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 André Gushurst-Moore.

Single-volume selections from Burke’s writings frequently subsist on some scheme, relating both to the particular reading of Burke that the editor (or editors) wish to advance, and to the supposed needs or interests of the intended audience. I have on my shelves, for instance, early-twentieth-century selections prepared for students in the upper years of secondary school, possibly working towards examinations in a course of English literature, when Burke was set as a model for felicity of style and for a humane moral outlook. Burke in selection could also be set for history courses, or for civil service exams, to prepare well the minds and hearts of those who would go into the service of the state, including that in India; here, again, is Burke for a purpose. Selections may be intended, too, simply as a starting place for the reader as yet unfamiliar with his thought, on a variety of subjects. A broad selection might include, for example, the Philosophical Inquiry, but some selections may be solely political. The challenge for the editors of any selection from Burke is sifting wide-ranging material, on a variety of subjects, at various lengths, for a variety of audiences. What should be included and what left out? Insofar as a selection is a reading of Burke, is it in danger of promoting a misreading, through decontextualization, in which the parts suggest a false whole?

Daniel B. Klein and Dominic Pino, editors of the present volume, present here a reading of Burke from within the context of classical and conservative liberalism (the “CL” of CL Press), and from within a project that looks at liberalism in relation to conservatism, religion, and moral, political and economic philosophy. The relevance of Burke to this project will very readily be evident, and in view of the potentially very large body of material which could be invoked, the editors wisely choose to focus on the period of 1789–1797, that of the impression of the French Revolution on the mind and writings of Burke. 

This is a period of great significance for conservative thought, and its relevance for ‘the permanent things’ of human nature and society. With the sole addition of the earlier letter to Depont, of November 1789, all the texts included here are the Reflections and after; all are written in reaction to the Revolution, with the exception of the letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe, in which Burke returns to the Popery laws in Ireland. The theme throughout this period is Burke’s response to what the editors refer to as “radicalism,” the “quasi-religion that was spreading like fire.” In this, Klein and Pino emphasize two points: “First, Burke makes a distinction between change and reformation that sheds light on how to view his political activities. Second, he was a liberal on some vital aspects of politics.”

This characterization of Burke as “a liberal” is argued from the basis of his understanding and promotion of natural rights. For Burke, successful reform of parts of a polity (e.g., Irish Popery laws; the East India Company’s charter) depends on some sense of a duty to a larger whole; in the case of Fox’s East India bill, for Burke this duty was “the faith, the covenant, the solemn, original, indispensable oath, in which I am bound, by the eternal frame and constitution of things, to the whole human race.” The editors also make reference to the “Sketch of the Negro Code” to further illustrate the connection between order (essential to a conservative mind) and the importance of freedom in Burke’s thought. Liberty, says Burke, can only exist within some “frame” and “constitution,” which is a product of nature and history, and ultimately of divine origin. Where such a framework is removed, or newly erected upon “doctrine and theoretick dogma,” liberty will be lost. (Again, Burke said famously, “Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.”) The editors cite the “Appeal from the Old to the New Whigs” as giving “insight into Burke’s somewhat confusing thoughts on liberty,” where in addition to the distinction in Burke’s mind between abstract and “social” or “rational” freedom, the distinction between the “general” and the “particular” is made, for similar reasons. A general zeal for liberty is a good thing, but whether or how such zeal might apply to particular political circumstances is a harder question, requiring the indispensable political quality of prudence. 

The inclusion in this selection of Burke’s “Letter to Charles-Jean-François Depont” allows the editors to draw attention to some particularly useful and clear statements by Burke on liberty: “The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint…. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.” As the editors put it: 

In Burke’s liberty, everyone is restrained morally and politically with the goal of social harmony. That view fits perfectly with his advocacy of reform in India, abolition [of the slave trade], and Catholic emancipation. All three of those areas were the cause of great social discord in Britain, and that irked Burke. They were impediments to freedom in ways that the existence of a monarchy is not. They were impediments to social freedom.

This is well-judged and apposite, although the editors might here have drawn out rather more the relevance of Burke’s idea of a social freedom for our age of atomized individuals, negotiating, via single-interest identity groups, perceived structures of power and subjugation: this is the legacy of the philosophes and the liberté of the Jacobins. Burke’s idea of freedom (and, again, this might have been emphasized rather more in the introduction) can only be properly understood in the contexts of the classical idea of human nature and its interpretation through the Christian centuries in Europe up to the Enlightenment. 

The introduction also draws attention to Burke’s views on free trade in Thoughts on Scarcity, although this is not included in the selected texts. (The introduction ranges widely over the theme of Burke and liberty, rather than focusing on themes in the selection per se.) Burke “embraced the liberal economic thought most famously expounded by Adam Smith.” Burke did not, say the editors, support state intervention in markets: “‘The moment the Government appears at market, all the principles of market will be subverted,’ and with that sentence, we can safely count Burke as a liberal on domestic economic policy. His economic thought was in line with Hume and Smith and there was easy communication between them.” In the international sphere, too, “Burke was similarly liberal. He wrote two letters on trade with Ireland that advocated liberalization.” All this is doubtless true, and makes good sense in the wider context of Burke’s thought on human nature, and the concomitant nature of human society, but the editors seem a little too keen at times to lodge Burke safely in another of the pigeon-holes that so often attract his interpreters. More interesting, perhaps, would be to consider how Burke’s thought on liberty is integrated with the rest of his thought, and with the European Christian tradition, than with the doctrines of the Enlightenment. 

A little over a third of the book is devoted to selections (shorter and longer quotations) from the Reflections, including many familiar, anthologized passages, and occasional explanatory notes. The opening quotation, since it is very much to the editors’ purpose, might have started earlier in Burke’s text, to include the memorable lines, “I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of that society, be he who he will……” And we miss, “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned to complaints.” Apart from being an excellent example of Burke’s style and wit, it nicely points out the social dimension in Burke’s thinking about liberty. However, there will inevitably be much to exclude from a volume of this size, and the selection is broader than the rather focused introduction might suggest. The essential place of religion in Burke’s thought is clear, as in the following crucial example:

We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembick [alembic, a still used for distillation] of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and among many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition, might take place of it.

(With apologies to Wordsworth, “Burke! thou shouldst be living at this hour: the West hath need of thee……”) Here, if anywhere, is the still point of Burke’s critique of his times, and the basis for his continuing relevance to ours: a putative freedom outside of the moral norms of the Christian religion (whether expressed as liberalism, socialism, communism, or some versions of conservatism) is quite a different thing to the real freedom to which human beings have, in Burke’s thinking, a natural right.

The book also includes quotations from all four of the Letters on a Regicide Peace, the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, the “Letter to a Noble Lord,” the “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” the “Thoughts on French Affairs,” and a “Letter to William Elliot.” As such, this is a valuable, stimulating, and considered set of selections from some of Burke’s most important writings, reflecting his engagement in the culture wars that still challenge us. Klein and Pino show us that, in this ongoing “perennial battle,” when in our time real liberty is again in danger of succumbing to new forms of Jacobinism, Burke remains one of our foremost guides towards sanity and human flourishing. 

André Gushurst-Moore is author of The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism, from Thomas More to Russell Kirk (Angelico Press, 2013) and Glory in All Things: St Benedict and Catholic Education Today (Angelico Press 2020). His work has appeared in The Catholic Herald, Political Science Reviewer, The University Bookman, and The Chesterton Review.

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