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The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
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120 of 123 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 2, 2013
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? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness…”

Mr. Levin acknowledges that, 200 years later, America’s right-left arguments don’t always map so neatly onto the Burke-Paine diagram. I found myself recognizing the libertarian hero Milton Friedman of “Free To Choose” fame in Mr. Levin’s description of Paine’s emphasis on the individual and choice. Levin refers once to “the often communitarian Burke” and “the often libertarian Paine,” which makes some mischief with the book’s subtitle’s case that Burke is the father of the right and Paine is the father of the left.

Today’s left, Mr. Levin writes, “could learn from Paine’s insistence on limits to the use of power and the role of government.” Today’s conservatives, in Mr. Levin’s view, are “far too open to the siren song of hyperindividualism,” and “could benefit by adopting Burke’s focus on the social character of man.”

Mr. Levin, clearly an admirer of Burke, makes the case that he was not “merely a defender of the established order” but also “a leader in almost every reform effort,” who favored moderating excessive punishments in British criminal law, ending the slave trade, and making British law more friendly to dissenters from the Church of England. Yet Mr. Levin doesn’t flinch from recording some of Burke’s more abject fawning on the British nobility.

The monarchist Burke and the religious skeptic Paine, an early supporter of the bloody French revolution, might 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.
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60 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2013
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.

The Conservatives organized themselves as the Federalist Party, while the Liberals organized themselves first as the Anti-Federalists, which morphed into the Republican-Democratic Party. The Federalists' aim was to use the newfound power of the National Government to promote the interests of the northern commercial states. The Republican-Democrats' aim was to assert the rights of the agricultural Southern States to defy the numerically superior North. The Red State / Blue State war was on!

This was a turbulent time of Shay's Rebellion, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, The Quasi War with France, the Embargo Act, the "XYZ Affair," Jefferson's attempted purge of the Supreme Court, Marbury vs. Madison, the 1812 War with Britain, and the Hartford Convention.

The traditional protagonists in these struggles are Conservative Federalists Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and George Washington vs. Liberal Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson. Both factions eventually obtained most of what they wanted. The Conservatives got their strong national government dedicated to protecting property rights, while the Liberals got their democratic "power to the people" government that mattered to them. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson straddled enough of both sides to keep the United States from flying apart. This formative period ended in the 1820s when "The Era of Good Feeling" submerged the two original legs of our revolutionary stool into a love seat.

However, author Yuval Levin points out that there was a THIRD leg of this stool personified by Thomas Paine, who would be called a "Social Democrat" in today's politics. Paine believed that the Earth and everything on it belonged to Mankind in common, and that private property should therefore be taxed to provide relief to the landless poor. The modern-day Democratic Party follows his ideas of taxing private property to fund social welfare programs. The book ties in today's political parties with the three original factions of the American Revolution:

Federalist Party (Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton) + Democratic-Republicans (Thomas Jefferson) = Modern Republicans who are aligned with the capitalist interests of big-city industry and commerce and small-town farming.

Thomas Paine = Modern Democrats who are aligned with the interests of the less affluent laborers and farmers of marginal land.

The book brings Englishman Edmund Burke into the story as the establishment capitalist protagonist who knew Thomas Paine and debated him at length about the true nature of the American Revolution and the French Revolution that soon followed it. These are indeed the same sorts of debates that we have in the modern day Republican vs. Democratic parties.

The writing is lucid and brings Paine and Burke to life as human beings. It is laced with the immortal words of Thomas Paine:

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value."

My only complaint is that perhaps the book doesn't "set the table" in giving a lay reader enough historical background to fully understand the positions of Burke and Paine. If you're a lay reader you may profit by reading about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the leaders of the Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans. It also helps to know about the French Revolution, which became the knife edge that split American Conservatives and Liberals into warring factions soon after our own revolution.

That minor criticism aside, Levin has accomplished what he said he'd do at the beginning of the book when he promised to show us the origins of the right / left divide.
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80 of 88 people found the following review helpful
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? Because the author fails 100% to convince us that this debate is more than just an interesting exercise in comparative philosophy, and that it also reflects the essential "fault lines" between conservatism and liberalism. Part of Levin's goal - expressed even in the subtitle - is to use this debate between Paine and Burke as an explanation of the origins of current "right" and "left." And I wish Levin would have done that, because I am thoroughly unconvinced.

