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The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left Hardcover – December 3, 2013

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (December 3, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465050972
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465050970
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #91,817 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Why are conservatives conservative, and liberals liberal? Seeking out sources of the two casts of mind, Levin sifts through the political philosophies espoused by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Their major writings, Reflections on the Revolution in France and Rights of Man, respectively, both premised their ideas about government and revolution on basic ideas about human nature and society. Engaging with these ideas, Levin endeavors to map the intellectual links that led Burke to be skeptical about radical political change and Paine to champion it. Paine reached his conclusions from a starting point that imagined people as autonomous individuals, who are rationally free to construct their society and design their government. Burke’s concept was drastically different: reason is but a part of human nature, which includes passions, impulses, and appetites. Society and government cannot be entirely rational constructions but are, rather, evolutions through generations of experience; political change should, therefore, be gradual, not abrupt. Making intricate contrasts between Paine and Burke throughout, Levin perceptively demonstrates the philosophical routes to liberalism and conservatism for politics-minded readers. --Gilbert Taylor


The Great Debate’s architecture is clever and intellectually persuasive… a thoughtful introduction to this famous paradigmatic opposition.”
-Washington Post

The Great Debate is a masterful and loving piece of work, the kind of solo performance that commands mute attention and makes even a crinkled cough-drop wrapper sound like an errant clang of the gong. It does more than announce Levin’s arrival; it is, in itself, a refutation—this time with an inerrant clang—of the factitious notion that intellectual conservatism is a bygone thing.”

“Levin enters into another great debate that riles academia: between historians insisting upon the uniqueness and specificity of events, which defy abstractions and generalizations, and philosophers impatient with the ephemera and contingency of events, which do not rise to the level of truth and certainty. Here too he rises to the occasion, satisfying the scruples of historians and philosophers alike. From a debate raged about an event centuries ago, he deduces truths that illuminate some of our most vexing political and social problems today.”
-Weekly Standard

“In a Burkean manner, Mr. Levin enriches through wisdom rather than prescription. He gives us something more than a manual of past lessons—namely, the historical framework to achieve greater understanding.”
-Wall Street Journal

“[A] wonderful book.”
-Los Angeles Times

“In this lively and probing book, Levin, one of the most influential conservative writers in the United States, looks at the ideas of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, towering figures in the late-eighteenth-century transatlantic Enlightenment....The Great Debate won’t settle any of the political disputes roiling U.S. politics today, but those who read it carefully will find it easier to understand their opponents-and perhaps even to find some common ground.”
-Foreign Affairs

“A dazzling, engaging, clearly written examination....If America puts its faith in the political Right again, it is the perceptive mind of Yuval Levin that will help provide the answer.”
-The Standpoint, UK

“A judicious, nuanced, and accessible précis that reveals both Burke and Paine to be complicated and compelling thinkers. This sympathetic treatment of the two men, in turn, allows Levin to paint an intellectual picture of right and left that is more gray than black and white, something all too rare today.”
-Democracy Journal

“[Has] potential to have long-lasting impact on a reader…Levin's book forces the reader to stop and create space for thought and reflection, and does not spoon-feed easy answers or applications to today's politics. It does, however, raise serious questions about whether the new obsession with ‘data-based’ decision-making, the Nate Silver-ization of journalism and politics, could be taken too far if we come to believe that everything in public life can be answered by the scientific method. It also poses significant queries worth grappling with for those rightly concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor. Levin echoes Burke's challenge to reformers to proceed with caution, and with humility.”
-Huffington Post

“[An] extremely absorbing book… indeed it makes one despair for the future of Burkeans in American politics—but you’ll have to read this excellent book to know why.”
-Jesse Norman, American Conservative

“While a passionate critic of the French revolution, Burke supported the claims of the American colonies to independence – while never uttering the word ‘revolution’, of course – on the grounds that the British crown had broken with tradition and custom by imposing new taxes. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that is has taken an American to bring Burke’s ideas so vividly back to life.”
-Guardian, UK

The Great Debate’s excellent writing about 18th-century history and political theory will inform and educate readers.”
-Washington Independent Review of Books

“[An] excellent book.”
-Norman Stone, Spectator, UK

“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.”
-Public Discourse

“In this rigorous yet accessible work, Levin contextualizes the positions of British philosopher Edmund Burke, who has been viewed as both the founder of modern conservatism and an example of classical liberalism, and Thomas Paine, the author of several classic political texts, including Common Sense and The Rights of Man.”
-Shelf Awareness

“Levin’s critique of liberalism is powerful and to be expected. But what makes his book much more interesting is his truly trenchant critique of his fellow conservatives as well. And it is a critique well-taken. I’d be much tougher on them, but this book is a tonic for a new discourse.”
-Andrew Sullivan, The Dish

“Must-read primer on America’s ideological faultline…[a] wonderful new book…a readable intellectual history that fairly crackles with contemporary relevance. The must-read book of the year for conservatives—especially those conservatives who are profoundly and genuinely baffled by the declining popularity of the GOP as a national party.”
-American Conservative's State of the Union Blog

"A fascinating new book."
-New Criterion

“If you want some deep insight into the issues that divide us today including those about taxation, you need to pick up Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left.”

