Andrew Gimson: Let Jesse Norman be your guide through the life and work of Edmund Burke
By Andrew Gimson. Follow Andrew on Twitter.
To distil the genius of Edmund Burke is an almost impossible task. The problem is that as soon as one begins to quote from his works, in an attempt to convey the penetrating felicities and profound political insights which they contain, one feels the need to quote more.
As Hazlitt said in an essay published in 1807, only ten years after Burke’s death, ‘there is no single speech which can convey a satisfactory idea of his powers of mind: to do him justice, it would be necessary to quote all his works; the only specimen of Burke is, all that he wrote.’
But in Jesse Norman, elected in 2010 as the MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire and a regular contributor to ConservativeHome, we possess the best modern guide to one of the greatest writers on politics there has ever been. Norman solves the quotation problem by quoting very little. He is astonishingly abstinent.
Reading this book is a bit like being shown briskly round a picture gallery by an authoritative guide who has decided exactly how many words to devote to the portraits of George III, Charles James Fox, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Warren Hastings and many other interesting personalities which we shall encounter on the way. We are never given time to get bored, and are reminded that Burke, though a great writer about politics, was an unsuccessful practitioner, who during three decades in the House of Commons held office for less than two years.
Burke failed to avert the American War of Independence, and as Norman says, came to be seen, during ‘long years of often futile opposition … as a bore … uncollegial … unsteady … too independent-minded … not someone to have round a Cabinet table’. And, as Norman adds, it did not help that Burke was so often right.
The second five chapters of the book are devoted to an account of Burke’s continuing philosophical influence. As Norman remarks, ‘the extent to which the modern world is now rediscovering some of the wisdom of Burke through the social scientists is very striking’.
This is the common fate of conservative thinkers: their insights tend only to win acceptance after the ludicrously optimistic schemes of the rationalists have collapsed, whereupon social scientists set out to demonstrate through a laborious process of experiment the truths which any grandmother could have told them before they started.
Norman hails Burke as an early critic of Rousseau’s ‘ethics of vanity’: the egoistic school of thought which led to the profoundly unsatisfying, not to say inhuman, selfishness of liberal individualism. Anyone interested in developing a conservative response to liberal individualism should read this part of the book.
Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France are described by Norman as ‘one of the greatest late flourishings not simply of any politician, but of any writer or thinker throughout history’. This is true, and one hopes Norman will send a new generation back to the Reflections.
Here to revive your appetite for them is a short passage, not quoted by Norman, in which Burke warns the French against estimating the temper of our country from the petulant effusions of self-regarding sympathisers with the Revolution:
“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine, that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour.”
Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, by Jesse Norman, is available now (William Collins, rrp £20).