How to Think Like Edmund Burke
Debating the Philosopher’s Complex Legacy - Burke tells us more about how to think than what to think. So how did he think? He cherished certain abstract ideals unconditionally.
Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century British politician and writer, is today best known for Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790. In it, Burke denounced the revolutionaries in France and their supporters in Great Britain for what he considered their misplaced faith in principles such as “abstract liberty” and “the rights of men” and for their rejection of more pragmatic, procedural paths to ending the tyranny of hereditary monarchy. As Burke put it:
"Property with peace and order; with civil and social manners . . . are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty is to [let] individuals . . . do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints."
In a sense, the debate between Burke and his antagonists—between conservatism and radicalism, broadly defined—has shaped political debate in the Western world ever since, and Burke himself has become known as “the father of modern conservatism.”
David Bromwich is not fond of that phrase. “No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism,” writes the esteemed scholar of literature in his magnificent, beautifully written new study of the first half of Burke’s career, which is the most notable addition to a recent crop of books about Burke. The trouble is not only that the line between Burke and modern conservatism is hardly straight but also that Burke’s legacy is far too complex to be captured by any such phrase. Part of the problem, as Bromwich makes clear, are the tensions (and even paradoxes) within Burke’s own thinking and writing. His condemnation of the French Revolution was preceded by his sympathy for the American one that took place two decades earlier. This gave ammunition to his radical foes, such as the critic William Hazlitt, who later wrote that by rejecting the French Revolution, Burke “abandoned not only all his practical conclusions, but all the principles on which they were founded. He proscribed all his former sentiments, denounced all his former friends, [and] rejected and reviled all the maxims to which he had formerly appealed as incontestable.”
Burke’s champions were (and still are) quick to defend him against such charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy, and with some justification. And yet it is impossible to ignore the fact that Burke’s writings have inspired a remarkably wide range of ideologies and political programs. Nineteenth-century liberals praised Burke for reconciling the principles of constitutionalism with a kind of utilitarian pragmatism. Twentieth-century Cold Warriors appropriated Burke for their own ends, casting their communist foes as modern-day incarnations of the radical French Jacobins whom Burke excoriated. Economic liberals have painted Burke as a champion of the virtues of the free market; at the same time, others have used his writings to argue for more state intervention in the economy in the interests of social cohesion.
Readers without such agendas often have trouble drawing clear political lessons from Burke because his writing took the form of polemic commentary rather than systematic political theory. Burke himself frequently disparaged “abstract theory,” and his insights—although often brilliant—can seem aphoristic, even ad hoc. Complicating matters further, Burke was more concerned with moral psychology and aesthetics than with politics during the early stages of his career. A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which Burke wrote in 1757, is a systematic treatise, a contrast to his later, looser writing about politics. As Hazlitt noted in a backhanded compliment, “Mr. Burke’s literary talents were, after all, his chief excellence.”
And so anyone hoping to understand Burke is confronted with an array of historians and philosophers of aesthetics, politics, and political theory; social conservatives and free-market liberals; and even closet radicals—all claiming that they hold the key to the “real” Burke. Undaunted, Bromwich sets out to demonstrate “the originality and continuities” of Burke’s thought. The result is an intellectual biography of the best kind. Bromwich seeks to convey “what it meant to think like Edmund Burke” and to demonstrate the coherence and relevance of Burke’s moral and political vision. With a remarkable level of detail and sensitivity, Bromwich makes a virtue out of what others lament as problematic: the relationship between Burke’s political activity and his written works. Bromwich is convinced that people today can still learn from Burke, not as political partisans but as “thoughtful readers.” In Bromwich’s hands, Burke offers better lessons about how to think than about what to think.
NO MERE IMPROVISER
The British have their own version of Burke’s sobriquet, referring to him as “the father of English conservatism.” This is also an uneasy fit, though, since Burke was actually an Irishman. Born in Dublin in 1729 to a family with a Catholic background, he was raised as an Anglican only because his father, a lawyer, had converted to escape the restrictions on Catholics practicing law. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, the young Burke made his way to England, intending to follow his father’s footsteps into a legal career. He soon abandoned that goal to pursue writing full time. His work attracted the attention of members of England’s literary and artistic elite, including the writer Samuel Johnson and the painter Joshua Reynolds. Eventually, Burke’s rising profile brought him into contact with the political elite as well, and he ultimately became private secretary to Lord Rockingham, who served as prime minister in the mid-1760s. Around the same time, Burke launched his own political career and soon became nationally prominent as a member of Parliament. Two of the areas he represented, Wendover and Malton, were “pocket boroughs,” with tiny electorates and controlled by local landowners. But a third, Bristol, was the kind of big metropolitan district where modern electoral politics was emerging, and its populist dynamism and trading economy had an important impact on Burke’s political writing.
In Parliament, Burke joined Rockingham’s faction, known as the Rockingham Whigs. The Whigs were an association of aristocratic politicians who identified themselves with the principles of the Glorious Revolution of 1688—a parliamentary (and Protestant) coup that had replaced King James II, whom the plotters suspected of aspiring to a continental (and Catholic) type of monarchical absolutism, with the co-regents William III and Mary II. Although the Whigs were inspired by their predecessors’ suspicion of royal power, their political instincts were paternalist, not populist.
Within this group, Burke acted as a developer of policy, a fixer, and especially as a spokesman; indeed, in an age of formidable orators, many considered him the country’s greatest. Much of his fame rested on speeches he delivered dealing with basic questions of parliamentary government, a form that was still just emerging. He defended the concept of a political “party,” which was at the time a suspect term; insisted that members of Parliament act as representatives of their constituents, rather than as mere delegates; pushed for the British crown to take a consensual, rather than coercive, approach to the American colonies; and argued for parliamentary control of royal finances.
