May 2, 2015


The Birth of Right and Left? (Bruce Frohnen, 4/29/15, Imaginative Conservative)

As Mr. Levin sums up the differences between these two important figures, "where Burke's considerable faculty for expression is most often employed to convey the complexity of social and political life, Paine's most often conveys a simplicity--a sense that the just and right way forward can be discerned by a proper application of key principles and that we are duty-bound to discern and to follow it." Each approach is capable of drawing the ire of opponents. For Burke the charge is that he did not care about justice and that he was satisfied to let oppression continue, so long as he could preserve stability. Yet he often fought corruption and abuse of power, working at considerable cost to himself to defend the Americans, Irish Catholics, the people of India, and slaves in English colonies. For Paine the charge is that he cared only for abstractions, yet he had to flee France because he refused to throw in his lot completely with the mass murderers of the Revolution.

That said, Mr. Levin is clear that he has, as he should, taken a side in the great debate. He sides with Burke, his suppositions, his goals, and his view of the person and the social order, over Paine. It is easy today to dismiss Burke's politics as too rooted in history, too accepting of existing injustices, and too hostile toward demands for change. It is easy to do so because the language of politics has in large measure become the language of Paine. But this language also is the language of abstraction, of simplification, and of power. For Paine, in his drive for justice and individual freedom, sought to construct a politics rooted in the individual and the demand for equality here and now. Political structures were to be reshaped to make them democratic and to make them capable of remaking society so that it would be friendlier toward the demands of individuals seeking their own good on the basis of their own, unfettered reason. Paine experienced how the drive for such a radical transformation, and such a radical rejection of the institutions, beliefs, and practices inherited from those who went before us and believed they were leaving an inheritance for those who would come after us, led to mass murder in the French Revolution. But he remained convinced that only a forceful re-founding of society on the consent (however gleaned) of the people taken as an (undefined) whole could be just and could lead to justice. He followed his own reasoning to its logical conclusion: promotion of a secular state seeking to free individuals from want, from the past, and from the confines of the social order. Succeeding revolutions and their aftermaths have shown how bloody and enervating such a program is. Yet the political left continues to insist that these are the only true principles, and that we try again and again to put them into action, whatever the consequences, because this is the only just and caring way to proceed.

Burke, meanwhile, insisted that order is the first need of all, that it begins in the soul, and that the soul is shaped through normative education rooted in society seen as an inheritance we must preserve and hand on to later generations. On this view, injustices must be addressed, and reforms made. But this must be done with an eye toward ameliorating abuses in a manner that preserves the functioning of society and the ability of people to go about their lives with an assurance of stability and the support of the cultural institutions and norms necessary for any good life.

As Mr. Levin emphasizes, it is more than anything else the emphasis on simplification that makes Paine's assumptions regarding the good society dangerous to actual persons. that this debate has allowed us to preserve stability/order while progressing/reforming.
Posted by at May 2, 2015 8:50 AM

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