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The consolations of philosophy: Edmund Burke was a prophet without honour in his own time

I did not write what follows. It was sent to me by my regular correspondent, Niall Kilmartin. – NS

When I first started reading Edmund Burke, it was for the political wisdom his writings contained. Only many years later did I start to benefit from noticing that the Burke we know – the man proved a prophet by events and with an impressive legacy – differed from the Burke that the man himself knew: the man who was a lifelong target of slander; the one who, on each major issue of his life, gained only rare and partial victories after years or decades of seeing events tragically unfold as he had vainly foretold. Looking back, we see the man revered by both parties as the model of a statesman and thinker in the following century, the hero of Sir Winston Churchill in the century after. But Burke lived his life looking forwards:

– On America, an initial victory (repeal of the Stamp Act) was followed by over 15 years in the political wilderness and then by the second-best of US independence. (Burke was the very first member of parliament to say that Britain must recognise US independence, but his preferred solution when the crisis first arose in the mid-1760s was to preserve – by rarely using – a prerogative power of the British parliament that could one day be useful for such things as opposing slavery.)

– He vastly improved the lot of the inhabitants of India, but in Britain the first result of trying was massive electoral defeat, and his chosen means after that – the impeachment of Warren Hastings – took him 14 years of exhausting effort and ended in acquittal. Indians were much better off, but back in England the acquittal felt like failure.

– Three decades of seeking to improve the lot of Irish Catholics, latterly with successes, ended in the sudden disaster of Earl Fitzwilliam’s recall and the approach of the 1798 rebellion which he foresaw would fail (and had to hope would fail).

– The French revolutionaries’ conquest of England never looked so likely as at the time of his death in 1797. It was the equivalent of dying in September 1940 or November 1941.

It’s not surprising that late in his life he commented that the ill success of his efforts might seem to justify changing his opinions. But he added that “Until I gain other lights than those I have”, he would have to go on being true to his understanding.

Of course, the background to these thoughts is reflecting on the US election result. Reflecting on how much worse it was for Burke is consoling. Choosing to be truthful in politics often means choosing to be justified by long-term events not short-term elections.

Two weeks before, I’d have guessed a Romney victory with some confidence, but the night before the election, I realised – rather to my surprise – that I expected Obama to win. I took myself to task over these negative thoughts, but it made no difference: I still expected Obama to win. On Wednesday morning, I was glad that being British gave me some feeling of insulation from it (not that our own government has been anything to shout about for a long time – shout at, maybe), although I fear the ill consequences will not all be confined to the far side of the pond.

Burke was several times defeated politically – sometimes as a direct result of being honest – and later (usually much later) resurged simply because his opponents, through refusing to believe his warnings, walked into water over their heads and drowned, doing a lot of irreversible damage in the process. Even when this happened, he was not quickly respected. By the time it became really hard to avoid noticing that the French revolution was as unpleasant as Burke had predicted, all the enlightened people knew he was a longstanding prejudiced enemy of it, so “he loses credit for his foresight because he acted on it”, as Harvey Mansfield put it. Similarly, when ugly effects of Obama’s second term become impossible to ignore, people like you and me will get no credit from those to whom their occurrence is unexpected because we were against him “anyway”.

Even eight years is a shorter time than any of Burke’s epochs. If the euro dies in less than another four years, maybe we should think ourselves very lucky. In our health service, the ratio of administrators to doctors and nurses passed 100% much longer ago than four years or even eight, and the NHS is still a sacred cow. Perhaps US citizens should think themselves lucky that adverse effects of ObamaCare may show soon and be noticed.

Since Burke was admired by Churchill, here’s a Churchill quote: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

And a related Burke one: “The conduct of a losing party never appears right: at least, it never can possess the only infallible criterion of wisdom to vulgar judgments – success.”

19 comments to The consolations of philosophy: Edmund Burke was a prophet without honour in his own time

  • I should add that my friend who wrote this piece did so while away from home, so the quotes, dates and so on were supplied from memory. (As when reading Paul Marks’ historical comments on Samizdata, I am pretty impressed that he has reached a level of knowledge such that he is able to get this sort of thing wrong when writing extemporaneously!) Most of the quotes were so close to the correct wording that I was easily able to provide a link to the sources, but our joint apologies for any errors that remain.

