Magazine article The American Conservative

Occupy: Edmund Burke

Magazine article The American Conservative

Occupy: Edmund Burke

Article excerpt

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence, David Bromwich, Harvard University Press, 500 pages

David Bromwich's monograph proposes to answer the question: "What did it mean to think like Edmund Burke?" For John Morley and the Victorian Whigs, thinking like Burke meant thinking like a cool, calculating utilitarian. For Russell Kirk and the so-called New Conservatives of the 1950s, Burke was a Christian Romantic--a principled defender of the "moral imagination" of the West against its secular assailants. In the late '90s, Luke Gibbons and Uday Mehta summoned Burke as a critic of 18th-century imperialism and a defender of the dispossessed peoples of India and Ireland.

More recently, a series of new biographies set out to resurrect his reputation as the father of modern conservatism. In Jesse Normans Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, we see him as a reform-minded statesman, a free-marketeer,

and a critic of the French revolutionaries' utopian schemes. Drew Maciag presents him as a champion of civil society, patriotic allegiances, and the moral and political wisdom handed down over the ages. And in Yuval Levin's The Great Debate, Burke and his arch-nemesis, Thomas Paine, are held up as the authors of present-day conservatism and liberalism, respectively.

But in The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, Bromwich has little use for this recent scholarship. The Sterling Professor of English at Yale University informs us that "no historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism." Burke the Christian, Burke the Romantic, Burke the market capitalist--all of these are conspicuously absent from his study. The reasons are not mysterious. Bromwich is a man of the left--he is on the editorial board of Dissent--and he thinks that Burke has something important to offer his allies. Saying what this is involves a good deal of ground clearing.

Bromwich picks his terrain carefully. The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke turns our attention away from Burke's critique of the French Revolution--fertile ground for his conservative interpreters--and towards the less-studied years of his early career. Beginning with Burke's upbringing and education in Ireland, Bromwich follows him as he emigrates to England and begins a short-lived career as a man of letters in the 1750s. This brief period gave rise to his Vindication of Natural Society and his Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, two dense works in which Burke sought to explain the complex relations between art and morality, beauty and fear, human nature and social convention. Bromwich is a literary critic rather than a historian, and his prowess as an interpreter is on clear display as he leads us through Burke's difficult yet rewarding arguments.

After a rich discussion of Burke the philosopher, Bromwich considers his entry into politics. Here we see Burke as the British Parliament's foremost critic of royal prerogative, as a steadfast defender of American Independence, and as an important strategist for the Rockingham wing of the Whig party. Along the way Bromwich unpacks Burke's Thoughts on the Present Discontents, in which he defended organized parties as an essential check on executive power, and gives us a sympathetic account of Burke's intransigent, oft-maligned opposition to George III. (Bromwich is at work on a second volume that will examine Burke's career from the end of the American War through the French Revolution. For a less literary, more historical take on Burke, readers can look forward to Richard Bourke's biography forthcoming from Princeton University Press.)


Throughout his narrative Bromwich keeps the Reflections on the Revolution in France in view, but he is keen to resituate Burke's critique of the revolutionaries' ideology within the context of his earlier writings and speeches. …

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