Patriotism and Public Spirit: Edmund Burke and the Role of the Critic in Mid-18th Century Britain

By Ian Crowe

Stanford University Press, 2012, 304pp.


Ian Crowe’s new pioneering study of the political philosopher Edmund Burke is a cause for celebration. The reader is provided with a scholarly advancement of existing knowledge regarding Burke and the intellectual milieu that was so important to his development as a thinker. The author breaks new scholarly ground and concentrates upon the understudied and often misinterpreted early philosophical and literary influences upon Burke and upon his unfledged publishing efforts. At the center of Burke’s literary circle was publisher Robert Dodsley and his bookstore, Tully’s Head. It was Dodsley, after all, who published Burke’s first book, A Vindication of Natural Society. Dodsley had been greatly influenced by Alexander Pope, and, with Pope’s mentorship and support, Dodsley created a significant literary enterprise and intellectual community associated with Tully’s Head. With great historical and philosophical refinement, Crowe introduces and explicates the tremendous influence of Dodsley and Tully’s Head upon Burke: “[T]he central claim of this study is that any firm understanding of Edmund Burke’s professional and political career must incorporate an appreciation of the variety of ways in which Burke’s thought and professional art were shaped by the role that he found within that section of the operational network of the British Republic of Letters that was Tully’s Head” (22). While the author is certainly correct, he also thoughtfully suggests that Tully’s Head facilitated a different sort of writing and publishing as well; namely, ruminations that were sympathetic to historical Christianity and the wisdom of the inherited political and social tradition. By returning to the original sources of the seminal figures in the development of what constituted a new literary and political movement, Crowe accomplishes a great feat of intellectual rediscovery.

Chapter one offers an assessment of the early influences on Burke’s life and political thought. The limits of various “Enlightenment” metaphors often used to describe mid-eighteenth century European intellectual life, and potential influences upon Burke, are critiqued with great precision and insight. For example, Peter Gay’s notion of an “Enlightenment” of “secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism, and freedom” (10) is compared with J. G. A. Pocock’s network-based view of an “Enlightenment.” Ultimately, in the case of the “Enlightenment” and the metamorphosis of Patriot writings, Crowe offers a gentle, yet erudite, critique, describing the period as a “Republic of Letters,” which he argues was more concerned with order and organic creativity than innovation simply for the sake of change.

A Vindication of Natural Society is the focus of the second chapter of the book, and the author provides a definitive interpretation of the classic text that expands and refines earlier assessments by Carl Cone, Peter Stanlis, and Russell Kirk. Crowe agrees with the earlier studies of the Vindication that argue the tome is an ironic refutation of Bolingbroke. In a philosophically discerning manner, Crowe argues for an even deeper level of analysis, suggesting the Vindication is not just an early form of Burke’s later political philosophy. The Vindication serves as an endorsement of the higher social and political potentialities that await those who participate in civil society; the work can no longer be viewed as simply a refutation of Jacobinism. But Crowe’s greatest accomplishment lies in his careful refutation of some contemporary scholars of the text, including Issac Kramnick and Michel Fuchs.

The influence of Burke’s native Ireland as a continuation of earlier themes is explored in a most convincing fashion in chapter three. The author dissects the perennial excesses of the tendency to manipulate the “Irish Burke” for contemporary political purposes. In fact, Crowe argues that Burke’s formative political and academic experiences augment his defense of religious toleration and the refinement of the uses of public rhetoric. The complex nature of Burke’s Irish influences has prevented a comprehensive and integrated appreciation of the role of Burke’s birthplace in his writings. Crowe provides a corrective to this dilemma and accurately catalogs and examines these influences with greater success than any earlier study. Furthermore, Crowe articulates Ireland’s intellectual bequest to Burke: an attachment to political and social stability (144).

Burke’s contribution to the study of aesthetics is appraised most carefully and with great illumination, with Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry serving as the centerpiece of the analysis in chapter four. For the author, the work is not just an attempt to compose a theory of aesthetics. Crowe opines that the Philosophical Enquiry is “first and foremost an attempt to probe the limitations or misapplications of a philosophical method and offer an implicit warning of their possible implications for social order” (155). For Crowe, Burke succeeds in demonstrating the weaknesses of philosophical theory, and he brilliantly recovers the difference between passion and judgment. The last chapter is devoted to an explication of Burke’s “Abridgment of the English History” and the importance of restoring order amidst the chaos of social and political life. In furnishing such an engaging commentary on Burke’s historical writings, Crowe posits that Burke’s purpose was to nurture “civic regeneration” so as to increase the survivability of a humane social order (217).

Patriotism and Public Spirit is much more than an introduction to Burke as a man of letters or to the “literary Burke.” Instead, Crowe has composed a groundbreaking study of Burke’s early career that demonstrates the great thinker’s sophisticated and profound understanding of politics. He permanently refutes generations of scholars who have dismissed the “prepolitical” Burke as unimportant for an understanding of his subsequent life as a statesman and political philosopher. In the accomplishment of this feat, Patriotism and Public Spirit fills a critical lacuna in British intellectual history, Burke scholarship, and political thought.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., is Dean of the School of Social Sciences at East Georgia State College in Georgia. His previous books include Calhoun and Popular Rule (University of Missouri Press, 2001), Order and Legitimacy (Transaction/Rutgers, 2004), among others.

Published August 12th, 2015