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The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

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For more than two centuries, our political life has been divided between a party of progress and a party of conservation. In The Great Debate, Yuval Levin explores the origins of the left/right divide by examining the views of the men who best represented each side of that debate at its outset: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. In a groundbreaking exploration of the roots of our political order, Levin shows that American partisanship originated in the debates over the French ...
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The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

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Overview


For more than two centuries, our political life has been divided between a party of progress and a party of conservation. In The Great Debate, Yuval Levin explores the origins of the left/right divide by examining the views of the men who best represented each side of that debate at its outset: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. In a groundbreaking exploration of the roots of our political order, Levin shows that American partisanship originated in the debates over the French Revolution, fueled by the fiery rhetoric of these ideological titans.

Levin masterfully shows how Burke's and Paine’s differing views, a reforming conservatism and a restoring progressivism, continue to shape our current political discourse—on issues ranging from abortion to welfare, education, economics, and beyond. Essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Washington’s often acrimonious rifts, The Great Debate offers a profound examination of what conservatism, liberalism, and the debate between them truly amount to.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/23/2013
Two seminal thinkers anticipate the modern split between progressives and conservatives in this insightful study of 18th-century political theory. National Affairs editor Levin presents a lucid analysis of the ideological confrontation between Paine—a firebrand of the American and French Revolutions who championed a program of radical change that sought to reconstitute government on the basis of reason, equality and democracy—and Burke, the Irish statesman and British parliamentarian who defended the enduring value of tradition and hierarchy. In their jousting—the two men were acquainted and sometimes aimed broadsides at one another—Levin finds and elucidates fundamental issues in political philosophy: individual rights versus social obligations; the extent to which scientific rationalism and expertise can comprehend and regulate society; revolution and reform as competing modes of political change. Appropriately, Levin spends less time on Paine, whose creed of individual rights and representative government feels very up-to-date, than he does explicating Burke, whose rationales for monarchy and social subordination can seem antiquated and mystical; he succeeds in establishing the continued relevance of Burke’s thought and prescient critique of revolutionary excesses. Levin’s Paine and Burke don’t line up perfectly along the Democrat/Republican divide, but he unearths the roots of latter-day convictions in their far-reaching argument. (Dec.)
From the Publisher

“Two seminal thinkers anticipate the modern split between progressives and conservatives in this insightful study of 18th-century political theory. National Affairs editor Levin presents a lucid analysis of the ideological confrontation between Paine…and Burke...he succeeds in establishing the continued relevance of Burke’s thought and prescient critique of revolutionary excesses.”
Publishers Weekly

“Making intricate contrasts between Paine and Burke throughout, Levin perceptively demonstrates the philosophical routes to liberalism and conservatism for politics-minded readers.”
Booklist

The Great Debate brilliantly brings out the richness of the tradition underlying our politics. It reminds us that politics is an intellectually serious thing that deserves better than the shallowness and cynicism that fills our political conversations. It reminds us that the right and left are each rooted in a desire to see politics serve the cause of human flourishing, even if they understand that cause very differently. And by the way, Burke was right.”
Peggy Noonan, columnist, The Wall Street Journal

“Yuval Levin’s lucid and learned investigation of our origins is not only a study in the history of ideas, it is also a summons to first principles. Like Burke and Paine, Levin believes that philosophies are buried in the shabbiness of politics. His book is both clarifying and complicating: he writes sympathetically about both sides of the heroic disputation that he describes, and so his book will have the salutary effect of shattering ideological complacence. In our infamously polarized climate, The Great Debate may even be a public service.”
Leon Wieseltier

The Great Debate is an exciting, narrative adventure in the contest of ideas. With two world-shaking revolutions as background, Levin brilliantly explains how two great minds shaped the broad debate between left and right that still governs our political debates today.”
William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education and author of America: The Last Best Hope

