Posted: February 7, 2014
It is not an ordinary debate, nor even a great one, but the great debate that Yuval Levin brings to our attention. The debate is ours today in America and elsewhere in liberal democracies between the Right and the Left. It is even more the great debate because it raises the fundamental question in human thought between taking one's guidance from actual circumstances as opposed to abstract principle. The contrast Levin sets forth between Edmund Burke, the greatest philosophical champion of the circumstantial, and Tom Paine, the most gifted exponent of simple and abstract philosophy, is in itself nothing new. Paine made sure of it by confronting Burke's best-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) with its best-known critique in his own Rights of Man (1791-92). But Levin's treatment of this great debate is all the more original as it works in familiar ground.
In one sense his book is not original; it bears no traces of its origin as a doctoral dissertation—no pedantry, no stuffy language, no inconsequential fact. This is a dissertation that a graduate student might dream of. Levin has to inform us of his indebtedness to professors Ralph Lerner, Nathan Tarcov, and Leon Kass at the University of Chicago, who must be satisfied with a student who thanks them for gifts he has appropriated so skillfully that readers cannot see them.
Levin also acknowledges his partisan position, one could say occupation, as conservative—the formidable editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center—and he might seem to raise suspicion by claiming to enlighten our present-day debate: could this be an act of tendentious scholarship designed to maneuver the Left today into a situation it would find difficult and disagreeable to defend? But in fact Levin is a dispassionate moderator rather than a debater on the sly, and an analyst rather than a neutral reporter. A special virtue of his book is to elevate the case for Paine's view to a level of understanding it has never received from his supporters, so as to make it a worthy opponent of Burke's. For Burke has almost always been recognized (Karl Marx was a notable exception) as a great thinker and Paine disdained as not his equal. Both have been recognized as masters of rhetoric, with Burke's gorgeous elaboration matched against Paine's powerful simplification. But Levin brings out the thought and the logic behind the latter's rhetoric as never before, so much so that at first sight he seems to aid the Left more than the Right.
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His gift to the right appears when conservatives begin to learn better what motivates their opponents and the partial truth they have hold of. Indeed, both the Left and the Right will understand themselves better when they see something of the inevitability of the difference between them, and hence the permanence of their existence within a whole comprising both sides. Each of them is bound to provoke, in a manner to nourish, the other. Yet the awareness of the debate gained from Levin's book will not put an end to the debate. There is no secure victory to be conceived for either side, and no average middle that can bring quiet without temporary defeat for one side. Peace in the great debate is an illusion.
Another originality of the book is to make the French Revolution relevant to the American. The debate between Burke and Paine arose over the French Revolution, and Americans are in the habit of distinguishing their Revolution from the French and of contrasting the moderation of their revolutionaries to the bloody excesses of the French. Moreover, Americans like to think that Americans were in charge of the American Founding. They have felt grateful to Burke and Paine for assistingtheir cause, Burke in his Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies (1775) and Paine in Common Sense (1776), two works that in better days were read in American schools. But they were not grateful to them for being their cause—in opposite ways, as Levin has it. Burke was a British statesman and Paine was a sometime American, more because America was with him rather than he with America. Neither was an American Founding Father. Yet, according to Levin, it appears we owe the defining distinctions of our current politics to them.
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Conservatives are fond of calling for return to America's founding principles as opposed to the Progressives' departure from them—and rightly so. But those principles do not account for our political parties, absent from the founding but soon to appear. One must look very hard in The Federalist for the party difference that soon developed between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, its co-authors. Levin asks conservatives to consider the great debate as the one continuing today between our parties—normal to us—which constitutes the very occasion prompting them to return to the founding. One thing they do not find in the founding is "liberals" versus "conservatives." Instead they find Federalists and Anti-Federalists, a surprisingly diverse division of opinion.
Does the founding make room for the great debate or are 1776 and 1787 solely conservative, as the conservative appeal to them today implies? Liberals may be under the delusion that conservatism is obsolete and bound to vanish, leaving them in charge. But conservatives, the reactive (in this sense, reactionary) party, cannot forget that they depend for their existence on what they regard as liberals' delusions. Both parties seem to be quite seaworthy vessels, proven indeed over the years to be unsinkable, firing at each other with great but never fatal effect and somehow scoring many hits while shooting from a tilt.
Now it could be said that the necessary addition to the founding principles is to be found in the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln, who himself led a party calling for the return to those principles. One could add that the appeal he particularly made to natural human equality should be more than agreeable to liberals today, and that it set the stage for present partisan differences over the meaning of equality. But before slavery became the partisan issue in American politics, political parties emerged from a disagreement between the Jeffersonian republicans and the Federalists, in part, over whether to welcome, and how to handle, the French Revolution. By arguing the relevance today of the Burke-Paine debate, Levin brings along the French Revolution to us as the baggage of the American Founding. He does not make this point, but at the least he makes us wonder whether the violence of that revolution lies hidden in the vehemence of our politics. Burke was appalled at the violence and Paine suffered in a revolutionary jail because of it; where is it in the great debate?
