Edmund Burke


You could not stand five minutes with that man [Edmund Burke] beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen. Samuel Johnson ('Anecdotes of Johnson' by Mrs. Piozzi)

Born in Dublin, Edmund Burke was educated at Trinity College there, and studied law at the Middle Temple in London. He first became known for his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757); in 1765, he became private secretary to the Prime Minister, the Marquess of Rockingham, and an M.P. The intellectual leader of the Rockingham Whigs, with whom he took office briefly in 1782 (he also served in the Fox-North Coalition Ministry of 1783), he became famous as a brilliant, intemperate, and tiresome orator in the House of Commons. There he vigorously supported conciliation with the American colonies (and not merely because he was Agent of the State of New York), economic and administrative reform, and Catholic emancipation. The last years of his life were spent on two great causes: the impeachment and trial of Warren Hastings, who was accused of oppression and the illegal acquisition of enormous wealth as Governor-General of India, and opposition to the French Revolution and the spread of its doctrines in England.

Burke is remembered today as an intellectual who distrusted reason, and as a political theorist who condemned theory. Profoundly moved by concrete injustice, he opposed any attempt to alter existing institutions on the basis of abstract principles, or to apply a delusive geometrical accuracy in moral arguments. The best forms of government, he felt, were based on tradition: they had evolved through, and were tested by, time. This belief is the basis for his analysis of party politics, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), and for his best-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke's fundamental ideas, his learning and capacious mind, and his mastery of a balanced, incisive style are well illustrated in his apologia pro vita sua, the Letter to a Noble Lord.