A New Book on Edmund Burke

In May, a new book on Edmund Burke appeared, Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. Its author is Jesse Norman who, according to an interview on the Kirk Center website, is ‘a Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire in the UK…a senior fellow at the UK think tank Policy Exchange and has taught philosophy at University College London and Birkbeck College.’

With the combination of academic and practising politician, Norman has a suitable background for authoring a book on Edmund Burke.

The book received a favourable pre-publication review in the UK’s Telegraph from well-known UK newspaper editor Charles Moore under the heading, ‘The first important conservative thinker.’

Although favourable and mentioning some of Burke’s key ideas, the review is uncertain and sometimes deficient in its explanations and gives the impression that Moore gave up coming to grips with Burke’s political philosophy, as explicated in Norman’s book. That may not mean that Moore is at fault here. The deficiency might have been on Norman’s side. That might have been the case if we did not have other sources to judge Norman’s competence as an author and a commentator on Burke. We do.

Around the same time Norman wrote an article for the UK Telegraph under the heading, ‘Edmund Burke – the great conservative who foresaw the discontents of our era.’ The subtitle nominates a theme that Norman will pursue in his piece, ‘The philosopher Edmund Burke reminds us of the threat to society from rampant individualism.’

The theme of individualism – one of a number of approaches to Burke’s political philosophy – is linked to a number of important themes Norman discusses briefly – and with a clarity and coherence in the totality of Burke’s thought that is lacking in Moore’s review. In fact, Norman’s piece serves as a good introduction to his book.

To set the scene for this brief summary of Burke’s political philosophy, he lists the five major issues that Burke dealt with during his political career. There are slightly different ways of describing these five issues, which bring out the different emphases in Burke’s thought. This is the way Norman categorises them:

Over his long career [Burke] fought five great political battles: for more equal treatment of Catholics in Ireland; against British oppression of the 13 American colonies; for constitutional restraints on royal patronage; against the power of the East India Company in India; and most famously, against the dogma of the French Revolution. Their common theme is his detestation of injustice and the abuse of power.

The naming of these issues is important for judging the consistency in Burke’s philosophical and political arguments. Burke’s alleged inconsistency is the first objection Burke’s detractors raised then and continue to do so now. Obviously this is the reason Norman contends that what draws the issues together is Burke’s ‘detestation of injustice and abuse of authority.’ He could have explain briefly here exactly where Burke isolated the injustice and abuse of  authority and how he analysed it.

This is a big issue but, in brief, Burke claimed that injustice and abuse of authority was bound to occur when authority followed reasoning that was abstract, rationalistic and individual, the great example being the abstract theory of man and society that motivated the French revolutionaries.  For Burke you cannot deal with social and political problems without taking into consideration the nature of man and society, and the prevailing circumstances. The following quotations are just two of the many formulations of the same crucial idea found in Burke’s speeches and writings. Both are from the Reflections on the Revolution in France:

Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.

The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity.

Norman gives modern examples of where such abstract, rationalistic and individual reasoning has led governments astray. One stunning example is the introduction of the euro:

The euro was introduced, and has been sustained, as an elite project that deliberately ignored, and ignores, long-standing concerns about the huge differences in the societies of the various nations involved, and the legitimacy of the euro’s own surrounding institutions.

Because of the close application of Burke’s political reasoning to modern issues, so well exemplified in the case of the euro, Norman says that Burke’s ‘powers of analysis, imagination and empathy gave him an extraordinary gift of prophecy’ and for this reason ‘Burke…offers the deepest critique of politics today, and the greatest hope for its future.’ My own reading and study of Burke has led me to a similar conclusion.

Norman deals with other aspects of Burke’s thought in the Telegraph article, but of more interest to me, and a good indication of Norman’s analytical ability and his knowledge of Burke, is an interview he gave to JP O’Malley on the University Bookman website which is linked to the Russell Kirk Center website.

This is well worth the reading. In response to a question about political parties Norman gives a clear distinction between ‘party’ and ‘faction’ that has an unnerving application to today. I can’t help being reminded of the mass manipulation that had a failed president returned to the White House. Of keen interest to me in this interview was Norman’s response to being asked why he claimed that Burke was ‘one of the earliest postmodern political thinkers’. After all, I’ve thought – with a passion – that postmodernism is the inevitable and disastrous consequence of the (French) Enlightenment thinking that Burke so vigorously attacked, especially in the Reflections. Norman answers:

Well, Burke is not a postmodernist in the sense that he does believe that there is truth and falsehood. He doesn’t believe that everything is a matter of narrative or power relations. But he is a postmodern: that is to say his thought contains within it a critique of modernity. And that critique begins with an understanding of human nature. Because where modernity goes wrong—from a Burkean perspective—is in the application of human nature to our reasoning of human affairs.

He has a point – a very good point. Crucial to understanding Burke is an understanding of the way he conceives human nature. The rest of this engaging interview flows from this explanation. It is an excellent advertisement for his book. I have my kindle copy of Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician and Prophet. I will provide my own review in due course.

There are a number substantial reviews of Norman’s book on the internet. I will comment on these after I have finished my own review.

Gerard Wilson, June 2013