book cover imageEmpire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke
by Richard Bourke.
Princeton University Press, 2015.
Hardcover, 1032 pages, $45.

Twenty-five years ago, Conor Cruise O’Brien entertained Burke enthusiasts with The Great Melody: now Richard Bourke is presenting us with something much closer to a pastoral symphony. The applause that greets each work is likely to differ somewhat. While O’Brien’s seminal piece provoked energetic debate over the following decade, Bourke’s impressive composition invites a more contemplative journey across a freshly configured Burkean landscape.

The size of this volume and the fabric of its academic structure are daunting and energizing at the same time, especially given the extraordinarily high standard of analysis sustained over nine-hundred or so pages. Bourke denotes his “political life” an intellectual history, as contrasted to O’Brien’s “psychological biography” and F. P. Lock’s two-volumepersonal biography.” By this, he signals an intent to uncover the consistency and coherence of Burke’s thought, not by tethering it to other great thinkers in a kind of pedigree of ideas, but by grounding that thought firmly in the preoccupations of Burke’s own world, which is to say, in a consciousness “steeped in the enlightenment science of politics.” Few intellectual historians would wish for a better illustration of their sub-discipline than Bourke’s in this study, where the development of concepts and the related evolution of vocabulary are contextualized in a way that is intolerant of anachronism, yet remains both accessible and committed to the enduring relevance of Burke’s thought and world.

This enormous study is divided structurally into five parts, chronologically ordered, each of which is subdivided into chapters prefaced by short summaries, and then into subsections. Succinct but detailed examinations of the more familiar of Burke’s writings and speeches act rather like stepping-stones across the largely chronologically ordered material, while biographical narratives are inserted in a workmanlike, dispassionate style. (Burke’s death, for example, is contained within one page at the end of a lengthy treatment of the Letters on a Regicide Peace.) There is no formal bibliography, but substantial footnotes (not endnotes, thankfully) provide, perhaps, a more accessible reference format and reflect more clearly the sheer scale of the primary and secondary sources that Bourke has incorporated. Those familiar with the outline of Burke’s career will be able profitably to plan their own journey through Bourke’s learning; those less familiar with the contours of Burke’s life have ample signposts and resting points to guide them through, even when thematic imperatives require detours from the chronological path.

Bourke argues for an underlying consistency in Burke’s life and thought, but not that form of consistency imposed retrospectively through the application of anachronistic terminology. Perceptions of the impact of the French Revolution, he argues correctly, have made it difficult for modern readers to escape from definitions and conceptual polarities that were unknown to Burke and his contemporaries, and, as such, the first two parts of this volume provide a vital function by immersing the reader in the language and preoccupations of the times. These preoccupations, which are gently but persistently carried as leitmotifs through the book, include the tension between the spirit of conquest and the spirit of liberty; the dynamics of corruption in politics, and the idea of party representation as a safeguard of political virtues; the importance of property rights and religion; the problem of the boundary between resistance to injustice and revolutionary reform. All of these are situated and connected against a background of the potential gains and losses of an expanding British empire—a “New kind of Empire upon Earth,” as Burke put it, and which a contemporary observed perceptively had elicited early from him “a kind of new political philosophy.”

None of these listed preoccupations is likely to be unfamiliar to the reader, and, in identifying areas of misinterpretation, Bourke may sometimes blur the border between specialist analyses and more general appropriations of Burke and his thought. (While, for example, the Namierite interpretation of Burke is put to bed here once and for all, who seriously considers Burke as a partisan of ancien regime Europe nowadays?) It is, nevertheless, important to stress that Bourke is not intending to banish the idea of a “usable” Burke completely, and so we should ask what emerges as new or pertinent to modern-day discussion in this reconfigured landscape.

Three such points come to mind that might be of particular interest to readers of the University Bookman. First, Bourke’s research would seem to confirm the fundamental importance of religion in Burke’s thought. Bourke’s Burke inhabits a “skeptical Anglican” and latitudinarian world that was broad doctrinally and on the issue of toleration. This is surely correct; but, more significantly, Burke emerges in these pages “as a figure keen to credit natural sentiment and convinced of the ongoing bearing of divine providence on human life,” and displaying a commitment to “rational analogy as a means of glimpsing the mysterious moral order of the world.” These positions, traceable in the early formation of Burke’s thought and reading, become, in Bourke’s hands, a defining ingredient of Burke’s consistency—shaping, for example, his defense of the victims of East India Company malpractice, where, “as he had been at pains to emphasize since his assault on the tenet of deism in the 1750s, it was the Christian deity, and not humanitarian sentiment, that underwrote our duty to our fellows.” The cumulative effect of such a perspective is that, by the end of the book, Burke’s dismantling of Hume’s “superficial” identification of religion as the cause of enthusiasm or “fanatical zeal” and the cogency of his attacks upon Jacobinism in the 1790s have become all the more vivid and comprehensible.

