A crowd might become as tyrannical as a king

Long disturbed by the government’s abuse of power, Burke also came to see that a crowd might become as tyrannical as a king.”

Book Review in today’s WSJ: ‘The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke‘ by David Bromwich

When a public man writes,” Richard Shackleton remarked in 1790, “people generally divide in their declared opinions not according to the merit of the work, but the prejudices which they have conceived concerning the man.” Over the years, the vast literature on Shackleton’s friend Edmund Burke (1729-97) shows how easily a writer can be lost amid the debate over his ideas and the “prejudices” they inspire…

“A Vindication of Natural Society,” published anonymously in 1756, was his first published effort. It attacked the idea—popular among the social thinkers of the era—that society’s customs and practices should be derived from man’s natural capacity to reason and not from superstition or illogical belief. But the pursuit of such “natural” morality, Burke argued, would entail rejecting education and acquired virtue, as well as most of religion. Mr. Bromwich shows Burke arriving here at one of his core principles: that society depends on barriers or constraints that prevent man from allowing his passions to control his reason and drive it to extremes. This insight would later inform his “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” …

We do not think of Burke as a Romantic, but he was one of the first to investigate Romanticism’s wild sources. Burke recognized the tendency, in the mid-18th century, to conflate manners and refinement with ethics and moral sense, as if good taste offered a guide to good conduct. Burke would have none of it. For him, the aesthetic function operates prior to morality—hence the sudden and surprising effects of the “sublime,” an aesthetic sensation, as he defined it, involving fear and intensified emotion. “The originality of Burke on the sublime,” Mr. Bromwich writes, “was to reject utterly the connections between sublimity, good taste, probity and sanity.”

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One Response to A crowd might become as tyrannical as a king

  1. Paul Marks says:

    Unlike recent books published on this side of the Atlantic on Edmund Burke (a much misunderstood political thinker) this book seems to be worth reading.

    Some of what Burke wrote as a very young man was over-the-top.For example the total identification of the sublime with fearful things such as war, and the beautiful with sexual love – was partly a hangover from a school boy desire to shock his Quaker schoolmaster Mr Shackleton – the father of his life long friend. However, Edmund Burke continued to examine ideas (not just political – but the philosophical foundations of politics which influence even the most cynically “practical” of politicians, they are moved by their philosophical assumptions more than they know).

    There is natural right and wrong – a natural law. But no one person starting with a blank sheet of paper is likely to come up with right in the terrible complexity of the world – only be referring to the efforts of people over history (over the centuries of successes and failures) in tradition are we at all likely to hit upon right conduct. – cultural traditions are not always correct (one may need to change things), but to try and destroy everything and start again is the mark of a madman (for it is insane folly).

    As for the use of force (the way of politics) should only be to counter force (NOT to remake civil society) – the Sword of State is just that (a sword) it is not a paint brush, it should not be used to try and paint a picture of a new society.

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