Book Review: The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke
By David Bromwich
Writing about Edmund Burke, David Bromwich gets it exactly right: “The complexity of Burke’s greatness stems from the double nature of his work. He was a thinker and a politician – a thinker above all and by vocation; a politician accidentally, though the accident could seem his essence.” In Bromwich’s magnificent new book, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, there is none of the seeming that, one realizes in shocked retrospect, forms such a big part of all earlier books on the mighty and eloquent 18th century statesman and moral philosopher. Like Shakespeare, Bromwich points out, Burke understood the gravitational pull of “Machiavellian morality,” but “[he] was a consistent anti-Machiavellian but not a complacent one; he often conveys a sense of being bound in spite of himself to a world in motion.”
This is beautifully put, and Burke conveys that sense not only in his copious published writings but also in even more copious private correspondence, which Bromwich masters and then mines with a degree of skill and discrimination I haven’t seen in a Burkean study since the late 1970s. Our author acknowledges immediately that he has not written a life-and-times biography (he directs his readers to several worthy such books and, mysteriously, one very unworthy one) but rather an elaborate tracking of Burke’s developing social and political rhetoric, stretching from his stumbling apprenticeship in party politics to his safe election from a stereotypical ‘pocket borough,’ which gave him the foothold in Parliament from which he delivered all of the thundering speeches that assured him his immortality.
Typically, Americans will know him mainly through those speeches, particularly the ones he delivered in defense of the rebelling American colonies. “An Englishman,” he famously proclaimed, “is the unfittest person on earth the argue another Englishman into slavery.” But the sheer, marvelous plenitude of the material Bromwich brings into his narrative quickly broadens the story to take in the full ambit of Burke’s public intellectualism. Of all the cultural giants in his own time (all of whom were impressed by him, and most of whom were his friends, although Garrick, Goldsmith, Boswell, and even the voluble Doctor Johnson admitted that he frequently baffled them), perhaps only Adam Smith could be more reflexively guarded about bearing his heart in the coffee shops, but Bromwich thoroughly understands how clearly the man is revealed in his writing, and one of the greatest pleasures in The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is the regularity with which we get chunks of Burke’s own intensely good prose. The man was a tireless student of human nature and one of the sharpest observers of man the political animal since Tacitus. And his descriptions of political creatures are uniformly so perceptive that any 21st century will find them instantly recognizable:
A species of men to whom a state of order would become a sentence of obscurity, are nourished into a dangerous magnitude by the heat of intestine disturbances; and it is no wonder that, by a sort of sinister piety, they cherish, in their turn, the disorders which are the parents of all their consequence. Superficial observers consider such persons as the cause of the public uneasiness, when, in truth, they are nothing more than the effect of it.
Bromwich clearly admires his subject (as did most of his subject’s acquaintances, even the most prickly among them), but there’s not a hint of hagiography in this book – indeed, whenever Burke makes one of his rare slips into tripe or bombast, Bromwich is right there to rap his knuckles, as in his discussion of Burke’s Speech on the Reform of Representation (dated 1782):
Here the preservation of the authority of the House of Commons is linked to the perpetuation of constituencies as they are. With a sarcasm that is unworthy of his best abilities, Burke opens by shifting attention away from the scandal of grossly unequal representation – the ownership of seats by men of title and privilege, the scarcity of contested elections, and the fact that uninhabited boroughs could enjoy a representation denied to populous neighborhoods. He ignores all these matters to speak of the British constitution, which, though it is the admiration of the world, has been found at the close of the eighteenth century to be a ruined structure, “infested by the dry rot.”
It’ll bring a smile to the face of any reader that even when he’s being stern with Burke, Bromwich is still very nearly as quotable as the man himself, writing here that, “Burke wants to assimilate his fondness for a government based in the aristocratic society of the mid-eighteenth century to the venerability of what is venerable and the loveliness of what is lovely.”
Through the various crises Burke weathered in the thirty years covered by this volume (in a bit of very happy news, Bromwich promises a second such volume, covering the last 15 years or so of Burke’s career), not only do the patterns of the man’s thinking take on clearer and clearer shape, but so too, eventually, does the man himself. Bromwich might not be doing the standard finances-and-family run-through of a biography, but he nevertheless ends up painting as vivid a personal portrait as any biography-reader could want:
Burke’s temperament … was poorly adapted to the bustle, the low arts of bargaining, and the traffic with interested persons that are part of the vote-getting in a contested election. He looked with a touch of self-mockery at the rituals of courtship between political artists and their audience.
What gives force to all Burke’s speeches and actions, Bromwich writes, was “an impression of continuous sincerity.” That’s certainly the impression conveyed in this irreplaceable study, which inadvertently underscores the disquieting extent to which we are all living in a political continuum of Burke’s shaping. When this volume is completed by its sequel, we’ll have a benchmark of Burke studies fit to last a century.