Since it is a dispute about Enlightenment liberalism, the Burke-Paine debate might be said to begin where the Enlightenment liberal theory of political life does: with nature, or the state of nature, as the source of our political thought.
In almost every one of his writings, starting with Common Sense in 1775, Thomas Paine argues that in order to understand the principles of politics, we have to begin with man before politics—in his natural state, which is taken to be a non-political and maybe even a non-social state. In the opening of The Rights of Man Paine argues, “The error of those who reason by precedents drawn from antiquity respecting the rights of man is that they do not go far enough into antiquity. They do not go the whole way.” We need to trace things to their origins, he says. And man’s origin is best understood by abstracting to his nature, in the absence of social influences and historical precedent.
Everything that was true of the human being in that original state of nature is true still. And what was true, Paine says, was above all
the unity of man; by which I mean that men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right, in the same manner as if posterity had been continued by creation instead of generation, the latter being only the mode by which the former is carried forward; and consequently every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind.
From the very beginning, then, it is clear that Paine’s case for his approach to politics will require him to deny the significance of generations—to insist that we are all in essence Adams and Eves, best understood as created directly by our maker, not as descended from prior generations.
This also means that we have to think about social institutions as though they were created in our time, and assess them in relation to the principles of a just politics—principles drawn from the facts of human equality and rights—rather than in relation to their historical function or standing. In essence, we should ask: would we have founded the institutions we now have? If not, those institutions are illegitimate, and we should found ones that are legitimate instead. Every generation should understand itself to be potentially a founding generation, and should look to the origins of its regime to assess its legitimacy.
Edmund Burke’s disagreement with Paine’s outlook begins on this point, which he vehemently opposed from his earliest writings. Burke’s first published political work was a peculiar little book called A Vindication of Natural Society, published in 1756, when he was 27 years old. It is a kind of satire of Enlightenment liberal ideas taken to their logical extreme. The Vindication presents itself as a letter from an old writer to a young nobleman who is considering going into politics. The old writer says that to discover the truth about man we have to go all the way back to our natural origins, and when we do that we find that the simple and natural society that emerged from the state of nature was successful and pure, but that the various artificial institutions built on top of it over the years have all been terrible corruptions of the natural truth about man. Paine and other Enlightenment liberals argued, of course, that their method of looking all the way past history to natural beginnings shows that hereditary government is illegitimate, because it is not in line with the natural facts about man. But in the Vindication, Burke implies that this method would actually show that any kind of government is illegitimate, and all social institutions are corrupted at their origins. His old writer tells the young nobleman that considering politics in light of the origins of human society shows the various forms of government, “however they may differ in name, or in some slight circumstances, to be all alike in effect; in effect, to be all tyrannies.”
The problem, Burke suggests, is that very method of judging the present by a theory of political origins. The beginnings of any society are almost certain to involve some form of barbarism, Burke writes. Only over time, by slow reform in response to circumstantial exigencies, do societies develop more mature forms—a process that, as Burke puts it in the Reflections on the Revolution in France, “mellows into legality governments that were violent in their commencement.” A return to beginnings—starting over—does not therefore offer an opportunity to start anew on proper principles, but rather risks a reversion to barbarism.
That does not mean there is no place for nature in political thought, however. If Paine describes nature on the model of modern physics, as a kind of repository of rational principles—believing that politics should apply those principles in practice—Burke resorts to an older model of nature, more akin to that of biological organisms. And he believes our understanding of human nature can be discerned from the study of man as he is in society today, not by abstracting to what he might have been before society.
“How can any man claim under the conventions of civil society rights which do not so much as suppose its existence?” Burke asks. Our social institutions are certainly artificial, in the sense that they were made by human beings, but this does not make them irrelevant to understanding our nature. On the contrary: “Art is man’s nature. We are as much, at least, in a state of nature in formed manhood, as in immature and helpless infancy”; and “the state of civil society … is a state of nature, and much more truly so than a savage and incoherent mode of life.”
Their differences about nature lead Burke and Paine to different views about the character of social relations and political order. Because Paine thinks that legitimate political institutions, in line with the natural facts about human beings, have to treat human beings as freely choosing individuals, he places choice at the very center of his political universe. The polity itself is a product of choice—a compact created by freely choosing individuals who see an advantage in banding together under a common government.
Only the first generation of any society can claim to have done this, of course, but Paine insists that later generations have a choice about whether to keep their society together. He writes:
It requires but a very small glance of thought to perceive that although laws made in one generation often continue in force through succeeding generations, yet they continue to derive their force from the consent of the living. A law not repealed continues in force, not because it cannot be repealed, but because it is not repealed; and the non-repealing passes for consent.
The purpose of a society organized by such laws is precisely to protect people’s freedom to make free choices—choices about who will govern them, and choices about how they will live. Society is a contract by which citizens agree to guard the rights of others in return for their rights being guarded by others.
Burke utterly rejects this choice-centered view of society. He even rejects the notion that the people have a right to choose their rulers. He is not exactly anti-democratic—his beloved House of Commons is an elected body—but he does reject the idea that only democratic institutions are legitimate. More importantly, he thinks that a vision of society that puts choice at its center is simply not true as a description of the human experience.
