You are here:   Civilisation >  Books > The Right Need Not Be Repulsive
 
 
Edmund Burke, 1729-1797
 
As millions in the United States tune their televisions to images of royal babies, diamond jubilees, and the further adventures of the Earl of Grantham, Yuval Levin gives us American interest in England of a much more profound sort: an in-depth study of the two leading British political thinkers of the 18th century.  

Both Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine were known for their sympathies for the American cause. Burke was one of the foremost critics of Parliament's policies toward the colonists across the Atlantic. Paine's publication of his pamphlet Common Sense — possibly the most influential essay in American history — proved to be the polemical tinderbox that turned these colonists' disgust with Parliament into a permanent rejection of monarchy. The two famously clashed, however, over the French Revolution, in which Paine saw the dawning of a new era founded in reason, while Burke saw the destruction of the mores, traditions and civic structures that had sustained civilisation for centuries. Paine's writings embody Enlightenment optimistic belief in the progressive march of mankind, while Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France remains today an ur-text of conservatism. In a dazzling, engaging, clearly written examination of their diverse writings, Levin traces the link between these differences and the political debate dividing Left and Right today. Paine stressed reason as the primary animating force in political progress; Burke emphasised tradition as a central source of wisdom in politics. Whereas Paine stressed the natural rights of man as morally obligating even antagonism to the political order, Burke stressed the importance of order in ensuring the very liberty Englishmen held dear. Perhaps the most fundamental disagreement between the two, for Levin, is how to understand the connection between past and posterity, how modern man should relate to the generations that preceded and formed him. Paine, Levin writes, "seeks to understand man apart from his social setting, while Burke thinks man is incomprehensible apart from the circumstances into which he is born". 

Levin locates in this disagreement the visions of the Right and Left in America today — or, as he might put it, two very different versions of the liberalism born in the Enlightenment. Both approaches, he shows, stem from an inherent tension in the Enlightenment. For the political achievements of modernity, such as representative democracy or religious toleration, were developed over generations, primarily in Britain, traceable both to thinkers such as Locke and events such as the Glorious Revolution, inspired by philosophy but also by scripture.  At the same time the Enlightenment emphasises abstract principles: inalienable rights, the consent of the governed, the autonomy of the individual. The question for liberalism, Levin writes, is:

Is it a set of principles that were discovered by Enlightenment philosophers and that should be put more and more completely into practice so that our society can increasingly resemble those philosophers' ideal mix of egalitarianism and liberty? Or is it a living culture built up over countless generations of social trial and error so that by the time of the Enlightenment, especially in Britain, society had taken a form that allowed for an exceptional mix of egalitarianism and liberty?

How we answer that question will affect what course the classical liberalism given to the West by Britain should take today. 

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.