Take two instances: abortion and gun rights. Paine - the figure representing modern liberalism appeals to natural rights more than Burke, who thought rights were social conventions that in some ways, changed over time. Not only does that not graft to the abortion debate between "left" and "right," it grafts the opposite way of what Levin would suggest. Conservatives tend to do the abstract appeals to natural rights (the right to life that we all have, even the unborn), while liberals tend to suggest that rights are more "social conventionish" such that rights - like the right to life or right to choose - can conflict, leaving us to choose the most socially beneficial result. (Another area where we can see this is debates over gun rights; conservatives are more Paineish arguers that we have an inalienable right to bear arms, while liberals tend to a Burkean argument that any right to bear arms must change shape and scope with social necessity.)

Yes, those are two issues of many, but they reflect, I think, a general shape of current conservative and liberal approaches that are incompatible with the fault lines Levin sees. If anything, conservatives tend to be the ones who use appeals to abstract rights unchanging over time, while liberals tend to take the more Burkean positions that rights and justice are things that must change gradually over time. (This isn't always true, of course; in areas of civil liberties like rights to privacy, the position is often reversed, with conservatives having been the most enthusiastic supporters of increasing the surveilance state in response to "changing times" of a post-9/11 world.) But this is why Levin's failure to apply Burke and Paine's interlocutions over the French revolution is disappointing: if anything, modern debates between "left" and "right" just don't appear to break down into Levin's "Left = Paine, Right = Burke" model. If it does, he doesn't even attempt to explain how.

As for a better because more varied and nuanced book discussing a similar idea - that the right tends to favor a model of "constrained man" and the left, "unconstrained man," I'd suggest Thomas Sowell's "Conflict of VIsions." Levin's book might be best seen as a supplement to that book.
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58 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2013
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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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left by Yuval Levin is great book about the author's belief that these two men created the Right and Left. The author focuses of upon Burke's and Paine’s differing views. One championed a reforming conservatism (Burke) and the other with radical progressivism ideas (Paine). Both views continue to shape our current political system on issues ranging from abortion to welfare, education, and economics. The Great Debate is an examination of what is conservatism, and what is liberalism. Levin sees Paine as an early American liberal, while Burke is often considered a hero to conservatives. Centuries after their deaths, both Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine are still quoted by columnists or politicians.

If you are unfamiliar with who Burke and Paine were I included a small bio about each of them.

Edmund Burke was an Irish-born English politician. He was one of the great figures in parliamentary politics in the last 18th century. He was in the House of Commons for about 30 years. He supported of the cause of the American Revolution but later opposed the French Revolution. He also become the leading figure within the conservative faction of the Whig party.

Thomas Paine was an English-American political activist, author, political theorist and revolutionary. As the author of two highly influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, he is believed to have inspired the Patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Britain.

I enjoyed this book because it showed how great writers these two men were. The author provides tons of quotations and excerpts for the reader to understand why these men are considered great writers. I definitely enjoyed this book and would recommend it for you to read.

Thank you for reading my review.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2014
As a liberal, it was valuable for me to read an account of the impact of Burke and Paine written by a conservative. He is fair to Paine and loves Burke. I think that the book would have had a greater impact had it been shorter as there is some repetition.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 6, 2013
My wish is that every politically interested person who slavishly watches the nightly policy shout fests either on Fox or MSNBC would turn off the television set and quietly sit down and read this book.

Yuval Levin has done a nice, clear job of laying out and contrasting the differing thoughts of Paine and Burke on how best to govern mortal man.

I agree with Thomas Paine that kings, queens, princes, and such are not worth the powder to blow them up. But, the great weight of the argument comes down for me in favor of Edmund Burke's thought on the ideal statesman having "a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve ..."
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2014
The book by Levin, The Great Debate, is an excellent contribution to the studies of Burke versus Paine. Although their debates are over two centuries ago, they ring true today as well. The questions explored by Levin center around the "conservatism" of Burke and the "progressivism" of Paine. Although this alignment is attempted, that is much of the text deals with trying to understand both authors in a context interpretable today, in many ways there is a bit of current day "conservatism" and "progressivism" in both Burke and Paine. There is not one a to one alignment.

