I’m not an expert on either Edmund Burke or Thomas Paine, but I heard a lecture online of author Yuval Levin, speaking at the Heritage Society, related to his book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. [The lecture is only a half hour, but there's another half hour of Q&A. And yes, I'm aware that the way I spend my spare time is a little odd; thank you for pointing that out yet again.] Understanding something of these two contemporaries of our nation’s founding might give us insight into an ongoing differences today.
Yuval Levin proposes that the ideas of right and left, which affect our politics and policies, “seem to represent genuinely distinct points of view, and our national life seems almost by design to bring to the surface the sorts of questions that divide them.” And, “There are no perfect representatives of the two side of the debate, but there may be no better representatives than Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.”
Burke is essentially conservative, what is referred to as “right.” And Paine is essentially progressive, or what is referred to as “left” today. That said, they both debated during the American Revolution, both in favor of it, both in favor of basic human rights, and both from within traditions and elements of society that worked. So there's nothing here as simple as right and wrong.
Here at the Spherical Model, I don’t use right and left, but rather north for freedom, south for tyranny, with an east/west position depending on the level of society whose interests are at stake. I’m not suggesting that Burke is purely “north” and Paine is purely “south.” But I’m hoping the debate they had can enlighten us as we identify where on the sphere certain ideas and policies lie. And, maybe more important, I’m hoping we can identify ways of thinking, so that we can persuade those who think differently to live in the northern hemisphere with us, instead of dragging us ever southward.
Yuval says, of Burke and Paine,
Their disagreement, though it was always directed to real events and practical questions, took place on the plain of philosophical argument. They argued about the meaning of nature and history and politics, what sort of standards of justice should govern political life. They argued about the tension between rights and duties in society, between choice and obligation. They argued about whether politics could answer to stark and universal principles that we could learn through reason, or whether it had also to answer to the traditions and forms and inherited practices of each society.
It seems to me, even today, if we can debate on these terms, instead of accusations of hatred toward opposing views, we might at least get some mutual understanding.
At about 15 minutes in, Levin outlines three areas of differences between Burke and Paine, and how each relates to certain issue areas today. This struck me as approximately the three spheres: political, economic, and social:
· Their basic dispositions toward society and politics.
o What gets the left and the right energized or angry.
· Their sense of what kind of knowledge is available to us in solving social and political problems.
o How conservatives and liberals think about a lot of economic issues.
· Their views of how the past and the present relate to one another in politics, and in human life more generally—the question that gets to what may be the deepest differences between the left and the right.
o How we think about a lot of the social issues.
If there are philosophical truths from each, both worth considering, then Burke and Paine are not simply north and south. Still, one path of thought may get to usable truth better than the other. Levin said,
Edmund Burke, like many of the conservatives who have followed him, approached that world by first and foremost being impressed with and grateful for what works about it—so trying to build on what is good to address what is not.
Thomas Paine, like many progressives and radicals since, approached that world first and foremost by being struck and outraged by what was failing about it—so trying to root out the bad in order to make room for good things to take its place.
Burke begins in gratitude; Paine begins in outrage.
Because people think differently, we are always going to have this divide. There’s a difference in the way the two consider human beings, to begin with. Levin continues with this description:
Burke begins with a sense of man as a fallen creature, as highly imperfect, prone to self-destructive passions and excesses, in need of correction and balance. And that means that Burke is basically simply surprised that anything works at all in society. He thinks it’s much easier for human communities to fall into chaos and disorder than to achieve order and happiness. And any human institutions that do manage to work, to make something worthwhile of this imperfect raw material, deserve to be revered and treasured and protected. He’s grateful for those institutions, grateful for the people who created and sustained them, because he thinks they’re very far from guaranteed.
Paine, on the contrary, begins from much higher expectations of human reason and human power and knowledge. And so he thinks that achieving social order and tranquility and happiness is a matter of applying the right principles—principles that he thought were becoming well known in his day, thanks to a new enlightenment science of politics. And so there was really no excuse for persisting in failure. Social order and prosperity and happiness should be the default condition of the human race, and any deviations from them are a reason to be outraged.
His expectations are almost utopian, where Burke’s are far lower and more modest. And so Paine is inclined to tear down what isn’t working and is confident that it can be replaced with something better, while Burke is cautious to protect all standing institutions. He thinks they were built over generations of trial and error by countless people working together to address enduring human problems. And so he wants to preserve those institutions, and to fix their problems in targeted and modest ways, because he’s not at all sure that we can build new or better ones from scratch on our own.
Here we find, I think, a basic difference of disposition that is still, in a lot of ways, evident in our own politics now: one approach that begins in gratitude for the good in the world; another that begins in outrage at the bad. The first seeks gradual reform to sustain a working system; the second seeks wholesale transformation to move beyond a failed system and create a working one. So one is conservative, the other progressive. One is outraged at seeing valuable possessions lost; the other is outraged at the sheer injustice of the status quo.
So, if you were to categorize, people are likely to fall into one of the two types: “conservative” or “progressive.” I more often fall on the Burke side (so does Yuval Levin). But it is possible to respect the Paine side. Then the debate can be about what works to get what we agree are better ends, or better policies.
However, it may be that Burke’s point of view is more provable in evidence, whereas the supposed possible “better” world progressives envision is not going to be reached using the non-angelic people, incomplete knowledge, and limited resources available.
I propose that there are things we know—about what is good, what is right, what is best for human prosperity and happiness. I think it would be worth spending another post discussing what we know, and why we ought to be choosing those things, instead of what we’ve been choosing.