Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Great Debate: Burke Versus Paine, Part I

Victory Does Not Mean The Winner is Right

In our view every civics class in High School should be made familiar with the works of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.  Both were actively writing and debating during the time of the American and French Revolutions, in the late eighteenth century.  They took diametrically opposite sides in the debate.

The issues swirled around a just government and the constitution of freedom.  Paine and Burke are intellectual fathers of very modern arguments over the nature, role, and place of the State.  Neither's views were explicitly Christian--more Deist in many ways.  But Paine was the radical democrat; Burke was the conservative.  Their argument has continued down to our present day.

One of the things which immediately confronts the student of this debate is how history and events of the day "disproved" Paine's position.  Yet, ironically, it is Paine's views, positions, and arguments which have held sway over time and are more widely followed today.  Paine argued that the "Rights of Man" trumped all political arrangements, constitutions, laws, and governments.  The European establishments of his day were ruled by elites and vested interests.  Governments were oppressive and stripped freedoms and powers from ordinary citizens.

Paine was, thus, a fierce supporter of the American Revolution.  Ordinary people, exercising fundamental human rights, threw off the yoke of the English crown.  This narrative would be familiar to most Americans.  Paine wanted to see a similar revolution within England itself.  Burke, on the other hand, warned repeatedly that such struggles could (and likely would) lead to the substitution of one form of oppression by a tyranny far worse.

The American Revolution occurred in the 1770's.  Twenty years later the French Revolution shook that country, and eventually most of Europe.  Paine was an ardent advocate for that revolution as well.  Once again vested tyrannies of the French monarchy, the aristocracy, and the church were being torn down, to be replaced by government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  Then the guillotines began to slice, the heads rolled, and blood flowed.  All of Burke's warnings about popular revolutions based on the rights of man came to pass.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Yuval Levin was written a superb book comparing and contrasting the thought of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.  [The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (New York: Basic Books, 2014)].  Thomas Paine, for our generations, is by far the more influential thinker.  He lost the debate against Burke, as the tumbrils filled in France, but he has won the long term war.  This is doubly ironic insofar as Burke's warnings and arguments have been repeatedly proven to be valid by events over the past three hundred years as collectively we have watched the rise of successive totalitarian governments all purporting to overthrow tyranny on behalf of the ordinary bloke, only to replace it with a tyranny far, far worse.

Thomas Paine is the patron saint of all Progressive philosophies and political parties.  He is the archetypal Democrat.  He is always murmuring in the hearts and minds of US politicians vainly attempt to replace centuries-old cultures and political structures with western-style "rights of Man" democracies in places like Libya and Palestine and Iraq.  He is the patron saint of the Neo-Cons.  He is the lead counsel for the Clintons and the Democratic Party in the US.

But Burke, the advocate of conservatism, although proved prescient and right by the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath, is hardly known.  His arguments and evidences for a just and free society are blowing in the wind.

We will argue that an explanation for this strange turn of history lies in the religious or faith environment of the West.  Both Burke and Paine were working and writing at a time when Enlightenment liberalism, with its accompanying Deistic religion, was taking hold.  Burke was a "throwback" to a more Christian worldview; Paine was an avatar of the autonomy of Man.  The West today would have Paine as its patron saint--the rights of Man, and all that--while Burke is an embarrassment to the modern mind.  Paine is modern; Burke is antediluvian.  Anti-Christianism finds Paine congenial; in Burke it finds one to be scornfully rejected.

Become a Christian and you will likely end up identifying far more with Burke than Paine.  In subsequent pieces we will endeavour to explain why.

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