Bromwich gives Burke’s views on such matters their due, but he is interested in something deeper. He rejects the view of Burke as “an anti-theoretical critic of modern politics, a ‘pragmatic’ adapter to local needs.” According to Bromwich, Burke was no mere improviser but rather “cherished certain abstract ideas unconditionally.” To unearth those ideas and to recover Burke’s thought processes, Bromwich performs sincere, disciplined readings of Burke’s work, albeit ones that bear the imprint of a scholar of English literature who is more likely to notice an allusion to Shakespeare than one to Machiavelli. Above all, Bromwich contextualizes Burke, explaining the terms in which Burke understood and responded to the political situations he faced and revealing how those responses formed a coherent view of politics.
PUTTING BURKE TO WORK
Of course, rescuing Burke from charges of partisanship and theoretical flimsiness has its own dangers. Constructing a coherent theory from disparate tracts on controversial issues of the day risks distorting his views. Anyone seeking to understand Burke’s legacy faces a basic question: To recover the historical Burke, must one sacrifice a politically usable view of him?
Bromwich’s book suggests that the answer to that question is no, and it offers a revealing portrait of Burke’s mind. If there is one underlying principle that Bromwich seizes on, it is Burke’s oft-repeated claim that “the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.” This does not mean that Burke was interested in simply reconciling moral principles and political practices. For Burke, knowledge of human nature (and culturally acquired “second” natures) set limits on what people could reasonably demand of themselves and others. Political theorists and politicians should not try to close the gap between lofty moral goals and the mundane, grubby reality of everyday politics but rather work within that very space, recognizing it as the realm of the possible. As Burke remarked in 1782, “The touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of men [is,] Does it suit his nature in general? Does it suit his nature as modified by habit?” Radical revolutionaries, he complained, “are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgotten his nature.”
Despite Burke’s own insistence that he mistrusted abstract ideas, Bromwich draws attention to Burke’s understanding of their power and the way they operate—especially ideas Burke considered wrong or misunderstood. For example, Burke was less interested in whether such a thing as a “natural right” existed than in understanding why someone would believe in such an idea and what would follow from that belief. In this sense, “ideology” was one of Burke’s major concerns, even though that term was not coined until a few years after he died. Burke perceived that any theory that loses touch with people’s natures risks perverting them, just as any theory that simply accepts people as they are is helpless to improve their condition.
Bromwich also explores Burke’s thoughts about the responsible uses of power. Today, democratic discourse and values rely so heavily on the principles of the French Revolution, especially the idea of individual human rights and the need to institutionalize them, that it requires a huge effort to conceive of a worldview that did not include them. Burke did not seek to make state institutions conform to precise moral ideals, much less to achieve the abstract goal of democracy. Instead, he pushed for what people today might call “good governance.” At its most basic, this means considering whether policies are suitable to the customs and nature of the people to whom they apply and considering the likely effect of any particular policy before establishing it. To prevent abuse, Burkean good governance requires constraining political power, even—perhaps especially—the influence of majorities. And it requires regularity, consistency, and predictability when it comes to interpreting and enforcing laws.
This vision of government is difficult to turn into anything resembling a rule; it might sound like mere common sense. But for Burke, such objectives—and not more abstract quests, such as maximizing equality, liberty, or wealth—represented the important stuff of politics. Burke’s goals cannot be achieved through the mere application of logic; instead, they require the use of political persuasion and the exercise of that rare skill, judgment. This is what Bromwich means by thinking like Burke: understanding how leaders arrive at the right decisions in particular cases and how they ensure that decision-making in the future will also be guided by good judgment.
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT BURKE
Burke’s political thought resists the modern assumption that a thinker can achieve consistency only by subscribing to a single organizing principle or set of values. The lack of such a principle in Burke’s thought partially explains why it has proved so hard to accurately transpose Burke onto contemporary politics. But Bromwich has managed to illuminate a different kind of consistency in Burke’s thought.
Consider the seeming contradiction in Burke’s implicit defense of the rebellious colonists in the American colonies and his explicit opposition to the revolutionaries in France. During the 1770s, Burke opposed British policies in the Colonies (such as the imposition of taxes on the American settlers) and at home (such as the use of royal finances to buy influence in Parliament) that he thought undermined the constitutional and institutional structures that safeguarded liberty. Two decades later, he argued that the principle of liberty as espoused by the French Revolution lacked an institutional framework that could restrain the revolutionaries themselves, who showed little concern for the quality of representation, failed to foster links to established communities, and created no “upper” legislative chamber to ensure continuity and stability in governance.
In both cases, Burke sought to create or defend institutional structures that could protect liberty (in the American case) and also constrain it (in the French one). For Burke, liberty was not a paramount principle; nor, he warned, should it be imposed without regard to existing institutions and practices. Praising the British style of government, and contrasting it with the approach of the French revolutionaries, he claimed, “We compensate, we reconcile, we balance. We are enabled to unite into a consistent whole the various anomalies and contending principles that are found in the minds and affairs of men.”
Burke’s fundamental objection to revolutions inspired by rationalistic ideals was their arrogance. As he wrote in Reflections, “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.” In Burke’s view, knowledge is held not individually but collectively—in institutions, in customs, and even in shared prejudices. Maintaining a population’s allegiance to and trust in such institutions is a more important goal than promoting efficiency or rationality. Almost any theory, even those espoused by self-proclaimed conservatives, can be held in an absolutistic way such that it poses a threat to institutional and political stability. That is perhaps the most crucial lesson Burke has to offer modern politics.