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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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