“A passionate critic of the French Revolution yet a defender of the revolt of the American colonies: this lecture explores the paradoxical relationship between Edmund Burke and the history of conservatism.”
Conservatives have either ignored Burke’s support for colonial rebellion, or maintained that his career was split between two phases: an early period of support for the ‘liberal’ cause of America and a later ‘conservative’ reaction to the Revolution in France. Burke certainly changed his opinions over the course of his career, but these shifts cannot be captured by presuming a contradiction between his support for American resistance and his aversion to the revolution in France. Representations of Burke as a renegade from early idealism are based on the dogmatic assumption that the American and French revolutions were fundamentally ‘the same’. Yet for Burke these two events were absolutely different, and in fact he had good reasons for insisting on their difference.
from Richard Bourke (2015) “Burke was no conservative” in Aeon Magazine (online).
Burke, leading the prosecution, railed against the way the returned company “nabobs” (or “nobs”, both corruptions of the Urdu word “Nawab”) were buying parliamentary influence, not just by bribing MPs to vote for their interests, but by corruptly using their Indian plunder to bribe their way into parliamentary office: “To-day the Commons of Great Britain prosecutes the delinquents of India,” thundered Burke, referring to the returned nabobs. “Tomorrow these delinquents of India may be the Commons of Great Britain.”
Burke thus correctly identified what remains today one of the great anxieties of modern liberal democracies: the ability of a ruthless corporation corruptly to buy a legislature. And just as corporations now recruit retired politicians in order to exploit their establishment contacts and use their influence, so did the East India Company.
From “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders” by William Dalrymple in The Guardian. Burke’s battle against the East India Company and the impeachment of Hastings was counted as one of Burke’s greatest deeds by reformers such as Mary Leadbeater.
Here lies our good Edmund, whose genius was such,
We scarcely can praise it, or blame it too much;
Who, born for the universe, narrow’d his mind,
And to party gave up what was meant for mankind:
Tho’fraught with all learning, yet straining his throat
To persuade Tommy Townshend to lend him a vote;
Who, too deep for his hearers, still went on refining,
And thought of convincing, while they thought of dining;
Though equal to all things, for all things unfit;
Too nice for a statesman, too proud for a wit;
For a patriot, too cool; for a drudge, disobedient;
And too fond of the right to pursue the expedient.
The actor Garrick suggested that he and Goldsmith should compare their skill at epigrams by writing each others epitaph. Goldsmith went further and wrote this poem, containing epitaphs for Garrick and ten others, with a prologue where they meet at table bringing food. Goldsmith brings the gooseberry fool.
The extract above is the epitaph for Edmund Burke.
Burke on the difference between Beauty and the Sublime (Youtube). Narrated by Harry Shearer and scripted by Nigel Warburton for the BBC Radio 4 series A History of Ideas.
Burke was not the first to write about the sublime, but in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) he suggested for the first time that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. For Burke, the sublime could be ugly, and thus ugliness was not merely a lack of form as Augustine and others had suggested. Unlike the pleasure invoked by beauty, Burke suggested that the sublime evoked a “negative pain” which he called delight. The sublime evokes fear and attraction. Overcoming fear to confront the sublime removes the pain, producing the intense feeling of delight.
David Berman sets the end of the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy at the publication of The Sublime and the Beautiful, the last great work of the period. For more on the idea of the Sublime see this In Our Time episode. Also see this from Existential Comics on the sublime.
At Trinity, Goldsmith was a poor student, in both senses of the word: he didn’t have the money for full fees and therefore had to carry out various menial duties in front of other students. He hated it, and was lucky not to be expelled after playing a role in one of the most infamous events in Trinity’s history, the Black Dog riot.
This was provoked by the arrest of a student. A group of fellow students, led by one Gallows Walsh, set the student free and captured the bailiff who had arrested him, dunking him in the college trough. They then decided to storm Newgate Prison (which was known as the Black Dog), and were joined in the process by a city mob. The prison guards fired on them and two of the mob were killed. For their troubles, four of the ringleaders were expelled from Trinity; Goldsmith was lucky merely to be disciplined.
From “The good die young: the wild times of Oliver Goldsmith” by Colin Murphy in the Irish Independent (18 May 2014).
The Black Dog riot took place on 21st May 1747. Goldsmith was disciplined for his part in it as the piece mentions. It has been suggested that Edmund Burke was also there and that a passage in Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) refers to the experience of being in the riot and being drawn to identify with the emotions of the crowd:
The shouting of multitudes has a similar effect; and by the sole strength of the sound, so amazes and confounds the imagination, that in this staggering, and hurry of the mind, the best established tempers can scarcely forbear being bor[n]e down, and joining in the common cry, and common resolution of the croud.
The inaugural Annual Edmund Burke Lecture delivered by Baroness Onora O’Neill as part of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, 22 April 2014
From My Favourite Political Thinker series on Daily Politics. Giles Dilnot talks to Jesse Norman about Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, who shaped the UK politics of today according to Norman.
Burke died in 1797. His legacy has been hotly contested. In Edmund Burke in America, the historian Drew Maciag charts the use of Burke by US intellectuals. “Burke will be heard to say whatever needs to be said,” he argues. This is especially true of the past few decades. Neo-conservatives have used his anti-Jacobinism to call for strong military action in the cold war and after 9/11. Religious conservatives have cited Burke’s belief in Providence. Others, foreshadowing the Tea Party, have sought to parallel his reverence for the unwritten English constitution and the Glorious Revolution with theirs for the US constitution and the wars of independence.
In Maciag’s telling, Burke has been abused by American rightwing thinkers. His conservatism ends up appearing kaleidoscopic. Maciag implies that if the father of modern conservatism has spawned such diverse offspring, it makes no sense to think of a single, identifiable “conservatism”.
John McDermott’s “Burke & Sons” (Financial Times) goes further than a simple review however, briefly exploring to what extent Burke can be said to be the father of a thing called conservatism, touching on Maciag, Corey Robin and today’s UK politics on the way.