Edmund Burke

Eyridiki Sellou | May 4, 2024

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Edmund Burke, known as the British Cicero (Dublin, January 12, 1729 - Beaconsfield, July 9, 1797), was an Irish-born British politician, philosopher and writer and one of the main ideological precursors of English Romanticism.

For more than two decades he sat in the House of Commons as a member of the Whig party (liberals), opponents of the Tories (conservatives). He is best remembered for his support for the claims of the American colonies against King George III, even as he opposed their independence, a dispute that led to the American War of Independence (later contributing to appeasement with the nascent United States), as well as for his opposition to the French Revolution, expressed in Reflections on the Revolution in France, a work of historicist persuasion. The debate over the revolution made Burke one of the leading figures in the liberal-conservative current of the Whig party (which he dubbed Old Whigs) in opposition to the pro-revolutionary New Whigs, led by Charles James Fox.

Burke's polemic on the French Revolution stimulated debate in England. For example, the Anglo-American Thomas Paine responded to the Reflections with The Rights of Man while William Godwin wrote the Inquiry into Political Justice, condemning the bloody outcomes of the revolt, but without repudiating the principles that had inspired it, as Burke did.

Burke also published philosophical works on aesthetics that had much influence, and founded the Annual Register.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Edmund Burke was the son of a Protestant lawyer and a Catholic woman, whose last name before marriage was Nagle. Burke was educated in his father's faith and remained a practicing Anglican throughout his life. After attending Quaker school in Ballitore (County Kildare), he entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1744. In 1747 he founded his own debating club, Edmund Burke's Club. He graduated from Trinity College in 1748 (the famous institution honored him by erecting a statue of him). Burke senior wanted his son to enter the legal profession, so he sent him to London in 1750. In the English capital Burke began the practice of law at Middle Temple, one of the four English professional associations of which every lawyer must be a member, but he left almost immediately.

Burke's first work to be published was A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind from every species of Artificial Society, which appeared anonymously in 1756. Designed perhaps to attack the "anarchic" principles of Enlightenment philosophers who claim to found the state on the theorems of reason, without regard to the complexity of human nature, over and against its satirical intent, it turned into a denunciation of the evils of mercantile society, which represent the dark, non-eliminable side of civilized progress.

In 1757 he published a treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (tit. or. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful), which attracted the attention of leading European thinkers, such as Denis Diderot and Immanuel Kant, and was inspired in part by the aesthetics he derived from reading John Milton's Paradise Lost.

In 1758, together with publisher Robert Dodsley, he founded the influential Annual Register, a journal in which various authors commented on the major events in international politics in the previous year. In London Burke became part of the most important cultural and artistic circles, establishing relationships with personalities such as Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Giuseppe Baretti, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith.

At the same time Burke met William Gerard Hamilton. When Hamilton was appointed minister for Ireland, Burke became his secretary-a post he would hold for three years-and followed him to Dublin. In 1765 Burke became private secretary to the Marquess of Rockingham, a leading Whig figure who, that year, had become prime minister. Lord Rockingham and Burke would remain friends and allies until the former's untimely death in 1782.

Political Commitment

In 1765 Burke entered the British Parliament, elected to the House of Commons. The constituency, in which he ran for office, belonged to the category of "Putrid Boroughs," i.e., territories that, due to a small population, were effectively under the control of a notable, usually the largest landowner in the area. The constituency in question was Wendover, a "fiefdom" of Lord Fermanagh, a Rockingham ally. In Parliament Burke played a key role in the debate over the constitutional limits of royal authority. He argued forcefully against unrestricted royal power, supporting the role of political parties in maintaining an oppositional principle that could curb abuses by the king or lobby within the government. His most important publication on the subject was Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents (tit. or. Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents) of 1770. Burke supported the claims of the American colonies against the government of King George III and his representatives. He also made his voice heard against the persecution of Catholics in Ireland and denounced the abuses and corruption operated by the British East India Company.

