A Genius Reconsidered
By Russell Kirk
ISI Books Copyright © 2009 Intercollegiate Studies Institute
All rights reserved.
How Dead Is Burke?
In College Green, at the gate of Trinity College, near the heart of Dublin, stand the handsome statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith. Though these contemporaries were graduates of Trinity, and very Irish after their fashion, their lives were spent principally in London. "The noblest prospect a Scotchman ever sees is the high road which leads him to England," said Samuel Johnson, a friend to both these Irishmen. This was as true, in the eighteenth century, of the Irish.
In a house—thoughtfully demolished some years ago—on Arran Quay, only a few minutes' walk from Trinity College, Edmund Burke was born on January 12, 1729. He may have been baptized in the medieval church of St. Michan, nearby. Dublin then was rising toward the height of its prosperity and fame, although in Burke's childhood those great Georgian buildings the Four Courts and the Custom House had not yet been erected beside the River Liffey. Charming Georgian Dublin, built mostly in Burke's own lifetime, stood virtually intact until recent years, but now is decayed into a howling slum or is being pulled down by Philistine public authorities and tasteless "improvers." Much else that the reforming conservative loved has gone by the board.
Even though he was the son of a successful lawyer, connected with Irish county families, no one could have expected, in 1729, the eminence which this boy would attain. It was an age of aristocracy, which the Tory statesman and philosopher Bolingbroke hoped would be dominated by men of "aristocratic virtue" influenced by humane learning. Relatively obscure, the Burkes were provincial, and not rich. This boy, it turned out, was a being of genius; yet, as he wrote near the end of his course:
At every step of my progress in life (for in every step was I traversed and opposed), and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to shew my passport, and again and again to prove my sole title to the honor of being useful to my country, by a proof that I was not wholly unacquainted with its laws, and the whole system of its interests both abroad and at home. Otherwise no rank, no toleration even, for me.
Like many Irish couples of that time, the elder Burkes had entered into a "mixed marriage," Edmund's father being a member of the Church of Ireland—an Anglican, that is—and his mother a Catholic. With his two brothers, Edmund was reared as an Anglican; while his sister, Juliana, brought up in the "old profession," remained all her life an ardent Catholic. One of Burke's chief endeavors in Parliament, half a century later, was to effect the amendment of the "Penal Laws" that weighed down Irish Catholics. Burke's early career was hampered somewhat by the suspicion of the Whig Duke of Newcastle, and others, that the rising young man was a secret Papist, or even a Jesuit in disguise—and political caricaturists later sometimes draped him in a Jesuit habit.
Despite these impediments, Edmund Burke was to become the most interesting of British political philosophers, one of the greatest of modern rhetoricians, the principal intellectual leader of the Whig party, and the most formidable opponent of the French Revolution and of "armed doctrine" generally. He drew up, in the phrase of Harold Laski, "the permanent manual of political wisdom without which statesmen are as sailors on an uncharted sea."
Burke became a public man. Little mentioned in the many volumes of his letters, his private life is sufficiently obscure, for he labored incessantly as a practical politician, with slight leisure for epistolary pleasantries; also, while very young, he remarked that it is well to tell the world no more of one's self than the world must know. The biographer, therefore, patches together as best he may the fragments which distinguish Burke the man from Burke the leader of party and Burke the philosopher. And it is, after all, the public Burke who matters. This short biography is chiefly an account, then, of a "new man" who by power of intellect and remarkable diligence rose to distinction in his time and to influence long thereafter. Burke's private life—aside from the frustrated schemes of his kinsmen—was exemplary but unexciting; Burke's public life shows us the process by which, through experience of the world and through the life of the mind, an Irish writer and political partisan made of himself one of the wisest men ever to meditate upon the civil social order.
As a practical politician, Burke did not succeed conspicuously. During the larger part of his career, he stood among the opposition—stood grandly, but out of office. In the hour of his death, 1797—"a terrible moment in the history of England and of Europe," as John Morley wrote—he beheld the triumph of his denunciations of the Revolution in France, but only a triumph of dubious battle. The passing of a mere half-century was to bring the Communist Manifesto. And from the day of his death onward, historians have recorded the effacing, in much of the world, of that order governed by what Burke described as the spirit of religion, and the spirit of a gentleman.
But Burke was more than a party leader and a man of his time. As the champion of what T. S. Eliot called "the permanent things," Burke did not fail, nor is he archaic. He speaks to our age.
Before the middle of this century, however, Burke was little more than recorded, respected, ignored. John Morley had predicted, in 1888, "It seems probable that he will be more frequently and more seriously referred to within the next twenty years than he has been within the whole of the last eighty." This did not come to pass—not then. Twenty-five years later, Paul Elmer More stated that Morley had been in error; and not until 1949 was a revival of strong interest in Burke discernible.
