Lecture given as part of the course “Ireland in Rebellion: 1782-1916” delivered by Prof. Patrick Geoghegan, Department of History, Trinity College Dublin. (11 mins)
It is this inability to wrestle with difficulty which has obliged the arbitrary Assembly of France to commence their schemes of reform with abolition and total destruction. But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. The shallowest understanding, the rudest hand, is more than equal to that task. Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together.
Edmund Burke (1790/2014) Reflections on the Revolution in France, University of Adelaide (online). Emphasis added.
The Reflections were published on this day in 1790.
Conservatism is a disposition, not a political doctrine. It is difficult to avoid this implication in statements such as that of Robert Michels (in 1930, as quoted by Richard Bourke) “The Bolsheviks of today are as conservative as the Tsarists of yesterday”. As Bourke points out, “one conserves relative to opposing positions that seem to bring about unwelcome change”1
But if this is the case, why and when did Edmund Burke come to be associated with conservative thought in general, and the British Conservative Party in particular? This happened, as Emily Jones has shown, much later than many would think.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Burke was admired more by liberals than by conservatives. Whigs knew him as the man who provided the party manual, the Thoughts on the cause of the present discontents (1770), but also as the man who split the party. The Tories approved of his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) but were deeply aware of his Whig status. “His political legacy was thus divided between Whig exaltation of earlier texts, and Tory adulation of Reflections.” 2
The common law, as it then prevailed in England, was in a great measure composed of some remnants of the old Saxon customs, joined to the feudal institutions brought in at the Norman Conquest. And it is here to be observed, that the constitutions of Magna Charta are by no means a renewal of the laws of St. Edward, or the ancient Saxon laws, as our historians and lawwriters generally, though very groundlessly, assert. They bear no resemblance, in any particular, to the laws of St. Edward, or to any other collection of these ancient institutions. Indeed, how should they? The object of Magna Charta is the correction of the feudal policy, which was first introduced, at least in any regular form, at the Conquest, and did not subsist before it. It may be further observed, that in the preamble to the great charter it is stipulated that the barons shall hold the liberties there granted to them and their heirs, from the king and his heirs; which shows that the doctrine of an unalienable tenure was always uppermost in their minds. Their idea even of liberty was not (if I may use the expression) perfectly free; and they did not claim to possess their privileges upon any natural principle or independent bottom, but just as they held their lands from the king. […]
All these were marks of a real and grievous servitude. The great charter was made not to destroy the root, but to cut short the overgrown branches of the feudal service[.]
Edmund Burke An Essay towards an Abridgement of English History, written between 1757 and c. 1763. From Edmund Burke (1852) The Works and Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, in Eight Volumes, Vol. IV, London: F. & J. Rivington, pp. 358-9 (Google Books)
“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.