“The Great Debate is still hardly a burning, or even a smoldering, issue for most twenty-first-century Americans. But Levin’s good-tempered, even-handed book will no doubt persuade many readers of its continuing relevance.”

The Great Debate is an entertaining story and an enlightening exposition of the debate that led to a sea change in governance for European cultures. Because both men and their ideas are often invoked by those who would lead us, it behooves us to know the true ideas of these two men.”
-Roanoke Times

“Mr. Levin, the editor of the journal National Affairs and a former aide to both Speaker Gingrich and President George W. Bush, provides a valuable service by dusting off the writings of Burke and Paine and by clearly, concisely, and accessibly summarizing them in a way that highlights their relevance to contemporary politics and policy…The monarchist Burke and the religious skeptic Paine, an early supporter of the bloody French revolution, would seem to be unlikely models for today’s American politicians of either party. But Mr. Levin has made a convincing case that, 200 years later, we can still learn from both men.”
-New York Sun

“A fine new book.”
-Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg View

“Erudite, sympathetic, and evenhanded accounting....The Great Debate should be read as a philosophical corrective to the anti-statist modes of American conservatism and as an encouragement to those trying to build on the basis of what we’ve inherited, including the governmental innovations of the twentieth century.”
-First Things

“Two seminal thinkers anticipate the modern split between progressives and conservatives in this insightful study of 18th-century political theory. National Affairs editor Levin presents a lucid analysis of the ideological confrontation between Paine…and Burke...he succeeds in establishing the continued relevance of Burke’s thought and prescient critique of revolutionary excesses.”
Publishers Weekly

“Making intricate contrasts between Paine and Burke throughout, Levin perceptively demonstrates the philosophical routes to liberalism and conservatism for politics-minded readers.”

The Great Debate brilliantly brings out the richness of the tradition underlying our politics. It reminds us that politics is an intellectually serious thing that deserves better than the shallowness and cynicism that fills our political conversations. It reminds us that the right and left are each rooted in a desire to see politics serve the cause of human flourishing, even if they understand that cause very differently. And by the way, Burke was right.”
Peggy Noonan, columnist, The Wall Street Journal

“Yuval Levin’s lucid and learned investigation of our origins is not only a study in the history of ideas, it is also a summons to first principles. Like Burke and Paine, Levin believes that philosophies are buried in the shabbiness of politics. His book is both clarifying and complicating: he writes sympathetically about both sides of the heroic disputation that he describes, and so his book will have the salutary effect of shattering ideological complacence. In our infamously polarized climate, The Great Debate may even be a public service.”
Leon Wieseltier

The Great Debate is an exciting, narrative adventure in the contest of ideas. With two world-shaking revolutions as background, Levin brilliantly explains how two great minds shaped the broad debate between left and right that still governs our political debates today.”
William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education and author of America: The Last Best Hope

“The polarized character of contemporary American politics is widely noted, yet the intellectual origins of the division between right and left remain obscure. In his deeply historically informed and elegantly argued book, Yuval Levin casts a brilliant light on the matter. It is a work of lasting significance that will instruct liberals and conservatives alike on their intellectual heritage.”
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University

Customer Reviews

Anyone with an interest in modern politics should read this book.
Carla S.
The book by Levin, The Great Debate, is an excellent contribution to the studies of Burke versus Paine.
Dr. Terrence McGarty
Mr Levin presents clear and cogent summaries of both Burke and Paine.
Laurence C. Berg

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

116 of 119 people found the following review helpful By Ira E. Stoll VINE VOICE on December 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What sound like fights between capitalism and socialism or between “religious traditionalism and secular cosmopolitanism,” turn out to be battles between “progressive liberalism” and “conservative liberalism,” echoes of the more than 200-year-old dispute between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.

That’s the argument of Yuval Levin, the editor of the journal National Affairs and a former aide to both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President George W. Bush. He provides a valuable service by dusting off the writings of Burke and Paine and by clearly, concisely, and accessibly summarizing them in a way that highlights their relevance to contemporary politics and policy.

