Edmund Burke, the British statesman and political philosopher, was born in Ireland to a family of modest means. His mother's family was Catholic, his father's Protestant. He was raised a Protestant and educated at a Quaker school and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he took the equivalent of a first-class honors degree in classics. He went to London to read law but was never called to the bar. He devoted most of his time to authorship and literary journalism. Robert Dodsley, a leading London bookseller of the time, loyally backed him; by 1757, Dodsley had published two books by Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) and Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756), had given him employment as editor of The Annual Register, and had contracted to pay him £300 for an Abridgement of the History of England.
A Vindication of Natural Society is a satire on the views of Henry St. John Bolingbroke. It claimed to be a recently discovered work by Bolingbroke and was designed to ridicule the idea that the rise of civilized society is attended by misery and suffering. The parody was written with such conviction, however, that manyPage 771 | Top of Article assumed it was in fact the work of Bolingbroke, and even when it was known that Burke was the author, some critics still thought it was a sincere expression of his true opinion.
Burke's book On the Sublime and the Beautiful is more important; indeed, it might well be said to signalize the point at which aesthetic taste in England changed from the classical formalism of the earlier years of the eighteenth century to the romanticism of the later years. Burke attacked the rationalist, classicist notion that clarity is an essential quality in great art. He argued, on the contrary, that what is greatest and noblest is the infinite, and that the infinite, having no bounds, cannot be clear and distinct. He argued that the imagination, moreover, is most strongly affected by what is suggested or hinted at and not by what is plainly stated. Burke also maintained that fear plays a large part in our enjoyment of the sublime. Such fear is diminished by knowledge, but sharpened by veiled intimations. Obscurity, not clarity, is the property of the most powerfully moving art; and, Burke added, "It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration and chiefly excites our passions."
Both of Burke's first two works were well received, but neither set him on the road to any further achievement. The Annual Register was a success, although Burke regarded it as mere hackwork. He never finished the projected History of England. Burke's growing interest in questions of ethics and politics provided him, in time, with an escape from the frustrations of Grub Street. He entered the House of Commons at the age of thirty-seven, and this new life brought him satisfactions he had never known in his earlier career. He became an outstanding parliamentarian; what distinguished him and made him a philosopher among politicians, however, was his capacity to look beyond the matters of the day and to articulate general principles in terms of which he believed the problems of the day should be judged.
A diligent study of Burke's letters and manuscripts brings home the extent to which his approach to politics was a religious one. What is often spoken of as his "empiricism" appears in this light to be better described as Christian pessimism. As a Christian, Burke believed that the world is imperfect; he regarded his "enlightened" contemporaries' faith in the perfectibility of man as atheistical as well as erroneous. Thus, whereas the fashionable intellectuals of his time looked for the progressive betterment of the world through the beneficent influence of Reason and Nature, Burke maintained that the moral order of the universe is unchanging. The first duty of rulers and legislators, he argued, is to the present, not to the future; their energies should be devoted to the correction of real ills, not to the promotion of an ideal order that exists only in the imagination.
Burke put great faith in the inherited wisdom of tradition. He held that the moral order of the temporal world must necessarily include some evil, by reason of original sin. Men ought not to reject what is good in tradition merely because there is some admixture of evil in it. In man's confused situation, advantages may often lie in balances and compromises between good and evil, even between one evil and another. It is an important part of wisdom to know how much evil should be tolerated. To search for too great a purity is only to produce fresh corruption. Burke was especially critical of revolutionary movements with noble humanitarian ends because he believed that people are simply not at liberty to destroy the state and its institutions in the hope of some contingent improvement. On the other hand, he insisted that people have a paramount duty to prevent the world from getting worse—a duty to guard and preserve their inherited liberties and privileges.
