'The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke' considers one of the great thinkers of all time

David Bromwich's biography of Edmund Burke is a masterpiece of intellectual history.

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence, by David Bromwich, Harvard University Press, 512 pp.

All good biographies are called magisterial, but David Bromwich’s The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence actually merits the adjective. Edmund Burke was a rare figure: a working politician who was also one of the great thinkers of his, or any, time. As Matthew Arnold put it, he “saturate[d] politics with thought.” Bromwich’s book, the first in a two-part biography, does justice to both the politics and the thought, showing how Burke’s principles – a hatred of violence and a love of liberty – emerged from political and historical circumstances. Meticulous in its research and elegant in style, "The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke" is a masterpiece of intellectual history.

Those on the American right often claim Burke as the father of modern conservatism – defender of tradition and the “organic society,” critic of radical overreach, a kind of Ronald Reagan in 18th-century garb. As Bromwich argues, this is far from the truth. By party affiliation, Burke was a Whig, not a Tory, favoring representative government over absolute monarchy. He argued against war with American colonies yet was hardly a democrat; he praised the bonds of intimate community yet was an internationalist; he proclaimed the virtues of political independence yet was a fierce defender of party loyalty. To describe Burke as “conservative” in a contemporary sense is to commit the easiest sin of historical inquiry: to read the past through the lens of the present.

Bromwich offers a reading of Burke’s intellectual life by examining the statesman’s responses, in the form of speeches and personal letters, to a series of crises that took place in his time as a member of Parliament: George III’s prosecution of the radical politician John Wilkes in 1768; the passage of the Stamp Act of 1775 – the direct tax that helped bring about the American Revolution; and calls for expansion of the franchise in 1784.  

As Bromwich writes, “Politics is a mesh of hints, arranged signals, tacit acknowledgments, and compromises. Little of this undercurrent is legible to an outsider.” In 2014, we are all outsiders to the political intrigues of Burke’s time, but Bromwich introduces us to the period’s urgent debates (political franchise, religious liberty) and major players, such as the Whig Charles Fox, whose face, Bromwich memorably writes, was “good-humored, unshaven, evocative of many shades of grass-eating corruption yet quite free of malevolence.”

Burke was a pragmatic thinker and so it can be difficult to identify the abstract ideals on which he based his politics. We know that he valued “prescription,” which Bromwich defines as humankind’s “natural presumption in favor of social practices that have lasted a long time.” These customs – the existence of the aristocracy and its leading role in politics, for instance – provide society with the restraint that it needs in order to survive. In concrete terms, this meant that Burke resisted calls for more frequent and more democratic elections. We also know that he loathed cruelty and abuse of power; this led to his calling for more lenient laws against debtors.

In Bromwich’s analysis, Burke is a “moral psychologist”: a man whose political thinking arose from his reading of man’s moral nature. Burke sees humankind as defined by feeling. Our actions are driven more by the affections – by sympathy and fear, trust and betrayal – than by reason, and any good political theory must recognize this fact. So, when confronted with the American Revolution, Burke imagined his way into the American position, looking not just for the abstract causes of rebellion but for the feelings of betrayal and injustice that underlay the uprising. Burke ultimately suggested reconciliation rather than war; history would prove his the wiser choice. In Burke’s view, the exemplary politician must be an exemplary reader of human feeling. Politics is sympathy by other means.

Burke was as good a writer as he was a thinker. Bromwich, a professor of English at Yale, has this to say about Burke’s prose: “Read him for an hour or two, and try to disagree. It is harder than it should be. And the next author whom you read seems to be playing an inferior instrument.” Throughout his book, Bromwich offers many examples of the “strenuous, hard, driving” nature of Burke’s style, a style that echoes – and sometimes rivals – that of Shakespeare and Milton.

The book leaves off in 1782, with Burke’s writings on the French Revolution yet to come. But Bromwich has already achieved something remarkable: making philosophy, which we so often think of as vague, come alive, and making politics, which now seems so petty, appear ennobling.

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the book critic for Commonweal.

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