Report: Sixth Meeting of Edmund Burke’s Club (Australia) Inc. 19 July 2013

The sixth meeting, not quite a year after the inauguration of the Club, took place again in the congenial surroundings of Melbourne’s Savage Club. Some of our regular members were not able to attend but their absence was made up for by four guests who were made welcome. The President dealt with same small business matters, which included updating the membership list, before beginning his presentation.

The President’s presentation was titled ‘Edmund Burke’s Note-Book: Groundwork for a theory of moral knowledge’ in which he examined some of Edmund Burke’s earliest writings on social, political and moral matters. The passages analysed and discussed were drawn from a collection of Edmund Burke’s and Will Burke’s sketches and essays published in 1957 under the title Edmund Burke’s Notebook. Will Burke was a life-long friend of Edmund’s and, though never confirmed, was likely related to him. Of the twenty-four pieces in the collection, twenty were attributed to Edmund Burke.

The presentation aimed to show that Burke’s mature thoughts on the role of natural feeling in moral judgement and in the development of custom and tradition were already in Burke’s mind at the age of twenty-one years – and in a unique form. The presentation elicited a vigorous discussion during which some of those from a Thomistic background took strong issue with parts of Burke’s arguments. The President, though put under pressure from several quarters, insisted that Burke’s ideas had to be judged on their own terms, and not whether they concurred with the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Burke’s framework of thinking is surely Thomistic, but that is not to say that he ever defended his ideas on moral thinking and the operations of prudence in political action with a series of arguments taken from the Summa. He never did. The discussion was the most vigorous to date among our very enthusiastic membership. The President volunteers to answer some of the objections more fully during the next meeting.

At one point during the meeting a question was raised about Burke’s attitude to slavery. The President said that Burke was thoroughly against slavery but that he needed to provide more detail of his opposition. Jesse Norman deals with Burke’s attitude to slavery in his recent book on Edmund Burke. Burke, says Norman, ‘intensely disliked slavery.’ His dislike brought him so far as to write a piece titled, Sketch of the Negro, in which he analyses the social and economic issues, and typically suggests practical ways of dealing with slavery, with the aim of its eventual abolition. This was around 1780, seven years before William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson founded the Abolition Society.

At our intermission Fr Tattersall gave an entertaining reading from the first pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies.

The meeting was again one of interesting discussion and good fellowship. In the interests of that good fellowship the members adjourned to the RACV Club bistro for a welcome meal.