Let Burke Be Burke

Published July 15, 2013

National Review Online

General readers in search of a reliable and readable single-volume biography of Edmund Burke have had few options in recent decades. Although some significant new material (including especially Burke’s complete personal correspondence) has become available since the middle of the 20th century, no authoritative biography has made his story widely accessible. This is odd, given Burke’s importance to Anglo-American political thought, and especially to English and American conservatives who tend to be fertile in producing books about their heroes.

But precisely Burke’s importance and relevance may have stood in the way of a definitive short biography. Writers telling his story have tended to use it to make points of their own — from Russell Kirk’s effort to make Burke the Christian moralist he needed right through Conor Cruise O’Brien’s mission to prove that Burke, like all good things, was first and foremost Irish. This has yielded some great books, including Kirk’s and O’Brien’s, but no great, straightforward overview of Burke’s life and work. So while some superb academic biographies have appeared, most notably F. P. Lock’s two-volume masterpiece (in 1999 and 2006), there has been nothing of the sort for the non-specialist reader.

Jesse Norman has set out to change that, and he has largely succeeded. Edmund Burke: The First Conservative is an engaging, highly readable, and impressively comprehensive overview. It handles the intricacies of English history and politics with great mastery and conveys Burke’s character and personality as few of his biographers have managed to do. Although its treatment of Burke’s life and times is far stronger than its assessment of his ideas, the book powerfully illustrates how the two were connected — how a political actor can be a political thinker too.

Norman is uniquely well suited to the latter task. He is a Conservative member of the British House of Commons with a Ph.D. in philosophy. And in the past few years he has made it his mission to give the Conservative party a coherent governing vision — one that emphasizes the importance of community and culture, in contrast to the more individualistic conservatism of the age of Thatcher (and Reagan).

Norman clearly sees Burke as the patron saint of his more communitarian brand of conservatism, and the portrait of Burke that emerges from his book offers ample support for that view. Burke, he argues, believed that what people want most is “to live together according to shared rules and norms in a moral community.”

By emphasizing this element of Burke’s political thought — which happens to be of particular use to the contemporary Conservative party’s aims — Norman does run the risk of subsuming Burke’s story under his own agenda. But he saves the reader from the worst consequences of that common vice of Burke biographers by dividing his book into two sections: a narrative recounting of Burke’s personal and political life and an analysis of his political ideas.

This makes possible a separation between a superb biography of Burke, very much including his ideas and arguments (in the book’s first section), and a far less impressive employment of Burke in defense of Norman’s priorities (in the second section).

In the biographical first section, which takes up well over half the book, Norman finds just the right balance between fast-paced storytelling and gripping historical detail, and he shines a light both on Burke’s great strengths as a thinker, writer, and orator and on his great weaknesses — especially his tendency to get carried away by his political passions. The essential features of Burke’s political thought — his organic notion of society, his incrementalism, his resistance to both radical change and abuses of power, his love of the emergent order of the British constitution — are interwoven in this tale with grace and subtlety.

The book’s second section, which is nominally devoted to Burke’s ideas, is, however, both less engaging and less useful. Norman pulls out a few prominent themes of particular relevance to contemporary British politics — a case for community, a defense of party politics — but fails to show what makes them central to Burke’s thought or how they are connected to one another.

As a result, Norman sells Burke somewhat short as a political thinker, and therefore also sells short his own argument — the case for a communitarian, non-libertarian conservatism. He fails to bring out the nature of the challenge that Burke posed to the Enlightenment liberalism of his day, and therefore the challenge Burke could still pose to liberal individualism in our day.

Norman insists that Burke’s key arguments are at their core directed against the radicalism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom the French revolutionaries saw as their intellectual patron. There is no question that Burke thought Rousseau was profoundly in error in some important respects. But to focus on his differences with Rousseau is to ignore his differences with the mainstream of British Enlightenment thought — from Thomas Hobbes and John Locke onward.

In fact, Burke offers a liberal alternative to Enlightenment liberalism. He argues that reasoning about politics from a theory about some pre-political human condition (like the “state of nature” theories employed by Hobbes and Locke and their successors) is absurd, that society is not a product of anyone’s choice and does not exist primarily to protect people’s rights to make choices, and that political liberalism was not an application of ideas discovered in the Enlightenment but the culmination of a process of political development that had been going on in Britain for many centuries. Burke’s vision of politics is an almost point-by-point rebuttal of the radicalism of the age of revolutions — the radicalism that yielded the excessive individualism that (in different forms) is the scourge of both the Left and the Right today. But Norman’s Burke evinces little of this.

The first section of Norman’s book is thus well worth the price, and stands on its own as a superb general biography of Burke. But the second section offers another instance of how easily Burke lends himself to being used as a political prop, and how frequently even the best scholars of his work succumb to this temptation.

A far clearer illustration of this recurring pattern in Burke scholarship is offered by another book published this spring: Edmund Burke in America, by historian Drew Maciag. Maciag uses Burke as a lens through which to view American political development, and especially the story of conservative thought in our country.

The conceit of the book has real promise: Maciag sets out to learn about the history of American political thought by tracing the different ways that Burke’s name and ideas have been used in our political debates since the Founding. But there is simply not enough material for Maciag to work with, and he never quite overcomes his prejudices.

The story he tells is often well researched, and at some points is insightful and illuminating. But it begins from a weak and partial grasp of Burke’s ideas and a profound hostility to American conservatism, and so is at its best when it recounts little-understood chapters of American political history (especially in the early and mid 19th century) rather than when discussing either of its purported subjects — Burke and the American Right.

The book also suffers from the fact that Burke’s name and work were simply not very prominent in American political debates for most of the nation’s history, so that tracing his appearance in public debates does not reveal as much as Maciag would like — especially given Maciag’s strikingly ideological approach to American political development.

He describes American social and political history in almost Hegelian terms as a “historical process” that moves through stages in which the competition of opposing ideologies ends with a significant step toward greater democratization. He surveys this trajectory by seeking out individuals (usually, but not always, on the losing side of history) who happened to refer to Edmund Burke or draw on his ideas or reputation in some way. The result is a rather random assortment of historical figures whose roles and views are explained not in their own terms but in relation to Maciag’s larger story.

Maciag insists, moreover, that essentially none of these figures — and especially not the more recent among them — understood Burke properly. He points to the fact that Burke was no reactionary but a complex traditionalist reformer and then notes with perplexity that later conservatives (including those of our day) have nonetheless repeatedly reached for his name and writings in advancing their causes. It seems never to occur to him that maybe these later conservatives haven’t been fools or reactionaries either — that perhaps Burke’s deep and complex vision is precisely what appeals to them, and what they are trying to advance.

Maciag would have done well to consider more carefully the real depth of Burke’s vision of politics and to take more seriously the possibility that contemporary Anglo-American conservatism is well aware of the challenge of balancing freedom and order, tradition and progress, and looks to Burke precisely for help in doing so.

He would have done well, in other words, to consult Jesse Norman’s fine new book.

Yuval Levin is Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.

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