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Summer 2014

Thinking Like Edmund Burke?

book cover imageThe Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence.
By David Bromwich.
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 512 pages, $40.

William F. Byrne

This first installment of a two-volume intellectual biography of Burke is a unique and potentially useful addition to Burke scholarship. It is, however, probably a work of limited appeal. Though essentially a biography, it devotes most of its attention to detailed readings of selected public and, occasionally, private writings of Burke, with the aim of answering the question, “What did it mean to think like Edmund Burke?” The book, though well-written, is just partially successful in answering this question, in part because the question is a broad, ambitious, and rather ambiguous one, and because the author’s approach, though valid for particular purposes, can only offer a partial answer to this question.

What this book very much is not is a political-philosophical treatment of Burke. It is somewhat striking that a book that seeks to explain what it meant “to think like Edmund Burke” is written almost entirely without reference to the sizable amount of political-philosophical literature addressing this subject. Indeed, there is surprisingly little engagement with secondary literature of any type. Tellingly, Bromwich’s treatment of Burke’s relationship with conservatism is almost entirely confined to a single sentence: “No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism.” Period. Bromwich appears to consider further discussion unnecessary because Burke was a Whig, not a Tory, and because Burke failed to found an enduring conservative organization of some sort. This sort of cramped historical approach has its place and is employed effectively throughout the book, but also compromises the project. On not only this topic but on many, there is a lack of the sort of give-and-take and, one could say, intellectual life, that one might expect in a book on an “intellectual life.”

The book’s strength lies in its detailed unpacking of selected texts, especially those related to the American crisis. Bromwich sheds helpful light on particular remarks and positions taken by Burke, placing them in the context of the literature and politics of the time. Bromwich generally refrains from organizing his text around overarching themes, an approach that has both advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantage is that when a book is devoted to proving a particular thesis, that thesis will necessarily tend to dictate the inclusion and exclusion of material, and to dictate the points that are drawn out from that material. In contrast, Bromwich’s biographical approach can take things as they come, identifying many different dimensions to Burke’s thought and letting his wisdom shine in many different ways. The primary disadvantage is that without a strong thematic driver, one is confronted with a jumble of different, often very narrow, ideas about Burke and his thought, potentially creating a “can’t see the forest for the trees” effect. One recognizes that Burke was a highly perceptive student of the human condition and that he had interesting ideas and approaches, but may wonder if his thought is really of enduring importance, or precisely what that enduring importance is.

And, while Bromwich’s approach lets him treat many different aspects of Burke’s thought, this does not make his a “neutral” treatment of him. Such a treatment is impossible, since any treatment involves interpretation. In fact, at times Bromwich stakes out controversial positions. For example, he declares that “the originality of Burke on the sublime was to reject utterly the connections between sublimity, good taste, probity, and sanity. His originality was so marked that many of his contemporaries, as well as commentators in later period, have chosen to misunderstand his argument rather than confront his radical surmise about the emotions associated with art and their possibly tenuous connection to morals.” Bromwich offers some support for this assertion, and it is well worth exploration and debate, but the rather extreme language employed in his claim demands more support than is provided here. It also demands, again, engagement with the existing secondary literature.

Bromwich is an accomplished Burke scholar who is entitled to speak with some authority, but there is an ex cathedra quality to many of his pronouncements which may limit their persuasiveness among scholars. Just as we were told that “no serious historian” would recognize Burke as a father of conservatism, the full extent of engagement with the many commentators who would disagree with Bromwich’s views on Burke’s sublime is the declaration that they “have chosen to misunderstand” Burke. On the sublime, Bromwich downplays any relationship to morality and politics and, to the extent that he admits of political connections, they are negative. In this volume at least, little relationship is recognized between Burke’s interest in the sublime and his emphasis on the role of tradition, old orders, and “canonized forefathers” in maintaining a sound, stable, and humane political order.

Considerable tensions exist between the preface on taste Burke added to his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and Bromwich’s understanding of Burke’s view on the sublime in the main body of the work. Bromwich’s response is to dismiss the former as a sad attempt by a chastened Burke to bring his views into greater conformity with those of Hume and with general conventions; indeed, he declares that “the book remains more impressive without it.” Besides the fact that there are very significant differences between what Burke says in his preface and the thought of Hume, various commentators on Burke, including the present writer, have identified very important keys to Burke’s thought in that preface. It is no surprise that Bromwich again ignores the secondary literature, but here he goes even further and effectively encourages the reader to ignore some of Burke’s own published writing. More generally, the book is perhaps almost necessarily uneven in its treatment of Burke’s writings. For example, various commentators, including the present writer, have found important keys to Burke’s thought in his unfinished Abridgement of English History, but Bromwich briefly glosses over this work.

Bromwich admits that Intellectual Life does not substitute for more traditional biographies of Burke. These include the two-volume F. P. Lock biography that has become the standard scholarly work, as well as the multitude of single-volume popular biographies that are available, from Jesse Norman’s all the way back to that of Russell Kirk. Nor does this book substitute for reading Burke’s own writings and speeches. Nevertheless it has a role. It should be incorporated into any scholarly study of the texts treated by Bromwich, and should be a part of any serious treatment of Burke’s role in the American crisis. Bromwich provides an almost seminar-like education in the context and background of Burke’s writings, highlighting much that the casual reader might miss. The book would be more useful for scholarly work if its index were more comprehensive and, especially, if it made more extensive use of citations; all too often one reads “Burke says …” and wonders precisely where, or if, Burke says what Bromwich claims. Still, it is a welcome addition to the growing body of Burke scholarship.  

William F. Byrne, Ph.D is an associate professor of government and politics on the Staten Island and Queens campuses of St. John’s University. He is the author of Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics (2011).

Posted: August 10, 2014

Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.

Russell Kirk

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The Edmund Burke Society of America is pleased to announce a call for papers and open registration for “Edmund Burke and Patriotism,” their third conference on Edmund Burke. It will be held on February 27 and 28, 2015 at Villanova University. Keynote addresses will be from David Bromwich, Michael Brown, and Regina Janes. Please see this link for details and to register. (27 Aug 2014)

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