May 31, 2014


'The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke' considers one of the great thinkers of all time : David Bromwich's biography of Edmund Burke is a masterpiece of intellectual history. (Anthony Domestico, May 29, 2014, CS Monitor)

Burke was a pragmatic thinker and so it can be difficult to identify the abstract ideals on which he based his politics. We know that he valued "prescription," which Bromwich defines as humankind's "natural presumption in favor of social practices that have lasted a long time." These customs - the existence of the aristocracy and its leading role in politics, for instance - provide society with the restraint that it needs in order to survive. In concrete terms, this meant that Burke resisted calls for more frequent and more democratic elections. We also know that he loathed cruelty and abuse of power; this led to his calling for more lenient laws against debtors.

In Bromwich's analysis, Burke is a "moral psychologist": a man whose political thinking arose from his reading of man's moral nature. Burke sees humankind as defined by feeling. Our actions are driven more by the affections - by sympathy and fear, trust and betrayal - than by reason, and any good political theory must recognize this fact. So, when confronted with the American Revolution, Burke imagined his way into the American position, looking not just for the abstract causes of rebellion but for the feelings of betrayal and injustice that underlay the uprising. Burke ultimately suggested reconciliation rather than war; history would prove his the wiser choice. In Burke's view, the exemplary politician must be an exemplary reader of human feeling. Politics is sympathy by other means.

Burke was as good a writer as he was a thinker. Bromwich, a professor of English at Yale, has this to say about Burke's prose: "Read him for an hour or two, and try to disagree. It is harder than it should be. And the next author whom you read seems to be playing an inferior instrument." 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at May 31, 2014 8:34 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus