Edmund Burke and the Art of Rhetoric

Paddy Bullard. Edmund Burke and the Art of Rhetoric (Cambridge University Press, 2011).


My business in the following pages is to explain how the combination of these two terms, ‘rhetoric’ and ‘character’, can help us describe the function and the beauty of Burke’s writings. Burke is acknowledged to have been the most eloquent writer and speaker of his age, even by doubters like the young Wordsworth. His accomplishment both as a literary artist and as a political thinker is linked at the deepest level with contemporary conceptions of what it means to deliberate well in matters of state. This book is the first full-length study to give an account of these links: it proposes a theory of Burke’s rhetoric. While outlining this theory I want to keep the term ‘rhetoric’ available for use in a relatively informal way, to denote various qualities of artfulness, dynamism and spontaneity in Burke’s published works. These qualities were associated by Burke’s contemporaries with his skill as a parliamentary speaker, and have been analysed ever since according to the systems of eloquence developed by theorists of the art in fourth-century Athens, first-century Rome and early modern Europe. A problem here is that the classical and humanist tradition of rhetoric, which seems indispensable as a contextual source for Burke’s art, is systematic to its core. Rhetoric’s claims to the dignity of being an art, rather than a mere knack, depend upon the rational way it accounts for all those persuasive irregularities of expression that lift language above grammar. But a systematic description of Burke’s writings and speeches is quite inappropriate to the expansive and associative way in which he worked. Rhetoric is a system, but Burke is not a systematic thinker.

Cambridge University Press (excerpt)