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.
An example should suffice to show the virtues of placing the two thinkers in conversation with each other. In Chapter Two, Levin explains the opposing conceptions of nature and history held by Burke and Paine. Paine deliberately followed the state-of-nature theorists, arguing that human beings are fundamentally individual, solitary, equal, and capable of remaking government whenever the need should arise. As he famously put it, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” What defines us, Paine thought, is a notion of pure rationality that yields the ability to make choices and engage in acts of self-determination. When all the artificial conventions of society and history have been stripped away, this is the permanent condition of mankind.
Burke, on the other hand, thought that Paine and other state-of-nature theorists made far too much of such mythical beginnings and not nearly enough of the benefits yielded to society over time by artifice and history. “Artifice,” in Burke’s lexicon, meant not falsehood but human art, which offered great convenience, comfort, and at times even beauty. Likewise, history presented opportunities for reflection on what had or had not been successful in human affairs.
Burke, therefore, focused on a different kind of beginning for human beings: that each person is born at a specific time, in a particular place, to a family of people with whom he or she did not choose to associate. All of this establishes the givenness of the human condition, the inherited character of so much in human life, and the limitations (sometimes welcome) of the choices open to us. Burke emphatically did not see these particularities as hindrances waiting to be eradicated in the name of universal equality. Instead, they were the constituents of a full, rich human life. What defines us, thought Burke, is not bare rationality but our sympathies, sentiments, habits, pieties, emotions, and the simple fact of human embodiedness.
Rationality, equality, and individuality were of fundamental importance for Paine. These were important for Burke, too, but only when complemented and tempered by a host of other characteristics. Not surprisingly, such contrasting views of human nature yielded strikingly different outlooks on politics. Reform, Burke thought, ought to be implemented slowly and by degrees, on the solid foundation of past experience. For Paine, this caution and incrementalism smacked of dilatory tactics from people too timid to act with vigor and clarity of purpose. Once an injustice had been identified, it ought to be eradicated promptly, without delay or doubt. Against this background, Paine’s strong support for the French Revolution makes a great deal of sense, as does Burke’s equally strong opposition to it. The remainder of the book fleshes out a variety of controversies along these lines in chapters about the contrasts between justice and order, choice and obligation, reason and prescription, revolution and reform.
If the book poses a difficulty, it is in knowing how to classify it and to whom it can be recommended. It is not a scholarly monograph, but neither is it widely accessible to a broad audience. Even as the author tries to boil down the views of Burke and Paine in a way that is reasonably clear, the subject matter remains difficult for the average reader. It probably will be most profitably read by those with some background or interest in political philosophy.
If Levin is writing neither a genealogy of modern politics nor a purely academic work, what is he up to? I think he wants to get at something essential about these two contrasting political orientations that has implications for modern politics.
I would push his argument one step further, building particularly on his discussion of human nature: the essence of the conflict between Burke and Paine lies in their different orientations toward the entirety of human experience. Burke evinced a sense that he was “at home” in the world; Paine, an irritable need for activity, change, and constant betterment.
True, in certain respects this divide maps onto the contemporary political cleavage between conservatism and progressivism. Many conservatives are inclined to see Paine as a representative of the worst kind of utopian liberal. Starting from overly optimistic views about the possibilities of human rationality, Paine’s hopes for change and reform are too expansive, unrealistic, and in the end, foolhardy. In the same way, progressives perceive Burke as a complacent apologist for the inherited differences between individuals and classes, someone far too comfortable with prejudice and privilege. In these respects, the right/left, conservative/progressive differences do obviously reflect the Burke-Paine debate.
But though such a reading appears to be a neat and clean transposition of an old debate into modern circumstances, it does not tell the full story. For in most respects, and particularly in politics, it appears that Paine has won the day. Who among us any longer speaks like Burke? Who is willing to defend prejudice, understood in its original sense, or to expound a notion of “prescription” against urgent calls for the instantiation of abstractions such as equality, liberty, and unencumbered choice?
With few exceptions, modernity requires that everyone, and perhaps particularly conservatives, defend their modes of life in abstract, rationalistic terms. Nothing inherited and longstanding can go unexamined (witness the marriage debate) nor can natural differences (as between men and women) any longer provide a convincing basis for different customs, ways of life, and inclinations. Everything must be examined at the bar of rational argument.
Paine has won.
But he has won largely because conservatives have lost heart. With some notable exceptions, most people who call themselves conservative in the present day have little sense of what it might mean to adopt gratitude and appreciation as a mode of orientation toward our experience. Instead, like everyone else, we are concerned with efficiency, problem-solving, and changing the world. We may have qualms about technology, but we no longer resist it. We might wish in the abstract that government policies could be less purposive and more nomocratic, but usually we give up on the rule of law as an ideal and promote policies that encourage our own favored outcomes.
In short, much of modern conservatism provides a vision of a good life that differs little from that advocated by the most energetic progressives. The ends might be different, but the means are the same.
A substantive alternative would require a much more radical reorientation of the modern soul. Even as everything in contemporary culture pushes us to look forward, to “aim high” and relentlessly pursue change, we might remember that there are truly countercultural ways of living that ask for patience, gratitude, and satisfaction instead of impatience, discontent, and constant desire for what does not yet appear. Such an attitude does not entail our becoming inactive, boring, or staid, but it requires a willingness to preserve rather than tear down and build anew. Reform would be, as Burke suggested, more cautious than radical, with careful attention to the familiar and the tried. We might begin by learning to appreciate and even to love, as Michael Oakeshott has put it, the “gentle, endearing imperfection of all living things,” including ourselves.
This fundamental existential divide permeates Levin’s book as a whole. It is well worth pondering by those of us not entirely carried off by the great progressive revolution that seems to be taking place in the present day. What does it mean to be conservative? What exactly is to be conserved? And without some kind of nostalgic looking backwards, how can we appropriate the great goods that certain traditional modes of life have bequeathed to us? All these questions are beyond the scope of Levin’s book, but he has done a great service in bringing them to the fore. Perhaps he and others will address them in future works.