Levin presents his arguments in an exceptionally clear and concise manner. The book is quite readable and the structure of his argument is built in sections presented in each chapter. One does not have to dig to any depth to see where he wants to take the reader. Levin clearly understands Burke and also has a good grasp of Paine.

Burke was the conservative, born in Ireland and raised in the Church of England and a Member of Parliament. His career was highlighted by his writings as compared to any Legislative prowess. Paine was class wise a step or two below Burke, leaving England and starting anew in what was to become the United States. His skill as a pamphleteer was extraordinary and in so doing he absorbed and even created the sense of his times. Paine personally paid for his major work, Common Sense, which in many ways ignited the Revolution.

Levin begins by providing a brief overview of the lives of the two men. It is well done but it in some ways fails to dig deeper and understand what may have made a Paine and a Burke. Paine was in a sense an entrepreneur, he abandoned England and his "place in that society" to travel to American where he could create the person he became. Paine was the risk taker, seeing the need for change, albeit with risk, and taking the chance. Burke in total contrast knew his places and sought ways to maximize the best as possible his position in that place. Burke not only accepted the system as is but proselytized that system as the sine qua non of how things should be. Paine rejected that system and saw in the individual the path to change.

The reader should have some knowledge of the times to best understand some of the content. Let me provide a first example. On p 31 in discussing Burke there is the statement "Praising the gradualism of the English constitution ..." First, there is no document in existence which one can call the English Constitution. Second, when one looks for the English constitution one starts with the Magna Carta and then proceeds forward with an amalgam of Laws, Parliamentary proceedings and the rulings from Common Law courts, namely precedents. In addition the English constitution assumes that English society is built around three classes; the Crown, the Aristocracy, and the Commons. Namely, one always knew one's place, and one must act accordingly. It was this theme which flows throughout the book and also was essential to Burke's thought. In contrast in America one could be whatever one wanted, and class was essentially non-existent, thanks in many ways in which the English ruled.

There is a second theme that flows throughout the book, individualism. Levin comment on p 29 as follows: "Burke laid out an argument against radical individualism," A major issue which needs clarification is; what is the definition of individualism? This terms in in Burke and it returns a few decades later in de Tocqueville as a major characteristic of America in the early 19th century. Individualism was in many ways a rejection of the Burkean conservatism, namely of a society with an immutable class system, a society of strict structure. On p 36 the author states the core set of points upon which the battle between Burke and Paine rested, namely;

"...what makes a government legitimate, what the individual's place is in the larger society, and how each government should think about those who came before and those who will come after."

This question then flows throughout the book. Levin does a splendid job and going back and forth from Burke to Paine and exploring the details of the answers thereto.

Chapter 2 presents the two varying views of Nature that each had. These world views become the platforms upon which they build their ideas of government and society. To Burke there is formality and structure. Burke was a traditionalist, a royalist. On p 61 Levin presents the famous quote from Burke's Reflections where he states:

"We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility."

This as Levin note is the totality of Burke's world view. The irony is that Burke, as an Irishman by birth, with a Catholic mother, see reverence to priests of the English Church but death to the priests of the Catholic or Irish Church. Again one must read de Tocqueville's comparative journey through Ireland in the mid-19th Century to best understand this comparison. The question is; is this conservatism or a dogmatic slavish following akin to Stalinism?

In contrast Levin ascribes a "radical liberal thinker" to Paine (p 57) and these types of thinkers, says Levin, "leave the human sentiments and role of the imagination out of the understanding of human nature". This was an Enlightenment battle between reason and custom.

In Chapter 3 the author begins a discussion of Justice and Order. He states on p 69, "For Paine, the appeal to nature is primarily an appeal to justice." One must ask; what definition of justice do we use here? On p 71 Levin presents an excellent discussion of the integration in Burke's conservatism of utilitarian ideas, a "procedural conservative" mind.

