Studio of Joshua ReynoldsEdmund Burke, circa 1769, oil on canvasNational Portrait Gallery

The publication of The Great Melody is an event not just in the small circle of Edmund Burke scholarship but also in the larger community of historians.1 Still more, and above all, it is a gift to anyone who wants to understand politics. Conor Cruise O’Brien, the all-around Irish journalist, critic, lecturer, politician, and scholar, has produced a “thematic biography” of Burke the statesman that is worthy of its great subject. O’Brien would wish for no higher praise, and he deserves it first of all because he has made it possible. With his book he has restored Burke’s reputation for our time and thus enabled us to see, despite the denigration of historians, just what sort of biography might be adequate to Burke.

O’Brien turns his back on Burke the political philosopher. That Burke has enjoyed the attention and patronage of American conservatives since the late Forties. Their writings are dismissed somewhat unfairly by O’Brien on the slender authority of a single quotation doubting Burke’s desire, as opposed to his need, to construct a theory. We hear nothing on the vexed question of Burke and the natural law; so all those who are dying for the truth on this point will have to go elsewhere. In an appendix O’Brien does offer an exchange between the political theorist Sir Isaiah Berlin and himself as to whether Burke was a reactionary, but that too turns out to be a caution, though in a sense also a treat, for theorists. While presenting in his letters a dim replication of Charles James Fox’s illusions about the French Revolution, Sir Isaiah sketches a vivid, comic caricature of himself as a theorist who uses his erudition to evade an issue.

Was Burke therefore driven by guilt over his Irish descent? 

O’Brien does not suffer from this fault, and not because he lacks the means for it. Instead of political philosophy he offers the “great melody” of Burke’s political actions on America, Ireland, France, and India. The phrase comes from two lines of Yeats on Burke, which O’Brien accepts and expounds as insight into historical truth rather than as a concept to play with. Burke’s occupation in those fields of policy is taken seriously and treated in its own terms, not as a mine from which to dig pretty nuggets of theory. The theory in Burke is left where it is, in the context where one finds it. The context is not the company of theorists in Burke’s time but the political purpose Burke was pursuing and simultaneously explaining in golden words. The Great Melody is neither mere theory nor mere rhetoric; it is the explanation of noble deeds that, in explaining them, elevates them. We might believe, for example, as to British attitudes toward the American colonies, that the policy of conciliation with the American colonists urged by Burke on the party of his patron Lord Rockingham derived from nothing more than the dovish queasiness over use of compulsion familiar in our day. But with Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with America (1775) we see with O’Brien’s instruction that the policy made sense, that its wishes were not forlorn and were in fact connected to permanent truths. That connection is not above politics (like an imaginary best city), but it is above ordinary politics—the kind of politics we have without men like Burke, or when such men are forgotten.

In practice, O’Brien’s Great Melody is very close to the Whig interpretation of history, the nineteenth-century view of Macaulay, above all others, which O’Brien finds more persuasive than anything that has been proposed in this century to replace it. Twentieth-century British historiography has been dominated by Sir Lewis Namier, for whom all politics is ordinary, all motives are tawdry, all politicians are petty. He and his followers are O’Brien’s opponents, deaf to the Great Melody, and he goes after them with the justice and alacrity of an executioner who believes in his work. The text and footnotes of The Great Melody are littered with the bodies of dead Namierites, some of them carved up, others neatly dispatched with a single shot between the eyes, still others repeatedly pummeled and left for dead. Quasi-Namierites receive a thrashing proportional to their complicity in the Namierite crime of reductionism. (Reductionism is mean-spiritedness disguised, often from the reductionist himself, as scientific objectivity.) The master, Sir Lewis himself, is disposed of in O’Brien’s long introduction on “Burke and Some Scholars,” but his corpse is later set on its feet again to serve O’Brien’s exemplary severity, lest his point not get through to the historians. For though Namier has had his critics—A. J. P. Taylor rightly accused him of “taking the mind out of history”—this is the first adequate treatment of him on his home ground. Perhaps Namier will not have had his full deserts until he receives similar punishment from a “professional historian” (which O’Brien is not, and to keep himself clear of contamination he frequently relies on the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica), for that is the title Namier claimed for himself. But when that happens, the professional will have to take his cue from the amateur, who took his from Burke.

O’Brien prefers to say that Namier took the fantasia out of history, by which he means the imaginative use of probable inference from the evidence, necessarily partial, to work out the whole. The procedure presupposes that contemporaries knew what they were doing—some, of course, more than others—and it looks among the variety of intents for the leading possibilities so as to circumscribe the field of choice; then it finds and judges the dominant choice, partly in its own terms, partly for its foreseeable consequences. O’Brien does not make up a method of fantasia, just as he does not conceptualize his Great Melody for universal application, composing short ditties perhaps, for lesser figures such as Namier’s favorite, Henry Wilson Legge. But O’Brien’s view of practice is practically useful, because it looks at things as a practitioner does, more dispassionately but sympathetically and under the same discipline of having to decide on limited information. Above all, it is open to greatness. The Namierite historian seeks out the representative figure, as someone he can handle; and when he happens upon Burke, he throws him out of consideration for endangering the scientific sample. The Namierite excludes all but the humdrum; for him, but only for him, history is cosily predictable. Working from the wrong end of the telescope, he thinks himself in Lilliput while actually visiting Brobdingnag. O’Brien sets himself against the “Namierization” of the eighteenth century, as he calls it, and begins the task of De-Namierization with his demonstration of the greatness of Burke.

