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Which Burke do conservatives have in mind?

By From the March 2014 issue

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

(Basic, 296 pages, $27.99)

Shortly before receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Yuval Levin was given the unprecedented honor of seeing his thesis praised in the pages of the New York Times. According to David Brooks’s column of May 25, 2010, Levin’s “superb dissertation” reanimated the two figures, Edmund Burke and Tom Paine, who had “articulated most brilliantly” the gulf between the British and French Enlightenments, which, according to Brooks, underlies the conflicts of contemporary American politics. Considering the dusty back-shelf oblivion to which most theses are consigned, this was an astonishing level of publicity—about as likely as a Hollywood producer deciding to greenlight the screenplay his deliveryman left in the Domino’s box.

Now Levin’s fate-favored dissertation has been turned into a book—and not some slim monograph from an academic press, but a glossy popular release from the same imprint that publishes Thomas Sowell. The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left has been reviewed by all the political weeklies and monthlies from Commentary to Democracy and by the Wall Street Journal twice. Both C-SPAN and NPR have invited its author to discuss the book on their airwaves.

Certainly some portion of the credit for this string of successes belongs to Levin himself. He is a conservative intellectual of fine credentials, editor of the respected policy quarterly National Affairs, and a veteran of the George W. Bush domestic policy team. But at least as much credit must go to Levin’s shrewd choice of subject. Edmund Burke holds a special place in the Right’s long-running dialogue about itself. He is accessible enough that everyone has read at least some of him, yet voluminous enough that there are few bona fide experts around to police the conversation. The result is a jolly free-for-all any time a book about him is released, which no doubt is why publishers keep putting them out.

The temptation when writing a book about Burke, or even discussing him at any length, is to lapse into self-portrait. His work is so rich and varied that it is very easy to pick out the sides of him we most resemble. Russell Kirk portrayed him as a romantic traditionalist; Peter Stanlis, a natural-law philosopher; Conor Cruise O’Brien, a dogged Irishman. None of these Burkes was entirely false, just slanted to the author’s advantage. Into this benign trap Yuval Levin has most definitely fallen, and it may be said of The Great Debate what is so often said of O’Brien’s earlier book, The Great Melody: It gives us at least as much of its author as it gives us of Edmund Burke.

The first quality Levin espies in the Burkean mirror is something akin to drabness. Levin would probably describe it as a sober steadiness, a dispositional tendency to keep firm hold of one’s horses. There is no question that Levin himself possesses this quality, and has made a kind of personal virtue of it. His language, for example, is consistently measured and plain. An exemplary line from the book: “Revolution, he [Burke] argues, is an inappropriate means of change because it is not well suited for capitalizing on the lessons of the past.” Even a reader who did not know about his tenure in the Bush White House would be able to tell that this is a man who has written a government memo or two in his time. There are no soaring suspension bridges in Levin’s prose, only the pontoon kind, stretching straight and flat as far as the eye can see.

There’s nothing wrong with this style of writing, or with having a placid disposition. A circus needs a stage manager as much as it needs acrobats and fire-breathers. Levin’s mistake lies in trying to enlist Burke to justify and to evangelize for his blandness in a way that misportrays what Burke actually wrote (not to mention how Burke wrote—understatements like “inappropriate” or “not well suited” would certainly never have escaped his pen in reference to revolution). Levin rests his argument against excitement on Burke’s early work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. In this book, according to Levin:

He argued especially that the sublime, which draws on man’s simultaneous fear of and fascination with death, exercises enormous power over the human imagination. That power can unleash violent torrents of energy into social life if it is not properly managed by an appeal to man’s simultaneous (if often weaker) attraction to order and social peace (that is, to the beautiful). The common life of a community depends a great deal on sentimental attachments and implicit appeals to this love of the beautiful and the orderly, and in Burke’s view, these play a vital but generally underappreciated role in the prevention of political violence and the maintenance of warm and peaceful relations in society.

Warm and peaceful—sounds lovely. Levin makes Burke’s sublime and beautiful sound like the aesthetic equivalents of wild and tame, or dangerous and safe, which becomes less than half right when he then suggests that Burke believed beauty was the nobler of the two and that man’s attraction to it should be encouraged at sublimity’s expense. I hesitate to suggest that someone as well-versed in Burke as Levin has misread his man, but I do not know where he got the idea that appeals to beauty should be deployed to “manage” the allure of the sublime, much less that “the subtle enjoyments of that orderly beauty keep us from seeking to indulge” our more intense attractions.

