- Edmund Burke and the Conservative Logic of Empire by Daniel I. O'Neill
Daniel O'Neill produced a meticulous study on Edmund Burke's views on the British Empire. O'Neill is a political scientist working on eighteenth century philosophy. This is his second book on Burke's prolific writings and speeches, as his previous work The Burke-Wollstonecraft Debate, Savagery, Civilization, and Democracy (University Park, 2007) already made very convincing points on Burke's conservative views on the French revolution. In his latest book, O'Neill discusses in four chapters the canonical thinker's views on Empire, attempting to find out some logic in them.
For scholars familiar with eighteenth century writings on the Empire, Burke has often been described as "a problem" as his thought is said to escape classification or even coherence. He has been criticized for his so-called inconsistencies as he was pro-American revolution one day and anti-French revolution another day, or he was imperialist or anti-imperialist depending on which section of the empire he considered. He cannot be easily assigned to any political group either, Tory or Whig, being once an influent member of the Whig party before clashing with Charles James Fox over the French revolution. Many historians tend to examine his writings on Empire as quite liberal, but according to O'Neill, in order [End Page 594] to do so they conveniently leave out his very conservative views on society, which he expressed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
Here Daniel O'Neill decides to solve this conundrum by first following Burke's own interpretation of his works as coherent and consistent. Second, instead of applying onto eighteenth century writings on Empire some more contemporary interpretations, categorizing Burke either as a liberal or a conservative, O'Neill considers Burke's speeches and writings as one coherent whole. For him the key to Burke's thinking or logic is to be found in the Reflections on the Revolution. In that essential volume, Burke expounded his conservative views on society and civilization, which revolved around the conservation of two cornerstones: church and nobility. He believed both institutions were essential to order society in a hierarchical fashion preserving it from chaos and savagery. For O'Neill, this conservative view clearly informs Burke's logic of Empire, which should prevent any historian from thinking that Burke could be a liberal thinker.
In short, O'Neill in a very convincing demonstration embarks on an analysis of Burke's logic of Empire, in taking into account all his writings on the topic as well as on revolutions, positing that Burke's views are inspired by his late eighteenth century conservatism. In order to do so, O'Neill relies on two familiar theories in imperial studies, Edward Said's "orientalism" on the one hand as well as David Cannadine's "ornamentalism" on the other. O'Neill sums the two concepts up by describing them as "otherness" and "sameness." For O'Neill, Burke's conservative logic of Empire combines both perceptions. For the eighteenth century thinker, imperial subjects lived in a state of savagery or under-civilized conditions, which he liked to observe and that fascinated him, thus producing speeches akin to "orientalism." However, by expanding British civilization to the Empire, by exporting law and order, as well as church and nobility Burke somehow imagined fashioning an Empire, which could be very similar to the advanced state of the mother-country one day, a perception that is akin to the theory of "ornamentalism." In short Burke believed the purpose and the gift of the Empire was to make others the same, by providing them with advanced civilization.
This book will appeal to those who are familiar with Burke's prose and his ideological involvement in the Empire, as well as those who might be interested in the specialists' quarrel over "the Burke problem." O'Neill makes a convincing argument and I would recommend reading his...