A past competition, now sadly in abeyance, used to involve arguing over who was the greatest Irish intellect. The English held a similar competition some years ago and, unsurprisingly, chose Churchill ahead of Shakespeare.
God knows what would happen if we had a referendum or phone-in-vote to decide this in Ireland. Who might figure in our short-term attention span universe? Miriam O’Callaghan, Eamonn Dunphy or Bono present themselves as awful possibilities; Michael McDowell or even Leo Varadkar might even turn up.
Yet, if we were to take such matters seriously, I think we should consider Edmund Burke the most influential and important Irish intellectual of all time. In fact, The Great Melody, as Conor Cruise O’Brien’s 1993 book on Burke is called – from William Butler Yeats’s 1933 poem ‘The Seven Sages’ – amplifies over time, and the poem unites Burke with Swift, and Goldsmith, in their hatred of oppression:
The First American colonies, Ireland, France and India harried and Burke’s great melody against it.
(from W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Winding Stair’, 1933).
It is that hatred of oppression and injustice that makes him as relevant now as he ever was to Irish, U.K. and International Affairs. Of course, ‘The Great Melody’ of his life was a hatred of injustice, an overarching commitment to the truth and confrontation of the abuse of power.
Commitment to the truth is badly needed in our post-truth universe, given the extent to which dissonance and disinformation has been disseminated by the alt-right and neo-cons.
It seems deeply odd then that the right should venerate Burke and regard him as the founder and progenitor of Conservatism. George Bush had a plinth of him in the White House, as I believe did David Cameron.
Republican Party ideologues, such as the towering figure of William F. Buckley, venerated Burke, and sought to convert Burkeian conservatism to nascent neo-liberalism. Buckley provided the intellectual foundations for this through such texts as God and Man in Yale (Regnery Publishing, 1953), and his editorship of the republic party intellectual rag The National Review.
Buckley mis-translates Burke’s ideas into a diabolical, individualism or libertarianism. Indeed, other conservatives of that era despised Buckley for drawing Conservatism away from the spirit of Burke’s ‘community of souls’, and towards naked self-interest. This has led to the undermining of state institutions and now their actual takeover by the corporatocracy.
Buckley was a brilliant but repellent human being, as is very evident in the documentary made about his media punditry with Gore Vidal during the 1968 American election (‘Best of Enemies’). He has had an enormous, understated influence in moving the Republican party, via Reagan, towards Libertarianism and the disaster capitalism that is with us now.
Yet the Republican Party and indeed much of the present Conservative party are not conservatives in the Burkean sense. They are neo-liberal extremists.
Burke was a moderate Conservative in the Disraelian sense, dedicated to preserving those traditions that ought to be preserved, and his career is an idiosyncratic mixture of radicalism and conservatism. He believed in the desirability of change, but not for its own sake, and advocated that all transitions should be incremental, with antennae raised to unintended consequences:
Burke was also a passionately anti-extremist. His oft-criticised text ‘Reflections on The Revolution in France/French Revolution (1790),’ is a harbinger of doom – that might apply to latter day extremism and jihadism.
It came before the blood-letting of the Terror, and the rise of the authoritarian strongman, which he had predicted. Take a bow Mr. Bonaparte. Take a bow Mr. Varadkar. Take a bow Mr. Trump. Take a bow Mr. Orban. I included those three as I would argue that the neo-liberalism they implement is a form of extremism – a new-fangled corporate fascism. I very much doubt whether Burke would endorse its excesses.
Unlike neo-liberals, Burke believed in an ideal of a community as a group of associative obligations and reciprocal interactions. A moral and networked community. In contrast, the neo-liberal ideology is based on social atomisation and fragmentation. As Margaret Thatcher put it: ‘There is no such thing as society only individuals.’ This is a view running contrary to a Burkean ethos.
In contemporary terms Burke might even be described as a Rawlsian or, dare I say it, a Keynesian capitalist which is precisely what Buckley was attacking.
