Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Right Honourable Mr. Burke

In The American Scholar, a magnificent appreciation of Edmund Burke - not the Burke of the political philosophers or of the ideologues, but Burke himself. From "The Right Honourable Mr. Burke" by Brian Doyle:
I tiptoe cautiously around his political life and political philosophy, partly because I am a poor student of the clash of Whig and Tory under King George III, and partly because Burke himself was an eminently practical politician, utterly uninterested in theory and eternally absorbed by fact, anchoring his political and personal life on a general reverence for church, constitution, and fair play; and partly because what made Burke a great man was not his politics, but his eloquence and wisdom about what politics was for.  ....

In his essence he believed, as he often wrote, that human beings, for all our heroic and graceful pinnacles, were also troubled, flawed, greedy, selfish, violent, and webbed with prejudices of the most ridiculous and dangerous sort, and that the role of a dominant religion (which should be state religion, he thought; he had no problem with Hindu or “Mahometan” nations, as he had no objection to his own Christian empire) and a powerful government was to trammel the worst impulses and foment the best. Thus Burke earns his modern hagiography as hero of Christian conservatives, who seethe at the muddle and stalemate and chaos of a liberal democracy.

For two centuries people with every sort of idea have picked over Burke’s writings for their own benefit and justification; and the lesson of their success is not that Burke was mercurial and changeable, but that he was relentlessly interested only in what worked, what was best for the most, what was real and what was high-flown nonsense or worse. “Again and again, revert to your own principles—seek peace and ensure it,” he roared in Parliament, during the bitter debates about America. “I do not enter into … metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them.” It is ironic that a man who wrote and spoke with such imaginative flair, with such moving eloquence, was himself unmoved, as a rule, by flights of fancy. ....

One last Burke story. Johnson, who both admired Burke and several times bemoaned his low humor, once told Boswell that “no man of sense could meet Mr Burke by accident under a gateway to avoid a shower, without being convinced—‘this is an extraordinary man.’ If Burke should go into a stable to see his horse drest, the ostler would say, ‘we have had an extraordinary man here.’ ” Years later, Burke happened to be passing through Litchfield, in Staffordshire, where Johnson had been born. Curious about the famous cathedral there, built on what is supposed to have been a sacred site long before Christianity, Burke stepped into the church, where he struck up a conversation with a clergyman. Soon enough Burke had to move on, and he and the clergyman parted. A few minutes after separating, reported the ever-attentive Johnson, the clergyman was met hurrying through the street. “ ‘I have had,’ said he, ‘quite an adventure. I have been conversing for this half hour past with a man of the most extraordinary powers of mind and extent of information which it has ever been my fortune to meet with, and I am now going to the inn to ascertain if possible who this stranger is.’ ”

But he was gone, the Right Honourable Mr. Burke, gone ahead, leaving only the shimmering memory of his remarkable mind and eager, hurried voice, his accent “as strong as if he had never quitted the banks of the Shannon,” as Nathaniel Wraxall remembered; and he is gone for us too, leaving only his remarkable prose and the plaudits and brick-bats of those who knew and heard and loved or detested him; and on dark days I wonder if soon even his beautifully cadenced prose will cease to be read by anyone other than fervid souls eager to find their own convictions affirmed by the patron saint of whatever political motley they wear. .... [more]
The American Scholar: The Right Honourable Mr. Burke - Brian Doyle