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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 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.