What Would Edmund Burke Say?

By Robert ZaretskyNovember 4, 2013

What Would Edmund Burke Say?

Edmund Burke by Jesse Norman

Triptych image: Viviane Sassen, "Menthe"


CONSERVATIVE PUNDITS in search of gravitas love to cite Edmund Burke, author of their canonical text, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Inevitably, some do it better than others. In a philippic at adults who wear denim jeans, George Will found support in Burke’s description of the French Revolution as a catastrophic assault “on the decent drapery of life.” (From the sans-culottes we have moved to the sans–bow ties.) Equally foolish but more malign was a recent remark by the historian and Wall Street Journal regular Niall Ferguson, who observed that John Maynard Keynes’s homosexuality influenced his economic work. Gays make selfish and short-term economic decisions, Ferguson suggested: unable to have children, they are unable to think selflessly about the long term. Under a barrage of criticism, Ferguson invoked Burke’s dictum that a healthy society rests on a partnership between the dead, living, and unborn. And since gays, perfectly capable of living and dying, but not reproducing … well, you get the picture.

Happily, there are also conservatives like The New York Times columnist David Brooks, who, in a remarkable October 2007 piece, channeled Burke in a sharp critique of the Republican Party’s wars — in Iraq, against government, and on science. Jesse Norman, the author of Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, seems cut from the same mold. Unlike Brooks, Norman’s day job in Great Britain is not punditry, but politics: he is a Conservative Member of Parliament. Like Brooks, however, he represents what always risks becoming little more than an oxymoron: “compassionate conservatism.” And like Brooks, Norman has the knack for presenting in clear and cogent terms notions taken from political theory, philosophy, and the social sciences.

Inevitably, perhaps, Norman’s presentation at times blurs into caricature. (This is fitting, as Burke was guilty of the same trait.) Take the book’s opening sentence: “Edmund Burke is both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years.” This claim, taken at face value, is laughable. Greatest? Where does this leave — to name just the M’s — Montesquieu, Madison, de Maistre, Mill, or Marx? Underrated? Even the skeletal bibliography in Norman’s book undermines his assertion: Burke’s writings undergird a thriving academic cottage industry.

Norman’s claim in fact resembles the sort of proposition an Oxford debate team would be assigned to defend. An Oxfordian, Norman turns in a performance that, full of flash, leaves behind substance enough for reflection. He reminds us that Georgian England was scarcely hospitable to either the Irish or Catholics — both of which nevertheless marked Burke’s background and influenced his work. In 1750, the young man left Dublin for London to study law — plans that, as with so many of his contemporaries, ranging from David Hume to James Boswell, were quickly buried. Burke’s literary and professional ambitions outstripped the dim prospects offered by the Bar.

No doubt the most remarkable essay from these early years is his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Still a 20-something, Burke proposed a way of seeing that has not only bled into the field of aesthetics, but also blazed the way for those eternal 20-somethings, the Romantics. Burke argued that basic human instincts are the source of our aesthetic responses to the world. Take the instinct self-preservation. Close encounters with the sublime, be it a tornado or Ted Cruz, spark terror. We run for the hills. But once there, Burke observes, we can gaze back on the same phenomenon and feel amazement rather than awe. Not coincidentally, Burke writes this at the same time Europeans first “discover” and flock to natural sites of the sublime, from seacoasts to mountain ranges, where the individual now feels delight, not distress.

Burke was not, however, among these intrepid seekers of the sublime. Unless, that is, the sublime lurks in the sausage-making factory we call politics. For the next 30 years, he rarely left London, where he would make his reputation as one of the age’s sublime orators and sublime political failures. Publishing widely in the London press, Burke soon came to the attention of powerful political and literary figures. He was a founding member of the “Club” — the constellation of writers, artists, and political figures who revolved around the massive orb of Samuel Johnson. Indeed, even Johnson, the era’s greatest conversationalist and controversialist, was awed by Burke’s brilliance: after a trying day, he told Boswell that their mutual friend “calls forth all my powers. Were I to see Burke now, it would kill me.”


Burke insisted on being seen and heard on the stage of national affairs. The vehicle that brought him to national attention was the “Rockingham Whigs,” a group joined by common principles that heralded the modern political party. In fact, in taking a page from the conservative political theorist Harvey Mansfield, Norman presents Burke as the inventor of the political party. By “party,” Burke meant something deeper and more enduring than the factions that then waxed and waned according to personal interest and parochial concerns. Instead, a party is what is born when a group of individuals join together to promote “the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”

In our own era, one might just as well praise killer algae as praise political parties. Consider the Republican Party, whose DNA still carries faint traces of Burkean conservatism, its approval ratings at an all-time low, whipped by Fox News until it resembles less a modern party than an incoherent mob bent on razing the government. The situation is not terribly different on the far side of the Atlantic. An increasing number of British voters believe that Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent talk of a “land of opportunities” applies only for those who already own most of the land.

Perhaps this is why Norman, whom the British media invariably describe as a “rising star” in the Conservative Party, quotes Burke on the public’s skeptical attitude even then toward parties: “I do not wonder that the behavior of many parties should have made persons of tender and scrupulous virtue somewhat out of humor with all sorts of connection in politics.” Were we to translate the Georgian cadences of Burke’s writing into contemporary American, it would be: “Throw the bums out.”