“The polarized character of contemporary American politics is widely noted, yet the intellectual origins of the division between right and left remain obscure. In his deeply historically informed and elegantly argued book, Yuval Levin casts a brilliant light on the matter. It is a work of lasting significance that will instruct liberals and conservatives alike on their intellectual heritage.”
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University

Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-20
A conservative journalist traces our current sharp political schism back to the writings of conservative Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and liberal Thomas Paine (1738–1809). Despite his conservative credentials, National Affairs founder and editor Levin (Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy, 2008) maintains a generally disinterested balance throughout--although at times it reads like an earnest term paper from a talented, assiduous student: standard comparison-contrast organization, lots of lengthy block quotations. He begins by noting how Burke and Paine first met (they dined together in 1788), their early amiable relations and their later fierce exchanges in print. Levin then provides a biographical sketch of each (adding more as the argument advances) before commencing to compare their philosophical and political positions. Paine, he shows, believed in man as a natural creature--and that governments should be more consistent with his nature and should rest on principles derived from reason. Burke, by contrast, argued that we must learn from the past, continue what works and gradually change what doesn't. These two basic approaches reoccur throughout the other topics Levin discusses: justice (the two men had very different notions of equality), obligation (Paine believed choice was more important), reason and prescription, revolution and reform, and our obligations to all generations, not just to the new, revolutionary one. Concluding, Levin chides both sides in today's acrimonious climate, pointing out weaknesses in their positions and emphases. The author has done a tremendous amount of research and seems to have read every major work by both figures, doing his best both to state their positions clearly (and fairly) and to note their relevance in today's America. He consigns to endnotes some of the subtleties and ambiguities of their positions. Some arresting reminders of our political past--would that Levin's prose featured some of the fire flaring from his principals' pens.
From the Publisher
"Yuval Levin, whose sharp thinking was honed at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought...is one of conservatism’s most sophisticated and measured explicators."
-George F. Will, Washington Post

The Great Debate’s architecture is clever and intellectually persuasive… a thoughtful introduction to this famous paradigmatic opposition.”
-Washington Post

“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.”
-Weekly Standard

“A judicious, nuanced, and accessible précis that reveals both Burke and Paine to be complicated and compelling thinkers. This sympathetic treatment of the two men, in turn, allows Levin to paint an intellectual picture of right and left that is more gray than black and white, something all too rare today.”
-Democracy Journal

“[Has] potential to have long-lasting impact on a reader…Levin's book forces the reader to stop and create space for thought and reflection, and does not spoon-feed easy answers or applications to today's politics. It does, however, raise serious questions about whether the new obsession with ‘data-based’ decision-making, the Nate Silver-ization of journalism and politics, could be taken too far if we come to believe that everything in public life can be answered by the scientific method. It also poses significant queries worth grappling with for those rightly concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor. Levin echoes Burke's challenge to reformers to proceed with caution, and with humility.”
-Huffington Post

The Great Debate’s excellent writing about 18th-century history and political theory will inform and educate readers.”
-Washington Independent Review of Books

“In this rigorous yet accessible work, Levin contextualizes the positions of British philosopher Edmund Burke, who has been viewed as both the founder of modern conservatism and an example of classical liberalism, and Thomas Paine, the author of several classic political texts, including Common Sense and The Rights of Man.”
-Shelf Awareness

“Levin’s critique of liberalism is powerful and to be expected. But what makes his book much more interesting is his truly trenchant critique of his fellow conservatives as well. And it is a critique well-taken. I’d be much tougher on them, but this book is a tonic for a new discourse.”
-Andrew Sullivan, The Dish

“Must-read primer on America’s ideological faultline…[a] wonderful new book…a readable intellectual history that fairly crackles with contemporary relevance. The must-read book of the year for conservatives—especially those conservatives who are profoundly and genuinely baffled by the declining popularity of the GOP as a national party.”
-American Conservative's State of the Union Blog

