Hard cases, it is said, make bad law. So, too, extreme situations make bad policy and worse philosophy. The French Revolution was just such a situation; compared with the French, the English and American revolutions are almost unworthy of the title of revolution. No one took the measure of the extremity of that revolution better than its contemporaries Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. And nobody drew the most far-reaching, antithetical, and enduring political and philosophical lessons from that revolution.

“The Great Debate” between Burke and Paine, Yuval Levin demonstrates, has persisted to this day in the form of the great divide between right and left. Levin is uniquely qualified to deal with both the political and philosophical aspects of that debate, then and now. As a writer, editor, and former policy staffer in the White House (where he dealt with such “wonkish” issues, he explains, as health care, entitlements, and the budget), he is himself a combatant in that debate. He is also a credentialed political philosopher, having earned his doctorate from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. It is a formidable task Levin has set himself: to appreciate not only the exigencies and complexities of that historic moment (sometimes obscured by the passionate rhetoric of the protagonists), but also the underlying philosophical assumptions that drove the debate and continue to inspire it today.

Edmund Burke does not make that task easy. On the contrary, he almost defies it. He made no secret of his contempt for “metaphysicians.” “I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions,” he wrote in his defense of the American Revolution. “I hate the very sound of them.” Twenty years later, the French revolutionaries provoked him even more: “Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphysician. It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit than to the frailty and passion of a man.”

Nor was it only philosophy in the formal “metaphysical” sense that he derided. On one occasion after another, he expressed his distrust of “principles” and “abstractions.” “History is a preceptor of prudence, not of principles,” he declared.

Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.

The issue is complicated by the charge leveled against Burke, in his time and since, that he was inconsistent, most notably in his support of the American Revolution and condemnation of the French Revolution. Burke anticipated such criticism when he described himself, in the concluding words of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, as “one who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end.” That did not satisfy Thomas Jefferson, who, upon reading the Reflections, remarked that “the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.” Nor did it satisfy Thomas Paine, who opened the preface to Rights of Man by explaining that he had thought of Burke, the defender of the American Revolution, as “a friend to mankind,” and, as their acquaintance had been founded on that ground, he would have found it “more agreeable .  .  . to continue in that opinion, than to change it.”

And then there is the temptation to reduce this debate of ideas to a clash of personal and class interests: Burke the defender of the status quo, Paine the inveterate dissident and rebel. Burke, born into a respectable Irish family, well-bred and well-educated, quickly gained entrée into the intellectual and political elite of London, and thus to the seat in Parliament that made him a commanding presence in the country. One might well suppose that his motives were less than disinterested, that he had compelling personal reasons to oppose the French Revolution. The assault on the French establishment—the monarchy, aristocracy, and church—was, after all, an invitation to a similar assault on the established institutions in Britain, in which Burke had a vested interest, so to speak.

So, too, Paine seemed fated to be the defender of the principle as well as the fact of revolution. His poor English family provided him with the most minimal formal education, obliging him to seek a livelihood in one trade or another, in one town or another. When he found a position as an itinerant excise officer, he was fired for agitating for better pay and conditions for his fellow workers. With his personal life in shambles (his first wife died in childbirth, his second left him because of poverty), he sought refuge in America. By then self-educated and powerfully self-motivated, he became a passionate voice, first for the American revolutionaries against a foreign tyrant, and then for the French against their native oppressors.

Biographers may have no trouble casting Burke and Paine in their respective roles. But their debate over the French Revolution has a life of its own, which is why it continues to resonate today, more than two centuries after that momentous event. Levin confronts the full challenge of this debate by probing the principles and philosophies, sometimes explicit, more often implicit, that animate it, making it as vital today as it was then.

In Paine’s case, the philosophy is all too evident. The title of his book, Rights of Man, is revealing enough. Levin explains that he follows the custom of the time in using “man” to refer to human beings in general. But perhaps more significant than the gender is the singularity of that word: man in his essential nature, rather than men in their variety or collectivity. That nature, Paine insists, means going “the whole way” back, not merely to antiquity or history, as Burke would have it, but to the “origin of man” and thus the “origin of his rights,” the “unity of man” and thus his “natural right.”

Every history of the creation .  .  . agree[s] in establishing one point, the unity of man; by which I mean that men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right, in the same manner as if posterity had been continued by creation instead of generation. .  .  . Consequently every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new to him as it was to the first that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind.

Paine cannot leave it at that, however. There is, after all, history to contend with, which brought with it, as John Locke had demonstrated, society and government. Paine relates society more closely to nature than Locke did, giving it a vitality and authority that permit society to survive even after a revolution dissolves the government. Government is legitimate, Paine argues, to the extent that it is in accord with the nature of man, representing the choice and interests of the governed, the “distinct, unconnected individuals” who make up the nation. Monarchies and aristocracies are properly subject to revolution because they are morally as well as politically illegitimate. Indeed, revolution has a positive effect, allowing society to “regenerate itself,” going “back to Nature for information,” permitting us “to see government begin as if we lived at the beginning of time.”

