The Great Debate
Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
Basic Books 2013
New Books in European StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Political ScienceNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network January 4, 2014 Marshall Poe
If you went to college in the United States and took a Western Civ class, you’ve probably read at least a bit of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791). The two are so often paired in history and political science classes that they are sometimes published together. No wonder, really, because Paine’s Rights of Man was written in response to Burke’s Reflections.
It’s easy to understand why these two book are standard fare in college: arguably, Burke’s and Paine’s books are the intellectual well-springs of what we call the republican (with a small “r”) “Right” and the “Left.” Much of what American Republicans think can be traced to Burke; much of what American Democrats think can be traced to Paine. For this reason, Burke and Paine are–with the possible exception of J.S. Mill–the most important political thinkers in the modern Western republican tradition.
And for all these reasons, Yuval Levin‘s wonderful The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (Basic Books, 2013) is very relevant today. Levin masterfully explains not only why Burke and Paine thought what they thought (that is, he provides the historical context for their ideas), but he also makes clear how their ideas matter today. Listen in and find out why.