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Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

by Yuval Levin

Pub Date: Dec. 3rd, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-465-05097-0
Publisher: Basic

A conservative journalist traces our current sharp political schism back to the writings of conservative Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and liberal Thomas Paine (1738–1809).

Despite his conservative credentials, National Affairs founder and editor Levin (Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy, 2008) maintains a generally disinterested balance throughout—although at times it reads like an earnest term paper from a talented, assiduous student: standard comparison-contrast organization, lots of lengthy block quotations. He begins by noting how Burke and Paine first met (they dined together in 1788), their early amiable relations and their later fierce exchanges in print. Levin then provides a biographical sketch of each (adding more as the argument advances) before commencing to compare their philosophical and political positions. Paine, he shows, believed in man as a natural creature—and that governments should be more consistent with his nature and should rest on principles derived from reason. Burke, by contrast, argued that we must learn from the past, continue what works and gradually change what doesn’t. These two basic approaches reoccur throughout the other topics Levin discusses: justice (the two men had very different notions of equality), obligation (Paine believed choice was more important), reason and prescription, revolution and reform, and our obligations to all generations, not just to the new, revolutionary one. Concluding, Levin chides both sides in today’s acrimonious climate, pointing out weaknesses in their positions and emphases. The author has done a tremendous amount of research and seems to have read every major work by both figures, doing his best both to state their positions clearly (and fairly) and to note their relevance in today’s America. He consigns to endnotes some of the subtleties and ambiguities of their positions.

Some arresting reminders of our political past—would that Levin’s prose featured some of the fire flaring from his principals’ pens.