Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered

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Puritanboard Amanuensis
Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. ISI Books, 2009.

A modern-day Edmund Burke surveys his intellectual ancestor. Burke was the essence of conservatism and a study of his life shows how far we have fallen.

Burke’s genius was that he never allowed abstract discussions of “rights” to eclipse common sense and the concrete good.

Further, we can’t simply say Burke supported the American Revolution as such. Burke did not support Revolutions. He simply argued that the British policy of taxing the colonies would harm Britain more than it helped her.

It’s difficult to pin down Burke on natural rights. On one hand, he rejected the idea that there were free-floating, abstract things called rights. If there are such things, they are almost impossible to know (and impossible to distinguish from other free-floating rights). He correctly perceived that rights are secure only within a moral nexus of community and transcendence. (both under attack today, which is why everything is a right, unless it is advocated by conservatives).

Burke’s conception of rights was put to the test in India. Burke saw that the Indians were being exploited, yet how could he go about prosecuting the East India Company? They countered that what they were doing to the Hindus was no worse than what had been happening by their own people for thousands of years. (It’s hard to believe in natural rights and dignity and have a caste system). Further, unlike America, India didn’t have a Judeo-Christian common law tradition. This meant that Burke had to fall back on something like universal rights, but this brought him uncomfortably close to Rousseau.

That may be too quick a move,however. Burke’s argument ultimately hinged on his belief in God (thus separating him from Rousseau). If England continued to exploit India, they could no longer claim they were just before God. (This argument wouldn’t work in today’s secular world.)

Natural rights can never be isolated from tradition, which includes both memory of the past and a plurality of social structures today. Among other things, such a natural rights tradition will generate a natural aristocracy (thus separating Burke from radicals like Rousseau).

There are weaknesses and ambiguities in Burke’s thought, to be sure. Nevertheless, he is the standard for which we judge conservatives today. Burke warned against “change for change’s sake,” the perennial temptation for today’s liberal. He would also warn against “importing foreign values” to the rest of the world, the perennial temptation for today’s neoconservative.

On another note, politics aside, Burke should be read simply for the sheer literary delight. He lived in the Age of Johnson and Gibbon and had mastered the art of the near-perfect sentence. Among students of rhetoric, we note that in Burke logos and ethos, style and substance, are united.
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