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Reading Advice From Edmund Burke

A wonderful appreciation of the British orator, parliamentarian and essayist Edmund Burke appears in The American Scholar this summer, written by Brian Doyle. Read the whole thing is our advice. One (of many) highlights in the essay: Doyle tells us what Burke read.

It’s a paragraph any aspiring writer, reader and orator should study: read like this, and whatever talent you have will shine more brightly than it does now.

What did he read, this wonderful writer? Dryden’s prose was Burke’s great favorite, reported his friend Charles Fox; Demosthenes was his favorite orator, according to Chauncey Goodrich; “he delighted in Plutarch … and was particularly fond of Virgil, Horace, and Lucretius, a large part of whose writings he committed to memory. … Shakespeare was his daily study. … But his highest reverence was reserved for Milton, whose ‘richness of language, boundless learning, and Scriptural grandeur of conception’ [said Burke], were the first and last themes of his applause.” He read Bacon’s essays again and again, and clearly had read Cicero closely; he read Gibbon and Sheridan, whom he knew from Parliament; Johnson, Goldsmith, and Boswell; and he either still regularly scoured, or had a ferocious memory for, the Bible—“the most valuable repository of rhetoric in the English language,” as Burke’s later editor Edward Payne remarked. Was this, too, how Burke expended his little time alone, in his root-house in Buckinghamshire, reading avidly, widely, hungrily, happily, delighted to swim in eloquence other than his own? I hear him laughing quietly at a wry and piercing passage from Plutarch, or reciting the swinging cadences of Cicero in sheer admiration of the music of the man, or chanting lines from Lear, or reading aloud, with a shiver of awe, the Lord declaiming to Job: Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who laid the corner stone thereof, when the morning stars sang together? Who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? Declare, if thou hast understanding …

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  • Benjamin P. Glaser

    It is like a “Who’s Who?” of why our educational system is irretrievably dead.

  • Anthony

    “His ideas outran his powers of utterance and he drew from an exhaustless source” sums up Brian Doyle’s paean to Edmund Burke (Edmund Burke was interested in what worked for the most as well as being one of the wonderful writers in our language with both sagacity and morality).

  • thibaud

    Funny, but I can’t find any online courses about Gibbon or Dr Johnson or Plutarch or Dryden or ….

    Perhaps the great digital education revolution’s not going to change some very basic facts about mastering core subjects – such as the importance of teachers, of cultural standards, of quiet, personal, patient engagement with big ideas and fine prose.

    Our biggest problems are cultural.

  • Lexington Green

    The educational system is dead — Long live education!

    The existing system deserves to die.

    Bring on the 21st century, where these classics will be available to all and will revive based on their intrinsic merit. The ideological frauds of the last two generations are going to be swept by the winds of technological change, and its about damn time.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Here is my favorite quote:

    “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” Edmund Burke

    I have presented this quote repeatedly to demonstrate why mankind’s cultures evolve so slowly, and seem to encounter so many speed bumps. It’s because cultures learn only the Hard Way, by making mistakes and learning lessons from the experience. This is why expectations for the backward cultures of the Arab Spring or the Warsaw Pact cultures are always too hopeful and unrealistic. As long as they are making mistakes and getting taught their lessons, they are making progress. It’s a very rare culture that can skip grades, and some cultures have to be sent back a grade or take summer school. LOL

  • Jatrius

    @Thibaud. That’s exceeding strange. There must be a problem with your search engine as I’ve found them for all save Gibbon so far.

    A welcome piece, however.

    Please remember that even if Burke and Fox started off as close friends and collaborators they eventually reserved a very fierce venom for each other after Fox’s hitching up to Lord North’s careering wagon and then his subsequent enthusiasm for the French Revolution.

  • J R Yankovic

    I honestly can’t conceive of a better elegy of Burke being written today, despite its occasionally fulsome language (sheesh – talk about pot and kettle: at least Mr Doyle knows HOW to do it). Makes me wonder, too, if the key to discovering the best in any man’s ideas is not to GO to them directly at all; but rather, first, to suspend your own patent certainties – or at least the over-patented ones we most often associate with our modern politics and economics? – and then to submerge yourself in a kind of panorama of all that was most heartfelt in that man’s heart and life. All that betrayed his deepest and most human – though not necessarily his most programmatically ideological – anxieties and symapthies. If so, then it seems to me you could hardly find a more expert guide than Brian Doyle.

    One passage especially gripped (disturbed?) me:

    “A system of ‘vicious perfection,’ wrote Burke [concerning the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland] many years later; ‘I must do it justice: it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts’ for the purpose, as he elsewhere wrote, of making ‘three millions of people … enslaved, beggard, insulted, degraded.’ ”

    Am I imaginatively overheating again – or are there more than a few echoes of “the Irish” Burke in Orwell? Maybe even – though in his case rather obliquely – C S Lewis? I also have to wonder, How many generations it will take before some new Burke is able to recognize and dissect our present-day “systems of vicious perfection”? (They CAN’T be very many or very serious, can they?) Or will clarity of recognition be that much more delayed by our near-universal insistence on confining all the “viciousness” to our least favorite part of the political spectrum (e.g., “The Right has never been more idiotic than in our day, which only means the Left has never been more enlightened,” and vice versa)?

    Certainly I haven’t noticed any 21st-century Burkes forthcoming. But then he was clearly a man with a big heart, who detested bullies of any kind, regardless of whether their agendas were to “elevate and improve” the Irish, or simply to harry them our of existence (and how often, are both agendas simply two sides of the same coin?). So how Burke would even have breathed – much less found his voice – in today’s climate of all-around heartlessness is frankly something of a mystery to me.

    “The ideological frauds of the last two generations are going to be swept by the winds of technological change, and its about damn time.”

    It may be I need to learn to read all over again. But if your comment was in response to thibaud’s @ 3, then my question is: Was thibaud’s post celebrating some unpredecentedly wise and definitive innovations of the past 50 years? Or was it merely acknowledging certain more or less abiding, or perennial, features of any well-rounded educational experience – values, traditions and strengths which the past two generations’ “ideological frauds” may have actually helped to weaken and discredit, perhaps in preparation for their final discarding?

  • Kris

    I was reminded of the following snippet:

    In language he was polyglot,
    in rhetoric Johnsonian,
    in eloquence Websterian,
    in diction Ciceronian.

    (“How He Turned Out”, Edwin Meade Robinson)

  • thibaud

    yankovic – the latter.

    IIRC, it was Burke who said, “Manners are more important than laws.”

    ie culture is crucial. All else is epiphenomena.

  • Víctor

    The modern education its not dead because there is no Dryden or Plutarch. Its very alive and have good future in the youngs angry for knowledge and with access to the omnipresent and cheap digital information. Any good and happy dont need more tradiotional education, he just need project gutenberg, Wikipedia, Amazon or even iTunes. SelfCapacition its the key. Stop crying for the old education system.

  • J R Yankovic

    “ie culture is crucial. All else is epiphenomena.”

    Amen. And amen.

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