Edmund Burke: Tradition, Liberty, Empire
The title of this work, Foreign Affections, could be misunderstood at first glance given the modern sense of the term, “affection.” The author, Seamus Deane, however, uses the term as Burke used it, “feelings that have their origin in family, clan or feudal loyalties.” Burke used the term more than any other political philosopher, emphasizing the importance of affections for the preservation of a social order and a political system. He witnessed the power of affections in his youth in Ireland, observing the loyalty of native Catholic Irish to traditional social bodies and the consequence of the absence of affections in the national system of ascendancy rule. Affection, when it exists nationally, produces participation, a national conscience, and as Deane quotes James Harrington, “a national religion.” Its absence can lead to a nation’s demise.
The term, as Deane uses it, also seems to pertain to the ties among nations, which in Burke’s era would be from the perspective of the British Empire, most importantly the nations of Europe and the colonies, and among the colonies, North America, Ireland and India. From the essays themselves one would conclude that the term also has pertinence to the world of ideas of Burke’s contemporaries.
The book would have reached its audience, I believe, had it been entitled simply “Seven Essays on Burke by Seamus Deane.” They represent more than thirty years dedicated to the life and work of Burke by the author, often referred to as Ireland’s leading literary critic. They are carefully crafted and learned examinations of Burke as political actor, political philosopher, as well as his role in the national literature of Great Britain and Ireland. Of particular interest are those reflections on the man himself who Deane suggests may well be viewed as a political hack as well as a political philosopher.
The political hack dimension is in no sense derogatory, for Burke is supreme as an empiricist, based on his immersion in the political action of his day. It is what distinguishes Burke from bookish philosophers who have little involvement with on the ground political action, yet without hesitation propose extraordinary transformations in the social order.
In the introduction Deane endorses a more general view of Burke as a person who viewed liberty as an historical achievement, a political concept that could illumine the world from London. British liberty had been achieved by specific events in the nation’s history that had universal consequence, most importantly the arrival of Christianity and the Glorious Revolution. Burke attacked the universal appeal of French Revolutionary claims by asserting they should not be applied to specific nations, for the end result would be disastrous. British liberty conformed to human nature, while French liberty violated it.
For Burke, the greatest threat to British liberty came from within the Empire, from criminals like Warren Hastings of the East India Company, or the Ascendancy in Ireland whose rule was in glaring conflict with the national character of Britain. Hastings exercised a ruthless despotism and the Ascendancy ruled ineptly and cruelly with neither knowledge nor interest in the traditions of those they ruled. Their actions threatened liberty’s role in the globalizing enterprise.
Of the seven essays, which include comparisons of Burke with Tocqueville, Montesquieu, and Swift, some cover topics of more particular interest. The essay entitled, “Virtue, Travel and the Enlightenment” provided historical foundations to very central issues of our time. Concurring that travel takes place in both time and space, and that the strangeness of other times and places makes it difficult to believe in universal norms, Deane introduces a discourse on the topic of the universal and the particular, noting that in Burke’s day there was one universal that was general throughout Europe and that was that “freedom was the highest expression of political virtue.” And furthermore, it could be extended across the world as part of human progress, even though it would not always seem to be the case in European colonial expansion.
The locus of discussion of travel in Burke’s era was Rome, for it seemed to contain many of the problems of the eighteenth century present. Accounts of Rome provided by Montesquieu and Edward Gibbon claimed that Rome fell because it had lost its republican virtue through expansion and concomitant degeneration. But how does one approach the all important questions of expansion, empire, growth, degeneration that were so pertinent to a colonizing Europe? One tries to assume a detached point of view. But in doing so does one make necessary judgments based on the values of one’s own society, or does one defer to universal principals of human nature? Burke’s concern was the dangers of too much detachment. He considered the risks too apparent in the works of philosophers whose speculations were wilder in proportion to their detachment. When reason overtakes observation it becomes a disfiguring occupation, removed from the realities of experience.
Deane discusses these issues as they relate to the imaginative travel writing of Jonathon Swift and then finally to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, each involved in the larger debates that had dominated travel writing. In Reflections, Burke challenges the philosopher theorists on their conception of France as it was before the Revolution. So detached, so removed were they from the reality, they transformed the ancien regime, benevolent by Burke’s standards, into a despotism worse than anything in Asia. “ They have transformed the France of history into a new and foreign France of theory.” Burke sees this methodical and quantitative reasoning as opposed to the discourse of sensibility, the discourse he represents.
Reading Deane’s account of approaches to travel writing in the eighteenth century, one is impressed at how similar it is and pertinent to central issues of today in the human sciences, in particular anthropology and sociology. Each is divided into contrasting approaches represented on one side by the “logical positivists” emanating from the Vienna Circle, and the “qualitative” approach sometimes referred to as culturologists or historical particularists, the latter represented in contemporary Anthropology by Clifford Geertz. From Descartes, to Burke, to contemporary interpretations of the social order, this essay on travel writing leads us to conclude that the central issues of Burke’s era continue unresolved.
The single essay that reaches into the core of Burke’s position on liberty and tradition is the one entitled, “Factions and Fictions”, with factions, meaning something a bit different in Burke’s day. They were in sum assemblages of power that misrepresented the character of the nation they claimed to represent, and whose rule was at odds with those they governed.. The Jacobins of France were a prime example. From this essay we glean a better understanding of Burke’s conception of tradition, seen not as particular traditions, but a complex whole of all the traditions of a nation.
The essay on Burke and Tocqueville compares these two men of grand vision based on their background, class position and the involvement of each in the transformations of their era. They were not truly contemporaries: Burke died in 1797, eight years before Tocqueville’s birth, and the French writer lived until 1854. Yet they were concerned with the same centers of evolving power: the emerging democracy in America, liberty in aristocratic Britain, prolonged revolution in France and colonialism as a world wide process. Deane says, “Tocqueville was an aristocrat who envisioned a new world, Burke was a new man who re-envisioned the aristocratic world.” Their often contrasting visions of the same phenomenon take us a step beyond simple historical description. The final essay on Newman portrays the curate as more visionary than the priest/scholar we’ve known in other writings. Yes, he wanted to create an English speaking, Catholic university in Dublin. But from that base he presumed to transform Britain and create a Catholic civilization in America.
This volume is a fascinating excursion into the history of ideas with Burke as the centerpiece, and Deane as routier, decoding, translating, and interpreting. The first reading calls for a second, and the second dictates a prominent place on the bookshelf, especially for those disposed to return to Edmund Burke as intellectual and moral guide to the complexities of the present.
Kenneth E. Moore is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame whose publications include Those of the Street, Waymarks, Los Suecos de Arona (“The Swedish of Arona”), and co-translator/editor with Anthony Kerrigan and Saul Bellow of The Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset.
Posted: March 19, 2007
Learning What We Don’t Know