Edmund Burke

Definition

Mark Cartwright
by
published on 10 January 2024
Available in other languages: French
Edmund Burke, 1771 (by Joshua Reynolds (Studio), Public Domain)
Edmund Burke, 1771
Joshua Reynolds (Studio) (Public Domain)

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Anglo-Irish statesman and political thinker. His most famous work is Reflections on the Revolution in France a critique of the social and political turmoil in that country in the final decade of the 18th century. Burke advocated only gradual change to political and social institutions which had already proved themselves of value over time.

Early Life

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland, on 12 January 1729. Edmund's mother was a Catholic while his father was a Protestant, who earned his living as a lawyer. Edmund studied law at Trinity College in Dublin from 1744 to 1748. Burke moved to London in 1750, where he continued to study law. It was politics that really attracted Burke, though, and he entertained ambitions as a man of letters.

Remove Ads
Advertisement

Ideas on the Sublime

In 1756, Burke published his first important work, A Vindication of Natural Society. Here he assessed the latest trends in social theory. Burke's second important work, published in 1757 (but written a decade earlier), was a treatise on aesthetics titled Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful. In this work Burke "explores the nature of 'negative' pleasures, that is, irrational and mixed feelings of pleasure and pain, of attraction and terror" (Yolton, 72). The sublime, that is the interaction between reason and emotion, was a concept that preoccupied many Enlightenment thinkers. The historian S. Blackburn describes the significance of Burke's work: "[It] marked a very early Romantic turn away from the 18th-century aesthetic of clarity and order, in favour of the imaginative power of the unbounded and infinite, and the unstated and unknown" (66). Burke was challenging the idea that reason was the best faculty to deal with the world and expand our knowledge of it. Reason was a cornerstone of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment movement, but Burke, nevertheless, insisted that emotion (what we today might call intuition or creative imagination) had its place in the learning process. he wrote:

Whatever turns the soul inward on itself, tends to concentrate its forces and to fit it for greater and stronger flights of science.

Whenever the wisdom of our Creator intended that we should be affected with any thing, he did not confine the exercise of his design to the languid and precarious operation of our reason; but he endued it with powers and properties that prevent [i.e anticipate] the understanding, and even the will, which seizing upon the senses and imagination, captivate the soul before the understanding is ready either to join with them or to oppose them.

Remove Ads
Advertisement

(Hampson, 193)

Edmund Burke, 1774
Edmund Burke, 1774
Joshua Reynolds (Public Domain)

Party Politics

In 1757, Burke married Jane Nugent. The next year, he began to work as a journalist and editor for the Annual Register, which became a popular annual publication that summarised the previous year's events, particularly in politics and foreign affairs. In 1761, Burke was determined to enter practical politics and so he moved back to Ireland to take up a position as secretary to the Duke of Hamilton. At the time, Hamilton was responsible for the British administration in Ireland.

Burke believed in conservatism, social hierarchy, & free commerce.

In 1765, Burke entered even higher politics when he began to work as secretary for Lord Rockingham, First Lord of the Treasury and one of the most influential Whig politicians. Burke held this position until 1782, and he remained a part of the Rockingham Whig faction for most of his political career. In 1765, thanks to Rockingham's patronage, Burke was elected as Member of Parliament for Wendover in the English county of Buckinghamshire, a position he held until 1774. He represented the Whig party but firmly believed that an MP should follow his own inclinations above those of party politics and should hold as a priority the welfare and best interests of the whole nation, not only those of his particular constituents. Burke, as the historian H. Chisick puts it, "creatively balanced pragmatism and principle" (93). From 1774 until 1780, he served as MP for Bristol, and from 1780 until 1794, he was MP for Malton in Yorkshire.

Remove Ads
Advertisement

Burke believed in conservatism, social hierarchy, and free commerce. For these ideas, Burke is often credited as "the founding thinker of the modern conservative political tradition" (Chisick, 92). Burke was, though, a liberal according to the political situation of his own times. Burke had travelled across the European continent, and he believed in the common heritage of European states: "No citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it…When a man travelled or resided for health, pleasure, business, or necessity from his country, he never felt himself quite abroad" (Cameron, 21).

