Edmund Burke on our Present Discontents

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Volume 5

In one of his rare appearances in contemporary Irish culture, Edmund Burke surfaces as a footnote to one of the more poignant refrains in Brian Friel’s classic play, Philadelphia, Here I Come. As the loss of his dead mother comes to haunt the protagonist of the play, Gar, on the eve of his departure for America, his mind keeps returning to a passage he has learned by rote in school from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France : ‘It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness at Versailles…’
Though a dramatic aside, this contains a key insight into Burke’s political views for it touches on the theme of nostalgia which is so central to modern perceptions of him. Burke’s nostalgia is associated with his veneration of tradition, his sentimental attachment to the ‘age of chivalry’ and the values of the old aristocratic order. It is in this sense that he has become the patron saint of conservatism, or, at any rate, that contemporary British version of it, coloured by the heritage industry, which seeks to recreate the glories of a vanished imperial past.

Tradition as the scene of a crime

But was Burke an uncritical worshipper at the shrine of tradition?  He was undoubtedly against innovation of the kind which turns the world upside down, and cuts off all ancestral ties. This was the basis of his unrelenting attack on the French Revolution in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). But he was not against renovation, even if it involved a major alteration of our relationship with the past. Tradition for him was not mindless repetition, nor did it reside in ossified rituals impervious to the passage of time. Rather it was a dynamic principle, adaptable to circumstances, and the contingencies of social change. In particular, he warned against the rigidity of forms of tradition which make a cult of their foundational moments, seeking their essence in origins  rather than in process and development.
This was particularly the case in Ireland where to celebrate origins was to re-open the wounds of conquest and humiliation, to convert the past itself into a pathology. As he wrote in the 1790s of Protestant celebrations of Cromwell and King William: ‘One would not think that decorum, to say nothing of policy, would permit them to call up, by magic charms, the grounds, reasons, and principles of those terrible confiscatory and exterminatory periods’ when they established their rule. Tradition in this sense is little more than revisiting the scene of a crime, the return of the repressed in the public sphere. Burke was of course a defender of Britishness, and in one sense was the last great hope, before the 1798 Rebellion, of reconciling Irish with British identity, in a manner similar to that in which Scottishness was rendered compatible with the Union by the Scottish Enlightenment. But he had little sympathy for triumphalist versions of Britishness which sought to trample on the rights of other cultures, and which would construe any badge of difference—the Irish language, Catholicism, or, in our own time, even Gaelic games—as a form of subversion.
Hence his defence of Indian civilisation—and Burke was adamant that it was a civilisation, not merely a primitive culture ripe for conquest—against the depradations of the East Indian Company was based on the premise that if the British constitution could only be introduced by ransacking native culture, then it was no longer legitimate. The very fact that the appeal to history systematically intensified conflict in a society, rather than helping to resolve it, was sufficient to call into question the legitimacy of a political regime. Without the connective tissue of tradition, and a common culture, however diversified, even the most basic forms of civil society cannot survive. Tradition ought to be a source of stability but in Ireland it amounted to little more than kicking a dog to see if it was asleep. The problem was not one of diversity, but of domination: if the state could only be maintained by keeping entire cultures in subjection, then one was dealing with a society based not on true consent but on thinly veiled forms of coercion.

Commerce and culture

In arguing thus, Burke has something to say not only to those who refuse to let sleeping dogs lie, but also to more recent enthusiasts eager to celebrate the Celtic Tiger, and its market equivalent, the law of the jungle. Belying his image as a Don Quixote tilting against the windmills of change and modernity, Burke was in fact one of the most advanced economic thinkers of his day. Adam Smith is reported to have said that Burke was the only person whose thoughts on economics coincided with his own, but if Burke embraced market principles, it was not along unbridled, laissez-faire  lines. The corruption of the East India Company under Warren Hastings in India gave him some idea of how private economic interests freed from all political accountability might behave, and the prospect alarmed him. His faith in markets was confined to conditions of abundance such as he considered (somewhat optimistically) to exist in the England of his day; but it did not extend to India where the ravages of poverty and famine called forth some of his shrillest invective against economic oppression.
Burke was unusual among advanced political economists in recognising the medieval right of necessity  as well as the right to property: had this been recognised during the Great Irish Famine, the government would have been obliged to intervene to save lives, rather than seeing it as discretionary, or a matter of private charity. The spectre of famine was not without its painful associations for Burke. As a young boy raised in the Nagle household on County Cork, it is likely that he lived through the devastating famine of 1740-1 which, proportionately, caused more deaths in this region than the Great Famine of the late 1840s. In later years, it was the unimaginable suffering wreaked by famine upon India which drew his wrath in his indictment of Warren Hastings:

every day seventy at least laid their bodies in the streets, or on the glacis of Tanjore, and expired of famine in the granary of India. I was going to awake your justice towards this unhappy part of our fellow-citizens, by bringing before you some of the circumstances of this plague of hunger. Of all the calamities which beset and waylay the life of man, this comes nearest to our heart…but I feel unable to manage it with decorum; these details are of a species of horror so nauseous and disgusting; they are so humiliating to human nature itself that, on better thoughts, I find it more advisable to throw a pall over this hideous object, and to leave it to your general conceptions.

Whatever about his belief in economic progress, Burke had no illusions that society itself could be founded on market values, or even on the formal ties of contract and legal notions of consent: ‘the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern’. While accepting the need for contract and trade, Burke was among the first to recognise that the commodity is no substitute for the common good, and that for commerce even to take place, there has to be a cultural substratum or system of values which transcends the logic of the marketplace.

