The Critics of Burke
Daniel Ritchie has given the scholarly world a comprehensive and useful anthology of criticism of Edmund Burke’s writings. I do disagree most heartily with one of Ritchie’s observations in his Introduction. Ritchie writes that “Burke is hard reading because nearly all of his writings are occasional.” Well, that is just not true. We continue to read Burke today because he wrote marvelously, with incredible freshness of imagery and inexhaustible passion—a passion informed by principle. Burke understood that the modern world had lost its center, that it was in an intellectual and spiritual mess. He scented the rise of totalitarian ideological thinking in the French Revolution and its aftermath.
Burke experienced reality as an ordered whole. He saw politics as an exercise in prudence and restraint. Whether he wrote about the American colonies, the Irish question, British imperial misrule in India, or the French Revolution, he immersed himself in the details of local knowledge. He thought not abstractly, but historically—though this is a far cry from thinking as a historicist. By his writings and by his own example he helped to fashion a theory of what it means to be a representative in a constitutional government. The “Keating Five” hearings by the Senate Ethics Committee have shown the need to go back to Burke to re-learn the distinction between “constituent services” and “constituent slavery.”
Burke understood that constitutional government—to use C. J. Friedrich’s memorable words—involved “effectively regularized restraint on the exercise of governmental power.” He was the archetypal theorist-practitioner. Our modern congresses and parliaments are in dire need of new Burkes. Most legislators today give little evidence of having read any books worth reading or of being able to relate any insights which they might have to public affairs. By contrast Burke had absorbed the spirit of the Western Canon—of all the classics of public right from Plato onward. Today, when the canon is under attack in many colleges and universities, recourse should be had to Burke for its defense.
The wide range of essays collected by Ritchie makes this volume ideal for use in classes or seminars devoted to Burke in particular or to modern political thought generally. Here, in one volume, today’s student has access to much of the best that has been thought or said about Burke.
Part One, “Burke and the Literary Imagination,” contains excerpts from Coleridge, Macauley, Bagehot, Matthew Arnold, and three contemporary critics. Part Two, “Burke and Revolution,” contains selections by Russell Kirk and George Watson. Part Three, “Burke and Party Government,” features Harvey Mansfield’s masterful textual analysis of Burke’s defense of party government on both “idealistic” and “realistic” grounds.
I must confess wonderment over the selections in Part Four, “Burke and the Radical Mind,” because I personally learned nothing from either Raymond Williams or Conor Cruise O’Brien. Part Five, “Burke and the Conservative Mind,” gives several interesting analyses—by Irving Babbitt, Peter Stanlis, Francis Canavan, and Robert Nisbet, among others. Babbitt’s essay “Burke and the Moral Imagination” is splendid in every way. Stanlis and Father Canavan look at Burke and the natural law in somewhat different ways. There is also an entry by John MacCunn on Burke on “Religion and Politics,” originally published in 1913. In light of recent scholarship, this piece seems rather flat and outdated.
Although this volume is quite comprehensive and makes available several critiques which might otherwise have remained hard to find, there are certain omissions which give one pause. There is nothing, for instance, from the controversial last chapter of Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History where Strauss has Burke allegedly flirting with “historicism.” Both Stanlis and Canavan roundly reject this charge. Strauss must be answered carefully, however.
Still, all in all, this volume is an extremely valuable addition to the literature about Edmund Burke. It is carefully annotated and will be useful to scholars and general readers alike who have an interest in one of our civilization’s greatest political minds.
Dante Germino (1932–2002) was, at the time of writing, professor of government at the University of Virginia.
Posted: May 26, 2013 in Best of the Bookman.