Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by W. Macneile Dixon
Edmund Burke (1729–1797)
 
[Edmund Burke, the son of an attorney, was born at Dublin in 1729. He received his schooling at Ballitore, in Kildare, and entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1743, the same year as Goldsmith. His academic career was undistinguished, but he was assiduous in the practice of composition and oratory. The present Historical Society of the College, the cradle of all the more famous Irish orators, is the direct descendant of the Historical Club, founded by Burke, whose objects, according to the minutes, largely in Burke’s handwriting and still preserved, were “speaking, reading, writing, and arguing in morality, history, criticism, politics, and all the useful branches of philosophy.” It was here rather than in the schools that Burke prepared himself for the wider arena of the future. Many of the minutes of this Society having reference to Burke are of especial interest. This, for example, anticipating the later verdict of the House of Commons,—“April 28, 1747. Mr. Burke, for an essay on the Genoese, was given thanks for the matter, but not for the delivery.” In 1748 Burke graduated, and two years later proceeded to keep terms at the Middle Temple, but ultimately abandoned his intention of proceeding to the Bar. For ten years his life in London was chiefly occupied with literary work, and in 1756 appeared the Vindication of Natural Society, an ironical attack upon the social philosophy of Bolingbroke. It was followed in the same year by the celebrated Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, a book which gave an impetus to the treatment of æsthetics as an independent branch of thought. This was the year of his marriage with Miss Nugent. From 1759 until 1788 Burke contributed largely to the Annual Register, originated by himself, and in 1761 he became private secretary to “single-speech” Hamilton, then Secretary for Ireland, a post which he resigned in two years. Burke was soon fairly launched upon political waters, and in 1765 was appointed secretary to the then Premier, Lord Rockingham; the same year he became M.P. for Wendover. He attached himself strongly to the Whigs in their opposition to the Court party under the leadership of Lord North, the favourite of George III., who was in power from 1770 to 1782. To these twelve years belong the best of Burke’s speeches and pamphlets: Thoughts on the present Discontents (1770), American Taxation (1774), Conciliation with America (1775), Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol (1777), Speech to the Bristol Electors (1780). Burke sat as member for Bristol for six years (1774–1780) but lost his seat owing to his attitude towards the American Colonies, and his votes on the remedial measures proposed in the interests of Ireland and of the Roman Catholics. During the remainder of his political life he represented Malton. During the Rockingham administration, and the coalition ministry, led by the Duke of Portland, Burke held office as Paymaster of the Forces. In 1788 he opened the case for the Commons in the impeachment of Warren Hastings. In 1790 appeared the Reflections on the French Revolution, of all his works by far the most widely read, and unapproached in its immediate influence by any other of his writings. From this time until the end Burke’s entire energy was devoted to an unmeasured denunciation of the principles, leaders, and defenders of the French Revolution. To this period belong the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Thoughts on French Affairs, and Letters on a Regicide Peace; works which, if less luminously wise, were no less brilliant than the earlier masterpieces. On his retirement from public life Burke was to have had a peerage, with the title of Beaconsfield from his estate, but the death of his son Richard in 1794 left him without an heir, and the idea was abandoned. The pensions granted him in 1794 were made the occasion of an attack upon him, to which the Letter to a Noble Lord was a crushing rejoinder. Burke died in 1797.]  1
 