Among the sublime virtues for Burke are “fortitude, justice, wisdom, and the like,” as opposed to “the softer virtues: easiness of temper, compassion, kindness, and liberality,” which are “of less immediate and momentous concern to society, and of less dignity.” He uses the sexes to make the difference more concrete: Fathers are authoritative, mothers merely lovable, and grandfathers somewhere between the two, weakness and age having softened masculine authority “into something of a feminine partiality.” When not illustrating his thesis with the family, Burke used animals. Dogs are “the most social, affectionate, and amiable creatures in the whole of brute creation,” which is why we love them. But it is also why “dog” and its synonyms are “terms of reproach…in every language.” And then the giveaway: “Love approaches much nearer to contempt than is commonly imagined.”

Clearly Burke would not have said that society’s surest foundation lies on the soothing side of this spectrum. Nor would he have claimed, as Levin seems to suggest elsewhere, that man’s appetite for the sublime was something that had long been lying mercifully dormant until the Jacobins came along and uncorked it. Far from being a force opposed to order, as Levin claims it is, sublimity is a crucial element in many of the institutions that preserve order. Burke likened the British constitution to a father and not a mother, after all. It is true that the French revolutionaries were drawn to theatrical violence by their need for sublime spectacles, but only because they had cut themselves off from the institutions that had previously satisfied the people’s taste for such things in a less destructive way. Unable to pull off grandeur, the revolution’s hair-dressers and tallow-chandlers had to resort to terror. This does not suggest that the human desire for sublimity should be suppressed; it suggests that it should be satisfied, even cultivated, so that it can be directed toward such legitimate objects as the crown and the law. If the sister of love is contempt, the brother of fear is reverence.

The other facet of the Burkean persona that Levin holds up for praise is gradualism. He wholeheartedly endorses the standard line about “thoughtful and gradual change”—or “slow, incremental reform,” “gentle, gradual change,” “gradual and incremental political and social progress,” or any of the other permutations that make Burkeanism sound like an invitation to argue porridge with Goldilocks. Levin returns again and again to these phrases, contrasting them with both Tom Paine’s enthusiasm for change and the standpattist notion (held by exactly no one) that change is always bad.

As an example of the correct mindset in which to approach the prospect of change, Levin cites Burke’s speech on his financial reforms of 1780: “I advance to it with a tremor that shakes me to the inmost fiber of my frame. I feel that I engage in a business…the most completely adverse that can be imagined to the natural turn and temper of my own mind.” The problem with identifying Burkeanism with this sense of reluctance is that it locates conservatism not in what a man does but in how he feels or in the preambles he attaches to his actions. Among those less committed to the conservative policy agenda than Levin, this can easily shade into a belief that true conservatives can be identified by how emphatically they deny wanting to do what they are engaged in doing. I think that Burke would probably resent having his philosophy reduced to a political rape fantasy.

Burke himself argued that incrementalism was no virtue if the principle being pursued were an absolute one. In 1782—that is, during his most Whiggish period, well before the French Revolution drove him to the right—Burke gave a speech warning Parliament not to enact any of the reforms being proposed to make the House of Commons more democratic. The substance of the reforms did not worry him so much as the fact that “nine tenths of the reformers” based their arguments on the “natural right” of every man to govern himself:

In every political proposal we must not leave out of the question the political views and object of the proposer; and these we discover, not by what he says, but by the principles he lays down. ‘I mean,’ says he, ‘a moderate and temperate reform’…Fine reformer, indeed! generous donor!…What sort of treaty of partition is this for those who have an inherent right to the whole? Give them all they ask, and your grant is still a cheat.

In our own day partisans of the left often cloak their less-than-sober political agenda in the regalia of temperance and moderation. Levin closes his book with the advice that today’s conservatives “could benefit…from Burke’s thoroughgoing gradualism,” but it might be better if they adopted more of his skepticism.

