Watching the NCAA Final Four with my teenage boys some years ago, I began to lament the vanity of human wishes. “Just think, boys, this game is the high point of life for many of the athletes on the floor.” “That’s right, Dad,” replied the older. “They’re never going to give a lecture on Edmund Burke or write an article on Edmund Burke. All they’re going to do is lead their team to a national championship in front of 50 million people.”
Well! Even if there are fewer than 50 million of you, I feel immensely privileged to write about David Bromwich on Edmund Burke. This excellent book by the Sterling Professor of English at Yale University shows that Burke’s writing continues to illuminate controversies down to our own age. All of us could wish for Burke’s ability to speak long after “the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.”
That phrase, from Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), reminds us of Burke’s style: simultaneously brusque and elegant, both authoritative and self-aware. His perspective is long, famously embracing “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Unlike his great antagonist Thomas Paine, and also unlike Thomas Jefferson, for whom John Locke’s social contract justified the political sovereignty of each generation, Burke saw society as a partnership in an eternal, providential order. This opened his imagination to the relevance of history and ancient literature in a way that drew scorn from Paine. For an excellent literary critic like Bromwich, however, Burke’s imagination resembles that of Shakespeare, in its fecundity and its grasp of humanity’s fascination with power.
The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence is the first of a projected two-volume intellectual biography. Bromwich’s emphasis is on careful readings of Burke’s pamphlets, his speeches, and (a particular strength of this work) his correspondence. As an analysis of Burke’s mind, it does less to place Burke’s thought in the context of his reading, conversation, and other contemporary influences—not that these are neglected. In the chapters on American independence, for instance, Bromwich explains Burke’s sympathetic reading of American political statements and analyzes Josiah Tucker’s critique of Burke’s 1775 Speech on Conciliation. Burke emerges as a political man of action and of letters—loyal to aristocratic values, yet sensitive to how power can harm the most vulnerable; a hater of war and lover of liberty who had to choose the lesser evil in the great crises of his day; a man of integrity and sincerity in a political world filled with bribery and unstable alliances.
The reader who wants a fuller context for Burke’s life and writings will need to consult Fred Lock’s masterful two-volume work, Edmund Burke (1999, 2006), which teems with 18th century life. The difference between Lock and Bromwich may be illustrated by the way each treats Burke’s early aesthetic work, A Philosophical Enquiry into . . . the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). This work, revised in 1759 and reprinted many times, influenced subsequent literary criticism, landscape architecture, and aesthetic theory through Immanuel Kant and William Wordsworth.
Lock and Bromwich agree that it is primarily a psychological work that describes the mind’s affective responses to beauty and to the experiences of terror, fear, and awe that are encompassed by “the sublime.” They agree that, like David Hume, Burke thought human nature showed the priority of feeling over thought, and of passion over reason. Lock maintains that Burke’s Sublime and Beautiful insists upon a providential design in the human response to the sublime and beautiful. By contrast, Bromwich speculates that Burke sounds like one who “stands outside of religion,” and he pointedly remarks Burke’s “strange apparent indifference to revealed truth.”
Here I think Lock has the better analysis. I don’t see how a writer with Burke’s integrity could have later exclaimed, “He who fears God fears nothing else” if he stood outside of religion. But the main difference between these books is in their method. Lock typically traces the course of 18th century debates on various subjects and places Burke’s work in that context. He thus illuminates Burke’s reliance upon the psychological categories of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), his rejection of Frances Hutcheson’s attempts to reconcile beauty and virtue, and his intellectual interactions with William Hogarth, Robert Lowth (on Hebrew poetry), and a score of lesser known figures. Bromwich needn’t re-tread this ground. His purpose is to give a portrait of Burke’s developing mind, and he executes it by extended analyses of Burke’s major writings. Despite my occasional reservations, it is a compelling portrait indeed, with ideas from Burke’s early works resurfacing throughout.
In his analysis of the Sublime and Beautiful, Bromwich maintains that Burke thought the universal fascination with terror, pain, power, and chaos could never be fully explained. It could never be domesticated to a didactic theory of art. Why are we drawn to these triggers of the sublime, Burke asked? However sympathetically Don Corleone is portrayed, we wouldn’t actually choose to carry out the Godfather’s orders (would we?). We wouldn’t choose to suffer what Cormac McCarthy’s characters suffer, or to die at the real barricades of 1832 with Victor Hugo’s miserable ones. Why do we choose to see or read about such enormities?
Unlike Kant, who found an answering nobility in human reason, or Wordsworth, who found its correspondence in his imagination, Burke doesn’t answer the question. He identified our “irreducible sympathy with power,” writes Bromwich, and his writing on the sublime offers at best an “admonition” to our conscience, not “a guide to virtuous conduct.” This is careful, rewarding analysis, and it invites a rereading of Burke.
The Sublime and Beautiful prepares the way for several major themes in Burke’s writings. First, authority rests on opinion. In the Sublime and Beautiful, it is the affective registration of powerful or terrifying objects that makes them sublime—not the objects themselves. Burke’s is an expressive approach to art, quite different from the mimetic theory of his friend Samuel Johnson. “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature,” Johnson declares near the beginning of his Preface to Shakespeare (1765). Johnson emphasizes the elements that are commonly true (or “general”) for all people.
