Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered, by Russell Kirk, with a Foreword by Roger Scruton, Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1997.

burkeRussell Kirk’s book on Edmund Burke, first published in 1967, now revised and handsomely re-issued, testifies not only to the “enduring Burke,” but also to the enduring Kirk. As a British statesman and political philosopher of “inspired wisdom,” Burke (1729-1797) continues to address our time and condition. And as an American man of letters, Kirk (1918-1994) fully possesses the critical and sapiential acumen-and the sympathy of vision-to elucidate Burke’s life and thought. In essence this book serves an introduction to the meaning and importance of Burke’s achievement. Indeed Kirk’s book, in its clarity of expression, its illumination of ideas, its cogency of organization and development, exemplifies standards that a critical study, if it is to have lasting value, has to satisfy. At the same time, its conveyed insight and wisdom make it far more than an introduction, and give it an added critical dimension. Unpretentious and straightforward, and with an impelling honesty of approach and interpretation, this book has the wonderful ability to guide a reader through the most significant and intricate avenues of Burke’s contribution.

It is one of Kirks great gifts to be able to explore social-political, historical, and literary issues with astonishing lucidity, and with judgmental authority and conviction that deepen and enrich his commentaries. What can be obscure to a reader, he clarifies, what is confusing he unravels. But he never talks down to or misleads his reader. His purpose is both to secure and to energize his reader’s attention and response; to heighten his reader’s historic sense and moral instincts; to press his reader to formulate judgments and discriminations. Critical thought that aspires to standards of discrimination requires effort, even strenuous effort, and Russell Kirk, in this book as in his other books (notably Enemies of the Permanent Things and Eliot and His Age) wisely guides, shapes, inspires this effort on the part of a reader. This ability, this gift, in the end distinguishes Kirk’s writings from those of modern relativistic exegetes; and it is what gives to his work its high distinction, what takes it beyond specialistic criticism, what defines and undergirds his calling as a man of letters who speaks for and to “man thinking.”

Moral effort and moral discovery are for Kirk indispensable critical concerns that the man of letters affirms in his writings-in his vision. These qualities, values, virtues are, in effect, the constituent principles of centrality and of order that empower the vision, and that, in their abundance and representativeness, stamp the particular strengths of Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. It is necessary first to recognize these constituent principles of centrality and order, which Kirk venerates in his writings, so as to understand why the present book commands careful, respectful study. It is thus helpful to fathom Kirk’s critical metaphysic-his ground of being, so to speak; the origins of its point of view; the ingredients of its humane character and moral thrust-so as to be able to trust his explication of Burke’s life and work. What one finds from the very be- ginning to the very ending of this book is an informing integrity and an ultimate morality of mind that mold language and explication and that prompt the author to give his estimation of his subject with authority and conviction. It is this quality that helps the author to penetrate his subject’s significance and to induce his reader’s confidence. This supreme quality is what, in short, distinguishes him from secular and empirical commentators like, say, Conor Cruise O’Brien, whose The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke (1992) contains misinterpretations and misrepresentations that, as Peter J. Stanlis disclosed in a long and definitive review of O’Brien’s book published in the pages of this review, “deconstructs Burke into an image of [O’Brien] himself, using historical data as the raw materials for creating an imaginary Burke.” As Stanlis shows, O’Brien chooses to slight Burke’s religious and metaphysical view of reality and his appeals to moral prudence and prejudice, as well as to disregard the intellectual and moral virtues governing the basic principles of Burke’s politics. In effect, O’Brien manufactures an “imaginary Burke,” “a child of the Enlightenment” limited to being a party politician. The fallacy of O’Brien’s methods is ultimately damaging and produces a major problem in critical honesty, or as Stanlis writes: “…no meaningful communication is possible when the solipsisms of O’Brien’s subjective logic, feelings, or imagination determine what is true or false about his subject.”[1]