Aesthetics and politics

In emphasising the primacy of culture, Burke strikes a curious modern (or postmodern) note, at least insofar as he contends that manners, presentation and appearances—what we would now term ‘image’ or ‘style’—are central even to the machinations of politics. The state, stripped of its rituals and symbols, is reduced to a naked, shivering condition, sufficient, perhaps, to instil fear, but not to elicit allegiance or loyalty.
It is in this light that we should view his own theatricality, extending to such stage-effects as throwing a dagger on the floor of the House of Commons to warn of the insidiousness of the French threat to Britain. Burke’s commanding performances during the impeachment of Warren Hastings in Westminster Hall drew crowds, according to one contemporary, which rivalled those at ‘the playhouse when Garrick play[ed] King Lear’. In the modern society of the spectacle, politics has been reduced to the headline or the soundbite furnished by political handlers and media spin doctors. Compare this to the tragic fury of Burke’s parliamentary eloquence, ‘foaming like Niagara’, as Boswell described it, while hapless stenographers tried to bottle the torrent. Eloquence and hype look to artifice and effect, but while the latter invites immediate obsolescence, the former speaks to us across the centuries. For Burke, the aim of rhetoric was not just to persuade, but to convince. Like Yeats, this involved taking the ultimate risk of acting out his deepest thoughts in public.
Though it is tempting to construe his theatricality as an affectation, Burke’s striving for dramatic effect in both word and deed was ineluctably bound up with his most abiding political concerns. His historical importance rests chiefly on his reputation as a statesman and political philosopher, but it is worth remembering that he first came to prominence as a man of letters, the youthful author of one of the most influential treatises in the history of aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, published in 1757. Burke’s official conservative persona may have been characterised by a devotion to order, authority and tradition, but his aesthetic theory of the sublime betrayed a darker side of his personality, a fascination with disorder, terror and the imagination of disaster.

Beauty and terror

Taken in conjunction with his first hand experience of the oppression of Catholics under the Penal Laws, it is not too difficult to account for Burke’s preoccupation with terror and violence, and indeed for the need to sublimate his deepest fears in the indirect discourse of aesthetics. His aesthetic theory of the sublime made allowance for obscurity and inscrutability in language, attacking the Enlightenment principle that everything worth saying can be said in simple, unadorned prose: ‘a clear idea,’ wrote Burke, is just ‘another name for a little idea’. In an important sense, Burke’s aesthetics takes up where his politics leaves off, expressing the unresolved anxieties of his official conservative persona. This tension is particularly evident in the Reflections on the Revolution in France, where the demonic force of ‘the sublime’ is associated with the Jacobins, all the more to contrast it with the allure of ‘the beautiful’, as embodied in the vulnerable figure of Marie Antoinette. Yet Mary Wollstonecraft may have touched on a raw nerve when she observed in her reply to the Reflections that Burke simply protested too much, and that his verbal fireworks may have concealed a grudging admiration for the Jacobins: ‘Reading your Reflections warily over, it has continually and forcibly struck me, that had you been a Frenchman, you would have been, in spite of your respect for rank and antiquity, a violent revolutionist’.
As the storm clouds gathered over Ireland in the 1790s, and sectarian strife broke out on a mass scale, even Burke appeared to be infected by revolutionary contagion. In October 1792, he mentions that he has been reading the newspapers of the United Irishmen, and he finds them ‘rational, manly and proper’ in every respect but for their tendency to ascribe to the British connection ills that emanate, as he sees it, from the ‘jobbing Ascendancy’. The attempt to infuse the restless energy of the sublime into the propagation of the Catholic cause is a recurrent note in his writings of this period. Though he stopped short initially from advocating violent resistance, by 1795, with the rise of the Defender movement, even this had changed. In a letter to Dr Hussey, the first President of Maynooth, Burke attributes the horrors of Orange pogroms against Catholics in Armagh to the misguided caution of the Catholic clergy:

I am not at all surprised at it and consider it one of the natural consequences of a measure better intended than considered—that of the Catholic clergy persuading the laity to give up their arms. Dreadful it is, but it is now plain enough that Catholic Defenderism  is the only restraint upon Protestant Ascendancy.

Burke was, of course, a man of his era, and was thus hidebound by the ‘prejudices’ and ‘presumptions’, as he would have put it, of his own time. But just as Greek democracy and Renaissance humanism are greater than the conditions which gave rise to them, so Burke’s rethinking of the relation between past and present, culture and commerce, aesthetics and politics, extend beyond his own era. ‘In Burke’s style’, as Tom Paulin has put it, ‘you see the next two centuries of Irish history waiting to be born’. This is perhaps a fitting verdict on the writer who, in his youthful aesthetic treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), first made the fatal association between terror and beauty in Irish culture.

Luke Gibbons lectures in the Communications Department, Dublin City University, and is the author of the forthcoming  The Colonial Sublime: Edmund Burke and Irish Romanticism.

Further reading:

S. Deane, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790 (Oxford 1997).

F.G. Whelan, Edmund Burke and India: Political Morality and Empire (Pittsburgh 1997).

C. Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke (London 1993).

W.J. McCormack, From Burke to Beckett: Ascendancy, Tradition and Betrayal in Literary History (Cork 1994).

This paper is based on a BBC Radio 3 Burke commemorative lecture (11 July 1997) and an address to the Burke bicentenary conference  at Trinity College, Dublin (9 July 1997).


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