In 1769 Burke published, in response to George Grenville, the pamphlet The Present State of the Nation (tit. or. The Present State of the Nation). In the same year he purchased the small estate of Gregories, near Beaconsfield. The price was settled for the most part with borrowed money. Although this six-hundred-acre estate contained an art collection, including works by Titian, nevertheless in the following decades it would prove to be a heavy financial burden. Also in the same year he was initiated into Freemasonry in London, in Jerusalem Lodge No. 44. By this time his speeches and writings had made him famous and, among other things, had led to suspicions that he was the author of the Letters of Junius (Letters of Junius), violent attacks against the government, which would later prove to be autograph works by essayist Philip Francis. In 1773 Burke visited France, where in Versailles he saw for the first, and only time, future rulers Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

In 1774 he was elected to represent Bristol, at the time the second largest city in England and, therefore, a constituency in which electoral contention was fairly free. His speech to the electors, delivered after his victory, was notable for its defense of the principles of representative democracy against the idea that elected officials should act solely in defense of their constituents' interests. Burke's support for free trade with Ireland and his support for the emancipation of Catholics, unpopular arguments among his constituents, caused him to lose his seat in 1780. For the rest of his parliamentary career, Burke represented Malton, another constituency controlled by Rockingham.

Under Lord North's Tory government, the war in America got worse and worse. It was also thanks to Burke's speeches that the war ended. To this period belong two of his most brilliant works: the 1775 Conciliation with America speech and the Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol (Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, 1777). The fall of the Tory North brought the Whig Rockingham back to power. Burke became Paymaster of the Forces (a lucrative post, relating to the funding of troops) and private adviser to the king, but Rockingham's unexpected death in July 1782 ended his tenure after a few months.

Burke then supported the new government formed by the Duke of Portland, in which the Whigs and Tories cohabited, a decision that many would later consider his worst political blunder. During this brief coalition government he continued to serve as Paymaster. The coalition fell in 1783 and was followed by the long Tory government of William Pitt the Younger, which lasted until 1801. Burke remained in opposition until 1793, when he finally broke with Whig leader Charles James Fox and switched, along with other party members such as William Windham and Rockingham's nephew, to Pitt's Tories. In 1785 he delivered Arcott's famous Debt Speech of the Nabob. His attack on the Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, resulted in the indictment of Hastings. The trial, of which Burke was the major promoter, lasted from 1787 until Hastings' final acquittal in 1794. Instead, the following years were characterized by his strenuous struggle against the principles of the French Revolution, particularly with his work Reflections on the Revolution in France, a conservative, counterrevolutionary and historicist work.

Final years and death

In 1794 Burke suffered a severe blow, caused by the death of his son Richard, to whom he was very close. In that same year the trial against Hastings ended in acquittal. Burke felt his time had come and, tired, decided to leave Parliament. The King, who had appreciated his views on the French Revolution, wanted to make him Earl of Beaconsfield, but after the death of his son, Burke was no longer interested in titles of nobility. He accepted only a pension of 2,500 pounds. Though modest, the annuity was contested by the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale. To them Burke gave a searing reply in Letter to a Noble Lord (Letter to a Noble Lord, 1796). In that same year his last writings came out: the Letters on a Regicide Peace, in which Burke argued against peace negotiations with France.

He died at Beaconsfield on July 9, 1797. Although many had proposed that he be interred in Westminster Abbey with a state funeral, Parliament preferred to abide by the will left by Burke himself, which requested that he be buried in Beaconsfield Cathedral.

Aesthetics: the Beautiful and the Sublime

Burke's aesthetics were anticipatory of the Romanticism of the many decades that followed.