In that year, a scholar of German upbringing remarked to this writer that among educated men in the United States existed a curious ignorance of Burke—who, with his power of style, the varied aspects of his genius, and the breadth of his intellect, might be supposed to attract the attention of those circles that pride themselves upon their grasp of modern thought; and my German friend attributed this condition to a vague popular impression that Burke "had been wrong about France" and somehow was not quite the reading for a liberal. Just then, "liberal" was the word for conjurers in the American groves of Academe.
Yet by 1950, Mr. Lionel Trilling expressed doubts of the efficacy of liberal concepts, and Mr. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., confessed, "We find Burke more satisfying today than Paine, Hamilton or Adams than Jefferson, Calhoun than Clay or Webster." Since then, Burke has been re-discovered. A score of scholarly studies, some of them specialized, have dealt with him. Popularly, and by politicians, he is mentioned and quoted more frequently than he had been in all the interval since 1832. We are even told of an eccentric in the Bowery passing out cards with the legend "Burke saves."
The rising generation, to which Burke appealed at the conclusion of his prosecution of Warren Hastings, has found him anew. Prejudice, interest, and conscience have informed much of the American public that Burke should be read; his name is known again in Europe, too, and even in Africa. The young people who browse in bookshops look for Burke now; and even American and English professors admit that he is of an interest more than antiquarian.
Paradoxically, the resurrection of Burke is a product of modern discontents. Uncertain of the dogmas of liberalism (which Santayana knew for a mere transitory phase), disillusioned with Giant Ideology, the modern serious public is willing to give Burke a hearing. Burke's ideas interest nearly anyone nowadays, including men bitterly dissenting from his conclusions. If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone; and if radicals wish to test the temper of their opposition, they should turn to Burke. Having done this, some conservatives may find that their previous footing was insecure; while some radicals may acknowledge that the position of traditionalists is tenable, or that Burke, too, was a liberal—if liberalism be in any degree associated with ordered freedom.
At a New York club, about 1913, Paul Elmer More happened to mention Burke's name; and a companion inquired, "Burke? He's dead, is he not?" In spirit, Burke is stirring once more. Some there are who wish Burke were immured forever in his tomb. Some years ago, a British scholar professed his sorrow that, in America today, "Burke is being used for political purposes." This gentleman would prefer to keep Burke as a kind of cadaver, out of which doctoral dissertations might be carved. (Burke himself, one may remark, would have been amused and vexed at the notion that a dead master of politics never should influence the living: as statesman and as rhetorician, he intended his speeches and writings for immediate use—and for use by the rising generation and by posterity, if useful they might be found. The closet theoretician, the abstract metaphysician, the "drydocked" scholar, Burke cordially detested.)
Burke expected to be disinterred—though not, perhaps, after the fashion in which he has been raised up in the latter half of the twentieth century. Fearing that triumphant Jacobins would treat his corpse as Cromwell's had been dishonored at the Restoration—that his head and limbs might be impaled on some Temple Bar—he left instruction for his body to be buried secretly, somewhere in Beaconsfield church or churchyard, and to this day no man knows the precise spot where Burke lies.
Yet Burke has been invoked in all honor, because he is one of those giants who (in the phrase of the medieval Schoolmen) support us upon their shoulders, one of those dead who walk. Burke endures as part of a great continuity and essence. He offers an alternative to the dreary doctrines of ideology in the mass age.
During the era from Burke's last years to our rough hour, the kaleidoscope of history has suffered a catastrophic spin. A decade before Reflections on the Revolution in France came from the press, American troops at Yorktown had greeted Cornwallis with the tune of "The World Turned Upside Down"; and that air, mingling now and then with the "Carmagnole," has been blaring ever since. The stern vaticinations of Burke, which seemed to most nineteenth-century liberals the follies of a deranged old genius, have come to pass: the gods of the copybook headings with terror and slaughter return. Nations dissolving into mere aggregations of individuals, under squalid oligarchs; property reapportion by arbitrary political power; great states ground into powder; the rise of a leveling frenzy—Communism—fierce enough to affright Jacobins; wars far more ruinous than those of the eighteenth century, so that often civilization seems on the brink of dissolution: where has been the divine guidance Burke discerned in history? Perhaps it could have been understood as the punishment of disobedience: "The Lord made all things for Himself—yea, even the wicked for the day of evil."
Our age has experienced the disintegration of the notion of irresistible social progress—vanished in a vortex of atomic waste. "It's not a question of whether you believe Communism is right," an acquaintance of mine used to say, "it's simply that you have to go along with the stream." But after this quasi-Hegelian dictum he would hesitate oddly, as if some doubt had crept in—perhaps the reflection that "even the weariest river winds"—why, to the great deep. If the "Progress" of the Enlighteners has led to a precipice above a silent sea—and such quavers as my friend's have become more frequent—it may be time to conserve, rather than to covet. Against the overweening self-confidence of modern man, Burke contended. If ever we are to learn from the past, today we must descend, Ulysses-like, to interrogate the shades; otherwise we may be numbered among them. Burke may be our Tiresias.
