The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left by Yuval Levin, Basic Books, 2014
Those seeking a deeper understanding of the roots of contemporary political debates, with all their recriminations and mutual misunderstandings, could hardly do better than to examine the “great debate” between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine occasioned by the French Revolution. Burke was the Irish orator, philosopher and statesman who founded modern conservatism. Paine was the firebrand journalist and “citizen of the world” who did so much to support the American cause in the war for independence, then sought to spread what he perceived as the principles of that revolution to France and England. For a learned and insightful introduction to that debate, and for important insights into the nature and presuppositions on both sides thereof, as well as the ways in which that debate has influenced contemporary political thought and action, they could hardly do better than Yuval Levin’s fine book.
In his unremittingly civil and fair-minded work, Mr. Levin provides sympathetic biographies of both Burke and Paine. He also delves deeply, and with great clarity, into the conflict of principles and assumptions that made the French Revolution and reaction to it the foundation of the contrasting visions of politics and public life shaping so much of the contemporary world. Mr. Levin’s book is structured around a series of seemingly complete oppositions, between nature and history, justice and order, choice and obligation, reason and prescription (or received wisdom), and between revolution and reform. As Mr. Levin notes, the ideas of nature and history and so on are not truly opposites. But his description of the very different approaches to each elucidated by Burke and Paine highlights the sense in which these disparate categories, taken in combination, make up very different views of the human person, society, and the manner in which we must seek a good life.
As Mr. Levin sums up the differences between these two important figures, “where Burke’s considerable faculty for expression is most often employed to convey the complexity of social and political life, Paine’s most often conveys a simplicity—a sense that the just and right way forward can be discerned by a proper application of key principles and that we are duty-bound to discern and to follow it.” Each approach is capable of drawing the ire of opponents. For Burke the charge is that he did not care about justice and that he was satisfied to let oppression continue, so long as he could preserve stability. Yet he often fought corruption and abuse of power, working at considerable cost to himself to defend the Americans, Irish Catholics, the people of India, and slaves in English colonies. For Paine the charge is that he cared only for abstractions, yet he had to flee France because he refused to throw in his lot completely with the mass murderers of the Revolution.
That said, Mr. Levin is clear that he has, as he should, taken a side in the great debate. He sides with Burke, his suppositions, his goals, and his view of the person and the social order, over Paine. It is easy today to dismiss Burke’s politics as too rooted in history, too accepting of existing injustices, and too hostile toward demands for change. It is easy to do so because the language of politics has in large measure become the language of Paine. But this language also is the language of abstraction, of simplification, and of power. For Paine, in his drive for justice and individual freedom, sought to construct a politics rooted in the individual and the demand for equality here and now. Political structures were to be reshaped to make them democratic and to make them capable of remaking society so that it would be friendlier toward the demands of individuals seeking their own good on the basis of their own, unfettered reason. Paine experienced how the drive for such a radical transformation, and such a radical rejection of the institutions, beliefs, and practices inherited from those who went before us and believed they were leaving an inheritance for those who would come after us, led to mass murder in the French Revolution. But he remained convinced that only a forceful re-founding of society on the consent (however gleaned) of the people taken as an (undefined) whole could be just and could lead to justice. He followed his own reasoning to its logical conclusion: promotion of a secular state seeking to free individuals from want, from the past, and from the confines of the social order. Succeeding revolutions and their aftermaths have shown how bloody and enervating such a program is. Yet the political left continues to insist that these are the only true principles, and that we try again and again to put them into action, whatever the consequences, because this is the only just and caring way to proceed.
Burke, meanwhile, insisted that order is the first need of all, that it begins in the soul, and that the soul is shaped through normative education rooted in society seen as an inheritance we must preserve and hand on to later generations. On this view, injustices must be addressed, and reforms made. But this must be done with an eye toward ameliorating abuses in a manner that preserves the functioning of society and the ability of people to go about their lives with an assurance of stability and the support of the cultural institutions and norms necessary for any good life.
As Mr. Levin emphasizes, it is more than anything else the emphasis on simplification that makes Paine’s assumptions regarding the good society dangerous to actual persons. The idea that society can be reduced to a set of principles, which can be imprinted upon a shapeless reality, is not merely wrong, but destructive. We are not merely individuals, but persons. We do not create our own characters, they are formed through the interaction of reason and experience; and each of these is a social endeavor. We reason together through classrooms, juries, and various other associations in which we must address problems of the day. Our experience is, if we are not angels or beasts (or the figments of philosophical imaginations) overwhelmingly social. Even reading is a form of social activity as it means entering the mind of another, or the world created or remembered by another.
What is lost in the demand for abstract justice, now, is the very process of pursuing the good in common with our fellows. And, having lost that process, we also lose the associations in which we once pursued the good. Our families, churches, and local associations lose their reasons for being as the state takes over the tasks of tending the sick, the needy, the powerless, and the general public. And the result is a society in which the individual is left alone, fending for himself in the face of life’s tragedies and, more dangerously, in the face of a government convinced that it knows best and that opposition to its will means intolerable opposition to the will of The People.
As with any book, one may quibble with Mr. Levin’s on some points. He consistently refers to modern liberal government as the government all of us have and must preserve. He sees Burke and Paine as merely two approaches to the only viable public philosophy, liberalism. Yet Western civilization has within it many more, and more powerful, defenses for human liberty and dignity than liberalism. From the leap in being at Mount Sinai, when God (rather than Hammurabi or some other ruler) handed down Commandments for order in the soul and in the commonwealth, there was begun a higher law tradition that placed law above rulers, to be interpreted by judges rather than imposed by men standing in as gods. Within the Anglo-American tradition, the fight against King John’s arbitrary actions brought Magna Carta and, over time, a tradition of limited, constitutional government. None of this was necessarily “liberal” in any meaningful sense.
As the work of Harold Berman, Brian Tierney, and others has shown, human dignity and with it human rights, owe more to the overlapping legal jurisdictions and legal arguments of the Middle Ages than to the abstract cogitations of modern philosophers. Liberalism as political ideology is rooted most in the reaction to early modern absolutism. As such it has much to recommend it as a force for limiting state power. But, as Burke’s work shows, the trend toward individualism without community, reason without history, rights without obligations, and a state whose basis in putative consent leaves no room for culture and society to serve as the grounding for the good life produces liberty only in the narrow sense, a sense hostile to the flourishing of the person and the lasting, ordered liberty essential thereto. In the end, however, it matters little whether we use the label “liberalism” too widely, so long as we understand what we are after, and what we must oppose. As Mr. Levin’s book shows, an understanding of the person and society fundamentally different from the simplifications of modern liberal Progressivism can provide the basis for renewed vitality in the fundamental institutions of a free and virtuous society.
The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.