The Beautiful, according to Burke, is that which is well-formed and aesthetically pleasing, thus possessing beauty, while the Sublime is that which has the power to compel us to do something and to destroy us. In Burke's idea, the Sublime is "anything that can arouse ideas of pain and danger, i.e., anything that is in some sense terrible or pertains to terrible objects, or that acts in a manner analogous to terror"; the Sublime can also be defined as "the delightful horror" ("delightful horror"). Nature, in its most awe-inspiring aspects, such as stormy seas, snowy peaks, twilight landscapes or volcanic eruptions, thus becomes the source of the Sublime because it "produces the strongest emotion that the soul is capable of feeling," an emotion, however, that is negative, not produced by the contemplation of the fact itself, but by the awareness of the insuperable distance that separates the subject from the object. By describing the physical attitudes associated with the experience of such an effect (such as a semi-closing of the eyes, a relaxation of the muscles, the opening of the mouth in contemplative fare) he makes us understand how the Sublime finds birth in awe-inspiring, distanced things, while the Beautiful derives instead from pleasant things, going so far as to stimulate the subject even in connection with sexuality.

The preference of the Sublime over the Ideal Beautiful (extolled in the aesthetics of Diderot and Winckelmann) is a sign of the transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism, especially the pre-Romantic taste already present in the 18th century, for example, with cemetery poetry, leading to Edward Young and Thomas Gray, and Ossianism. Burke gives historical literary examples, citing John Milton's Paradise Lost. Young's Night Thoughts and James MacPherson's Songs of Ossian are also perfect examples of the "sublime."

The origins of our ideas of the beautiful and sublime, according to Burke, can be defined by understanding their structures and causes. In accordance with Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, causation can be divided into formal, material, effective and final causes. The formal cause of beauty is the passion of love; the material cause is about the characteristics of objects, such as the size, softness or delicacy of the object; the effective cause is, for example, the calmness that the object causes in us; and the final cause is divine providence. According to Anglicist Mario Praz, Burke introduces a concept of the "irrational" sublime based on individual sensations and emotions. This will also be the basis of the Gothic novel beginning with Horace Walpole.

Critique of the French Revolution

Burke's last cultural battle was against the French Revolution. Given his support for American independence and campaign against royal prerogative, surprise was great in British political and cultural circles when Burke gave to print Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, in response to letters from a gentleman.

The Anglo-Irish politician became one of the earliest critics of the French Revolution, which he saw not as a movement directed at creating a constitutional and representative democracy, but rather as a violent revolt against tradition and legitimate authority, an experiment disconnected from the complex reality of civil society that, he predicted, would end disastrously.

Great admirers of Burke, such as Thomas Jefferson and Charles James Fox, accused him of becoming reactionary and an enemy of democracy. Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man in 1791 as a response to Burke. Moreover, other advocates of democracy, such as John Adams, and a few decades later even well-known liberals, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, agreed with Burke, as did the Italian playwright Vittorio Alfieri, a contemporary of Burke's, who had also always been a fierce critic of monarchical regimes.

Moreover, many of Burke's predictions about the development of the revolution were confirmed, with the execution of King Louis XVI (Jan. 21, 1793), the Terror (1793-July 1794) and the establishment of the autocratic regime of Napoleon Bonaparte (1799-1814). Burke, although a natural jurist, does not recognize the rational foundation of human rights enshrined in the Revolution. Burke writes in his work:

Burke then attacked the French Constitution of 1791, approved by the National Assembly on the basis of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: in his view, the new constitution paved the way for political disasters, and he also denied any comparison between it and the English Bill of Rights of 1689 (glorious revolution), the recent American Bill of Rights or even the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. Burke acknowledged the authorship on the English revolution of empiricists such as Locke and on the change of sensibility to Newton and Hobbes (unlike conservatives such as James Casanova who would disavow the Enlightenment origin of the French Revolution), while belonging to the anti-utilitarian current. However, he draws a clear division between English and American events and French events, seeing the latter as destructive and to be deplored. However, Burke does not take into account the connection that the ouster and flight of the Catholic King James II Stuart, abandoned by his army in 1689 in favor of the Protestants William III and Mary II has, however, historically with Cromwell's English Revolution (1649) in which Charles I was beheaded as will happen to Louis XVI, and that there were armed clashes in Ireland anyway. At the same time, however, both revolutions were implemented by the legitimate British Parliament and not by a popular uprising. He mentions the regicidal Cromwellians only as a comparison to the pro-Jacobin radicals MPs of his time.