Perhaps the answer is in the fact, as Levin insists, that the debate between Burke and Paine lies within liberalism, even within modern thought. Not just our politics, but also our thought oscillates between the Abstract of Paine and the Circumstantial of Burke. Here is the choice between rationalism and empiricism, between the sort of conceiving that zealously follows its logic to an extreme, liberated from all the past, which has lost its force and exists merely up-to-now, and only if we wish it; and prudent circumspection that keeps context always in view and advances from tradition warily, more to continue existing than to improve, like a small animal darting to seek food from its hidey-hole.
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Following Levin's suggestion to see the great debate as within liberalism, one could note how it compares to the debate in the Aristotelian tradition preceding liberalism against which liberalism rebelled. In Aristotle there is a fundamental debate in politics between democracy and oligarchy as to who should rule, the many or the few. Every regime is one or the other or some sort of mix of the two. A regime as such represents a settlement of that debate, in that some party of one, few, or many has won the debate and rules according to its opinion or principle. In his view, the great debate is a permanent feature of politics and will always continue; because there is reason in human nature to defend both the equality of all and the superiority of some; any settlement between them in the regime is open to challenge from partisans of the defeated side. A modern version of Aristotle's presentation can be found in Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, where he describes the two "great parties" to be found everywhere, as wanting to restrict popular power or extend it indefinitely—or, as aristocracy and democracy.
Characteristic of liberalism from its beginning in the 17th-century political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and their friends is the wish to avoid a form of ruling, the wish shared by both Burke and Paine, each from his side of the great debate as liberalism sees it. To rule is to determine a form of government that will promote and defend a certain way of life; the Aristotelian or Tocquevillian regime seeks to set a stamp on society as aristocratic or democratic in every regard. It does this mainly through religion, which was the aspect that stirred the hostility of these early, generic liberals. Their solution was politics without a regime, intended to produce a society without a dominating religion; so eager were they to counter religious domination in society that they tried to make it impossible for any opinion to dominate. They threw out Aristotelian politics to foil the Christian politics—and above all, the internecine Christian wars—to which they thought Aristotle had unwittingly given rise.
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This general solution had many varieties mostly because liberal philosophers and politicians did not find it easy to remove pre-liberal prejudice, particularly religious prejudice. One way to do so was to encourage spontaneous behavior (usually with incentives, so not fully "spontaneous") in commerce, such as in Adam Smith's "natural system of liberty"; a second way was to introduce rational alternatives to religious prejudice such as Locke's "reasonableness of Christianity." A difficulty in the first way was that many people would cling spontaneously to inherited errors; and a difficulty in the second way was that the new rational way of life could require more oppression to impose than any Aristotelian regime, for example, in the French Revolution and its later imitations.
Levin's contrast of Burke and Paine illustrates and expands these two general substitutes in liberalism for the regime. His book is organized by topics common to Burke and Paine or issues between them so that the reader finds the great debate of liberalism carried on in each chapter, the two authors attacking and defending each other, the two of them debating philosophy while acting "in the arena." For them, the assumptions of politics become questions of politics, the first being "nature and history." Paine, like Plato and Aristotle, insists on going beyond man's earliest history to his nature, to what always is. There he differs from the early liberals (and indeed from Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well) by discovering not only a state of nature before society but also a "natural society" after it. His liberalism is one of individuals without aggressive individuality, without the selfishness that energizes and endangers liberty according to more discerning liberal thinkers. Burke, with a view to human selfishness, opposes any return to a barbaric state of nature where selfishness is exposed and even justified; he appeals instead to "the pleasing illusions" of art that cover over selfishness and yet deter it, following "the pattern of nature" in the preservation of inherited practices rather than returning to original nature in its stark simplicity, as does Paine.
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From this opposition Levin turns to that of justice and order. He finds utilitarian and natural law interpretations of Burke unsatisfactory, and fashions his own between them in the notion of prescription taken from Roman law and learned through the experience of political life rather than imposed on it by philosophy. Prescription follows the "model of natural generation" and produces justice over time—easy to live with but difficult to defend rationally. Paine does the opposite: he makes a direct appeal to the simple order of justice regardless of any code of chivalry and decries Burke, who "pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird." Accordingly, Paine declares politics to be the exercise of choice—just or unjust—and Burke defines it as it appears to us, a matter of obligation incurred by being born to our parents into our society. Paine's ample notion of choice implies that we have rights first and foremost, so that all obligations derive from rights and are based on consent. Such a conception, Burke believes, overlooks human sentiments of pride and affection, and encourages an unsentimental, ungrateful tyranny of the majority, as seen in the French revolutionaries. He goes so far as to deny a right of self-government and does not see self-government in the experience of politics, as Tocqueville does.
