I have long been interested in what can best be termed “First Causes” as a way in which to try to understand complex ideas, especially those pertaining to politics, society and governance. Accordingly, I have spent a lot of time hacking my way through the grandiloquent rhetoric of the likes of Plato, Montesquieu, Locke, Adam Smith, Hume, Burke, Hayek, Paine and, yes, even Karl Marx. And many others. These folks wrote brilliantly, but they did so in the literary fashion of their times, and Lordy – for we children of a later century, their hyper-baroque argot can be a slog.
Fortunately, for those who are into the origin/derivation of political ideas, but find it nettlesome to wade through the florid prose of those ancient notables, there is good news. Yuval Levin, founder and editor of National Affairs, and a contributing editor to National Review and the Weekly Standard has just published a marvelous work called The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. Levin has set himself the unenviable task of examining the philosophical and existential origins of the Right and Left, and, in my opinion, succeeds brilliantly, writing with a style that is clear, coherent and always elucidative.
He does so by contrasting the writings and speeches of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. At first blush, this seems an unlikely juxtaposition to study the roots of the two primary descriptors of our modern western political philosophy, but it works. Levin is at pains to explain that he views both men as operating within what he calls the liberal tradition (i.e., classical liberalism) but goes on to show how their views develop over time to subsume both modern conservatism (Burke) and modern progressivism (Paine).
It is worth noting that Levin, though of a well-documented Conservative bent, goes to considerable trouble to present both sides evenly. He allows Paine the expression of his full-throated revolutionary neo-liberalism without partisan traducing, while at the same time Burke is provided equal opportunity to explain and promote his concept of moderation and respect for political tradition. Tis a tricky course indeed, but one well accomplished.
The author masterfully contrasts and compares the origins of the Right and Left mode of thinking by using “pairs” of ideas, each pair encompassing opposing views of a salient concept, such as “Nature and History”, “Justice and Order”, “Choice and Obligation”, “Reason and Prescription”, and “Revolution and Reform.” The first term in each pair is presented as the approach taken by the Left (Paine), and the second that taken by the Right (Burke).
Perhaps because I hew more to the Right than to the Left, I found Levin’s explication of Burke’s thinking more intellectually nutritious than that of Paine’s, but this is not to diminish his handling of either subject. For instance, Burke’s resolute support of partisanship in politics was a revelation to me, as was his thorough rejection of the cherished concept of the so-called ‘state of nature.’ Further, I have always been somewhat unsure of the reasons for Burke’s almost rabid disapproval of the French Revolution. – Levin clears that up for me.
There were a host of other “aha’s” for me, but listing them would be unwieldy to say the least. Just know that I cannot recommend this work too highly. If you are at all interested in the philosophical underpinnings of our American political heritage, then you can do no better than to read this book.
Let me close, as Levin did, with the following paragraph:
In our day-to-day political arguments, we hear echoes of a deeper debate that we easily mistake for remnants of an argument between capitalism and socialism, or for faint precursors of a long-predicted ultimate clash between religious traditionalism and secular cosmopolitanism. But more likely, these echoes are in fact reminders of the defining disagreement of the political order of modern liberalism. That disagreement was given early and unusually clear voice by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, and becomes far easier to comprehend when we pay careful attention to what they have to teach us.