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The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left by [Levin, Yuval]
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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 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.'' --Wall Street Journal

''Levin presents a lucid analysis of the ideological confrontation between Paine . . . and Burke . . . Levin's Paine and Burke don't line up perfectly along the Democrat/Republican divide, but he unearths the roots of latter-day convictions in their far-reaching argument.'' --Publishers Weekly

Product Details

  • File Size: 965 KB
  • Print Length: 298 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (December 3, 2013)
  • Publication Date: December 3, 2013
  • Sold by: Hachette Book Group
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00BKRW4Z6
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #90,208 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Top Customer Reviews

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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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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14 Comments 68 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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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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