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Civilising Inf luence Empire & Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke

By Richard Bourke (Princeton University Press 1,001pp £30.95)

David Bromwich’s The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, published in 2014 as the first of two proposed volumes, turned out to be one of the most notable studies ever written of the great Irish political philosopher. Amazingly, it has already been thrown, not into the shade, but into a new perspective by Richard Bourke’s Empire & Revolution, a long, penetrating meditation on Burke’s absorption of the European intellectual tradition into his political thinking and action. I don’t think Burke read anything that Bourke has not also read, nor do I believe that even a critic as fine as Bromwich has so persuasively identified the intricate blendings and meshings of those readings throughout Burke’s speeches and writings. The learning involved is deeply impressive, but the momentum of the overall argument is such that it carries its weight with elegance – though not with ease. Ease is never an option with Burke.

Burke’s prodigious work rate when engaging with the great issues that dominated his era – imperial policy in America and India, revolution in France, the betrayal of the Glorious Revolution in Ireland by the Protestant Ascendancy, the development of the idea of party within a domestic system threatened by the dangerous dominance of the crown, the nature of political representation – makes scrutinising him a punishing, if rewarding, task, requiring investigation of how such a mass of social and political readings and writings can be condensed into a coherent political philosophy. There is also the additional consideration of more than two centuries of commentary on Burke. Empire & Revolution does not address that directly, though it is inevitably there in the footnotes and in Bourke’s discussions of the coherence of the ideas of a thinker whose thought has been hijacked so often, in Europe and the USA, by readers with a partisan intent seeking in his writings a phrase or an attitude that can serve their own party-political and ideological projects.

A sentence from Bourke’s account of the early An Essay towards an Abridgement of the English History summarises a belief that he regards as central to both that work and Burke’s political thinking: ‘Allegiance was distinguished from conquest by the presence of consent.’ The ‘Spirit of Conquest’ – be the conqueror Roman, Norman or British – is successful only when it so assimilates the conquered to the new civilisation that they become part of it and learn to give it their loyalty and affection. Without that (Ireland is the classic example), antagonism persists and the mollifying system of subordination becomes the harsh practice of endlessly renewed and

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Literary Review | october 2015 8

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