Burke & Political Liberty. (the Survival of Culture: VII)

By Greenberg, Martin | New Criterion, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Burke & Political Liberty. (the Survival of Culture: VII)


Greenberg, Martin, New Criterion


Politics today, though it must deal with the most serious matters, is a great deal lacking in seriousness. This is due partly to a lack of thoughtfulness among politicians: to their inability, or refusal, to appreciate the questions of principle that are always involved, however unacknowledged, in political action. We therefore need a strong (in Coleridge's phrase) clerisy. But our intellectuals, by and large, are not up to the task. Steeped in a utopianism whose origins lie far back in religious dissent, they exhibit an ignorant political romanticism that finds innocence abroad and evil-doing at home. Today's left-wing intellectuals, and the troops of the enlightened who trail after them in public and private life, are not moved by ordinary emotions of fear and anger when their country comes under deadly terrorist attack--they are full of understanding. Their moral vainglory would cut the throat of liberty once again, threatening the survival of culture, so as to satisfy the sense of their own virtuousness. How well Edmund Burke understood this, two centuries ago.

"Irish adventurer" is what Burke's detractors called him, with some truth but more malice. He had come from Dublin to London in 1750 at the age of twenty-one to acquire a law degree and then return home. Instead, giving up the law, he stayed on to make his way as a writer. To scribble for a living was to inhabit the lower regions of respectability. Also there were his Roman Catholic mother, sister, and less close kin. (He himself, following his father, adhered to the Established Church--Anglican--of Ireland.) Far from repudiating these questionable connections, Burke only added to them by marrying the Irish Catholic Jane Nugent.

He wrote A Vindication of Natural Morality and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in the late 1750s. He undertook to write a yearly chronicle of events, the Annual Register, his qualification being that he knew so much. Burke always seemed to know more than anybody else about almost any subject and early on attracted notice by his literary endeavors. (He was much admired by his deep-dyed Tory friend Samuel Johnson.) His life took a decisive turn in 1765 when he became private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, a high-minded leader of the Whig party. At the end of the year he became a member of Parliament for a pocket borough and was much applauded for his first speeches attacking the vacillating British policies on the American colonies.

Irish-born Burke soon established himself as an eloquent champion of the Whig cause--the Anglican cause which had imported a foreign king and army into England in 1688 to chase the absolutist Roman Catholic James II from the throne. The Glorious Revolution was the work of Whig noblemen who violated legitimacy so as to have a Protestant monarch who would be in sympathy with the feelings of the people ("people" meaning the small group of the propertied consisting first of all of the great landowning peers, then county gentry, city merchants, and a few others). Because they fought better for James in Ireland than he had fought for himself in England, the Irish Catholics were legally discriminated against. This history (still very present) made for some inner strain in Burke. He never forgot--nor was he allowed to forget--his origins. It was not the only self-division that was to strain his spirit.

Chance may have steered Burke into the Rockingham camp; ambition and conviction kept him there. He was not a Whig by chance. With his Whiggism went an admiration for the Whig aristocratic ideal, with whose embodiments he now became closely engaged. It doesn't seem, however, that he was ever an intimate of those indolent, fox-hunting, many-acred lords; their pleasures, their lives were not his. He was surely dazzled by the grandeur of the Whig magnates--for a while. But clarity, not disabusement, followed familiarity. It is not surprising that the aesthetician of the beautiful and the sublime should have responded to the magnificence of the English lords. …

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