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How to Think Like Edmund Burke

Debating the Philosopher’s Complex Legacy

Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century British politician and writer, is today best known for Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790. In it, Burke denounced the revolutionaries in France and their supporters in Great Britain for what he considered their misplaced faith in principles such as “abstract liberty” and “the rights of men” and for their rejection of more pragmatic, procedural paths to ending the tyranny of hereditary monarchy. As Burke put it:

"Property with peace and order; with civil and social manners . . . are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty is to [let] individuals . . . do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints."

In a sense, the debate between Burke and his antagonists—between conservatism and radicalism, broadly defined—has shaped political debate in the Western world ever since, and Burke himself has become known as “the father of modern conservatism.”

David Bromwich is not fond of that phrase. “No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism,” writes the esteemed scholar of literature in his magnificent, beautifully written new study of the first half of Burke’s career, which is the most notable addition to a recent crop of books about Burke. The trouble is not only that the line between Burke and modern conservatism is hardly straight but also that Burke’s legacy is far too complex to be captured by any such phrase. Part of the problem, as Bromwich makes clear, are the tensions (and even paradoxes) within Burke’s own thinking and writing. His condemnation of the French Revolution was preceded by his sympathy for the American one that took place two decades earlier. This gave ammunition to his radical foes, such as the critic William Hazlitt, who later wrote that by rejecting the

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