Let’s make Paine’s Age of Reason a reality

Burke's paternalism won out over Paine's liberalism. Let the fightback begin.

Frank Furedi

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Anyone who reads Yuval Levin’s important book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left, will be struck by the dramatic differences between the late eighteenth-century intellectual and ideological landscape and that which exists today. Whatever the terms left and right might have meant as they emerged during and after the French Revolution, they bear little of that meaning in the twenty-first century. Both the uncompromising conservatism that Burke stood for and the principled liberalism Paine advocated today exist only on the margins of political life.

Levin’s exploration of the important clash of ideas between Burke, the father of modern conservatism, and Paine, arguably the most exciting radical theorist of the liberal Enlightenment, is well executed. Although he is clearly sympathetic to Burke’s outlook, he nonetheless provides a concise and balanced account of the ideas of both men. The dramatic event that divided Burke and Paine was, of course, the French Revolution – but they also disagreed on the themes of the Enlightenment more broadly. Burke looked upon the ideals associated with the Enlightenment with a sense of dread. In contrast, Paine was one of a small number of radical pro-Enlightenment theorists who were uncompromising in their advocacy of democracy and liberalism.

The most significant contribution Burke made to political philosophy was to provide a coherent, eloquent defence of tradition. His hostility to revolution was based on a conviction that the legacy of the past, and the sensibilities of the traditional approach to life and politics, was essential to the maintenance of moral order. He regarded traditional practices as important because, he said, they had proved their worth through a centuries-long process of trial and error. Burke was a traditionalist, but he was not against change. He was, in Levin’s words, a ‘forward-looking traditionalist’, who wished to improve society, but on the basis of modifying institutions and customs that were rooted in the past.

Burke’s opposition to the Enlightenment and revolution was motivated by his hostility to the humanist idea that rationality and science were the best means of discerning political truths. He believed very strongly that there were limits to what human beings could understand and achieve, and he was therefore sceptical of the power of reasoning. From his perspective, individuals’ exercise of reason would always generate insights that were inferior to the accumulated wisdom of past generations. He upheld the value of prejudice because it expressed the received wisdom of the past. Burke developed the concept of ‘prescription’ as an antidote to the political experimentation cheered by supporters of the Enlightenment. As Levin notes, Burke used the concept of prescription to ‘give prevailing institutions the benefit of the doubt against innovations that might undermine them’. For Burke, prescription was about ‘respecting and preserving the political order as it has been handed down, and even according it reverence’.

Paine explicitly rejected Burke’s reverence of the traditions of the past, and insisted that it was only through the exercise of reason that insights into political truths might be gained. Paine rebuffed ‘prescription’ and argued that the practices of the past possess no inherent virtues. He argued that because such practices were not founded on reason and scientific knowledge, they had little relevance for modern society. Instead of searching the precedents of the past for guidance in the present, Paine said that reason provided the most effective instrument for moving society forward. He possessed an unusually optimistic belief in the power of reasoning. At times, as Levin notes, Paine seemed to suggest that ‘if reason is allowed a free rein, the right choices will be made’.

One of the most interesting themes explored by Levin, and arguably the one with the most relevance for today, is the contrasting views held by Burke and Paine on the obligation of society to past and future generations. Paine disavowed the idea that society bore any responsibility towards past generations. He explicitly questioned the notion that the generations of the past possessed any intrinsic authority to which those living in the present had to defer. ‘Every age and generation must be free to act for itself in all cases as the ages and generations which preceded it’, he said. Paine argued that a true republic is one where democracy is based on the principles of equality and consent and where citizens decide for themselves the direction of their society. For Paine, the actions of such citizens should be based on the needs of the present rather than being oriented towards the perceived needs of future generations. He believed that generational responsibility could only be assumed by consent rather than as an a priori obligation. The only moral obligation that a democratic citizenry has to future generations, said Paine, is to provide them with the freedom to make their own choices.

Levin characterises Paine’s attitude towards generational interaction as one of an ‘eternal now’. Paine’s rejection of intergenerational obligation struck at the very heart of the conservative worldview. From Burke’s conservative perspective, the scope for human behaviour and political activity was always to be limited by an obligation to the generations of the past and the future. ‘Burke believes’, says Levin, that ‘the present generation has profound obligations both to the past and to the future and that these obligations offer an important benefit to the present generation, by imposing crucial constraints upon its ambitions and its reach’. These ‘constraints’ serve as a justification for limiting human ambitions and political experimentation. Squeezed between the demands of the past and the needs of the future, human agency is necessarily to be restricted, Burke believed. This politics of limits, or what Burke called ‘prudence’, assigns humanity a very modest role in the making of his world.

It was Paine’s belief in the principle of individual equality, the moral autonomy of the individual and the capacity of individuals to make the right choices that motivated his determination to free society of any obligation to the generations of the past and the future. His ideal government was based on the freely given consent of the people, who are accorded the right to enact policies based on their exercise of reason. So it is not past principles and inherited traditions but rather the dictates of reason that shape radical liberalism. Levin suggests that Paine’s emphasis on the primacy of rational choice was the precursor to today’s paternalistic, technocratic and social-engineering political approach. However, it can be argued that it is actually a rejection of Paine’s radical democratic liberalism that has led to the ascendancy of today’s paternalistic politics.

