The Great Debate: Burke Versus Paine, Part III

The Enlightenment and Its Tyranny

Most Western political philosophers from the Greeks through to Enlightenment liberals and their successors have a view that the origin of a state or nation is critical.  There is an emphasis upon the founding of a nation: whether it be in the form of a “Declaration of Independence” or a Constitutional Convention producing founding constitutional documents.

This emphasis upon the beginnings of a nation is a reflection of what is found in Scripture.  In the Bible, it becomes apparent that God is a covenant making and a covenant keeping God.  A covenant in Scripture is a solemn, formal agreement between parties which provides the foundation, the “basic law” or “higher law” of how the nation will cohere together.  It sets the goals, the motivation, and the standards which will govern the various parties.

Thus, when God called Abram and his household from Ur of the Chaldees, He made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants.  [Genesis 17: 1-2]  After God delivered Israel out of Egypt, He re-made His covenant with Abraham’s descendants [Exodus 19:5].  Then, again, at the end of the wilderness wanderings over 40 years, He remade the covenant again with Israel, as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy.

Thus, when nations make covenants to define the fundamental structures, processes and laws of their nation, they are reaching back to a biblical construct.  The creation itself and the world of mankind are made to operate within covenantal structures.
The political philosophers and thinkers in the Western tradition who have emphasized the importance of constitutional, or fundamental laws, which define and give shape to the goals, motives and standards of a nation, are, in a general sense, following the biblical pattern.

Edmund Burke, whilst not denying the force or significance of such founding documents, argued that the patterns, habits, practices, and traditions of a society are also vital to define the rights and freedoms of a people.  In this sense, Burke was also reaching back into Scriptural constructs, although it is not clear whether he was consciously aware of the fact.  In biblical covenants, inheritance is a vital construct.  God deals with mankind generationally and inter-generationally.  The re-making of covenants always referred back to Israel’s ancestry and inheritance from former generations.  God continued to identify Himself to Israel as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”.

According to Burke, when we come into the world, we are born into a functioning society which embodies the collective wisdom of prior generations.  For many of the Enlightenment Liberals, however, political arrangements ought not be founded upon historical legacy, but upon a returning to the “original” state of nature, when men (in their view) were free to create whatever society they wanted.  In this sense, the Enlightenment liberals had wandered far from the construct of biblical covenants; ironically, Burke–at least in this matter–was far closer to the biblical view.  All biblical covenants, precisely because they are all inter-generational, have the concept of inheritance, and maintenance of a heritage as intrinsic to them.

Paine extolled the French Revolution because it opened up the promise of throwing everything out and returning to an “original” purity.  Burke despised the same revolution for the reason that it destroyed a sacred legacy handed down from the past.  It would end up destroying liberty and freedoms–and he was proved right.  For Paine, the Revolution provided a chance to start over.  He never conceived that it would open the floodgates to murder, violence, oppression, war, and tyranny.  For Burke, the Revolution was dismantling inherited structures, laws, principles, and freedoms which, over many centuries, had been developed to protect and preserve the rights and privileges of citizens.

Burke wrote:

The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation.  It is wholly artificial, and made like all other fictions by common agreement. . . . When men, therefore, break up the original compact or agreement which gives its corporate form and capacity to a state, they are no longer a people; they have no longer a corporate existence; they have no longer a legal coactive force to bind within, nor a claim to be recognized abroad.  They are a number of vague loose individuals, and nothing more.  [Yuval Levin, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left (New York: Basic Books, 2014),  p.55.]

Thomas Paine and the Enlightenment radicals had a view of human nature where man, once liberated, would operate as a logical, rational calculator.  Burke, however, believed that man was far more complex than that–and that, consequently, society was far more nuanced and complex.  Therefore, change and development should be thoughtful, insightful and gradual.  As Levin has it:

The dark side of our sentiments is mitigated not by pure reason, but by more beneficent sentiments.  We cannot be simply  argued out of our vices, but we can be deterred from indulging them by the trust and love that develops  among neighbors, by deeply established habits of order and peace, and by pride in our community or country.  And part of the statesman’s difficult charge is keeping this balance together, acting rationally  on this understanding of the limits of reason.

“The temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought therefore to be the first study of a statesman,” Burke asserts.  It is for Burke another reason why politics can never be reduced to a simple application of logical axioms.  [Ibid., p. 58.]

 The revolutionary breaks society into pieces.  He destroys far more than he is able to build.  His preferred replacement is necessarily both superficial and artificial.  Inevitably, it does not work.  That’s when the guillotine or the gun emerge.

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