Namier had the nerve to call Burke a lackey, and casually too, as if he didn’t care. The truth in this falsehood (for Namier cared very much) is that, although Burke was the greatest statesman of his age (in O’Brien’s opinion), he was never in command, nor did he ever put himself forward in order to rise, preferring instead to exercise his influence on Rockingham, Fox, Pitt, Fitzwilliam, even George III , and thus to work through these more prominent but less prudent figures. O’Brien makes the case that Burke’s influence was very great in a number of instances in which he has been misunderstood, belittled, or unobserved by others, and that he was so far from being a lackey as to have inspired, formulated, and promoted policies that were adopted, and to have engineered, not merely proposed, lasting constitutional reforms. Examples are: on America, the decision to repeal the Stamp Act and George III’s decision to end the American war (O’Brien calls the period of British policy toward America from 1778 to 1782 a battle of wills between Burke and George III); on Ireland, the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 and the disaster of the Irish rebellion in 1798; on India, Fox’s East India Bill in 1783, establishing the principle of accountability in the proceedings against Warren Hastings; on France, a vindication of Burke’s insight as responsible for his prophetic vision, and of Burke’s side of his split with Fox, the creation of the Portland Whigs, the contest with Pitt over the “Regicide” peace, which was finally won by Burke. And much else; and all connected in a whole. Very few books accomplish as much as this one or leave so marked a satisfaction in the reader for the way shown, the truth found, and the justice done.

Nonetheless, one might raise three points with the author. First, he remarks on Burke’s characterization of the French Revolution as one based for the first time “upon a theory.” It is clear, then, that theory can have a disastrously harmful effect on political practice. But can bad theory of this kind—what Burke called armeddoctrine— be counteracted without an opposing theory? The pathetic illusions and sentimental susceptibilities of the Foxite Whigs, which continue in their successors to this very day, suggest the need for counter-revolutionary doctrine. (Burke, by the way, proudly accepted the status and name of counter-revolutionary.) Here is the opening for a theory of “conservatism,” the theory that hates theory, born and bred in paradox and embarrassment.

Second, in the four themes of the Great Melody—Ireland, America, India, and France—we note the absence of Britain. Perhaps this is because Burke’s concern for the British constitution seems to be greater than a fifth theme; it unites the four themes, each of which was undertaken by Burke not only for itself but also with a view to reform at home. O’Brien himself reminds us that Burke was both witness and founder of the Whig interpretation of history, which is an interpretation of the British constitution. He shows how Burke helped to constitutionalize the British monarchy by exposing the system of the “King’s friends,” explaining the worth of parties, rejecting the theory of electoral mandate, and working toward the creation of the office of prime minister. But perhaps O’Brien’s apparent understatement is due to his conviction that Burke was always essentially Irish, that there was a “buried Irish layer” in his soul that gave him direction and reminded him that his true home was not Britain. Burke’s father had probably conformed to Protestantism for the sake of his career, a resort not uncommon where legal and social disabilities attached to being Catholic; and Burke himself left Ireland for the literary and political life in London.

In today’s blather over seeking one’s “identity,” the assumption is made that one can live in good conscience according to one’s ethnic roots.

Was Burke therefore driven by guilt over his Irish descent? The question leads to a third consideration. Guilt and shame are a theme of O’Brien’s treatment, not only of Burke but also of his rivals, friends, and allies. Undoubtedly it is a plausible accounting, since much more political, or simply human, behavior is due to guilt or shame than the systems of self-interest can explain. Nor is it unreasonable to feel shame for one’s faults and omissions. But shame is not a virtue, and one wonders, after reading O’Brien’s convincing and triumphant vindication, what it was that Burke had to be ashamed about, given the circumstances of his time (that is, the inevitable irrationalities), on which Burke himself and O’Brien rightly lay such stress for determining the morality of actions. On a couple of occasions when explaining the fury of Burke’s attack on Hastings, O’Brien, by resorting to guilt, seems to step over the boundary between morality and moralism.

Possibly the difficulty is more general, however, and O’Brien’s resort to guilt is defensible. In today’s blather over seeking one’s “identity,” the assumption is made that one can live in good conscience according to one’s ethnic roots. If even Burke could not live without guilt, perhaps this is not so. The prudent statesman, exercising every virtue in reasonable proportion, is as such shameless, and deserves to be; but in the complication of events and the necessities of compromise can he act for the common good without ever betraying the people of his home? And what is betrayed? In free countries you betray someone merely by disappointing him: ask any loser of an election. It is hard to say that Burke betrayed the people of Ireland (or of India) when he did all he could for them that was compatible with the good, or the opinion, of the people of Britain. It was only through Britain, as O’Brien agrees, that any good could be done. The particularity of the common good seems to put statesmen—any statesmen, not just those from minorities —in a dilemma between their home and their virtue, resulting in guilt. And to repeat, Burke, in O’Brien’s glowing account, does not have much to be ashamed of.


  1.  The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke, by Conor Cruise O’Brien; University of Chicago Press, 692 pages, $34.95.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 3, on page 8
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