Burke, by contrast, emphasizes what individuals experience as powerful. Later, in 1777, Burke expresses a sociopolitical version of this same view: “the only firm seat of all authority is in the minds, affections, and Interests of the People.” Note that he does not say, even in 1777, that political authority rests on a government’s fulfillment of a social contract by protecting natural rights. The latter approach “could only have seemed to Burke a spur to contestation,” writes Bromwich. As just such “contestation” accelerated in the era of the French Revolution, Burke became even more aware of the social fragility of political authority and the tragic possibilities of losing the consensus that upheld it. From beginning to end, he was preoccupied with humanity’s sympathy with power, whether for good or ill.
A second theme comes in the aphorism, “Art is man’s nature.” The phrase is found in Burke’s 1791 Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, but (as Bromwich recognizes) it is implicit in all his work. By “art,” Burke means something like “artifice” or even “social construction,” as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann originally used the phrase in 1967, before postmodern usage altered it to imply what is arbitrary or irrational or unnatural. In the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke distinguishes between what we experience in art and what we experience in life. But he knows that the line is unstable and porous. There is no aesthetic detachment in this early work, as Bromwich notes. The English word “aesthetic,” to describe the experience of beauty without regard to its ethical, social, or practical value, didn’t come into use until the 19th century.
Indeed, one of the chief attractions of Burke’s imagination, in my view, is his effort to unify the literary with the political, the past with the present, the social with the natural. Paine ridiculed this aspect of Burke’s writing as mere theater and spectacle, maintaining that a closer attention to facts would produce agreement over the French Revolution. But Burke embraced the theater and the sympathies it evokes. He considered theater a “school of moral sentiments” and politics a dramatic art. To his friend Philip Francis, who scoffed at his lament for the fall of Marie Antoinette, Burke replied, “The minds of those who do not feel [pity for her] are not even dramatically right.”
These two themes contribute to a third, also found in the Sublime and Beautiful, which emphasizes the shaping power of human affections and sympathies. I’m not using these terms with technical precision. Nor did Burke. They denote the superior power of the sentiments (to introduce yet another term) over rationality, as Enlightenment thinkers were defining it. “We yield to sympathy what we refuse to description,” Burke writes.
Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, also published in 1759, introduced the notion of an impartial spectator whose sympathies would impart moral guidance. In the generation after Burke’s death, the novels of Jane Austen would give her characters moral and psychological depth by attending to such sentiments. Given the manifest power of our affections and sympathies, their origins and development—whether in school, in church, in the family, or through experiencing works of theater—were of profound moral and political significance to Burke. It’s worth asking why those who supported the French Revolution failed to match the imaginative strength of Burke’s critique. The answer is that he sympathized with its power as deeply as they did, but his greater imaginative skill gave that power a more potent aspect. As Novalis wrote at the time, Burke wrote a revolutionary book against the revolution.
Bromwich helps us see that Burke’s sublime “can never be brought under the survey of reason.” Its nature is to overwhelm and disrupt. But I part company with him when he maintains that Burke’s “idea of the sublime cannot be incorporated with society in any way” and its theories are “discontinuous with … much of Burke’s later writing.” Burke’s theory does not preclude a choice between better and worse ways of triggering the sublime and beautiful. His writings and speeches bear witness to his own choices.
One of the chief assumptions of Burke is that rationality is limited—as shown by the sublime; by revealed religion; and by customary wisdom (or “prejudice,” to use Burke’s term). “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason,” he wrote, “because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.”
Not surprisingly, the highest political virtue for Burke is prudence—practical wisdom, if you like. “History is a preceptor of Prudence not of principles,” he writes. And why is prudence the highest virtue? Because it alone is able to discern the limits to reason and apply constitutional restraints when the limits to rational principles are reached. The noblest work of political prudence for Burke is the British constitution, and I imagine it will assume a greater role in Bromwich’s second volume and his treatment of Burke’s writings on India and France.
Bromwich’s book ends in the year 1782 with the death of Lord Rockingham, the Whig leader who saw Burke’s talent in 1765 and arranged for his entry into Parliament. From that point, Burke quickly became the administration’s intellectual and rhetorical leader. The Seven Years’ War with France had just ended and the Stamp Act Crisis in America was underway. Burke responded to Rockingham’s trust with the personal loyalty for friends and associates—Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Windham, French Laurence, and a few others—that marked his entire life.
Beyond this, Burke responded to the parliamentary impasse of 1768-69 with the first comprehensive defense of modern political parties. The ruling Tory majority had denied a seat in the House of Commons to an elected Whig member for Middlesex, John Wilkes, because of a long-running dispute over Wilkes’ political writings. Wilkes was a scoundrel and a demagogue, but the king and the Tory government used heavy-handed tactics to silence him and charge him with seditious libel. His cause was quickly enmeshed with the rights of American colonial assemblies and with Britons’ right to choose their parliamentary representative. Burke, without endorsing Wilkes’s mode of politics, supported his constitutional right to a seat and, more importantly, produced his defense of party government, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770). In the process, Burke’s found his vocation in political action and writing.
