But it is surprising more recently to find Isaiah Berlin lumping Burke in with ‘reactionary thinkers’ such as Joseph de Maistre. Berlin’s friend Stuart Hampshire is contemptuous not simply of Burke’s views but of the quality of his thought:
Burke’s rhetoric was mere assertion. It was not proof or even argument. He was not clear and he was not consistent. He saw less far into the future than the philosophical radicals and the men of the Enlightenment, less far certainly than Condorcet. He had a confused and superstitious idea of providence within history. He was often merely reactionary and frightened.
The continuity between Mill’s critique and Hampshire’s is striking. Either these liberal thinkers have detected some essentially meretricious qualities in Burke, something bogus and inflated in his earlier reputation, or they are missing something. The antipathy to Burke has cropped up not just among those like Berlin and Hampshire and J.H. Plumb, who believe that he had the wrong ideas, but also among historians of the Namier school, especially Lewis Namier himself, who believe that ideas don’t matter much in politics and that Burke was dishonest in pretending they did when in reality he was just a biddable grafter like the rest.
Is it possible that such critiques may rest on not having actually read much of Burke? Certainly Berlin, in his generous way, conceded in a correspondence with O’Brien that ‘I really should not argue with you about Burke. I know virtually nothing about him except what most people know – the image handed down in history books and conversation, which is plainly not good enough.’
It is David Bromwich’s aim in The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke that people should know a good deal more about what Burke actually said and wrote. This is the first of two projected volumes; the second will cover the two great causes of Burke’s later life: the British misgovernment of India and the French Revolution. Bromwich’s patient and subtle exposition is a continuing delight. After reading this first volume, several major misreadings of Burke and a more general ignorance of his arguments and actions will not be possible, or at any rate won’t be legitimate, by no means the same thing. The book is not intended as a guide to Burke’s personal and family life or to the ups and downs of his political career. It just tells the reader what Burke thought and why he thought it.
Burke was on the side of the underdog. That is a pallid way of putting what must be one’s first and abiding impression. There were at least six great issues on which he defended the victims of mistreatment with a steely vigour and an unhesitating sympathy. These six issues deserve to be listed, if only to dispel once and for all the illusion that Burke was the lackey of the rich and powerful.
From first to last, he stuck up for John Wilkes and the cause of liberty. He drily recognised Wilkes’s failings: ‘There has been no hero of the mob but Wilkes’; ‘He is not ours, and if he were, is little to be trusted. He is a lively agreeable man, but of no prudence and no principles.’ Yet he defended Wilkes throughout his struggle to be elected to a House of Commons which repeatedly refused to recognise his election. It was a sacrosanct principle that in a free country the people must be allowed to choose their own representatives. Which did not mean that Burke was a democrat in our modern sense. He believed in government for the people, not by the people, and he opposed the proposed reforms of Parliament – wider suffrage, more frequent elections, the end of rotten boroughs – on the grounds that, though the British constitution might be imperfect, it worked and its faults should be corrected only over time and with great caution.
Almost simultaneously, Burke was defending the American colonists in their struggle not to be taxed by a Parliament three thousand miles away, not simply because there must be no taxation without representation and it would be absurd to send American MPs to Westminster, but also because the colonists had grown away from their mother country, grown too ‘Whiggish’ for their internal democracy to be crushed or checked. Here we see, perhaps for the first time, Burke’s crucially socio-historical bent. It was not simply a sound principle that the people should choose their own governors. In the historical situation of the American colonies, they were going to choose them whether George III and Lord North liked it or not. There was no point in arguing with that political fact: ‘I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against an whole people.’
Burke’s opposition to the American war has a further dimension which comes close to a blanket opposition to war per se. He had been educated at a Quaker school outside Dublin, run by Abraham Shackleton, who in his prospectus declared that he declined ‘to teach that part of the academic course which he conceives injurious to morals and subversive of sound principles, particularly those authors who recommend, in seducing language, the illusions of love and the abominable trade of war’. Abraham’s son Richard became Burke’s best friend (Burke wrote sixty letters to him over five years), and the Quaker and Huguenot connections, both in Dublin and in Co. Cork (where Burke’s mother originally came from), are not to be underestimated. As for his Catholic connections, there was no danger of those being overlooked. Edmund’s mother and his wife were both Catholics of Irish stock and his father may have converted in order to pursue his successful legal career. Certainly the cartoonists kept his origins in public sight; he was typically portrayed in cassock and biretta as well as his trademark specs.
