Tuesday, August 13, 2013

New Biography of Edmund Burke

Political philosophy and history are not my strong suits, but this biography of the founder of political conservatism does sound worthwhile (from The Catholic Herald):

Publishing is often about timing, and the praise rightly lumped on Jesse Norman’s new biography reflects the fact that our political discourse has for too long had a Burke-shaped hole. As the author says in the second part of the book, which focuses on the politician’s ideas, Burke’s reputation has gone through boom and bust since his death in 1797, but the last few years have been lean ones. Now, with the current crisis of liberalism, both social and economic, he suggests that Burke is due a comeback, and not necessarily just on the Right.

Born in Dublin in 1729, Burke came from a mixed marriage. It was through his Catholic mother, Mary, that he developed his instinctive sympathy for the plight of the country’s mostly poor majority. His relationship with his Protestant father, Richard, seemed to have been difficult, although he did pay for Edmund to attend Trinity College Dublin and then the Middle Temple in London.

Burke arrived in the Great Wen at a time when clubs were flowering, and these played a crucial part in the development of British politics and capitalism (in contrast, the French regime discouraged them as potential conspiratorial). Burke’s was simply called The Club, and met from 1764 in the Turk’s Head tavern in Soho. Among its nine founding members were Burke himself, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson. That’s some fantasy dinner party. And let’s not forget Burke’s Edinburgh connections: on a visit to London David Hume gave him a copy of The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith. . . .

Throughout this period, and until the French Revolution, Burke was not recognisably “Right-wing”, as it would later be called. He supported Catholic emancipation and argued in favour of conciliation with the American colonies. Burke was not against all change, just extreme change. As he wrote in a 1779 letter: “Moderation is a virtue not only amiable but powerful. It is a disposing, arranging, conciliating, cementing virtue.” In Norman’s words: “For radical change to be genuinely worthwhile, it must bring overwhelming social benefit, or be the product of the most extreme necessity.”

The central theme of Burkean thought would, of course, come to the fore in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, written in the style of a letter to the pro-revolutionary Whig clubs in London. An instant bestseller, although outsold by Thomas Paine’s counterblast Rights of Man, it articulated many conservative principles. Burke believed in liberty, compassion, in helping the poor and tolerance, but he was opposed to abstract ideas, which he believed had brought disaster to France. As he wrote in A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol: “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring them and administering them… I shall always advise to call in aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.”

More about the book here from the publisher, Basic Books.

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