Like so many of Bromwich’s chapters, this one is strikingly relevant to our world. We know that the American Founders were cool to political parties, considering them little more than factions until after the election of 1800. Today we take for granted that a free government must encourage the free development of political parties—despite the unseemly hand-wringing over how difficult it is for thoughtful people like ourselves to find a place in them. In the 18th century, party politics were considered tantamount to disloyalty to the crown.
As Harvey Mansfield explained so well in Statesmanship and Party Government (1965)—about which Law and Liberty held an informative symposium two years ago—Burke was responding to the Tory slogan, “not men, but measures.” The slogan was meant to denigrate party politics by highlighting the superiority of political ideas to politicians themselves. Hogwash. What really matters is to develop a system in which political ambition and the individual vanity of political actors are curbed. Only then may legitimate political ideas may be debated in a civil, effective manner.
Burke’s solution was to take party politics out of the shadow of faction or disloyalty to the king and make it legitimate: “Party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Note how he balances “principle” against “the good of the nation.” In America, the two great principles are liberty (more associated with Republicans) and equality (more associated with Democrats). It’s up for debate, which is most needed for the good of the nation at any given time. But for the debate to be effective, the parties need to act in a body, and when individual members disagree they must subordinate their temporary disagreements to the “joint endeavours” of the party. Otherwise politics deteriorates into the cult of the great man, political bargaining, and egotism. After the current election cycle, let us hope some of our leaders take heed.
The characteristic strengths of Bromwich’s book, on display in his treatment of party, are three-fold: to explain the immediate political context (the Wilkes crisis); to demonstrate the continuing significance of the issue (why party government is still needed); and to show key developments of Burke’s thought. In this case, he adumbrates Burke’s developing political conviction that the people are always the best judges of their own oppression—“so much so that we ought to fear any power on earth that sets itself above them”—but they should not be considered policy advisors. This principle continued to inform Burke’s approach to Ireland and Catholic Emancipation. It will be interesting to see how Bromwich applies it to Burke’s writing on the French Revolution in his next volume.
Among the other guiding principles that Bromwich discerns is his subject’s conviction that “the principles of true politicks are those of morality enlarged.” Writes Bromwich:
What gave force to his utterance and actions was an impression of continuous sincerity… [A] single-minded commitment always drove him; and in looking back, we can see clearly a trait that distinguishes him from other politicians. This is the fit between his private and his public views.
This trait guided Burke’s opposition to anti-Catholic sentiment in the Gordon Riots (1780) and his efforts the same year to draft a “Sketch of the Negro Code” for the gradual emancipation of West Indian slaves. It motivated Burke to assert his responsibility, as a Member of Parliament, to represent the national interest at the expense of the temporary interests of the Bristol constituents who had elected him. “You choose a member indeed,” he told them in 1774, “but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament” (emphasis in original). Six years later, this principle cost him the election, and Rockingham had to install him in a pocket borough.
Combined with Burke’s integrity, “morality writ large” established an appealing unity in his life. But it also seemed to require Burke to live in perpetual opposition. As Bromwich notes several times, Burke said he was “made for opposition.” He doesn’t get frustrated, as did Fred Lock, with Burke’s defensiveness and inability to consider himself in the wrong. But he hints that he’ll find writing the second volume less enjoyable, for he states that the years 1777 to 1783 are the happiest years for an admirer of Burke to contemplate.
After the end of the Cold War, debate over the relevance of Burke’s anti-revolutionary writings to communism faded away. Burke did not. There was renewed interest in his aesthetic theory. Then in 2000, Bromwich published a collection of Burke’s speeches and letters that shed new light on the international responsibilities of a superpower (On Empire, Liberty, and Reform). More recently, the polarization of Left and Right has given rise to Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (2014). Now, in this intellectual biography, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have caused Bromwich to reflect on Burke’s opposition to Britain’s far-flung war with the American colonies.
Burke was skeptical of Britain’s ability to project power. He warned of the unforeseen pressures that war places on civil liberties and constitutional government. And he lamented the effect of such wars on the national character. Consider this passage from Burke’s Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol (1777), where he protests the suspension of habeas corpus for the American colonists:
Partial freedom seems to me a most invidious mode of slavery. But unfortunately it is the kind of slavery the most easily admitted in times of civil discord . . . People without much difficulty admit the entrance of that injustice of which they are not to be the immediate victims.
Bromwich comments that the worst harms of war “are never immediately apparent—a weakening of the belief in justice that operates without violence, and a degradation of feelings in those who have come to confuse justice with retaliation.” Or, to quote from Burke’s Letter again, “War suspends the rules of moral obligation,” and “civil wars”—like the war with America—“strike deepest of all into the manners of the people.”
When people ask if I get tired of teaching many of the same things, my response is that things are never the same. Changing international responsibilities, new experiences of war and its effect on our national character, the ominous alternatives to party government—those sound like pretty good reasons to continue teaching Edmund Burke. Especially with guides like David Bromwich.