Burke constantly insisted that it was common humanity and not his Irish origins which led him to support the gradual emancipation of Catholics and Dissenters and to press for the repeal of the cruel tariffs and import bans which prevented his ex-countrymen from earning any sort of living. Even after reinventing himself as an Englishman, he never abandoned Ireland, although free trade with Ireland was scarcely a cause calculated to endear him to the Bristol merchants who had elected him to Parliament. Nor was his support of the American colonists, which made him so unpopular in Bristol that he told his constituents in August 1776, ‘in this temper of yours and of my mind, I should sooner have fled to the extremities of the earth than have shewn myself here.’ It was in Bristol that Burke made famous the proposition that ‘your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays if instead of serving you, he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ And it was in Bristol that he lived up to that doctrine, and they duly kicked him out.
After the Bristol years he took up the cause of abolition of the slave trade, anathema to those same merchants, who profited from it so hugely. The slave trade was, he said, ‘the most shameful trade that ever the hardened heart of man could bear’ and ‘rather than suffer it to continue as it is, I heartily wish it at an end.’ But he recognised the interests of the slave merchants and the economic dislocation that would be caused by immediate abolition. So he devised a detailed blueprint for its slow strangulation, his Sketch of a Negro Code which he allowed to be sent to Pitt’s home secretary Henry Dundas in 1792. Under the Code, there would be strict controls over the transport of slaves: breathing room, diet, medical treatment. On arrival, there were to be severe criminal sanctions against maltreatment or the seizure of their property; plantations were to have churches and schools; brighter pupils would be sent to the bishop of London for further education, where they would automatically become free, though Burke does not spell this out. Above all, families were not to be separated, and slave-owners would have to offer proper support to pregnant and nursing mothers and their children. Negroes over the age of thirty with three children or more would be entitled to purchase their freedom at half their market value. All this would make slave-holding so costly as to become ultimately unviable. But what should also be noted is how Burke goes beyond sloganising for abolition and sets himself to work out a more tolerable way of life for slave families during and after the transition.
The same practical humanity is there in his great campaign against Warren Hastings and the East India Company, which is to come in Bromwich’s second volume. One final campaign is worth listing here to complete the record. It was a small affair at the time, but Burke’s words resonate to us in this post-Holocaust age with a terrible vibrancy. During the American war, the British invaded the Dutch-owned Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius and roughed up the inhabitants. The brutality was all the more callous because the tiny volcanic island had recently been flattened by a hurricane. The people who came off worst were the little band of Jewish merchants who resided there. Their plight might have been utterly forgotten except for Burke’s speech:
The persecution was begun with the people, whom of all others it ought to be the care and the wish of humane nations to protect, the Jews. Having no fixed settlement in any part of the world, no kingdom nor country in which they have a government, a community, and a system of laws, they are thrown upon the benevolence of nations, and claim protection and civility from their weakness, as well as from their utility … Their abandoned state and their defenceless situation calls most forcibly for the protection of civilised nations.
By setting out in such detail what Burke said and did in these six cases (and in others, such as the cruel treatment of debtors), Bromwich sets us a puzzling question: why should such a man have provoked the loathing of so many liberal-minded scholars? What is it about Burke that gets their goat? The first thing that inflames this aversion, I think, is the way Burke plunged headlong into party politics. His speeches and writings are so immersed in political negotiation as often to be inaccessible to modern readers, and also for that reason rather offputting. He deliberately avoids the marmoreal detachment from the fray that we are accustomed to in political thinkers. Worse still, Burke refuses to regard parties as a grubby tactical necessity. On the contrary, he presents party affiliation as a noble aspect of political life. Bromwich reminds us that Burke never uttered those famous words attributed to him: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ What he did say was: ‘When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’ Burke was proud to be a leader of the Rockingham Whigs, who have a claim to be the first ongoing political party in British history, for ‘Commonwealths are made of families, free commonwealths of parties also; and we may as well affirm that our natural regards and ties of blood tend inevitably to make men bad citizens as that the bonds of our party weaken those by which we are held to our country.’