  • Mose Jefferson

    This is why I read Samizdata every day.

  • Alisa

    Indeed, Mose.

  • M. Thompson

    Great stuff. Makes reading this blog so worthwhile.

  • Paul Marks

    I have studied Edmund Burke for many years and hold him in high regard – and so, in my hyper critical way (and because of the nasty mood I am in today), I looked at this post closely for errors.

    There are none worthy of note.

    I only wish I could write so well.

  • RRS

    The “ugly effects” of Obama’s second term began in his first and will be but a continuation.

    The most urbanized portion of the body politic from which the electorate is drawn as determined to ignore or accept those effects. They are apparently regarded as part of the necessary conditions for the Administrative State, which now has substantial support and preference in the United States.

  • veryretired

    I’ve been reading all the post-election commentary by both sides, and find much of it foolish, whether the attitudes of utter despair or the opposite triumphalism of the current regimes’ followers.

    Given my personal political beliefs, I am used to feeling out of touch with the prevailing orthodoxy, and also used to being disappointed by politics and candidates, so I am spared the shock and hopelessness of some who talk of survivalism or secession or other such nonsense.

    The results only confirm in my mind the need for a realistic, long-term, and grimly committed effort to re-arrange the cultural landscape so as to re-arrange the political environment as its natural consequence.

    The current regime, and its followers, is characteristic of the second generation in the old story about going from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in 3 generations.

    The first generation builds up the business by working like a dog, never being too proud or too snooty to do what needs to be done, even if it means the hard physical work that “shirtsleeves” implies.

    The second generation inherits the successful, going concern, and believes it will just continue on providing money and position, because it always has, whether the heir does any meaningful work or not.

    The third generation is back out on the street, looking for a job, when its legacy has been squandered, and the only choice left is to start over again.

    That is where we will be soon enough. The current regime and its acolytes grew up in a world in which the US was this all powerful, super-rich on-going concern which seemed to control the whole world. Especially after 1990, there seemed no limits to what could be done, and what could be purchased with the never-ending stream of wealth and creativity.

    Whether tapped for intenal or external uses, the well seemed to never go dry. There was always more gushing up for any new scheme, any bright idea, any big program to solve any conceivable problem.

    The well is running dry, oddly enough just when an entire ocean of the energy source that runs the modern economy has been found, and the technical means to exploit it almost there for our use, if we choose to use it.

    My children, and theirs, will be faced with problems not seen in the world since the 1930’s, both economic and political.

    It will require all the best efforts, the creative energy and dogged determination, of the best of them to halt, and then reverse and repair, the damage done to our culture by the relentless efforts of the disciples of the collective over this past century.

    We have faced worse. In the 1860’s, of course, and again, in the middle of the 20th, when we faced a world overwhelmed by a seemingly endless set of variations on the collective theme.

    What we are dealing with now is a case of infestation, more like cockroaches or termites, than the tigers that once roamed the world.

    Tigers, at least the man eating kind, must be hunted down and shot, or caged. Roaches need only be fumigated.

    Let’s start with the schools and the media. Plenty of bugs there, along with a few rats.

    The foundation must be cleansed and reinforced, if it is to support the continuing culture that drives the motor of the world, and might someday reach for the stars…

  • Laird

    Although we’ve drifted far off-topic from Edmund Burke, I have to say that I agree (as is often the case) with veryretired’s analysis, and am struck by how closely it parallels some of the ideas in Strauss & Howe’s The Fourth Turning.

  • veryretired

    Laird, thanks for your kind words. I agree I drifted a bit, (imagine that!) but I was following the tone of perserverence in defeat that I saw in the original post.

    As to the book you mentioned, it looks intriguing. I will have to get to it after I read through the stuffed bookcase and kindle I already have ahead of it.

    Letting me in the door at a book store or online at Amazon is like letting an alcoholic vacation at the Jack Daniels distillery.

  • Richard Thomas

    Offtopic: Veryretired, you would have a very unhappy alcoholic. The distillery is in a dry county.

