The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence

Overview

David Bromwich?s portrait of statesman Edmund Burke (1730?1797) is the first biography to attend to the complexity of Burke?s thought as it emerges in both the major writings and private correspondence. The public and private writings cannot be easily dissociated, nor should they be. For Burke?a thinker, writer, and politician?the principles of politics were merely those of morality enlarged. Bromwich reads Burke?s career as an imperfect attempt to organize an honorable life in ...

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Overview

David Bromwich’s portrait of statesman Edmund Burke (1730–1797) is the first biography to attend to the complexity of Burke’s thought as it emerges in both the major writings and private correspondence. The public and private writings cannot be easily dissociated, nor should they be. For Burke—a thinker, writer, and politician—the principles of politics were merely those of morality enlarged. Bromwich reads Burke’s career as an imperfect attempt to organize an honorable life in the dense medium he knew politics to be.

This intellectual biography examines the first three decades of Burke’s professional life. His protest against the cruelties of English society and his criticism of all unchecked power laid the groundwork for his later attacks on abuses of government in India, Ireland, and France. Bromwich allows us to see the youthful skeptic, wary of a social contract based on “nature”; the theorist of love and fear in relation to “the sublime and beautiful”; the advocate of civil liberty, even in the face of civil disorder; the architect of economic reform; and the agitator for peace with America. However multiple and various Burke’s campaigns, a single-mindedness of commitment always drove him.

