June 11, 2016


REVIEW: Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered by Russell Kirk (George Panichas, 6/11/16, Imaginative Conservative)

Early on in his book, then, Kirk etches out the Burke we need to know, the "Burke [who] has obtained his immortality not for what he did, but for what he perceived," or as Kirk writes with eloquent perspicacity:

Foreseeing a sack of the world by the forces of Chaos and old night, Burke en­deavored to save the best of the tradi­tional order within the barricades of in­stitution and philosophy. He was the first conservative of our time of troubles. He labored to safeguard the permanent things, which have converted the brute into the civil social man. In modern poli­tics, the task of saving begins with Burke.... In the citadel of tradition and prescrip­tion, Burke keeps vigil.

Kirk centers his major attention on "the four great struggles" of Burke as an eighteenth-century man of affairs and political visionary: his unsuccessful effort to achieve conciliation with the American colonies; his role in the Rockingham Whigs' contest against the domestic power of King George III; his sixteen-year prosecution of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India; and his unyielding resistance to Jacobinism, the "armed doctrine" of the French Revolution. The chapters Kirk devotes to these struggles are eminently clear and thorough in detail, and contain excellently selected passages from Burke's writings and also from some of his most discerning expositors. Kirk's discussions are judicious and always instructive. The picture we get of Burke is never one-sided or eclectic or twisted, but multifaceted and comprehensive. The need to maintain a balance between liberty and order, for Burke, is always in evidence, as it should be, in Kirk's ac­count. Avoiding extremes that end in antinomian tendencies and actions was for Burke of uppermost importance, or as he declared in his Letter to the Sheriffs of the City of Bristol (April 3, 1777), his words having special import in our time: "The extreme of liberty (which is its abstract perfection, but its real fault) obtains nowhere, nor ought to obtain anywhere; because extremes, as we all know, in every point which relates ei­ther to our duties or satisfactions in life, are destructive both to virtue and enjoy­ment."

In particular Kirk's long and thought­ful chapter on "India and Justice" holds important lessons for modern-day read­ers insofar as Burke, in his particular indictment of British rule, was to ex­press principles of justice that are uni­versal in their application. Prescription, tradition, moral habit, and custom must point the way if inner and outer corrup­tion is to be curbed and if anarchy is to be averted. Hastings and other English­ men, Burke charged, were exploiting the Indian peoples to the ruin of India and the violation of principles of morality, which go beyond geographical frontiers. Burke himself considered his prosecution of Warren Hastings to be the best work of his life. "Let not this cruel, dar­ing, unexampled act of publick corrup­tion, guilt and meanness," Burke wrote a year before his death, "go down to a posterity...without its due animadver­sion.... Let my endeavors to save the Nation from that shame and guilt, be my monument; The only one I ever will have." Kirk's well-wrought discussion certainly honors Burke's "endeavor" and deepens and illuminates its larger significance.

Indeed, as Kirk stresses, Burke's en­tire life was one long endeavor to avert or to contain the ravages of revolution in the American colonies, in the civil order of Britain, in India, Ireland, France, and the whole of Europe. To save humane civilization from anarchy was Burke's dominant motive in his actions and writings. Revolutions, he knew, and as Kirk calls to our attention, have a way of devouring their children. For Burke, in fact, the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, as he himself observed mob vio­lence in London, alerted him to what can take place in a society in which fanatic ideologues seek to fulfill their agenda. "Amid the smoke of half-ruined London, he knew," as Kirk states, "that the anony­mous and faceless tyranny of the revolu­tionary mob was a worse thing than even the most unfeeling despotism.... He set his face against the revolutionaries like a man who finds himself suddenly beset by robbers." Reflections on the Revolu­tion in France (1790), Kirk reminds his reader, is the work of a prophet who discerned the shaking of the founda­tions of European civilization with all the seismic aftershocks.

Posted by at June 11, 2016 7:29 AM