Burke's tight critique in Reflections on the French Revolution starts from a fundamental knot and assumption. According to the Anglo-Irish statesman, the French Revolution is hopelessly doomed to catastrophe, because it rests its ideological foundations on abstract notions, which claim to be rationally grounded, but which on the contrary ignore the complexity of human nature and society. Burke viewed politics from a pragmatic point of view, and rejected the ideas and abstract rationalism of Enlightenment philosophers such as the Marquis de Condorcet, according to whom politics could be reduced to a mere system based on mathematics and rigid deductive logic.

Educated on the writings of Cicero, Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine as well as the Enlightenment jurist Montesquieu, Burke believed in a government based on the "feeling of men," rather than on cold reasoning. For this reason, negative and openly condemning judgments against all those exponents of the Enlightenment, especially the French Enlightenment, such as Voltaire (whose antipopular and monarchical conception he ignores as a proto-revolutionary ideologue), Rousseau, Helvétius, recur frequently in the Reflections, Turgot, who denied or distorted the concepts of Original Sin and Divine Providence, and of the latter's action within human society (although many of his even partial admirers will disregard this, e.g. Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Ernst Nolte, secularizing their thought).

As an Anglican and a Whig, Burke does not subscribe to the notion of "divine right" typical of Catholic rulers, but, against Rousseau, he defends the central role of the right to private property, tradition and "prejudice" (the latter understood as a people's adherence to a set of values without conscious rational justification), the guarantee of which turns men to the common interests of national prosperity and social order. He advocates moderate and gradual reforms, provided they are within a constitutional order.

Burke insists that a political doctrine based on abstract notions such as liberty, equality and human rights can easily be used by those who hold or compete for power to justify tyrannical and oppressive actions. In this way he seems prophetically to foretell the disasters and atrocities that were to occur in France shortly thereafter under Robespierre's dictatorship during the Reign of Terror, claiming that even Rousseau himself would not have supported the Revolution.

According to Burke, humans' capacity for reasoning and discernment is limited, and they therefore prefer to rely precisely on their prejudices. He defends human "prejudices" by virtue of their practical usefulness: through them the individual can quickly determine what decisions to make in uncertain situations; in short, in human beings "prejudices" can be common sense and "make a virtue of habit."

In a speech to Parliament on May 6, 1790 Burke attacked the French constituents. Regarding the Constitution being prepared, still monarchical but imposed on the reluctant king after his attempted escape to Varennes, he stated:

While acknowledging that the great uprising that followed the States-General had occurred because of previous political mistakes (excessive court spending, exclusion of nobles and high clergy from taxation), Burke argued that there were hidden financial interests behind the Revolution. He also launched an indictment against the philosophers in Parisian circles and those Jacobin ideologues in the National Assembly, such as Vicar Sieyès, who, as "architects of ruin, were trampling underfoot every rule and tradition in the abstract and most dangerous intent of making a tabula rasa of the past." Addressing also all those who do not respect tradition, rooted in centuries, he accuses them of sheer presumption, thus condemning individualistic and rationalistic reason in order to defend collective and religious reason.

It was in fact, according to Burke, precisely against the Christian religion and the Church that the Revolution had waged its fiercest offensive from the beginning. He recognized in the first acts of the Assembly, dominated by the political dogma of Sieyès, an explicit attack on Christianity, embodied in the confiscation of Church property and the civil constitution of the clergy. But there was something more. Behind the secularization of church property as a guarantee for the issuance of a national loan and allotments, he sensed the masking of a second, equally devastating attack, part of a double conspiracy with far more occult designs.

