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Two Edmund Burkes?

The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative

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

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 youth. His unresolved oedipal conflict becomes the intrapsychic, psychoanalytic issue which colors his entire life; it would be aspects of this irresolution which would recur in later neuroses. [p. 85]

Between the spring of 1750, when Burke arrived in London, and 1756, when he married Jane Nugent and published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and A Vindication of Natural Society, “almost nothing is known about Burke’s life.” Here “are the missing years.” “Filling in this glaring gap in the Burke biography,” writes Professor Kramnick, “is crucial for any understanding of the ambivalent and seemingly contradictory Burke described in the chapters to follow.” Professor Kramnick fills the gap, mainly by spirited conjecture.

It is known that during that period Edmund formed a close friendship with a certain Will Burke—whom he referred to as his “cousin” or his “kinsman.” Edmund and Will shared rooms at the Middle Temple and, after Edmund married Jane Nugent, Will Burke stayed with the married couple. Professor Kramnick, with pertinacity and ingenuity, finds “nuances of homosexual love” in a poem “The Muse Divorced” addressed by Edmund to William (November 1750) and since William is known to have been interested in trying to make money, Professor Kramnick identifies him with the bourgeois-masculine side of Burke’s psyche. By marrying Jane, and remaining friendly with Will, Edmund achieved a balance between the two sides of his nature.

He would spend much of his private adult life with both Jane and Will under his roof. The resolution of his ambivalence took the unique form of perpetuation in the components of his immediate household. Jane, as we shall see, was the embodiment of the traditional, feminine, and passive—Catholic as well. Will was the embodiment of bourgeois man on the make. In Will’s enterprise Edmund could vicariously satisfy the ambitious bourgeois longings within himself, while actively pursuing a public career notable for its aristocratic sympathies—reflective of the other side of his social ambivalence. Meanwhile, Edmund could express his male identity vis-à-vis Jane and his lingering female identity could be gratified by the relationship (latent or overt) with William which survived the marriage with Jane. Having both Jane and William in his household also brought into acceptable equilibrium the held over problem of the parental generation. Will provided Edmund the mirror of his father (Protestant, masculine and assertive) and Jane his mother (Catholic, feminine and passive). [pp. 79-80]

This equilibrium is seen as celebrated in Burke’s aesthetic treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Professor Kramnick offers us his key: “For Burke the sublime is Will and the beautiful Jane, and both are essential to peace and well-being.”

Professor Kramnick sees the same themes as constantly present, though in varying relations to one another, throughout Burke’s political and parliamentary career. He sees them, for example, as underlying Burke’s emphasis on the importance of party, this being a concept which helped him to reconcile his bourgeois-masculine and aristocratic-feminine sides:

The intricacies and intensities of this dilemma were eased for Burke via party. It was not for [the Whig leader] Rockingham that he worked, it was for a party, “a cause,” the cause of a collectivity of highminded men. Burke could abide by the imperatives of the aristocratic principle as energetic servant of a party, and indeed Burke was the real organizer and critical element in Rockingham’s party for over sixteen years. While doing this he could still express the bourgeois principle, i.e., further his own ambitions and make his own mark, fortune, and fame. He could do this without threatening the aristocracy, or his social superiors, without being a usurping leveller like the ambitious men and women who went wholeheartedly into radicalism. [p. 113]

A similar tension and harmonization are discernible in his speeches on America:

Burke was defending the lost rights of America against the break in continuity brought by innovative English commercial policy. In this sense he was offering a defense of the aristocratic principle, inactivity, and continuity, against innovation and action, service of the lesser America to the greater England. But Burke’s ambivalence is at work here, too. On another level America means something completely different to Burke. Identification with America in the 1770s expressed that side of his personality that longed for the independence with which to be his own master, his own man. America, like the ambitious part of Burke, refused to keep its place, the rank and position assigned it by custom, history or social convention. It represented the triumph of the bourgeois over the aristocratic principle. [p. 120]

These factors also marked his style: “When Burke described the bourgeois principle in his letters and writings he repeatedly used stereotypical masculine adjectives. Fiery, hearty, bold, industrious, independent, enterprising, active, rough, spirited, pushy, ambitious, assertive, and adventuresome are some examples. When he described the aristocratic principle he used equally stereotypical feminine adjectives: listless, timid, diffident, idle, peevish, irresolute, precious, languid, indolent, passive, dependent, inactive, and supine.”

In his obsessions with Warren Hastings and with the Jacobins Burke is seen as defending the aristocratic-feminine side of his nature from violation by the bourgeois-masculine side, and Professor Kramnick draws on the sexual imagery of Burke’s speeches in support of this thesis. In his epilogue he says:

Burke’s life was a set of variations on oedipal themes. He wrote often in his youth and in later years of replacing the great, a displacement of the fact that he had indeed replaced the one great, the father. But he was ambivalent on this score, for throughout his life he also worshipped and served the great, warding off their feared oedipal punishment. In his writings he vented this issue time and again with his invocation of the forbidden and repressed theme of parricide. His characterization of the bourgeoisie as ambitious and phallic and of the aristocratic as idle and feminine, and, in turn, his own vacillation between those two ideals echoes the oedipal dilemma. So, too, did the flavor and tone of his indictment of Hastings and the Jacobins. Decrying their aggressive masculinity represented the recurring need to deny his own masculine oedipal conquest.

The cornerstone of Burke’s significance in western thought, his prophetic philosophy of conservatism, is closely bound up with his private self and personal needs. It is fitting that the oedipal theme should have played so significant a role, for as political theory his conservatism offers a profound legitimization of repression. Burke linked pessimism and repression, arguing that free, self-determining humanity is irrational and evil humanity. Within people, the conservative Burkean insists, are passions and inclinations which must be restrained, lest additional suffering, pain, and crime be unleashed on an already sinful world. Burke assigns part of this task of control, restraint, and repression to government, as have true conservatives ever since. [p. 195]

The Rage of Edmund Burke is a brilliant book, with glaring faults. Let me try to dispose of the faults first. The major one is the insensitivity with which the author intrudes the concepts and the vocabulary of a later age into the debate and dilemmas of the eighteenth century. In the introduction he apologizes for “the overly rich diet of direct Burkean citations found here.” But the real trouble is not that the citations are rich, but that they are so often mangled. You get little scraps of Burke embedded in great wedges of Kramnick prose, purporting to paraphrase Burke, and in fact “interpreting” him or just plain distorting him to suit the Kramnick thesis. The following is an example of the method:

In his earliest reference to the desirability of suppressing sexual passion, in the letter written at the age of fifteen to Shackleton, he spoke of sexuality as a devious plot organized by a crafty and subtle internal enemy that sought through using every bait imaginable to tempt the individual to destruction. Two years later he wrote to Shackleton of losing control to avarice and sensuality which “entirely take possession.” [p. 182]

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