Marie Antoinette

The first words I read by Edmund Burke, stumbled upon in a dictionary of quotations, are from his famous passage about Marie Antoinette:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in, – glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy… Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.

Of all writers in English about politics, Burke is the most quotable. And yet he is much less quoted than he was 40 years ago. Why this temporary decline? I blame the sophisters, economists and calculators. They are too lost in their simplifications to see the value of a man whose thought cannot be reduced to some arid little theory.

These rationalists set no value on history, eloquence, authority, inherited wisdom, the tradition of behaviour which enables the development and conservation of free institutions in some societies, and makes liberty so hard to sustain in others, after a revolutionary spasm in which for a few exhilarating but delusive moments the people seem to have won their freedom.

Burke can, of course, be used by a third-rate speaker who does not intend to say anything, but wishes to adorn his or her text with better words than he or she could ever have composed. This decorative, or evasive, use of Burke is not especially admirable, but is at least a kind of homage to him.


Where best to find the greatest works of Burke assembled in a single, commodious volume? The answer is now in Everyman’s Library, which yesterday published Reflections on the Revolution in France and Other Writings by Edmund Burke, edited and introduced by Jesse Norman.

Here one has almost a thousand pages of Burke, which fall open flat before one on opening the book. No more admirable work will be published this year: it is the ideal Christmas present for anyone interested in politics, as long as the recipient delights in penetrating wisdom expressed in brilliant prose.

Almost wherever one’s eye falls, one finds delightful things. Here, for example, from his Speech at the Conclusion of the Poll at Bristol, on 3rd November 1774: “To be a good member of parliament is, let me tell you, no easy task; especially at this time, when there is so strong a disposition to run into the perilous extremes of servile compliance or wild popularity.”

There are other, more famous, sentiments in the same speech. But even obscure or little-known passages of Burke are full of wonderful things. Norman, as editor, contributes 90 pages of notes, in which without pedantry he translates Burke’s Latin and tells us who Lord Bolingbroke was.

Norman also contributes a short introduction, in which he says:

The paradox of Burke’s conservatism is…that, properly understood, it is intrinsically modest, while extreme liberalism appears to promote arrogance and selfishness. Burke’s conservatism constrains rampant individualism and the tyranny of the majority, while extreme liberalism threatens to worsen their effects.

For a longer introduction, one should turn to Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, published by Norman in 2013, and reviewed here on ConHome. Burke cannot be in decline, nor can the House of Commons, when two such volumes by a serving MP appear in the space of two years.

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