Edmund Burke, who died in 1797, remains a figure to reckon with more than two centuries later. He has been and still remains an inspiration to American conservatives, most strikingly to those lamenting the absence of an American cultural aristocracy early in the twentieth century, and to those at the height of the cold war who took their cue from his Letters on a Regicide Peace and sought the rolling back of communism by any means possible, including war.
It is, on the other hand, a paradox of American conservatism at the present day that it celebrates an American Revolution that was enthusiastically promoted by Thomas Paine and defended reluctantly and as the least of the evils that had by then become inescapable by Burke himself. Burke’s greatest speeches on America—Conciliation with America in particular—sought to preserve Britain’s “empire in the west” by well-judged concessions, not to advance republicanism and independence. Paine’s radical Common Sense was another matter entirely.
The Burke David Bromwich presents in his new book The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is certainly a formidable figure, but one who resists recruitment for twenty-first-century causes. It is his elusiveness that makes him a live presence; he was a traditionalist and a progressive, an enlightened critic of Enlightenment run amok, a secular thinker who insisted on the indispensability of religious faith. He thought it pointless to insist on rights whose enforcement would bring disaster, as when British governments asserted their right to tax the colonies and brought on a revolutionary war; and yet he had no doubt about the reality of rights.
Burke was an eighteenth-century Whig, not a twenty-first-century liberal or conservative, but both of the latter can engage with him with advantage. David Bromwich has been thinking about him for more than a quarter of a century, and by now has an unrivaled sensitivity to the workings of his mind; like Burke, Bromwich is a formidable critic, ranging over politics, literature, higher education, and much else, and on every page of Edmund Burke, one can feel him responding to Burke across the whole range of Burke’s interests as if he was in the room with him.
It is a brave author who writes about Burke and after almost five hundred pages stops before reaching the French Revolution and Burke’s very critical Reflections on it. Most readers define Burke by his opposition to the Revolution, and admirers see his judgment vindicated by its descent into chaos, the Terror, and Napoleon’s military dictatorship, all of which he foresaw in outline. But Burke was sixty years old in 1789, and had first entered parliament in 1766; he had been a successful writer in his twenties when he published A Vindication of Natural Society and the Enquiry into our ideas of the sublime and beautiful that framed the…
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