  • veryretired

    RT—there’s an irony there so deep I can’t express it.

  • nobodymuch

    veryretired – we agree too much, but what bothers me about the current regime and process is the absence of interest in intellectually honest inquiry.

    Benghazi is a good example. Four Americans died needlessly and for nothing. Months of opportunity to strengthen security were squandered when request-after-request was denied. Indeed, instead of strengthening consulate defenses in response to the increasing presence of radical militias, security was reduced. Then, rather than tell the truth about the terror attack on the 11th anniversary of September 11th, the Administration lied repeatedly about the rationale for the assault, instead placing the blame on a red herring of a You Tube video. Now, the Administration is lying about having lied in the first place, instead claiming that the President said it was a terror attack all along.

    And. No one. Cares. The mainstream media isn’t even pointing out the continual concrete factual contradictions between the different stories. It was just a big misunderstanding of a complex situation. And 2/3 of the people in the country seem to be happy with that sweet fiction . . . .

  • veryretired

    NM—thank you for your kind thoughts. Please see my comment above at quote of the day about the election results.

  • Thanks for the post. It is a useful reminder that it is better to be on the right side of history, even if it results in temporary setbacks and failure. If Burke were able to look back on the rich heritage he has left behind, no doubt he would be quite pleased.

  • T. O'Connor

    Early in 2002, still some years before I’d read “The Conservative Mind,” and Russell Kirk’s description of the ignominy into which Burke’s birthplace had fallen before it was razed*, I conducted a personal experiment at the gates of Trinity College.

    Only months after the largest protest in Dublin since the formation of the republic (the protests were against the American invasion of Afghanistan), it was customary for American ex-pats to find themselves on the receiving end of lectures about the moral superiority of the Irish people.

    My standard reply usually included some mention of Burke, which was bound to elicit nonplussed expressions.

    So one day, and for several hours, I stood at College Green randomly interviewing scores of entering and exiting students about the two statues that stand at either side of the Trinity gate.

    Without exception, all knew the bronze statue of Oliver Goldsmith, the 18th c. Irish writer and poet, but of the small number who were able to identity Burke at all, only a handful knew anything about him.

    I don’t expect I’ll ever return to Ireland, but someone should conduct the experiment again, this time on video. Probably little has changed.

    *”Walk besides the Liffey in Dublin, a little way east of the dome of the Four Courts, and you come to an old doorway in a blank wall. This is the roofless wreck of an eighteenth-century house, and until recently the house still was here, inhabited although condemned: Number 12, Arran Quay, formerly a brick building of three stories, which began as a gentleman’s residence, sank to the condition of a shop, presently was used as a governmental office of the meaner sort, and was demolished in 1950 – a history suggestive of changes on a mightier scale in Irish society since 1729. For in that year, Edmund Burke was born here. Modern Dublin’s memories do not extend much beyond the era of O’Connell, and the annihilation of Burke’s birthplace seems to have stirred up no protest” (Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Mind,” p. 4).

  • T. O’Connor,

    I am amazed that so many of them got Oliver Goldsmith right! I do not mean to imply that Trinity students are ignorant of eighteenth century writers beyond the norm of this age – I am sure the opposite is the case – just that who these days needs to think about those old dead white guys. We have Twitter and everything!

    Presumably “The Deserted Village” gives Goldsmith a smidgin of respectability for modern academics.

  • Rich Rostrom

    The catastrophic element of Obama’s re-election is that his failures and incompetence were quite visible. Or should have been.

    Charles Murray has identified something in the data collection of the General Social Survey.(Link)

    In 1970, all American social segments were roughly balanced politically (about equal numbers to left and right).

    By 2008, all of these segments had moved slightly to the right, except “Intellectual Upper Class”, which moved far to the left.

    “Intellectual Upper Class” includes essentially all the people who operate the culture’s organs of communication. Everyone sees and hears only what that group chooses to present.

    That group has become a self-enforcing monoculture. It will suppress anything that does not conform to its established beliefs. No outside influence will penetrate it. These are the smart people – why should they ever heed anyone else?

    Their control will continue until smashed by major physical disaster. Anything less will be ignored and concealed. They will not suffer personally from their policies until there is a
    catastrophic breakdown of infrastructure (possibly as a result of wars).

