Empire and Revolution: A Satisfyingly Massive Political Biography of Edmund Burke that is still Too Short.
I think this is the best book of its kind that has been or will be. Following fairly soon in the wake of David Bromwich and F.P. Lock, Richard Bourke’s 1000 page epic offers perhaps the definitive attempt to make sense of Edmund Burke’s political thought – to investigate apparent (to his contemporaries glaring) inconsistencies and demonstrate defining continuities in the life of a very busy man. In terms of serious analysis of the values and imperatives that defined Burke’s political interventions, this book is, quite simply, top.
Yet, at the end of it all, we’re left lacking something. Indeed, the book itself feels rather short and Burke himself seems somewhat truncated.
Edmund Burke was the hardest working man in eighteenth-century politics. He opened his mouth often, and once that mouth was open it stayed open for hours at a time. Yet he never commenced shooting his mouth off until he was absolutely master of his brief. The effort of detailed research that went into his speeches put his Rockinghamite Whig pals to shame. Bourke’s study also reminds us that many of his chief concerns overlapped chronologically and necessarily informed one another. When writing about Ireland, he was thinking about the abusive crown patronage in England. When discussing abuses in England he was considering the efficient extent of sovereignty over the American colonies. When prosecuting Warren Hastings, he was denouncing Jacobinism. When urging war against regicides, he was demanding an inclusive concept of Irish citizenship. Burke’s long political life involved keeping at least two balls in the air at any given time.
Bourke therefore demonstrates that Burke’s imagination involved constant cross-referencing. The challenges of legislating on a global scale were defined by two poles of error – the error of the uniformity that rides roughshod over local traditions and the error of a version of “cultural sensitivity” that collapses into an opportunistic “geographical morality”. Burke demanded that local affections be respected and honoured but denied that such differences made people unknowable to one another. Burke’s political life involved a constant struggle to reconcile particulars with universals, in other words. And Bourke’s book demonstrates the detailed extent to which a consistent and rigorous attitude towards this form of reconciliation informed just about every political decision that he made. Bourke’s book explains why he could denounced East India Company colonialism as state of permanent “revolution” while French Revolutionaries were themselves imperialists, despoiling a nation they had no right to call their own. Two questions absorbed Burke throughout his adult life. How far may sovereign authority be wisely exercised? At what point may sovereign authority be legitimately resisted?
Bourke determines from the outset to avoid Edmund Burke’s personal life and affections. This exclusion is perhaps necessary if the logic of his political imagination is to be carefully interrogated. But it’s an exclusion that is keenly felt, particularly in a world where political actors were bound more by ties of family and formative friendship than they were by ideological compatibility. Burke himself “took things very personally” throughout his life – a life that involved a passionate intimacy with his namesake William Burke that Katherine O’Donnell has written about so persuasively. Bourke’s book is made possible such excisions, but these excision leave us less than a whole Burke.
I do not believe that this book will be bettered. But the perfection of this book expels much of the passion of Burke. To understand Burke fully, it is necessary to understand more of the misunderstandings. It is also necessary to look beyond the logic of his political thought and look at the tropes and figures he wielded, and the confused emotions that such tropes and figures wielded. This book is a magnificent work of scholarship and does more to make sense of Burke as a whole than any of its predecessors. But “making sense” of Burke may be less than half of Burke. So be assured – Richard Bourke has not shut down Edmund Burke with this wonderful tome – so long and so short. There’s plenty of him left for the rest of us.