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The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke

From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence

David Bromwich

ISBN 9780674729704

Publication date: 05/06/2014

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David Bromwich’s portrait of statesman Edmund Burke (1730–1797) is the first biography to attend to the complexity of Burke’s thought as it emerges in both the major writings and private correspondence. The public and private writings cannot be easily dissociated, nor should they be. For Burke—a thinker, writer, and politician—the principles of politics were merely those of morality enlarged. Bromwich reads Burke’s career as an imperfect attempt to organize an honorable life in the dense medium he knew politics to be.

This intellectual biography examines the first three decades of Burke’s professional life. His protest against the cruelties of English society and his criticism of all unchecked power laid the groundwork for his later attacks on abuses of government in India, Ireland, and France. Bromwich allows us to see the youthful skeptic, wary of a social contract based on “nature”; the theorist of love and fear in relation to “the sublime and beautiful”; the advocate of civil liberty, even in the face of civil disorder; the architect of economic reform; and the agitator for peace with America. However multiple and various Burke’s campaigns, a single-mindedness of commitment always drove him.

Burke is commonly seen as the father of modern conservatism. Bromwich reveals the matter to be far more subtle and interesting. Burke was a defender of the rights of disfranchised minorities and an opponent of militarism. His politics diverge from those of any modern party, but all parties would be wiser for acquaintance with his writing and thoughts.


  • The Burke David Bromwich presents in his new book The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is certainly a formidable figure, but one who resists recruitment for twenty-first-century causes. It is his elusiveness that makes him a live presence; he was a traditionalist and a progressive, an enlightened critic of Enlightenment run amok, a secular thinker who insisted on the indispensability of religious faith. He thought it pointless to insist on rights whose enforcement would bring disaster, as when British governments asserted their right to tax the colonies and brought on a revolutionary war; and yet he had no doubt about the reality of rights. Burke was an eighteenth-century Whig, not a twenty-first-century liberal or conservative, but both of the latter can engage with him with advantage. David Bromwich has been thinking about him for more than a quarter of a century, and by now has an unrivaled sensitivity to the workings of his mind; like Burke, Bromwich is a formidable critic, ranging over politics, literature, higher education, and much else, and on every page of Edmund Burke, one can feel him responding to Burke across the whole range of Burke’s interests as if he was in the room with him… [Bromwich’s] focus on the first three decades of Burke’s life as a thinker, writer, and political actor yields riches… We shall have to wait for the second volume of this engrossing account to see how David Bromwich handles the Burke who responded so differently to the second great revolution of the late eighteenth century. His penetrating first volume makes us impatient to see what he will say.

    —Alan Ryan, New York Review of Books


  • David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University.

Book Details

  • 512 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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