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THE RIGHT HONOURABLE
EDMUND BURK E.
EDMUND BURKE was the second son of a respectable attorney at Dublin, and his mother came of the ancient family of the Nagles. He was born on the 1st of January, (old style,) in the year 1730; and when very young, was sent to the school of Balytore, in the north of Ireland, then kept by Abraham Shackleton, a member of the Society of Friends, or, as they are commonly called, Quakers. Shackleton was a classical scholar of considerable eminence, and a man of enlarged mind, who devoted himself to the improvement of his pupils with indefatigable application and conscientious integrity. His seminary was the nursery of many great characters, who have figured conspicuously at the bar, in the church, and the senate. Here BURKE laid in a solid foundation of learning; and, besides Greek and Latin, his exercises in which gave him a decided superiority over all his contemporaneous students, he applied to the reading of the finest English authors both in prose and verse. Of his early habits or favorite pursuits at this period of his life, however, we know but little; for those writers who have professed to give the most ample and exact memoir of this great man, were totally ignorant of his private history, and even unacquainted with his person; whence their accounts of his youthful occupations may safely be passed over as the fictions of conjectural biography. Yet it is certain that the attainments of BURKE, while at the school of Balytore, were extensive and valuable; and it is equally honorable to him and his preceptor, that through life they mutually respected each other, which was manifested by the correspondence carried on between the son and successor of Abraham
Shackleton and the illustrious pupil of his venerable father.
Before EDMUND BURKE left this school, his elder brother died; which event, is said to have occasioned his removal to Trinity College, Dublin; but this is a mistake, for he was now of an age to be transplanted thither, and as his original destination was the law, the change that had occurred made no alteration in the views of his father. At college he had Goldsmith for one of his cotemporaries, who has been frequently heard to declare that BURKE gave no extraordinary promise of superior talents while at the university. But veracity was unfortu nately not among the leading virtues of Goldsmith; and it is well known, that whenever literary reputation came in the way of that ingenious, but eccentric, man, envy always got the better of good nature. Goldsmith could not endure the praises bestowed upon another for talents which he fancied no one possessed in a higher degree than himself. All his intimates were sensible of this failing, but as it was a weakness without malevolence, his harmless vanity only excited their mirth, and no one ever thought it worth his while to resent his petulance. The observation of Goldsmith, therefore, respecting the academical honors of his friend, is in itself undeserving of notice; but since it has been brought forward, truth requires that it should be repelled; and this is easily done, for the late Dr. Thomas Leland, a much better judge of learning than Goldsmith, never mentioned the name of EDMUND BURKE without a fond recurrence to the brilliant emanations of his opening genius, witnessed inter sylvas academi, when he was himself a fellow and tutor of Trinity College.
A little before he left the university, BURKE gave a happy display of his talent for imitative composition, in a series of essays, written so closely in the manner of Charles Lucas, a political apothecary of Dublin, that while they imposed upon the admirers of that noisy patriot, they at the same time turned the principles of their idol into ridicule, by exposing the consequences which necessarily flowed from them. This Lucas was a turbulent demagogue, who affected the character of a reformer, and so far succeeded, as first to become an object of prosecution, which made him popular; then he procured a doctor's degree from a Scotch university; next got himself chosen an alderman of Dublin; after which he obtained a seat in the Irish House of Commons, and then sunk again into his original obscurity and contempt.
Victory over such an opponent as this could hardly be productive of glory, and therefore it is not to be wondered that these early effusions of BURKE's versatile powers should long since have been consigned to oblivion: neither perhaps is it to be regretted, that hitherto none of the hunters of literary relics should have succeeded in bringing them to light. It is deserving of remark, however, that the only controversies in which BURKE has been known to have engaged, had for their object the detection of sophistry, and the prevention of anarchy.
He was now in his twentieth year, and from this period to his settlement in England, a chasm occurs in his history which we have not the means of filling up satisfactorily. Some of his biographers assert, that he came to London direct from college, while others assert, that he went first to Glasgow, where he offered himself as a candidate for the professorship of logic in that university, being induced so to do by seeing a placard affixed to the gate of the old college, inviting a competition for the vacant chair, although the successor was already privately chosen. BURKE, it seems, if we are to believe the tale, was ignorant of this esoteric method of determining an academical appointment, and therefore tendered his services, in the mere confidence of his qualifications for the place, without making any inquiry as to forms, or exerting what interest he could make among the electors. That under such circumstances he was
unsuccessful need not to be wondered at; and it would have been surprising indeed, if the event had proved otherwise, considering the youth of the candidate, and his being a total stranger to the university. But though we have not the means of refuting the story, entirely, by direct proof, the improbability of it may easily be shown; for in the year 1751, Adam Smith was elected professor of logic, and the year following he removed to the chair of moral philosophy, then vacant by the death of Dr. Francis Hutcheson.