Then comes a contrast of reason and prescription in politics—Paine's rational politics of Enlightenment for which only rational government is legitimate, versus Burke's prescription that rejects theory as too simple and endows practice with an imputed reason. The reason is imputed by Burke—who in this is, like Tocqueville, a modern philosopher for non-philosophers—and he finds it in the rules of prudence. For Paine, reason is strong enough on its own to defeat cunning politicians, though it may need Paine's help to deal with priests. Reason in the individual is not perverted by human selfishness, and in society knowledge once learned cannot be unlearned. In this view, reason is inherently progressive; it not merely defeats prejudice for a time but destroys it for good.
Next in the debate comes the duality of revolution and reform. Paine argues for revolution that returns to first principles in order to redeem an illegitimate government. Only a complete reform will be permanent, and only permanent reform is reform; government drawn from nature—i.e., from scratch—will be as lasting as nature. Burke, on the contrary, thinks that modest reform made in response to changing circumstances (for circumstances always change) and to the lessons of history (not to be dismissed) will be more effectual and more just because it takes account of the impermanence of human affairs and answers only to the call of necessity when change is compelled, not to the untimely wish for perfection. Unlike Aristotle, neither Burke nor Paine discusses revolution and reform in the context of the regime, as changing or preserving the regime. They speak of change as we do today, either of total, transformational change that puts an end to change or of evolutionary change that never ends—not as change from one regime to another (hence truly "transformational," as from one form to another). In the idea of total change from prejudice to reason all the way to a new man lies the temptation to violence suggested by liberalism.
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Levin's last topic is the polarity of generations, past and future, and the living—Burke's respect for past wisdom versus Paine's "eternal now" (as Paine calls it). The principle of consent gives the vote to the living, deciding for themselves, as Paine would have it, but the trouble is that the living are born into a given society rather than into an open world. Enlightenment will erase this disadvantage and with its new education make possible a "state of constant maturity." Paine's sovereignty of the living requires—Republicans today will note—that one generation not burden the next one with excessive debt. They would not, however, be so happy with Paine's advocacy of an inheritance tax for the same purpose of giving the next generation a fresh start. For Burke, it is order that is eternal, not the now: "the great chain of eternal order." Nature's order is maintained through generation, and hence by human respect for generations, those that have been and those to come. Nature and art cooperate for Burke, whereas for Paine, art is nature's servant. For neither thinker is human art meant to conquer nature.
For neither, too, do humans rule. Both Paine and Burke look on government as providing the necessary restraints on liberty, and the central Aristotelian question of who rules is presented in terms of the institutions and principles needed to restrain the liberty that human nature demands and from which politics takes its start. Paine admits the necessity for wisdom embodied in experts who serve the people but rejects a "monopoly-government of wisdom." Burke argues for a "virtuous liberty," but he means virtue for the sake of liberty rather than liberty for the sake of virtue. To become effectual, liberty must be restrained; so the political problem becomes reconciling liberty with its necessary restraints. This statement of the problem, common to Paine and Burke, is always a sign of liberalism. It puts the rule of law in place of the rule of men, so that rulers forget the virtue that makes them superior and worthy to rule in the name of their virtue; they become civil servants. "Civil servant" applies easily to Paine's experts, but seems strange if used to describe a gentleman like Lord Rockingham, Burke's patron, the sort of minister presiding in the English constitution whom Burke recommends. Yet he declines to define his gentlemanly ministers by their actual virtue and refers to their qualification as "presumptive virtue," accorded to them more by their situation of responsibility than by any eminence of virtue regardless of place.
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The difference between Paine's experts and Burke's gentlemen would produce a very pronounced contrast in the sort of society in which one or the other dominated. At some point one might want to use the Aristotelian word "ruled" (archein) to describe that difference. One might then want to question, with Aristotle, whether the rule of law, even in a liberal society, is impartial as claimed or whether it in fact reflects the rule of certain men who pass the laws and administer them. The next step would be to propose a mixed regime of those lawgivers that might ensure greater impartiality in the law, something for both sides or in the middle or transcending them. The sides in question are democracy and oligarchy, the two great parties and the hidden source of the great debate today between liberals and conservatives, which Yuval Levin illuminates in his new book. It might be that we today have a kind of mixed regime in our liberal democracy in which democracy rules with the aid of liberals (now understood in the specific sense referring to the example of Tom Paine) and conservatives. In that case neither of our two parties rules but both serve our democratic ruler, each speaking in one of its ears.