Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Great Debate: Burke vs Paine

Thomas Paine and Angela Merkel

One of the more interesting aspects of the "great debate" between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine (which played out in the late eighteenth century) is the currency of the issues to this day.  Of course, Paine and Burke have long since shuffled off their mortal coils, as it were.  But the clash of political ideologies personified by these two continues.  To that extent, little has changed.

We acknowledge that these days Paine's corner has the upper hand.  The characteristics of his ideology relied upon abstract principles such as liberty, equality, and fraternity which were to be pressed down upon all men.  Often they had to be "pressed down"--that is, forced--because people do not know what's best for them.  But once they got a taste of the pudding, they would love it, and would never go back to meat and three vege.

Thomas Paine had a black and white, simplistic approach to human existence.  Historian Robert Tombs describes him:

Born in Norfolk in 1737, he had a picaresque career as corset-maker, sailor, shopkeeper, teacher and customs office, and "reading and public-house conversation familiarized him with the scientific , political, and religious assumptions of Enlightenment Europe."  He possessed a gift for slick and pithy polemic, stuffed with biblical and historical citations, leading to attractively simplistic conclusions.  [Robert Tombs, The English And Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p.355.]
Think about how much political energy these days is expended upon slick, pithy slogans.  "Gay rights", "freedom to choose", "a woman's control over her own body", "hate-speech".  Human rights are "discovered" which have never been known to mankind before.  Overnight all must bow before these new found sovereigns.  We wake up to hear there is a new human right to "plural marriage", and another to lay claim any one of over fifty different genders, previously unknown to mankind.

Paine's generation experienced the end game of such simplistic slogans: it all played out in the French revolution, as society fractured, broke up, and groups began executing one another with abandon, all the while pulsating with self-righteous, indignant fury.  That's where Paine's "higher life" led.

The West is now awash with similar destructive absolutes.  How could it be that Chancellor Merkel would put the safety and sovereignty of Germany at risk over insistence upon an abstract principle such as the universal human rights of migrants?  It's because Thomas Paine is her secret counsellor, her Rasputin.

Edmund Burke's approach leads in a very different direction.  His counsel, however, is the minority view in our day.  He argued that radical change, driven by simplistic abstract ideas, ends up destroying far more than building.
By treating existing political institutions and practices as an entailed inheritance, citizens learn to think of them as a kind of charge--a gift from the past that, preserved and suitably improved upon, is owed to the future--and therefore learn not to dismiss them lightly. . . . The old and tried model will not always work, of course, but when it fails, societies would be wise to fix it by gradually building on what does work about it rather than by starting fresh with an untried idea.  [Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (New York: Basic Books, 2014), p.66.]
Burke's counsel seems strange in our day--but only because it is the minority view.  Yet, we would argue it is self-evidently the right approach to society and government.

Try building and raising a family following Paine's simplistic slogans.   As we contemplate which advisor we would follow for family life--Paine or Burke--we would quickly conclude that a family could not continue as a family under Paine's philosophy.  The "families" of society, state and nation are no different.

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