Unlike a Conor Cruise O’Brien, Kirk discloses an exceptional openness and honest critical temper that make an appreciative friend of the reader. In many ways the subject of a critical work is at the mercy of his or her interpreter, and unusual and unhappy things can happen in the critical process. In this respect, Burke is fortunate to have a Kirk as his expositor, for in the hands of a pseudocritic Burke’s (or any other conservative thinker’s) work can assume false forms and distortive meanings. What makes this book of permanent worth, and, in fact, what in turn honors and preserves the value of Burke’s contribution, is that Kirk brings to his task the moral intelligence, sensitivity, discrimination, character, sincerity, and, yes, humility that nourish his critical metaphysic and give it specificity. In a cogent foreword to the book, Roger Scruton wisely alerts a reader to the reciprocal relation of subject and author in this book, when he observes that Kirk “learned from Burke that style is not a decorative adjunct to thought, but belongs to its essence.” Here Scruton touches on a quintessential strength of Kirks oeuvre, the unyielding reverence for the logos as it infuses content and gives it force and truth, separating it from the profane habits of mind which besiege O’Brien. Austin Warren, New England man of letters, helps us to gauge the singularity of what Scruton detects in Kirk’s powers of exposition, in this memorable statement: “Style is not disjunct from substance: it is considered substance rendered expression.”

For Kirk, it should be emphasized, Burke exemplifies how public life and the life of the mind interact in those unique and subtle ways that fuse insight and wisdom and that make Burke “one of the wisest men ever to meditate upon the civil social order.” This short critical study, “an essay in biography,” as Kirk terms it in a prefatory note, examines this process of showing how Burke “speaks to our age.” Kirk thus sees Burke as “a modern man” who was concerned with “our modern perplexities.” And beyond this, as Kirk shows throughout the book, Burke was a visionary, “our Tiresias.” From a directly social and political perspective, Burke was a reformer who fought against “crooked politics,” but also and above all he was a conservator who combined his burden of responsibility as a man of affairs in “the defense of civilization.” Burke discerned, then, and warned against the dangers, if not the fateful consequences, of “the armed doctrine” and “metaphysical madness” perpetrated by radical innovators (those whom Burckhardt later spoke of as “the terrible simplifiers”). A commentator with an agenda like O’Brien, then, who limits the meaning of Burke’s achievement to an exclusively political dimension, makes him a mere appendage of the material world. Such commentators-in reality they are ideologues-arbitrarily cut off Burke from the metaphysical roots of his vision. This not only trivializes Burke, by surrendering him to modernity, but also reduces his true stature as a thinker constantly searching for meaning in history and for general principles.

It is the strength of Kirk’s book to view Burke beyond the routinely political mind and situation, beyond the spirit of the age, in short, and to see him in his transcendent and sapiential contexts. Kirk, in his assessment of Burke, thus makes it indisputably clear that “life without prejudice” is no life at all, or to recall Richard M. Weaver’s observation: “Life without prejudice, were it ever to be tried, would soon reveal itself to be a life without principle. For prejudices … are often built-in principles.” Kirk’s Burke exemplifies the truth inscribed in Weaver’s words. When carefully considered and assimilated, Kirk‘s book protects not only Burke but also the reader from “the forces of planned disintegration,” to recall Weaver’s concluding words in his landmark essay.[2] Early on in his book, then, Kirk etches out the Burke we need to know, the “Burke [who] has obtained his immortality not for what he did, but for what he perceived,” or as Kirk writes with eloquent perspicacity:

Foreseeing a sack of the world by the forces of Chaos and old night, Burke endeavored to save the best of the traditional order within the barricades of institution and philosophy. He was the first conservative of our time of troubles. He labored to safeguard the permanent things, which have converted the brute into the civil social man. In modern politics, the task of saving begins with Burke …. In the citadel of tradition and prescription, Burke keeps vigil.