Burke was essentially a modern man, and his concern was with our modern perplexities. "The gift of prophecy," a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement remarked some time ago, "Burke possessed in abundance."
Yet no one speaks of an Age of Burke. In literature, we call Burke's period the Age of Johnson; in philosophy and politics, we might call it the Age of Rousseau.
The Age of Rousseau: the era of abstraction, feeling, emancipation, expansion, equality, the people absolute, the kiss bestowed upon the universe, the deity impotent. The system of Burke: prescription, experience, duty, old ties, social gradation, the reign of law, the love engendered by association, the Author of our being omnipotent. Rousseau and Burke stand at the antipodes, despite the curious theory of some writers that they are two peas in a libertarian pod. Though Rousseau cannot be credited, like Burke, with the foundation almost single-handed of a body of political belief, still the movement of which he was the most influential representative can claim the fealty of several devotees for every one of Burke's, perhaps: the romantic gaze of Jean Jacques darts out, at intervals, from behind a variety of masks—the flushed face of Paine, the grim brow of Marx, the pedantic countenance of John Dewey. Indeed, the disciples of Burke himself, in the generation after his death, were the heirs of Rousseau as well—Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth. Let us concede that a knowledge of the mind of Rousseau is as important as an apprehension of Burke's, for any man who would understand our present discontents. Admit this, and ask what other thinker, in Burke's lifetime, equaled him in importance.
Foreseeing a sack of the world by the forces of Chaos and old Night, Burke endeavored to save the best of the traditional order within the barricades of institution and philosophy. He was the first conservative of our time of troubles. He labored to safeguard the permanent things, which have converted the brute into the civil social man. In modern politics, the task of saving begins with Burke. An intelligent critic honestly may believe Burke to be mistaken; but to deny him the gift of remarkable perception is unjust.
In the citadel of tradition and prescription, Burke keeps vigil. Alive or dead? That depends upon the spirit of the age. For one partisan, the warder of the keep may be Giant Despair; for another, Barbarossa awaiting the trump. Young truth lies just under the wrinkled skin of myth; and a trumpet blast still can tumble our modern Jericho. The tocsin in the Faubourg St. Antoine, in 1789, was such a trump. We may hear another.
Burke the reformer was also Burke the conservator. In this era of total revolution, thinking men turn almost by instinct to a man of intellect and political practicality who was at once a sagacious improver and an unyielding opponent of revolution.
Ireland, in Burke's day, supported a population greater than it does now; despite the frequent extreme poverty which Burke lamented and endeavored to ameliorate (even in his college days, when he proposed a special tax upon the incomes of absentee landlords), this was not the Ireland of the Potato Famines. Until the middle of Burke's career, revolution was not in the Irish air. Dublin was a true capital, the home of Dean Swift and other famous men whose influence extended far beyond their native land; Trinity College, Dublin's university founded by Queen Elizabeth, maintained stricter standards than did Oxford or Cambridge. Burke and Goldsmith were only two of many men of talent who grew up in Dublin in the first half of the eighteenth century. It was a period of sanguine hopes, rather than of Celtic twilight.
Yet Burke learnt early to love the older rural Ireland. Bookish and sickly as a child, for five years he was sent for his health to live with his mother's kinsmen the Nagles, Roman Catholics, who possessed an estate at Ballyduff, near Castletown Roche, in County Cork, where the romance of old Ireland entered into his soul. Spenser had written the first part of his Faerie Queene close by, at Kilcolman Castle, ruined by Burke's time. The whole region was called "the Nagle country." Young Edmund went to school in a crumbling fortalice of the old Nagles, Monanimy Castle, where his teacher, O'Halloran, was one of the ancient breed of "philomaths," hedge school-masters, familiar to modern readers through William Butler Yeats' creation Red Hanrahan, "his little inkpot hanging from his neck by a chain, and his big Virgil and his primer in the skirt of his coat." That devotion to classical and medieval literature which Burke felt all his life commenced here among the ruins. Medieval romances began to haunt the boy like a passion.
Immersed in high and practical concerns of state though he became while still young, it is no wonder that Burke, having grown up in such a land, was loyal lifelong to the immemorial ways, to the life of custom, habit, and faith, the traditions of Goldsmith's "Deserted Village"; seeing Castletown Roche, on the Blackwater, even today, one apprehends at a glance Burke's late denunciation of the "sophisters, calculators, and economists" who, he cried, had extinguished the glory of Europe. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Edmund Burke by Russell Kirk. Copyright © 2009 Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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