Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Richard Bourke's "Empire and Revolution"

Richard Bourke is professor in the history of political thought and codirector of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas and the coeditor of Political Judgement.

Bourke applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke is concerned with the religious views of this great statesman and philosopher. In the 1750s, before Burke embarked on a career in politics, he devoted himself to a range of intellectual problems that were central to the preoccupations of Enlightenment thinkers. These included the relationship between reason and faith, the nature of religious fanaticism, and the role of providence in human affairs. Burke developed his own perspective on these issues in his early essays, and their significance for his thinking can be seen in his first, anonymously published work, A Vindication of Natural Society (1756). The book has been widely misunderstood, but it is fundamentally a satire on the very idea of a “natural” society – on the view that civilisation could be built on the animal instincts of humans alone.

Behind Burke’s assault lies a deep-grained scepticism about the power of reason to penetrate mystery and to prescribe rules of practical morality. This did not mean that Burke was attracted to mystical uncertainty, but it did mean that he acknowledged our dependence on beliefs that could not be absolutely demonstrated. Equally, it did not imply that he saw morality as having no rational foundation, but it was to argue that practical politics could not be derived from abstract norms. For instance, the abstract value of equality, to which Burke was committed, had to be reconciled with actual inequalities introduced by the progress of society. Attempts to abolish all historical or “artificial” inequalities in the name of primitive equality would destroy the possibility of social improvement.

Burke arrived at these ideas early, but they would play a powerful role throughout his later life. Among the great causes to which he devoted himself over the course of his career stood his opposition to the French Revolution and his antagonism towards the East India Company. What appalled him, in the case of France, was the Revolutionary doctrine of the “natural” rights of man which threatened to undermine all society and government. Allied to this was his hostility to the notion that social values were accountable to a human tribunal alone. Burke was alarmed to find this principle advanced by the Governor General of the East India Company, Warren Hastings, in justifying acts of oppression on the Indian subcontinent. These examples show that while Burke’s career was not a seamless whole, the principles that he came to defend as a great sage in the 1790s had their roots in the commitments that he had worked out forty years earlier.
Learn more about Empire and Revolution at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue