Every political party, every social organization has a particular view of human nature and what is intrinsic to being human. Most of us never stop to think what those respective views might be–so we end up accepting a view without thought. Alternatively, we wander round in a confused haze.
Tom Paine represents the world view of human nature as atomised. We come into this world without obligations being foisted upon us, or imputed to us. We come into this world as tabula rasa, a blank slate. This, according to Paine, represents true human freedom.
Burke, on the other hand, argued that we come into this world as a slate upon which a great deal has already been written and laid down, long before we were born. Human nature is shaped and controlled by spiritual and societal and natural forces which, in effect, we inherit (for good or evil).
The role of consent in this view of society is secondary at best. Social relations flow out of natural relations, and consent is assumed where it cannot be expressed, not because the individual chooses to accept his obligations, but because the consent of every rational creature is assumed to be in line with “the predisposed order of things.” This vision of society begins with the family–not the individual–and moves up toward society. [Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left (New York: Basic Books, 2014), p. 103.]
It’s worthwhile pausing and addressing a question to you, dear reader: Which view do you believe is right?
If you side with Paine, you consequently would hold no fixed view of what constitutes human nature and human society, except the fixed belief that there is no fixed view. You would believe, then, that a human being can be anything he or she wants to be. He/she can change gender at will, can change race or ethnicity on a dime. It’s all up to the atomised will of the individual. The role of a free society is to accept, endorse, ratify, and support such iterations in every possible way.
Whilst it is true that Tom Paine never went that far in his social and political philosophy, it’s only because he never had the chance. Mortality caught up with him. But the logic of his tabula rasa view of human nature would eventually drive his ideological descendants to advocate and claim such “freedoms” to be fundamental human rights. Rachel Dolezal claims that her ethnicity is what she chooses it to be; trans-genderists claim that their gender is whatever they choose it to be. This is all a consistent outworking of an atomised view of human nature being the essence of freedom.
Burke’s view, on the other hand, is warranted and certified as true and correct by Holy Writ. Burke’s view of human nature captures the Christian position–at least in part. Man is not born as an autonomous, atomised individual, but as a creature shaped and controlled and socialised by inheritance, genes, family, and social conditioning. These are ultimately the choices and determinations of the All Conditioning Conditioner–the Living God Himself–who loves us and calls us to enjoy His abundant life.
It is not for nothing that the tabula rasa revolutionaries focus upon tearing down the family, thereby striking out at the most powerful conditioning and social institution. Burke, on the other hand, acknowledges and accepts the sovereign role of the family and acknowledges it to be a fundamental component of human existence.
Paine and the radical revolutionaries would attempt to break the family down because it is the primary obstacle to free choice. Burke, however, saw human freedom as a duty to care for and protect the social relationships that emerge out of the immediate and extended family.
Whence does human freedom come: from the atomised sovereign choices of man, or from accepting and working within the obligations and relations which we have inherited, and making our own sovereign choices within that context? Does it come from adherence to duty, or from atomised, unconstrained choice?
That, as they say, is the question.
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