In his well-turned account of Burke’s thought, which makes up the second half of his Edmund Burke (2013), the Conservative MP Jesse Norman sets out the reasons for seeing parties as indispensable to politics: they bring stability, they bring openness (collectively agreed principles cannot be kept dark), they tend to moderate and control headstrong governments, and if a party fails to represent the people as they wish to be represented another party will come along to replace it. Parties do not need great men like Lord Chatham to lead them; they can be managed by ordinary people who may well have a better idea of what other ordinary men and women actually want. None of these reasons has tickled the fashionable fancy, then or now. Intellectual opinion has been more inclined to lament with Oliver Goldsmith that his friend Burke,
Who, born for the Universe, narrow’d his mind
And to party gave up what was meant for mankind.
Though fraught with all learning, yet straining his throat
To persuade Tommy Townshend to lend him a vote.
More off-putting still is the thought that the arguments in defence of party might be deployed in the service of any party. Even Bromwich seems to lose his cool for a moment when he declares that ‘no serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism.’ The load-bearing word in that sentence is ‘historian’. Of course Burke was a Whig all his life until he backed Pitt in the French war, and he had little or nothing in common with the Tories of the day. But modern conservatives, especially in the United States, claim Burke as their ancestor, not on account of his political programme in the 1770s and 1780s but rather because of his disposition to ‘slow politics’, to an inching forward on the secure foundation of inherited settlements and loyalties – a claim based on political philosophy rather than on political history.
As for being an ‘irrationalist’, Burke repeatedly denied that he was any such thing. ‘I do not vilify theory and speculation … No, whenever I speak against theory, I mean always a weak, erroneous, fallacious, unfounded or imperfect theory; and one of the ways of discovering that it is a false theory is by comparing it with practice.’ Burke declares himself a thoroughgoing empiricist: ‘The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori …We must look to the evidence … Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect.’
The attention to circumstance must be close and unremitting, for society is ‘a dense medium’, never easy to penetrate or get the hang of. ‘I must see with my own eyes,’ Burke insists, ‘ I must, in a manner, touch with my own hands, not only the fixed but the momentary circumstances before I could venture to suggest any political project whatsoever … I must see all the aids, and all the obstacles. I must see the means of correcting the plan, where correctives would be wanted. I must see the things; I must see the men.’ As policy wonks have discovered time and again, even the best evidence-based policies stand or fall by the context into which they are introduced.
This whole cast of mind has enjoyed an extended reprise in the work of Michael Oakeshott, which repeatedly advises us to consult practical experience and, when we come to explore those ‘intimations’, as he calls them, which invite us to embark on reform, to be well aware how fragile are the ‘platforms of understanding’ on which we are perched, with dollops of wet cement poised on our trowels. Norman percipiently says in passing that Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics ‘perhaps owes more to Burke than is generally recognised, including by Oakeshott himself’.
If politics is a science, then it is a kind of geology. As J.W. Burrow puts it, ‘the common law is not a creation of heroic judges but the slow, anonymous sedimentation of immemorial custom; the constitution is no gift but the continuous self-defining public activity of the nation.’ Burke is a sedimentalist, just as he is, in a non-pejorative sense, a sentimentalist. The sentiments of the people, himself included, are political facts accreted over time, which cannot be ignored or easily overridden in the interests of abstract principles, however desirable. The thought experiment so beloved of philosophers from Hobbes and Locke to John Rawls, of men in the state of nature coming together to conclude a social contract, would have seemed to Burke a sophistical fantasy. Burke foreshadows the 19th century in seeing everything – law, morality, solidarity – as historically evolved, the outcome of experience rather than design.
Conservatives claiming a share of Burke need to understand that they are adopting a demanding ancestor. For Burke insists that much of our inheritance, from classical antiquity, from the Christian Fathers and from the great lawyers of the Renaissance, requires that we cannot be indifferent to the sufferings of our fellow men anywhere in the world. Hard-hearted pseudo-realism is incompatible with Burkean sympathies. For again and again, he declares that ‘the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.’