Stamp Act Riots in Boston, August 1765
Stamp Act Riots in Boston, August 1765
John Cassell (Public Domain)

Reflections on British Colonies

Burke was sympathetic to the rights of citizens in Britain's colonies, particularly in North America. These colonists had become richer and, unencumbered by traditional social hierarchies, more egalitarian than any comparable society in Europe. Britain was much the same as ever, but its colonies were evolving rapidly, a disparity made worse by the geographical separation between the two, a separation that meant governance was ponderous. Burke once noted that "Seas roll and months pass, between the order and the execution" (Hampson, 179). Burke did not favour an aggressive policy towards the North American colonies. In addition, he reminded Parliament in a speech that the colonists were "descendants of Englishmen" and "therefore not only devoted to Liberty but to Liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles" (Robertson, 708).

Burke supported the idea that organised religion had a crucial role to play in maintaining good social order.

Burke took a similar approach to Ireland, believing that many Irish grievances under British rule were valid. He did not advocate a British withdrawal but his practical sense and concern for the welfare of ordinary people led him to suggest more freedom than the Irish presently enjoyed, particularly for Catholics.

Remove Ads
Advertisement

Burke was an advocate of the benefits of free trade, but he famously argued that there were essential moral limits that should never be crossed. One individual who became a target of Burke's cutting pen and tongue was Warren Hastings, Governor-General of the British East India Company (EIC) from 1774 to 1785. When Hastings returned to England, he received a reception far from the colonial hero's welcome he perhaps anticipated. He was attacked for corruption and acts of cruelty during his time in India. Burke, in his typical and often ill-advised exaggerating style of speech, described Hastings and his like as 'nabobs' (although he did not himself coin the phrase), a corruption of the Indian term for a ruler, nawab, and meant to deride their grasping greed and the new flash lifestyle they enjoyed in England from their ill-gotten gains. Hastings was held up as the worst example of this particular species of nouveau riche. Even worse in Burke's eyes, Hastings had sullied the name of Britain in India and on the international stage by stealing on a grand scale and acquiring for the EIC "all the landed property of Bengal upon strange pretences" (Wilson, 132). Hastings was impeached by Parliament in 1787, charged with "high crimes and misdemeanours". After seven years of deliberation, the House of Lords, Parliament's upper chamber, acquitted Hastings of any wrongdoing. The fact that many of Britain's most powerful men were EIC shareholders was not insignificant to Hastings's exoneration, although in all fairness the ex-Governor-General had been no worse in his conduct than any other senior EIC figure.

The Trial of Warren Hastings
The Trial of Warren Hastings
Unknown Artist (Public Domain)

Thoughts on the French Revolution

Burke criticised the chaos and social disorder of the French Revolution (1789-1799) in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790. Burke believed that reason must prevail over an excess of emotions, and that this essential balance had been inverted by the revolutionaries in France. Burke abhorred the individualism of the revolutionaries since he believed that the good of society outweighed the needs of the individual. Revolutions occurred when what Burke referred to as the "swinish multitude" interfered in matters beyond their place. If Burke (and most other philosophers of the period) could have had their way, the lower classes would simply not be invited to the Enlightenment party. As Burke noted: "what would become of the world if the practice of all moral Duties and the Foundations of Society, rested upon having their reasons made clear and demonstrative to every Individual?" (Cameron, 286).

Burke supported the idea that organised religion had a crucial role to play in maintaining good social order. He was also convinced that a stable government (preferably a constitutional monarchy and one more limited in power even than the current British ruler) ensured a stable culture and society. Burke also believed in the inherent value of time-tested institutions which could be modified gradually when required but not swept aside as they had been in the tumultuous events in France at the end of the 18th century. This view led Burke down one or two intellectual alleys he might have preferred to avoid, such as a defence of the idea that property should remain the chief concern of governors (because it always had been) and that failed systems like the rotten boroughs (where politicians, including Burke himself, paid for their seat in Parliament) were worth keeping simply for their antiquity.

Remove Ads
Advertisement

Burke did not believe there had ever been such a thing as a state of nature, that is, the idea that humans had one time in the past moved from a natural animal-like existence into a politically organised society, an idea made popular by several Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704). For Burke, any nation and its institutions were a product of a rich and long history, and so one particular generation has no right to make wholesale changes:

A nation is not an idea only of local extent and individual momentary aggregation…[Its choice] is a deliberate choice of ages and generations; it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice; it is made by peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.

