This edition of Liberty Law Talk is with Yuval Levin, author of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. A 2013 Bradley Prize recipient, Levin connects us with the actual contest between Burke and Paine as they debated the central claims of the French Revolution and much of modern political thought with its focus on rights, individualism, the social contract vs. Burke’s more expansive notions of social liberty, the contract among the dead, the living, and those yet to be born, and his belief in prescription or the notion that change should be guided within the broad lived experience of the nation. Levin and I discuss the terms of the Burke-Paine debate while considering how it continues to shape the contours of current political conversation.
Books reviewed in this essay:
The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, by Corey Robin. Oxford University Press.
The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk, by André Gushurst-Moore. Angelico Press.
The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future—and Why They Should Give It Back, by David Willetts. Atlantic Books.
Amidst the recurring question of whether Edmund Burke is relevant to contemporary politics, we are presented with three volumes that approach this vital issue in different ways, and with varying levels of scholarly and popular perceptiveness. All the books under review attempt to connect the witness and insights of the great statesman to ongoing conflicts in society and politics. Perhaps the disparate assessments of Burke alone could suggest the resiliency of his legacy; however, the importance of Burke the political theorist dictates a closer examination of these critical works.
Rémi Brague, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, and the subject of a post I wrote on the complicated western history of the Law of God, argues in a recent essay “The Impossibility of Secular Society” (paywall) that secular society is a doomed enterprise for two reasons: a secular society cannot survive in the long run, so moving on from it will be a choice to live, and the very concept of secular society is tautological “because secularity is latent within the modern use of the term society.” Brague also asserts a 1/2 thesis that whatever comes next in the West, it won’t be a “society” but a new mode of “being-together.” This mini-me thesis itself seems redundant. If the present society fails to inspire loyalty and provide convincing rationales for our “being-together,” then something new will surely replace it. But this might be the most interesting key to the essay. I’ll return to this thought at the end.
Thanks to Greg Weiner (and the commenters) for taking on my original piece, which has gathered far more attention than I had anticipated. Greg argues that, “It has become commonplace to see the Declaration as a radical break with this tradition—and, in some circles, the Constitution as a radical break again—but a continuum of this symbol is clearly traceable.” Yet, though there is some “traceable” continuity, the Declaration is of a different order.