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The Great DebateWhen Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind in 1953, Edmund Burke was a relatively obscure figure in British parliamentary history. Since that time, he has risen in stature, in no small part because of Russell Kirk’s placement of Burke as the fountainhead of his Anglo-American conservative genealogy. As “the father of conservatism” (as some have called him) many on the American right have looked to his writings for guidance, though others have leveled sharp critiques, such as Leo Strauss’ famous treatment of Burke in the final chapter of his magnum opus Natural Right and History, also published in 1953.

Now comes Yuval Levin with – to my mind – one of the most important books of the past year, and a substantial contribution to Burke scholarship.  Educated at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, where Leo Strauss taught for many years, Mr. Levin bucks the Straussian critique in his new book entitled The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, and presents an fairly easy-to-read interpretation of the writings of both men, noting at the outset that he is a conservative – thereby intimating that he is a Burke partisan. Nevertheless, his treatment of both Burke and Paine is fair, and as he presents a convincing case that much of what comprises the modern left-right divided can be traced, in one way or another, to the very public debate that occurred between these two formidable thinkers in the late eighteenth century.

Mr. Levin himself is a formidable thinker as well.  Having worked as a White House staffer subsequently earning a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought (the book began life as his doctoral dissertation), Mr. Levin is intimately familiar with American politics, from the highly abstract to the mundanely concrete, and is eminently capable of drawing the lines between the two.  As he notes in the preface:

“I make my living as a combatant in policy debates…I am a think-tank scholar who studies health care, entitlement reform, the federal budget, and similarly wonkish fare…[but] making sense of these debates requires more than an immersion in the technical details.  It requires a sense of how the different policy dilemmas that confront our society relate to one another and why they so frequently divide us as they do.” (p. ix)

To understand this, Mr. Levin points to the late eighteenth century as a time of great upheaval, both in practical politics as well as political philosophy, represented in the American and French Revolutions and the Anglo-American debate about the French revolution.  He looks to Burke and Paine as perhaps the best representatives of the parties to that debate.  Paine was, of course, a great champion of the American Revolution – his tract Common Sense was seminal in igniting popular opinion in favor of the Revolution – and went on to be an important supporter of the French Revolution as well.  Burke, on the other hand, was a supporter of the American Revolution, but when the French Revolution began in 1789, Burke became one of its most vocal critics, penning Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790.  What caused this divergence, and how did that philosophical divergence lead to the divisions in our modern political debates?  That is the question that Mr. Levin explores in the book.

After a brief introduction and a chapter outlining the historical context of the debate, the book treats the issues through a series of paired concepts: “Nature and History,” “Justice and Order,” “Choice and Obligation,” “Reason and Prescription,” “Revolution and Reform,” and “Generations and the Living.”  In each chapter, Mr. Levin explicates the writings of Burke and Paine in order to get at their respective dispositions toward each other.

Paine’s case, Mr. Levin argues, rests on several assumptions regarding the possibility of human freedom – understood in a particular way – and the nature of knowledge.  Paine follows social contract theorists Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, arguing that it is possible to know through reason what man in the state of nature was like, and thereby, the rights which he possesses in that state, and this knowledge becomes the baseline for any judgment regarding the justice of any law, and the legitimacy of any political arrangement.  Thus, the individual – applying judgment through reason – becomes the basis for all social relationships.  Choice becomes paramount, and obligations are only binding in so far as the individual chooses to be bound – presumably, through a rational judgment.  The heart of Paine’s political philosophy, says Mr. Levin, is his understanding of rights and choice.

Burke, on the other hand, builds his moral and political philosophy around “obligations not chosen but nevertheless binding” (p. 102).  “An enormous portion of Burke’s (and the conservative) worldview,” says Mr. Levin, “becomes clearer in light of the importance he places on the basic facts and character of human procreation, and an enormous portion of Paine’s (and the progressive) worldview becomes clearer in light of the desire he evinces to be liberated from the implications of those facts.  Almost all of what we loosely call “the social issues” have to do with the dispute about whether such liberation is possible and desirable…” (p. 103).

And because this debate implicates the nature of generational authority, Mr. Levin asserts that it is this framework through which many of our current debates become intelligible: “Burke takes the human person to be embedded in a web of obligations that give shape to our lives” (p. 103). For Burke,

“The family is the primary obstacle to an ethic of choice and so a primary target of genuinely radical liberal revolutionaries…[but] Society does not depend for its legitimacy on [any real or notional social contract], and political life cannot make everything a matter of choice, because the most important facts about human societies are not the result of anyone’s choice and cannot be changed by anyone’s choice” (p. 103).

