Over the weekend there have been a number of reviews for this book.
Burke (1729-1797) is celebrated as “both the greatest and most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years”. A hybrid of Protestant, Irish and Quaker ideals led him to fight against both Catholic and American oppression, and later in England against corporate power and an over-mighty state, while remaining a fierce opponent of the French Revolution and tyranny.
In The New Statesman, John Grey is reviewing.
While theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and, later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought social institutions could be rebuilt on the basis of a set of principles, for Burke, institutions are the basis of our knowledge of society. His key insight was not that applying principles with strict consistency is destructive in politics, though he believed this to be the case. For him, principles were abstractions constructed from practical life, which meant participation in institutions. Giving priority to abstractions is inherently destructive because it gets things the wrong way round: principles have no authority aside from practice, he believed.
[Burke] is not a libertarian or liberal, but a conservative. Neither is he a neoconservative – the practitioners in the Iraq war failed to understand the “temper” of the people (in the original sense of the word). Nor is he an American theoconservative, with its attendant claims to moral superiority.
Jesse Norman, a Conservative MP, is transparent about his intentions: he aspires to present Burke, the great 18th-century statesman and thinker who was fortunate enough to live in interesting times, as a far-sighted prophet who spoke truth to power. Norman suggests that Burke’s political philosophies should be revived, presumably for the same political purposes as those of economist Adam Smith, who is currently being promoted as relevant to our times and troubles.
The Sunday Times has a piece (paywalled) by David Goodhart, arguing that it isn’t just the right who should be championing Burke.
Part of the pleasure of Burke’s brilliant prose is its invocation of ideas of honour, loyalty, duty and wisdom – old-fashioned words that resonate much less in our thinking than they once did. Unwisely, I think, Burke is here transposed into the language of contemporary social science. We do indeed learn something about politics, but we rather lose Burke. Part of Norman’s argument is that Burke was right to emphasise the social aspect of emotion in humans as much as the individualist aspect of reason. Burke turns out to be ‘postmodern’ in his advocacy of the importance of what social scientists (such as Robert Putnam) today call ‘social capital’. This expression translates virtues into sociology so that social scientists might not be suspected of indulging in moral talk. But Burke’s thought is deeply moral.