The Soaring Falcon
An excellent essay on Edmund Burke has appeared in The American Scholar. Written by Brian Doyle (editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He is the author most recently of the novel Mink River.)
One of the frustrations surrounding Burke is that so little of his output was on the printed page. Most consisted of powerful rhetoric in the House of Commons. So he is hard for modern readers to access. However, Reflections on the Revolution in France remains a tour de force in Western political philosophy. It is a work written out of a thoroughly Christian world view. It can teach the Church a great deal. Burke was one of the last great political philosophers and politicians of the First Christendom.
The Right Honourable Mr. Burke
Article – Summer 2012
The American Scholar
Impassioned orator, eloquent statesman, esteemed writer—but who was Edmund Burke the man?
Everyone claims Edmund Burke as his patron saint, political forefather, lodestar and compass point, ancestral bulwark against the tide of whatever seething modern ill he despises. The right wing trumpets Burke, who excoriated the murderous rebellion in France; the left wing salutes Burke, who excoriated his imperial colleagues for their overweening and rapacious greed in India and America; Christians celebrate Burke, who considered religion a crucial and indispensable pillar of civic life; the Irish savor a native son who became, as Hazlitt noted, “the chief boast and ornament of the English House of Commons”; the English honor the writer and orator of “transcendant greatness,” as Coleridge wrote, with his usual casual attention to spelling. . . .
Here’s a moment that shows Ned Burke the man. It was 1780. The Irish question had arisen yet again, this time in economic form, because the Americans had essentially won their war for independence, and the British government, drained by war with France and wishing to be sure Ireland did not also rise in rebellion, contemplated relaxing some of the many harsh sanctions and suppressions on the Irish economy. Burke approved of this, for several reasons, and, being Irish and clear about his opinions—“Ireland, after almost a century of persecution, is at this hour full of penalties. ... [N]othing is defensible which renders miserable millions of men coexistent with one- self. … [We have made] our fellow-creatures wretched”—he and his Whig party were vilified by increasingly large and violent Protestant mobs all over England. In June a week of riots burst out in London—the Gordon Riots, named for the virulently anti-Catholic Lord George Gordon, who led a mob 50,000 strong to the Houses of Parliament to oppose any measure that would bring relief to Catholic Ireland. The rioters broke into the House of Commons, smashed Catholic churches and chapels, looted Catholic homes, set fire to one prison and opened others to set prisoners free, and attacked the Bank of England. . . .
This was no mere chaotic street protest—people were roasted to death, beaten to death, shot to death, for being Catholic, or sympathetic to Catholics—and no more identifiable pro-Catholic figure existed in the epicenter of the riot than Mr. Edmund Burke. He was 51 years old that year, portly, bespectacled, unarmed, and infamous, the very man the mob wanted to injure or worse, the very man you would think would convey himself and his gentle bride to a town far away and there await the return of law, or hide somewhere safe, or don disguise, or at least sensibly take refuge in a carriage escorted by His Majesty’s soldiers to Parliament, if he was so intent on executing his sworn duty as a minister. But no—he waded grimly into the murderous crowd, incredibly identifying himself to all he encountered, and made his way, on foot, quite through the multitude, to the very building first attacked by a mob responsible for hundreds of deaths. The brass of the man, the confidence that his voice and his courage, his belief in the strait line of what was right, would see him through! . . .
Perhaps the finest writer of his time, perhaps the bravest and wisest politician of his time, certainly the most famous of orators in the most powerful country of his time—yet he was hurried and harsh, impatient and intractable, his gestures clumsy, his Irish accent, which he never lost, growing stronger as his temper rose. I can see him, in the well of the Commons, in the heat of his second speech on conciliation with the American colonies, in 1775, furious at what was being lost, snarling at the terrible waste of money and lives such a loss would mean, mortified at the shallow greed of his fellow ministers, enraged at the way their snatching for the small coin of taxes would inevitably lead to the grievous loss of the cousin-colonies as a whole. He soared, he stumbled, he raged, he went on for hours; a member who was there that night reported that the performance “drove everybody away.” . . . .
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Burke the writer is that he apparently did not write his speeches out before he delivered them, but spoke impromptu, from the heart, and only afterward wrote out what he had said, from memory; there are no reports of him carrying or referring to notes as he spoke, no accounts of him outlining or writing his speeches (some of them as long as five hours) beforehand. . . .
In his essence he believed, as he often wrote, that human beings, for all our heroic and graceful pinnacles, were also troubled, flawed, greedy, selfish, violent, and webbed with prejudices of the most ridiculous and dangerous sort, and that the role of a dominant religion (which should be state religion, he thought; he had no problem with Hindu or “Mahometan” nations, as he had no objection to his own Christian empire) and a powerful government was to trammel the worst impulses and foment the best. Thus Burke earns his modern hagiography as hero of Christian conservatives, who seethe at the muddle and stalemate and chaos of a liberal democracy. . . .
One last Burke story. Johnson, who both admired Burke and several times bemoaned his low humor, once told Boswell that “no man of sense could meet Mr Burke by accident under a gateway to avoid a shower, without being convinced—‘this is an extraordinary man.’ If Burke should go into a stable to see his horse drest, the ostler would say, ‘we have had an extraordinary man here.’ ”
I have tried to bring him to life again, to resurrect a riveting man, a brilliant and tumultuous soul, one of the wonderful writers in our language, and perhaps even better a thinker and moral compass, so that you would know him too as Ned Burke, beloved husband of Jane, beloved father of two squirming boys, dear friend to many, a man addicted to low puns and vulgar jokes; and let the last image of Burke be the man in his root-house, sipping his tea, his books sprawled about him, the wheedle and whistle of hawfinches in his ears, and overhead, a lark-falcon soaring …