Mr. Levin notes that Burke does utilize the concept of a social contract, but that he changes its meaning from the common account of it given by other Enlightenment-liberal social contract theorists, including Paine.  Rather, he famously reframes it in Reflections on the Revolution in France as “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”  This is radically different from the relatively thin understanding utilized by Paine, wherein the living are not to be bound by the dead, and there is little obligation to maintain familial and social structures to pass on to progeny, if such obligation interferes with individual choice.

Paine’s privileging of choice also has implications in terms of epistemology: He holds that human reason can and should be the primary organizing principle of human society, because, he thinks human societies are the result of radically free men in the state of nature rationally assenting to a contract.  The raison d’etre of human society is to maximize the possibility of human choice, and therefore human society itself must be the result of choice exercised through reason.  For Paine, it is possible – and necessary – to look rationally to the origins of any society, and, comparing those origins vis a vis the principles of reason, to determine their justness and legitimacy:

“Every political practice, institution and allegiance mist explain itself in philosophical terms, so that no long-standing tradition, institution or cherished habit can resist the searing light so speculative analysis.  A politics built on modern reason inevitably becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: rejecting all that cannot explain itself in terms of modern reason and therefore leaving in place only those elements of political life that meet its standards – regardless of what society may actually need or hat had proven capable of serving the community in years gone by” (p. 134).

Burke, however, is skeptical, because he maintains a certain epistemological humility and a skepticism about what the individual reason can really know and achieve.  Burke, Mr. Levin says, takes issue with Paine’s idea of radical individualism, which demands “that every truth must be demonstrable to the rational individual” (p. 134).  Burke thinks, instead, that any individual human’s reason is woefully limited in what it can achieve, and “those limits point to human beings rather to their mutual dependence than to a radical individualism”  (p. 134).  Mr. Levin quotes Burke as saying: “Politics ought to be adjusted not to human reasonings but to human nature, of which the reason is a but a part, and by no means the greatest part” (p. 10).  This skepticism also leads Burke to distrust the possibility of a technocratic ruling elite, because for Burke, “No person has within him the capacity to overcome the radical infirmity and imperfection of man.  No individual is up to it, regardless of his intelligence or his grasp of the principles of science or the facts of nature” (p. 135).

The bulk of the book revolves around teasing out the implications of these clashing assumptions regarding human reason and liberty, because the bulk of the Burke-Paine debate revolves around the working out of the implications of these assumptions.

In the conclusion, Mr. Levin points to the political implications of the Burke-Paine debate, and makes some remarks about how they show up in the policy debates of today. He notes, as well, that there are some ways in which the strict identification of the modern Left with Paine and the modern Right with Burke fails to capture the complexity of the reality – for example, Ronald Reagan’s quoting Paine to the effect that failed governing institutions require radical transformation, and some contemporary liberal’s reticence to even contemplate radically remaking the existing welfare state.  Nevertheless, Mr. Levin holds that the tensions between the dispositions of Burke and Paine can be expressed in some very basic questions which still sit at the core of many – and perhaps most – of our current policy debates, and which are often recognizable in the dispositions of the modern American Left and Right:

“Should society be made to answer to the demands of stark and abstract commitments to ideals like social equality or to the patterns of its own concrete political traditions and foundations?  Should the citizen’s relationship to his society be defined above all by the individual right of free choice or by a web of obligations and conventions not entirely of our own choosing?  Are great public problems best addressed through institutions designed to apply the explicit technical knowledge of experts or by those designed to channel the implicit social knowledge of the community” (p. 225-226)?

These are a few of the questions that frame the great debate.  In many ways, the Burke-Paine debate is merely a reflection of the political debates which have been interminably raging since at least Socrates. The Great Debate does a valuable service in working toward promoting more reflection in our political debates, by examining the all-too-often unspoken assumptions implicit in our political discourse.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Curious. I have in front of me, a paperback published in 1961 which contains both Reflections on the Revolution in France AND The Rights of Man. It is the only such I have seen, ever. (But I am admittedly limited.)

    For all the appreciation we may have of Burke, we should not forget that it was Paine who provided invaluable assistance to the cause of Independency. Also, that the Revolution was not, contra certain revisionists, for either a Whiggish or a Tory conservatism, but for an American liberty. What we seek to conserve today is not the web of obligations and rights of the English squirearchy, but of an American experience.

    Burke may justly be considered a father of communitarianism, as Paine may justly be taken as foundational for Libertarianism (or for Anarchism, actually).

