Levin introduces himself as a “policy wonk” on the conservative side who took a detour from D.C. to pursue a PhD in political philosophy. He gives a few words for the importance of ideas in discovering the origins of America’s left / right divide. He seems like a genuine enough conservative (read: a liberal who falls on the conservative side of contemporary liberalism); yet, for my part, I’ve long rejected the notion that “ideas have consequences.” With all pardon and respect to Richard Weaver, Ideas *are* the consequences! By that, I mean: a spirit moves through a people, changing their hearts, after which, ideas bubble forth to support the new mood.
Levin engages in a short argument for why Burke and Paine ought to be compared and contrasted as the leading voices of mutually incompatible philosophies within the liberal tradition – begging the pardon of Burke, who, it’s noted, was tired of the comparison, even in his own day. Shocking to me that Burke is included in “liberalism” and yet, Levin never expounds on this, he merely takes his categorizing for granted. I’m not sure what “liberalism” is if it’s to include Burke, but I haven’t thought much on the necessary and sufficient conditions of “liberalism”. I’ll think on that more as I read, keeping an eye on any attempts from Levin to clarify the theme. He opens this introduction with an iconic meeting of the two men, with Paine expecting to find a compatriot in Burke owing to Burke’s nominal support of the American Revolution. “Paine left being disavowed of that notion, however”, Levin says…
One: Two Lives in the Arena
Here, we’re given a brief biography of the two men, hoping thereby to gain a better understanding of their contemporary political contexts. We begin with Burke and what I like most about Levin’s presentation is that he clearly highlights, through a discussion of Burke’s first political tract, what I call the “spirit of lawlessness” and how Burke fought it strongly from the start. One Lord Bolingbroke attempted to vindicate “natural” beliefs over artificial and false beliefs, which weren’t in some way derived from nature. Burke offered a satire attempting to reduce this idea to absurdity. Struck me how, essentially, we “conservatives” today are engaged in the same battle against the same spirit of lawlessness – only where a fairly innocuous (comparatively) “deism” was in view for Burke, in our day, the battle lines have progressed to attacking male / female categories and we no longer have the luxury of reducing the enemy to absurdity (since he’s already accepted the most absurd positions). Our parents accepted race mixing, my generation accepted sexual degeneracy, our children are accepting the abolition of sex, their children will be leaving their humanity behind all together (or, at least, engaging in some Satanic technological farce to that end)…God help us. With Burke, we’re in a desperate fight against the spirit of lawlessness…
Paine, not surprisingly, is presented as the exact opposite of this thinking – we might say: the champion of lawlessness, although this isn’t to paint him as some sort of anarchist. He’s “lawless” in the way of all Satanists: seeking a leveling of all that came before and the creation of a new, “scientific” regime. An interesting note from this chapter, Levin expounds on how the debate between Burke and Paine gained international attention in the English-speaking world and provides some commentary on how the American “founders” received it. He suggests Quincy Adams favored the Burkean position while Thomas Jefferson favored Paine’s. In fact, Levin talks about how enthused Jefferson was when Paine told him of the French Revolutionaries’ plan to divide France into a series of 80 or so districts – scientifically parceled out – as a way to undermine the old, oppressive social order and start with new “locales” and new neighborhood relations. Wonder how the Abbeville Institute fellows, then, can so highly revere Jefferson as a champion of Southern Agrarianism, when he supports the most awful destruction of community?
Two: Nature and History
I wont say much about this chapter, nor, perhaps, for the remaining ones since Levin dives deep into the philosophical differences of Burke and Paine. In my view, philosophy (as I mentioned above) is the outcome of one’s spirit or “heart” position. It’s the attempt to express and defend the ethics of a spirit. Once the opposing spirits are recognized – as Levin did well in the first chapter – all the following discourse is mere bluster, in my opinion.
Nevertheless, Levin contrasts Paine’s view of a foundational “starting-point” in political philosophy, with Burke’s. Paine, in a sophomoric extension of Locke’s philosophy, talks about a hypothetical (and completely nonsensical) idea of the “state of nature” where all men are “born equal”, etc. Where as Burke rejects this – and for good reason. In my own decade-long study of analytic philosophy, I’ve seen the same sort of contrast arise again and again across different domains of philosophic discourse. Take Wittgenstein’s discussion of language games as an example: an arrow ” ——–> ” may, in our language game, be said to be pointing to the right, and yet, maybe an African native with no experience of European conceptual norms, could easily see the arrow-head as the “base”, with the line sprouting to the left as an indication of “left”. So the linguistic “context” governs the interpretation and enables communication. If we extend Locke’s view of the Tabula Rasa to the human condition in a political sense (as Paine attempts) we have the same issue (as Burke raised, although not in the context of modern philosophy) – it would be impossible to establish a social order rising out of this hypothetical “state of nature” since the rules and “context” (so to speak) would be missing and thus, like the African native and the European speaker, there’d never be an ability to bridge the conceptual gaps to determine the meaning of the arrow (or to create laws, language, etc). Something transcendent is needed, although, it’s unclear from Levin’s narrative if Burke made that positive assertion, or if he kept to the critical theme, preferring to attack the irrationality of Paine’s view.