Indeed, both sides of the political divide in contemporary Anglo-American politics have signed up to the Burkean notion of generational obligation. The anti-Enlightenment ideas of sustainable development and intergenerational responsibility for the environment are explicitly about restraining human ambition and growth. This outlook now influences the entire political class. Current policies based on the perceived needs of future generations are far more technocratic than anything envisaged by Paine. This unexpected union of Burkean generational obligations and utilitarian social engineering is testimony to the changing terms on which political differences are fought in the modern period.

Liberalism versus illiberalism

Levin claims that the disagreements between Paine and Burke were really a clash of views over the meaning of liberalism. ‘Indeed, that very disagreement has ultimately come to define modern liberalism’, he writes. No doubt the debate between these two great thinkers has had a significant influence on the political alignments of modern society. But it is something of a stretch to represent this debate as one that was conducted within the liberal tradition. Burke may have had formal affiliations with the Whigs, and may have been attracted to the liberal political economy of his time, but in his temperament, philosophy and political outlook, he was hostile to liberalism and its apotheosis of the individual.

As Levin points out, for Burke, duty and obligation were optional yet ‘binding relations’. Burke was hostile to the liberal idea of democratic consent and particularly to the right to choose. He was a genuine anti-liberal paternalist who took the view that since people are not always able to understand their real interests, they thus require the authority of tradition, guided by an able ruler, to move them in the right direction.

It was Paine’s conviction in the power of reason that led him to adopt a robust affirmation of the individual and reason. Paine was not just a liberal; in contrast to most of his contemporaries he was also a radical who upheld Enlightenment liberal values and their celebration of individual rights. Indeed, anyone reading Paine today will be struck by the force of belief with which he upheld the principle of democratic consent and individual rights. The freeing of the individual from the burdens of tradition and the legacy of the past was a central theme of Enlightenment thinking. However, a world where individuals were no longer constrained by the need to defer to traditional authority and hierarchy was one that seemed threatening to a significant section of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political elites. That is why even philosophers and commentators associated with the Enlightenment drew back from the radical conclusions reached by Paine. Many liberals felt uneasy about recognising the right of all individuals to act in accordance with their reason.

If liberals were concerned about a world where individuals were no longer prepared to defer to traditional authority, conservatives were overwhelmed by a palpable sense of panic. Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution was fuelled by the kind of emotions that today would be described as a moral panic. His conservatism was not simply a celebration of tradition but an expression of active hostility to the ideals of liberalism, and in particular to those associated with the autonomy of the individual.

It is important to recall that the conservative reaction to the French Revolution was not simply a response to its violence and disorder, but also to the threat posed by the pursuit of individual rights. As an important study on the history of individualism argues, conservative thought in the early nineteenth century was ‘virtually unanimous’ in condemning ‘the appeal to reason, interests, and rights of the individual’. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was increasingly common to attribute social disorganisation to the anarchy unleashed by the Enlightenment process of individuation. When Comte characterised individualism as ‘the disease of the Western world’, he gave voice to a sentiment that was no longer confined to conservative thought but was widely held by the mainstream of European public life.

Burke’s response to the prestige enjoyed by individual rationality was, as Zeev Sternhell pointed out in his 2010 book, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, ‘to demonstrate the insignificance of men’. Burke counterposed the primacy of society to the inconsequential individual. From Burke’s perspective, society constituted a fact of life that had always existed, and which could never be reshaped or customised to serve the interests of the individual. As I have argued elsewhere, one of the unexpected outcomes of the conservative critique of the eighteenth century’s celebration of the status of the individual was the deification of the authority of society. Critics of Enlightenment rationality and supporters of the old order never tired of insisting that as against the power of society, the individual is a feeble and inconsequential entity.

Ultimately, Levin’s attempt to project the debate between Burke and Paine as the point of departure for the current polarisation in American political life fails. To neutralise the primacy of individual rights, Burke sought refuge in the idea of society. In the nineteenth century, a similar journey was undertaken by a wide range of political interests, including those who would later be identified with the left. Paradoxically, the conservative deification of the authority of society was shared by the anti-individualist and anti-capitalist socialist movement. With the exception of small groups of principled liberal democrats, the ideas of Paine have become anathema to both today’s left and the conservative movements that crystallised in the nineteenth century. In fact, looking back at the great debate between Paine and Burke, we can see that the concepts of left and right that evolved in the nineteenth century, and gained greater ideological clarity in the twentieth, have little in common with the original polarisation between the political forces that were ranged against one another in the French National Assembly in 1789.

What Levin’s The Great Debate shows is that political arguments based on clear philosophical principles endow debate with clarity and force. It is a sad reflection on our times that today’s would-be Burkes lack the confidence and rigour to offer a conservative outlook based on a coherent philosophical foundation; and it is also a tragedy, in my view, that so few are willing to take forward Paine’s passionate commitment to liberal democracy. Arguably, there has been no significant advance on the role of democratic consent since Paine’s writing on the subject. The twenty-first century’s version of The Age of Reason remains to be written.

Frank Furedi’s First World War: Still No End in Sight is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left, by Yuval Levin, is published by Basic. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

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