Two Edmund Burkes?

The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative

by Isaac Kramnick
Basic Books, 225 pp., $12.95

Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke; drawing by David Levine

Professor Kramnick sees “two Burkes: a bourgeois Burke and an aristocratic Burke.” Burke “personifies” the transformation from the aristocratic world to the bourgeois world. Burke’s social ambivalence is seen as reflecting a sexual ambivalence. The bourgeois Burke is the masculine side, the aristocratic Burke is feminine.

The roots of this, of course, are to be found in Burke’s childhood. It is known that Edmund Burke was strongly attached to his mother, and that his relations with his father were somewhat strained. It is also known that from the age of six to eleven Edmund Burke lived with his mother’s Nagle relatives in County Cork. Professor Kramnick thinks that Edmund must have felt this separation as equivalent to desertion by his father, and that subsequent patterns of behavior and of thought were shaped by his feelings about this desertion.

Hateful anger was directed at the father for the desertion, for his temper, for his partiality to the other sons. But there was also a love for father, a longing for reciprocal affection and paternal acceptance. [p. 56]

This love-hate ambivalence toward his betters, so evident in the later Burke, stemmed, in part, from his ambivalence to his father, an ambivalence which also helps explain his complicated sense of self in these early years reflected in the alternating moods of self-pride and self-deprecation found in his early letters. His realistic sense of his emerging abilities vied with a sense of uselessness implanted in his childhood. Surely he was unworthy if his father preferred his siblings and saw fit to desert him for five years. In his mind this was part of the explanation of his father’s activities.

But much more important was the legacy of these attitudes toward his father in shaping Burke’s feelings about authority in general. His resentment and anger inform that part of him that would be pushy and assertive, and generally rebellious. It helps explain the ease with which he would question and criticize the aristocracy and assert himself while seeking, indeed, to displace the traditional ruling class. On the other hand his search for love and affection, his idealization of what a proper father should be, inform that side of him that will glorify traditional authority, that will defer to his betters and superiors. This search for a loving father, this desire for the proper relationships to superiors, will also help explain Burke’s future strategy of entering into dependent political relationships with great and older men. [p. 63]

Successful resolution of the oedipal conflict requires an identification with the father. The fear of the father’s angry rebuke of the young boy for his incestuous designs on the mother is resolved in this identification. It was just when such identification should have occurred that Burke’s father was absent. Burke’s separation from his father from age six to eleven thus looms as the critical experience in Burke’s…

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