Why Edmund Burke Is Studied

To resist the idyllic imagination and the diabolical imagination, we need to know the moral imagination of Edmund Burke.

By Russell Kirk

Cato the Elder told his friends, “I had rather that men should ask, ‘Why is there no monument to Cato?’ than that they should ask, ‘Why is there a monument to Cato?’” Now I do not suppose that people often inquire, “Why is there a monument to Burke in the city of Washington?” Nevertheless, some Americans in high places remain interestingly ignorant of the great men and women whose statues loom tall in L’Enfant’s little parks; therefore, in considering Edmund Burke’s statue I offer you some reflections on why Burke is still much read and quoted nowadays.

Statues have their enemies, a sept of that body of the malicious whom I have called, in one of my books, the Enemies of the Permanent Things. Two decades ago the gentleman then Secretary of the Interior declared that Washington was cluttered with monuments to nobodies—anyway, to folk forgotten by everybody—and that those statues ought to be cleared away. Pressed for an example of the nobodies he had in mind, the Secretary of the Interior responded, “Well, that statue of Benjamin Rush, whoever he was.” Now Dr. Benjamin Rush, as many today are aware, was one of the more eminent signers of the Declaration of Independence; but that is not the most important thing about him. Rush was a famous physician, a man of letters, one of the two founders of the first antislavery society in America, the holder of various public offices, and a chief man of intellect during the formative years of the Republic. As one edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica summarizes Rush’s literary productivity:

Benjamin Rush’s writings covered an immense range of subjects, including language, the study of Latin and Greek, the moral faculty, capital punishment, medicine among the American Indians, maple sugar, the blackness of the negro, the cause of animal life, tobacco smoking, spirit drinking, as well as many more strictly professional topics. His last work was an elaborate treatise on The Diseases of Man (1812). He is best known by the five volumes of Medical Inquiries and Observations, which he brought out at intervals from 1789 to 1798 (two later editions revised by the author).

Such was the scholar and public man whose effigy the Secretary of the Interior would have consigned to Avernus. (Incidentally, that Secretary was given to frequent praise of “intellectuals.”) But nil admirari! Earlier in this century, the administrators of New York City’s parks came near to tossing into the Hudson the bronze bust of Orestes Brownson, the most vigorous of American Catholic thinkers; the bust had been knocked off its pedestal in Riverside Park, and everybody in authority had quite forgotten poor Brownson. (That bust was rescued in the nick of time by Fordham University and may be seen on Fordham’s campus today.) From ignorance or from malice, there flourishes in our era a breed of haters of the past, who chuck down the memory-hole of 1984 (the dystopia, not the literal year) everything venerable upon which they may lay their hands. Statues in particular are anathema to them. If given their way, such persons would commission junk sculpture to supplant every representation in stone or bronze of a great human being. Not long ago an agency of the federal government was eager to persuade colleges to adorn their campuses, at national expense, with “abstract sculpture,” the product of the welder’s torch; so far as I know, no “representational” sculpture was approved in this national program. One thinks again of Orwell’s dystopia, in which the one remaining gratification is the pleasure of effacing the humane. “If you want a picture of the future,” O’Brien tells Winston, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

Men in our time—so my old friend Max Picard wrote before 1930 in his book The Human Face—“fear to gaze upon the face of man. We have no wish to be reminded of the whole man, we do not wish wholeness; on the contrary, we wish to be divided, and we are pleased in our state of division and do not wish to be disturbed. For that reason we do not contemplate the human face.”

Now Edmund Burke, who detested political abstractions, was no abstraction himself; he was a whole man, undivided. Being undivided, he is not loved by the zealot for a faceless egalitarian uniformity in society; nor by the enthusiast for perpetual change, the “permanent revolution.” If, by the end of this century, this Burke statue still stands in deathless bronze on Massachusetts Avenue; and if its original by Thomas still stands at Bristol; and especially if the fine statue of Burke stands beside that of his friend Oliver Goldsmith in College Green, Dublin—why, they will remain as symbols of a human order that has not been pulled down altogether. But if, by the year 2000, those statues of Burke no longer are to be seen—well, their vanishing will be a sign that humankind has been expelled from what Burke called “this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue.” Humanity will have been thrust into Orwell’s dystopia—into the realm of Chaos and old Night, described by Burke as “the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”

No memorial statue of Burke ever was to be found at Beaconsfield, where Burke had his house and farm. Somewhere in church or churchyard there, Burke’s bones lie buried; but the precise spot is unknown. Should the Jacobins triumph in England, Burke feared, his body might be exhumed by the radicals and his head and quarters put on macabre public show, as had been done to the corpses of politicians before him; worse than that had been done to quick and dead in France during the closing years of Burke’s existence. Therefore his body had been interred secretly and by night, somewhere about Beaconsfield church. That Jacobinism never seized upon Britain was the accomplishment, in considerable part, of Burke’s eloquence; the “antagonist world” did not then take on substance in England.

