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 deserve, historically speaking, a proper treatment. They require understanding but not an idolatrous revival.

Many scholars will regard Carl Cone as being immensely venturesome in producing a long two-volume life of Burke before the essential work of editing is completed. Burke was, rightly from his own point of view, extremely sensitive about many of his activities, particularly those which involved money and his relatives. His namesake, William, whom he called cousin, was an adventurer devoid of any sense of financial morality, whose sole aim in life was to make a fortune by any means that came handy. Although a fortune eluded him, he bore his burden of personal debt (£20,000 alone to Lord Verney) with indifference, if not panache, and lived the life of eighteenth-century affluence. Burke was not only devoted to him but also involved in many of his dubious financial transactions. His relations with his brother, Richard, almost as devious, remain equally obscure and far more light on the more disreputable side of Burke’s life may yet be forthcoming. It will not, however, alter the essential picture. The vast amount of detail about Burke’s life and politics, already known, make this huge biography very well worth while. Delay would not have improved it. Again, like the edition of Burke’s correspondence, this biography is typical of much sound American professional scholarship. There is little analysis, little judgment, but a steady, accurate, comprehensive narrative of Burke’s life, interspersed with an excellent precis of what he said and wrote. As an account of Burke’s life it will survive many generations. For an interpretation of Burke’s character, however, it will have to be supplemented by the brilliant, brief biography which John Brooke contributed to the History of Parliament.

Brooke and Namier have been castigated for their treatment of Burke, for taking a low view of his character, for dismissing so many of his ideas as self-deceiving humbug, and for accusing him of creating the absurd mythology which has clouded so much of the history of George III’s reign. Wrongly, it seems to me. Burke was not a simple man. His nature demanded action and constant justification for what he did, intended to do, and even hoped others might do. Rationalization was a deep psychological need, so his pursuit of power and fame required to be justified in moral and philosophic terms. Hence his concern lay rather with political attitudes than political action. He was led to those attitudes by the necessities of his own life—money, patronage, status. Yet no matter how self-seeking the motives, to self-righteous the implications, the views which Burke adumbrated must be judged as views, as ideas, as political attitudes. Although it helps us understand his character to juxtapose his ardent advocacy of the economical reform of the Royal Household with his avaricious demand when in office for places, sinecures, and pensions for his dependants, this does not invalidate his arguments. There is no essential contradiction between Burke as a great political philosopher and the character of him drawn by Brooke.


There is a need to know his character and circumstances to appraise the emotional force of his ideas and why they have struck such a sympathetic echo in the unconscious minds of generations of men: for, in many ways, Burke persuades by rhetoric rather than by argument. As Namier and Brooke have been quick to point out, Burke’s exceptionally difficult family life deeply influenced his attitude to authority and power. His mother was neurotic, possibly she suffered from mental illness; his father was tyrannical. Rejecting his father’s plans for his career, Burke arrived in London with little but his wits to sustain him. Although a gifted and ambitious man could move about eighteenth-century English society with ease, he could never hope to feel that deep sense of belonging that came naturally to those born within it. An alien adventurer of remarkable literary gifts, perceptive insight into human nature, powerful if disturbed character, and a greedy ambition for affluence, Burke needed patrons as he needed roots: he wanted to find the security that as a child he had never known, and as a man would always elude him.

This sensitivity to the needs of his own security was generalized and projected with great subtlety by Burke not only into political action but also into political thought. Insecurities in all their varied forms riddle most human lives creating needs for habits, rituals, shibboleths, even historical tradition. And it was in this area that Burke’s own personal compulsions fused with the needs of mankind, and he possessed the gifts of thought and language that could give a sense of inevitable destiny to this urge for security. And yet, of course, this alone could not have been responsible for his vast reputation with ensuing generations. In Burke’s world insecurity was growing—the revolt of America, the stirrings in Ireland, the onslaught of the French Revolution, the turmoil in India, all threatened the security of eighteenth century society. But insecurity went deeper than this, and continued to grow: new forms of wealth in commerce and industry challenged the supremacy of those great landed families whom Burke liked to picture as the great oaks of England. Graver still were the growing threats of violence from the lower classes interlaced with cries for liberty: and the ever urgent demands for reform and a wider democracy. In Burke’s day the voice of the sans-culotte echoed round the seats of power and made their occupants nervous. To natural psychological insecurities which beset men were added, therefore, fears for wealth and authority. And as these insecurities grew with the developing social and industrial revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so grew the veneration for Burke. What for him had been largely a psychological need became a philosophy of anti-democratic greed.

