Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Edmund Burke: A Life in Caricature
By Nicholas K. Robinson
Yale University Press 214 pp. $45

Edmund Burke and India
By Frederick G. Whelan
University of Pittsburgh Press 368 pp. $49.95

The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke
By Frans de Bruyn
Oxford University Press 318 pp. $72

Intertextual War: Edmund Burke and the French Revolution in the Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and James Mackintosh
By Steven Blakemore
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press 256 pp. $39.50

In the house of a great writer are many mansions. Open the poetry of Paradise Lost, and soon you’re entering vast rooms of Milton’s thought on politics, education, and the Christian’s relationship to culture. Begin to explore Gulliver’s Travels , and Swift will end by leading you through his critique of the Enlightenment or Irish policy by way of a Grub Street garret or Hibernian hovel. The works of Edmund Burke are similarly vast and similarly fascinating, and with the end of the Cold War more of his mansions are being explored.

Most people come to Burke through his writings against the French Revolution. Because those writings seemed to comment so relevantly upon Marxism, Burke could not be read sympathetically by many critics until 1989. But since the end of the debate over communism, that has changed. Scholars are finding that Burke’s use of language-his taste, his metaphors, and his choice of genres-is inseparable from his ideas, whether they concern Ireland or America, France or India, the church or the slave trade. Perhaps more important, Burke is being read by serious nonacademics who realize that purely secular or abstract foundations for free society will not sustain us into the next century. They are finding great value in Burke’s understanding of tradition, ordered liberty, natural law, and the place of religion in a modern constitutional government.

The radicalism of Burke’s day is close cousin to the radicalism of our own day, which is why Burke continues to make the ideological person mad (or glad), and the reflective person thoughtful. Faced with the first full-scale cultural revolution in history, Burke explained with grace and force that the role of custom, manners, and personal character is more fundamental to society than the form or content of law. Providing society with the capacity to reform and preserve these elements is therefore among the chief tasks of those in cultural authority.

More forcefully than anyone before or since, Burke explained why political principles and natural rights must be discussed in the context of actual historical and cultural conditions. They cannot be understood in the language of rootless ideologues or deracinated international bureaucrats, whose promised utopias seem always to end in the prison camp.

Burke also has much to teach about the central role of religion in modern democratic states. Democracies need religion and its institutions to remind them of the eternal order from which their natural rights derive, the moral order by which they will be judged, and the surrounding disorder with which they are threatened.

Four recent books show the range of interest Burke continues to spark. The books by Frederick Whelan and Nicholas Robinson are scholarship in the older sense-attempts to unearth new evidence or synthesize what is known in new ways. Whelan’s Edmund Burke and India tells the story of Burke’s long crusade for just treatment of India as it may be pieced together from published materials. He tells in simple prose a complicated and exotic story, filled as it is with zemindars, lakhs, and begams. More important, he relates Burke’s critique, which is fundamentally based on a classical and Christian understanding of natural law, to his political philosophy as a whole. The speeches on the British East India Company retain their resonance for our day by showing that cultural sensitivity is attained by those committed to moral law, not to moral relativism.

Robinson’s Edmund Burke: A Life in Caricature is a chronological commentary on the caricatures of Burke. By the sheer number of these cartoons, Robinson demonstrates that Burke was far more in the public eye than anyone of his day with the exception of the prime ministers and royalty-quite a feat for someone who never held Cabinet-level office and was never regarded as an insider. Burke gave the caricaturists nothing to work with in the way of personal corruption, but he was ruthlessly condemned as a traitor when he opposed the French Revolution and supported monarchy. How could the man whose legislation had reduced the king’s power to dispense pensions in the 1780s emerge as the most eloquent defender of monarchy a decade later? Worse yet, how could he accept a royal pension in 1794? How could the pen that urged conciliation with the American colonies in the 1770s urge war with France in the 1790s? These questions are easily enough answered, but not in the space of the caricaturist’s balloon. Welcome to the world of the sound bite.

