Edmund Burke and the Perennial Battle, 1789–1797
Edited by Daniel B. Klein and Dominic Pino.
CL Press, 2022.
Paperback, 172 pages, $9.
Reviewed by William F. Byrne.
Edmund Burke has always been recognized as an important thinker, and—at least by some, and in some way—as a conservative. But of course it was in the 1950s that, propelled in part by the public scholarship of Russell Kirk and numerous others, Burke came to be seen to provide much of the intellectual grounding for the American conservative movement. Not only has his importance endured but, today, when the U.S. and the West are in a state of unprecedented crisis, broad study of Burke has become more important than ever.
Burke has always been one of the more accessible of the iconic political-philosophical thinkers. But one may say that he becomes even more accessible to the casual reader with the publication of Edmund Burke and the Perennial Battle, 1789-1797. This modest volume is a compilation of numerous short excerpts from Burke’s late writings, chiefly related to the French Revolution. Close to half of the excerpted material comes from Reflections on the Revolution in France; the remainder is drawn from a variety of works, including An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs and his Letters on a Regicide Peace. Accompanying the readings is a general introduction to Burke by the editors.
This is, then, a rather unusual offering: sort of a Reader’s Digest version of the late Burke. While it is not unusual to find single-volume collections of a famous thinker’s key writings, often from a particular time period or in a particular subject area, in this case the excerpts are, overwhelmingly, very short: usually one paragraph or less, sometimes one sentence. There are advantages and disadvantages to such an approach. The obvious advantage is that it permits the casual reader to become familiar with Burke—especially with many of his most famous and important lines and short passages—quickly, with only a modest investment of time and effort.
Given that this volume addresses the French Revolution almost exclusively, and that it is perhaps two-thirds the length of Burke’s Reflections, its obvious “competitor” is the Reflections itself—the work that is most widely read and that is traditionally assigned when Burke is treated in political theory survey courses. Which is the better choice for the casual reader, or for students? A case can certainly be made for a book of this type. As pithy as the Reflections may be, there is plenty that a casual reader can pass over. With this volume, the reader can get a sort of distillation, providing exposure to many of Burke’s ideas. Moreover, the reader is not confined to the Reflections but is exposed to material from many of Burke’s other late works as well; besides those already mentioned, this volume includes brief excerpts from the “Letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont,” “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” “Thoughts on French Affairs,” “Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe,” “Letter to William Elliot,” and “Letter to a Noble Lord.” Thus, familiarity with many elements of Burke can be achieved quickly and easily.
The very short nature of most of the excerpts makes this book a bit like reading over the passages one has highlighted in a text. This is both a strength and a weakness. One highlights particular passages because they are perceived to be especially important in understanding the subject; thus it makes sense to focus on them. The downside is that there is a difference between returning to the passages one has highlighted when previously reading an entire text, and simply reading the highlighted passages from the start in isolation. Context often provides deeper, and more specific, meaning and significance to the passages than one can absorb from them on their own. Moreover, the collection of very short passages yields a choppiness that may make it difficult for the reader to become absorbed in the material. In fairness, however, Burke’s own works, hastily written for political purposes, can themselves jump rather abruptly from one particular topic to another, and back again.
Another unavoidable issue is that the reader is subject to the editors’ judgment regarding which passages are most worthy of inclusion, and there will inevitably be some disagreement as to which material from Burke should have, and should not have, made the cut. For example, it is not clear to this reviewer why passages from Burke’s Langrishe letter are included. While some of Burke’s late writings on Ireland make reference to Jacobinism and thereby tie into the battle against the French Revolution, that is not the case here. There is some inclusion of Burke’s famous passage in Noble Lord regarding what one might call a “monster metaphysician”—a passage so important in the context of the rise of horrific totalitarian ideologies—but only a small fragment of it, not the entire paragraph. In the Reflections portion we don’t hear that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” or about the “moleculae of a disbanded people,” or in fact numerous other lines worth repeating. At times, however, the editors’ selections serve to highlight passages that have historically received little attention but have acquired new relevance in recent years. For example, from the Reflections:
Writers, especially when they act in a body, and with one direction, have great influence on the publick mind; the alliance therefore of these writers with the monied interest had no small effect in removing the popular odium and envy which attended that species of wealth. These writers, like the propagators of all novelties, pretended to a great zeal for the poor, and the lower orders, whilst in their satires they rendered hateful, by every exaggeration, the faults of the courts, of nobility, and of priesthood. They became a sort of demagogues. They served as a link to unite, in favour of one object, obnoxious wealth to restless and desperate poverty.
