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The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence

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The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence
By David Bromwich
Belknap Press, 2014
512 pp. $39.95

In a sense, the debate between Burke and his antagonists—between conservatism and radicalism, broadly defined—has shaped political debate in the Western world since the late eighteenth century. Burke himself has become known as “the father of modern conservatism.” But 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. Anyone hoping to understand Burke is confronted with an array of historians and philosophers of aesthetics, politics, and political theory; social conservatives and free-market liberals; and even closet radicals—all claiming that they hold the key to the “real” Burke. Undaunted, Bromwich sets out to demonstrate “the originality and continuities” of Burke’s thought. The result is an intellectual biography of the best kind. Bromwich seeks to convey “what it meant to think like Edmund Burke” and to demonstrate the coherence and relevance of Burke’s moral and political vision. With a remarkable level of detail and sensitivity, Bromwich makes a virtue out of what others lament as problematic: the relationship between Burke’s political activity and his written works. Bromwich is convinced that people today can still learn from Burke, not as political partisans but as “thoughtful readers.” In Bromwich’s hands, Burke offers better lessons about how to think than about what to think.

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