Edmund Burke’s first published writings were periodical essays for the Reformer, a miscellany largely produced by Burke himself at the close of his undergraduate career at Trinity College, Dublin. In the very first paragraph of this paper, which ran to 13 numbers from January to April 1748, Burke asserts the link between taste and morals that underlies his writings for nearly 50 years: “the morals of a Nation have so great Dependance on their taste and Writings, that the fixing the latter, seems the first and surest Method of establishing the former.”
In 1758 a more significant opportunity opened for him in London as editor of the Annual Register. Burke wrote the Register’s original articles singlehandedly until at least 1764. This job had three main consequences for his later writings and speeches. The Annual Register reprinted a broad variety of historical, scientific, antiquarian, and literary research, whose scope is later revealed in Burke’s wide-ranging imagery, diction, and general knowledge. Second, the ideas he expressed in his book reviews developed into longstanding principles which guided his entire life. In 1759 he criticized Rousseau’s “satire on civilized society,” for instance, because it would “unsettle our notions of right and wrong.” He returns to this theme in the Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (1791), where he charges that Rousseau’s “paradoxical morality…led directly” to the cultural revolution that preceded the French Revolution.
Most important, the Annual Register’s long historical articles, broken up into essaylength chapters, gave Burke practice in making historical exposition interesting to his audience. In these early articies, he experiments with combining extensive knowledge of the events of the year—from the military operations of the Seven Years’ War to the conquests of the East India Company—with the strategic significance of any given event and an estimate of the characters of the persons involved. Burke refines and expands this combination of data, character, and underlying historical significance into the powerful rhetoric of his later political writings. It is a logical development from Burke’s ironic description of English “astonishment and indignation at finding that an Asiatic prince of their own creation had dared to be a sovereign” (1764) to his bitter sarcasm at the end of Warren Hastings’ trial, where he casts Hastings as Macbeth: “‘Thou has it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all’” (1794).
In Burke’s writings, definitions and principles arise out of example and experience, rather than vice versa. Even in the very theoretical “Introduction on Taste” (1759) to his A Philosophical Enquiry into…the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke argues that the definition of taste “seems rather to follow than to precede our enquiry…” While he does define taste, he contrasts his inquiry with one based on “naked reason.” The one work where Burke proceeds strictly from propositions to conclusions (A Vindication of Natural Society, 1756) is a satire—undetected by some—on the Enlightenment notion that unaided human reason can establish secure foundations for society, apart from custom and historical precedent.
While the “Introduction on Taste” is sometimes called an “essay,” Burke himself used that term in only one title, “An Essay Toward an Abridgement of English History” (wr. 1756–57, pub. 1812). Only a few sheets of this work, which runs to over 200 pages, were published in Burke’s lifetime. The work is an “essay” in the literal sense of an attempt to account for the growth of the British Constitution, as Burke describes David Hume’s History of Great Britain. Many of his later themes—such as the significance of manners and the historical context for the growth of practical liberty—are found here. Burke probably abandoned it in 1757 because he could not produce a history that would both surpass Hume’s work and satisfy his high expectations of what he should do for his audience and for his own integrity. That balance, between Burke’s self-imposed task and his relation to his audience, is present in all of his writings, from the speeches he prepared for publication as an M.P., to the open letters he wrote after his exile from the Whig Party, through the memos he penned for the eyes of William Pitt.
For Burke, it was not enough to introduce his audience to the proper principles of politics: like many essayists of the 18th century, he felt he was educating his readers’ taste. While he could admit the brilliance of Rousseau, therefore, he simultaneously dismisses him as “totally destitute of taste in any sense of the word.” Burke’s theatrical, highly charged rhetoric reflects his union of an educated taste with an educated moral and political intelligence. For instance, his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) describes the fall of Marie Antoinette in the terms of Aristotle on tragedy (“what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall”), then employs Horace’s Poetic Art in a critique of the French revolutionaries’ political system: “The precept given by a wise man as well as a great critic, for the construction of poems, is equally true as to states: Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto… To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” The aphorism at the end of this quotation brings up another striking element of Burke’s style. Like English essayists from Francis Bacon through Samuel Johnson, Burke often distills his analysis of history and character into single moments of jewel-like precision, balance, and beauty. For instance, his response to the exponents of natural rights—“art is man’s nature”—arises from a historical and biographical exposition of the controversies surrounding the Revolution of 1688 (An Appeal from the New, to the Old Whigs, 1791). Similarly, his description of the French political situation in 1791 concludes thus: “It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters” (Letter to a Member of the National Assembly). Here, as often, Burke’s prose is simultaneously aphoristic, alliterative, and self-consciously rhythmic.
Like many science and philosophical essayists of his century, Burke frequently appeals to experience. Yet he is often self-consciously opposed to the Enlightenment. He sees habit, custom, tradition, and even prejudice as more reliable guides than “the naked reason.” For writers, politicians, philosophers, and historians who have sought an alternative to the purely rationalistic and anti-traditionalist strands of the Enlightenment, Burke’s writings have proven useful for over 200 years.
