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

3.73  ·  Rating Details ·  463 Ratings  ·  94 Reviews
For more than two centuries, our political life has been divided between a party of progress and a party of conservation. In The Great Debate, Yuval Levin explores the origins of the left/right divide by examining the views of the men who best represented each side of that debate at its outset: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. In a groundbreaking exploration of the roots of ...more
Hardcover, 296 pages
Published December 3rd 2013 by Basic Books (first published 2013)
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Riku Sayuj

The Perfect Omelet

A good investigation of the origins of the great liberal political debate. Levin takes us to the original arguments and shows us how at a distance the great but nebulous political divides of our day take a much more concrete shape. Of course the author is slightly right-leaning and this bias shows through in his characterizations. For instance even though the book claims to be about the Right & The Left, in fact it is about the moderate Right & the Radical Left. Once th
Brad Lyerla
May 13, 2016 Brad Lyerla rated it liked it
I finished THE GREAT DEBATE a few months ago and have been pondering it since. I enjoyed the read very much, but the more that I have considered the content, the less I like Levin's book. Levin compares and contrasts Edmund Burke with Thomas Paine in order to explore the notion that Burke is the father of modern conservatism and Paine a founder of modern liberalism.

Levin, who is a University of Chicago trained conservative, knows good scholarship and sets a high bar for himself in this work. I
Dec 21, 2013 Drtaxsacto rated it it was amazing
I first read Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke almost 50 years ago. I will confess that I am more a Burkean than a Paineista. Levin does a careful analysis of the work of these two 18th century writers in a compare and contrast mode that I found quite interesting.

Burke grew up as an Irishman - when we visited Dublin I was able to sit in his study carrell at TCD. Paine grew up in more humble circumstances but had the luck to have a couple of patrons - much of what he wrote was self learned but in man
The Question

In confronting the society around us, are we primarily grateful for what works well about it and moved to reinforce and build on that, or are we mainly outraged by what works poorly and moved to uproot and transform it?

This is one of the differences between the thinking Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Yuval Levin’s book explores these kinds of differences to help us understand the thinking of conservatives and liberals today.

Introducing The Cast

Thomas Paine is the author of Common Se
Eric Orchard
Oct 11, 2016 Eric Orchard rated it really liked it
A really interesting overview of the splitting of Liberalism into Left and Right explored through the contrasting writings of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. While it's mentioned at the outset of the book this book definitely comes from a right wing perspective, with Burke coming out much better.
Richard White
Sep 26, 2016 Richard White rated it did not like it
1000 pages and seven chapters could have been done in 100 pages and one chapter. Levin just kept rehashing the central theme over and over. Very dissapointing.
Mark L.
Sep 28, 2016 Mark L. rated it really liked it
Shelves: audio, 2016
In our day-to-day political arguments we hear echoes of a deeper debate that we easily mistake for remnants of an argument between capitalism and socialism, or for faint precursors of a long-predicted ultimate clash between religious traditionalism and secular cosmopolitanism. But more likely these echoes are in fact reminders of the defining disagreement of the political order of modern liberalism. That disagreement was given early and unusually clear voice by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and
Sep 01, 2016 Steven rated it liked it
Good book overall. I highly recommend, rather than using an Audible credit on it, purchasing the Kindle edition first, then the audible version at a discount because you'll want to go back and review certain sections, as well as use it for a reference, which the audible version isn't very useful for.

I was really excited to read this book, but it didn't quite meet my high expectations. It was certainly worth reading and I'm glad I did. In fact, I'm sure I will re-read many parts of it in the futu
Roger Sherman
Mar 10, 2014 Roger Sherman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great historical revelation and analysis