The books by Frans de Bruyn and Steven Blakemore make use of recent literary theory to view Burke in new ways. De Bruyn’s book begins with the sound premise that Burke’s work is pervasively literary, and that his style is essential to his meaning. Burke’s contemporary critics agreed. Tom Paine went so far as to consider his own Rights of Man a linguistic as well as a political revolution against the order represented by Burke. De Bruyn then compares Burke’s literary strategies to works in contemporary and earlier eighteenth-century genres: satire, georgic poetry, the “letter to an eminent person” genre, and so on.

The problem with de Bruyn’s book is that in chapter after chapter Burke is used to confirm the critical theories of Michel Foucault, Frederic Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and other postmodern critics. De Bruyn develops, for example, a complicated argument about how madness, misrule, and other social pathologies are “the inevitable products” of eighteenth-century polite society. As in so much postmodern criticism, these illusory Manichean opposites-social pathology/polite society-then assume a life of their own and virtually constitute the text as the critic perceives it. Burke’s defense of his society and fear of its pathologies appears almost arbitrary: “While Burke’s writings are deeply implicated in a popular and widespread discourse of cultural decay, he nonetheless chooses consciously to imitate a literary, high-cultural variant of that discourse.” But since de Bruyn doesn’t evaluate the moral, political, and spiritual content of Burke’s choice-a content we could assess for its continuing merit today-the “polite society” defended by Burke seems hardly preferable to the cultural decay he feared. We end up with so ironic an attitude toward Burke that we are no longer in a position to learn what his writings can teach us about tradition or cultural revolution. It is unfortunate that so good a reader of the eighteenth century as de Bruyn adopts tools that, like the post-Heisenberg observer, obscure the object by the nearness of approach.

Steven Blakemore’s book is even cannier than de Bruyn’s, but more convincing. Focusing on three early respondents to Burke on the French Revolution, Blakemore performs successive acts of rhetorical ju-jitsu on them, overturning their arguments at their strongest points of attack. When Mary Wollstonecraft criticizes “tradition” for merely ratifying stereotypical male power and dominance, Blakemore responds by showing how she ironically reaffirms those very stereotypes. She turns herself into an aggressive “masculine” writer and manipulates Burke into her weaker “feminine” counterpart. Blakemore shows how Thomas Paine’s false accusation that Burke was a secret pensioner of the crown in 1790 reflects Paine’s own anxieties about having received a secret pension during the American Revolution. James Mackintosh, the best though least known of these three respondents, actually changed his mind on the Revolution. Later in life he used the very Burkean rhetoric he had earlier criticized.

In short, Blakemore shows that Paine and Wollstonecraft projected onto Burke their own anxieties and shortcomings, while Mackintosh found himself attracted to the language that repelled him. Burke’s critics demonstrate one of his many prescient themes, that revolutionary ideology tends to turn into its opposite. Modern ideologies attempt to simplify politics by lifting certain principles-liberty, equality, fraternity-out of their surrounding historical conditions. As Blakemore’s analysis makes clear, however, Burke shows that there is no genuine alternative to a politics that engages culture and society as one finds it.

Perhaps one reason Burke elicits so much interest today is that he knew he stood at the beginning of the modern era while we realize we are at its end. Hans-Georg Gadamer, a philosopher whose thought resonates profoundly with Burke’s, points out that tradition is something that one belongs to and yet is “other” than oneself: “Self-understanding always occurs through understanding something other than the self.” In order to gain insight from an encounter with the past, we need to acknowledge that we belong to its conversations and to the speakers we find there. Our encounters with the past occur within the historical tradition in which we are already situated and which alone makes knowledge possible. We cannot stand outside it with the scientific detachment of the modern or the ironic detachment of the postmodern. For Gadamer, as for Burke, new understanding arises when our present-day horizon fuses with the horizon of the older text. As our cultural horizon presents mounting evidence of breakdown, we need to reenter Burke’s chambers, to converse and to listen.

Daniel Ritchie is Professor of English at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and author of Reconstructing Literature in and Ideological Age (Eerdmans).

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift