Edmund Burke has suffered from having said too many wise things. In ardent support of the American colonists in 1774, he argued that “general rebellions and revolts of a whole people were never encouraged, now or at any time. They are always provoked.” Sixteen years later, he was giving notice to the French that they could hardly be congratulated for letting loose the madman of revolution when they knew so little of the “new power in new persons, of whose principles, tempers, and dispositions, they have little or no experience.” Understandably, Burke has been claimed by subsequent generations of both liberals and conservatives as a fundamental expositor of their deepest precepts. All polemicists love effective aphorism, and Burke was its master. The more prescient his observations across time, however, the more he opened himself to the charges of inconsistency which have ever plagued his reputa- tion. In one of his most memorable formulations, Burke observed that “circumstances…give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect.” Circumstances do change, as he knew and had the courage to say, and so should opinions follow. But this piece of wisdom makes it all the more difficult to identify those principles that were essential to Burke.
Burke is not an easy figure to study. There is little evidence of his early motivations. It is known that he came from a prominent, impoverished, Roman Catholic gentry family, that his mother remained a Catholic while his father converted to the Anglican church, and that he was throughout his life accused of crypto-Catholicism. For the period from 1748, when he was graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, until 1757, virtually nothing is known. When Burke fully reemerges during the 1760’s, he has acquired both a reputation for oratory and an influential patron, the Marquess of Rockingham, upon whom he exerts considerable influence. The political scene was confused, however, and no means could be guaranteed to deliver success. Corruption was rampant, both the Whig and Tory parties were divided into factions, and the royal influence of George III was unusually potent. Thus, no matter where the scholar turns, there are shadows. In an Ireland bitterly torn over Catholic disabilities, how far had Burke personally distanced himself from his homeland? Burke is virtually silent. In Parliament, how much difference did his classic speeches really make? There were few obvious converts, and even Burke’s warmest admirers were altogether willing to break with him on policy differences. Given the fact that he never held high office from which he could wield power directly, the nature of his immediate influence has remained shrouded. In this work, Conor Cruise O’Brien sets out to rescue Burke from critics who have minimized his political effectiveness, and seen in his fine phrases little more than the philosophical underpinnings of political opportunism.
O’Brien is unusually well qualified to get to the bottom of Burke’s political character. First, he is Irish. Although Burke went to great pains to minimize his Irish past, it is clear that he never shook free of it, so that a sympathetic understanding of Burke’s Irish consciousness is significant. Second, O’Brien, like Burke, has personally faced the dilemmas of practical politics, serving as a United Nations representative in the 1960’s and in the Irish government during the 1970’s. Third, he is a proven historian who made his mark during the 1950’s. Finally, he has worked specifically with Burke before, admirably editing the Penguin Classics edition (1969) of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). During the period between 1960 and the publication of The Great Melody, O’Brien’s reputation grew as wide experience enhanced his considerable skills as a social critic and scholar. It would be difficult to find anyone more suited to write Burke’s life.
At once, however, the reader will realize that this is no ordinary biography. When O’Brien set out to write The Great Melody, he started from a clue supplied by a poet. In “The Seven Sages,” William Butler Yeats had written a couplet that haunted the author: “American colonies, Ireland, France and India/ Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.” The said “it” against which Burke performs his “great melody” is the abuse of power. In this metaphor, O’Brien finds the secret to reconciling so many otherwise contradictory political attitudes. At a personal level, he finds the secret to Burke’s motivation in the ambivalence Burke felt, but seldom displayed, in having been forced by circumstances to renounce his Irishness. In order to support his thesis, often at odds with the accumulated wisdom of recent scholarship, O’Brien takes a large step off the historical path. “I was required,” he writes,...
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