The Magazine

The French Connection

How the Revolution, and two thinkers, bequeathed us ‘right’ and ‘left.’

Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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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.

Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine

Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine

Gertrude Himmelfarb

“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.