Edmund Burke: Who Is This Guy and What Did Chesterton Have Against Him?

More from the 2010 American Chesterton Society Conference. The St. Louis Chesterton Society contingent is now camped out near Columbus, Ohio for the night. I have just spent a delightful 45 minutes in the motel spa, making my cramped right leg muscles relax and talking about many, many things. It has worked pretty well, and I’m about ready for bed. But first, let’s get the next installment published.

I skipped the third talk of the conference by Dr. Pasquale Accardo titled Chesterton for Beginners because, well, although I’m a beginner I prefered to chat for awhile. I’ll have a recording of it later anyway. If you are a beginner, I highly encourage you to attend the 2011 American Chesterton Society Conference in St. Louis next summer.

So, the fourth talk of the conference was given by longtime friend of the American Chesterton Society, Professor of Mathematics James Woodruff. His original title was GKC and Edmund Burke: The Mistake About Conservativism. But I think it was Dale that renamed it after finding out what the talk was really about.

I must confess that while I’ve heard the name “Edmund Burke”, despite the efforts of Professor Woodruff, I’ve got the barest instrduction to him. I took a lot of notes on this talk, and this will be a very long post. I’ve included a few links and I’ll do my best with Woodruff’s story and criticism of Our Hero. Any errors in what follows are my own, of course.

Edmund Burke was an Irish Member of Parliment (MP) during the very interesting years between 1765 and 1780. Woodruff thinks he was very much in sympathy with GKC some 125 years prior. He says GKC was (paradoxically) most critical of Burke when Burke was most Chestertonian.

Woodruff finds distinctly Burkean resonances in GKC’s story of the Yellow Bird (which I have not read). Although a Protestant, Burke worked for Catholic Emancipation in Parliment before the American Revolution. The riots in London over the idea that Catholicism might be made legal were written of by Charles Dickens in the novel Barnaby Rudge. It is thought that the main character was modeled on Edmund Burke. Burke spent ten years of his life trying to bring a corrupt official of the British East India Company to justice.  All of this was seen especially at the time as “liberal reform”. Why then does GKC dismiss Burke as a “conservative”?

Burke traveled to France and was sympathetic with the peasants and thought the contrast between their poverty and the glitter or the royal court wrong. But he saw the revolution in France as a true revolution — it was being carried out to change the order of things, so he was against it. He saw the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England primarily as a restoration of right order, and was in favor of it. This is all detailed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which is seen as one of the foundational documents of conservatism.  Burke’s view of the conservative/progressive question really is Chesterton’s own view! See Chapter VII of Orthodoxy:

…all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are.  But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post.  If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution.  Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

Chesterton focused on Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution to the exclusion of all else and called him a “conservative”. Here roughly is Chesterton’s indictment of Burke:

1) He sided with the aristocracy
2) He is an enemy of democracy
3) He denied the Rights of Man
4) He is a practical athiest

So who was right? Burke at root was an Aristotelian Natural Law philosopher even though he occasionally used the language of Social Contract Theory. For Aristotle and Burke, democracy means literally “mob rule” and would not support it. The sad history of the French Revolution shows democracy precicely to be this, and the success of a democracy depends on the virtue of the mob. Burke was not a simple Conservative, “defending the previous revolution” simply because it was previous. He saw what was coming and wanted to avoid it: he foresaw The Reign of Terror and Chesterton ignored it. Chesterton was wrong, and Burke should be acquitted.


So now you should be disabused of any notion that the American Chesterton Society is engaged in Hero Worship. This was a terrific talk, and I very much thank Professor Woodruff for it. It seems I have a lot more reading to do.


4 thoughts on “Edmund Burke: Who Is This Guy and What Did Chesterton Have Against Him?

  1. Wow! I am delighted that someone listened so attentively to my talk despite (by his own admission) knowing so little about its subject.

    You certainly got the gist of my presentation, but let me offer a few corrections, mostly on matters of detail.