    Paine goes too far in his radical assertion of anti-authoritarian reason. For this, he has excuse, given his English experience as an exciseman (tax collector) and subject of a class-ridden society. Burke also goes too far, in denigrating the power of reason to enable us to climb out of the muck of past inadequacies. Together, they can provide valuable guides in knowing where that “too far” point may be found.

    This is America. We are free to have new categories, and combine Burke and Paine, to our profit.

    • The American Revolution was nothing new. We fought King George III to preserve our traditional rights as Englishmen. Look at the Declaration of Independence itself. It starts with abstract Natural Rights, but we were not the first to promulgate these rights: John Locke. If you venture to read more, then you will realize that our forefathers list specific rights, traditionally afforded to freed Englishmen, that King George III violated. If the Revolution was a mere “American experience,” then why take the precious time to list violations of the traditional rights of Englishmen. Even after the war, the Bill of Rights, and other rights enshrined in the Constitution, were hardly new. They were traditional rights that we had always enjoyed. The American Revolution was conservative. The U.S. Constitution was conservative, because we did not start carte blanche after the failed Articles of Confederation. Instead, we reformed. We retained the general framework of the government, but strengthened the Executive, enumerated a Bill of Rights, of which the rights already existed anyways, among other reforms. In all, it was more a practical reform than a philosophical one. If any thing, the American Revolution was revolutionary in the sense that we were the first nation to actually apply philosophy with practice: Declaration of Independence, which is protected by the U.S. Constitution. However, the ideas were nothing new. Also, Burke does not “denigrate the power of reason.” He rather “denigrates” the abuse of reason. The issue is not whether reason is good or bad, but rather what is the proper application of reason; what are the limits of reason? For Burke, reason should be anchored with sound prejudice. For Paine, the naked reason is all that matters. In fact, Paine’s radical rejection of sound prejudice with reason for the naked reason only comports perfectly with his radical individualism. He views anything that remotely obstructs the individual as a tyrant to his most beloved “Rights of Men.” Burke supported our Revolution, because he saw it as a defense of our traditional way of life. Paine just saw it as a peoples overthrowing a monarch. He was satisfied merely because something old was being demolished and something new would take its place. He was quite unprincipled if you think about it. In fact, no true “rational” person could possibly be for both the American and French Revolutions at the same time, which is why Hamilton, Washington, Adams and Burke were all against the French Revolution. Our Revolution preserved; the French’s demolished. Ours was a defensive war against a tyrant; theirs was an illegal and offensive war against a most benevolent Monarch who offered nothing but graces, reconciliation, and above all, reform! King Louis XVI called the Estates General, which had not been done for centuries, to commence needed reform, which Burke and even Joseph de Maistre were for in the beginning. King George III, along with most of Parliament, rejected numerous petitions for redress: the Olive Petition. Our Revolution was crowned with a masculine and ordered liberty! Paine’s revolution in France was crowned with a bloody Reign of Terror and a regicide! Finally, there is no such thing as being governed by both Paine and Burke, because one’s principles inherently contradict the other’s. You either have a “right,” an “individual choice” to murder your unborn baby via abortion or you have the “obligation” to protect that child’s Natural Right to life; the “obligation” to take responsibility for your actions and give birth to that child, nurture that child. Either society belongs only to the “living” or we respect ourselves, by adhering to the wise precepts of our forefathers, by preserving the best of society, reforming the worst, for posterity. Either we destroy Western Civilization through the annihilation of the family via gay “marriage,” for the purpose of abstract principles of “equality” and “freedom,” or we use the power of the State to prohibit such barbaric and disorderly acts – which spawn nothing but disease, self-hatred, dissension amongst brothers, suicide – and thereby respect our forefathers, preserve the social order for ourselves and pass the State to posterity in a preserved and reformed condition! We absolutely cannot govern both ways: Order vs Freedom; Freedom vs Equality! These are the paradigms that eternally put us on our guard against each other. There is no compromise!

  2. You’re free to try to synthesize the two, David, but of course the law of noncontradiction can never be repealed, in spite of today’s desperate attempts to do so.

    Regarding Paine providing “invaluable assistance to the cause of Independency,” some of us would replace the word “invaluable” with “notorious.” There are still a few of us Loyalists around, Loyalists whose ancestors were murdered by thugs inspired by rabid propagandists like Paine.

  3. Have you even read Paine, Michael. Saying “He was satisfied merely because something old was being demolished and something new would take its place. He was quite unprincipled if you think about it”
    is a strawman. Paine didn’t want change for sake of change, he was highly principled. More principled than Burke who valued tradition over principles.

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