William Anthony Hay for the Wall St. Journal

The Wall Street Journal

Long disturbed by the government’s abuse of power, Burke also came to see that a crowd might become as tyrannical as a king.

June 2, 2014

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence by David Bromwich

‘When a public man writes,” Richard Shackleton remarked in 1790, “people generally divide in their declared opinions not according to the merit of the work, but the prejudices which they have conceived concerning the man.” Over the years, the vast literature on Shackleton’s friend Edmund Burke (1729-97) shows how easily a writer can be lost amid the debate over his ideas and the “prejudices” they inspire.

In “The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke,” David Bromwich sets aside the conventional views of Burke—the eloquent opponent of radical ideology—to track the formation of his outlook and explore his early career. Just how, Mr. Bromwich asks, did Burke become Burke?

Born and raised in Ireland, Mr. Bromwich tells us, the future statesman prepared for a legal career in London before turning to authorship. “A Vindication of Natural Society,” published anonymously in 1756, was his first published effort. It attacked the idea—popular among the social thinkers of the era—that society’s customs and practices should be derived from man’s natural capacity to reason and not from superstition or illogical belief. But the pursuit of such “natural” morality, Burke argued, would entail rejecting education and acquired virtue, as well as most of religion. Mr. Bromwich shows Burke arriving here at one of his core principles: that society depends on barriers or constraints that prevent man from allowing his passions to control his reason and drive it to extremes. This insight would later inform his “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”

Burke established his reputation as a critic a few years later with “An Enquiry Into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” a work that still stands as one of the foundational texts of Romanticism. We do not think of Burke as a Romantic, but he was one of the first to investigate Romanticism’s wild sources. Burke recognized the tendency, in the mid-18th century, to conflate manners and refinement with ethics and moral sense, as if good taste offered a guide to good conduct. Burke would have none of it. For him, the aesthetic function operates prior to morality—hence the sudden and surprising effects of the “sublime,” an aesthetic sensation, as he defined it, involving fear and intensified emotion. “The originality of Burke on the sublime,” Mr. Bromwich writes, “was to reject utterly the connections between sublimity, good taste, probity and sanity.”

Burke entered Parliament in 1765 as the protégé of the Marquess of Rockingham, a stalwart Whig and opponent of George III’s government. Parliamentary debate, Mr. Bromwich says, added another dimension to Burke’s rhetorical gifts, beyond the printed page; it offered him a stage from which he might persuade “by the force of truth and imaginative eloquence.” Mr. Bromwich identifies the private qualities that political insiders recognized in Burke: “judgment both prudent and frank, intellectual energy combined with self-discipline, an ability to see things in uncommon lights.”

As Rockingham’s supporter and private secretary, Burke became an important opposition spokesman and strategist. By the late 1760s, he believed, George III had expanded his power in disturbing ways, giving the government an “authoritarian turn.” The king had dismissed established Whig politicians in favor of men who shared his views, and he had used patronage to consolidate their ascendancy over Parliament. His actions quietly strengthened the crown’s powers. Relatedly, Burke sided with John Wilkes, a populist pamphleteer who had been kept from taking his seat in Parliament despite having won two elections.

The solution to this authoritarian turn, Burke believed, was a revival of “party.” Factions, he argued, had been pursuing their interests at the expense of the public good. (Today we might call them “special interests.”) But political parties, ideally, would promote the national interest along shared principles. Burke’s “Thoughts on the Causes of Present Discontents” in 1770 argued for party as an expression of civic conscience and a curb on royal power.

These arguments—especially concerning the abuse of power—informed Burke’s views of imperial rule. Britain’s conduct in North America, he thought, showed a disturbing reliance on brute authority, and in this case, he noted, the British people went right along: They were quite happy to see the king’s army and fleet knock the discontented colonies into line. The American war prompted Burke to rethink one of his fundamental tenets, Mr. Bromwich says. A great believer in the accumulated wisdom of tradition and custom, Burke had once assumed that nothing habitual could become “dreadful,” as he put it, referring in part to violence and war. He now saw that something dreadful might become a habit and that a crowd might become as tyrannical as a king.

Mr. Bromwich’s exploration of Burke’s early intellectual life—a second volume promises to follow Burke’s ideas after 1783, when Britain made peace with America—seems intended to complement various biographical studies, including F.P. Lock’s magisterial two-volume biography (1999, 2006) and Conor Cruise O’Brien’s “The Great Melody” (1992). “The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke” most of all reminds us that Burke’s understanding of the moral psychology guiding politics sprang from his engagement with both ideas and practical questions. Certainly a better grasp of Burke’s early thought and the political turmoil of his time will prepare us for a fuller understanding of his response to the dramatic events of the late 18th century—not least, the outbreak of revolution in France and the implications Burke saw for England and for liberty itself.

Mr. Hay, a historian at Mississippi State University, is the author of “The Whig Revival, 1808-1830.”

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