The Literary Burke
If the never-ending stream of Burke books is a testament to his ongoing relevance and popularity, the fact that those books continue to say new and important things about him may be taken as a testament to his depth. Ian Crowe’s Patriotism and Public Spirit: Edmund Burke and the Role of the Critic in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain is a specialized study of Burke and his time which not only fills important niches but offers insights valuable to a broader understanding of Burke and of the political-philosophical thought of the eighteenth century.
This historical study focuses on a relatively neglected Burke, the “literary Burke” of the 1750s whose life was centered on Robert Dodsley’s Tully’s Head bookselling and publishing enterprise. This literary Burke is found to be a key to understanding the overtly political Burke who came later; indeed, Burke’s literary experience is seen to be highly influential in the refinement of his political views. Crowe notes that “Burke himself was to observe . . . that he entered politics with his principles of public service fully formed, and those principles are no less significant politically for having been sharpened by an apprenticeship in the world of literary journalism and criticism” (220).
It was through Dodsley that the young Burke published his A Vindication of Natural Society and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, as well as the co-written An Account of the European Settlements in America. Dodsley also commissioned Burke to produce an Abridgement of English History, which was never finished but portions of which remain, and Dodsley commenced the still-published Annual Register with Burke as its first writer/editor. While scholars have long found these works (some more than others) to be of value in developing an understanding of Burke, Crowe goes a step further. He maintains that scholars should not just examine texts, but consider the context or milieu in which they were written. The publication of a book is, in part, a commercial endeavor, involving not just a writer but a publisher or bookseller as well. Crowe’s book represents, in part, his effort to consider the role of the vibrant environment of London’s literary life in which Burke’s works were produced and sold.
As the title suggests, “Patriotism” is a key concept in Crowe’s book. The term emerged in the 1720s with a specific meaning: “the Patriot of the early eighteenth century wished to be seen to transcend the religious, dynastic, and constitutional divisions left by the Revolution Settlement—unresolved issues of dynastic right, religious toleration, and qualification for participation in public office—and secure the liberties recovered in that revolution by promoting civic virtue and the constitutional rights of the country’s propertied elite” (3). Crowe traces the influence of the Patriotism of Alexander Pope, a patron of Dodsley, through Dodsley and his circle to Burke.
Bolingbroke was also a key Patriot and a close associate of Pope; Burke’s Vindication (a satire of the works of Bolingbroke) thus emerges as part of an internal battle over the future of the Patriot tradition. Crowe devotes Chapter 2 to an analysis of the Vindication within the details of its historical and intellectual context; those with a broad interest in Burke will take note of Burke’s attack on Bolingbroke’s “leveling of the sacred and profane” and of Crowe’s observation that “The pseudo-Bolingbroke’s claim to be able to penetrate the veil sola philosophia is revealed as the conceit that it is; but, by the false sublime tone in which this spurious initiation is communicated, we are also reminded that his faults are, at root, character faults—a result of his intellectual pride and irreligion masquerading as skepticism and deism.” One therefore sees in Burke’s first published book the penetrating insights which animate many of his other works, and which help structure his late critique of the French Revolution and of its supporting intellectuals. The limitations of “reason” narrowly understood—particularly, the fact that its mere invocation does not grant one perfect clarity or Godlike omniscience—are evident here, with an accompanying sense of mystery and a sharp rejection of a human-created false sublime—so blatant in the French Revolution—in lieu of what is truly sublime. Sound character emerges as the key to sound judgment and to a sound political order, with humility the foundational element of that character.
Crowe devotes considerable attention to Burke’s Irishness, in a subtle and sophisticated manner which serves as both a supplement and a corrective to some of the broad-brush, perhaps jingoistic highlighting of Burke’s Irish heritage and sympathies that is found in such treatments as that by Conor Cruise O’Brien. Crowe includes some discussion of Burke’s youth but devotes more attention to the intellectual influences resulting from his Irish background and years at Trinity College. Most significantly he offers treatments of the Philosophical Enquiry and the English History in light of the Irish Patriot tradition. In the case of the Enquiry Burke’s pre-Dodsley background is especially important since, although it was published after Dodsley commissioned the Vindication, much of it was probably written during Burke’s student days in Ireland. It is, however, in Burke’s enhancements to the Enquiry in its second edition that some of its more important elements are found, a fact acknowledged by Crowe. These include the addition of scriptural or religious illustrations of the sublime, and, most significantly, the addition of an introductory essay on taste. Here Burke finds taste, and, one might argue, judgment more broadly, to be a joint function of the senses, the imagination, and the “reasoning faculty.” Crowe also finds that “piety, or an acceptance of both the inexplicability and necessary incorporation of the working of divine providence” is for Burke vital to the perception of truth; this is a fascinating observation but one which cries out for more explicit textual support in the specific context of the Enquiry.
For Crowe, it is, more than anything, in examining Burke’s approach to history that we glean important insights about him. He finds that
It was in the field of history where Burke believed that the methods of natural philosophy were being applied like blunt tools upon the sources, fracturing and butchering meanings that had been carefully layered and packaged for more imaginative minds. For Burke, as with Warburton, the antidote to this vandalism was the reintegration of providence in history in such a way that the superficial perception it gave of order overturned was counterbalanced by the apprehension it provided of a deeper order unfolding.
As Crowe noted in the case of the Enquiry, piety, and a sense of the mysterious workings of providence, is central not just to “morality” as we commonly understand it but to one’s perception of reality. Indeed, one may argue that for Burke epistemology and ethics, or knowledge and judgment, are wrapped up together. Implicit in Burke is a rejection of the modern conceit that the acquisition of knowledge is primarily a technical matter, readily accessible to almost anyone. Burke is much closer to the ancient and medieval view that the character of the knower—a character largely defined by humility, piety, and a sense of the sacred—is central to the acquisition of real wisdom.
It would be nice—and would perhaps broaden this book’s appeal—if Crowe had devoted more space to highlighting and clarifying relationships between his specific historical findings and Burke’s broader political-philosophic thought (especially as manifested later in his life) and to British politics generally. Often the reader is left to draw out the broader significance of Crowe’s work. Nonetheless, Crowe offers an insightful and welcome contribution to our understanding of Burke and of eighteenth-century British thought.
William F. Byrne is an assistant professor of government and politics at St. John’s University (NY).
Posted: July 28, 2013
An Extraordinary Book
Volume 31, Number 3 (Fall 1991)