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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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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.
"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 refutationthis time with an inerrant clangof 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.
In a Burkean manner, Mr. Levin enriches through wisdom rather than prescription. He gives us something more than a manual of past lessonsnamely, 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.
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 precis 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.
[Has] potential to have long-lasting impact on a readerLevin'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.
[An] extremely absorbing book indeed it makes one despair for the future of Burkeans in American politicsbut 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.
"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 clarityand absolutely no jargon or pretenseabout the foundations of our current political situation.
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."
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 booka readable intellectual history that fairly crackles with contemporary relevance. The must-read book of the year for conservativesespecially 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."
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.
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 policyThe 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.
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 Paineand Burke...he succeeds in establishing the continued relevance of Burke s thought and prescient critique of revolutionary excesses.
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.
"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"
Top customer reviews
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.
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.