Kirk centers his major attention on “the four great struggles” of Burke as an eighteenth-century man of affairs and political visionary: his unsuccessful effort to achieve conciliation with the American colonies; his role in the Rockingham Whigs’ contest against the domestic power of King George III; his sixteen-year prosecution of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India; and his unyielding resistance to Jacobinism, the “armed doctrine” of the French Revolution. The chapters Kirk devotes to these struggles are eminently clear and thorough in detail, and contain excellently selected passages from Burke’s writings and also from some of his most discerning expositors. Kirk‘s discussions are judicious and always instructive. The picture we get of Burke is never one-sided or eclectic or twisted, but multi-faceted and comprehensive. The need to maintain balance between liberty and order, for Burke, is always in evidence, as it should be, in Kirk’s account. Avoiding extremes that end in antinomian tendencies and actions was for Burke of uppermost importance, or as he declared in his Letter to the Sheriffs of the City of Bristol (April 3, 1777), his words having special import in our time: “The extreme of liberty (which is its abstract perfection, but its real fault) obtains nowhere, nor ought to obtain anywhere; because extremes, as we all know, in every point which relates either to our duties or satisfactions in life, are destructive both to virtue and enjoyment.”

In particular Kirk’s long and thoughtful chapter on “India and Justice” holds important lessons for modern day readers insofar as Burke, in his particular indictment of British rule, was to express principles of justice that are universal in their application. Prescription, tradition, moral habit, and custom must point the way if inner and outer corruption is to be curbed and if anarchy is to be averted. Hastings and other Englishmen, Burke charged, were exploiting the Indian peoples to the ruin of India and the violation of principles of morality, which go beyond geographical frontiers. Burke himself considered his prosecution of Warren Hastings to be the best work of his life. “Let not this cruel, daring, unexampled act of publick corruption, guilt and meanness,” Burke wrote a year before his death, “go down to a posterity … without its due animadversion …. Let my endeavors to save the Nation from that shame and guilt, be my monument; The only one I ever will have.” Kirk’s well-wrought discussion certainly honors Burke’s “endeavor” and deepens and illuminates its larger significance.

Indeed, as Kirk stresses, Burke’s entire life was one long endeavor to avert or to contain the ravages of revolution in the American colonies, in the civil order of Britain, in India, Ireland, France, and the whole of Europe. To save humane civilization from anarchy was Burke’s dominant motive in his actions and writings. Revolutions, he knew, and as Kirk calls to our attention, have a way of devouring their children. For Burke, in fact, the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, as he himself observed mob violence in London, alerted him to what can take place in a society in which fanatic ideologues seek to fulfill their agenda. “Amid the smoke of half-ruined London, he knew,” as Kirk states, “that the anonymous and faceless tyranny of the revolutionary mob was a worse thing than even the most unfeeling despotism …. He set his face against the revolutionaries like a man who finds himself suddenly beset by robbers.” Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Kirk reminds his reader, is the work of a prophet who discerned the shaking of the foundations of European civilization with all the seismic after-shocks.

Kirk’s chapter entitled “A Revolution of Theoretic Dogma,” the longest in the book, deserves diligent reading. A model of excellence in exposition and commentation, it reveals Kirk’s powers of concentration and analysis, and of observation and judgment, which make him a trustworthy guide for those who have much to learn from Burke. No paragraph in this splendid book better identifies its values, or the selfsame “inspired wisdom” that Burke himself continues to convey to the modern world, than the following paragraph. One who meditates on its text will, with Edmund Burke and successors like Russell Kirk, know that for “the defense of civilization” one must “Never succumb to the enemy.”

But Utopia never will be found here below, Burke knew; politics is the art of the possible, not of perfectibility. We never will be as gods. Improvement is the work of slow exploration and persuasion, never unfixing old interests at once. Mere sweeping innovation is not reform. Once immemorial moral habits are broken by the rash Utopian, once the old checks upon will and appetite are discarded, the inescapable sinfulness of human nature asserts itself: and those who aspired to usurp the throne of God find that they have contrived a terrestrial Hell.

Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age, Spring 1998.

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  1. “An Imaginary Edmund Burke,” Modern Age: A Quarterly Review, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Winter 1994), 127.
  2. “Life Without Prejudice,” Modern Age: The First Twentyfive Years. A Selection, edited by George A. Panichas (Indianapolis, 1988), 17.

The featured image is a portrait of Edmund Burke by Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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