February 12, 2014

YOU FORGOT ABOUT FRATERNITY AND EQUALITY:

Burke and Paine, a rivalry that still reverberates (Michael Gerson, February 10, 2014, Washington Post)

One of America's leading young interpreters of British conservatism, Yuval Levin, has written a book detailing a more consequential historical version of the contest between preservation and radical reform. In "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left," Levin tells the story of an unfriendly rivalry between the progenitors of modern conservatism and modern liberalism. In the time Burke and Paine shared -- the late 18th century -- philosophical arguments could ignite revolutions, and pamphlets could be as important as battles. Both Burke and Paine were masters of political rhetoric at a time when political rhetoric really mattered, and their rivalry still reverberates.

Levin praises Paine for his ability "to bring even modestly educated readers into contact with profound philosophical questions."

It happens to be Levin's talent as a writer as well. Paine emerges as a restless, homeless agitator for liberty, convinced that governments should be torn down and rebuilt according to rational enlightenment principles. "Government by precedent," argued Paine, is "one of the vilest systems that can be set up." Burke, in contrast, proposed to "make the most of the existing materials of his country." Demonstrating Burke's own gift for epigram, Levin observes, "The best kind of political change, in Burke's view, builds on what is best about the given world to improve what is worst about it."

Levin gives both great thinkers their due. But this cannot conceal the fact that Paine's greatest political hope proved to be a horror, and Burke's greatest fear turned out to be a prophecy. Burke argued that the triumph of Paine's enlightenment ideology in the French Revolution would unmoor men and women from tradition, habit and moral restraint. A revolt in the name of liberty alone quickly turned against liberty itself, producing both the Terror and Bonaparte.

The revolts in the name of liberty alone succeeded.
Posted by at February 12, 2014 7:34 PM
  
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