Paine is his own best commentator; his philosophical principles are simple, absolute, and unambiguous. The case for Burke is more complicated, not because of his protestations against philosophy as such, but because his philosophy is itself so complicated. Again, titles are revealing. “Reflections” suggests a tentativeness, an open-mindedness, even a modesty that is belied by the rhetoric as much as the substance of the book. But the word does express the complexities and subtleties that, as much as the ideas themselves, stand in such sharp contrast to Paine.

Burke does not deny the idea of the nature of man. He only claims—it is a very large “only”—that we cannot understand that nature by reason alone, because man is not only a rational animal, he is also a creature of sympathies, sentiments, and passions. Nor can man be understood on his own, because he is, and always has been, a “civil social man,” the product of “civil society.” Nor can society be understood in terms of its origin, because, like government, it is always evolving.

Indeed, in the beginning, society was sometimes cruel, just as government was often tyrannical. It is history, not nature or reason, that matured and civilized primitive society, just as it mellows and legitimizes governments that may have been illegal and violent in their inception. Thus, the French Revolution has exactly the opposite effect of that attributed to it by Paine. So far from being regenerative, it is regressive, a descent into the barbarism that time and successive generations had meliorated.

And so it goes, Burke qualifying, complicating, and finally refuting Paine’s primal, absolute verities: liberty, yes, Burke agrees, but the “civil liberty” that is subject to the constraints society necessarily imposes upon the individual’s passions and desires. And yes, equality, but the “moral equality” inherent in every person, which does not entail either social or political equality and, indeed, may be violated by the attempt to realize those other modes of equality. Reason, but informed by wisdom, which draws not upon the “private stock of reason” of individuals, but upon the “bank and capital of nations and ages.” Government with the consent of the governed, as reflected not in the choice of the people at any one time, but in the institutions and “prescriptions” developed over the course of time. And change, to be sure, but by way of gradual, peaceful, incremental reforms, not by a revolution that abolishes old reforms and subverts the very temper of reform.

Almost as an aside, Burke introduces a still more provocative note into the debate. Even some of his admirers (at the time and since) have been embarrassed by his paean to Marie Antoinette, who had been abused by the mob that stormed Versailles. Paine responded with one of his most memorable lines: “He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.” But it is more than the queen Burke eulogizes and Paine reviles. It is the idea of chivalry that Burke associates with her that he sees as the true victim of the revolution. “The age of chivalry is gone,” he bemoans.

It was this [chivalry] which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force, or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a domination, vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners.

But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivery nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own imagination, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

The passage is worth quoting at length because it is too often dismissed, as Burke had anticipated, as a rhetorical extravaganza—“ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated.” But it is an essential part of his discourse on the relation of manners and sentiments to laws and institutions, of “public affections” to public order. Indeed, it is at the heart of his indictment of the French Revolution, which he regarded as not merely a political revolution, like the American one, but a cultural revolution—a revolution against civilization itself. A political revolution, the overthrow of one regime for another, might be partial, even transient. A cultural revolution is total and irrevocable, affecting every aspect of the individual and society as well as politics and government.

In the preface to The Great Debate, Levin, referring to his own engagement in contemporary political issues, identifies himself as a conservative. Perhaps it is a tribute to the elevated mode of political philosophy in which he was trained that his treatment of Paine is so serious and respectful. Burke may have the better of the debate, for Levin himself and for the reader of his book, but one comes to this conclusion only by seeing both protagonists at their best, as genuine philosophical alternatives.

It is in this nondogmatic, non-polemical spirit that Levin poses the debate not, as one might expect, as between conservatives and liberals, but between right and left, the polar sides of the same political spectrum—of liberalism itself. By the book’s conclusion, the debate is sufficiently muted so that philosophies become “dispositions” (a term Burke himself would have preferred). And dispositions, moreover, “within liberalism,” because, in this post-Enlightenment world, we live in a “liberal age.”

These two possibilities suggest two rather different sorts of liberal politics: a politics of vigorous progress toward an ideal goal or a politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance. They suggest, in other words, a progressive liberalism and a conservative liberalism.

Yet the dispositions do reflect philosophies. “Philosophy,” Levin concludes, “moves history, especially in times of profound social change. And ours, like Burke and Paine’s, is surely such a time.” By the same token, one might say, history moves philosophy. Here Levin enters into another great debate that riles academia: between historians insisting upon the uniqueness and specificity of events, which defy abstractions and generalizations, and philosophers impatient with the ephemera and contingency of events, which do not rise to the level of truth and certainty. Here too he rises to the occasion, satisfying the scruples of historians and philosophers alike. From a debate raged about an event centuries ago, he deduces truths that illuminate some of our most vexing political and social problems today.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author, most recently, of The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill.

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