A sound instinct prompted David Bromwich to publish Moral Imagination at the same time as his biography of Edmund Burke, and not only because the idea of “a moral imagination” is derived from Burke.1 These essays were written between 1995 and 2012, and although Burke is not the central figure in them, they shed much light on the frame of mind in which Bromwich approached the ambiguous figure of Burke in his biography, and even more on how Bromwich is relevant to the politics of our own times. He has been a fierce, not to say a savage, critic of both President Obama and his predecessor in the White House; but his essays on the exemplary figure of Lincoln reprinted here remind us that Bromwich thinks it anything but impossible to provide moral leadership in difficult conditions—extreme conditions are difficult in many ways, but one of them is in offering too many temptations to behave in cruel and immoral ways.
The book begins with the essay on moral imagination that provides its title, and ends with a chapter of “Comments on Perpetual War,” a sequence of short and savage essays on enthusiasts for the war on terror from William Safire to Dick Cheney. They end with a rousing defense of Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing that only slightly tempers the chilling reminder that the National Security Administration has an ability to uncover the secrets of every citizen that the Stasi only dreamed of in Communist East Germany. It is hard to believe that either the judiciary or elected politicians can be relied on to police our own domestic spies when the spies possess, if they care to use it, the same hold over their supposed masters as J. Edgar Hoover held over his. Not that a majority of the judiciary or politicians seems disposed to attempt the task in the first place.
The scope of Moral Imagination is wider than such essays may suggest: the morality of war features prominently, but that is because a central figure of the book is Abraham Lincoln, whose reluctant resort to force and unwillingness to demonize his slaveholding foes contrast so sharply with the enthusiasm for a war against the “bad guys” displayed by the Bush administration. The title is drawn from a famous passage in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke was appalled by the treatment of Marie-Antoinette, who had been dragged from her bedchamber at Versailles and forced to return to Paris along with her husband, Louis XVI.
The event led Burke to lament that “the age of chivalry is gone.” Responding to the French revolutionaries’ contempt for chivalry and their desire to make the world over in a new and more rational form, he wrote:
All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.