Burke identified the first part of this conspiracy in the philosophes and idéologues like Sieyès who had dominated French culture since the beginning of the century. These "lay clerics" (as Burke called them in Reflections) had initially been subject to the control of the academies, founded in the late 17th century by Louis XIV. During the subsequent reigns, however, their emancipation had always increased, as the patronage of the Crown with Louis XV's distancing of the encyclopedists (resulting from Damiens's assassination attempt and then Pompadour's death) and of the Church on the one hand, and the patronage of the aristocracy on the other, had disappeared, until they became a veritable ideological machine. Philosophes and idéologues had therefore reorganized around independent publishing enterprises, such as the one that launched the vast Encyclopédie project, led by subtle ideologues who aimed at the destruction of the Christian religion.

The danger Burke saw in 1790 turned out to be well-founded: not only did Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette end up executed, but many ardent supporters of the revolution (not only the most extreme ones such as the Jacobins, Hebertists, etc. ) remained victims of it, such as those Girondins and Foliants who decided to distance themselves after the September massacres of 1792 and the proclamation of the Republic, thus fulfilling Burke's predictions; among them the encyclopedists Condorcet (who committed suicide in prison) and Jean-Sylvain Bailly (nearly lynched by the mob and then guillotined), and the Girondins Jean-Marie Roland (who committed suicide during the stampede) and his wife Manon Roland, the last almost all "guilty" of not voting in favor of the king's death sentence or of charges artfully created by the public inquisitor Fouquier-Tinville (later beheaded by the Thermidorians) or of being enemies of the Montagnards (Charlotte Corday, assassin of Marat or the moderate constitutional monarchist André Chénier).

However, according to Burke, behind many radical "clerics" were more sinister and pragmatic figures, referred to in Burke's terminology as "speculators" ("speculator") or "agitators" ("stock-jobbers").

Indeed, the second party to the conspiracy was precisely the creditors of the French Crown, which Burke called a financial lobby. Its primary purpose was to impose assignments as the only legal currency in all sectors of the French economy. In the medium to long term, this consortium intended to impose a dictatorship over the state and over land ownership itself. Moreover, the imposition of allotments as the sole paper currency would shortly generate a steep rise in the inflation rate and a severe recession.

The Revolution therefore had been provoked, according to this view, by the state's creditors, who were ready to seize church lands so that they could then control all of society, and by a secularist (atheist or deist) intellectual class, dominated by anti-Christian sentiment, whose sole purpose was to expropriate and overthrow the clergy and the Church.

Burke believed that the understanding between these subversive groups was by no means accidental; in fact, in the twenty years before the Revolution, great and dangerous conspiracies had arisen from the germs sown by Enlightenment culture, such as that of the Illuminati of Bavaria, a group that had split from Freemasonry. Throughout Europe, meanwhile, states were sinking into ever heavier debts, which would soon lead them into bankruptcy and thus become easy prey for their own creditors.

In Burke's reconstruction, these bankers and bourgeois creditors of the French Crown would have been the financial lobby behind the Revolution, which was identified similarly to the one that, according to the Tories, had made the Whigs establish the Bank of England during the reign of William III, founding the public debt instead of the British Crown debt. In a passage in the Reflections, Burke names "Jewish stockbrokers," but apart from that he never speaks of a "Jewish conspiracy," as would happen in the following century with anti-Semitic clichés centered on "Jewish finance" and the usury exercised by it.

The second crucial event of the Revolution, as Burke saw things in 1789-90, was the events at Versailles on October 5-6, 1789, when mobs invaded the apartments of Louis XVI and his family, physically threatening the sovereign and forcing the court to leave the palace. He describes all the moral violence perpetrated against Marie Antoinette, foreseeing in a sense her brutal and humiliating end (which will happen three years later on the guillotine) by ending up making her the symbol of the end of an age of chivalry, which he bitterly regrets, also contrasting the civilization of honor with that of money. Although he seems to succumb somewhat to pure sentimentality at this point, however, Burke had the great merit of bringing to mind an important concept of historical sociology. The British and French philosophers of history, whose works were well known to Burke, all agreed on considering the development of chivalry in medieval times, and especially the attitude toward the idealized woman (see the concepts amor cortese and dolce stil novo), as capital factors in the formation of that code of behavior of the "gentleman," both aristocratic and of the rural and urban elites (think of the gentry), which had completely altered the customs of modern Europeans from those of the ancients.

