by Elizabeth Corey
The differences between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine shed light on contemporary politics, argues Yuval Levin in his new book. But they also shed light on something deeper: two fundamentally contrasting orientations toward the world.
Yuval Levin, widely acclaimed as one of his generation’s most important conservative thinkers, has written a book that richly deserves the attention it is receiving. Levin writes with admirable clarity—and absolutely no jargon or pretense—about the foundations of our current political situation. The book’s aim is to lay bare the philosophies of two luminaries who set the stage for the contemporary American political scene that we enjoy—or lament—today.
Despite its full title (The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left), the book is not a genealogy of the American right and left. There is little mention, save in the conclusion, of contemporary politics or of any intellectual or political movements that emerged as a result of the debate between Burke and Paine.
Yet the book does push its reader to reflect on the contrast between the dispositions that define conservatives and progressives. Despite outward appearances, most contemporary political debates reflect not just differences in policy preferences but fundamentally contrasting orientations toward the world. Do we incessantly focus on the ills and injustices around us, formulating plans to fix and improve things? Or are we grateful for what we have, even attached to the familiarity of the people and things that surround us? Of course, we all exhibit both tendencies, depending on the circumstances. But the balance of a person’s disposition usually goes more in one direction than the other. This is what defines us temperamentally, and politically too. I shall have more to say about this below.
Levin is a refreshingly nonpartisan writer. Even as he candidly admits his own conservative bent and his inclination toward Burke, he is more than fair in his treatment of both thinkers. Burke and Paine are not mere ciphers for their political positions; each held his views for concrete, personal, often passionately argued reasons that illuminate the philosophical debate for which they are famous. Thus, Levin begins with a chapter about the particular circumstances in which each man lived and wrote.
The book’s argument is built on a number of dichotomies: most obviously between Burke and Paine, but also between conservatism and progressivism, between abstract reason and “prescription,” between individual and community. Levin is aware that these dichotomies should not be pressed too far. True, Paine embraced abstraction and hoped for great and radical reform in politics, whereas Burke opposed him on the grounds that Paine had fundamentally misunderstood the human condition. But Burke did not shy away from reform, nor did he oppose equality, understood (as he thought) properly. Much of this book is thus a careful explication of the differences between these thinkers on such issues. Each chapter can be read and pondered on its own, at great profit to the reader.
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