Yet a fatality seems to have afflicted the visible memorials of Burke’s life, these statues apart. Burke’s birthplace on Arran Quay in Dublin, still standing uninhabited when first I strolled along the Liffey, since has been thoughtfully demolished by Dublin’s municipal authorities. Soho Square, where Burke had his London residence, is turned into a loathsome hell upon earth, the equivalent of New York’s Times Square; young women are whipped at lunchtime in restaurants, for the amusement of affluent men. As for the great house of Gregories, with Burke’s library and collection of statuary and paintings, that was burnt a few years after Burke’s death. But the high brick precinct-wall survives, near to Beaconsfield church, and (so I read somewhere) a large barn that had been Burke’s—for he cultivated six hundred acres at Gregories. When last I visited Beaconsfield, I entered what had been the park of Gregories to seek for the barn. I did not find it; instead I came upon rows of little, neat, ticky-tacky houses, terraced so that, viewed from left to right, each miniature house stood a few feet higher than the house to its right. A curious sensation of déjà vu afflicted me. However could I have beheld this new-built housing scheme before? Then it came to me. Beaconsfield has become in recent decades the headquarters of Britain’s film industry, and these terraces of monotonous dwellings can be pressed into service as film backgrounds. What picture had I seen that had so utilized these rather distressing manifestations of suburbia since World War it? I had it: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s dystopia about book-burning. Burke’s books had been burnt here, and there were bookburners aplenty among the socialist masters of the new comprehensive schools. On returning to America, I told Ray Bradbury about this unhappy concitation of the backward devils; he never had fancied, while his film was being produced in England, that it was being filmed upon the wreck of Burke’s estate.

Much more, visible and invisible, has been wrecked by the advancing troops of the Antagonist World since Burke was buried secretly in 1797. As I write, a great part of old Bucharest, including three grand ancient monasteries, is being swept away by the Communist regime in Romania—to clear the way for monstrous new high-rise hives and a gigantic boulevard along which the legions of Mordor may parade. One thinks of the lines of John Betjeman:

I have a vision of The Future, chum,

The workers’ flats in fields of soya beans

Tower up like silver pencils, score on score;

And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come

From microphones in communal canteens

“No Right! No Wrong! All’s perfect, evermore.”

The East, since Burke’s day, has been swallowed up by the Antagonist World; and the West has been ravaged and harrowed, though not overcome utterly as yet. Even the quarter of Washington in which Burke’s likeness stands seemed, only a few years ago, on the verge of being lost to the world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue.

Yet American society retains considerable recuperative powers; cheerfulness will keep breaking in; and the capital of the United States begins to mend itself. Such recuperation of the body politic results, in part, from the institutions that Burke praised and the principles Burke expounded—even though few Americans know anything about Burke except that somehow he “was for our side” in the Revolution.

Why is there a monument to Burke? Because he was a principal defender of that world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue in which the United States participated, through its inheritance of civilization. Constitution, custom, convention, and prescription give society a healthy continuity, as Burke knew; and he pointed out that prudent change is the means of our preservation; he understood how the claims of freedom and the claims of order must be kept in a tolerable tension. Such truths he taught not as a closet-philosopher, but as a practical statesman and manager of party. His speeches and pamphlets were read by the men of 1776 and the men of 1787—and studied with yet closer attention alter 1789. No other political thinker of their own time was better known to the American leaders than was Burke. That is one reason why the Sulgrave Institution, sixty-three years ago, presented a statue of Burke to the city of Washington.

In divers ways—some obvious, some subtle—Burke’s politics and Burke’s rhetoric have been woven into American modes of thought and argument, generation after generation. Let me suggest my own path to Burke.

