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O’Brien and Burke


Just about every book about Edmund Burke written after Connor Cruise O’Brien’s 1992 The Great Melody takes a firm swipe or two at O’Brien. The complaints are many: ‘Too much O’Brien, not enough Burke,’ say some; there is also the fact of the book’s extremely confusing organization; and without question O’Brien makes far too much of Burke’s Irish roots in assessing his thought, even arguing that Burke was a crypto-Catholic, for which there is essentially zero evidence. O’Brien was also intent on denying contemporary Anglo-American conservatives a claim on Burke, and so sought to distinguish Burke from what he took to be conservatism, and in the process showed a rather narrow understanding of modern-day conservatism.

All these critics have a point, and yet despite it all O’Brien’s book is brilliant and wonderful. It is not a biography in the conventional sense, but a kind of reflection on Burke’s sensibility, and on the limits of modern liberalism. It appreciates as very few books about Burke ever have the spirit and energy of Burke’s view of the world—his sheer enjoyment of the everyday order of things, and the role it plays in his political thought. O’Brien also makes mincemeat of the common claim (which Burke faced even in his day) that Burke’s support for the American Revolution and fervent opposition to the French Revolution reveal some deep inconsistency in his thought. The difference, O’Brien shows, is in the circumstances, not in Burke. O’Brien offers a whirlwind tour of Burke’s writings on Ireland, India, America, and France, and while in parts there is surely more O’Brien than Burke, it’s hard not to enjoy those parts just the same. The author, like his subject, offered an infectious intensity that couldn’t help but draw you in; and like his subject, this served him well in politics just as in his writing.



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