For the most part, the editors do a fair job with their selections; many of Burke’s most important and famous passages from the period are here, making complaints seem rather nitpicky. Unfortunately, this is only true for the most part. There is one area in which the editors’ omissions are truly glaring, and seriously compromise this volume. The remainder of this review will be devoted to this subject.
In the editors’ introduction, they bring up Burke’s Speech on Fox’s East India Bill, and write:
In his speech, Burke outlines his belief that there are indeed reasons to alter the status quo. Chief among them are violations of natural rights. ‘The rights of men, that is to say, the natural rights of mankind, are indeed sacred things; and if any public measure is proved mischievously to affect them, the objection ought to be fatal to that measure, even if no charter at all could be set up against it.’
This statement is of the “true but misleading” variety. Burke was a practicing politician concerned about passing legislation, and his speeches were not academic exercises but were geared to this purpose; on a few occasions he invoked the familiar natural rights discourse to that end. But he is highly inconsistent in his treatment of rights, and even those with a just passing knowledge of Burke know that what he is famous for in this area is his skepticism, very qualified acceptance, and sometimes vehement denunciation, of rights-talk in general and of politics grounded in “natural rights” or “rights of man” in particular. Hints of his skepticism appear in some of his early political writing, but where it becomes highly prominent is in his work during the French Revolutionary period—the period specifically addressed by this volume. Indeed, this is without question one of the most important and provocative themes of the Reflections, and it is a central element to understanding Burke’s conservative perspective. Thus, one would expect the editors’ statement to be followed by mention of Burke’s prominent criticisms of natural rights-based politics, to provide balance and not mislead the reader. Alas, no such mention occurs, leading a naïve reader to understand Burke as an unqualified natural rights champion. Of course, given the sources for the material for this volume, one would expect any misunderstanding arising from the introduction to be quickly rectified by the words of Burke himself. Alas, very few such words can be found here.
This volume omits virtually all of Burke’s criticisms of natural rights and rights-talk. This is the case even though there are many such criticisms in the works from which this book is drawn, including an extensive discussion filling several pages at the heart of the Reflections and encompassing such lines as: “How can any man claim under the conventions of civil society rights which do not so much as suppose its existence . . . ?” and “Government is not made in virtue of natural rights,” and “The moment you abate anything from the full rights of men, each to govern himself . . . the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience,” and “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine?” and “The pretended rights of these theorists are all extreme; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.” Nor, of course, do we find Burke’s sarcastic treatment of France’s new voting laws: “What! A qualification on the indefeasible rights of men?” It appears that the only thing approaching a criticism of rights-talk that can be found in this volume is a single, one-line, indirect criticism that could be brushed off as a narrow attack on the French Revolutionaries in particular: “This sort of people is so taken up with their theories about the rights of man that they have totally forgotten his nature.”
Given that the book devotes 57 pages to excerpts from the Reflections alone, and includes many passages less well-known, and less important, than those addressing natural rights, one cannot reasonably attribute the complete omission of this material simply to space constraints. Taken together with the confusing treatment of this subject in the introduction, the only reasonable conclusion is that this represents an editorial decision to exclude anything questioning natural rights-based politics.
