Nature does not make such a Man once in a Century


Despite everything that has recently happened in historical and in English literary scholarship, two men still bestride the world of late eighteenth-century England: Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson. At opposite ends of the parliamentary political spectrum, they now have one thing in common: in recent debates, their reassessment has depended on reinterpretations of their religious beliefs. In the 1950s, Burke was seen as a natural-law theorist indebted to Aquinas, implicitly arrayed against Communism; by the 1960s he was Conor Cruise O’Brien’s covert Catholic, a civil-liberties campaigner whose unacknowledged Irish allegiances produced a “slumbering Jacobite”; he progressed, in the 1980s, through a man shaped by High Churchmanship to be, today, someone whose crusades were prompted by his Anglican Latitudinarianism.

F. P. Lock has gone further than any of those who moved him into the Latitudinarian camp, even arguing that “Burke’s theism was much firmer than his Christianity”. Whatever the truth of that, Burke emerges from Lock’s two volumes as one whose broad sympathies were rooted in fundamental values: he looked on church polity, liturgy and “dogmas of religion” as being of less importance than virtue, Christianity’s common truths, and an overarching Providence. Providence is a theme running through Locke’s book: it made politics, for Burke, a “moral battlefield”. This indeed explains some of his Manichaean vision: “He tended to demonize his opponents, and was unable to conceive that they could act from conviction, or from honourable motives”.

more from the TLS here.