This image of Marie Antoinette as a heroine of the counterrevolution and the last bastion of the old civilization will have great influence on François-René de Chateaubriand (when he recalls in his Memoirs from Beyond the Grave his meeting with the queen and later the discovery of the queen's remains) and on early French Romanticism, but also on Catholic personalities of decadentism such as Léon Bloy (in the essay The Death Knight), intellectuals who contributed after the Revolution to the construction of the myth of the "martyr queen," and later on Stefan Zweig for his Marie Antoinette - An Unintentionally Heroic Life.

In Letters on a Regicidal Peace (1795-96), predicting that France would attempt an invasion of the United Kingdom, he reminds us that his predictions have come true and, also warning the Austrian ambassador, that no peace negotiations can be entered into with the more moderate government of the Directory, born of Thermidorian reaction but led or supported by many of the same regicidal revolutionaries (reference to the various Barras, Sieyes, Tallien, Fouché, Fréron. ..) whose hands were still "exhaling the blood of Marie-Thérèse's daughter, whom they sent half-dead on a dung wagon to a cruel execution."

In this vision of Burke's angelic womanhood, Marie Antoinette is portrayed as an intangible model of superior virtue, while the commoner women who led the march on Versailles instead take on bestial and material connotations, probably in contrast to the fierce satirical libels against the queen that circulated in the pre-revolutionary period, anticipating the accusations, including sexual ones, that were brought against her at her 1793 trial alongside the main charge of high treason.

Some political opponents went so far as to suspect that Burke was suffering from mental disorder, or that, given his strong upset over the anti-ecclesiastical measures taken by the French Assembly, he was actually secretly Catholic.

Burke also links these events to his own aesthetic conception, later taken up by Romanticism (see the English Middle Ages, albeit idealized, of Walter Scott or the Pre-Raphaelites), which led him to deplore even the moderate concessions of the National Assembly, very similar, moreover, to the limitations imposed on British monarchs by the English Parliament. For this chivalrous but anti-feminist aestheticism and sentiment, incidentally shared by many women of the French petty nobility and bourgeoisie (e.g., the court painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun who would say, "Then women reigned. The revolution dethroned them") is criticized by English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Burke's image of Marie Antoinette threatened by power (almost a modern Antigone) and not defended by the knights, a consequence of ideas expressed as early as 1756 in the essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, is stigmatized by the British thinker in A Vindication of the Rights of Men: Burke in fact also associated the idea of the Beautiful with that of weakness and femininity, while he had identified the idea of the Sublime with that of strength (in the sense of virtue) and thus manhood. Wollstonecraft turns those definitions back on him, arguing that such "theatrical descriptions" make readers "infirm sissies," and accuses him of defending an unequal society also founded on the marginalization of women. In defending republican virtues, Wollstonecraft invokes middle-class ethics in opposition to the vicious codes of behavior of the aristocracy. Enlightenment-wise, she believes in progress and derides Burke for his attachment to old customs and traditions: for if one had always remained faithful to the oldest traditions, consequently one would still have to be in favor of even the very ancient system of slavery (although Burke is not opposed to progress in politics and customs, but is opposed to its overwhelming extremes and speed, which would make him a conservative afraid of events, but not a true traditionalist reactionary like Joseph de Maistre). Wollstonecraft then contrasts the exaltation of feudal values made by Burke with the bourgeois image of the idyllic country life (moreover, not too far removed from the English country bourgeoisie), in which each family develops its existence on a farm by satisfying its needs through simple and honest labor. This vision of society appears to her to be the expression of sincere feelings, in contrast to the fictitious feelings on which Burke's reactionary vision would be based.