It must have been on this occasion therefore that BURKE became, if ever he did become, candidate for a professorship at Glasgow, and yet he was at this tinse only twenty-two years of age, and without a degree, in any faculty, to warrant his pretensions. But farther, when Smith published in 1759, his "Theory of Moral Sentiments," Hume wrote him a long letter, in which among other literary intelligence, he speaks of BURKE, as an inge nious young Irishman, hitherto unknown and recently started into notice, yet without once adverting to his having been a competitor for the logical professorship, a circumstance which he would hardly have omitted to mention, if it had only been for the purpose of assisting his friend's memory.
Early in 1753, BURKE was in London, as a student of the Middle Temple, where he applied to the law with his wonted assiduity; but as his finances were extremely narrow, he had recourse to his genius to supply the deficiency of fortune, in other words, he laboured for the booksellers, and wrote a variety of pieces, chiefly in the fleeting periodical works of the day, though now it would be utterly impossible to ascertain any of these fugitive productions of his pen; for such was the exibility of his powers, in adapting his style to the occasion, that his performances, unlike those of his great friend Johnson, are not to be traced by the artificial construction of the sentences or the singular tenuity of the reasoning. While BURKE was thus endeavouring, with lau dable diligence to eke out a scanty maintenance by the efforts of his pen, the public attention was drawn to the writings and character of Bolinbroke, who had but recently quitted a scene where he had played many parts, with more splen
dour than credit. This man, as if he had owed mankind a grudge for those disappointments, which were solely owing to his own want of principle, left behind him a magazine of mischief, entrusted to the care of one of his most hopeful pupils, for publication. Mallet, the heir to this precious deposit, gave out such reports of the contents, as by exciting the fears of the pious, and the expectations of sceptics, were best adapted to fill his pockets at the expense of credulity. On the day when the cargo of infidelity was to be opened to the public, Mallet, with unblushing impudence, dared to exclaim in the shop of the publisher, while looking at his watch, "In half an hour, Christianity will tremble." Though this impious boast soon terminated in disgrace and mortification, it is certain that the friends of religion were for a time greatly alarmed, not for the cause of truth, which they knew to be impregnable, but for the welfare of society. A host of writers, there fore, came forward to refute the sophistry contained in the posthumous works of Bolinbroke; which in a short space sunk into contempt. While, however, they yet hovered above the chaos of night, and appeared portentous of incalculable evils, Mr. BURKE, then young and unknown to the world, hit upon a method of attack, that evinced his own incomparable powers, and completely exposed the empty pretensions of the deceased infidel. Early in 1756, he published, "A Vindication of Natural Society; or a View of the Miseries and Evils arising to Mankind from every species of Artificial Society. In a letter to Lord By a late Noble Writer." The style of Bolinbroke, lofty, declamatory and rapid, is not easy of imitation, yet so closely was it caught in the present instance, that many persons were deceived into the belief, that the pamphlet was a genuine production of this celebrated nobleman; and some there were who actually praised it above his best performances. It was soon discovered, however, by men of deeper judgment, that the anonymous author had a better object in view, than that of availing himself of a popular name to impose an ingenious fraud upon the public. They saw in this imitation of Bolinbroke, the best confutation of his delusive mode of reasoning, by the application of it to a point of experience, in
which all men are personally interested. and of which there are few who cannot form a correct opinion. The sceptical pretender to philosophy, in his attempts to overthrow all religion, whether natural or revealed, drew his arguments entirely from the abuses which superstition, fanaticism, and craft, have, in various ages, devised and established as of divine prescription. This fallacious mode of reasoning, indeed, was not new, but it was artfully adapted to cheat people of light minds out of their faith, by persuading them that the corruptions so prominently exhibited, were the necessary consequences of the doctrines which they had been accustomed to regard as of sacred authority. Bolinbroke's rhetorical genius gave him many advantages in throwing a delusive glare over his parodoxes; and it was, therefore, reasonable to apprehend that the boldness of his assertions, and the examples adduced for their support, would furnish the licentious with arguments, which though they had not wit enough to find them out by their own exertions, they might be able to apply with destructive effect, to stagger the principles of others. As an antidote to this poison, therefore, Mr. BURKE adopted Bolinbroke's own plan of reasoning, and employed it to shew that the same ener gies which were used for the destruction of religion, might be directed with equal success for the subversion of government; and that specious arguments might be adduced against those things, which they who doubt of everything else, will never permit to be questioned.
