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Revolutionary tyranny: “The Oath of Lafayette at the Fête de la Fédération”, c.1790, by an unknown French artist

Since his death in 1797, Edmund Burke has been associated with diverse political causes. Over the course of the 19th century, he was successively adopted by a range of political parties, spanning the spectrum from the Whigs to the Liberals and the Tories. In the 20th century he was associated with assorted ideologies, as heterogeneous as liberalism and conservatism. Yet Burke was a highly complex and multifaceted figure who cannot be understood in terms of conventional categories. To grasp the true significance of his contribution to political thought, we have to expose ourselves to a representative sample of his work.

Jesse Norman’s new Everyman edition of Burke’s writings, speeches, and correspondence pays tribute to the range of his achievements. The volume includes selections from his earliest philosophical and historical works and examples of his first political essays, but it is dominated by the writings Burke produced after he opted for a career in politics, encompassing his years in parliament from 1766 down to his final three years in retirement after 1794. All these works can be situated historically by reference to the excellent chronology provided. There is neither a fuller nor a more judicious anthology available.

As outlined in Norman’s engaging Introduction, Burke was born in Dublin in 1730, the third child of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. He attended a denominationally mixed school run by a Quaker schoolmaster in County Kildare but returned to Dublin in his teens to study at Trinity College, which denied degrees to Catholics until 1793. These early experiences disposed Burke to embrace the spirit of toleration, and would later inspire him to campaign for the rights of aggrieved Catholics in Ireland. After graduating, he spent another two years in the Irish capital before moving to London to train for the bar, but despite being enrolled as a law student until 1755, he yearned for success in the republic of letters. Describing his first encounter with Burke in 1761, the diarist Horace Walpole complained that he had yet to shed his “authorism”, apparently believing that there was “nothing so charming as writers and to be one”. Literary ambition would soon draw Burke definitively into politics, and ultimately into the cut and thrust of a career in parliament.

What distinguished Burke among parliamentarians was his grasp of the wider historical and philosophical implications of policy. From the start he was seen as a powerful but also ruminative orator. Already in one of his earliest interventions in the Commons on the subject of the American colonies he sought to concentrate on fundamental issues of principle: “There is not a more difficult subject for the understanding of men than to govern a Large Empire upon a plan of Liberty.” He brought to the issues he tackled an abundant stock of learning derived from the fund of European Enlightenment ideas. His eloquence inspired, but his arguments also impressed. As the British ministry under Lord North was drawing towards conflict with the Americans in the spring of 1775, Burke stood out as a beacon of measured restraint. “The proposition is Peace,” he informed his audience. “Not Peace through the medium of War; not Peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and endless negotiations; not Peace to arise out of universal discord, fomented, from principle, in all parts of the Empire; not Peace to depend on the Juridical Determination of perplexing questions; or the precise marking of the shadowy boundaries of a complex Government. It is simple Peace; sought in its natural course, and its simple haunts. It is Peace sought in the Spirit of Peace.”

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March 30th, 2016
7:03 PM
It might be worth recalling that Burke's versatility included contributions to esthetics (notably "A philosophical enquiry into the sublime and beautiful" of 1757), not mentioned in this review. Incidentally, the notion that Burke could have betrayed the cause of liberty by opposing the French Revolution is a strange one, indeed...

March 26th, 2016
12:03 PM
Oh for a Burke today! We have no statesman, merely politicians who spout the jargon of deception. Our modern "so called" democracy is a deception. At least, if we use our brains and vote for out of Europe we will be rid of some of the worst features.

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