I totally agree that our politicians should be familiar with the Burke and Paine political philosophies. Mr Levin has opened my eyes to basic political thought that I had not known. The voters should also be familiar with these principles of political thought.
Kevin Shannon
Feb 06, 2014 Kevin Shannon rated it liked it
Interesting topic, if a bit academically dry in presentation. The old battle between scientific social policy and tradition. We are all liberals, just different shades.
Andy Klein
The book had some interesting moments, particularly in the first half. The book really didn't deliver on its premise by tying modern Liberalism and Conservatism to Paine and Burke.
Jan 06, 2014 Darin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in political theory
Recommended to Darin by: Amazon
Very interesting comparison between the two philosophies advocated by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and how these philosophies correspond to the present day left/right divide in US politics.
Sep 16, 2015 Charles rated it it was amazing
This is a clarifying book. In today’s Kardashian Kulture, even the well-informed, who know who Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke were, cannot generally give a cogent description of their thought, much less a point-counterpoint description of their fundamental ideas and disagreements. I know I certainly couldn’t. That is, until I read this book, which brilliantly does exactly that: distils Paine and Burke to their essences, both in the abstract and in direct comparison to each other.

Levin thereby per
Andrew Tollemache
Dec 16, 2016 Andrew Tollemache rated it really liked it
I cheated and Audible'd this one for a book club. Altogether a good read especially since its been a while since I looked at anything about Enlightenment Era Liberalism. Yuval Levin has compiled a very compelling "compare and contrast" description of the philosophies of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine who dueling intellectuals of the period encapsulating the American and French Revolutions. Both Paine and Burke supported the American Revolution, but had diametrically oppose views on the French. P ...more
Casey Mahon
Dec 11, 2016 Casey Mahon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good book, fairly deep but well written. This work lays out in detail the political philosophies of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. It presents both in the context of their times, showing how they each represented different strands of Enlightenment Liberal thought, culminating in labeling Burke as the reformist and Paine as the revolutionary. Though the title implies a study related to the "Right" and "Left" in modern politics, that is only done in any detail in the final portions of the last c ...more
Jun 11, 2014 David rated it really liked it
This is a fine survey of the political thought of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, specifically looking at how their approaches to modern liberalism inform the approaches of Left and Right today. In his treatment, Yuval Levin proves to be an astute student of political thought. He provides a great synthesis which proves useful for comparing the two thinkers on a series of topics (e.g. "revolution v. reform", "reason v. prescription"). I confess that I am much more familiar with Paine's thought tha ...more
Jan 03, 2017 Greg rated it really liked it
Shelves: poli-sci
This is a really important book. It challenges the standard model for the difference between the Right and the Left in the Anglo-American world. That standard model owes much to Isaiah Berlin's contention that Right and Left are distinguished by different conceptions of liberty: the Right focuses on "freedom from" and the Left focuses on "freedom to." Levin's book however, demonstrates that the difference is actually metaphysical and much deeper. I highly recommend the book for those on the Left ...more
Mark Hanson
Jan 03, 2017 Mark Hanson rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, politics
This is a heavy book to tackle with the large quotes from language of centuries past with weighty concepts under discussion, yet surprisingly, is not overly long. One downside is the frequent repetition of concepts found throughout the book. The contrast and comparison between Burke and Paine is fascinating. The practical implications for today are compelling.
Nov 09, 2016 Curtis rated it really liked it
This book was an excellent historical introduction to American political philosophy. I enjoyed how the author pointed out how bits and pieces of both Paine's and Burke's political thought are used by politicians from both sides of the political divide. I'm excited to read Levin's Fractured Republic after reading this book.
Jun 24, 2015 Brent rated it it was amazing
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” —John Maynard Keynes

There are very few books that bring clarity to the current state of American politics. But this is one of them. Levin not only artfully uses the philo
Paul Frandano
A fascinating, well written exploration of the core political writings of the two key 18th century thinkers on revolution and counterrevolution. Levin strains for objectivity and balance in addressing the views of Burke and Paine on human nature, natural and political right, the role of reason versus history and social convention in political thought, political change, and the status of the past/meaning of the future, particularly with regard to the American and French Revolutions. Sadly, he mis ...more
The Great Debate uses the war of letters between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine to explain the philosophical differences between conservatism and progressivism. Both men were political actors, albiet in different spheres, and both achieved renown during the period of the American and French revolutions. While both the respectable MP Burke and the revolutionary Paine supported the American cause, they broke furiously over the French. Drawing on each party's respective works, some written as direct ...more
Feb 23, 2014 Philip rated it liked it
The philosophical origins of much of the American political left and right begin with the works of two men: Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.
[You can learn about the psychological origins of left and right by reading Jonathan Haidt.]

