Edmund Burke and the rediscovery of our political heritage

by Institute of Public Affairs on September 2, 2014

Edmund Burke is often remembered as the father of modern conservatism, and for good reason.

Born in Dublin in 1729, Burke was a statesman and philosopher, most famous for his support of the American War of Independence, his criticism of the French Revolution, and his tenure as a Whig member of Parliament.

In the more than two hundred years since his death in 1797, his voluminous writings have had a profound impact on politics and political thought.

Burke was opposed to the theories of ‘abstract rights’ that gained popularity during his lifetime, and called for a ‘human heart-based’ government founded on practicalities rather than abstract theories. He emphasised the importance of historical rights inherited from the ‘ancient constitution’, which he saw extending back to Magna Carta. He maintained that society was ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’

Because he considered Britain to have breached the ‘ancient constitution’ in its treatment of the American colonies, he was opposed to royal efforts to crush the American War of Independence. In his most famous and most controversial work, however – Reflections on the Revolution in France – he correctly predicted that the French Revolution would end in terror and tyranny, because the revolutionaries had disregarded all tradition and existing institutions and sought to create an entirely new form of government founded on rationalism and ‘abstract rights’.

He also coined the term ‘little platoons’ – small voluntary associations of ordinary people – which was a major theme inJanet Albrechtsen’s speech at the Foundations of Western Civilisation Symposium earlier this year.

Burke is certainly not the best-known of philosophers. In fact, in most Australian universities you would be very lucky indeed to find a single subject on him. Nevertheless, Burke has had a profound impact on conservative philosophy and political thought, and his ideas continue to be important today.

Here is some good news: the last two years have seen something of a ‘Burkean revival’. In other words, if you want to read up on the life and times of the great political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke, there is no shortage of newly-published books available.

First – in May 2013 – was this book by Conservative British MP Jesse Norman. It was reviewed by Richard Allsop in the November edition of the IPA Review and by Daniel Hannan inThe Telegraph.

Second – in December 2013 – was this book by Yuval Levin, on Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the beginnings of the left-wing/right-wing divide. You can watch Levin talk about his book at the Heritage Foundation here.

Third and most recent is this book – The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke – by David Bromwich, which was published by Harvard University Press in May this year. You can read an excellent review in The New York Times.

Reading, Watching and Listening

As I wrote in the August edition of Horizons, last month marked100 years since the beginning of the First World War.

To celebrate this incredible milestone, here are some links that might be of interest. First are these chilling montages of World War One photos from The Sydney Morning Herald.

Second is this exhibition – WWI: Love & Sorrow – which is about to open at the Melbourne Museum.

And here is a fascinating tribute to the first Australians to die in the War.

Here is another equally as astonishing milestone: 19 August marked 2,000 years since the death of Augustus, the first ‘Emperor’ of Rome.

Adrian Goldsworthy’s book – Augustus: First Emperor of Rome– has just been published by Yale University Press in celebration of the anniversary. Here is an interesting take on his violent and sometimes ruthless career and deeds.

And 22 August marked 529 years since the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. This would not be especially noteworthy, if it were not for the interest the anniversary has received from the general public this year. Who said that history is boring?

On a similar note, for anyone who is looking for a good grounding in the history of England in the High Middle Ages,The Plantagenets by Dan Jones is an excellent start. Here is a very positive review from The Telegraph.

The Plantagenets was published back in May 2012. Jones’ second instalment in the series on the Later Middle Ages – The Hollow Crown – was published this month. Here is a review from The Telegraph.

A new book was published in July on Pericles, the legendary Athenian general and oratorHere is a review from The Telegraph.

Finally, in July the pseudonymous ‘Professor Neve R Stenning-Stihl’ prepared a very amusing – if not highly concerning – compilation of excerpts from undergraduate essays, which was published in The Monthly.

Due to a flurry of criticism, The Monthly was required to publishthis follow-up last month defending its decision to publish it and assuring everyone that the extracts were, in fact, genuine.

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