Book Review: The Great Debate

The Great Debate:  Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and The Birth Of Right and Left, by Yuval Levin

I have to admit that I found this book useful to read for more than one reason.  Not only am I interested in studying the political history of the late 18th century, but I found that this book was very useful when it came to the problem of triangulating one’s political worldview.  After all, both Burke and Paine, for all of their differences, were two different sorts of liberals, and I find that in much of my own thinking that I am not either kind of liberal, but more traditionalist than either Burke or Paine were.  It is interesting when one reads books about politics because it prompts one to think of other options besides the ones that the author is trying to contrast.  In this particular case the author spends his time writing about two liberals who nonetheless had widely divergent opinions that roughly correlate to the positions of Republicans and Democrats, and the author does a good job at pointing out how it is that these two parties disagree on so many issues by pointing out how interrelated those differences are.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and is divided into seven chapters.  The book begins with a preface and introduction and then shows some of the ways that Paine and Burke were similar in spending their lives in the public arena arguing and debating with others about politics (1).  After that the author explores the differences between the two concerning nature and history (2) before then looking at the relationship between justice and order (3), where the two had clear differences.  The author discusses how the two differed strongly when it came to choice and obligation in ways that are not too surprising to guess (4), as well as how reason and prescription varied in terms of their views of what was desirable (5).  The book then ends with a discussion of the contrasting views of revolution and reform, where Paine argued for drastic revolution and Burke for cautious reform (6), and also where the two differed strongly in terms of how they thought about the importance of generations passing as well as the relationship of politics to the living and dead (7).  After that there is a conclusion, acknowledgements, notes, as well as the usual bibliography and index to close this book properly.

It should be remembered, though, that to be conservative is different than to be traditionalist.  It is commonly mistaken, especially by those who are progressives, that those who are conservative want to roll back the clock to an earlier time, and frequent for conservatives to disclaim such a desire to the disbelief of progressives.  Yet it is no great thing to desire to turn around if one is going in the wrong direction, and no praise at all to conserve those traditions that have not proven themselves or have proven themselves to be wrong.  To be a reactionary against evil trends is by no means wrong, although it must be said that not all social changes are themselves evil, although I tend to be very temperamentally conservative and a great pessimist when it comes to human nature, largely because I know my own so well and that of those people of my time.  Knowing this made the book different for me than it would be for those readers who felt themselves being pit between Paine and Burke.  While I definitely prefer Burke, I found him a bit too liberal at some points for my tastes, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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