Both Burke and Paine wrote popular political pamphlets. This was the medium of political expression in the late 18th C.

Burke (Irish 1729-1797) wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France:
“Politics ought to be adjusted not to human reasoning but to human nature.”

David F.
Apr 24, 2014 David F. rated it liked it
Yuval Levin notes that by the standards of the Enlightenment Era of the 18th Century, most Americans today are liberals. The split between America’s Right and its Left, he argues, emerged in the conflict between two liberal philosophers of that Century -- Tom Paine and Edmund Burke. Both the Irish-English statesman Burke and the Anglo-American pamphleteer Paine were irked by abuses of power and corruption in office and both supported the cause of the American Revolution but soon after the rebel ...more
Spencer Kashmanian
An excellent read. Mr. Levin -- conservative policy wonk and founding editor of National Affairs -- locates the ideational origins of the modern right-left divide in the differing political philosophies of the Old Whig reformer Edmund Burke and the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine.

Burke was a “forward-thinking traditionalist” who championed a “politics of the given world.” Man is born, without consent, into a web of obligations and social structures which inexorably bind him to his fellow count
Christina Wehner
Oct 23, 2015 Christina Wehner rated it really liked it
Shelves: theology-thought
This is not a book to read when you're tired and having trouble focusing, but this was a good read, still, for the information. The premise is that we can still see, to this day, in Europe and America, two lines of political thought that, if not exactly originated, was best expressed by Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.

What really intrigued me most about the book was the author's analysis of Burke and Paine's views on the nature of man and politics. According to Edmund Burke, man is both rational a
Aug 21, 2016 Cliff rated it it was amazing
While a little dry at times, this is a VERY important book that I wish I'd read a long time ago. It's fascinating to see just how much the debate between Burke and Paine influence our politics today, and in ways you wouldn't necessarily think or even necessarily make sense if you were to use pure logic alone. But of course, that does not always dictate one's politics, let alone the politics of entire movements. I was aware of the two-second version of both men's philosophies, but I hadn't gotten ...more
Kamrud Jacobson
Sep 18, 2016 Kamrud Jacobson rated it really liked it
A point by point example that shows the rise of our modern political divide in Western Democracies. Particularly interesting in how it shows the ideas forming, rearranging and finally solidifying in the minds of two brilliant men long before they would be reduced to the campaign slogans and codified non reflective bullet points of modern politics.
Apr 21, 2015 Behzad rated it liked it
This is a great book for introducing two very broad set of ideas. However, I would give it a three star because I don't think the author himself has done a great job to present them.

Back to the ideas and the two main characters of the book, I find it incredibly fascinating to hear two major figures talk about ideas that are still very much debated. The potential for rationalizing what belongs to public domain vs. the evolutionary nature of changes in societies characterizes the difference betwee
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American political analyst, public intellectual, academic and journalist. His areas of specialty include health care, entitlement reform, economic and domestic policy, science and technology policy, political philosophy, and bioethics.
He is the founding Editor of National Affairs. Levin is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., contrib
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“Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all,” Burke writes.” 1 likes
“Burke was not a sentimentalist, however.43 “Leave a man to his passions,” he wrote, “and you leave a wild beast to a savage and capricious nature.”44 Rather, he argued that while politics does answer to reason, human reason does not interact directly with the world but is always mediated by our imagination, which helps us to give order and shape to the data we derive from our senses. One way or another, reason applies through the sentiments and passions, so it is crucial to tend to what he calls our “moral imagination” because left untended, it will direct our reason toward violence and disorder.45 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.46 It is for Burke another reason why politics can never be reduced to a simple application of logical axioms. As Burke’s contemporary William Hazlitt put it: “[Burke] knew that man had affections and passions and powers of imagination, as well as hunger and thirst and the sense of heat and cold. . . . He knew that the rules that form the basis of private morality are not founded in reason, that is, in the abstract properties of those things which are the subjects of them, but in the nature of man, and his capacity of being affected by certain things from habit, from imagination, and sentiment, as well as from reason.” 1 likes
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