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Reflections on Edmund Burke

ISSUE:  Autumn 1990
Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions. By Stanley Ayling. St. Martin’s Press. $19.95.

The current state of the study of political theory is, I think, dismal. Yet Michael Walzer has reported in the Summer 1989 issue of Dissent that “more people are working at political theory in the academic world than ever before.” Somehow he thinks that such numbers are evidence that “the field is thriving,” and Walzer goes on to claim that this is “perhaps because there is so little serious thinking and arguing about politics outside the academy.”

As far as I can see the real story is a different one. Scholasticism in the university pursuit of political theory has never been worse than now. If one opens a volume of the American Political Science Review from 35 years ago, there will be articles on political theory which are literate, leisurely, and intellectually spacious, interesting to a general reader; with increased numbers of practitioners has come not progress but, I think, decline. Nobody seriously interested in current political life is likely to benefit from the narrow, sectarian way academics now approach the study of political theory. A series of self-admiring and complacent groups exist within the academy, each of which approaches political theory in its own idiosyncratic way; advancement in university life depends on pleasing a very few rather than appealing to an educated reading audience. There are of course broad-minded as well as parochial Marxists, tolerant Straussians as well as embattled ones, serious philosophers as well as logic-choppers, genuine historians as well as pedants; but out of the welter of rival sects, each of which is capable of rewarding its members in worldly academic advancement, has come a field which even drives interested university students away. The vitality of political argument outside the academy persists despite the irrelevance of so much dry-as-dust ideologizing.

My impression is that the situation in both England and France is superior to what we have in North America. At any rate, Stanley Ayling’s Edmund Burke is a fine biography which will interest anyone concerned with intellectual history. An Englishman like Ayling has remained aware, despite the mounting trivia of the worst of our smug academics, that biographies remain absolutely essential to our understanding of past political thought. The London School of Economies’ Maurice Cranston is another holdout against the more recent academic fashions; we owe him not only for a wonderful 1957 biography of John Locke, but he published in 1983 the first of a fascinating-looking three-volume life of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Biography does not suit the demands of what William James termed the Ph. D. Octopus, yet biographers are still thriving in literary circles even if political theorists somehow feel entitled to look down their noses at them.

Ayling is not interested in the academic gamesmanship which mars so much of today’s study of political theory. His life of Burke is the first to follow the completion of the publication of Burke’s collected correspondence, which appeared between 1958 and 1978 in a ten-volume edition. (Despite what the publisher misleadingly claims on the jacket, Ayling’s Edmund Burke is not “the first biography of Burke to appear for fifty years.”) Ayling’s book is relatively short and sparse, a little under 300 pages long; my main complaint is that with a figure as large and fascinating as Burke I would have liked a longer, more sprawling work. It is hard to think how anyone concerned with the English language could fail to be attracted to Burke’s greatness as a writer.

The chapters on Burke’s childhood and youth are, for my taste, all too brief. As Conor Cruise O’Brien has so persuasively established, Burke’s Irish origins play a key part in understanding his later politics; for Burke was a Protestant son of a Catholic mother. (It has even been suggested that his father converted from Catholicism, but only for opportune motives.) Burke’s apparently wild defense of the ancien regime in France has to be understood in the light of how hard he also tried, having emigrated to London at the age of 21, to protect Catholics in Ireland. (Burke’s wife and sister were both Catholic.) Burke was, in Irish terms, a trouble-maker who was resolutely opposed to the English status quo which deprived Catholics of rights and liberties. Ireland was after all a conquered country, and therefore Burke had a controlled sympathy for revolution. Even in Burke’s role within British politics he was pretty much an outsider; although he is justly famed as a great theorist of conservatism, in his lifetime he appeared eccentric in his thinking and even sometimes unbalanced. If Ayling does not do much, in his examination of Burke’s earliest years, to prepare us for this adult radicalism of Burke, at least he does not indulge in any bizarre biographical speculations by dragging in supposed psychoanalytic tenets.