Chapter 4 is a key chapter wherein the issue of individual choice and obligations (duties) are discussed. This chapter alone is worth reading. As Levin states on p 92; "The idea of rights sits at the core of Thomas Paine's political philosophy. Rights are the organizing principle of his thought and the prime concern of all his writings about government." But what is most important is that rights refer to the individual, each individual, qua individual, has the rights. The rights are not group rights; they are rights to the person. Burke vied society as an amalgam, he rejected the individual qua individual. Burke believed in classes, groups, because English society was so structured. Paine understood most clearly as a result of the discussion of the Bill of Rights that they accrued to the person, each and every person. In contrast Levin speaks of Burke on p 101 where he states: "As Burke sees it, each man is in society not by choice but by birth. And the facts of his birth - the family, the station, and the nation he is born into - exert inescapable demands on him, while also granting him some privileges and protection ..." One need go no further to understand the difference. To Paine the individual is unbounded in potential, to Burke the individual is molded by eons of history and genetics. England had its Aristocracy, a core element in its English constitution; America had the individual, and the Bill of Rights.

Chapter 5 the author discusses Reason and Prescription. Reason is the core to the Enlightenment, namely by reason we can come to truth. Prescription is term defined by Levin on p 1`40 as; "The term prescription originated in Roman property law, where it referred to ownership by virtue of long-term use, rather than by formal deed." Simply put, the battle between Reason and Prescription is the battle between what we think NOW is best as compared to what tradition had determined as best. It arguably is what many think is the contrast between liberal and conservative in current day America. I would argue that perhaps that is not the case and that the battle is truly between the individual versus the group. But here in two adjoining chapters Levin lays out the principles as advocated by Burke and Paine, and as battled today.

There is an undercurrent discussion in Chapter 5 as well, the discussion on equality. On p 151 there is a discussion of equality and the individual. For Paine one should be allowed to open the discussion up on the laws at least in every generation, for Burke he sees a slow representative government. The issue is the individual and equality. This theme comes again when Paine enters the fray of the French Revolution. The Liberty, Equality, Fraternity motto was focused on Liberty in the Americas and Equality in France. One can see Paine struggling with this issue. Whereas Liberty is consonant with Individualism, Equality may be taken to an extreme and destroy the individual. The resolution is left unsaid.

On p 153 the author makes a most important observation; ""He (Paine) argues that every individual is capable of employing his own reason to discern the truth or falsehood of a political question ... Paine believes that every individual has the capacity to begin from scratch, rather than beginning where others left off."

In the Conclusion the author makes the following statement on p 237:

"The fundamental utopian goal at the core of Paine's thinking - the goal of liberating the individual from the constraints of the obligations imposed upon him by his time, his place, and his relations to others - remains essential to the left in America."

I would argue that Paine placed power in the individual and not the group and that the left empowers the group often against the individual. Progressive ideas are ideas of group culture and are often opposed to individual culture. Paine I would argue is the champion of the individual and it is Burke who empowers the group. But Levin does a superb job in bringing these issues to the fore. His book is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the differences in our present day culture and more importantly the bases from which they sprung. What makes a conservative or a progressive? This book helps one think through that process better than any other.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2014
The author's use of Burke and Paine as the proxies for the political/philosophical division in America today is really helpful to understanding that their worldviews remain relevant today. I wonder how many of today's most vocal advocates for positions we label "conservative" or "liberal" understand the extent to which they owe their philosophical foundation to one or the other of these two men of 18th century Europe? Certainly, I suspect, few of the voting public in America know or understand much of what these two thinkers proposed and advocated - or the roots of their respective philosophies. I have not finished this book but after reading about 2/3 of it I can safely say that the differences between these two men remain unresolved in the outworking of American government and politics today. For Burke-like thinkers today the key problem, I think, is how to advocate for gradual and thoughtful reforms while supporting the vehicles for compassionate mitigation of acute or chronic suffering experienced by the least fortunate in society. For Paine-like thinkers today the key problem, I think, is how to advocate for significant changes in society while recognizing that absolute equality is simply not achievable in human community and that to achieve the "individual liberty" he espouses would essentially require that we all live as hermits!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2013
This is not the easiest book to read but it is probably the clearest exposition of the origins of progressive and conservative political thinking. You may be surprised at how the beliefs of these two sides have migrated ove3r th past two plus centuries but you will get an appreciation of political philosophy in the 21st century from the writings and speeches of these two scholars of the
Enlightenment. I liked it so much I bought another copy for a Christmas present.
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