And yet, Burke’s brief for political parties reveals why we can’t live with them, and cannot live without them. No surer bulwark against an overreaching monarchy existed, Burke believed, than a stable party system. For a nation that had, a century earlier, experienced civil war over this very issue and now had a king, George III, determined to push back at Parliament, this was a critical matter. Representative parties were best suited to moderate — a key notion for Burke — the inevitable excesses of the monarchy. Equally crucial, parties were the most effective way to moderate the excesses of the people. Burke feared the people unbridled as much as he did a monarch unchecked. Burke knew “King Mob” at first hand: during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in London, he confronted a pack of rioters with a drawn sword and chased them from his house.

Were he alive today, Burke would be appalled by the alliance between “King Mob” and “King Lobby.” Our rioters are not storming the United States Congress, however, but instead are sitting inside as elected representatives. These representatives would quite naturally claim they represent the voters who elected them. But they would be fatally wrong. For Burke, the balance between representing one’s district and one’s nation is elusive, but essential and real. “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests,” he declared. Instead, it is “a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole.” Politicians represent the interests of the nation, not that of a patron who owns a rotten borough or a Tea Party that dominates a gerrymandered district. Rather than delegates who vote according to ultimatums or threats, they are representatives who vote according to their mature judgment after long debate. Both one and the other are nigh impossible in this mad world of cable news and Twitter.

In fact, can Burkean conservatism survive the advent of these new technologies? One wonders in the light of Burke’s insistence on the unique and fragile nature of society, a world made from the confluence of vast and varied historical forces. Such a society, Norman suggests, is sublime: awe wells up in our minds when we reflect upon the complexity of factors and chance occurrence of events that has sculpted the character of a people. Such wonder in turn imposes a kind of philosophical modesty: only with great prudence should a people tinker with such an inheritance. As a result, “innovation” or radical change, especially when driven by abstract values or concepts, is almost never a good idea.

Not surprisingly, given his emphasis on the organic character of society, where change unfolds slowly over vast swathes of time, and rituals, beliefs, and practices are the sediment of a people’s collective wisdom, Burke was horrified by the events of 1789. Scarcely a year after the fall of the Bastille in Paris, he published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. The work is celebrated for its uncanny anticipation of the subsequent course of the revolution: Burke seemed to perceive the bloody work of the Terrorists in the humane aims of the early revolutionaries. Their great error, he argued, was to think that one could overhaul the social order according to the dictates of reason and abstract values like equality or liberty.

Predictably, perhaps, Norman’s account of Burke’s response to the French Revolution passes over his hero’s silence on the material factors that helped lead to 1789. Economic hardship, food shortages, arbitrary justice, and a monarchy financially and morally bankrupt: neither Burke nor his biographer gives much attention to such matters. How could they when they are both under the misapprehension that ideas alone, not material needs and moral outrage, drove the events of 1789? Nor does Norman make mention of Alexis de Tocqueville’s deeply influential interpretation of the Revolution as less a revolutionary rupture with the past than its continuation. The processes of rationalization, centralization, and secularization Burke mistakenly identifies with the Enlightenment and the Revolution, Tocqueville revealed, have their roots in the same distant, unique, and invaluable past that Burke idealizes. In this regard, Norman quotes approvingly Burke’s description, as celebrated as it is silly and fatuous, of Marie Antoinette when he saw her many years before at Versailles: “Surely [there] never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision […]. Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of [...] men of honour, and of cavaliers.”

Burke’s tendency to caricaturize his ideological foes, especially after his political ambitions had been shattered, spills into Norman’s writing, as well. His portrayal of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings borders on the cartoonish: to describe the thought of the author of the First and Second Discourses, as well as Emile and Reveries of the Solitary Walker, as “the exaltation of the individual and individual reason” is as bizarre as it is wrong. The same is true for attributing “fanatical atheism and wickedness” to “Rousseau’s influence.” In such passages it is not clear if it is Burke or Norman who is speaking; in fact, one is left with the unsettling sense that the two have merged to become one. But whether it is Burke, Norman, or a Vulcan mind-meld, their depiction of liberalism remains simply surreal. A liberalism that is “unimpressed by the past,” “admires radical change” and believes the individual cannot “be made the subject of duties” is a liberalism that exists exclusively in the minds of those who have read little and reflected less on the history of the idea and reality behind it.

But this is not a reason to dismiss Norman’s book. The conservatism that Burke elaborated and defended against his age’s radicals retains the same relevance and urgency against our own age’s “innovators.” It just happens that these innovators frequent the Right more often than the Left, whether it is the Supreme Court’s Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito or Congress’s Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann. In a recent essay on the wreckage House Republicans left in the wake of their two week long tantrum, Jacob Weisberg concluded:

What the GOP needs to become a serious governing party again is a set of countervailing incentives and rewards to support what were once its cardinal virtues: respect for tradition and process, aversion to radical change, and willingness to compromise.

The call for political prudence, the emphasis on provisional solutions, and the reminder that change, while it must be moderated, is necessary: our era’s conservative activists are trampling these Burkean conservative ideals. At the very least, Jesse Norman’s account of Edmund Burke’s thought leads us to our own reflections on the current revolution in America.


Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning is being published this week by Harvard University Press on the 100th anniversary of Camus’s birth.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!