None of which ought to put off the bien-pensants, for they too subscribe to those same moral principles. So what is it that still nags them about Burke? The answer, I think, is to do with culture, even with aesthetics. Bromwich rightly spends a fair bit of time on Burke’s two earliest works, written in his twenties: the Vindication of Natural Society and the Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. The first is a parody intended to explode the myth that man in the state of nature was happier than when he fell under the control of artificial governments which had brought so much misery and slaughter. The trouble with the Vindication is that Burke carries it off with such gusto that innocent readers such as William Godwin took it literally and were convinced by the myth that it was intended to demolish; some even believed that it might be the work of Bolingbroke, who was actually Burke’s target.
The Enquiry, by contrast, is an excursion of daring and originality which defines the Sublime and Beautiful in recognisably modernist terms. Burke begins by asserting that ‘the first and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is curiosity. By curiosity, I mean whatever desire we have for, or whatever pleasure we take in, novelty.’ Art is not a school of morals; it has little to do with good breeding or good taste; it is at bottom a quest for sensation. The principal passion caused by the Sublime, both in nature and in art, is terror. Art shocks and awes; it is only by accident that modernism’s great mantra, ‘the shock of the new’, does not crop up somewhere in the text. Burke would certainly agree that art ought to be edgy, its jagged outlines not worn down by habit or familiarity. The Enquiry’s definition of the Sublime and Beautiful (the two things are scarcely distinguished) was to be influential in the evolution of Romanticism. But for Burke himself, the crucial point is that art is the opposite of politics as it ought to be practised: a down-to-earth management of life with all its banal needs and hackneyed hopes.
It was to be Burke’s key criticism of the French revolutionaries 35 years later that they sought to aestheticise politics; they titillated their public by a series of sensational tableaux: ‘Statesmen, like your present rulers, exist by everything which is spurious, fictitious and false; by everything which takes the man from his house, and sets him on a stage, which makes him up an artificial creature, with painted theatrick sentiments, fit to be seen by the glare of candle-light, and formed to be contemplated at a due distance … If the system of institution recommended by the assembly is false and theatrick it is because their system of government is of the same character.’
We need to remind ourselves that Reflections on the Revolution in France was published in November 1790, before the September Massacres and the Terror and the execution of the king and queen. At that point, it was not only the radicals who were still exclaiming with Charles James Fox that the Revolution was the greatest and the best event that ever happened to the world. Pitt himself had declared a few months earlier that ‘the present convulsions of France must, sooner or later, terminate in general harmony … thus circumstanced, France … will enjoy just that kind of liberty which I venerate.’ At such a moment, it required an amazing jump of the imagination for a Whig like Burke to forecast all the horrors to come, up to and including the rise of Napoleon:
In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself … the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.
So much for seeing less far into the future than Condorcet (who, we may presume, did not see as far as his own suicide when on the run from Robespierre). If Burke was frightened, well, it turned out that there was plenty to be frightened of, most immediately a world war that was destined to last more than twenty years.
What Burke also foresaw, as Pitt did not, was that this brutal rupture with the past would not easily settle down into a new normality. It was to take a century and a half and four more French Republics before the wounds of 1789 were finally healed. Yet Burke was not to be forgiven by his old friends for his clairvoyance. His attitude seemed to them a baffling betrayal. As a good Whig, he had endorsed the Glorious Revolution in England. The American Revolutionaries had no more loyal friend. Why then did he draw back in horror from this third and greatest revolution? Not merely the Foxites in his own day but a good part of liberal posterity have refused to recognise the distinction he sought to make: that in England in 1688 as in the American colonies in 1776, the aim was to continue an existing political culture, and to strengthen it by careful and restricted reforms. In France in 1789, the aim was utterly different. In the words of Rabaut St Etienne, quoted by Burke in the Reflections: ‘Tous les établissemens en France couronnent le malheur du peuple: pour le rendre heureux il faut le renouveler; changer ses idées; changer ses loix; changer ses moeurs … changer les hommes; changer les choses; changer les mots … tout détruire; oui, tout détruire; puisque tout est à recréer.’