IT is too late by more than a generation to pronounce any panegyric upon Burke, to offer revised estimates or new appreciations of his genius. He has long since passed through the vicissitudes of posthumous fame, and no voice, whether of praise or of detraction, can touch him further. Yet fixed as is his place among English worthies, the figure of Edmund Burke will ever occupy a niche apart, clothed with a splendid but pathetic dignity. His was an unhappy greatness, and judged by vulgar standard, a pre-eminence in failure. It seemed as if the stars in their courses warred against his best considered schemes and wisest policies, and only wearied in their opposition when the eye of his judgment became dimmed, and the ear of his reason dull of hearing. The later biographers have added little to the familiar story. He gave the best strength of his best days to the exclusive service of his country; he was admitted to be the most powerful thinker of his age; he was in reality, perhaps, the greatest of philosophic statesmen of any age; his thought-compelling speech was heard upon every subject which can engage the attention of serious students of politics; time and the course of subsequent events have done abundant honour to his political foresight; and, with all this, he never held even second-rate office; as a statesman he can hardly be said to have left any conspicuous record of himself writ in remedial legislation upon the statute-book of England; and, while his is absent, the names of infinitely lesser men shine among the makers of history. Burke’s far-darting sagacity, his most convincing logic, his tireless energy were alike fruitless of curative issue for the distractions and difficulties of his time. His protest against the parliamentary tyranny which excluded Wilkes from the House passed contemptuously unheeded. When the spirit of discontent crossed the Atlantic, in every phase of the troubles with the American Colonies his advice was negatived again and again by large majorities. His high-spirited independence and magnanimous advocacy of the claims of Ireland, and of the Roman Catholics, resulted in his rejection from the representation of Bristol after six years of service. He espoused in an historic trial the cause of the Indian peoples against oppression, and the representative of the policy of oppression was acquitted. By a strange irony, Burke attained popularity and influence only when, after a long and ardent career of eloquent vindication of the true principles of freedom, he declined into vehement and almost fanatical diatribe, and that in an indictment of doubtful justice against an exasperated and sorely harassed people; a whole people who, goaded into revolution, broke from their necks the double yoke of Court and Church, a no longer tolerable tyranny, at best defensible only because aristocratic, and reverend merely by reason of its age.  2
  It needs no laboured inquiry to explain the ill-success of Burke as an influence in the conduct of public affairs. He was in many respects seriously disqualified for success. As novus homo, the charge of being an adventurer, and, at times, even a Jesuit in disguise, pursued him closely through life. He worshipped too high an ideal, cherished too nice a conscience for his age, and, more fatal than all else, he was a man of ideas. The qualities in his speeches, to which time does reverence, are the qualities that discharged them of weight in the scale of immediate effect. Weaker wits were baffled by the breadth of a philosophic treatment which converted familiar questions into unfamiliar, and were little inclined to relish the transformation of party problems soluble in their simpler fashion into complex knots of hitherto unsuspected relationships. In later years, when the early prejudices were almost outworn, the slanders lived down, and his attitude and methods better understood, the strain of the long struggle with obstinate ignorance and unreason began to betray itself in his loss of self-restraint and his irascibility of temper, and it seems to have been convincingly felt that he would prove a risky if not impossible colleague.  3
  Embitterment and despair are the common recompense of the enthusiast. Rarely do men engage hotly, as Burke engaged, against the eidola of the den and of the market place, the follies, prejudices, animosities that sway society, and none the less preserve their souls in patience. In the end Burke’s patience gave way. The events that preceded the Revolution in France which kindled in so many minds the hope that the great day of freedom was at hand, had for him only significance of threatening omen, but it was his heart rather than his head that first took alarm. Much has been said and written of his attitude in this great crisis; two things are indisputable. He was not complete master of the facts, but he put his finger with instant prescience upon the weaknesses, that afterwards broadened into failure, of the revolutionary theories; and however true it may be that the wrongs and injustices of the confiscations and massacres loomed larger before the eye of his imagination than the wrongs and injustices that inflamed the spirit and forged the weapons of revolt, Burke’s allegiance was never transferred from one set of principles to another. At no period of his life could he have brooded a divorce between liberty and justice; he saw in the existing institutions of society the collective wisdom of ages; to him it seemed that if a choice were to be made between tyranny and anarchy, tyranny was preferable, and that peace was more than truth itself save when truth were demonstrated beyond the yea and nay of controversy. Perhaps with all its breadth and depth there is no philosophy, whether of the state or of private life, at once so human, and so manly as Burke’s; so free from affectation, so reasonable and practical; and all this because it rests upon no abstract theory, buttressed by ingenious logic, but is rather a natural growth that has everywhere its roots deep struck in the soil of experience of human passion, human weakness, and human power. It was natural in one whose lifework had been the construction of a system of political faith devoted to the honour of a slow-evolving and sure-footed freedom sprung from historic tradition and the sanctity of established order,—it was natural and consistent in such a man to read in the signs of the times the handwriting upon the wall prophetic of the dissolution of all ancient and sacred institutions and the ruin of the splendid fabric, slowly woven in the loom of ages, of an ordered society. Yet Burke himself at the last might hardly have cared to deny that the wisdom of his age yielded to that of his confident youth when he said “I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people.” Until the end of time there can be no other last word in defence of Revolution.  4
  How much of the artist dwelt in the brain of the statesman the record of his indefatigable toil in composition is witness. In answer to the assertion that he is the greatest of English prose writers it is often said that his style lacks restraint and the dignity that accompanies reserve. His temper rather than any lack of taste made him too eager-voiced; he grasped at much that did not fall naturally within his reach, lost chiaroscuro in unrelieved emphasis, and attained the massive at the expense of the beautiful. But genius like Burke’s declines the selective economy of weaker artists compelled to a choice of material easily handled. He swept into his service all that his excursive imagination took captive, and frequently marshals an unequal array of arguments. But if his touch fails at times to transmute the baser metal into gold, amid such profusion as his we cannot feel ourselves the poorer.  5
  The dawn of Burke’s day of real power was delayed, but its sun is not likely to set while men study the problems of government. In life he was a knight-errant more renowned for prowess than for fortune, but he so ennobled the art, so enriched the philosophy of politics by a treatment at once detailed and comprehensive, at once critical and inspiring, that his life and writings together form the noblest and most complete organon of statesmanship ever left to the world. It is his supreme distinction in an era of intense party feeling to have lifted every question he touched into a higher sphere of intellectual and moral contemplation, to have broadened particular issues, and linked them with the most universal principles of human thought, to have balanced and adjusted the relations of abstract political speculation and practical statecraft, to have shown that debate may be made to yield other than provincial and temporary wisdom, and that philosophy may mingle with the affairs of parties. His influence, take it as you will, is wholly sanative. It is not resident in the lucid beauty of his diction, nor in wealth of illustrative imagery, nor even alone in the thought that gathers strength in its progress from point to point, winding, in Goldsmith’s phrase, into its subject like a serpent. Burke speaks a word to the imagination while he deals with matters the most familiar, or handles masses of concrete detail, and the music of his speech has its secret springs in the moral ardour and swift sympathies of his nature. There goes forth from his writings a healing virtue whose magic calls to mind the fine boast of Antiphon, that he would cure diseases of the mind with words. His political art dealt neither in drugs nor charms for the people, but only in such spiritual simples as bring the soul into harmony with the beauty of reason.  6
 
 
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