Burke, a member of the British House of Commons, was, by Mr. Levin’s telling, a gradualist reformer, a “forward-looking traditionalist” wary of the dangers of unchecked democracy, conscious of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind, and respectful of obligations to family and nation.

Paine, a pamphleteer influential in the American Revolution, was, by Mr. Levin’s account, a utopian who emphasized free choice and the consent of the governed, opposed monarchy, was skeptical of religion, had confidence in new structures based on reason, and was impatient in confronting injustice.

Part of why both men are still remembered is their skill as writers. Mr. Levin provides enough quotations and excerpts for readers to understand why.

Paine is known not only for his “Common Sense,” which helped launch the American Revolution, but also for “The American Crisis:” “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” and his other writings also includes some keepers: “What is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue?
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59 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Alan F. Sewell on December 5, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Author Yuval Levin sets out a lofty goal of explaining the right / left, conservative / liberal, Red State / Blue State political paradigm in the USA and other democracies:

Why, then, is there a left and a right in our politics? This book hopes to offer the beginning of an answer to that question. That beginning is both historical and philosophical, and so this book is, too.

The starting point of the book is the American Revolution, which had a dual nature.

It was partly a CONSERVATIVE revolution designed to strengthen property rights. The American Colonists wanted King George out of their hair so that they could settle the Trans-Appalachian West (which King George had forbidden the American Colonists to enter) and to trade with all of Europe, not just the British empire. Thus, American Conservatives may fairly claim to have inspired the American Revolution on the basis of wanting to assert their title of ownership over their land and to assert their right to trade with whoever they wanted to. George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were chief among this group.

Its other nature was as a Populist Revolt. Many of America's intellectuals saw the Revolution as a door to replacing the British Monarchy with representative, elected government. Thomas Jefferson, Sam Adams, and Patrick Henry took this view. Modern-day Liberals stake their claim to the Revolution on that basis.

From the time of our independence in 1783 until our first period of unification following the War of 1812, these Conservative and Liberal factions fought ferociously to assert their dominance, nearly wrecking the fledgling United States on the shoals of early civil war.
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56 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Samuel J. Sharp on December 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Contrary to the title, Burke and Paine were not avowed enemies directly engaged in a recognizable intellectual struggle. It is true that Burke and Paine met and occasionally addressed arguments to each other, but readers should not expect a historical retelling of any debate. Rather, this book is a dual intellectual history of two thinkers who stand on their own, and their ideas are recast beside each other not to recreate a debate which actually occurred, but rather to understand debates in our time.

"This book seeks to examine Burke and Paine's disagreement and to learn from it about both their era's politics and ours. . . . The book will explore the themes of the Burke-Paine dispute, taking apart each man's views of history, nature, society, reason, political institutions, freedom, equality, rights, and other key subjects, and seeking the premises informing each one's understanding of political life." (p. xv) Levin states this ambitious goal, but the book results in a "Burke said, Paine said" that often strips the authors of context and robs the book of any narrative flow. Even though I enjoyed the book in parts, I worry that it exists in a commercial no-man's land: not engaging enough for a general audience, and not novel enough for readers already familiar with Burke and Paine. I recommend reading biographies of Burke and Paine separately, rather than this artificial juxtaposition.
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73 of 81 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 30, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
First, the good. Levin, a journalist, does a good job of producing a readable and interesting analysis of the differences in structure and conclusion between Edmund Burke's "conservative" and Thomas Paine's "liberal" thought. He explains the history of their dialogue on the French Revolution and what it means for how society should be organized. (Burke, a skeptical of the revolution, thought that tradition was a fairly good guide to how societies should be organized, and that any changes should be make by piecemeal changes aided by historical reflection. Paine, a proponent of the French Revolution, argued that we can best deduce how society should be arranged by reason, reflecting on what human rights are as a matter of abstract fact, etc; historical knowledge was not, for him, particularly necessary, and gradual change only delays arriving at the truly just social order.)

Another good thing about this book was the organization. The book is well organized, each chapter focusing on a different area of Burke's and Paine's thought - the nature of rights, the nature and scope of human reason, what we owe to (particularly poor) others. Through this staging of chapters, a pretty clear picture emerges of how Burke's and Paine's thought make sense via their own "internal logics." (If Burke thought x, it makes sense that he'd argue y, etc.) Lastly, the book - written by a self-labeled conservative - is quite unbiased and, as far as I know, accurate. Levin does a good job arguing both side's "cases" as strongly as possible, and if you didn't know his political persuasion, my guess is that you couldn't guess.

So, why deduct three stars?
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