“Mr. Levin, the editor of the journal National Affairs and a former aide to both Speaker Gingrich and President George W. Bush, provides a valuable service by dusting off the writings of Burke and Paine and by clearly, concisely, and accessibly summarizing them in a way that highlights their relevance to contemporary politics and policy…The monarchist Burke and the religious skeptic Paine, an early supporter of the bloody French revolution, would seem to be unlikely models for today’s American politicians of either party. But Mr. Levin has made a convincing case that, 200 years later, we can still learn from both men.”
-New York Sun

“Two seminal thinkers anticipate the modern split between progressives and conservatives in this insightful study of 18th-century political theory. National Affairs editor Levin presents a lucid analysis of the ideological confrontation between Paine…and Burke...he succeeds in establishing the continued relevance of Burke’s thought and prescient critique of revolutionary excesses.”
Publishers Weekly

“Making intricate contrasts between Paine and Burke throughout, Levin perceptively demonstrates the philosophical routes to liberalism and conservatism for politics-minded readers.”
Booklist

The Great Debate brilliantly brings out the richness of the tradition underlying our politics. It reminds us that politics is an intellectually serious thing that deserves better than the shallowness and cynicism that fills our political conversations. It reminds us that the right and left are each rooted in a desire to see politics serve the cause of human flourishing, even if they understand that cause very differently. And by the way, Burke was right.”
Peggy Noonan, columnist, The Wall Street Journal

“Yuval Levin’s lucid and learned investigation of our origins is not only a study in the history of ideas, it is also a summons to first principles. Like Burke and Paine, Levin believes that philosophies are buried in the shabbiness of politics. His book is both clarifying and complicating: he writes sympathetically about both sides of the heroic disputation that he describes, and so his book will have the salutary effect of shattering ideological complacence. In our infamously polarized climate, The Great Debate may even be a public service.”
Leon Wieseltier

The Great Debate is an exciting, narrative adventure in the contest of ideas. With two world-shaking revolutions as background, Levin brilliantly explains how two great minds shaped the broad debate between left and right that still governs our political debates today.”
William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education and author of America: The Last Best Hope

“The polarized character of contemporary American politics is widely noted, yet the intellectual origins of the division between right and left remain obscure. In his deeply historically informed and elegantly argued book, Yuval Levin casts a brilliant light on the matter. It is a work of lasting significance that will instruct liberals and conservatives alike on their intellectual heritage.”
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465050970
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 12/3/2013
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 91,273
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Yuval Levin is a Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the founder and editor of National Affairs. A contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and National Review, he lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 9, 2014

    highly recommend - well worth reading

    This "debate" was between a reformer and a revolutionary. One believed a better government was formed by tearing down the old and depending on mankind's better nature to build a new one. The other believed on using the existing structure of a civil society to build a better government. This is not a long book but I found myself rereading several sections to better understand what each was saying.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2014

    Claire

    I'm not Christian, but I partially agree with Xio. There had to have been something behind the Big Bang, that brought that concept to existence.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2014

    Xio

    What do you mean is it real? Personally, I think scientific evidence shows yes. I also think that God caused the Big Bang because there had to be something behind it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2014

    Samael

    XIO DAH MAN! :D Dude, I %100 agree. They found the Cosmic Background Radiation, right? God said "let there be light". What he really meant was "let there be this huge universe-size explosion". xD

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 11, 2014

    An Excellent Analysis of Burke and Paine

    Mr Levin wrote an excellent analysis of the philosophy of Tom Paine and Edmund Burke. He made complex issues understandable and wove in well the times in which they lived and their backgrounds. I am not sure that he fully completes the circle in trying to link Burke and Paine to the right left split in contemporary America. The right no does not want to build on instittutions that have flourished but need tweaking. They are desirous of striking everything down. The left is unwilling to modify what works but desires to expand government power.
    Neither party would fully support a single payer health care system.
    The Republicans eschew immigration reform.
    Levin neglects foreign policy entirely which is central to politcits today.
    Eric Rosen

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