As a young man in London, Burke won the admiration of Samuel Johnson; later, when Boswell’s Life of Johnson was first completed, Boswell was careful to show it to Burke in order to win his approval. Burke was a close friend of Oliver Goldsmith and Sir Joshua Reynolds. In the context of the time, however, Burke and his relatives also seemed like Irish adventurers bent on establishing themselves as gentlemen. Burke early on established an alliance with one wing of the Whig party which took its leadership from Lord Rockingham, a wealthy and influential magnate. With the support of his patron, and in behalf of a recognized faction which was highly critical of King George III, Burke served as a member of the House of Commons for 29 years.

Burke’s conciliatory position toward the American colonies at the time of the War of Independence is legendary; it is noteworthy that when Burke took his stand against what he, and the colonists, saw as the innovative intrusions of the British government in American affairs, his own constituents were unhappy with his position since it was at odds with their own temporary self-interest. This occasioned his famous speech defending the autonomy of a representative’s deliberations; he repudiated the idea that as an M.P. he was merely an agent for the will of those he represented. His politics were unpopular enough that subsequently he had to find himself another seat. Burke believed in the old idea about the desirability of property qualifications for voters; his confidence in the rationality of the electorate was so limited that by the end of his life he thought that only a small fraction of the total population had a legitimate claim to vote.

Although Burke is now best known for his early opposition to the French Revolution, and his extraordinary prescience about the bloody consequences of uprooting a society through radical change, he himself as an old man was most proud of his sustained critique of Warren Hasting’s abuses of power in India. Burke relentlessly pursued the impeachment of Hastings who had been governor general of the East India Company. As much as Burke held that subordination is a social necessity and that leaders must be insulated from the demands of the mass, in practice Burke sympathized with the oppressed Indians whom he saw as victimized by a system embodied by Hastings. The language of Burke’s speeches was so vehement that they provoked what he called “a run” against him. Ayling takes Burke’s views on India, as on America, completely seriously, in contrast to those like Tom Paine who have always sneered at the fanciness of Burke’s talk camouflaging base self-interest. (Burke’s brother had speculated unhappily in India.)

Burke’s rhetoric repays the closest professional scrutiny, but in his own day the extremity of his language meant that he was never seriously considered for the highest public offices. Rockingham’s death in 1782 was the beginning of the end of Burke’s wing of the party, and the Whigs as a whole were to be decimated by internal divisions about the proper reaction to the French Revolution. Amidst the collapse of the political bases of his support Burke accepted his unpopularity with the public and his loneliness in his party.

Burke saw himself as a stalwart defender of the constitutional principles of Britain’s Glorious Revolution, the settlement of 1688. Unfortunately he did not feel the need to inquire into the social bases of the French Revolution, or its idealistic aspirations; to Burke it was enough to attribute such an upheaval in France to the consequences of irresponsible scribblers, as he sought to distinguish the French situation from what had happened in late 17th-century England.

Contemporary academic students of Burke are too apt to seek a false kind of consistency in him. Although he was in no sense a technical philosopher, Burke expounded some remarkable ideas in unforgettable language. For example, he agreed that the French were “deserving” of “liberty,” but he worried about “the worst of all slavery, that is the despotism of . . .blind and brutal passions.”

Of all the loose terms in the world liberty is the most indefinite . . .it is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty. . . . The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. . . . This kind of liberty is but another name for justice, ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well constructed institutions.

Burke perceived the French Revolution to be a danger not just to England but to many parts of Europe; his Reflections sold 19,000 copies in the first six months and also did well in France. Since other Whigs saw Louis XVI as a French version of the mistrusted George III, Burke regarded himself as now “excommunicated” by his party. While isolated at home, Burke now received European recognition; even George III appreciated Burke’s special capacities.

Burke’s last years (he died in 1797) were harrowed by grief over the abrupt death of his only, beloved son. Yet Burke’s powers as a writer remained undiminished. His Letter to a Noble Lord (1795) was a remarkably eloquent piece of invective. His final phase was marked by physical decline. It is unfortunately not clear from Ayling’s fine biography whether Burke knew by then that he was one of the immortals in intellectual history. Nevertheless it seems to me that Ayling has thoroughly succeeded in getting the proper center of gravity for Burke’s work, and skillfully woven together the private and public aspects of his story. Professional students of political theory, with their disdain for all thought “outside the academy,” ought to note that Ayling, who has also written lives of John Wesley, George III, the Elder Pitt, and Richard B. Sheridan, has held no university appointment.


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