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Yuval Levin’s “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.

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, by Yuval Levin (296 pages, Basic Books, 2013)

When 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.

This essay was first published here in July 2014.

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The featured image, uploaded by Ziko-C, is a photograph of the Thomas Paine statue in Thetford, Norfolk, England. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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