I first encountered the name of Burke when, as a boy, I browsed through my mother’s old schoolbooks. Among these was an edition of Burke’s speech “On Conciliation with the Colonies,” published by Scott, Foresman in 1898, “edited for school use by Joseph Vilhiers Denney,” a professor at Ohio State University, with thorough notes and intelligent “Questions on the Literary and Rhetorical Qualities of the Speech.” By “schools” the publishers meant high schools, not universities. “On Conciliation” had nearly vanished from American high schools by the time I arrived there, and I know of no public school nowadays which prescribes the study of Burke’s speeches. But my mother and her classmates seem to have been undismayed by this manual. Here and there, in her copy, my mother has written between lines, neatly, definitions of words or phrases; and on the back flyleaf is a notation, presumably with reference to the teacher’s passing remarks on Burke’s The Sublime and the Beautiful: “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” In 1898, when my mother was a high-school senior, it was taken for granted that young people could apprehend Burke. It cannot be so taken for granted in the graduate schools of large universities today. As Burke predicted in Reflections on the French Revolution, the time would come when learning would be trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude—a phrase borrowed from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, incidentally.

Courses in American history still contained references to Burke during my own high-school years, but I was more interested in a textbook’s brief account of the Virginian John Randolph of Roanoke, who entered Congress as a radical, but by 1804 had become of Burke’s persuasion. Later, as a graduate student at Duke University, I wrote a master’s thesis about Randolph—and through studying him, became an attentive reader of Burke. Here is a specimen of Randolph on Burke, in a letter to Harmanus Bleeker written in 1814:

My time of late has been . . . occupied in reading and meditating the Vth volume of Burke. . . . It has been an intellectual banquet of the richest viands. What a man! How like a child and an idiot I feel in comparison with him. Thank God! However, I can understand and relish his sublime truths and feel grateful for the inspired wisdom which in the true spirit of prophecy he has taught to us poor blind and erring mortals.

Out of these studies came my first book, John Randolph of Roanoke. Perceiving how pervasive Burke’s influence had been on either side of the Atlantic, I made that the theme of my second book, The Conservative Mind. I discovered, presently, how Joseph Story had woven the teachings of Burke into his famous Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States; how John C. Calhoun had learned much from Burke; how James Russell Lowell and other American men of letters were moved by Burke’s style; how Woodrow Wilson, writing in 1901, declared himself Burke’s disciple.

Near the end of the eighteenth century Burke had contended against an “armed doctrine,” Jacobinism, the first ideology of what was to become an age of ideological passions. By the 1940s Americans and their allies found themselves contending against fresh revolutionary ideologies. What precedent did the file afford? To what statesman of the past, what philosopher in action, might one turn for guidance in a time when the fountains of the great deep were broken up? It was this search, primarily, that brought about a strong renewal of serious interest in Burke, beginning nearly four decades ago.

During the 1950s many studies of Burke and his times were published in America and Britain; every serious periodical commented upon the “Burke revival.” By 1962 Clinton Rossiter noted in the second edition of his Conservatism in America that “a fascinating by-product of the conservative upsurge of the postwar years has been the re-introduction of Burke as a serious thinker into courses in political theory at colleges throughout America.” Leaders of both American political parties began to quote Burke; Senator Eugene McCarthy, in his Frontiers of Democracy, acknowledged Burke’s dominant influence upon his political principles.

The bursting out of radicalism during the later sixties and early seventies to some extent impeded the renewal of Burke’s influence in intellectual quarters; but attention to Burke increased once more as the disaster of war in Indochina receded. Nowadays Burke is praised in such journals as The New Republic. The seventh revised edition of my book The Conservative Mind has been recently published—an examination of writers and statesmen in the line of Burke; a new edition of my biography of Burke will be published within a few months. In both the United States and Britain there have been elected governments that pay Burke lip-service, and sometimes act in accordance with his maxims. Even certain syndicated columnists of today quote Burke repeatedly—a practice confined pretty much to your servant twenty years ago.

Burke’s statue on Massachusetts Avenue, in short, signifies more now than it did in 1922, the year of its erection. Then it was a reminder of the struggles during the closing third of the eighteenth century; now it wakes us to the clash of beliefs, political and religious, as the twentieth century of the Christian era nears its end. Our Time of Troubles, Arnold Toynbee instructs us, commenced in 1914; the world has sunk more deeply into those grim difficulties with every year that has elapsed since then. Is it conceivable that the rising generation in America, whose schooling has been so costly and yet so poor, may learn something valuable from the imagination and the intellect of the man of genius whose brazen image seems to survey the stream of traffic on Massachusetts Avenue—rather in the fashion of the statue of the Happy Prince in Oscar Wilde’s fable, gazing forever upon the great city’s inhumanity?

