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Burke and Political Reason

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Edmund Burke Edmund Burke

It was, said Edmund Burke, “the most horrid, atrocious, and affecting spectacle, that perhaps ever was exhibited to the pity and indignation of mankind.”


The great English writer and politician was referring to the French Revolution, and this quote comes from the book for which he is best known today: Reflections on the Revolution in France. Whether or not you regard his assessment as hyperbole or not, he was essentially correct. On most of the great issues of day, Burke was correct, but he is not included amongst the great world leaders for the simple reason he never had the power in his hands to project his worldview.


This enormous book (927 pages without the index) is by Richard Bourke, professor in the history of political thought at Queen Mary University in London. Its very size will likely deter a wide readership, which is unfortunate as his work sets a new standard not just in Burkean scholarship but in our understanding of late 18th century political thought. Despite its size the book is not ponderous, as Bourke’s stylish touch permeates the text to fine effect. This review also considers a related book on the age of political reason within which Burke not only lived but in large part created. It is a much slimmer volume by Timothy Michael, associate professor of English at the Univ. of Oxford. Since Burke and the author of the large book under review here is the nearly identical Bourke, I will use “R. B.”when referring to the author of the 2015 book to avoid any confusion as to who I am referring to.


Coleridge offered the most astute assessment of Burke, as quoted in Michael’s book. “Edmund Burke possessed and had sedulously sharpened that eye, which sees all things, actions, and events, in relation to the laws that determine their existence and circumscribe their possibility. He referred habitually to principles. He was a scientific statesman; and therefore a seer.”


Nowhere was this ability to be a seer more evident than in his view on the French Revolution, which he denounced before it became the Terror that saw tens of thousands executed, not least of which was the King and Queen of France. In this early opinion he was in the distinct minority amongst his fellow Members of Parliament. That was in the late 1780s and early 90s, but R.B. makes it clear this was not an opportunistic opinion or one that deviated from his core beliefs.


Back in the 1740s, says R.B. “Burke insisted that there was no merit in idly following ‘Common opinion’ in the face of plausible countervailing evidence: it was precisely by overturning cherished assumptions that barbarity, ignorance and superstition had been overcome. The desire for truth should be allowed to triumph over a stubborn opposition to enlightenment, yet to achieve this the reasoning faculty was forced to do battle with received wisdom.”


Even though this is from the book by R.B., two of its key words (enlightenment and reason) appear in the title of Michael’s book. In R. B.’s view, Burke believed reason could correct error, but passion was required to motivate the soul. Michael’s book is directed towards reason. In this, Burke had a great influence on Coleridge especially as it related to the situation in France.


“Coleridge’s apprehension about the potentially devastating effects of pure rationalism,” writes Michael, “is occasioned not only by the threat it poses to private property, but also by the political consequences it had in France. The reliance on principles derived from reason alone, such as the general will, was for Coleridge the precondition of the Terror and Napoleon’s rise to power...Coleridge, following Burke, remains committed to the social and political efficacy of ideas, confident in their ability to determine material conditions.”


From this alone it can be seen that these two books engage with many of the same issues, and thus I highly recommend they be read in tandem. R.B. looks at Burke’s role in the great issues of the day: The French Revolution, the Empire in India, the American colonies especially before their breakaway from the Crown, and the tumultuous state of Ireland. He traces Burke’s “transition from history and philosophy to politics,” interleaving each of these four great issues as the decades roll by. It was an age of great discontent, so it not surprising he authored a book entitled Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents in 1769. In this work he posted his beliefs to a flag that was raised on a mast so high few of the politically inclined in England could ignore it.


“It is not enough,” declared Burke, “in a situation of trust in the commonwealth, that a man means well to his country.” As R.B. explains, he railed against the self-interest of many English politicians who sought office “in the interest of particular advantage rather than to further the public weal.” This was an age where the king, George III, exercised great control over who held the great offices of government, including Prime Minister. Burke supported the party system as the only way to support public-spirited people against the crown; R.B. says he regarded the British regime as a fragile mechanism. “Our constitution,” Burke wrote evocatively, “stands on a nice equipoise, with steep precipices, and deep waters upon all sides of it.”


When I find good men,” said Burke in Present Discontents, “I will cling to them, adhere to them, follow them in and out.” Unfortunately the good men he adhered to typically opposed the crown, so he was usually out: in opposition, where he had no power to enact his great and good ideas. If his counsel had been accepted by the government, it is quite likely the American Revolution would never have happened. By 1784, in the aftermath of the American disaster, Burke saw equally dire warning signs in how India was being dealt with. As R.B. details, he actually judged the situation in Britain to be more depraved than even (in Burke’s words) “the worst times of the Roman Republic.” When a Bill that would have addressed this situation was defeated, Burke wrote in despair: “I am utterly without resource,” he confided to a friend in 1785. R.B. compellingly tells the sorry tale of Burke’s parliamentary persecution of Warren Hastings over Hastings’ scandalous rule in India. In the end, Hastings was not only acquitted, but given a government pension. Thus, Burke’s last years were clouded but the gravest despair.


In his book, Michael also engages with Burke and India, leading him to offer a concise summary of the topics considered in R.B.’s book. Burke’s argument, Michael says, “sees in England’s colonial presence in India a violent disruption of established order...No right - natural, chartered, or divine - to disturb this order exists. It is this principle, above all else, that gives consistency to Burke’s diverse positions on British, French, American and Indian affairs.”


Even though there is much overlap between the two books, Michael offers extraordinary insights into many other matters, including the philosophy of Shelley, Coleridge and Kant. Here I will just look at Wordsworth’s idea of pleasure. “We have no knowledge,” wrote Wordsworth, “that is, no general principles drawn from the contemplation of particular facts, but what has been built up by pleasure, and exists in us by pleasure alone.” Michael identifies this as “Wordsworth’s most precise epistemological formulation, and it informs his foundational critical principle,” which Michael then quotes as follows from Wordsworth: “The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely that of the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human being.” Michael traces the ancient sources of Wordsworth’s belief to Lucretius and the Stoics, thus broadening the reach of this book to those interested in the influence of ancient writers on nineteenth century thought.


Both these superb books deserve a place on the bookshelf on anyone interested in British politics, American history, the history of India, philosophy (both ancient and 18th/19th century), poetry, the development of ideas and much else.


The book by Bourke contains several typos. The word from is spelled form on pages 154, 204, 271 and 829; on pg 168: advice, not advise; on pg. 731: of, not of of; pg. 774: have, not had; pg. 827 In its wake, not it its wake.


Empire & Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke (1001 pgs) is $45 from Princeton Univ. Press.


British Romanticism & the Critique of Political Reason (283 pgs) is 54.95 from Johns Hopkins Univ. Press

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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