How did the author of The Great Debate end up with such a flawed Burke? As it happens, he may well have inherited him. His mentor at the University of Chicago was Leon Kass, under whom Levin also worked at the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush administration. (I assume it is Kass who is indirectly responsible for the appearance in Levin’s original dissertation of the phrase “basic human dignity,” a howling anachronism in a study of an 18th-century thinker.) Another influence is Harvey Mansfield, whose work Levin cites extensively, though admittedly not always favorably, in his dissertation. Levin’s magazine National Affairs is a reboot of Irving Kristol’s magazine The Public Interest, and Kristol is the intellectual to whom Levin is most often compared. All three of these figures are part of the neoconservative strain in the American right, and all three studied, formally or informally, under Leo Strauss. Levin may or may not consider himself a proponent of this brand of neoconservatism, but it is certainly a tradition within which he can fairly be situated.

This tradition has long had a tortured relationship with Burke. Strauss himself was so plainly hostile to Burke that his students, to avoid bad feeling on the right, contrived a reading of Natural Right and History according to which Strauss portrayed three different Burkes, only one of which embraced the ideas responsible for the downfall of civilization. Some of Strauss’s students adopted his wariness toward Burke (e.g., Kristol: “As Professor Leo Strauss has demonstrated, Burke himself was no conservative…”); others have distanced themselves from it. But even those who have taken a friendlier approach have never truly warmed to the man. Leon Kass, for instance—whom Levin likens to Burke in his contribution to the festschrift for Kass that he co-edited—has emphasized themes like tradition and wisdom in his work, but I cannot locate a single instance where he actually cites Burke in any of his many books. Kristol sometimes called himself a Burkean, but he never appealed to the man as more than a vague totem. From their neglect of him, it appears that the Straussians have as many Burkes as the Unitarians have gods: not three but one, at most.

The most common American misreading of Burke—namely, that at this point the inheritance we are bound to try to conserve is New Deal liberalism—carries the flavor of this same tradition. It is a misreading because it assumes that the objects of Burke’s preservationist impulse must be government institutions. In fact, the institutions Burke cared about preserving were just as likely to be cultural. In a situation like the present one, where the state is actively destroying independent institutions such as the family or America’s churches, Burkean preservation of the latter may well require some radical destruction of the former. It would never occur to Straussians to think this way. Their philosophy has always elevated the political above all other forms of human activity—perhaps a consequence of their love for the democratic Greeks. It was the Straussian eminence Harry Jaffa who wrote: 

Just as the architect gives commands to the builders, so does the art of the politikos “ordain which of the sciences are to be studied”…To concede that political philosophy is “one among many” of the “sciences of man and of human affairs” would imply that there was no comprehensive human good.

I do not know how far Levin agrees with these sentiments, but it is noteworthy that a recent issue of National Affairs has among its cover articles a long piece by Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson titled “A Conservative Vision for Government.” In it, Wehner and Gerson (who, let us recall, tried in 2007 to kickstart “heroic conservatism” as a brand) argue for “the restoration of government to its proper and honored place in American life” via “a menu of structural reforms that do not simply attack government but transform it.” Levin himself, in his opening to the National Affairs anthology A Time for Governing, argues that the problem with the welfare-state bureaucracy is that it “permits neither efficiency nor idealism.” As a political professional himself, Burke would have found it difficult to summon much idealism about his day job. He would have accepted that certain regimes are more uplifting than others, but the idea that statecraft is soulcraft would have left him bemused.

Still, even a wild mischaracterization of Burke—which Levin’s book, for all its flaws, most definitely is not—might be forgiven if it gave us the Burke that 21st-century America needs. He is such a towering figure of conservatism, with so much to offer, that today’s right should be able to make use of some part of him, even at the expense of historical fidelity. Certainly Burke would benefit from being made to seem fresh and new. Rather than haul out the old “little platoons” for another dress parade, future authors might unearth less worn quotes, such as Burke’s line on why married couples’ sleeping in separate beds was “a certain sign of corruption” (“A woman in that case never went to bed to her husband but with a gross purpose; whereas if she slept with him constantly, that might happen or not, as inclination prompted”—there is a serious point in that). Levin, unfortunately, relies on the usual standbys, getting several uses out of the five or six most famous. William Hazlitt once said that to attempt to convey Burke’s greatness by giving quotations was like a man trying to sell his house by carrying around one of its bricks as an advertisement. After finishing The Great Debate, the reader may well feel as if he bears the imprint of some of those bricks on his temple.