Just two hundred years ago Edmund Burke found his fortune at a stay. Out of office, with the younger Pitt entrenched as prime minister, Burke seemed ineffectual to many; his party—the first genuine political party of the English-speaking world—had suffered defeat and eclipse; his private affairs were troubled. There lay before him his impeachment of Warren Hastings, and Hastings’ trial, to which bitter affairs Burke would devote the next decade of his life; this was no cheerful prospect, Burke knowing from the first that the House of Lords would not find Hastings guilty as charged. “We know that we bring before a bribed tribunal a prejudged cause,” he wrote to Philip Francis on December 10, 1785.

Five years later, nevertheless, Burke (almost alone) commenced the undoing of the French Revolution; he published the most brilliant piece of political writing in the English language, began to alter the whole drift of British foreign policy, won back the clergy to the national cause, and achieved in political isolation a reputation and an influence exceeding that he had enjoyed while still a manager of party. It is this later Burke especially who attracts the interest and admiration of contemporary Americans.

Clinton Rossiter, in 1962, grew almost alarmed at the ascendancy of Burke among the thoughtful. The conservative task for Americans, Professor Rossiter argued, “calls for creation and integration, not imitation; it may call for revival of Adams, Hamilton, Calhoun, Madison, and the conservative Lincoln, but surely not for wholesale importation of Burke or de Maistre.” And elsewhere he declared that the “prudent Federalists . . . must henceforth serve American conservatism as a kind of collective Burke.”

This is curious reasoning. The Federalists have a justly important part in American political reflection, two centuries after their call for a Constitutional Convention. Yet the Federalists cannot well supplant Burke as a source of political wisdom, in part because the Federalists themselves drew upon Burke and in part because what the Federalists said is less relevant to the distresses of the world at the end of the twentieth century than is the bulk of Burke’s writings after 1789.

For the Federalists were concerned, necessarily, with constructing a practical frame of government for a particular time and people, rather than with first principles of politics, applicable in some degree to any age. I do not mean that there is no advantage in deriving one’s convictions from one’s national ancestors. Some real continuity survives between the America of 1785, say, and the America of today. Yet the passage of the centuries does make a difference in national character and national needs. And if only homegrown products are fit for American consumption—why, we must prefer Jonathan Edwards as a theologian, say, over Saint Augustine, because Edwards was born in New England and Augustine in Roman Africa. Or—intending no disrespect—Mary Baker Eddy must supplant Jesus of Nazareth if we were to adopt Rossiter’s chain of reasoning.

The Federalist Papers form a work of high political prudence, well argued and worthy of close attention still. The federal system of government, brought into existence by those politicians’ arguments, has done much for the American people. As the United States slides toward centralization, the ideas of the Federalists grow still more deserving of renewal, by way of caution and check.

Yet the problems of modern society transcend simple questions of governmental structure. An appeal to the pristine purity of the Constitution of the United States will not suffice as a bulwark against the destructive power of ideology. To Burke, rather than to Washington or Hamilton or Jay or Madison or even John Adams, we must turn for an analysis of the first principles of order and justice and freedom.

As for pertinence to our present discontents, even The Federalist Papers cannot arouse imagination and conscience as can Reflections on the Revolution in France or the Regicide Peace. For Burke is urgently concerned with the grim continuing revolution of our time of troubles, while The Federalist, in essence, is an argument simply for settling the governmental arrangements of America near the end of the eighteenth century. One still can read with profit Washington’s Farewell Address, the production (with Hamilton’s assistance) of a strong and prudent man. But it is impossible for the United States of today to follow the counsels on foreign policy commended by President Washington at the end of his tenure: circumstances have altered irrevocably. Burke’s understanding of the comity of civilized nations and his plea for combination against revolutionary fanaticism apply to the present circumstances of the United States, on the contrary: Burke is little “dated.”

Being myself a disciple of the Federalists, I respect their practical wisdom. Nor am I of the opinion that political theories and institutions can be transferred abstractly, without qualification, from one land to another; I agree with Daniel Boorstin that “the American Constitution is not for export.” It certainly would be impossible, and in a variety of ways undesirable, to establish in America a facsimile of eighteenth-century English society. Heraclitus and experience have taught us that we never step in the same river twice.

