Christian Worldview

Burke’s Gambit


Kevin Belmonte

Edmund Burke was a son of Ireland, and a sage for all seasons. Few writers and political thinkers from the 1700s are as well remembered today. His wisdom and legacy come highly recommended to posterity. To cite but one example, books about C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien show they thought very highly of Burke indeed.

Lewis, said former student David Bleakley in “C. S. Lewis at Home in Ireland,” was well aware “that he was part of a rich Irish tradition of scholarship and intellectual brilliance [and] Edmund Burke (1730-1797) was high on his list.” Lewis’s admiration, Bleakley said, centered on three things: “Burke’s command of words,” “his masterly use of the art of the pithy observation,” and Lewis’s belief that Burke was “eminently quotable.” Lewis, Bleakley concluded, “retained an interest in Burke throughout his life, and often recommended his merit when advising reading programmes.”

Diarist Roger Lancelyn Green, who knew both Lewis and Tolkien, tells us how these two famous friends were united in their admiration of Burke. On November 9, 1954, Lewis and Tolkien gathered for lunch with friends at The Eagle and Child pub. Green was there with Lewis, Tolkien, Lewis’s brother Warren, R.B. McCallum and Gervase Matthew at “the Bird and Baby,” or “B. and B.,” as Green called it. This was the nickname for The Eagle and Child pub, and to have been at “the Bird and Baby” on this day, 60 years ago, would have been to hear “very good talk, about Tolkien’s book (The Lord of the Rings), horror comics, [and] who is the most influential and important man in various countries.” Green tells us they settled on “Burke for Ireland.”


Recently the distinguished scholar and biographer Dr. Richard Bourke has characterised Edmund Burke as “a towering figure in eighteenth century European politics.” He was both a central statesman—serving 30 years in the British Parliament—and an important political philosopher.

Crucially, Burke’s moral imagination was shaped by faith, and he was steeped in Anglican moral theory. “He was indeed a Christian,” Richard Bourke has noted, “and from his Christianity he derived principles—he believed—in accords with which he could judge right action on a world stage.”

“I am attached to Christianity at large,” Burke forthrightly declared, “much from conviction; more from affection.” Elsewhere he affirmed: “I am by choice and by Taste, as well as by Education, a very attached Member of the Established Church of England.” Faith gave Burke sustaining strength, for he saw himself in “the hands of the Great Shepherd of all, on whom let us cast all our cares, for He careth for us.” And on so many Sundays, faith led him to St. Mary & All Saints Church, Beaconsfield.


Aside from his faith commitment, and how it shaped his public philosophy, Burke believed in things that remain. He held that the stock of knowledge he mined, and the reflections he contributed to the long conversation with posterity, would endure. This conviction, we may say, was Burke’s “gambit”—a remark or observation “intended to open a conversation.” Few were more skilled than he was in the art of conversation, as friends like William Wilberforce understood—

Burke was a great man; I never could understand how he grew to be at one time so entirely neglected. He had come late into Parliament, and had time to lay in vast stores of knowledge. The field from which he drew his illustrations was magnificent. Whenever he opened his mouth, pearls and diamonds dropped from him.

The essayist William Hazlitt put the matter even more succinctly. Burke’s writings, he said, were “calculated to make men think. . . .”

Truly, he cast a long shadow in the world of ideas.

It’s now more than 200 years since Burke’s time. We know it as the time of the French Revolution, beheadings, “the Reign of Terror,” and the Napoleonic wars that then raged across Europe—“the world turned upside down,” as one ballad then memorably described it.

Our time is also one of war, political turmoil, and much grave uncertainty. Now, as long ago, lines from Burke’s writings still retain their dire eloquence and insight. Among them are guideposts like these—

“We are therefore never authorized to abandon our country to its fate, or to act or advise as if it had no resource. There is no reason to apprehend, because ordinary means threaten to fail, that no others can spring up. Whilst our heart is whole, it will find means, or make them. The heart of the citizen is a perennial spring of energy.”

“When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.”

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites,—in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity,—in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption,—in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

“What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!”

Burke, as scholar Russell Kirk observed, was never taken in by the siren song of ideologies that cherished utopian illusions. He knew humanity was flawed, not perfectible—capable of pursuing great things, capable also of fomenting great ruin.

Rather, Burke’s primary commitment was to the realm of permanent things, “the permanent truths,” in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, “about man and God and life and death.” They commanded Burke’s fealty, and called forth his best efforts as a writer and thinker.

Burke, it should also be said, was much admired by Winston Churchill—who invoked his memory in a time soon to be afflicted with coercive visions of utopia, or to call them by their real names, soft tyrannies and dictatorships. Churchill too saw permanent things under assault, and recognised a kindred spirit in Burke. His thoughts come to us from the 1927 essay “Consistency in Politics.”

“On the one hand,” Churchill wrote,

[Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing.

History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect.

No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other. The same danger approached the same man from different directions and in different forms, and the same man turned to face it with incomparable weapons drawn from the same armoury, used in a different quarter, but for the same purpose.

Churchill’s essay proved that Burke’s contribution to the long conversation with posterity had endured. Not, however, Burke would have said, because he possessed any special wisdom. But rather because he’d come to understand where true wisdom was to be found. It resided with the permanent things, and these he sought to commend to generations yet unborn. It was an act of stewardship. He believed posterity would listen, ultimately, to things worth hearing—and discover the value of these things for themselves. That, at least, was the hope he cherished.

Such a hope was not misplaced, and Burke has much to say to us still. Few have ever written more richly, presciently, or eloquently. We have need of his wisdom now. It’s time we renewed our acquaintance with him.

Kevin Belmonte, an award-winning writer and historian, is the author of several books, including the biography “D. L. Moody: A Life” (May 2014).

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.



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