Burke is commonly seen as the father of modern conservatism. Bromwich reveals the matter to be far more subtle and interesting. Burke was a defender of the rights of disfranchised minorities and an opponent of militarism. His politics diverge from those of any modern party, but all parties would be wiser for acquaintance with his writing and thoughts.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Daniel McCarthy
Bromwich…gives us a figure who may be unknown to readers familiar with Burke only from Reflections on the Revolution in France or his reputation as modern conservatism's founding father…This is no conventional biography…Ideas, rather than personal events, are Bromwich's focus…Burke's enlightened humanity and his intricate understanding of power, make him well deserving of the extensive treatment he has lately received—and especially of the justice David Bromwich has rendered him in showing Edmund Burke in the most unexpected of lights.
London Review of Books - Ferdinand Mount
It is David Bromwich’s aim in The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke that people should know a good deal more about what Burke actually said and wrote…Bromwich’s patient and subtle exposition is a continuing delight. After reading this first volume, several major misreadings of Burke and a more general ignorance of his arguments and actions will not be possible, or at any rate won’t be legitimate…The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is both indispensable and unputdownable, and with its companion volume will surely form a lasting landmark.
New York Times Book Review - Daniel McCarthy
[Bromwich] gives us a figure who may be unknown to readers familiar with Burke only from ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ or his reputation as modern conservatism’s founding father. Bromwich’s Burke is one for whom ‘ordinary feelings such as trust, though they have a Christian correlative, themselves supply a sufficient groundwork of moral conduct.’ Burke is moved more by a universal sympathy for human struggle than by religion or patriotism… Though his attention throughout is on Burke’s moral psychology, Bromwich also highlights the literary character of his thought, including his debts to Milton and Shakespeare… In Burke’s politics there was room alike for elite rule and street demonstrations of the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street variety. This balance of familiar and strange, Burke’s enlightened humanity and his intricate understanding of power, make him well deserving of the extensive treatment he has lately received—and especially of the justice David Bromwich has rendered him in showing Edmund Burke in the most unexpected of lights.
Linda Colley
Edmund Burke was famed for weaving into arguments like a serpent; David Bromwich displays equal finesse, skill, and relentlessness in moving through the complexities and sheer volume of Burke's writings. The drive, fluency, and intelligence of Bromwich's analysis allow the reader to see Burke as that rare animal, a prime thinker who was also a practicing politician, a man caught up in a time when both varieties of democracy and new forms of empire were violently and contentiously on the rise.
Peter Marshall
The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke shows, in a very enlightening way, how Burke returns over and over to the theme of the relations between a politician and 'the people' and the gradual hardening of his insistence that while popular views must be taken account of, they must not determine how a conscientious politician acts. Bromwich reads Burke with care and depth and displays a range of learning and insights. His approach to Burke as a moralist in public life is original.
Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
Magnificent…Bromwich masters and then mines [the copious private correspondence] with a degree of skill and discrimination I haven’t seen in a Burkean study since the late 1970s…The sheer, marvelous plenitude of the material Bromwich brings into his narrative quickly broadens the story to take in the full ambit of Burke’s public intellectualism…Bromwich thoroughly understands how clearly the man is revealed in his writing, and one of the greatest pleasures in The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is the regularity with which we get chunks of Burke’s own intensely good prose. The man was a tireless student of human nature and one of the sharpest observers of man the political animal since Tacitus. And his descriptions of political creatures are uniformly so perceptive that any 21st century [reader] will find them instantly recognizable…Bromwich might not be doing the standard finances-and-family run-through of a biography, but he nevertheless ends up painting as vivid a personal portrait as any biography-reader could want…[An] irreplaceable study, which inadvertently underscores the disquieting extent to which we are all living in a political continuum of Burke’s shaping. When this volume is completed by its sequel, we’ll have a benchmark of Burke studies fit to last a century.
Chronicle of Higher Education - Drew Maciag
Magisterial… It is the best in-depth, comprehensive recent analysis of Burke’s thought—plus it is an enjoyable read… Bromwich’s work reveals a Burke who is politically principled and (more or less) philosophically consistent, but who does not conform conveniently to our present-day conceptions of right or left.
Christian Science Monitor - Anthony Domestico
All good biographies are called magisterial, but David Bromwich’s The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence actually merits the adjective. Edmund Burke was a rare figure: a working politician who was also one of the great thinkers of his, or any, time… Bromwich’s book, the first in a two-part biography, does justice to both the politics and the thought, showing how Burke’s principles—a hatred of violence and a love of liberty—emerged from political and historical circumstances. Meticulous in its research and elegant in style, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is a masterpiece of intellectual history.
Wall Street Journal - William Anthony Hay
In The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, David Bromwich sets aside the conventional views of Burke—the eloquent opponent of radical ideology—to track the formation of his outlook and explore his early career… The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke most of all reminds us that Burke’s understanding of the moral psychology guiding politics sprang from his engagement with both ideas and practical questions. Certainly a better grasp of Burke’s early thought and the political turmoil of his time will prepare us for a fuller understanding of his response to the dramatic events of the late 18th century—not least, the outbreak of the revolution in France and the implications Burke saw for England and for liberty itself.
Standpoint - David Womersley
Probing and subtle…Helps us glimpse the sources of Burke’s surprising longevity… Bromwich’s Burke is not the evasive pragmatist who has been conscripted as the founding father of conservatism… Bromwich’s biography promises to be the fullest and most responsibly sensitive account of both Burke’s consistency and his ductility that we will ever have.
The Economist
[A] recent biographer of Burke calls him the father of conservatism. So a reappraisal of his early works is welcome. David Bromwich, a professor at Yale University, has written a history of Burke’s thought until American independence; a more liberal Burke emerges from this book…Burke continued to fight for liberty later

on in life. He backed Americans in their campaign for freedom from British taxation. He supported Catholic freedoms and freer trade with Ireland, in spite of his constituents’ ire. He wanted more liberal laws on the punishment of debtors. He even pushed to curb the slave trade in 1780, a quarter of a century before it was abolished.

Library Journal
04/15/2014
The 18th-century Anglo-Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke (1729–97) has been called "the father of modern conservatism," largely because of his opposition to the French Revolution. However, Bromwich (Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic), in this new intellectual biography that covers the first three decades of Burke's professional life, sees his subject's work as more nuanced and complex. Drawing on Burke's correspondence, as well as his public writings and speeches, Bromwich presents the portrait of a serious thinker who cannot be easily categorized as either conservative or liberal—Burke spoke out about abuse of power, even supporting the American colonies, yet at times seemed to distrust democracy. The author focuses primarily on Burke's work, supplying just enough biographical details to provide context, resulting in many quotations with in-depth explication. This approach is especially successful in the chapter featuring "The Sublime and Beautiful," the 1857 treatise on aesthetics that reveals Burke's exceptional rhetorical abilities. VERDICT Bromwich has brought his considerable research and writing skills together to present a readable, thorough picture of Burke's earlier years. Recommended primarily for Burke students and scholars.—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674729704
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 5/6/2014
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 68,885
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University.

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