Burke, throughout his life, operated in many dimensions, but two are of major importance—his contribution to the political structure of eighteenth-century England and his general political philosophy. The former is a bone of contention between scholars. What he tried to do, and his motives here are of no great importance, was to give a greater unity of principle and a firmer consistency in action to the Rockingham Whigs, to transform them in their own and in other people’s estimation from a faction to a party. In the highly personalized politics of eighteenth-century England fragmentation of political groups took place with ease and frequency, making it so much easier for an active monarch, such as George III, to influence policy and decision. So Burke tried to weld the Rockingham Whigs into a party of known principles which would act consistently in opposition and enter office as a body on their own terms, which they finally achieved in 1782. Certainly this crusade of Burke’s helped to revitalize politics and helped to create the sense that opposition should be based on political and intellectual alternatives to the government in office rather than mere factional warfare. Although much of Burke’s own analysis of the contemporary political scene was biased and wrong, nevertheless he remains one of the most significant figures in the constitutional history of Britain in the late eighteenth century and this aspect of Burke’s career is exhaustively and admirably dealt with by Professor Cone.


However, Burke’s major dimension lies in his role as the founder of modern conservatism—now the object of a special and dedicated lobby among American historians, who are steadily pushing Burkeian studies into political philosophy courses as a means of propaganda. Burke believed that wisdom was instinctive and religious rather than rational or intellectual. Time and Providence; the slow revelation of moral law and moral purpose, human wisdom gradually accreted over the centuries like a geological sediment, the poverty of reason compared with the Divine Plan which mysteriously binds past, present and future together, the idea that there is an order, sanctified by God and History, that keeps things (and men) fast in their place—these concepts litter Burke’s works and speeches. Reason, or enlightenment, these are figments of dreams, delusions, fairy lights in the scarcely knowable mysteries of human society; these the wise men scoffs at. In phrases such as these, often rhetorized into paragraphs and pages of compelling eloquence, Burke gave an air of virtue, morality and godly wisdom to an attitude that was anti-intellectual, and dominated by the meaner and more aggressive aspects of human nature. It is extraordinary that such lucubrations should be regarded as having any intellectual value whatsoever—emotional value for those who need them, perhaps, but intellectually most of Burke’s political philosophy is utter rubbish, and completely unhistorical. There is no room to argue the case against Burkeian conservatism fully here but the nub of the matter would seem to lie in this. Why should a rationalist, intellectual approach to the problems of human organization seem either wicked or stupid or both, when such problems as man has solved—control of power, the diminution of diseases, etc., have been achieved by their application? Why should a reliance on intellect be regarded as foolishly optimistic or wildly idealistic and an addiction to tradition, ancestral wisdom, and the mysteries of Providence be the hallmark of sound judgment? Burke clothes in the eloquent language of religion and virtue the nakedness of private greed and public oppression, or at least that has been his fate. He himself was too complex, his needs too conflicting, for his thoughts and actions to be synthesized in a few sentences, but certainly that has been his value for the generations of conservatives who have revered him. As an outsider who never got in, Burke often felt himself drawn to the oppressed, the wronged, the impotents of society: and alongside Burke the conservative there is also Burke the reformer who gets scant attention. As Professor Cone illustrates again and again Burke is often far more complex, far more fascinating in action than when his penflows with piety and gets lost in the meaningless verbiage of political theology.

This Issue

February 11, 1965