Edmund Burke  

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"Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the idea of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling ... When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience." --A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Edmund Burke (January 12, 1729 – July 9, 1797) was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher, author of such works as Reflections on the Revolution in France and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

Legacy

Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France was extremely controversial at the time of its publication. Its intemperate language and factual inaccuracies even convinced many readers that Burke had lost his judgement. But after his death, it grew to become his best-known and most influential work. In the English-speaking world, Burke is often regarded as one of the fathers of modern conservatism, and his thinking has exerted considerable influence over the political philosophy of such classical liberals as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper. Burke's 'liberal' conservatism, which claimed to oppose the implementation of governing based on abstract ideas and supported 'organic' reform, can be contrasted with the autocratic conservatism of such Continental figures as Joseph de Maistre.

In the early nineteenth century Burke's legacy was controversial amongst conservatives. His support for Irish Catholics and Indians often led him to be criticised by Tories. His opposition to British imperialism in Ireland and India and his opposition to French imperialism and radicalism in Europe, made it difficult for Whig or Tory to wholly accept Burke as their own. In the nineteenth century Burke was praised by both liberals and conservatives. The Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli "was deeply penetrated with the spirit and sentiment of Burke's later writings". The Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone considered Burke "a magazine of wisdom on Ireland and America" and in his diary recorded: "Made many extracts from Burke—sometimes almost divine". The Radical MP and anti-Corn Law activist Richard Cobden often praised Burke's Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. The Liberal historian Lord Acton considered Burke as one of the three greatest liberals, along with William Gladstone and Thomas Babington Macaulay. Macaulay recorded in his diary: "I have now finished reading again most of Burke's works. Admirable! The greatest man since Milton". The Gladstonian Liberal MP John Morley published two books on Burke (including a biography) and was influenced by Burke, including his views on prejudice. The Cobdenite Radical Francis Hirst thought Burke deserved "a place among English libertarians, even though of all lovers of liberty and of all reformers he was the most conservative, the least abstract, always anxious to preserve and renovate rather than to innovate. In politics he resembled the modern architect who would restore an old house instead of pulling it down to construct a new one on the site".

Two contrasting assessments of Burke were offered long after his death by Karl Marx and Winston Churchill.

Karl Marx was a radical opponent of Burke's thought. In Das Kapital, he wrote:

The sycophant—who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy—was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois.

According to Winston Churchill's "Consistency in Politics":

On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.

The historian Piers Brendon asserts that Burke laid the moral foundations for the British Empire, epitomised in the trial of Warren Hastings, that was ultimately to be its undoing: when Burke stated that "The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other", this was "an idealogical bacillus that would prove fatal. This was Edmund Burke's paternalistic doctrine that colonial government was a trust. It was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright - freedom". As a consequence of this opinion, Burke objected to the opium trade, which he called a "smuggling adventure" and condemned as "the great Disgrace of the British character in India".

The quotation "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing" is often attributed to Burke but does not occur in his works or recorded speeches and does not appear to be his. It first appeared in the 14th edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (1968), which incorrectly sourced it to a private letter that Burke wrote. The letter did not in fact contain the quote.




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