The Great Debate: Edmund Burke vs. Thomas Paine : a review of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right by Yuval Levin (Shaun Rieley, July 2014, Imaginative Conservative)

Paine was, of course, a great champion of the American Revolution – his tract Common Sense was seminal in igniting popular opinion in favor of the Revolution – and went on to be an important supporter of the French Revolution as well. Burke, on the other hand, was a supporter of the American Revolution, but when the French Revolution began in 1789, Burke became one of its most vocal critics, penning Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. What caused this divergence, and how did that philosophical divergence lead to the divisions in our modern political debates? That is the question that Mr. Levin explores in the book. […]

Paine’s case, Mr. Levin argues, rests on several assumptions regarding the possibility of human freedom – understood in a particular way – and the nature of knowledge. Paine follows social contract theorists Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, arguing that it is possible to know through reason what man in the state of nature was like, and thereby, the rights which he possesses in that state, and this knowledge becomes the baseline for any judgment regarding the justice of any law, and the legitimacy of any political arrangement. Thus, the individual – applying judgment through reason – becomes the basis for all social relationships. Choice becomes paramount, and obligations are only binding in so far as the individual chooses to be bound – presumably, through a rational judgment. The heart of Paine’s political philosophy, says Mr. Levin, is his understanding of rights and choice.

Burke, on the other hand, builds his moral and political philosophy around “obligations not chosen but nevertheless binding” (p. 102). “An enormous portion of Burke’s (and the conservative) worldview,” says Mr. Levin, “becomes clearer in light of the importance he places on the basic facts and character of human procreation, and an enormous portion of Paine’s (and the progressive) worldview becomes clearer in light of the desire he evinces to be liberated from the implications of those facts. Almost all of what we loosely call “the social issues” have to do with the dispute about whether such liberation is possible and desirable…” (p. 103).

The Anglosphere was able to avoid the Continent’s utopian disasters precisely because we never succumbed to Reason and the denial of human nature.