Edmund Burke counts as one of the superior witnesses to the 18th century’s revolutionary decades. Born in Dublin in 1730, he rose to prominence during the Enlightenment, an era of accelerated ideological change nurtured by scientific discovery and a burgeoning republic of letters. He observed the triumph of commercial society; lived through the Seven Years’ War that drew in most of Europe’s great powers between 1754 and 1763; saw the extension of the British empire into India; and became a central participant in the debates that followed the American and French Revolutions. All the while, he endured the circadian rhythms of parliamentary politics, serving between 1766 and 1794 as MP for Wendover, then Bristol and finally Malton. Burke’s moral complexities also typified the philosopher-statesman of his times. He supported the right of resistance to tyranny but upheld the authority of empire. He was committed to the rights of conquest but deplored the “spirit of conquest”. He defended the rights of imperial sovereignty but condemned the standing policies of British colonialism and the East India Company. Most controversially, he championed the American Revolution of 1776 but scolded its French equivalent in 1789. Such ambiguities have given him a contested place in the public imagination. For the political right, he stands as the architect of modern conservatism. Champions of this view highlight his sober pragmatism, commitment to parliamentary sovereignty, belief in the supremacy of private property, disregard for the collective wisdom of the people and mindfulness of the debt owed to past generations. For the left, he is the arch-antagonist whose apologia for empire and broadsides against the French Revolution betray a reactionary mind. Thomas Paine described Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) as “an outrageous abuse”. Marx branded him a “sycophant”, a “laudator temporis acti” (one who praised past times) and a “vulgar bourgeois”.
If what remains are caricatures rendered by the fattest of brushes, Richard Bourke’s Empire and Revolution is the finest of intellectual portraits. Bourke, a professor in the history of political thought at Queen Mary University of London, has marshalled innumerable sources across 1,000 pages to provide the definitive account of a life in ideas and politics. In 1750 Burke entered Middle Temple to study law, but soon dropped out to pursue his literary and philosophical ambitions. Not a systematic thinker like David Hume or Immanuel Kant, he was rather an engaged polemicist who would exult in public debate. Nevertheless, early writings such as A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, first published in 1757, were pitched in a distinctly theoretical key. As Bourke notes of the Philosophical Enquiry, although it “is not a comprehensive treatise in moral philosophy, it does provide us with access to Burke’s theory of human nature as it sets about accounting for uniform features of the mind”. Burke accepted the limitations of human knowledge and the volatility of individual judgment. Yet he was never hostile towards the bards of Enlightenment reason. Instead, as Bourke writes, he “saw himself as promoting enlightened ideals from within a sceptical Anglican tradition”. Rather than pure reason, Burke looked to artificial reason: arguments should proceed not from abstract norms, but “artificially” on the basis of experience and empirical fine-tuning. Burke saw the limitations of human knowledge but he was never hostile towards Enlightenment reason In 1759, Burke accepted a position as secretary to the English politician William Gerard Hamilton and, from 1766, he served as an MP. While he remained fluent in the argot of Enlightenment philosophy, the exigencies of public life meant that his intellectual pursuits would now be determined by events. Bourke identifies five main issues that commanded Burke’s attention in the House of Commons: the nature of the British constitution; the crisis in the American colonies; the British empire, especially the actions of the East India Company; Irish trade and the fate of Irish Catholicism; and the impact of the French Revolution on European politics.
With absolute precision, Bourke recasts Burke’s thought throughout this tumultuous period in history, emphasising his commitment to political stability at home (based on a mixed system of government and the right to private property), religious toleration in Ireland, and justice for colonial subjects abroad. Bourke’s superb book, then, has a double relevance. It brings the intricacies of Burke’s mind into sharper relief than previous accounts, demonstrating that he cannot be situated within comfortingly simple categories of left and right, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, liberal or conservative. And at a time of soaring disenchantment with politicians, it is a reminder of why we value intellectual independence. As Burke’s friend, Oliver Goldsmith, described him: “for a patriot, too cool; for a drudge, disobedient;/ And too fond of the right, to pursue the expedient”.