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Two Kinds of English Resistance : EDMUND BURKE His Life and Opinions<i> by Stanley Ayling (St. Martin’s Press: $19.95; 306 pp., illustrated) </i>

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1989 marks the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Coming at the end of a century of French intellectual leadership and followed by an attempt, temporarily successful, to make Europe a French empire, the Revolution well deserves the torrent of books that will be devoted to it this year. Two of the first of these books deal with the resistance to the Revolution: Edmund Burke, right, in the intellectual resistance, challenging the political philosophy of the Revolution; Horatio, Viscount Nelson in the military resistance, blocking the advance of Napoleon.

Conservatism, like so many of the labels of modern politics, acquired its meaning through the French Revolution. The Bicentennial of the Revolution makes it timely to have a new biography of Edmund Burke, perhaps the Revolution’s most enduringly persuasive opponent. In “Reflections on the Revolution in France, " published in 1790 when he was 62, Burke developed his principled opposition to large-scale change, especially when directed by intellectuals armed with comprehensive social theories, which has come to define much Anglo-American conservatism.

Burke also advocated hereditary nobility, and an established church. He preferred “prejudice,” tradition and usage over rights and principles. Yet his political affiliations were not with the Tories but the Whigs, a party that believed in commerce and progress in “manners.” His own century regarded him chiefly as the author of a quintessential tract of Enlightenment science, “Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful,” in which the 29-year-old Burke applied the new mechanical psychology to the experience of art. The diversity, if not clashing inconsistency, all this presents to the modern mind suggests the enigma of Burke’s genius. Yet if we are to come to grips with modern conservatism it is vital that we see this giant of 18th-Century British letters and politics steadily, and at least try to see him whole.

Stanley Ayling’s crisp narrative of Burke’s life provides a good sense of Burke’s diversity and how it was intertwined with the turns of his career. Ayling is the first biographer of Burke to have had access to the complete extant correspondence, and he uses this source well to connect the private with the public person. Ayling brings to Burke’s milieu the sensitivities honed by his well-received biographies of King George III and John Wesley. He presents Burke’s life as a sometimes noble, often quixotic, drama of heroism which ended in private sorrow, particularly the early death of his beloved son and heir, amid the general failure of all his public efforts. Burke’s own phrase, “an Iliad of woe,” seems to capture his sense of himself and career at the end. Ayling shows us that the man Mathew Arnold called “our greatest prose-writer” lived his politics passionately: “He was incapable of private peace and contentment if the nation--'the empire'--was in crisis. It is significant that Burke thought his nation was often “in crisis.”

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Burke’s political life was largely spent attempting to reform the British Constitution--so as to restore what he conceived as its ancient purity. This propelled him to champion the grievances of the American Colonies, to support both Anglican Establishment and religious toleration, and to oppose colonial oppression in both Ireland and India.

The key to grasping how it all hung together certainly lies in the interplay between Burke’s situation as an Anglo-Irish outsider who became indispensable to a branch of the Whig aristocracy and his lifelong passion for rectifying--rather than leveling--the hierarchies of social and moral order. But here the book disappoints. Ayling enables us to see the workings of the society which was the matrix of Burke’s life and thought. He does not succeed in making us understand that context. With a thinker as significant and as complex as Burke, this is an important shortcoming.

Ayling allows us to see how Burke made himself the advocate of that peculiar marriage of landed stability and commercial progress which called itself the Whig party. However, he seems to presuppose that the reader will find the very uncontemporary patterns of the social and intellectual order of Whig England an obvious frame of reference. For most readers, however, it will not be obvious but strange, as the past is always strange. The need is not to eliminate the strangeness but to make it comprehensible so that the unmodern conjunctions in Burke’s thinking may become comprehensible as well.

An admirer of Montesquieu, Burke thought that vanished social order he called the British Constitution to be a coherent whole: hierarchical and sacred, yet simultaneously commercial and dynamic. It is a conception no longer alive, but the survival of its disjoined members in modern conservatism (and not only there) indicates how important--but also how difficult--it is to try to comprehend what Burke was so passionate about.

Ayling has given us an engaging tapestry of the significant patterns of Burke’s achievement. The need now is to understand how Burke sought to make it all cohere, and then to show why it is significant for us that he tried to do so.


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