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Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 1993)

A Blinkered Life of Burke

book cover imageThe Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke,
by Conor Cruise O’Brien.
University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Paper 692 pp., $34.95.

Francis Canavan, S.J.

Conor Cruise O’Brien had a distinguished career before writing this book. He served in Ireland’s Department of External Affairs from 1944 to 1961, headed the UN operation in Katanga in 1961, and was then successively Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Albert Schweitzer Professor at New York University, a member of the lower house of the Irish Parliament for several years (during four of which he was the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs), and for two years a member of the Irish Senate. He later taught as a visiting professor at Oxford and at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, edited The Observer in London, and has been Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin since 1973.

The present work is a labor of love, to which he devoted more than a quarter-century of study of Edmund Burke and his time. It is perhaps too much a labor of love, in which Burke emerges as a more important figure than he really was in British and Irish politics, and is credited with more influence than it is likely that he had on such political leaders as the Marquess of Rockingham, his nephew Earl Fitzwilliam, and, in the 1790’s, even on William Pitt the Younger and George III.

The work is nonetheless a chatty, discursive, and readable political biography. Mr. O’Brien is very well read and a mine of information on the men and events of Burke’s political lifetime (roughly the last third of the eighteenth century). It is a pity, therefore, that his work is flawed, not only by his hero-worship of Burke, but even more by his habit of reading Burke’s soul and seeing what Burke “must have” thought and how he “must have” felt. O’Brien carries this fault to the point of seriously impairing his own credibility as an interpreter of Burke.

He himself is aware of this danger: “Generally we should avoid saying what a historical figure ‘must have’ thought or felt about something, when there is no explicit record that that person did in fact so think or feel about a particular topic at the time in question.” Yet, throughout the book, he regularly goes well beyond the evidence to explain how Burke thought and, more importantly, felt on the great issues of his time.

He tells us at the beginning that he got the key to Burke’s political life, and the title of his book, from these lines in a poem of his fellow-Irishman, W. B. Yeats:

“American colonies, Ireland, France and India
Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.”

It is not clear why he had to learn from Yeats what every more than casual reader of Burke knows, that the great objects of his political concern and activity were America, Ireland, India, and France. Nor is the “it” in Yeats’s lines, namely the abuse of power, a new breakthrough in understanding the driving force of Burke’s career. Walker King, Burke’s disciple and co-editor of the first edition of his Works, said it in the Introduction of one of the volumes: “The assumption of arbitrary power, in whatever shape it appeared, . . . was the sure object of his detestation and hostility.”

That much we already knew. But O’Brien traces this hatred of arbitrary power to Burke’s personal guilt-feelings. Burke’s father was a Catholic who conformed to the Established Church in order to be able to practice law, a profession forbidden to Catholics under the Irish penal laws. Burke was surely aware, as O’Brien says, that his membership in the privileged class of Protestants in Ireland and his whole parliamentary career in Britain derived from that apostasy. But, according to O’Brien, he felt guilty over his father’s betrayal of the Catholic people of Ireland. This guilt fueled his fight (largely successful) to repeal the penal laws in Ireland. It carried over as the root source of his passionate struggle against the abuses of British power in America and India, and against the Jacobin statism of the French Revolution.

Lesser guilt-feelings also played a role in Burke’s vigorous fight against injustice. His party, the Rockingham Whigs, kept him in check for several years from speaking out on British policy in America. He was also obliged to toe the Rockingham party line on India, until he convinced them that the East India Company’s government of India was corrupt, extortionate, and oppressive to the natives. When he brought the party around to his view, he experienced the release of an enormous head of emotional steam and burst forth with some of his greatest speeches, and with the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal.

O’Brien’s Burke often has to conceal his true feelings, especially on Ireland, and speak in the false persona of an English Whig. His euphoria when he succeeded in getting Hastings impeached by the House of Commons, says O’Brien, was therefore understandable:

He had lived much with horror, most of which he kept to himself. His abiding horror of his particular Irish predicament had erupted, in a single epiphany, in [the] Bristol Guildhall [speech], in 1780. In the following year, as his mind came to grips with the realities of Warren Hastings’s India, his Irish horror took the accusing form of a tormented India. . . . In bringing Warren Hastings to justice, Burke has done what was demanded of him [and has appeased his guilty conscience]. It is now Warren Hastings, alone, who is accused. Burke has done his duty and is free. This is what is at the core of his rejoicing. (All conjecture of course; the reader will decide to what extent it seems to fit.)

That last parenthetical admission is one that does not occur often enough in this book, where so much, to this reader’s eyes at least, does not seem to fit.

Burke, says O’Brien, “seems to have felt that he had betrayed the Indians collectively, through following the Rockinghams’ party line, supportive of the [East India] Company, up to 1773.” By prosecuting Hastings, he transferred his guilt to Hastings. Philip Francis, Burke’s associate in the prosecution of Hastings, had, when he was in India, incited an Indian known to the English as Nuncomar to charge Hastings with taking bribes. For this, Nuncomar was tried by an English court and sentenced to death—and Francis abandoned him to his fate. But he coped with his guilt by imagining himself as Nuncomar, “turning himself into the man he had incited and betrayed, and then portraying that man as in quest of revenge on Warren Hastings.” This sort of thing goes beyond conjecture into psychobabble.

The only writer known to this reviewer who exceeds Conor Cruise O’Brien in psychoanalyzing Burke is Isaac Kramnick in his The Rage of Edmund Burke. It may be from Kramnick that O’Brien got the idea that Peter Stanlis and Russell Kirk were Cold Warriors who used Burke for polemical purposes in defending “the idea of America’s imperial responsibilities” in Vietnam and elsewhere; he can hardly have got it from reading what they wrote.

Stanlis’s first full-length book on Burke (the only one in print when Kramnick wrote) was Edmund Burke and the Natural Law; its thesis was that the moral and intellectual foundation of Burke’s political theory was not the utilitarianism attributed to him by nineteenth-century writers, but the doctrine of natural moral law that had come down from the Middle Ages. British students of Burke generally cannot see, because their own philosophical tradition is steeped in empiricism and blinds them to the premises of the political theory that Burke fully sets forth in his Reflections on the Revolution in France and An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs.

Despite his constant talk about Burke’s Catholic sympathies and assumptions, O’Brien cannot see it either. All that he seems to mean by Burke’s Catholic feelings is that he felt deeply the suffering of the Catholics of Ireland because they were “his people,” as indeed they were, inasmuch as he had so many relatives among them. But there is no explanation of what Sir Ernest Barker called Burke’s “Catholic cast of thought,” or of the theory of natural law, which could easily have come down to Burke through the Anglican theology of such divines as Hooker, Leighton, and Tilotson. Natural law and the created order of the universe were basic to his mature political theory, but O’Brien misses that, perhaps because of his own philosophical blinkers.

The result is a highly interesting but flawed book. It is, as Richard John Neuhaus has said, “a good read,” to which I would add, if taken with more than one grain of salt. But it will not replace Carl Cone’s Burke and the Nature of Politics as Edmund Burke’s political biography.  


“It was God the Creator . . . rather than God the redeemer who had the strongest grip on Burke’s mind and imagination. God’s creation and providential government of the world was the fundamental premise of his social and political thought. ‘I love order so far as I am able to understand it,’ he once wrote, ‘for the universe is order,’ but he loved it because he saw it as established and maintained by the divine reason and will.”

—Francis Canavan, Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence

Father Canavan (1918–2009), of Fordham University, is the author of three books on Burke.

Posted: January 20, 2013 in Best of the Bookman.

The ... conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.

Russell Kirk

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