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EARLY LIFE, AND FIRST WRITINGS.
It will soon be a hundred and twenty years since Burke first took his seat in the House of Commons, and it is eighty-five years since his voice ceased to be heard there. Since his death, as during his life, opinion as to the place to which he is entitled among the eminent men of his country has touched every extreme. Tories have extolled him as the saviour of Europe. Whigs have detested him as the destroyer of his party. One undiscriminating panegyrist calls him the most profound and comprehensive of political philosophers that has yet existed in the world. Another and more distinguished writer insists that he is a resplendent and far-seeing rhetorician, rather than a deep and subtle thinker. A third tells us that his works cannot be too much our study, if we mean either to understand or to maintain against its various enemies, open and concealed, designing and mistaken, the singular constitution of this fortunate island. A fourth, on the contrary, declares that it would be hard to find a single leading principle or prevailing sentiment in one half of these works, to which something extremely adverse cannot be found in the other half. A fifth calls him one of the greatest men, and, Bacon alone excepted, the greatest thinker, who ever devoted himself to the practice of English politics. Yet, oddly enough, the author of the fifth verdict will have it that this great man and great thinker was actually out of his mind, when he composed the pieces for which he has been most widely admired and revered.
A sufficient interval has now passed to allow all the sediment of party fanaticism to fall to the bottom. The circumstances of the world have since Burke's time undergone variation enough to enable us to judge, from many points of view, how far he was the splendid pamphleteer of a faction, and how far he was a contributor to the universal stock of enduring wisdom. Opinion is slowly, but without reaction, settling down to the verdict that Burke is one of the abiding names in our history, not because he either saved Europe or destroyed the Whig party; but because he added to the permanent considerations of wise political thought, and to the maxims of wise practice in great affairs, and because he imprints himself upon us with a magnificence and elevation of expression, that places him among the highest masters of literature, in one of its highest and most commanding senses.
Those who have acquired a love for abstract politics amid the almost mathematical closeness and precision of Hobbes, the philosophic calm of Locke or Mill, or even the majestic and solemn fervour of Milton, are revolted by the unrestrained passion and the decorated style of Burke. His passion appears hopelessly fatal to success in the pursuit of Truth, who does not usually reveal herself to followers thus inflamed. His ornate style appears fatal to the cautious and precise method of statement, suitable to matter which is not known at all unless it is known distinctly. Yet the natural ardour which impelled Burke to clothe his judgments in glowing and exaggerated phrases, is one secret of his power over us, because it kindles in those who are capable of that generous infection a respondent interest and sympathy. But more than this, the reader is speedily conscious of the precedence in Burke of the facts of morality and conduct, of the many interwoven affinities of human affection and historical relation, over the unreal necessities of mere abstract logic. Burke's mind was full of the matter of great truths, copiously enriched from the fountains of generous and many-coloured feeling. He thought about life as a whole, with all its infirmities and all its pomps. With none of the mental exclusiveness of the moralist by profession, he fills every page with solemn reference and meaning; with none of the mechanical bustle of the common politician, he is everywhere conscious of the mastery of laws, institutions, and government over the character and happiness of men. Besides thus diffusing a strong light over the awful tides of human circumstance, Burke has the sacred gift of inspiring men to use a grave diligence in caring for high things, and in making their lives at once rich and austere. Such a part in literature is indeed high. We feel no emotion of revolt when Mackintosh speaks of Shakespere and Burke in the same breath, as being both of them above mere talent. And we do not dissent when Macaulay, after reading Burke's works over again, exclaims, “How admirable! The greatest man since Milton!”
The precise date of Burke's birth cannot be stated with certainty. All that we can say is that it took place either in 1728 or 1729, and it is possible that we may set it down in one or the other year, as we choose to reckon by the old or the new style. The best opinion is that he was born at Dublin on the 12th of January, 1729 (N.S.). His father was a solicitor in good practice, and is believed to have been descended from some Bourkes of county Limerick, who held a respectable local position in the time of the civil wars. Burke's mother belonged to the Nagle family, which had a strong connexion in the county of Cork; they had been among the last adherents of James II., and they remained firm Catholics. Mrs. Burke remained true to the church of her ancestors, and her only daughter was brought up in the same faith. Edmund Burke and his two brothers, Garret and Richard, were bred in the religion of their father; but Burke never, in after-times, lost a large and generous way of thinking about the more ancient creed of his mother and his uncles.
In 1741 he was sent to school at Ballitore, a village some thirty miles away from Dublin, where Abraham Shackleton, a Quaker from Yorkshire, had established himself fifteen years before, and had earned a wide reputation as a successful teacher and a good man. According to Burke, he richly deserved this high character. It was to Abraham Shackleton that he always professed to owe whatever gain had come to him from education. If I am anything, he said many years afterwards, it is the education I had there that has made me so. His master's skill as a teacher did not impress him more than the example which was every day set before him of uprightness and simplicity of heart. Thirty years later, when Burke had the news of Shackleton's death (1771), “I had a true honour and affection,” he wrote, “ for that excellent man. I feel something like a satisfaction in the midst of my concern, that I was fortunate enough to have him once under my roof before his departure.” No man has ever had a deeper or more tender reverence than Burke for homely goodness, simple purity, and all the pieties of life; it may well be that this natural predisposition of all characters at once so genial and so serious as his, was finally stamped in him by his first schoolmaster. It is true that he was only two years at Ballitore, but two years at that plastic time often build up habits in the mind that all the rest of a life is unable to pull down.
In 1743 Burke became a student of Trinity College, Dublin, and he remained there until 1748, when he took his Bachelor's degree. These five years do not appear to have been spent in strenuous industry in the beaten paths of academic routine. Like so many other men of great gifts, Burke in his youth was desultory and excursive. He roamed at large over the varied heights that tempt our curiosity, as the dawn of intelligence first lights them up one after another with bewitching visions and illusive magic. “All my studies,” Burke wrote in 1746, when he was in the midst of them, “have rather proceeded from sallies of passion, than from the preference of sound reason ; and, like all other natural appetites, have been very violent for a season, and very soon cooled, and quite absorbed in the succeeding. I have often thought it a humorous consideration to observe and sum up all the madness of this kind I have fallen into this two years past. First, I was greatly taken with natural philosophy; which, while I should have given my mind to logic, employed me incessantly. This I call my furor mathematicus. But this worked off as soơn as I began to read it in the college, as men by repletion cast off their stomachs all they have eaten. Then I turned back to logic and metaphysics. Here I remained a good while, and with much pleasure, and this was my furor logi