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Godwin on Burke

http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/anarchist_archives/godwin/pj8/pj8_10.html
Whilst this sheet is in the press for the third impression, I receive the intelligence of the death of Burke, who was principally in the author's mind, while he penned the preceding sentences. In all that is most exalted in talents, I regard him as the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of earth; and, in the long record of human genius, I can find for him very few equals. In sublety of discrimination, in magnitude of conception, in sagacity and profoundness of judgement, he was never surpassed. But his characteristic exceilencies were vividness and justness of painting, and that boundless wealth of imagination that adorned the most ungrateful subjects, and heightened the most interesting. Of this wealth he was too lavish; and, though it is impossible for the man of taste not to derive gratification from almost every one of his images and metaphors while it passes before him, yet their exuberance subtracts, in no considerable degree, from that irresistibleness and rapidity of general effect, which is the highest excellence of composition. No impartial man can recall Burke to his mind, without confessing the granduer and integrity of his feelings of morality, and being convinced that he was eminently both the patriot and the philanthropist. His excellencies however were somewhat tinctured with a vein of dark and saturnine temper; so that the same man strangely united a degree of the rude character of his native island, with an urbanity and a susceptibility of the kinder affections, that have rarely been paralleled. But his principal defect consisted in this; that the false estimate as to the things entitled to our deference and admiration, which could alone tender aristocracy with whom he lived, unjust to his worth, in some degree infected his own mind. He therefore sought wealth and plunged in expense, instead of cultivating the simplicity of independence; and he entangled himself with a petty combination of political men, instead of reserving his illustrious talents unwarped, for the advancement of intellect, and the service of mankind. He unfortunately has left us a memorable example, of the power of a corrupt system of government, to undermine and divert from their genuine purposes, the noblest faculties that have yet been exhibited to the observation of the world.
My favorite part is
In all that is most exalted in talents, I regard [Edmund Burke] as the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of earth; and, in the long record of human genius, I can find for him very few equals. In sublety of discrimination, in magnitude of conception, in sagacity and profoundness of judgement, he was never surpassed.
I think Godwin's criticism of Burke is incorrect. Burke, like Godwin, knew that there is knowledge in the status quo (in traditions), and that it should only be changed gradually/piecemeal to avoid both violence and destruction of knowledge. For this reason, both of them considered the French Revolution a bad idea. To my mind, they were basically in agreement. But somehow they did not see it.

Godwin would of course also have approved of Burke's take on America, India, and Irish Catholics. (Perhaps Godwin might think Burke was too timid in his advocacy for Catholics, but I don't think that).

The comments about political entanglements do make sense. Burke had those. But for good reason. He wanted to work within and with the system to reform the system. By taking on flawed allies (which are the only kind available), Burke was able to make important, good things happen like peace with America and recognizing American independence. That changed history for the better. Godwin held himself aloof, which I respect, but I don't think Godwin's way is a moral imperative, and I don't think Burke should be criticized for having some practicality. (Note: There were significant limits to Burke's practicality. For example, his impeachment of Warren Hastings became sufficiently politically impractical that Fox wanted him to stop, but he wouldn't. And he had his party turn down running the Government over some ideals.)

Burke turned down a seat in the house of lords. Someone commented that taking it would honor the house more than Burke. If he was corrupted by the Government and aristocracy, and adopted their values, it must only have been in quite a limited way, or he would have taken that seat. Burke could also have had a well paid and powerful position working for the King, if he'd wanted. I think Burke did hard work for his entire political career, and made sacrifices for the cause, and he did it because he cared about reform, and he wasn't very interested in any rewards. He was not corrupt.

Elliot Temple on June 9, 2009

Comments (3)

"and made sacrifices"

Why is Ayn Rand in the list of people you like if you consider sacrifice a virtue?

Anonymous at 6:03 AM on June 19, 2009 | #1782
Sacrifice is not a virtue. You can learn about people's priorities and values about based on they sacrifice for.

Anonymous at 9:05 AM on June 19, 2009 | #1783
Isn't that what everyone actually means by sacrifice?

Anonymous at 9:50 AM on July 10, 2009 | #1827

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)