In the mid-seventeenth century, to think for oneself and determine one’s fate were the prerogatives of a tiny hereditary elite. The rest of humanity did not even aspire to them. By the mid-nineteenth century, the aspiration, at least, was near universal in Europe and North America, and beginning to be felt elsewhere; and reality had begun, gradually, fitfully, and still incompletely, to shift in that direction everywhere. The arc of history had been bent toward democracy.

What accomplished that most momentous of alterations was, of course, the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was not a doctrine, or a set of doctrines; it was an attitude. The best definition remains Kant’s in his essay “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784):

Enlightenment is humankind’s emergence from its self-imposed immaturity.... This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in a lack of understanding but in a lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!”—that is the motto of enlightenment.

Or, as the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s put it: “Question authority!”

Why, one may ask, did it take courage in the late eighteenth century to use one’s own understanding? Because the prevailing structures of power and privilege were mostly arbitrary and patently unjust. The beneficiaries of this state of affairs discouraged critical reflection on it, by indoctrination and the threat of punishment. Where authority has no justification, to ask for one is sedition.

Some, probably most, of those who opposed self-determination cared only about preserving their privileges. But others have always believed, more or less sincerely, that freedom is too great a burden for ordinary people and that governing is beyond their capacity. Even to choose their rulers or their form of government is too much for them. On these subjects they must not, for their own good, “use their understanding without guidance” from wiser others.

The revolutions in America and France were the first large-scale assertions of popular sovereignty, and they gave rise to a great debate on the question of self-determination. It was a somewhat lopsided debate; the opponents of popular sovereignty mainly replied with force rather than with arguments. Only one thinker of stature tried to rebut the advocates of self-determination (though he too called for forcibly suppressing them): Edmund Burke. In The Great Debate, Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard and National Review, reconstructs the supreme agon of that controversy—Burke’s angry Reflections on the Revolution in France and Thomas Paine’s incandescent reply, The Rights of Man.

Burke was Anglo-Irish, the private secretary (we would now say chief of staff) of a leading Whig politician, and eventually a member of Parliament. The Whigs favored limiting the prerogatives of royalty in favor of those of aristocracy. They were (or claimed to be) something of a “good government” party, not so egregiously corrupt, cruel, or tyrannical as the Tories; and Burke made a reputation early on as an opponent of some of the more flagrant abuses of the time, including the criminal-justice system, religious discrimination, the administration of Ireland, and the plundering of the colonies, particularly India and America.

But as a dangerous radical observed in our own time, it is one thing to give food to the poor and quite another thing to ask why the poor have no food. Burke was willing to acknowledge abuses and mitigate them, but he rejected all talk of structural injustice, equal rights, or radical reform. Paine (and Burke’s other contemporary critics, Joseph Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, James Mackintosh, and William Godwin) scoffed that Burke’s defense of the status quo (the “British constitution,” he called it reverently) was a tissue of fallacies, sophistries, and evasions, camouflaged by gorgeous rhetoric. This might have been posterity’s verdict as well, if the French Revolution had turned out differently. But the Terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship appeared to vindicate Burke. An alliance of counterrevolutionary powers, led (as Burke had urged) by England, defeated France militarily, and the controversy subsided. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Cold War roused American conservatism from its long intellectual slumber. Interest in Burke revived. The Great Debate is still hardly a burning, or even a smoldering, issue for most twenty-first-century Americans. But Levin’s good-tempered, even-handed book will no doubt persuade many readers of its continuing relevance.

“Burke and Paine,” Levin writes, “each offer a coherent and, for the most part, internally consistent case about the character of society and politics.” He summarizes their opposing cases very handily:

Burke’s objection to total revolution draws on his horror at the prospect of abandoning all that has been arduously gained over centuries of slow, incremental reform and improvement. He sees it as a betrayal of the trust of past generations and of the obligation to future ones. Paine’s objection to such plodding reform, meanwhile, is that it gives credence to despotism and is motivated more by the desire to sustain inequity than to address injustice.

Burke believes that human nature and the rest of nature make themselves known in politics through long experience, that human beings are born into a web of obligations, and that the social problems we confront do not lend themselves to detached scientific analysis. For all these reasons, he believes that improvements in politics must be achieved by cumulative reform—by building on success to address failure and by containing the effects of innovation within a broader context of continuity.

Paine, on the other hand, believes that nature reveals itself in the form of abstract principles discovered by rational analysis, that human beings are entitled to choose their government freely, that government in turn exists to protect their other choices, and that reason can help people see beyond the superstitions that have long sustained unjust regimes. For all these reasons, he believes that improvements in politics must be achieved by thoroughgoing revolution—by throwing off the accumulated burdens of the past and starting fresh and properly.

This sounds plausible enough. It is certainly the standard account of the Great Debate. But look at those alternatives a little more closely. On the one hand, Paine champions “rational analysis”; on the other, Burke insists that we learn from “long experience.” Paine declares that “human beings are entitled to choose their government freely”; Burke counters that “human beings are born into a web of obligations.” Paine advocates “throwing off the accumulated burdens of the past”; Burke emphasizes “building on success to address failure.”

