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A True Vindication of Edmund Burke

Mr. Conor Cruise O'Brien's "A Vindication of Edmund Burke," (National Review, December 17, 1990), contains many long established truths about Burke's politics—his consistency in principle, his remarkable insights and powers of prophesy, his strong critique of revolutionary ideology, and so forth. But amidst these trite truisms, which vindicate O'Brien's subject only to the uninitiated, he asserts some claims about the Enlightenment and Burke's religion and politics that are very dubious or simply false.

In 1975 the British historian John Lough warned against the loose use of "Enlightenment" as an abstract, all-inclusive category: "It is surely obvious that the greater the diversity of ideas which the term Enlightenment is stretched to cover, the less use it has as a scholarly tool. By the time the lowest common denominator can be discovered for ideas produced under such vastly different conditions, Enlightenment and Lumières become empty words." O'Brien would have done well to heed Lough's warning. Unless one equates the Enlightenment with the entire 18th century, it is meaningless rhetoric to call Burke "a child of the Enlightenment." O'Brien's indiscriminate inclusion of him under that term raises grave doubts that he understands either Burke or the enormously complex nature of that elusive category, and its vast...

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