These considerations explain the so-called inconsistencies often attributed to Burke, who supported the movement for the independence of Ireland and the rebellion of the American colonists against the English government, but bitterly opposed the French Revolution. The reason for this seeming inconsistency was that Burke regarded the Irish movement and the American rebellion as actions on behalf of traditional rights and liberties that the English government had infringed on. The French Revolution was quite different, he argued, because it was designed to introduce a wholly new order based on a false rationalistic philosophy. Burke did not object to a resort to force as such; it was the aims of the French revolutionists to which he objected. Similarly, Burke approved of the English Revolution of 1688 because he saw it as designed to restore the rights of Englishmen and to secure the hereditary succession to the throne. The French Revolution, on the contrary, was intended to establish the so-called rights of man and the republican ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity at the expense of personal property, religion, and the traditional class structure of a Christian kingdom.
In one of his most celebrated works, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke attacked those of his contemporaries who made an abstraction of liberty, and who invited people to seek liberty without any real knowledge of what they meant by it. He claimed that he himself loved "a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman in France," but he would not "stand forwardPage 772 | Top of Article and give praise" to an "object stripped of all concrete relations" and standing "in all the solitude of a metaphysical idea." As for equality, Burke insisted that it was contrary to nature and therefore impossible to achieve; its advocates, moreover, did "great social harm," for by pretending that real differences were unreal, they inspired "false hopes and vain expectations in those destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life." Burke dismissed talk of fraternity as so much "cant and gibberish"; such splendid words were simply the pretexts of the French revolutionists; the causes of the French revolution, however, were "men's vices—pride, ambition, avarice, lust, sedition."
Burke's view of the ancien régime in France was in many ways a romantic one; he was certainly no less a "man of feeling" than was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he detested. But Burke was essentially a religious man living in a rationalistic age. Although he often spoke the language understood by that age—the language of calculation, expediency, utility, and political rights—he had a mind that his contemporaries, and many others, could not readily comprehend. Burke was conscious, above all things, of the reality and unavoidability of evil, and was thus led to claim that the only hope for humankind was to cling to safeguards that had stood the test of time. His hopes for bliss lay in heaven; on earth, his policy was to defend the tolerable, and sometimes the bad, against the immeasurably worse.
Until recently Burke was considered too unsystematic, too empirical, too "unphilosophical," and too much of a theorist to deserve serious attention. His conservative views were uncongenial to left-wing historians, such as Harold J. Laski and Richard Wollheim, who found him inconsistent. In 1948, however, the Sheffield Public Library (Yorkshire, England) acquired the Wentworth Woodhouse manuscripts, and the largest known collection of Burke's private papers became available to scholars for the first time since the writer's death. The study of these papers did much to enhance Burke's reputation as a political philosopher of signal importance and originality.
WORKS BY BURKE
Works, 16 vols. Edited by F. Lawrence and W. King. London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1803–1827.
Correspondence of Edmund Burke, 10 vols. Edited by Thomas W. Copeland et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958–1978.
The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, 12 vols. Edited by Paul Langford et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981–.
WORKS ON BURKE
Cobban, A. Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the Eighteenth Century. London: Allen and Unwin, 1929. Adds new thought on the resemblances between Burke's thought and that of Rousseau.
Cone, C. B. Burke and the Nature of Politics. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957. A valuable introductory study from a modern standpoint.
Copeland, T. W. Our Eminent Friend, Edmund Burke: Six Essays. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1949. Essays by a literary historian and leading Burke scholar.
Lock, F. P. Edmund Burke, 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998–.
MacCunn, J. The Political Philosophy of Burke. London: Arnold, 1913. A useful traditional reading of Burke's philosophy.
Magnus, P. Edmund Burke. London: Murray, 1939. A reliable short biography.
O'Brien, Conor Cruise. The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Parkin, Charles. The Moral Basis of Burke's Political Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1956. Stresses the importance of religion in Burke's political philosophy.
Stanlis, Peter J. Edmund Burke: The Enlightenment and Revolution. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1991.
Maurice Cranston (1967)
Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)