Read enough copies of The National Review, The Weekly Standard or any other conservative publication and it is clear that Edmund Burke is some kind of lodestar for modern conservatism. But who was he, and what did he stand for?
Jesse Norman, himself a member of the House of Commons and doctorate-holder, has written a biography of Burke that is divided into two parts. The first is an adequate but sometimes tedious and confusing chronology of Burke’s political career. The second is a lucid and thrilling exposition of his political philosophy.
In the first part, Mr. Norman introduces Burke as a man whose story is “more one of intellect and imagination than political achievement.” It’s hard to argue with this statement. Burke was a member of Parliament for 30 years and renowned across the continent for his ideas. But he was never elected prime minister, frequently scrambled for a seat in Parliament, and often found himself in the minority for his stances on, for instance, the liberalization of laws against Catholics in Ireland, his support for the American Revolution and his impeachment proceedings against the governor of India, Warren Hastings.
Still, Mr. Norman’s sketch of the man rightfully renders him an intellectual giant, whose ideas have reverberated down the ages. Describing Burke’s masterwork, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Mr. Norman takes fulsome stock of Burke’s intellectual sensibilities.
“[W]e have Burke the vates, the seer, inspired by cold passion and intellectual energy, prophesying the future when all around are absorbed in fantasy, folly and self-congratulation. This is no great event, he says, no general harmony, no liberty to be venerated; it is a catastrophe.”
Mr. Norman also amply colors his portrait of Burke by examining how his contemporaries received him: Samuel Johnson lauded him as one who “does not talk from a desire of distinction, but because his mind is full.” Adam Smith, the godfather of free-market economics, hailed him as “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.”
What drags down Part One is an overly ambitious attempt to condense a chronology of British national politics in Burke’s time into a short amount of space. An often indistinct prosopography of British politicians and the events of their time is crammed into only about 150 pages. It’s not impossible to follow, but it is at times overly prosaic, and characters come, go and reappear too quickly to follow with ease. For the reader who is merely eager to understand Burke’s ideas, it is dispensable.
But the second part of the book is pure brilliance, a refreshingly candid and discursive examination of Burke’s philosophy, and how the West might be wise to readopt it. For Mr. Norman, Burke is the “hinge or pivot of political modernity the first and greatest critic of the modern age, and of what has been called liberal individualism.”
In Burke’s mind, which drew heavily upon Aristotle and the tradition of English constitutional law, the web of interaction between a nation’s different private associations (families, businesses, Boy Scouts, labor unions, Rotary clubs, etc.) ought to be the basis for public order, and is the best buffer against the power of the state: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and our mankind.”
Examining Burke against Rousseau, who deemed individual rights the ideal organizing principle of political life, Mr. Norman makes the case that Burke’s suspicion of the Enlightenment was well-founded, “precisely because [universal individual rights] had the potential to threaten the basis of society itself, by providing a justification for revolution.”
Burke accordingly reviles the French Revolution for uprooting the institutions, however unjust, that form the basis of a harmonious society, and is skeptical that something better could replace it: “I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners.”
Burke’s critique of the French Revolution isn’t too far off from similar hand-wringing over the so-called “Arab Spring.” In view of the constitutional crises, religious persecutions and economic downturn that accompanied the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, for example, we see Burke’s skepticism of disrupting the social order at least partly vindicated. The political grass that revolution promises is not always greener. We should not be content to live under tyranny, either, but Mr. Norman insists that “[f]or radical change to be genuinely worthwhile, it must bring overwhelming social benefit, or be the product of the most extreme necessity.”
There are many, many original and excellent thoughts about Burke in this volume, too many to be discussed here. And it is possible for “Edmund Burke: The First Conservative,” written by a member of Parliament, to be considered as much a campaign document as biography. Even still, any amateur or professional student of political philosophy should take Mr. Norman’s book seriously.
David Wilezol is the co-author, with William Bennett, of “Is College Worth It?” (Thomas Nelson, 2013).