Three: Justice and Order
We’re treated to further differences between the two men in matters of philosophical minutiae, this time with respect to their ideas of justice and order. I am so burnt out on philosophy I can’t summon the effort to even summarize this chapter. I’ll only say that, as this is my first real introduction to Paine, I’m constantly surprised at how blatant his liberalism is. He’s the perfect stand-in for the liberalism of our own day; it’s hard to see how anyone in our awful modern world is doing anything other than fulfilling Paine’s philosophy. He prattles on about “rights” but he doesn’t want rights. He wants unbounded, unrestrained, freedom – that is: lawlessness. That these two men existed when and how they did, clearly owes to providence. Paine, a burnt out husk of flesh with the Devil’s hand animating every move of mouth and waggling of tongue, and Burke, a man possessed by a spirit, maybe, but by a holy and terrible one. Let Burke’s “Reflections” be our ouija board and any meddling with it, end in our being possessed by the same spirit.
Four: Choice and Obligation
More expansion on the philosophical differences between the two men. I don’t fault Levin for this since it’s the entire premise of the book. Worse for me for reading it, I guess. He does highlight something interesting in this chapter, though, and that is both men’s nominal acceptance of capitalism, although, as with the American Revolution, their positions only seem the same at a surface level. Ironically, the evil supporter of tyranny, Burke, ended up supporting the dignity and liberty-within-proper-constraint of the common man, noting that the intricacies of every day commerce are so infinitely complex that no pretentious set of governors could control it – while Paine, the champion of freedom, ended up supporting something very like the sort of state-sponsored economic tyranny we see today, by arguing for government welfare programs and the like.
There’s been much debate, back and forth, in the dissident right, about the nature of free-markets as opposed to government interventions. Reading Burke’s view of this has greatly helped solidify my own position. I don’t think Burke ought to be called a “capitalist” (as we think of it today) since his is very different from what we’d recognize by the term. Our “capitalism” today is hand-in-hand with the rationalist machine-building of Paine and finds its expression within some state-machine, build by enlightened minds. Burke’s on the other hand, was simply an extension of dignity and liberty to the citizen inherent in his broader political philosophy. “Capitalism” outside the bounded society of Burke, is another expression of the lawlessness of Paine and the Devil.
Five: Reason and Prescription
From my old Van Tillian perspective, this is the best chapter so far and ought to have been included sooner in the line-up. We’re treated to a down and dirty overview of both men’s competing theories of knowledge, with Paine being the champion of a naive view of “reason” and Burke, the champion of a theory I find difficult to label as it has few appropriate representatives in contemporary epistemology. We might call it “pragmatism”, but a very different sort from the naive-realist pragmatism of Dewey et al. Perhaps a “romantic pragmatism”, as, according to Levin’s analysis, Burke wishes to evaluate our human experience through the lens of the “heart” (so to speak), where time-honored prejudices and sentiment aid in properly arranging the raw-data particulars given us by our eyes and ears. Paine’s view won out politically and in the mind of the populace, at least until the 1950’s (when naive Enlightenment optimism was destroyed by world wars as well as the looming postmodern criticism in academia) – we might say that, at least in analytic philosophy, then, Burke’s view has won out in the end, albeit a grotesque version of it. See Wolterstorff’s essay “Are Concept Users Worldmakers” for an overview of the idea that we evaluate empirical data through the lens of a prior conceptual framework.
That Paine seriously believed “facts speak for themselves” grates on the nerves of modern philosophers, who know better. That entire nations can be governed in this way is laughable today. It’s for this reason Paine rejected the idea of political parties. If all men are equally able to reason then all men ought to, equally, arrive at the same “correct” principles of government – and yet, history has proven this for a farce. Burke, on the other hand, championed political factions and parties, although, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that parties and factions are only a benefit when all involved share the same Christian worldview. No doubt Burke, as should we, would have rejected the idea of being party to a faction of mouth-frothing Jacobins.
More interesting, in this chapter, is a discussion of why each man supported the American revolution (though Burke never referred to it as a revolution). Their difference in opinion on this seems to play into differing views of America’s founding that resonate even today. Paine saw the revolution as fueled by the spirit of his Enlightenment rationalism, though he saw the resulting government and constitution as getting away from the purity of the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Burke, to the contrary, saw the Revolution as an attempt by Englishmen to reclaim their traditional rights as English citizens under the crown – a continuation of the English “constitution”. I’ve heard this same repeated by numerous scholars who suggest America’s founding was a sort of “conservative” revolt against an unjust tyrant of a king, and that the original Americans did not seek separation until they had no other choice.
