The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
© 2013 Yuval Levin
The Great Debate uses the war of letters between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine to explain the philosophical differences between conservatism and progressivism. Both men were political actors, albiet in different spheres, and both achieved renown during the period of the American and French revolutions. While both the respectable MP Burke and the revolutionary Paine supported the American cause, they broke furiously over the French. Drawing on each party’s respective works, some written as direct rebuttals to the other, Yuval Levin explores their opposing philosophies in different sections: the meaning of ‘nature’, the role of choice, reason versus tradition, and so on.
As a pair, they remind me faintly of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, with Adams as the cynic and Jefferson the romantic. Burke emerges here as a man constantly aware of human frailties, and desiring to mitigate them as much as possible — chiefly by preserving the structure of government passed down from generation to generation, which he assumes as custom-tailored for its people through the ages — and making marginal, cautious changes as circumstances dictate. Paine is marked more by idealism, mindful only of the good which we are capable of. For Paine, tradition and custom are the mere baggage of time. For him, there are certain principles which, if followed, guarantee freedom and progress. The trick is that these principles have to be built into the foundation, so virtually everything has to be torn down to make room for them. It is in that vein that he argues that the American states should adopt a tack that would later be embraced by the French: erasing the historical boundaries of distinct places, and instead creating new little subdivisions of the State, purely for administrative purposes. Burke did not see the American revolution as a revolution; he saw Parliament’s recent presumption of absolute powers over the colonies as all-too-new preogative, at odds with the facts of distance and precedent. (For Paine, the Amercan revolution was the start of a global revival, the dawn of an Age of Reason applied politically.) Paine can see no reason to create internal checks and balances: so long as the beginning principles are sound, there will be no need of conflict.
For me, I think back to Adams and Jefferson, and wonder whose vision I trust more — the skeptic of human nature Adams, who mistrusted too much democracy but refused to own or hire slaves…or the idealistc Jefferson, who could sing ‘liberty’ to the heavens but who maintained his own stock of enslaved persons. Give me Adams — his actions have more weight than the prettiest words. The same goes for Burke and Paine. While I can disagree with Burke time and again, ultimately erring on the side of caution strikes me as as better than ripping apart society and allowing for creatures like Napoleon. While Levin doesn’t reduce Paine to caricature, the amount of time he gives to Burke — required given Burke’s sheer complexity — gives the book a Burkean balance. Paine’s idealism survived as long as it did, I think, because he never held an office of political responsibility. He thus enjoyed the luxury of never having to put his ideas into practice personally, rather like a few other political philosophers of the 19th and 20th century. I found The Great Debate fascinating dialogue between two equally sympathetic men, of idealism mixing with cognizance of our limitations. The title is total oversell, though, since Paine’s connection with progressivism only appears in the conclusion.