Life and Times of Burke

There are many biographical entries on Edmund Burke to be found on the internet. Unfortunately some are hopelessly off track when it comes to commenting on and interpreting his speeches and writing. This is not to be wondered at. Burke sometimes caused embittered opposition during his life time, especially on the major issues of the day: revolutionary America, India and Governor Hastings, Ireland, revolutionary France. Rather than responding to his arguments, his political detractors (inside and outside the House) resorted to sneer, smear and misrepresentation. Indeed, that was the only resort for many because they could not get a grasp on his arguments.

Many of the charges and insults brought against Burke continue to be peddled today: he was inconsistent, given to nostalgia, a flatterer of the aristocracy, emotional and hysterical, his speeches in the house were mere rhetoric designed to persuade, and so on. The nastiness and misrepresentation is nowhere more evident than in that paradigm of malignant political nastiness, Karl Marx. Marx, whose private life rivalled the character of his philosophy, said of Burke:

The sycophant — who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy — was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois.

This sort of comment levelled at the political and religious conservative is recognisable. It characterises much of the rhetoric of today’s politically correct class. In Australia, it has been exemplified by the unrelenting vilification of our present Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and former Prime Minister John Howard, one of the most successful prime ministers in the nation’s history. Howard’s and Abbott’s Burkean influences, which give the clue to their action, are tragically misunderstood or cynically misrepresented by those mindlessly repeating the mythologies of their class.

Returning to Marx’s put-down, anyone who reads Burke attentively will know there was no inconsistency in Burke’s support for the American colonies and his ferocious attack on the French revolutionaries. In the first, Burke was against the misuse of parliamentary authority, in the second, against the destruction of political authority of existing societies and governments by the theorists of democracy. It is clear in the tenor of Marx’s comment that he understands this.

The most recent biography, Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician and Prophet by Jesse Norman (William Collins, 2013) is highly recommended. A summary of the first part of Norman’s book, LIFE, can be found here: A Commentary on Edmund Burke Philosopher, Politician, Prophet

Otherwise we recommend the following two biographies of Burke:

Edmund Burke: a Life, Magnus, Sir Philip. New York, Russell & Russell, 1973

The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke, O’Brien, Conor Cruise. Minerva, 1993

Of the internet sites below the Stanford Encyclopedia entry is recommended. Entries on the other sites should be read critically.