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High minds at the table: “A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s”, 1851, by James William Edmund Doyle, featuring Boswell (far left) and Burke (centre, in glasses)

Burke knew that one way to judge a man was by the quality of his enemies.  As early as 1770, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, he had served notice about the principles which would guide his conduct in public life. He would strive, he said:

To bring the dispositions that are lovely in private life into the service and conduct of the commonwealth; so to be patriots, as not to forget we are gentlemen. To cultivate friendships, and to incur enmities. To have both strong, but both selected: in the one, to be placable; in the other, immoveable.

So it would have given Burke great pleasure to have known that perhaps the most powerful tribute paid to him after his death came from an avowed enemy who was also a perceptive admirer, namely the radical philosopher and novelist William Godwin.

Burke died in 1797, when Godwin was busy seeing the third edition of Political Justice through the press. On receiving the news of Burke’s death, Godwin stopped the press and added a long footnote. In Book VII of Political Justice Godwin had imagined a conversation with a representative of “the rich and great” in which he had tried to persuade that class of men to employ their merits for the general good of mankind. In the footnote added to the third edition of 1798 Godwin explained what lay behind this imagined dialogue:

While this sheet is in the press for the third impression, I receive the intelligence of the death of Burke, who was principally in the author’s mind while he penned the preceding sentences.

Godwin began by paying lavish tribute to Burke’s powers of mind: “In all that is most exalted in talents, I regard him as the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of earth; and, in the long record of human genius, I can find for him very few equals. In subtlety of discrimination, in magnitude of conception, in sagacity and profoundness of judgement, he was never surpassed.” But Burke was also flawed in the very superabundance of his strengths. “Boundless wealth of imagination” was, for Godwin, Burke’s characteristic excellence as a writer.  But his imaginative brilliance was also an ignis fatuus that prevented him from reaching the very highest levels of attainment:

Of this wealth he was too lavish; and, though it is impossible for the man of taste not to derive gratification from almost every one of his images and metaphors while it passes before him, yet their exuberance subtracts, in no inconsiderable degree, from that irresistibleness and rapidity of general effect which is the highest excellence of composition.

Burke’s moral character was also imperfect. No one, Godwin conceded, could ever doubt that Burke was “eminently both the patriot and the philanthropist”; but these noble sentiments were “tinctured with a vein of dark and saturnine temper” which detracted from his stature.

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Alan Vanneman
July 30th, 2015
11:07 AM
The Younger Pitt, who knew Burke better than we do, said of one of his speeches, "As in all of that gentleman's efforts, I found much to admire and nothing to agree with." Burke's uncritical admirers, who are many, should take that to heart.

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