Spotlight Report: “The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke”

Spotlight Report: Yale Center for the Study of Representative Institutions (YCRI) Commercial Republic Symposium on “The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke”

In the party manifesto he published in 1770, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, Edmund Burke famously described “the business of the politician” as that of “the philosopher in action.” In what promises to be one of the major studies of Burke, Yale University’s Sterling Professor of English, David Bromwich, has taken these words to heart and produced an intellectual biography of Burke that treats the professional career of the great Whig statesman as a life of political action through words and ideas.

On May 1st, 2015, dozens of scholars from all over the northeast convened at Yale University’s Luce Hall, to participate in a symposium celebrating and critically considering the recent publication of Bromwich’s The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence (Harvard University Press, 2014). The symposium was organized by the Yale Center for the Study of Representative Institutions and made possible by the Jack Miller Center’s Commercial Republic Initiative through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Bromwich, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has published widely on eighteenth century moral and political thought, as well as on poetry and literary criticism, including books on William Hazlitt and William Wordsworth. His essays and reviews have been published in The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books and The New Republic.

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is the first part of a two-volume study, in which Bromwich offers a comprehensive consideration of Burke’s public writings and private correspondence. At the heart of this volume, which examines the first three decades of Burke’s career, can be found an account of his involvement in the American Revolution, including his famous speeches in critique of the attempts by the British government to break “the spirit of liberty” predominant in the colonies.

The Yale symposium included two panels, each opening up a different conversation. Bryan Garsten, Professor of Political Science and Humanities at Yale University, served as the moderator for the first panel, “Human Nature and Politics in an Age of Revolutions,” which addressed the relationship between Burke’s philosophy and his politics, with an emphasis on his earlier work, from the publication of his important study of aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), to his writings on the American Revolution. Jeffrey Stout, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, discussed Burke’s unique moral psychology, focusing on his treatment of delight and the sublime, and his idea that virtue and vice are contagious. Yiftah Elazar, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Representative Institutions, discussed the intellectual background for Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), arguing that it constituted the last act of a debate that the British Dissenting minister Richard Price provoked during the American Revolution on the relation between civil liberty and democratic participation in government.

Karuna Mantena, Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University, moderated the second panel, “Empire and the Fate of Liberty,” which considered Burke’s work in his later years, in anticipation of the second volume of Bromwich’s intellectual biography. Regina Janes, Professor of English at Skidmore College, addressed Burke’s defense of property and the present order of things, focusing on the 1790s. Uday Mehta, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, spoke of Burke as a critic of British imperialism, addressing what he described as “the challenge of imperial self-knowledge.”

Following these two panels, Bromwich sat for a brief Q&A period, during which he praised the “extraordinarily heterogenous talks.” Burke, he explained, is full of provocations, which these presentations expertly highlighted.

Elazar, the organizer of the symposium, later said: “This was a wonderful conversation on a wide range of important topics, including the relation between aesthetics, morality, and politics, the meaning of liberty in commercial society and its relation to democratic self-government, the present order of things and reasons for wanting to preserve or to challenge it, and the politics of empire. All of these timely issues come together in the controversial and fascinating work of Edmund Burke, and all have been masterfully considered in David Bromwich’s study, which we were happy for the opportunity to address.”


The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence is available for purchase through the Harvard University Press website.