Perhaps the best way to understand and appreciate Joseph Pappin’s unique achievement is to consider this fine book in the light of previous scholarship that attempts to ascertain the religious and moral sources and foundations of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. John Morley, the chief Victorian authority on Burke and the source of all subsequent empiricist, utilitarian, and positivist interpretations of his politics, on one occasion candidly admitted that his strictly secular and rationalist approach to Burke’s Politics could not explain the complex religious or metaphysical origins or dimensions of Burke’s thought:

In Burke’s character . . . [and] at the bottom of all his thoughts about communities and governments there lay a certain mysticism. . . . To him there actually was an element of mystery in the cohesion of men in societies, in political obedience, in the sanctity of contract; in all that fabric of law and charter and obligation, whether written or unwritten, which is the sheltering bulwark between civilization and barbarism. When reason and history had contributed all that they could to the explanation, it seemed to him as if the vital force, the secret of organization, the binding framework, must still come from the impenetrable regions beyond reasoning and beyond history.

Reference to the abstract term “mysticism” was as close as Morley ever came to an awareness of nature and intellectual tradition in the metaphysical premises of Burke’s political philosophy. In two books on Burke, Morley never considered his metaphysics and never even mentioned moral natural law.

To this day contemporary empiricists—in their positivist, utilitarian, secular, and rationalist approach—are no closer than Morley to an adequate explanation of Burke’s political philosophy. Many of them simply ignore Burke’s religion or deny that it has any relationship to his politics or dismiss his references to God as “the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society” as idle Enlightenment jargon, thereby treating all references to transcendental reality as meaningless rhetoric. Among the great merits of Pappin’s book is that he is acutely aware of the limitations, as well as the strengths, of the Morley tradition of Burke studies, and he takes those limitations fully into account. Whereas the empiricists generally reduce Burke to a partisan Whig politician, denying that he had a political philosophy because he never wrote a systematic treatise in political theory, Pappin takes seriously Burke’s definition of the statesman as “the philosopher in action” and does not dismiss him as merely a political activist.

Before a book like Pappin’s could be written, certain preliminary studies of Burke’s political philosophy were necessary. The late Ross J.S. Hoffman, in his anthology Burke’s Politics (1949), noted in passing that the ancient tradition of moral natural law was a vital element in Burke’s political philosophy. A full accounting of this cardinal principle, which provided the moral basis of Burke’s legal and political theory, was provided in my Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (1958). Since then several notable books have further extended the thesis, the most important of which was Francis Canavan’s The Political Reason of Edmund Burke (1960). hi an appendix to that study, “Burke’s College Study of Philosophy,” Canavan answered the question first raised by Barker; how Burke came to know and to use the theory of St. Thomas. He examined “the list of authors who formed Burke’s college course in philosophy” at Trinity College, Dublin, and found that it included six textbooks that “represent in varying degrees the scholastic tradition of medieval Christian Aristotclianism.” Canavan found “the sources of Burke’s Thomism’ in his college education.”

Another giant step toward understanding Burke’s metaphysics was taken by Canavan in Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence (1987), a study of Burke’s extensive reading of theology. Canavan found that Burke was thoroughly imbued with the Christian worldview inherited from centuries past, particularly in the theology of the Anglican Church during the 17th century. He observed:

Those aspects of the worldview that came down from the Middle Ages and were more relevant to Burke’s political thought were metaphysical in nature. . . . They concerned the fundamental structure of reality. Prior to the distinctive Christian beliefs about sin and redemption, but assumed by them, was a particular conception of the world as created. This conception, with its implications, furnished the basic premises of Burke’s understanding of man and society.

Canavan limited his study of Burke’s Christian worldview to its practical manifestation in legal prescription and to the providential notion of history in Burke’s political philosophy. He was well aware that the specific metaphysical foundations of Burke’s Politics remained to be ascertained.

Now, in the fullness of time, Pappin has crowned the work of all of his predecessors in the search for the origins and foundations of Burke’s political philosophy by describing his metaphysics. The very titles of his six chapters clarify the structural unity of his study and identify the vital subjects covered: “Metaphysics and Politics”; “The Problem of a Burkean Metaphysics”; “The Case for Burke’s Metaphysics”; “The Philosophy of God and Human Nature”; “The Metaphysical Elements of Teleology and Natural Law”; and “Concluding Reflections: Metaphysical Nihilism and Radical Individualism.” The final chapter should be of great interest to anyone concerned with the nihilist threat to civilization in the 20th century. Pappin also provides an excellent bibliography of primary, secondary, and general sources. The author and subject index make it a most useful study for scholars and general readers.

It is fitting that the foreword should be written by Francis Canavan, who observes that “this is a book that has long been needed to be written.” In the great conflict between “realists” and “nominalists” of the late Middle Ages, which is certainly one of the most crucial issues in all intellectual history and which has shaped modern thought in every branch of knowledge, Pappin shows conclusively that Burke’s metaphysics is in the realist tradition. This makes Burke’s Politics “basically consonant with the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition,” separates him philosophically from the empirical-utilitarian-ideologically rational thought of John Locke and discredits the interpretation of contemporary scholars in the tradition of Morley, who reduced Burke to a Whiggish political hack and skillful rhetorician. Pappin accurately details and summarizes the views of the scholars whom he rejects, thus absorbing his opposition, and in the final four chapters presents clearly and conclusively the metaphysical assumptions that constitute the premises of Burke’s unsystematic but consistent political philosophy. Pappin’s book deserves an honored place on the shelf of every student of Burke, and in every college and university library.


[The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke, by Joseph L. Pappin III (New York: Fordham University Press) 225 pp., $30.00]