Burke and His Cult

Burke and the Nature of Politics

by Carl B. Cone
University of Kentucky, Vol. II, 540 pp., $15.00 the set

Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke; drawing by David Levine

The world of political ideas is an odd world to move around in, and none odder than Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind, in which Edmund Burke is revealed as the great prophet of Anglo-American conservatism. Throughout this book, the implication is that radicals are addicted to non-realistic, richly sentimental, over-optimistic abstractions, whereas conservatives are down-to-earth men, whose ideas are firmly anchored in a hard-headed appraisal of human nature and a deep sense of the history of mankind. Quaint, indeed, to think that “equality” is more abstract than “tradition,” that “moral essence” should mean more than “human need,” that reverence for the past should have a higher moral value than hope for the future. Above all, there is the monumental self-deception of the conservative that anti-rationalism is wisdom: Russell Kirk quotes Keith Feiling with solemn approval:

Every Tory is a realist. He knows there are great forces in heaven and earth that man’s philosophy cannot plumb or fathom. We do wrong to deny it, when we are told that we do not trust human reason: we do not and we may not.

Distrust of reason: here is the self-revealed core of conservative belief and so, as we might expect, a few sneering asides are made by Kirk about a “world smudged with industrialism” and “corrosive intellectual atomism.” And it comes as no surprise that at the end of his essay on Burke he should drool about “the tidy half-timbered inn, the great oaks and the quiet lanes of Beaconsfield” and sneer at the villas, housing estates and light industry that have bitten deep into Buckinghamshire countryside since Burke’s day. Here is Tory realism with a vengeance: like the halftimbered inn, it is largely phony. The rationalization of prejudice, the sanctification of the status quo, the attribution of historical inevitability and Divine Providence to inequality and human suffering certainly acquired its most persuasive apologist in Burke and so, perhaps, it is not surprising that he is rapidly becoming a cult.

As well as a cult, Burke is a serious historical figure. The mass of his papers and the variety of his correspondence, to say nothing of the devious nature of his life, have, however, made him a professional historical problem of the first magnitude. Professor Copeland has organized a team of dedicated Anglo-American editors, and the volumes of his correspondence are flowing from the press, beautifully and skillfully edited in the highest traditions of American scholarship. This type of task is so much more professionally and skillfully accomplished by American editors: and British scholars would never have achieved so definitive an edition if left to their own devices. After the correspondence, one can only hope that the papers will follow and then a critical edition of the published works, for after all Burke is one of the founders of European conservatism and no matter how silly and self-deceiving his views may be, they…

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