Burke might also appeal to environmentalists as he saw community as inter-generational: ‘Society becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’
He held a defined sense of the public good that was not just where the dice landed in the casino capitalism of the market. Further, though a passionate advocate of rights and liberties, he was also a passionate advocate of restraint and moderation. He believed that rights should not be reduced to untrammelled liberties and licentious anarchy.
Dislike of Crony Capitalism
Though a conservative in terms of his invocation of habit, tradition and social order, as well as measures of fiscal rectitude, he was, conversely, an opponent of these in many respects.
He led a hate campaign, lasting many years, against a man of significant merit, Warren Hastings and the East Indian Company, predicated, at one level, on dislike of the abuse of corporate and private power – what we now describe as ‘crony capitalism.’ This makes me certain he would have no truck with the excesses of neo-liberalism, the cartelisation of wealth and assets by elites, or the enforcement of austerity measures.
After all, he grew up in an Ireland devastatingly captured by Dean Jonathan Swift’s satire ‘A Modest Proposal’ (1729) – also part of ‘The Great Melody’. The Malthusian liquidation of the poor and disenfranchised inflicted in that period by British absentee capitalists is now being revisited, this time by neo-liberal extremists, whether from Brussels, or Canadian and American vulture funds.
Burke’s Irish background of course influenced a lot of what he did. It engendered sympathy with the underdog, which threads through his career and was perhaps in no small measure a product of his Quaker education.
Burke believed in the free market and free trade but not cartels or monopolies. He would surely be horrified by the Ireland we see today: a country controlled by oligarchical capitalism, and ruled by vulture funds and banks, along with a Euro-cracy imposing austerity, after a catastrophe for which it shares responsibility.
An important point to bear in mind about Burke was that he was effectively in debt for most of his life; the threat of bankruptcy exposing him to the peril of losing his parliamentary seat, and ending up, like Mr. Micawber, in a debtor’s prison.
Many of these debts were accrued through a resolutely independent cast of mind, and failure to sell out or cash in. Remaining true to one’s principle, then and now, is a luxury few can afford.
He did not univocally criticise the concept of a revolution, and indeed supported the American Revolution in the face of great criticism. His argument was that they had been the victim of oppression and an injustice, which is the stand he always took. I would go so far as to say he would support such groups as Extinction Rebellion, or in Ireland the Anti-Austerity Alliance.
Perhaps he would even have supported Brexit for similar reasons to his support of The Boston Tea Party. He held a melange of contrarian views, curiously relevant to this day and age – a qualified support for justified rebellion reveals an intellect neither exclusively right nor left.
His life is a fascinating study, and his global influence is perhaps only paralleled by a select number of other Irish lives, such as Roger Casement’s. Here is someone who was privy to the inner machinations of two establishments, and though an outsider – and only an intermittent parliamentarian – the greatest statesman of his age, if not by universal acclaim then by consensus.
That of course leads to the question of what statesmanship amounts to.
First, I believe it involves standing back from the fray and detaching oneself; retaining independence and objectivity. Secondly, it requires that one does not sing exclusively from the party hymn sheet or accept the whip. Thirdly, a statesman does not court popularity.
All these attributes of Burke’s statesmanship are evident in a critical electoral pamphlet he wrote on his obligations to constituents. In short, he committed to representing their interests fearlessly, but as a representative not a delegate. He would take an independent stance and not simply act as an amanuensis or conduit of popular views.
His independence of mind – as it always does – alienated many. His opposition to anti-extremism prompted opposition to the French Revolution, but support for the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution against British rule. This was intellectually consistent as the American revolutionaries upheld British values of liberty, and were subject to unjust rule from a distant, unaccountable, power. In deciding to oppose the French Revolution, on the other hand, he was resisting the rule of the mob and the sans culottes, with their appeals to abstract rights.
