Burke, Edmund

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Burke, Edmund (1729-1797): Irish Political and Aesthetic Theorist.

A long-time member of the House of Commons, Edmund Burke was the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a classic of modern conservatism, and Philosophic Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1758), which traced aesthetic judgments to feelings of pleasure and pain.

Burke’s mother was Catholic. She wedded a prominent Dublin attorney, who evidently converted to Protestantism only a few years before Edmund was born. Throughout his life Edmund, though ostensibly belonging to the established Anglican church, retained Catholic connections, which were held against him by the British establishment. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, and studied law for a while at Middle Temple in London. He married an Irish Catholic in 1757, and some scholars believe he may have practiced Catholicism during this rather obscure period in his life. He supported his close-knit family through Grub Street journalism, editing a periodical entitled Annual Register from 1758-76.

Burke first gained renown with the publication of A Vindication of Natural Society (1757), which satirized the ideas of Bolingbroke, Henry St. John, Viscount, and the previously mentioned Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. His political career began in the early 1760s, when he joined the staff of William Hamilton, Chief Secretary for Ireland. After a falling out with Hamilton four years later, Burke became an advisor to the eminent Whig leader, Charles Wentworth, Marquis of Rockingham. He joined Johnson, Samuel’s literary club, whose members included Boswell, James, Goldsmith, Oliver, and Smith, Adam, and quickly rose in importance in the Whig hierarchy. In 1765 he gained a seat in the House of Commons, from the “rotten borough” of Wendover. Subsequently he would win, and then lose, election in the district of Bristol, but in all he remained a Member of Parliament for nearly 30 years. He lost the Bristol seat after articulating the view that the M.P. should be a “trustee” for the nation as a whole, rather than an instructed “delegate” serving narrow constituent interests.

Whether on account of his background or his fiery, intemperate manner, Burke was never admitted to the inner circle of Whig leadership. Nevertheless, he remained an active and influential Parliamentarian, famous for denouncing the oppressive regime of the East India Company under Governor-General Warren Hastings and supporting the American colonists in their grievances against George III. He also vigorously championed free trade and religious toleration and opposed the Irish Penal Code’s restriction of Catholic ownership of property, entry into the professions, and public service. Two events in 1789 served to diminish his political power: he lobbied unsuccessfully for a Regent when the King fell ill in 1789, and he broke with Rockingham’s successor, his friend C. James Fox, over whether to support the French Revolution.

As a politician, Burke articulated many of his key ideas in speeches and pamphlets responding to specific events. Nevertheless, his Reflections on the Revolution in France is by far his most important political work. Written in 1790 in response to a sermon published by Price, Richard, Reflections blames doctrines popularized by the philosophes for inciting the French to revolt. The intellectuals’ ambition to rationalize society led them to attack authority in the name of liberty, convention in the name of nature, and hierarchy in the name of equality. Oblivious to the true basis of political community, they failed to grasp that society resembles an organism rather than a machine; it is a living, evolving entity held together by shared “prejudices.” Far from being irrational, as the philosophes had taught, these prejudices actually embody the collective experience, judgment, and wisdom of past generations, and so define the national identity. To undermine prejudice is to weaken the social bond, which may then disintegrate into “the dust and powder of individuality.” For Burke, legitimacy rests on rulers’ “proved beneficence,” as evidenced in the historical record. Hereditary inequalities are just and desirable so long as they benefit the community; in fact, Burke argued that men with substantial property are in the best position to supply prudent leadership, and that common people, rather than pushing for democracy, should be satisfied with “virtual representation” by their betters. He contrasted the French Revolution unfavorably with England’s Glorious Revolution, which he interpreted as an effort at restoration and reform rather than wholesale change, and he famously predicted that the French experiment would end badly, either in dictatorship or anarchy.

Burke’s aesthetic theory, as outlined in his Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, was built on the work of Dubos, Abbé Jean-Baptiste, and in turn shaped the view of [[Kant, Immanuel], among others. At its base, the theory was subjective and physiological. People call beautiful, Burke postulated, what pleases the senses: for instance, objects that exhibit grace, delicacy, or fine contours. Yet they also sometimes respond aesthetically to things that arouse awe and terror, especially violent or dramatic natural phenomena. This latter feeling, which Burke labels the sublime, is a pleasure that emerges from pain; it involves recognizing one’s own powerlessness and insignificance when confronted by something that dwarfs the self or reminds one of mortality, such as thunderstorms and mountain ranges, or cemeteries and ancient ruins.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the attention of Romantic poets and artists would be riveted on the sublime, much as conservative political thinkers would concentrate on race, ethnicity, and national traditions. Burke is the common ancestor of both.

Further Reading:

Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke, 1992.

Harvey Mansfield, Jr., Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke, 1965.


Sandra Hinchman

St. Laurence University

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