But Burke is not outside the American experience; rather, as his statue reminds us, he stands in the grander tradition and continuity—the legacy of our civilization—of which American life and character form a part. And Burke himself, helping to form American society, has been an influence upon this land and this people from the 1760s to the present. To seek political wisdom from Burke is no more exotic for Americans than it is to seek humane insights from Shakespeare or spiritual insights from Saint Paul. The founders of this Republic, after all, participated in political and legal institutions very like those that Burke defended; they shared Burke’s climate of opinion; they read the books that Burke read. One does not set up William James and Josiah Royce, say, as better philosophers than Aristotle or Aquinas on the ground that the first pair were born on the western side of the Atlantic and the second pair on the eastern.

Some part of the institutions and the social order which Burke knew has passed away, quite as the America of our time is markedly different from the seaboard republic of Adams and Jefferson. Because we cannot restore—even if we would—either Georgian England or Jeffersonian America, the test of the relevance of a political philosopher to the challenges of our own time is not merely a question of whether his lot was cast in a bygone Britain or in a bygone United States.

In many respects the great American nation of today is more like the imperial Britain of 1785 than like the isolated infant federation of liberated colonies in 1785. Surely the argument as to whether the federal treasury should assume the debts of the states of the Confederation is dead politics—just as certainly as American resistance to an armed doctrine remains a live issue. Because Burke addressed himself to matters that transcended nationality and generation, he endures as an important political thinker whom men of our time oppose to Karl Marx. Would anyone argue seriously that the writings of the Federalists, philosophically considered, may suffice to withstand the grim power of totalist ideology and to direct the affairs of this gigantic twentieth-century America, no longer insulated against the opinions and the arms of the Old World?

Burke, with his prophetic gifts, perceived the shape of things to come in this bent world of ours. His passionate refutation of leveling ideology and totalist politics has lost nothing of its force with the passing of two centuries. What he said of the Jacobins is yet more true of the Marxist ideologues in our rough era. “I have laid the terrible spirit of innovation which was overrunning the world.” Those are the words of Napoleon, whose coming Burke predicted. Yet it was Burke, rather than Bonaparte, who in truth exorcised the fierce specter of revolutionary fanaticism.

No other statesman or writer of the past two centuries has been more prescient than was Burke. In my mother’s day it was as a great rhetorician and leader of party, rather than as a man of thought and imagination, that Burke was studied. The specialization of our twentieth-century educational system intensified this division: the political historians hesitated to discuss Burke because he was a man of letters, the teachers of literature because he was a philosopher, the professors of philosophy because he was a statesman; and so round the circle. The very breadth of genius may cause neglect. Yet perhaps it has been as well that a proper understanding of Burke has been reserved for these years of ours. For once more we find ourselves in an epoch of concentration, in which thinking men and women endeavor to restore order and justice to a bewildered society. “I attest the rising generation!” Burke cried, at the end of his prosecution of Hastings. Indeed he did win over the rising generation of Britain, about the year of his death; and the rising generation of Americans, in this year of our Lord 1987, is influenced by the mind of Burke (directly or indirectly), as twenty years ago many of America’s rising generation fell under the influence (directly or indirectly) of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Burke’s adversary. Burke’s moral imagination begins to defeat Rousseau’s idyllic imagination near the end of the twentieth century.

To suggest, in conclusion, the relevance of Burke’s convictions to our present troubles, let me quote a passage from a letter of Burke, written on June 1, 1791, to the Chevalier Claude-François de Rivarol. Burke is discussing the illusions of poets and philosophers:

I have observed that the Philosophers in order to insinuate their polluted Atheism into young minds, systematically flatter all their passions natural and unnatural. They explode or render odious or contemptible that class of virtues which restrain the appetite. These are at least nine out of ten of the virtues. In place of all these they substitute a virtue which they call humanity or benevolence. By these means, their morality has no idea in it of restraint, or indeed of a distinct settled principle of any kind. When their disciples are thus left free and guided by present feeling, they are no longer to be depended on for good or evil. The men who today snatch the worst criminals from justice, will murder the most innocent persons tomorrow.

Amen to that. Burke’s “Parisian philosophers” of two centuries gone live on as today’s self-proclaimed “intellectuals,” with their incessant talk of “compassion” and their advocacy, among other things, of the inalienable right to expand the empire of unnatural vices. From age to age we human beings fight the same battles over and over again, under banners bearing various devices. To resist the idyllic imagination and the diabolical imagination, we need to know the moral imagination of Edmund Burke. And that is why we know Burke for one of those dead who give us energy.