This was also a conservative who inveighed against British injustice in Ireland. He was a staunch defender of the rule of law, and of the curtailment of arbitrary power, but he had little time for abstract rights. In this he was of course a product of his times. Indeed, Jeremy Bentham, his near contemporary, describe Natural Law as ‘nonsense on stilts.’
He thus rejected the notional constitutional guarantees in the French Revolutionary Declaration of ‘The Rights of Man’ (1793). Similarly, the Irish Constitution exists in theory, but in practice the Court has done next to nothing over the past twenty years to protect the human rights contained therein, and curtail the abuses of state or private power.
Far better for Bentham and Burke were empirically grounded protections, upheld by independent-minded magistrates. Both thus supported a legislatively grounded rule of law, not abstract aspirations, involving a precise relationship of rights to facts, and specific sets of circumstances.
Through all of this in Burke there is a distinctly non-British quality, that of the wild Fenian intelligence, a passion grounded in reason, where rights are earned and injustices exposed through procedures and venerable processes.
It is I think wrong to consider him a great theoretician. But he remains a great intellectual inspiration. Most of his central themes he expressed in ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into The Origin of our Ideas of The Sublime and The Beautiful’ (1757). There he displays empathy and imagination, a belief in social order but one related to religious belief. A commitment to human reason but an acceptance of bounded rationality.
Thus, there are many themes that are not merely of historical interest but deeply relevant for the present day and age.
In summary, I regard Burke as the greatest Irish intellect of all time, as his ideas have stood the test of time and remain relevant to contemporary concerns. That relevance to our present dark age of late capitalism is for the following reasons:
- Burke offered a voice of reason and moderation, increasingly lacking in an age of extremes.
- He maintained a commitment to the truth and the rule of law, both of which are sorely lacking today That also entails a commitment to due process – although not airy notions of natural law which at times he is guilty of expressing. But in general his ideas follow the line that no man should be a judge in his own cause – an important point in view of how the corporatocracy now seeks to purchase justice and insulate themselves from prosecution.
- The statesmanship he adhered to was independent and uncompromised by support from vested interests; a politician must be able to distinguish between his private interests and the public interest or common good.
- Burke’s esteems for a community of interacting responsibilities recalls another of his contemporaries, John Donne, who wrote: ‘No man is an island.’ Burke is scathing of individual vanity and corporate greed that lays waste to communities – witness his often hysterical and sustained campaign against the not altogether nefarious Warren Hastings.
In making the argument that Burke was the greatest Irish intellect, it is important to bear in mind that such a crown is not the sole preserve of left of right. Indeed, I can excuse his hatred of atheists. Then, and now, Irish Catholicism represents a pathological condition, and it obviously influenced an at times over-veneration of custom and tradition.
I would argue that Burke also held too great an esteem for the common prejudice of the ordinary man. That is a dangerous approach used by ideologues of a deeply sinister variety, such as Mr. Bannon, who amplify an inherent fear of the other to dupe the masses.
Burke did not uncritically accept the views of the common man, as is evident in his crisp understanding of the difference between being a representative, as opposed to a delegate on behalf of his constituents.
He is admittedly only tenuously linked to the Enlightenment tradition of reason. Some, indeed, dismissed him as a mystic seer. Certainly, if he had met Voltaire at a dinner party that acid rationalist might have rudely dismissed him as a Romantic; another contemporary Edward Gibbons described him as ‘a rational madman.’
Alas there is little intellectual tradition in Ireland of rigorous Philosophy, and what we are left with is Burke, who was not a systematic thinker, but a statesman, a writer, an orator and a commanding intellectual presence. He was a remarkably effective human being. His legacy for humanity is esteems for the rule of law, empiricism, anti-extremism, independence of mind and action, as well as moderation and balance. These are qualities in short supply in our time.
I fear, however, that if a poll were to be taken in contemporary Ireland that it is more likely that it would be Jedward not Edmund who would come out on top.