Born 12 January 1729 in Dublin. Studied at Abraham Shackleton’s Quaker school, Ballitore, County Kildare, 1741–43; Trinity College, Dublin, 1744–48, A.B., 1748; editor, the Reformer, 1748; entered the Middle Temple, London, 1750; left law for literary work, 1755. Married Jane Nugent, 1757: two sons (one died in youth). Editor, 1758–66, and contributor, until 1788, Annual Register, London. Private secretary to
William Gerard Hamilton, 1759–64, accompanying him to Ireland, 1763–64, and receiving a pension on Hamilton’s retirement, 1764. Whig Member of Parliament for Wendover, 1765–74, Bristol, 1774–80, and Malton, Yorkshire, 1781–94: active, contentious M.P., opposing Tory government, advocating economic reform, peace with the American colonies, and the limitation of slave trade. Private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, 1765; paymaster-general of the Forces in the new Whig government, under Rockingham, 1782, and Portland, 1783, but never given a cabinet post; quarreled with Fox and the Whigs, 1791, and advised support for Pitt and the Tories, 1792; retired from Parliament, and granted government pension, 1794. Member of Samuel Johnson’s literary Club, from 1764. Rector, University of Glasgow, 1784, 1785. Awards: honorary degree from Dublin University, 1791.
Died (of stomach cancer) at his Beaconsfield estate, Buckinghamshire, 9 July 1797.
Essays and Related Prose
The Reformer (periodical), 13 nos., 28 January-21 April 1748
A Vindication of Natural Society, 1756; edited by Frank N.Pagano, 1982
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757; revised edition, 1759; edited by James T.Boulton, 1958, revised 1987, and Adam Phillips, 1990
Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790; edited by Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1969,
J.G.A.Pocock, 1987, and L.G.Mitchell, 1993
Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, in Answer to Some Objections to His Book on French Affairs, 1791; facsimile reprint, 1990
An Appeal from the New, to the Old Whigs, in Consequence of Some Late Discussions in Parliament, Relative to the Reflections on the French Revolution, 1791
Thoughts on the Prospect of a Regicide Peace, 1796
Three Memorials on French Affairs, 1797
Select Works, edited by E.J.Payne, 5 vols., 1874–78
A Note-Book of Edmund Burke: Poems, Characters, Essays and Other Sketches, edited by Henry V.F.Somerset, 1957
Selected Writings and Speeches, edited by Peter J.Stanlis, 1963
On Government, Politics and Society, edited by B.W.Hill, 1975
The Political Philosophy, edited by Iain Hampsher-Monk, 1987
Pre-Revolutionary Writings, edited by Ian Harris, 1993
Other writings: works on history and politics, reports, speeches, and correspondence (collected in The Correspondence, edited by Thomas W.Copeland and others, 10 vols., 1958–78).
Collected works editions: Works, edited by French Laurence and Walker King, 8 vols., 1792–1827; The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 9 vols., 1854–62; The Writings and Speeches (Clarendon Edition), general editor Paul Langford, 1981(in progress; 12 vols. projected).
Cowie, Leonard W., Edmund Burke, 1729–1797: A Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994
Gandy, Clara I., and Peter J.Stanlis, Edmund Burke: A Bibliography of Secondary Studies to 1982, New York: Garland, 1983
Todd, William B., A Bibliography of Edmund Burke, Godalming, Surrey: St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1982 (original edition, 1964)
Blakemore, Steven, Burke and the Fall of Language: The French Revolution as Linguistic Event, Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1988
Boulton, James T., The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963
Canavan, Francis, The Political Reason of Edmund Burke, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1960
Chapman, Gerald W., Edmund Burke: The Practical Imagination, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967
Cone, Carl B., Burke and the Nature of Politics, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2 vols., 1957–64
Copeland, Thomas W., Our Eminent Friend: Edmund Burke, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970 (original edition, 1949)
Gengembre, Gérard, “Burke,” in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, edited by François Furet and Mona Ozouf, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989 (original French edition, 1988)
Janes, Regina, “Edmund Burke’s Flyting Leap from India to France,” History of European Ideas 7 (1986):509–27
Kirk, Russell, “Burke and the Politics of Prescription,” in his The Conservative Mind, Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1986 (original edition, 1953)
Mansfield, Harvey, Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965
O’Brien, Conor Cruise, The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, and London: Sinclair Stevenson, 1992
Parkin, Charles, The Moral Basis of Burke’s Political Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956
Paulson, Ronald, “Burke’s Sublime and the Representation of Revolution,” in Culture and Politics from Puritanism to the Enlightenment, edited by Pérez Zagorin, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980
Pocock, J.G.A., “Burke and the Ancient Constitution,” in his Politics, Language, and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History, New York: Atheneum, 1971; London: Methuen, 1972
Reid, Christopher, Edmund Burke and the Practice of Political Writing, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1985
Stanlis, Peter, Edmund Burke and the Natural Law, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1958
Weinsheimer, Joel, “Burke’s Reflections: On Imitation as Prejudice,” Southern Humanities Review 16 (1982):223–32
Weston, John C, “Edmund Burke’s View of History,” Review of Politics 23 (1961):203– 29
White, James Boyd, “Making a Public World,” in his When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character and Community, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984
Wilkins, Burleigh Taylor, The Problem of Burke’s Political Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967
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