(Hampson, 247)

Arrest of Louis XVI and His Family in Varennes, 1791
Arrest of Louis XVI and His Family in Varennes, 1791
Thomas Falcon Marshall (Public Domain)

One of Burke's examples of a long-developed nation was India. The 18th century witnessed the first realisation in Western Europe that India had a very long cultural history indeed. Burke described that subcontinent as possessing "a people for ages civilized and cultivated; cultivated by all the arts of political life, whilst we were yet in the woods" (Robertson, 641).

Bengal, in particular, which was then one of the richest regions in the world, seemed to prove to Burke the merit of keeping institutions and hierarchies that had earned a certain longevity. He noted in one speech:

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

There is to be found an ancient and venerable priesthood, the depository of their laws, learning, and history, the guides of the people while living, and their consolation in death; a nobility of great antiquity and renown; a multitude of cities, not exceeded in population and trade by those of the first class in Europe; merchants and bankers…millions of ingenious manufacturers and mechanicks; millions of the most diligent, and not the least intelligent, tillers of the earth.

(Robertson, 641)

Criticisms of Burke

Burke's Reflections created a stir and something of a public spat developed with one thinker in particular, Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Paine published his celebrated Rights of Man, part one, in 1791, written in direct response to Burke's Reflections and which sold 100,000 copies. The two thinkers had been friends, but Paine particularly attacked Burke's belief in the usefulness of established institutions, remarking that, in his opinion, "Mr Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living" (Robertson, 740). Another thinker who took exception to Burke's reverence for tradition was Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). In 1790, Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, also a critical response to Reflections. Wollstonecraft pointed out that many institutions were holding women back and desperately needed reforming. Unimpressed with what she regarded as Burke's backward-looking stance, Wollstonecraft summarised his view as giving "reverence to the rust of antiquity" (Robertson, 739).

Reflections on the Revolution in France Title Page
Reflections on the Revolution in France Title Page
Unknown Photographer (Public Domain)

Legacy

Despite Paine's and Wollstonecraft's criticisms, Burke's Reflections remained an influential work on counter-revolutionary thought, especially in England and Germany. Further, Burke's stress that societies develop in a complex organic process contributed to a more nuanced approach to the study of history.

Burke continued to make dramatic speeches in Parliament and, in the early 1790s, to write such works as An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Letters on a Regicide Peace, and Thoughts on French Affairs. Burke retired from political life in 1794 but continued to write, notably calling for an improvement in living conditions in Ireland.

Burke died on 9 July 1797 in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. He died with the French Revolution still ongoing, but his prediction that it would all end with a military dictator proved correct and perhaps vindicates his belief that overthrowing institutions which have survived for centuries carries great risk.

Did you like this definition?
Editorial Review This article has been reviewed by our editorial team before publication to ensure accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards in accordance with our editorial policy.
Remove Ads
Advertisement
Subscribe to this author

About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.

Translations

French

We want people all over the world to learn about history. Help us and translate this definition into another language!

Questions & Answers

What is Edmund Burke best known for?

Edmund Burke is best known for his criticism of the French Revolution and its overthrow of time-tested institutions and social hierarchies.

Was Edmund Burke the founder of conservatism?

Some historians believe that Edmund Burke is the founder of modern conservatism since he advocated such ideas as free trade and the veneration of time-tested institutions and conventions such as the value and importance of property as a qualification for government.

Free for the World, Supported by You

World History Encyclopedia is a non-profit organization. For only $5 per month you can become a member and support our mission to engage people with cultural heritage and to improve history education worldwide.

Become a Member  

Recommended Books

 
World History Encyclopedia is an Amazon Associate and earns a commission on qualifying book purchases.

Cite This Work

APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2024, January 10). Edmund Burke. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/Edmund_Burke/

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Edmund Burke." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified January 10, 2024. https://www.worldhistory.org/Edmund_Burke/.

MLA Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Edmund Burke." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 10 Jan 2024. Web. 21 Jun 2024.

Membership