Change everything, things, words, people; destroy everything; begin again from scratch; tabula rasa, Year Zero, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot. Rabaut was a Protestant pastor and a relatively moderate revolutionary, swept along by the giddy times and guillotined in 1793 along with the other Girondins. There were great men caught up in the American Revolution who thought a bit like that at the time. Such is the drift of Jefferson’s famous letter, ‘The Earth belongs to the living,’ in which he suggests that it ought to be possible for each generation of men to begin anew, cleared of ancestral debts and antiquated laws. But America did not turn out that way. On the contrary, the United States was to become a living monument of constitutional conservatism, uniquely reverent towards precedent and towards its Founding Fathers. The rhetoric of novelty remained, but the practice of politics became decidedly Burkean, which is why Burke is today revered more in the United States than anywhere else.
We cannot ourselves peek far enough into the future to guess exactly what Bromwich will make of the Reflections, or how he will treat the question of Burke’s consistency or inconsistency. What ultimately does he think about the core of Burke’s thought: that the aim of politicians ought to be to conserve an existing culture, which must include making improvements to it where necessary, rather than to embark on a new-build enterprise?
The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is both indispensable and unputdownable, and with its companion volume will surely form a lasting landmark. Yet I cannot help sensing here and there a certain bleached quality, a lack of warmth and colour in the way Bromwich sets out his material. Is this merely scholarly detachment, or intellectual good manners, or is it fair to detect a partial withholding of sympathy from his subject? Bromwich offers us what looks like a broad hint in a collection of his essays published simultaneously by Princeton. Moral Imagination brings together a dozen pieces published over the past twenty years in which he mostly explores the minds of people he admires. There is a particularly fine discussion of Lincoln and the constitutional necessity of the Civil War. There are also spirited attacks on the culture of celebrity and on the chicanery of Dick Cheney, which will have most readers whooping. But Bromwich has quite a few things to say here about Burke too.
The collection’s title in fact is drawn from the famous passage in Reflections where Burke declares that he thought ten thousand swords must have leapt from their scabbards to avenge the mob’s assault on Marie Antoinette, but the age of chivalry is gone: ‘All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to a dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.’ Bromwich justly points out that this wardrobe ‘furnishes habitual ideas’ which are the product of culture and custom. The contents of this wardrobe would seem to me to amount to what these days is called our ‘cultural identity’.
But Bromwich does not think that cultural identity is therefore intrinsically valuable. On the contrary, he regards it as potentially harmful. In ‘A Dissent on Cultural Identity’, he sets out his position with brutal candour: ‘That cultural identity is “a permanent feature of human life” is trivially true. We all come from somewhere … But why must each of us be more than matter-of-fact in committing our lives to our history, our culture, our identity? They – culture, history, identity – have done many things for us and many things to us. What makes us affect gratitude instead of anger in return?’
We are perfectly entitled to junk our cultural identity if we don’t like it. We can stand outside it and start afresh tomorrow if we fancy, as several writers whom Bromwich admires have done. Is that what Jefferson meant? Is that what being an American means? If so, Bromwich muses, ‘one might choose to treat America as the rare case of normal humanity and not therefore eccentric.’ He does not conceal his hope that somehow cultural identity – including religious identity – will disappear from the public square; ‘The thing to do with a cultural identity is to keep it to yourself.’ The sooner the lot of us are de-tribalised, the better.
Bromwich’s targets in this feisty essay are the modern ‘culturalists’ such as Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer, who believe that an individual is not self-constructed but ‘constituted by the language and culture which can only be maintained and renewed in the communities he is part of’ and that ‘human flourishing’ depends on belonging. But a larger target, though one not identified here, must surely be Edmund Burke, for on this subject Burke clearly thinks all the stuff that Bromwich equally clearly does not think.
In today’s world, Burke would argue just as vigorously as he did in his own day that cultural identity is both an abiding consolation and a stubborn political fact. Witness the harsh collision across the world between secular urban elites and pious rural peasantries. The costs of these collisions show little sign so far of melting away under the benign rays of modernisation. We can only await with impatience the final reckoning between David Bromwich and Edmund Burke.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.