    Murray’s data is for the U.S., but I am quite certain that the same change has occurred in western Europe and in the Second World.

    In short: We Are Doomed.

    In short

  • Paul Marks

    Mr O’Connor what you say (about the people at Trinity not even being able to recognise the most wise mind on political affairs who ever went to their university) shocked even me.

    Now I understand how the Republic is so rotten with P.C. (Frankfurt School) doctrine that a terrible (life long pro Marxist terrorist person) can be elected President of the Republic.

    Much like another Republic – the other side of the water.

    I have never been to the Republic (not even to Waterford – where the Powers, my mother’s people, come from) and now I do not think I ever will go.

    As for the United States.

    The press conference before Comrade Barack went off to his Asian tour…

    A load of crawling nonentities – competing to see who is the most disgustingly supportive of Comrade Barack.

    The evil work of the “Schools of Journalism” has produced them – they are filled with Progressive ideology.

    There are still a few journalists who make some sort of effort to ask real questions (Jake Tapper of ABC is one) – but they are few and they are going.

    veryretired and others must face the bitter truth.

    This culture is going down the drain.

  • O'Connor

    The people of Ireland are abundantly forgiving towards just about anyone from their literary heritage, unless of course someone has really overstepped the bounds. In such cases, figures such as Burke or the Nazi-sympathiser Francis Stuart are simply forgotten. Frankly, I’m surprised Burke’s statue isn’t replaced by now.

    However, when I was living in Ireland for the last time, Penguin came out with its “Portable Edmund Burke” (1999). Miracle of miracles, the volume was available in Dublin only a few years later (!).

    After 9/11/01, and having witnessed firsthand the appalling response of most of the nation’s media to that event, a colleague and I set about documenting each appalling instance as it appeared in press stories, editorials and letters to the editors (we also linked to state-run TV news and talk shows).

    But we were also determined to document any favorable responses in the Irish media, few as they were. Anything and everything which related to the terror attacks was provided a fair-use excerpt on our site, and then a link to the original at the source.

    Some of these sources were quite unsavory. For example, Irish republican groups had glommed onto the widespread anti-Americanism in Ireland after 9/11 (and especially following the US invasion of Afghanistan) as a part of their recruitment effort. They’d evidently made the decision to offend their American sponsors, yet still wished to tread lightly by publishing only in the Irish language (this for the first time, if memory serves). Their decision was complicated by the capture of three IRA soldiers in FARC territory immediately prior to the 9/11 terror attacks. The incarceration of the three terrorists in South America saw an enormous outpouring of sympathy from among the Irish public and its media. Ireland’s current President Michael Higgins was a chief presence at marches and rallies alongside outraged writers, musicians and the other usual fellow-travellers.

    Because our site was critical of these developments and linked to all related stories, and thus to any story which advanced the IRA’s message, we were understandably wary. We also linked to translations of the IRA’s wicked screeds by the incredibly brave Conor Cruise O’Brien.

    Naturally my colleague and I were afraid to use our names or any other identifying information for fear of being tracked down. (All of our Irish friends disowned us out of fear for their safety.) We were even afraid to provide personal information when paying for a website, so we made the foolish decision to build our complicated Dreamweaver site around the free Yahoo blog service “Geocities.”

    Too naive! What a mistake! After Glenn Reynolds linked to our little website, within seconds nobody was able to view it at all.

    Eventually Geocities was discontinued, but not until our website had been available for many years. Our regular 1 – 6 visitors a day were probably all that Yahoo had set aside for it to handle.

    After returning to the US, the two of us set out to make a more traditional blog, which we called “Blog Irish.” That was a site we paid for, but have since discontinued.

    We got some sort of a European blogging award for that one, mostly for unearthing the story of an Irish ex-PM’s central part in questionable investments into Saddam’s Iraq.

    Unfortunately, the true story of Ireland following 9/11 has already been replaced by the usual fictions. But for many Americans it was an awful experience. Personally, I will never set foot in that country again.

    Happily in the case of “Blog Irish,” an internet archive called the “Way Back Machine” has retained a lot of it.

    Blog Irish: