Commentary Magazine

The Great Melody, by Conor Cruise O'Brien

The Member from Bristol

The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke.
by Conor Cruise O’Brien.
University of Chicago Press. 692 pp. $34.95.

Samuel Johnson, one of the 18th century’s most discerning spirits and a man hardly given to hyperbolic praise, once said of his Irish contemporary, the parliamentarian Edmund Burke:

You could not stand for five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced that you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever seen.

Why, then, have a number of influential 20th-century historians tarred this same Burke with opprobrium, charging him with inconsistency, venality, and an unscrupulous ambition that casts into doubt the integrity of his political thought?

Part of the reason, especially among his more ideologically assertive critics, is that Burke was right—astonishingly, presciently, relentlessly right—about the French Revolution and about the enduring dynamics of the Jacobin temptation in post-Enlightenment politics.

Where others looked at “1789” and saw a bold declaration of the “rights of man and citizen,” a shaking-off of the shackles of traditional authority, and the overture to a bright new future of limitless human progress, Burke saw modernity’s first systematic experiment in radical social engineering: a “Republic of Regicide” in which raw power had replaced real authority, an abattoir-in-the-making where

the elements which compose Human Society seem all to be dissolved, and a world of Monsters produced in place of it.

Then and now, Edmund Burke might have been forgiven a merely political attack on the French Revolution. But his was an essentially moral critique of the Jacobin sensibility; and it cut to the quick. For Burke not only denied Jacobinism’s notion of the plasticity of human nature and human institutions; in so doing, he demolished the anthropology that sustained Jacobinism’s moral pretensions. It was on the basis of his radical critique of Jacobin irreverence, and his clairvoyant sense of where Jacobin manipulation of the human condition would ultimately lead—i.e., to the Terror—that Burke became the first, fierce opponent of the central myth that has animated the political-intellectual Left for over two centuries: the myth of the millennium to be achieved in this world, here and now, through the medium of politics.

In sum, Burke’s opposition to political utopianism has had enduring influence because it was based, not simply on his preferences in the matter of winners and losers between England and France, but on his dissection of the defective morality (and the fantastic arrogance) that is at the heart of modern radical politics. And this is what ideologically-driven critics of Burke could not (and cannot) permit to go unchallenged.

That their challenge has more often been ad hominem than ad rem should not really be surprising, given the forensic tactics favored by the contemporary epigones of those whom Burke once acidly described as the “philosophers of vanity.” But something more was and is involved here. It is precisely because Burke—a man keenly attuned to injustice, and thus not unsympathetic to the revolutionary impulse—understood the Left so well that the Left has treated Burke so meanly.

Burke’s reputation in recent years has also suffered from the substitution in the West of political “science” for political philosophy. Among its other unhappy effects, the triumph of the numbers-crunchers has led to a certain woodenness of perception about the great political thinkers of the past. How could the Burke who had once supported relief for Catholics suffering under the penal laws in his native Ireland, how could the Rockingham Whig who defended the cause of the American colonists against George III and the rights of native Indian rulers and customs against the depredations of the East India Company, then turn and condemn the French Revolution? Surely this is “inconsistency.” And such inconsistency must reveal a grave flaw in Burke’s thought—and, more likely, in his character.

The gauchiste critique of Burke will no doubt continue. But it is difficult to imagine any serious commentator unblushingly repeating charges of venality, intellectual corruption, and unscrupulous ambition against Edmund Burke after the publication of The Great Melody. For Conor Cruise O’Brien demonstrates beyond reasonable argument that Burke’s was in fact a wholly consistent position—and that this consistency lay, not in a frenzied quest for the political main chance, but in a principled rejection of the abuse of power by concentrated, unscrupulous, unaccountable authority.

The arrogance of power was at the root of each of the abuses against which Burke set his teeth: the peonage to which Ireland’s Catholics had been subjected since the Glorious Revolution; the cavalier treatment of the American colonies in the aftermath of the French and Indian War; the ruthless behavior of the panjandrums of the East India Company; and the sanguinary tyranny let loose by the “homicide philanthropy” in revolutionary France. If, at one moment, resistance to the abuse of power meant adherence to the proto-liberal politics of the Rockingham Whigs, and, at another, a break with the leader of that faction, Charles James Fox, over the depredations of the French Revolution, then one did what conscience and conviction required. Margaret Thatcher was given to saying that there were “consensus politicians” and “conviction politicians”; Edmund Burke was very much of the latter sort.

More controversially, O’Brien argues that Burke’s politics were decisively shaped by his smoldering anger over the bigotry that disenfranchised and otherwise publicly crippled Irish Catholics, and that required those who wished any role in the professions or in public life to subscribe to the Church of England. Burke’s father, Richard, like his son a lawyer, “went over” to Canterbury in order to be able to pursue his career—although, O’Brien shows, Burke père agreed to young Edmund’s attending an illegal and clandestine Catholic school for five years, until he was eleven. In his own public life, Edmund Burke was a supportive (and devout) member of the Established Church. But O’Brien suggests that at some level of his psyche and his spirit, Burke remained throughout his life a frustrated Catholic, bitter and perhaps guilty over the compromise his father had made—a compromise that was, of course, the foundation stone of Edmund’s own career. That ugly circumstance was, in O’Brien’s judgment, a major influence on the formation of Burke’s distinctive political ideas, and particularly his detestation of arbitrary, coercive power.

Burke, O’Brien makes clear, was no reactionary. For the obverse of his critique of the arrogance of power was his support for the cause of freedom: in Ireland, the American colonies, India—and in France. But Burke believed, not in the liberté proclaimed by the French Assembly on the thin basis of abstractions about the rights of man, but in the ordered liberty that had evolved in England, under the tutelage of the common-law tradition, since the days of Magna Carta. As he wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

The freedom . . . that I love and . . . to which I think all men intitled . . . is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish Liberty. As if every Man was to regulate the whole of his Conduct by his own will.

Rather, Burke was an exponent of “a manly, moral, regulated liberty.” For

men must have a certain fund of natural moderation to qualify them for Freedom, else it become noxious to themselves and a perfect Nuisance to everybody else.

It was on the basis of that conviction that Burke, unlike so many of his contemporaries (and ours), distinguished between, on the one hand, the limited revolutions of 1688 and 1776 and, on the other, the limitless revolution of 1789. The former were in continuity with the central political tradition of the West as that had developed out of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome; they were revolutions of conservation and extension. The latter, by contrast, self-consciously and willfully broke the mold and rejected the tradition, proposing to substitute for it a utopian forced march toward the perfected human community. Burke, who wrote his Reflections some years before the French reign of terror got going in earnest, knew precisely where this modern political hubris was heading in his own time; he would not have been surprised by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot—heirs of the Jacobin impulse in our day.



The Great Melody is not “biography” in the usual sense of the term; those unfamiliar with the chronological outline of Burke’s life, or with the politics of the reign of George III, would be well-advised to do a little background reading before tackling O’Brien’s tome. The book is also irritatingly composed, with frequent, nervous admonitions from the author set parenthetically into the text, reminding us (on p. 138) to “see above pp. 131-135” and (on p. 281) to “see below, p. 282.” But these vexations aside, O’Brien’s device of a “thematic biography,” concentrating on the evolution of Burke’s thought as illustrated through the Irish, American, Indian, and French controversies (several of which were running simultaneously) pays rich dividends, not least because O’Brien is frequently content to let Burke speak for himself, at length.

And what speech it is: page upon page of evidence that political discourse in the English language can be vigorous, intellectually rich, noble, and moving. O’Brien’s huge excerpts from Burke’s great speeches, books (primarily Reflections), and occasional pamphlets and essays also provide ample support for the claim that Burke was not only a master rhetorician but a supremely gifted political aphorist whose insights, transposed to our own time, remain remarkably fresh.

Thus, Burke on conciliation with the American colonies (and on America in the post-cold-war world?):

Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together.

Burke on free trade (then and now?):

The world I apprehend is large enough for all, and we are not to conclude that what is gained to one part of it is lost of course to the other.

Burke on the Irish penal system (and on certain facets of the welfare state?):

It was a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, and as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement, in them, of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.

Burke on the relationship between manners and statutes (and on the American culture war?):

Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.

And, finally, Burke to his constituents on the responsibilities of a democratic legislator (in contemporary Washington, as well as 18th-century Bristol?):

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.



At several points in this brilliant book (and in an appendix composed of an exchange of letters with the Oxford scholar Isaiah Berlin), Conor Cruise O’Brien seems almost obsessively determined that his subject and hero not be conscripted by contemporary Anglo-American conservatives as their patron saint.

It is true that Burke has little in common with libertarian conservatism; but it is not so clear why O’Brien seems so nervous about the embrace of Burke by, say, neoconservatives. Neoconservative understandings of the cold war were virtually identical to Burke’s “take” on the threat of Jacobin France.

Moreover, in the post-cold-war context, Burke’s emphasis on the crucial importance of manners and morals in a republic, his insistence that men have to be fitted for freedom by habits of moderation, and his defense of traditional “pre-political” authorities are all anathema not only to the hard Left but to many liberals for whom the defense of the sexual revolution and the nanny state is the bottom line of contemporary politics. Indeed, in the current cultural contest over the meaning of freedom in America—a contest touching such volatile and impassioned issues as abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, and political correctness on campus—the Burkean case is being argued not by such proponents of the autonomous, imperial self as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun but rather by conservative and neoconservative defenders of “traditional values” or “family values.”

Edmund Burke, an extraordinarily gifted and accomplished political intellectual, was profoundly skeptical about the arrogance and aggressiveness that intellectuals too often bring to politics—especially intellectuals whose ideas had come unstuck from a foundation in human nature and human experience. The former Member from Bristol would, in that sense, immediately understand much of what is happening these days, especially on the “social issues,” in the Potomac fever swamps. And now, as then, he would most likely be in the moral and political opposition.

About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).

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