A Strange Conservative Indeed

Reviewing my friend Jesse Norman’s Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, Charles Hill spots a paradox in attempting to write such a book:

While recognizing that Burke’s persona, like Walt Whitman’s, contains multitudes, Norman boldly NPG 655,Edmund Burke,studio of Sir Joshua Reynoldssummarizes Burke’s thought for our time. Any such effort, however, is fundamentally un-Burkean. There is no catching Leviathan with a hook. Burke’s writing and speaking—style and substance—are all of a piece, coming together organically. His 1790 masterpiece Reflections on the Revolution in France is clear, but stubbornly resistant to summation. There are no chapters or subheadings, no table of contents, no index.

When the luminous intellectual historian Frank Turner edited a new edition of Burke in 2003, he was determined to produce an index. It was, Turner told me, “the damndest fool’s errand I ever set myself.” When he had finally completed it, he found that the first item he looked up in the index had not been included. To grasp the full force of Burke’s ideas, one must read through his entire oeuvre, without assistance.

About those multitudes:

For Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century Irish statesman who served in the British House of Commons, the hallmark of a sane society is reconciliation of the present and the future to the past.

We live our lives in the present, with time always progressing forward in a linear direction, so Burke’s respect for the past makes him conservative. Given the modern world’s appetite for change, Burke’s emphasis on continuity and permanence makes him seem like a strange outsider. Furthermore, Burke’s conservatism is expressed in a fierce and fiery, almost reactionary, style.

This puzzled his detractors, who were constantly suspecting Burke of some ulterior motive, of exerting some nefarious influence in the cause of some hidden agenda. The Duke of Newcastle said, “Burke’s real name is O’Bourke, a wild Irishman, a Jacobite, a papist, a concealed Jesuit.” At best, but equally threatening to the state, Burke was an eighteenth-century Socrates, a dangerous gadfly, challenging the settled assumptions of Britain.

The portrayal of Burke in Boswell’s Life of Johnson avoids quoting the statesman directly, and sometimes disguises the identity of the “Burkean” speaker, as if to conceal Burke from the authorities. If this was a conservative, it was a strange conservative indeed. Moreover, Burke took contrarian positions on world issues, positions his critics found difficult to reconcile: religious liberty for Ireland, independence for America, justice and respect for India’s traditions, and to hell with the French Revolution.

Of course, all these positions are entirely easy to reconcile, once you abandon rigid categories of agitprop and actually think. The founder of Anglo-American conservatism was, in reality, a Whig. These nuances would not fare well on, say, the Mark Levin show. But any true appreciation of conservatism as a political disposition would be thoroughly engaged.