The Great Debate, by Yuval Levin

How so e’er, my man
Shall reade a piece of VIRGIL, TACITUS,
LIVIE, or of some better booke to us,
Of which wee’ll speake our minds, amidst our meate . . . .
–Ben Jonson, “Inviting a Friend to Supper”

I have an edition on the shelf that packages Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France with Paine’s Rights of Man. This is a natural pairing, especially for the classroom, to compare and contrast. This book by Yuval Levin provides a discussion of the writings of Burke and Paine, not only the Reflections and Rights of Man, but also Burke’s letters and speeches and Paine’s Common Sense.

Burke is often invoked by contemporary American conservatives as their inspiration, but Levin makes clear that Burke never renounced his Whiggery. Recoiling emotionally from the cold logic of the French Revolution, Burke attempted most famously in the Reflections, but also in his letters, speeches, and other works, to articulate a political philosophy of small “c” conservatism–appreciating what the culture had inherited because it was inherited, while admitting incremental change where necessary. Paine, on the other hand, was ready to make a new world order and had no patience. They are the bookends of American revolutionary thought and practice–America continued the legal system and terminology that had come with Englishness (did the courts of the Revolution consider themselves bound by a Gallic Rule in Shelley’s Case?), even keeping the outlines of the colonies for the new states, while at the same time breaking the claims of the British Crown. Contrast this to France, where units of measure were digitized, provinces were suppressed in favor of departments, and for a time, even the days of the week and months of the year were relabeled. The American method never let the novel entirely have its way.

What may be new to the reader familiar with the major works is the personal relationship between the two men, who if not friends, were at least well acquainted and exchanged some correspondence. Paine, especially, wrote several articles that were specifically in response to Burke. In Levin’s telling, despite the chasm that yawned between them regarding how the world was and should be, they got along tolerably well, and each maintained some esteem for the other. Levin holds them up as an example to the talkers of today–it may really be possible to have great disagreements without wishing the other person the worst. As for the substantive influence of his subjects, Levin writes that the Democrats have more of Paine in them than the Republicans do of Burke.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the book resembles a Ph.D. thesis between covers, what we used to call a “close reading of the text.” Levin needed to put Burke and Paine in context for their own times (with discussion of other contemporary philosophers and politicians, which he never really does in any detail) and today (which he finally does in the last chapter). This is disappointing, in that Levin’s articles are always very good. Expanding to book length requires other kinds of writing–the digression, the colorful anecdote, varying tone to maintain interest, etc.  He lets loose a bit in the footnotes, where there is some textual discussion, though not quite in a law-review style.



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