David Bromwich’s The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, published in 2014 as the first of two proposed volumes, turned out to be one of the most notable studies ever written of the great Irish political philosopher. Amazingly, it has already been thrown, not into the shade, but into a new perspective by Richard Bourke’s Empire & Revolution, a long, penetrating meditation on Burke’s absorption of the European intellectual tradition into his political thinking and action. I don’t think Burke read anything that Bourke has not also read, nor do I believe that even a critic as fine as Bromwich has so persuasively identified the intricate blendings and meshings of those readings throughout Burke’s speeches and writings. The learning involved is deeply impressive, but the momentum of the overall argument is such that it carries its weight with elegance – though not with ease. Ease is never an option with Burke.
Burke’s prodigious work rate when engaging with the great issues that dominated his era – imperial policy in America and India, revolution in France, the betrayal of the Glorious Revolution in Ireland by the Protestant Ascendancy, the development of the idea of party within a domestic system threatened by the dangerous dominance of the crown, the nature of political representation – makes scrutinising him a