    1. I’m only a professor in the sense that I profess to know what I’m taking about!

    2. Actually, I’m the one who renamed my talk.

    3. Less ambiguously, Burke was an Irish-born member of the English parliament. And he served from 1765 to 1795.

    4. “The Yellow Bird” is one of the stories in THE POET AND THE LUNATICS.

    5. Burke began working for Catholic emancipation AFTER the American Revolution broke out. (The Crown’s need for conscripts gave him the opportunity he;d been looking for.)

    6. The main character in BARNABY RUDGE is a simpleton — not a likely representation of Burke! Dickens put some Burkean sentiments into the mouth of Mr. Stryver, in A TALE OF TWO CITIES — and when Dickens wrote “The wisdom of our ancestors lies in simile, and my unhallowed hands must not touch it, or the Empire’s done for,” in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, he was spoofing some Burkean tropes.

    7. Burke (and Aristotle) didn’t equate democracy with mob rule; rather, they saw mob rule as a danger against which a healthy democracy must defend itself.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful precis of my talk. I hope it was a spur to read Burke, or at least read about him.

    I was somewhat surprised that nobody challenged my thesis afterwards. If any readers of this blog have questions or rebuttals, I’d be happy to enter into conversation with them!

    James Woodruff

  2. Dear Mr. Woodruff,

    Why else listen to a talk other than to learn something?

    Thank you for your corrections. I included lots of links in the posting, mostly to WikiPedia articles, but also to the full text of The Poet and the Lunatics, mostly for my own future reference because I will be astonished if anyone besides me follows the links.

    Thanks again for the talk, I shall be interested to hear what you do for an encore. You have set a high standard…

  3. Dear Chestertonians:
    Burke was quite correct to oppose the French Revolution, but his support of the (In)glorious Revolution of 1688 was forced upon him by his adherence to the Whig Party. (Although he was the father of modern conservatism, Burke was a Whig and not a Tory, unlike his friend Samuel Johnson.)
    I didn’t know that Chesterton supported the acts of the Whigs in 1688; Belloc certainly didn’t–his books on Charles I and Charles II make it clear that he regarded the Stuart kings as the last barriers to the plutocracy that England became under Whig rule.
    Warren Hastings was hardly a corrupt official, and Burke’s impeachment of Hastings does him little credit. The replacement of men like Hastings, who admired and respected Indian culture, with the typical evangelical Protestants who ruled India in the nineteenth century led directly to the Mutiny of 1857.
    Burke and Chesterton have this in common: they were masterly stylists in the English language. (I’d rank Burke slightly ahead.)


    Tom Hoover

  4. Dear Mr. Hoover:

    I agree that Burke’s defense of the Revolution of 1688 (“a revoltion not made, but prevented”) contains more than a whiff of special pleading. As I pointed out in my talk, Chesterton maintained that the Whig ascendancy that grew out of the Hanoverian settlement led to the transfer of England’s commons to the estates of the oligarchy and the transformation of England’s peasantry into urban wage-earners — a social dislocation on a par with anything perpetrated by the Jacobins in France.

    That said, I would argue that if James II had been more circumspect, more attentive to the sentiments of his subjects — more Burkean, in fact — then the Stuart dynasty might not have been overthrown.

    Burke’s attacks on Warren Hastings became increasingly personal and vituperative as the trial dragged on. That undoubtedly generated some sympathy for Hastings. Was he as black as Burke painted him? Probably not. As you point out, Hastings did have some understanding and appreciation of Indian culture. But that didn’t prevent him from deposing the Rajah of Benares or despoining the province of Oude, and in my judgment he can’t be entirely absolved of the charge of malfeasance, whatever can be said in his behalf.

    A biographical sketch of Hastings can be found in Macaulay’s Essays. Macaulay was a Whig, and an admirer of Burke, but he paints a fairly sympathetic portrait of Hastings.

    Thank you for your remarks! I wasn’t trying to sweep any of these points under the carpet in my presentation; but I only had 50 minutes in which to outline Burke’s career and deal with the straw men that Chesterton all too often set up in his criticisms of Burke. If I had any success in sweeping those away, then I’ve cleared the stage for a genuine debate between these two great men.

    James Woodruff

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