In each case, the second half of the antithesis is supposed to be incompatible with the first. But in each case, it is no such thing. Every judgment involves both rational analysis and the lessons of experience. Why would those who are born into a web of obligations (i.e., everyone) not be entitled to choose their government freely? Why is it impossible to distinguish between past failures and past successes, rejecting the former and building on the latter? Burke’s polemical method consists of attributing extreme and implausible positions to his ideological opponents and then refuting them with many expressions of outraged common sense. Enlightenment “radicalism” simply proposed that no tradition or institution be exempt from criticism and that all men and women should have a fair chance to shape the common life. For Burke, this was sheer horror, the world turned upside down. He could not imagine that most human beings would ever attain maturity.

The profound philosophical differences Levin attributes to Burke and Paine are actually superficial ones. Whether reform should be partial or radical, gradual or rapid; whether our ancestors were wise or foolish and whether the laws they bequeathed us are just or unjust; whether governing well is easy or difficult and whether most people will be capable of, or interested in, taking part in it; whether we are influenced chiefly by reasons or passions, abstractions or facts, inherited loyalties or ethical reflection: these questions are all beside the main point at issue between Burke and Paine. The main point is: Who decides? Shall ordinary men and women be empowered? Does each of us get an equal vote and a chance to be heard? Paine says yes; Burke tries desperately to confuse matters, setting off huge smoke bombs of rhetorical obfuscation, proceeding from trivially obvious premises to outlandish conclusions by way of grandiloquent non sequiturs.

Because an institution or practice has lasted a long time, Burke argues, it deserves to continue. Because none of us can be perfectly objective or impartial, we cannot reason together about fundamentals. Wanting to discuss everything is the same as wanting to abolish everything. Spreading new ideas by persuasion is no different from imposing them by armed conquest. Because variety is a good thing, vast inequalities of wealth and status are desirable. Because inherited privilege bestows special opportunities to become wise and public-spirited, the rest of us can safely assume that the privileged are wise and public-spirited. Because some aspects of our identity are not chosen but given at birth, it follows that, as Jefferson put it with scathing sarcasm, “the mass of mankind have…been born with saddles on their backs, [and] a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” Stripped of Burkean rodomontade, all these arguments are preposterous. Dressed in it, they have bedazzled generations of conservatives, including Levin.

In the book’s concluding chapter, Levin argues, again plausibly enough, for the enduring relevance of the Great Debate. Nowadays, he observes, we all believe, as the Founding Fathers did, in liberty, equality, and innovation. But we also believe, as they did, in order, continuity, and compromise. We believe in strong government but also in limited government, in expertise but also in tradition. We are all liberals, he maintains, though some of us are progressive, Paine-ite liberals and others are conservative, Burkean liberals.

It is a neat, ingenious, even magnanimous argument. Though he himself is a down-the-line Republican, Levin seems genuinely concerned to avoid the appearance of partisanship—he goes so far as to refrain from naming the two major present-day political parties. He sincerely believes that a better appreciation of intellectual history will introduce more comity into contemporary American politics.

But just as Levin exaggerates the importance of philosophical differences in the Great Debate, he exaggerates the importance of the Great Debate to contemporary politics. Today, at any rate, the differences between left and right are not chiefly philosophical; they are cruder, more elemental than that. America is a plutocracy. The degree to which popular preferences influence government policy is minimal. (Recently a Princeton political scientist estimated that the opinions of the bottom 70 percent of the income scale exercise no influence on policy, and those of the next 29 percent not much. That sounds about right.) Progressive versus conservative is one way of describing the difference between the two major parties, but moderate plutocrats versus extreme plutocrats is far more accurate. What divides the 1 percent from the 99 percent is not a different brand of liberalism.

In reality, the Great Debate ended not long after it began. Within forty years, the Reform Act expanded the suffrage in England. Within a century, adult-male suffrage was universal in Europe. Within two centuries, adult suffrage was universal. As a source of political legitimacy, heredity now ranks somewhere below astrology. The principle of one person/one vote (in practice, alas, one dollar or Euro or ruble/one vote) is as widely accepted as the right to choose one’s profession or religion or mate. As for prescription, prejudice, inherited status, and the rest of Burke’s fancied “British constitution”—gone and good riddance.

Before the Enlightenment—before even Burke’s Glorious (not all that glorious) Revolution—the democratic truths that Paine and others vindicated against Burke were memorably asserted by the humble against the haughty. In the Putney Debates of 1647, some of Cromwell’s soldiers perceived that their betrayal by the country’s large landowners was imminent and spoke out, no less eloquently than Burke. Edward Sexby: “There are many thousands of us soldiers that have ventured our lives…. But it seems now that except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom, he hath no right in it. I wonder that we were so much deceived.” John Wildman: “It is the end of Parliament to legislate according to the just ends of government, not simply to maintain what is already established. Every person in England hath as clear a right to elect his Representative as the greatest person in England…[for] all government is in the free choice of the people.” Thomas Rainsborough: “The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…. I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no that should doubt of these things.”

For my part, I should doubt whether anyone who doubted these things was a liberal.

George Scialabba is a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His selected essays, Only a Voice, will be published in 2023 by Verso.

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Published in the April 11, 2014 issue: View Contents
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