Cory Leonard

Booklist | The Original Partisans: Burke v Paine

In politics on January 12, 2014 at 3:43 am

From arguments over the French Revolution (and other revolts to come) to the divide among conservatives and progressives today, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine are an interesting pair with historical and current relevance.  And a new book by Yuval Levin titled The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left explores this partisan debate by crafting a book based on “a powerful reflection of underlying and influential political philosophies,” according to Jack Rakove in WaPo:

Levin arrays the differences between Burke and Paine as a set of six sharp disagreements over basic political ideas, each of which he examines with some care. This opposition begins with a dispute over the relevant authority of nature and history. Paine’s radically free individual, the modern democratic citizen, derives his rights from a situation that precedes the formation of a society; Burke’s subject is always embedded in a matrix of institutions, customs and affections. To allow mankind to attain the rights that originate in nature, Paine makes justice a supreme value. For Burke, what Americans sometimes call “ordered liberty” remains the proper goal. That difference leads naturally to the recognition that Paine favors a political realm emphasizing continual choice, Burke one that emphasizes the duties that ultimately hold society together.

In his most ambitious chapter, Levin contrasts Paine’s absolute confidence in the working of human reason, the supreme good of the 18th-century Enlightenment, with Burke’s concept of “prescription,” a skeptical preference for settled mechanisms of behavior that requires reform to follow a moderate path, ever conscious of the dangers of unintended consequences. The comparison ends with two predictable topics. Paine favors revolution and the rights of the living generation, Burke opts for careful reform and a sense of generational continuity.

via – The Washington Post – The Original Partisans: Burke v Paine.


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