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on 15 October 2017
A thoroughly interesting read, with a comprehensive and discernible history and analysis of Burke's life and political philosophy. Without a doubt he is one of the most important political thinkers in history, as evident by the impact of his timeless ideas on politics and societies. I highly recommend this text to anyone who has a keen interest in politics and political figures, and would prefer to read a clearer, more insightful and attention holding text than the more typical mundane works of the 19th and 20th century on figures like Burke.
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on 30 October 2017
Good. i finished it. but heavy going
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on 6 November 2017
good review but not the easiest read, very interesting man.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 7 November 2015
There have been at least three editions of this biography since it was first published in 2013, each with a different subtitle: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics; The First Conservative; and Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. Pretty impressive claims for one man! The message that the book is going to be complimentary to its subject is reaffirmed in the first sentence of the introduction:-

"Edmund Burke is both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years."

I must admit that all of this made me worried that the book was going to be completely hagiographic. While I prefer biographies that are sympathetic, I also look for biographers to take a balanced approach and to criticise where criticism is due. I'm glad to say that the bulk of the book is not quite as fawningly sycophantic as these early impressions had made me fear, though it is clear that the author is coming at his subject from a position of deep admiration.

Jesse Norman is a British politician and a Conservative Member of Parliament. Prior to that, he gained a degree in Classics from Oxford, and went on to study and later lecture in philosophy. In the introduction, he advises that the book does not contain primary research, but instead represents his personal interpretation of Burke's life, philosophy and legacy.

The book has a rather unusual structure for a biography. The first half is given over to a fairly standard account of Burke's life and career, while the second part takes a closer look at his thought. I felt this divide worked quite well, although since Burke's life was considerably less interesting than his thought, equally the second half of the book was a good deal more interesting than the first.

Born in Dublin in 1730, Burke saw at first hand the repression of the Catholics in Ireland and the negative effect this had on society. Norman suggests this early experience remained an influence throughout his life, feeding along with later experiences into the seemingly contradictory stances he took over the American and French Revolutions at the end of the century. In summing up Burke's core beliefs, Norman says he held that “the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of individuals living now: it is to preserve an evolving social order which meets the needs of generations past, present and future.” Thus, he agreed with the American colonists that there should be no taxation without representation and felt that it was important that colonies were embedded socially by creation of the kinds of institutions that existed in nation states, rather than being controlled remotely from afar. On the other hand, while he accepted the cruelties of the inequalities that led to the French Revolution, there he felt that the revolutionaries were crushing and destroying those very institutions that are required to maintain social cohesion.

This dichotomy gives the impression of him as a very practical politician and philosopher, willing to examine each event on its own merits, but with his opinions firmly embedded in his core beliefs. However this in turn meant that he didn't please those in power all the time, being in and out of favour with his electorate, political colleagues and the King depending on what subject was uppermost at the time. This may explain why, despite his obvious intellect and talents, he never reached the upper echelons of parliamentary power. However, Norman shows the influence that Burke's thinking had on how Parliament developed in Britain (and, Norman claims, in America) – an influence still felt today. It was Burke who argued that government should be representative – that once in Parliament MPs should be governed by their own opinions rather than bowing directly to the wishes of their electorate. This rested on his idea that it is the duty of politicians to study deeply and understand the history behind current events and the institutions that form the basis of stable societies.

There really is too much in the book to cover in a review without it becoming unwieldy. I found it well written and accessible, and Norman has the ability to compress large historical subjects into easily understood summaries, leaving him plenty of room to make his arguments about Burke's influence and importance. As usual, I am in the position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of either the facts nor Norman's interpretation of them, but I found his arguments convincing. Bearing in mind that Norman is a practising Conservative politician, his conclusions read a little like a plea for the Conservative Party, amongst others, to reacquaint themselves with the founding principles of the party – to accept, for instance, that, contrary to Mrs Thatcher's claim, in fact there is such a thing as society, and that markets and other institutions are cultural artefacts to be mediated through good governance rather than to be left entirely to their own devices. Norman also makes the point that Burke believed that, since man is a social animal, then society's needs should take precedence over the wishes of the individual – something that seems to have become forgotten in the last few decades of rampant individualism. (Interestingly, he points out that since most social studies research is carried out in American Universities with students as subjects, then this may skew results to increase the apparent appeal of liberal individualism.)

Overall, a thought-provoking read which doesn't require any pre-knowledge of Burke's contribution to philosophy or political thinking – interesting both in its historical context and in how Burke's influence still resonates in politics today.
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on 8 March 2016
Not the best of Political reads. I found it quite hard to read. Ive read better Autobiographic/biographical Political books.
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on 19 August 2013
Having read numerous favourable reviews I was looking forward to reading this biography. However, I was disappointed in a book that while it has some excellent well written parts, some sections are poorly written and need editing.
In the chapter "The Recovery of Value", Norman makes a tenuous link between Burke's philosophy and today's social problems. One suspects that Norman, the author of the "The Big Society", was trying to find a philosophical basis for Cameron's half-baked initiative of the same name. The research quoted is highly selective and on occasion not even sense checked. For example, Norman states that a book by Betty Hart and Todd Risley shows that "...the average American child has eight million words of practice in expressing themselves by the age of three." But the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words plus another 9,500 derivative words included as sub-entries. This chapter bears the hallmarks of a undergraduate C student who, running out of time, throws together partly understood research, often from secondary sources, with little or no validation in an effort to support his own thesis. The weakness of this chapter raised questions about the rigour of other chapters
This book is worth reading but with the caveat that it is the work of an ambitious politician who is trying to position himself as an intellectual worthy of serious consideration.
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on 17 January 2017
A most excellent account.
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on 1 January 2017
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on 9 February 2014
This is a very enjoyable book, but certainly one for people that are more interested in Burke's ideas than a comprehensive look at his life. Only the first part of the book takes the form of a traditional biography with the second part of the book used by Norman to analyse Burkean principles. There are better biographies of Burke, if you want an in depth look at 18th century politics, but Burke, like Enoch Powell, is more remarkable for his ideas and principles than he is for his impact on contemporary politics. Norman gives a very interesting analysis in the second part of the book and if you are a conservative or are interested in the history of conservatism then this is a must read.
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on 10 May 2013
Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet
The biography of Edmund Burke is an engaging story told at a brisk and page turning pace. You feel that if you met him today it would be an enjoyable encounter - especially if you like robust debate.
The second half shows how Burke's 18th century observations and profound thinking on humankind, politics and the exercise of power can provide a blueprint for the wellbeing and good governance of 21st century society.
An engaging and compelling argument that is very well worth a read. A must for anyone who is interested in politics and more importantly values democracy.
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