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Edmund Burke was born January 12, 1729 in Dublin to a prosperous attorney. His father was a member of the protestant Church of Ireland; it has long been speculated that he had converted from Catholicism in order to practice law more easily. Burke’s mother belonged to an old and prominent, if impoverished, Irish Catholic family. As Ireland at that time was essentially a British colony, run by absentee landlords, and suffering under severe anti-Catholic legislation, this split heritage placed Burke in a peculiar position. At once member of the affluent elite and part of the marginalized majority, from a very early age Burke was made aware of the complexities of power dynamics within imperial Britain. This experience would go on to shape many of his own political positions, particularly regarding Britain’s colonies, as well as his political experiences. Exploiting this mixed background, his enemies would periodically force Burke to defend himself from the charge of being Catholic and disqualified from holding public office.
Burke entered Trinity College at the age of 15 and, upon graduation, spent a brief stint studying the law before settling down as a writer in London in the 1750s. He published his first major work, A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind, in 1756. This early work, much like Reflections on the Revolution in France, was concerned with the dangers that so-called “atheistical rationalism” posed to society and satirized Deism as well as Rousseau’s notion of the social contract. Burke’s second work published that same year, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, gained him a place in the literary and philosophical circles of London, and before long, an international reputation.
Burke formally entered politics in 1765, when he became the private secretary of the Marquis of Rockingham, who had recently been appointed First Lord of the Treasury. That same year Burke was elected to the House of Commons, where he served, except for a brief period in 1780, until 1794. By his own estimation, his political career centered around his advocacy of five main causes: the limitation of King George III’s influence on the House of Commons, reconciliation with the American colonies by addressing their grievances, mitigation of the restrictions on Irish trades and anti-Catholic legislation, the impeachment of Warren Hastings, governor of Bengal, for corruption and abuses of India under the rule of the East India Company, and, finally, his opposition to what he saw as the rationalist atheism of the French Revolution. Burke died in 1797 at the age of 68.
Burke’s legacy has been mixed. In his own day, he was often accused of being inconsistent in supposedly supporting the American Revolution while attacking the French, as well as grossly misrepresenting the events of the French Revolution. Philosophically, his aesthetic work on the sublime was taken up by Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790). Politically, Burke has often been called the father of conservatism, though postcolonial scholars have begun to reclaim his legacy as a critic of empire and colonization.
Written by Liane F. Carlson, Department of Religion, Columbia University
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford Reference Online. http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/cul/resolve?AH-B6D9112PNJF4812
"Edmund Burke," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/burke/
Encyclopedia of European Social History, Gale Virtual Reference. http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/cul/resolve?clio7104866
Turner, Frank M, Ed. Reflection on the Revolution in France: Edmund Burke. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003