The reality may be a mix of the two ideas and it will be hard to determine which is the more accurate. Best to say America was founded on a double-minded spirit – with some animated by Enlightenment zealotry and others animated by a desire to stay true to their English heritage and traditions. It would be interesting to do a more in-depth study on the point, perhaps reading letters from the average Revolutionary soldier, to get a feel for which of the two spirits more animated his desire to fight. It seems true, however, that while the radical Enlightenment liberals (like Jefferson) were able to feed their spirit into the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the more Burkean-in-spirit were able to gain an upper hand in the writing of the actual constitution, which turns out to be, almost, a secularized attempt to set up the sort of system inherited from England, only with a president instead of king, senators instead of lords, etc.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to side with the Evangelicals (as I once did) on whether America is a “Christian nation”. If it ever was, it was only in spite of the animating spirit of the Enlightenment.
Six: Revolution and Reform
In this chapter, we finally see the emergence of the contemporary “left / right” divide. Burke was wise enough to realize the old party divisions in England, the Whigs and Tories, were no longer relevant, and that the new distinction was between those who wished to conserve political order, and those who wished to overthrow it entirely in favor of something new (a party he referred to as “jacobin”). While Levin doesn’t say so here, his categorizing of Burke as a liberal may be owing to Burke’s status as a Whig. And yet, given his view of Burke as the decided enemy of enlightenment rationalism and revolutionary fervor, it’s hard to see how some overarching “liberalism” could be applied to both he and Paine.
One of those historical ironies that I believe point to God’s hand in history: Paine was thrown into prison by the very French revolutionaries he spoke so highly of. The beast devoured its master. The revolution revolted against the revolutionary! Also, a glimpse of Burke’s foresight in all of this: he clearly predicts the anarchy of the revolution would result in a state with no other recourse than to violence, consequently trouncing on all the “rights of man” which will have been quickly forgotten. Additionally, some strong-man tyrant would arise – as, a few years later, was exactly the case with Napoleon.
Seven: Generations and the Living
A short chapter explaining the differences between Burke and Paine regarding inheritance and the importance of generations. Paine, predictably, disregards all future generations in favor of the present. Levin doesn’t draw this out, but we can clearly see the roots of modern abortion practices here. Burke, on the other hand, sees our present task as maintaining and building for future generations as if the unborn are our wards.
It’s hard to imagine how someone could be so cold and calloused as Paine. He either had hidden motives or was so besotted with his own intellect, he couldn’t realize his being used as a puppet for Satan. These principles he thought so highly of were, in the end, little more than pretense to justify the destruction of Christian order, itself. Now that Paine’s view has won out, we have quickly seen, in our day, a return to a morbid type of Burkean conservatism, only one where Satan has been enthroned and established over and against Christ.
I’ll add a worrisome note here: I can imagine arguing for Burke in today’s climate, say in Alt. Right circles, and being met with the charge of inconsistency. How could Burke, they might ask, champion his form of conservatism as a protestant? Isn’t he part of a religious tradition that was born out of the very spirit of rebelliousness championed by Paine? I suppose Burke would have answered in the same way for his church as he did for the American colonists and for his own countrymen (who deposed Charles I)…it was meant to be a continuation and preservation rather than a rebellion. Nevertheless, it’s hard to overlook the way the ancestors of these conservative actors – Americans, English, etc. – have fully accepted the revolutionary spirit of Paine. Makes me wonder, again, at the march of history. Where did this Satanic spirit come from all of a sudden?
The Bible seems to say the spirit of Christ would reign for a thousand years, after which time, Satan will be let off his leash to attack the world. While it may not be popular among the Reformed, even the Reformed racialists (Kinists) most of whom are Postmillennial in their eschatology and believe we have many thousands of years left to live before the looked-for return of Christ, I can’t read the history of the west without seeing it any other way than that Satan has been unleashed.
If mine is one of the last generations, then, I’m all the more willing to thumb my nose at the Devil’s many works and plead mortal defiance in the face of, what seems like, an unstoppable force. His time is coming, and soon…
Levin has no major surprises for us in the conclusion. He frames a few contemporary policy debates in terms of the Burke / Paine conflict to draw out the thesis of his book. He claims contemporaries have gone astray, with conservatives in America being far more individualistic than Burke would have appreciated and liberals being too statist for Paine. He also notes that, ironically, Conservatives today, in their battle to undo the massive welfare state, sound, at times, like Paine, while liberals tend to cite Burke as a way to fend off radical change (here, Levin cites President Obama who actually calls himself a Burkean – I’d love to find that context. Blasphemy!)
Perhaps the most hilarious part of the entire book – Levin talks about how both Paine and Burke were afraid they’d be dug up after their deaths and their bodies defiled. Burke feared the English jacobins and Paine feared the conservatives. It was Paine, however, who had the real fears, only not from the conservatives. Turns out, about 10 years after his death, a rabid Enlightenment zealot, dug up Paine’s corpse and hauled it to England, intending to construct a shrine around it. The government remembered Paine and did not allow the shrine. The entire venture was the laugh of the town, and worse, Paine’s body was lost during the shuffle. I laughed for 20 min., imagining Paine’s body accidentally falling off a boat (if that is, indeed, what happened. No one really knows). So much for the man who cared not for the dead…