The life and work of Edmund Burke, told through five great pieces of trivia
1. Burke anticipated the Romantic movement. In his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke introduced the concept of the Sublime, which he defined in opposition to the Beautiful. Whereas the Beautiful is harmonious and aesthetically pleasing, there is something unsettling and dangerous about the Sublime – something potentially destructive. The Sublime, in other words, is both awesome and awful – both terrific and terrifying/terrible. This idea would influence the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) but also the Romantic poets: Percy Shelley’s poem about Mont Blanc is often cited as a great example of the Sublime in Romantic poetry. Because the Sublime was wilder and potentially more dangerous, whereas the Beautiful was ordered and controlled, the two terms are said to mark the divide between the Neoclassical poetry of writers such as Alexander Pope (whose verse reflects order and control) and the Romantic era, where poets became more interested in the wild power of nature and man’s relationship with it.
2. He also anticipated Freudian psychoanalysis. Burke’s concept of the Sublime suggests something beneath the threshold – sub-lime or subliminal – which we are at best only partially aware of. In other words, our passions, as he put it, ‘have springs that we are utterly unacquainted with.’
3. Although he was an influential writer, he was reportedly a terrible speaker. Burke’s speeches in the House of Commons were said to empty the building; he was not the most engaging or charismatic of political speakers.
4. He supported the American War of Independence but, strangely, not the French Revolution. His arguments here appear to be a little muddled and contradictory. Burke was, however, a contradictory figure: although he was conservative at heart, he was a member of the more progressive Whig party (later to evolve into the Liberals) rather than the conservative Tories. His condemnation of the French Revolution, published in 1790 as Reflections on the Revolution in France, would inspire both Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine to pen rejoinders: Wollstonecraft rapidly wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men (and, more famously, the complementary A Vindication of the Rights of Woman two years later), while Paine produced Rights of Man. Although Wollstonecraft and Paine are often viewed as the beacons of progressive enlightenment here, Burke was right in predicting that the French Revolution would end in chaos and tyranny, as indeed it would during the Reign of Terror (which Paine himself would be caught up in).
5. Now, Burke is remembered in part as one of the founders of modern Conservatism. In his book Edmund Burke: His Political Philosophy (2003), Frank O’Gorman argues that Burke’s thinking had a considerable influence on the formation of the modern Conservative ideology.