This can be seen as part of a broader—though generally less egregious—pattern. While the modest introduction acknowledges Burke as a conservative, it devotes a great deal of space to building up his liberal bona fides: emphasizing his opposition to slavery, portraying him as a sort of poor man’s Adam Smith, etc. While this could be taken simply as an effort to “sell” Burke to a skeptical, non-conservative reader—say, a student to whom this book was assigned—there is a general effect of not just downplaying but, one could say, softening—or partly neutering—Burke’s conservatism. Likewise, in the collection of Burke material one may detect a tendency to pass over those passages suggesting too great an affinity for the Middle Ages or for kings, or, notably, for ancestors, or, also notably, criticizing abstraction. While we certainly get a conservative Burke from the book, we tend to get the dispositional sort of conservatism—prudence, incrementalism, resistance to dramatic change without good reason—that can happily serve as a kind of junior partner to classical liberalism. The casual reader gets much less a sense of conservatism as a political ideology that challenges liberalism, or is in tension with it.
The effect resembles a reversion to the popular American center-right of the mid- to late-twentieth century, which papered over its differences in its common cause against communism and socialism and leftism generally. Historically this was done so well that there are still many people who will insist that American conservatism and classical liberalism are the same thing. A hint of this approach is in the title of this volume: “perennial battle.” The editors appear to identify the “perennial battle” as one against “radicalism,” a rather safe generic term. Today of course this is largely represented by the progressives. A somewhat diverse host of opponents are again arrayed against them. If—as in the past—popular “conservative” spokespeople are seeking to rally anti-progressive Americans around, say, Jefferson’s natural rights language in the Declaration of Independence, it certainly wouldn’t do to have Burke highlighted as a critic of that approach.
Today’s situation, however, is even more complicated—and much more dire—than that of the mid-twentieth century. In a marked shift, intellectuals are increasingly perceiving our crisis, at least in part, as a crisis of liberalism. While previously classical liberalism was relatively easy to champion and seemed to have a clear opponent in socialism, liberalism is now in the awkward position of being at once a goal, a victim, and a source of the problem. As, under the pressures of liberalism, our society becomes increasingly untethered from traditional cultural, social, and moral groundings, the tenets of liberalism cease to have real meaning or force. Thus liberalism undermines itself until it collapses into anarchy or tyranny. Although the terms and even the precise concepts of “liberalism” and “conservatism” did not exist in Burke’s time, Burke nonetheless had some perception of the dynamic by which a liberal order can destroy itself. Indeed, this may be the most important thing about Burke. He knew that the worldviews, or moral imaginations, or horizons of meaning that we possess, as well as the predispositions and character we possess, form the basis of political order and make a humane and free state possible. And he knew that these are maintained through rootedness in history, in traditions, in established relationships, and in the richness of the particular.
While Burke sought to preserve and enhance what we would call a rather “liberal” order, he also recognized that the radicalism represented by the French Revolution sprang in part out of what we would call liberalism. Hence, liberalism—especially as represented by abstract rights doctrines—was something he could not fully endorse, and that he in fact recognized as a danger. Obscuring this fact compromises both our understanding of Burke and our ability to respond to the crisis at hand.
Indeed, a major issue today is that, because liberalism is increasingly seen not just as a solution but as a contributor to our problems, more overt fragmentation has appeared among the opponents of the left than generally existed in the past. In particular, we are seeing the emergence of the likes of “post-liberalism” and various other explicit attempts at alternatives to the liberal order. One may speculate that concerns regarding such developments might have contributed to a desire to present a Burkean conservatism that is, one could say, “made safe for liberalism.” But Burke should not be made safe. He should be provocative, a challenge to us as well as a guide. Consequently, while casual readers may find this volume a convenient choice for quick access to Burke, or as a reminder of some of his most important passages, for some uses, and certainly for students, we remain better off with Burke’s own works in full.
William F. Byrne is Associate Professor of Government and Politics at St. John’s University (NY) and author of Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics.
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