viernes, 26 de junio de 2015

Burke knew that one way to judge a man was by the quality of his enemies.

Reflections On Bourke's Burke
Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke
By Richard Bourke

Burke knew that one way to judge a man was by the quality of his enemies. As early as 1770, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, he had served notice about the principles which would guide his conduct in public life. He would strive, he said:

To bring the dispositions that are lovely in private life into the service and conduct of the commonwealth; so to be patriots, as not to forget we are gentlemen. To cultivate friendships, and to incur enmities. To have both strong, but both selected: in the one, to be placable; in the other, immoveable.

So it would have given Burke great pleasure to have known that perhaps the most powerful tribute paid to him after his death came from an avowed enemy who was also a perceptive admirer, namely the radical philosopher and novelist William Godwin.

Burke died in 1797, when Godwin was busy seeing the third edition of Political Justice through the press. On receiving the news of Burke’s death, Godwin stopped the press and added a long footnote. In Book VII of Political JusticeGodwin had imagined a conversation with a representative of “the rich and great” in which he had tried to persuade that class of men to employ their merits for the general good of mankind. In the footnote added to the third edition of 1798 Godwin explained what lay behind this imagined dialogue:

While this sheet is in the press for the third impression, I receive the intelligence of the death of Burke, who was principally in the author’s mind while he penned the preceding sentences.

Godwin began by paying lavish tribute to Burke’s powers of mind: “In all that is most exalted in talents, I regard him as the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of earth; and, in the long record of human genius, I can find for him very few equals. In subtlety of discrimination, in magnitude of conception, in sagacity and profoundness of judgement, he was never surpassed.” But Burke was also flawed in the very superabundance of his strengths. “Boundless wealth of imagination” was, for Godwin, Burke’s characteristic excellence as a writer. But his imaginative brilliance was also an ignis fatuus that prevented him from reaching the very highest levels of attainment:

Of this wealth he was too lavish; and, though it is impossible for the man of taste not to derive gratification from almost every one of his images and metaphors while it passes before him, yet their exuberance subtracts, in no inconsiderable degree, from that irresistibleness and rapidity of general effect which is the highest excellence of composition.

Burke’s moral character was also imperfect. No one, Godwin conceded, could ever doubt that Burke was “eminently both the patriot and the philanthropist”; but these noble sentiments were “tinctured with a vein of dark and saturnine temper” which detracted from his stature.

These literary and temperamental blemishes, however, were as nothing compared to the great failure of political judgment which, for Godwin, had vitiated Burke’s life:

the false estimate as to the things entitled to our deference and admiration, which could alone render the aristocracy with whom he lived unjust to his worth, in some degree infected his own mind. He therefore sought wealth and plunged in expense, instead of cultivating the simplicity of independence; and he entangled himself with a petty combination of political men, instead of reserving his illustrious talents unwarped, for the advancement of intellect, and the service of mankind.

For even his contemporaries, then, Burke could seem a puzzling instance of great gifts misapplied.

Richard Bourke’s careful and learned account not just of Burke’s political life, but also of the intellectual commitments and inclinations which Burke set in motion in his public career, brings new clarity to our understanding of a thinker and man of letters who, as we have seen, could baffle those who knew him. Burke lived through, as Bourke puts it, “vicissitudes of empire and revolution”, and this shifting background of successive crises in different theatres of the world — Britain, Ireland, America, India, and finally, France — inevitably required a certain flexibility on the part of those, such as Burke, who attempted to navigate safely through the resulting turbulence.


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