Sunday, June 4, 2017

Principle and possibility

David Walsh reviews a political biography of Edmund Burke, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke. Burke is often considered the founder of modern conservatism. I've been interested in him since as a teenager reading Russell Kirk's Conservative Mind and later Kirk's biography of the man. The reviewer writes "Burke’s understanding of the reciprocal relationship between politics and principles is the foundation for this study." From the review:
.... He was compelled, as we are too, to make sense of the historical reality in which he found himself and thereby articulate the enduring principles by which it can be judged and addressed as best as possible. As a philosophical statesman, Burke is sui generis in the history of political thought. There have, of course, been statesmen capable of giving their convictions and actions the stamp of profound reflection, but scarcely any achieves the range of Burke’s penetration. Burke refounds politics in the modern era by confronting the problems of politics at their deepest level. Empire and revolution are only the tip of the historical iceberg that encompasses the imperative of founding a political order that always precedes any such attempt.

Even in his own time, Burke was viewed as a notorious defender of lost causes. Yet the story of his life was that political success or failure was, if not irrelevant, of considerably less relevance than the enduring principles that were the only means of remediation. In this sense, Burke was the complete opposite of a utopian. All of his interventions were undertaken in light of the field of possibility, without ever losing sight of the principles by which that possibility was glimpsed. ....

The chapters that detail Burke’s sympathetic involvement with the cause of American independence are among the most illuminating in the book. They show that Burke did not condemn revolution out of hand but indeed recognized a legitimate right to cast off government whose oppressive indifference had already robbed it of legitimacy. Yet the transition back to constitutional order would remain a precarious negotiation.

The Americans had been fortunate in the rupture that had merely transferred allegiance rather than overturned the established order of their societies. This was what made it possible for Burke to play the role of defender and ally of the Americans even as they separated from the British imperium. ....

...[W]hat made the French Revolution a new phenomenon in history was that it became a total demand for renovation. It ceased to be merely political and had assumed a messianic character. All of this is wonderfully evoked in Bourke’s concluding chapter aptly titled “Revolutionary Crescendo.” Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is not only a powerful summation of Burke’s own political thought but an extraordinary event in its own right. Rarely does an historical eruption coincide with a contemporary penetration of its significance.

It is this extraordinary coincidence that explains the immediate historical impact of the work. Almost single-handedly, Burke reversed the tide of British opinion that was hitherto moving in the direction of sympathy with the French revolutionaries. Far from merely reflecting on political history, Burke’s book played a pivotal role in history. ....

One thinks of the way in which Russell Kirk installed Burke as the founder of the conservative intellectual tradition. From there it was possible for the Burkean convictions to work their salutary effect on a rejuvenated conservative political movement that emerged in the middle of the last century and endures amidst its wanderings up to the present. Yet it has always been a mistake to tie Burke’s significance to that residual influence in the always variable world of politics. He has earned a place in that far more lasting horizon of the thinkers who ultimately shape the direction of that world. Burke is a political theorist of the first rank and it is one of the achievements of this remarkably impressive book to have established that conclusively. .... [more]