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The Core Curriculum

Edmund Burke

1729 CE – 1797 CE

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.  

Works Consulted:

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy In: Oxford Reference Online.
Edmund Burke In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Encyclopedia of European Social History In: Gale Virtual Reference.
 Turner, Frank M, Ed.  Reflection on the Revolution in France: Edmund Burke. New Haven: Yale     University Press, 2003.


Liane F. Carlson, Department of Religion, Columbia University

Historical Contexts

Reflections on the Revolution in France

Reflections on the Revolution in France should be understood as shaped by four main influences: the events in France leading up to its publication in 1790, the social situation of Britain during the Industrial Revolution, the Irish Enlightenment, specifically Berkeley’s rejection of abstract reasoning, and Burke’s place in an ongoing philosophical conversation about the role of the passions in political life.

To begin with the historical: in 1790 the outcome of the French Revolution was still in question and many of its key events, most significantly the execution of Louis XVI, were yet to come.  Several important turning-points had already occurred.  First, in May of 1789 the Estates General met to address the profound economic crisis France found itself in, which had been precipitated by its support of the American Revolution.  The meeting was ultimately unsuccessful, largely because of cumbersome protocols and the uncooperativeness of the Second Estate, or aristocratic class, which had a disproportionate amount of power, despite only representing 2% of the population.  In response, the Third Estate, whose representatives came from the bourgeoisie and constituted the overwhelming majority of the population, met alone and renamed themselves the National Assembly, with the goal of creating a French constitution.  Though the king objected to these events, he was eventually forced to acquiesce.  Shortly thereafter, on July 14, 1789, the Paris populace "stormed the Bastille"--the prison that symbolized royal authority.  When Burke published his Reflections, then, France was still a constitutional monarchy and the threat of violence, while certainly present, was by no means seen as foreordained.

Despite this, the events that had taken place were enough make Burke deeply alarmed about the possibility of a similar revolt taking place in Britain, particularly given the volatile social conditions of the time.  The Industrial Revolution had begun in Britain earlier that century within major innovations in the textile industry.  This led to the development of factories, urbanization, and the destruction of old working patterns.  Living conditions often declined as peasants moved to cities for factory jobs and tuberculosis, among other diseases, became rampant in the new crowded cities.  Given all of these factors, Burke thought that the possibility of the idea of revolution taking hold was a very real one.

Intellectually, Burke shared with thinkers such as George Berkeley a deep suspicion toward abstract ideas, dissassociated from any actual things, in reasoning.  This is most evident in Burke's rejection of natural law and human rights, as advocated by thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau.  In contrast to a vision of society as a collection of individuals held together by rational self-interest, Burke argued that society is actually constituted by feelings of affection and identification with one’s immediate social unit that expand outward to encompass the whole of the nation.  In this, Burke had similarities with Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), as well as, ironically enough, Mary Wollstonecraft’s insistence on the importance of the family for forming and educating the autonomous rational individual.  

Works Consulted:
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy In: Oxford Reference Online
Edmund Burke In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Encyclopedia of European Social History In: Gale Virtual Reference
Turner, Frank M, Ed.  Reflection on the Revolution in France: Edmund Burke. New Haven: Yale     University Press, 2003.

Liane F. Carlson, Department of Religion, Columbia University