With this view the "Vindication of Natural Society" came out, to convince mankind, that if Revelation is an imposture, the association of men in greater or lesser communities is an evil; and that if the one be, as the unbelievers say it is, a tyranny over minds, the other is, in an equal or rather a greater degree, a pernicious despotism over persons.
To support this paradox, which reduces mankind at once to the savage state, it was indispensable that the author should be dogmatic in his assertions, vehement in his language, and copious in his illustrations, otherwise he would have failed in his design, and his imitation, instead of counteracting, would rather have strengthened the sophisms of Bolinbroke. Yet it is too remarkable to be passed
over in silence, that at a subsequent period, when the French anarchists were busily engaged in the work of demoralization, some of their ardent admirers in this country, presumed to republish the "Vindication of Natural Society," as a piece of serious argument, and thus endeavoured to pervert the irony into a weapon of deadly malignity against the principles which it was constructed to defend. The ravages of war, and the other calamities which the author of the tract has so forcibly pourtrayed, these visionaries, to call them by no worse a name, would fain ascribe to the social state and the legislative principle, as the necessary results of what they are pleased to deem an unnatural compact, and an arbitrary imposition. All this might have passed as the dream of political madness, had it not been for the barefaced impudence of pressing BURKE into a service which no man ever held in greater abhorrence, and which he, in this early production of his pen, actually held up to public ridicule.
While the imitation of Bolinbroke engaged the public attention, and continued to be the subject of general discourse, the Author was busily employed in conducting through the press, a performance of another description, entitled, “ A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful." This elegant disquisition which appeared without a name at the beginning of 1757, is divided into five parts; the first is devoted to an examination of the passions immediately connected with, and excited by, the two objects of investigation; in the second and third the Author enters into a minute discussion of the properties of those things in nature, which produce in us ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The fourth is directed to the physical cause by which those properties in things are fitted to raise correspondent affections in the mind; and in the last he considers the operation of words.
The inquiry opens by establishing the doctrine of a distinction between positive and relative pain and pleasure; after which the passions are reduced to two heads, those of self-preservation, and those of society. To the first of these principles are referred all the passions which have their origin in positive pain, and relative pleasure; while to the latter are assigned all the relative pains and positive pleasures.
Hence it is inferred that the former is the source of the Sublime, as the latter is of the Beautiful.
Under the head of Society, the author considers three passions, as those which cause the greatest part of the pleasure, which we take in the fine arts, namely, Sympathy, Imitation, and Ambition. The second part of the inquiry opens with a definition of the passion, caused by the great and sublime in nature, and which in its highest degree is astonishment, or "that state of the soul wherein all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror." This leads the author to the consideration of Terror, as being in some mode or other, the great instrument in producing the Sublime, by exalting small, and increasing the effects of large, objects. This position is illustrated by many apposite examples, particularly by the noble description of Death, in Milton, a portrait which is justly said to "astonish with its gloomy pomp and expressive uncertainty." The inquirer then enters more fully and minutely, into a discussion of the dif ference between Clearness and Obscurity, for the purpose of proving that the latter generates more sublime ideas than the former. "It is our ignorance of things," says he, "that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little. It is thus with the vulgar, and all men are as the vulgar in what they do not understand. The ideas of eternity and infinity, are among the most affecting we have; and yet perhaps there is nothing of which we really understand so little, as of infinity and eternity." Having fixed this principle firmly by uncontested experience, and an appeal to universal feeling, the author resolves all general privations into causes of the Sublime; such as Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, Silence, and Extent. To the idea of Vastness, he refers in some degree another impression, that of Infinity which arises when we do not see the bounds of any large object, or when its parts are so continued to any indefinite number, that the imagination meets no check to hinder its extending them at pleasure.
Having examined extension, the author proceeds to consider Light and Colours. He observes that in general, Darkness is a more sublime idea than Light, because