Levin’s Burke is not the one our present moment calls for, for several reasons. His Burke does not get the blood moving—indeed, is designed not to get the blood moving. His Burke is too accommodating of the fuzzier forms of national greatness conservatism. Most of all, his Burke is designed to fight the wrong war against the wrong enemy. One of the major themes of The Great Debate is reason, its limits and its hazards. This was an important line for Burke to emphasize in his own day given the kind of radicals he had to face. In addition to Paine, the British left of the late 18th century included men like John Horne Tooke, whose commitment to rationality led him to violently condemn the English language for being so unmathematical as to have multiple words for the same concept. As for the political sphere, Carl Cone points out in The English Jacobins that the liberals of that generation wanted to rationalize government purely for rationalization’s sake, without any idea that social justice would follow: “Parliamentary reform was an end in itself, not a means of ensuring that Parliament would recognize the economic needs of the lower orders.”

This does not sound like anyone in the Democratic party. The solutions that emanate from the current White House may have a technocratic ring to them (as indeed do many of those in National Affairs), but their arguments are more likely to be deficient in reason than over-reliant upon it. The bass line is always: People are suffering; we must do something. The organ engaged by such appeals is not the brain. This same refrain neutralizes another of Levin’s themes, the difference between radical change and reasonable reform: If all human suffering is seen as a matter of urgency, any reform directed at alleviating that suffering will be considered reasonable. As for unchosen obligations, the subject of Levin’s fourth chapter, the party that swoons over Elizabeth Warren does not need to be told about those. 

There is a Burkean insight that could address this kind of leftism, though not one that Levin discusses. In the ongoing effort to replenish their catalogue of sufferers in need of government rescue, the modern left relies on two kinds of sources: professional grievance-mongers purporting to represent particular special interests, and desk-bound number crunchers who comb through statistics for disparities that can be spun into crises. The latter group are like those of his contemporaries whom Burke compared with “the unhappy persons who live, if they can be said to live, in the statical chair”—a medical fad—“who are ever feeling their pulse, and who do not judge of health by the aptitude of the body to perform its functions, but by their ideas of what ought to be the true balance between the several secretions.” What both the professional activists and the think tankers have in common is their distance from the populations they claim to speak for.

Burke realized what American radicals usually come to accept only after years of discouragement: Allow people to judge their own suffering, and revolutionaries will be left waiting forever. In the early 1780s, while his Whig friends were in London agitating for more democratic elections, Burke took a tour of the north, where he heard “not one word, either in the towns or country, on the subject of representation; much on the receipt tax, something on Mr Fox’s ambition, much greater apprehension of danger from thence than from want of representation.” Years later, Burke accused Paine of failing to appreciate the merits of the British system, “its parsons and its pudding, its commons and its beer, and its dull slavish liberty of going about just as one pleases.” In this case the vice to which Paine had succumbed was not an overreliance on reason, or too much enthusiasm for radical change, but something much simpler: arrogant presumption. The lesson for modern Burkeans to take from this is to be skeptical of anyone who claims to speak for a population that they show no sign of having stopped to truly listen to.

Some of the reviewers of Levin’s book have expressed serious doubts that Burke has anything at all to offer the American right. He is too old-fashioned, they say, or too British; his premises are too far removed from ours. It is true that hostility to Burke is at some level an American consensus. Yale professor Frank M. Turner, in the 2003 edition of Burke’s Reflections that he edited, writes in his introduction that his brightest students always reacted badly when assigned the book, quoting one as having concluded: “This book is offensive, really offensive!” I have no doubt that Turner’s student thought so. But another professor at the same institution once explained to me his trick for getting Yale students to embrace Burke: he would start the semester with the Reflections, absorb their dismissive condemnations of the book, and then—here is the trick—assign them William Godwin. That preeminent liberal philosopher of Burke’s day embraced all the same beliefs held by the average Yale student today, yet he expressed them in such a cold and inhuman manner that, according to this professor, his students never failed to run screaming toward the refuge of Burke’s eminently human alternative. That may be the only way Burke can be revived: by waiting for frustration with current ideas to set in. When that happens, it will not be Levin’s Burke to which we turn. 

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About the Author

Helen Rittelmeyer is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. She blogs at First Things.