Finally, Burke highlighted how the instability and general disorder that would accompany and follow the Revolution would make the army, i.e., the French National Guard, prone to mutiny or to sustain a key role within the disputes between ideological and political factions. He asserted that a charismatic general, capable of making himself loved and obeyed by his soldiers, once the major fires of revolutionary disaster were extinguished, could quickly become "master of the Assembly and of the entire nation." He thus seemed to foretell the advent of military dictatorship and the Napoleonic empire. Later French historian Jean Jacques Chevallier stated, "Burke, a bitter and frantic Cassandra, denounced the future calamities that the Revolution would produce. The facts were turning in the direction he had foretold and were proving him right, more and more right."

These facts and opinions of Burke, and disagreement over their interpretation, led to the breakdown of the friendship between the thinker and Fox and, from a more general point of view, to the split in the Whig Party. In 1791 Burke published Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, in which he renewed his criticism of the radical programs inspired by the French Revolution and attacked the Whigs who supported them. Much of the party followed Burke and joined the Tory government of William Pitt the Younger (who also had reservations about the Reflections while admiring its style), which declared war on revolutionary France in 1793. Also responding to Burke were Thomas Paine with The Rights of Men, the aforementioned Mary Wollstonecraft with A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and William Godwin with Inquiry into Political Justice, the latter condemning the most extreme Jacobin violence but fully justifying the revolution.

Burke is credited with a famous aphorism, in various formulations, actually never written or uttered: "For evil to triumph it is enough for good men to renounce action." The phrase is not found in any of his works. The false attribution may have arisen from a famous book of quotations, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, published in 1905.

Its origin may go back to a similar quote by John Stuart Mill: "Wicked men need but one thing to achieve their ends, and that is for good men to look on and do nothing," which in turn would have been inspired by a quote by Burke himself, contained in Thoughts on the Causes of Present Discontent (1770): "When wicked men unite, good men must associate. Otherwise they will fall one by one, a merciless sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

Formulations of a similar aphorism are found as early as Plato, but it is also sometimes attributed to Lev Tolstoy, André Chénier, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and others.


  1. Edmund Burke
  2. Edmund Burke
  3. ^ The exact year of his birth is the subject of a great deal of controversy; 1728, 1729, and 1730 have been proposed. The month and day of his birth also are subject to question, a problem compounded by the Julian–Gregorian changeover in 1752, during his lifetime. For a fuller treatment of the question, see F. P. Lock, Edmund Burke. Volume I: 1730–1784 (Clarendon Press, 1999), pp. 16–17. Conor Cruise O'Brien (2008; p. 14) questions Burke's birthplace as having been in Dublin, arguing in favour of Shanballymore, Co. Cork (in the house of his uncle, James Nagle).
  4. ^ Richard Bourke, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke (Princeton University Press, 2015), pp. 220–221, passim.
  5. ^ Burke lived before the terms "conservative" and "liberal" were used to describe political ideologies, cf. J. C. D. Clark, English Society, 1660–1832 (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 5, 301.
  6. ^ Dennis O'Keeffe; John Meadowcroft (2009). Edmund Burke. Continuum. p. 93. ISBN 978-0826429780.
  7. ^ La frase venne scritta quando Burke seppe che la plebe di Parigi aveva fatto irruzione negli appartamenti della regina Maria Antonietta (La politica e gli Stati, a cura di Raffaella Gherardi, pag 239, ISBN 978-88-430-5992-8.)
  8. Clark, J.C.D (2001). Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France: a Critical Edition (em inglês). Stanford: Stanford. p. 25. ISBN 0-8047-3923-4
  9. James Prior, Life of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Fifth Edition (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854), p. 47.
  10. Burke lived before the terms "conservative" and "liberal" were used to describe political ideologies, cf. J. C. D. Clark, English Society, 1660–1832 (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 5, p. 301.
  11. Dennis O'Keeffe; John Meadowcroft (2009). Edmund Burke. [S.l.]: Continuum. p. 93
  12. Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies: An Introduction. Third Edition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 74.
  13. Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies: An Introduction. Third Edition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 74.

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