The Great Debate

Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

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This book from Yuval Levin explores the contentious relationship between two rough contemporaries, Eddie Burke and Tommy Paine. They had fundamental disagreements about the nature of man, government, history, and social change; they worked these disagreements out in public via books, letters, and articles. And, Yuval shows, that long-ago conflict echos in our world today, in the differing political philosophies of left and right.

Paine, of course, was one of the major propagandists of the American Revolution. He was a thoroughgoing believer in natural rights of the individual, equality, and (above all) Reason with a capital R. This led him to believe that each generation of a free people could and should design their political institutions de novo according to their wishes.

Burke was on the side of tradition, order, obligation; this dictated that social/political changes should be gradual, with a decent respect for the system bequeathed by our ancestors.

Burke also looked with favor on the American Revolution, but for different reasons than Paine: he saw the British as trying to overturn the decades-old relationship with the colonies by an abrupt and arbitrary imposition of taxes, and other abuses. This offended his views of tradition.

Yuval notes, amusingly, that Burke and Paine ignored different parts of the Declaration of Independence: Burke neglected the first part, with its airy theorizing about rights; Paine ignored the second half, with its tedious list of grievances against the Crown.

Their differences blew up over the French Revolution, though. Paine was a huge fan of overthrowing the monarchy, and starting everything from Year Zero; Burke saw nothing but trouble was likely to ensue.

Yuval meticulously teases out their differing philosophies. I'd say he's scrupulously fair in his descriptions, although I might have detected a slight preference for Burke's sentiments, a slight bias against Paine's hubris in assuming reason's ability to design optimal political arrangements. That might just be my own viewpoint shining through.

Yuval's prose is … not sparkly, sorry. He's done a great amount of careful research, makes some good insights, and (unfortunately) lays it on the page in the dullest and driest manner possible.

Last Modified 2019-09-18 5:36 AM EST