Second, Bourke’s interpretation of Burke’s religion is solidly buttressed by a careful, extended examination of the development of Burke’s philosophical thought, and particularly his attachment to a type of Ciceronian skepticism. This emerges through an intricate weaving of intellectual influences, reading habits, and topics frequently debated in the mid-century British Republic of Letters. Wrestling free from the more insidious temptations of a history-of-ideas narrative, Bourke balances Lockean, Berkleyan, Addisonian, Shaftesburian, and Grotian influences (among many others), showing how Burke was a “disciple” of none, and yet inevitably influenced in various degrees, positively and negatively, by all. Amid which, Cicero appears consistently to have exerted a powerful gravitational pull not only in his political career as a self-identified novus homo, but in his early and enduring philosophical inclinations to acknowledging “the mind’s dependence on verisimilitude rather than truth for the opinions that guide behavior in the world.” There is a great deal, here, to inform the continuing debate about Burke’s place in the currents of the so-called Enlightenment.

Indeed, as Bourke lays out the evidence, the juncture of philosophy and religion leads us to a third notable emphasis, the centrality of an historical imagination in Burke’s thought. Burke “dealt in principles that were historically embedded,” and as far as these were used to effect a conjunction between the moral and the political virtues—one thinks of Burke’s Indian writings, in particular, but also of his stance on Irish affairs—they required for their conveyance a rhetoric and imagery dependent on a prior acceptance of universal standards of taste and of the authority of the passions in relation to reason. In this context, Bourke’s treatment of the Philosophical Enquiry is of particular interest, not as an abruptly terminated project in aesthetic theory or a key for unlocking coded political beliefs, but as it illuminates the whole spectrum of Burke’s developing thought as found in his lesser known and posthumously published earlier writings.

Indeed, Empire and Revolution is remarkable not least for the wide range of less-familiar and unfamiliar primary sources that Bourke mines. Of the former type, there is, for instance, Bourke’s deployment of the Annual Register, which, though the degree of Burke’s involvement is sometimes problematic, is used effectivelyto help establish the parameters of Burke’s approach to the American and Indian issues with which he grappled. Entries from the notebooks of Edmund and William Burke are also mined more effectively than ever before—not just the familiar “Several Scattered Hints Concerning Philosophy and Learning” and the pieces on religion, but entries newly judged to have been from Edmund’s pen—together with draft notes and comments extracted from a close examination of archival sources, such as the “detailed annotations” to William Burke’s “Reflections on the Nabob [of Arcot]’s Debts” (1778), or his notes for his speech on the Judicature Bill of 19 June 1781. The cumulative impact of this impressive archival research may be experienced at its best, I would suggest, in Chapter X, “A Dreadful State of Things,” with the run-up to the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings in, and, in particular, the author’s treatment of the Ninth and Eleventh reports of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs.

The historian must also, of course, navigate the non-literary landscape of Burke’s thought, and, while biographical narrative is not privileged here, Bourke is attentive to the requirement. We may take, for example, his treatment of Ireland, where the apparatus of intellectual history should place a modifying rein on the more enthusiastic readings of Burke’s “Irishness” that have appeared in recent years. While there is evidently a persistent conjunction of Irish and Imperial history in Burke’s recognition of the dangers lurking within that “New kind of Empire,” the Burke who faces us here is committed consistently to the process of commercial and political integration rather than to a nostalgic regret for a passing culture or the righteous anger of a postcolonial subaltern. Nowhere is Burke’s development of thought better revealed than in his response to issues in Ireland; but that connection lies in his belief that “[m]oral improvement was a concrete achievement that resulted from the free exercise of human faculties under conditions of prosperity and peace,” which meant consensus and toleration.

The fifth and final part of this study retains all the analytical and narrative energy of the earlier ones, and the concluding chapter lives up to its title, “Revolutionary Crescendo.” If Burke’s tomb was not, in the event, to be unplumbed by the Jacobins for bullets to assassinate their enemies, Bourke observes strikingly that, within a year of his death, Burke’s “childhood haunts would be overrun by a struggle between the forces he had been determined to oppose.” This establishes the ground for the conclusion to the work, in which Bourke sets up an instructive comparison of Burke’s world in 1730 and in 1797. What struck me at the end of this exercise was how much more and how much less changed in that lifespan: much more for Burke and his contemporaries: rather less, in fact, than we often assume nowadays, as we persist in looking along a distorting contemporary perspective that focuses so intensely on the “climactic” years of the revolution in France. There’s a conundrum fit for the intellectual historian, and this highly impressive volume engages with it admirably. 

Dr. Ian Crowe is a research fellow with the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture at Washington College, Maryland, a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center, and executive editor of Studies in Burke and His Time.