As Burke sees it, each man is in society not by choice but by birth. And the facts of his birth—the family, the station and the nation he is born into—exert inescapable demands on him, while also granting him some privileges and protections that he has done nothing to earn. It is in this context that Burke offers perhaps his deepest picture of life in society:
Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things. Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country.
Because we enter a society that already exists, and which we did not choose, Burke holds, choice could not be the organizing principle of social life. “Society is indeed a contract,” he writes. “But the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee … It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.” Crucially, he adds:
As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
Paine expressly disagrees with Burke’s description of a cross-generational contract. “Those who have quitted the world, and those who have not yet arrived in it, are as remote from each other as the utmost stretch of moral imagination can conceive,” writes Paine. “What possible obligation, then, can exist between them?” Paine believes that Burke’s emphasis on generations is merely a way to defend an unjust status quo, in which hereditary governments oppress their populations:
I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away and controlled and contracted for by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead and Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living.
We owe the dead gratitude if they have left us free and legitimate institutions, and we owe them contempt if they have not, in Paine’s view. And what is true of our relations to the past is true also of our relation to the future. The only obligation we have to our descendants is to allow them to be free to exercise their own reason in pursuit of their happiness, without encumbrances that constrain that freedom. We owe them the same thing we owe to our contemporaries: the freedom to choose. And if we provide it to them, Paine says, the next generation will owe us nothing but gratitude in turn.
The Power of Reason
This extraordinary view is a function of Paine’s larger notion of the nature of politics, which he argues is an arena for the exercise of reason in pursuit of justice. Burke’s and Paine’s disagreement about the importance of choice and generational continuity thus leads into a dispute about the importance and the power of reason.
According to Paine, the unleashing of reason is the essence of the Enlightenment’s promise. The freedom to reason about politics had made it possible to reveal the truth about man’s nature, and so had begun in his time to usher in an age of unparalleled promise. “There is a morning of reason rising upon man on the subject of government, that has not appeared before,” Paine writes. Only in his time has the true political science begun to emerge, and with it will emerge first an age of revolutions that seek to implement the principles of that science, and then, once they are implemented, an age of peace and prosperity.
But to Burke, pure reason applied to pure principle seems an inadequate foundation for politics. From his very earliest writings, he is deeply impressed with the limits of human reason. Like the young Descartes, the young Burke notes the persistence of disagreement among the wise, and particularly on what ought to be the most rationally resolvable questions. But unlike Descartes, Burke took this as evidence of the inherent limits of human reason, and the danger of expecting too much of our rational capacity. “That man thinks much too highly, and therefore he thinks weakly and delusively, of any contrivance of human wisdom, who believes that it can make any sort of approach to perfection,” Burke writes. The idea that reason can overcome human failings strikes him as implausible. “It is true indeed that enthusiasm often misleads us but so does reason too.”
The solution is not to liberate individual reason, but on the contrary to seek proof of what political institutions and practices will work by considering those that have passed the test of time; to govern with the aid of what Burke calls “prescription”: the collective wisdom of the ages as expressed in the form of long-standing precedents, institutions and patterns of practice.
Prescription does not mean that nothing can change in political life. On the contrary, Burke describes prescription as a kind of principle of change. But it is gradual change, in line with the preexisting patterns of a society’s life—change that is justified against existing precedents, and so strengthens society, rather than undermining its foundations. Throughout his career, Burke was a reformer of British institutions, not a defender of the status quo at all costs. But he always sought to make clear that change should be carried out for the purpose of preservation, or of perfection in line with the best of the nation’s political traditions. “We must all obey the great law of change,” Burke writes:
It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation. All we can do, and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that the change shall proceed by insensible degrees. This has all the benefits which may be in change, without any of the inconveniences of mutation.
Gradual change that responds to problems of the day in line with successful precedents from past ages is the key to Burke’s vision of statesmanship. Prescription, moreover, is a way of judging change by how well it accords with a society’s best precedents, rather than by how well it accords with abstract principles of justice. Therefore it offers a kind of standard in politics, and warns us against sudden breaks with the past.
But it was just that way of judging the legitimacy of change that caused Paine to reject Burke’s politics of prescription—and to accuse Burke of simply ignoring justice and of holding that whatever is, is right.
Paine is above all a champion of justice—justice especially for the weak oppressed by the powerful, for the poor mistreated by the rich, and for all who are denied their rights. It seems to him that societies founded on a principle of injustice—the principle of hereditary rule and monarchy, whereby a nation’s population is basically handed down as chattel from father to son—do not possess the ingredients for gradually transforming into just societies. They have to be undone, and refounded on the right principles. To insist that their own precedents—precedents of injustice and inhumanity—should guide all future reform is to deny the possibility of meaningful improvement. Paine therefore accuses Burke both of cold-heartedness and of a kind of historicist relativism: of ignoring the plight of the poor and oppressed, and of ignoring the principles of justice—focusing instead on preserving the status quo, whatever it may be.
Burke denies the charge by insisting that the principles of justice are not as accessible to human reason as Paine thinks they are. There are higher principles above politics, Burke says, but we cannot reach them by direct rational examination or through quasi-geometrical logic. We can only reach them by a kind of trial and error that plays out in a society’s historical development. Prescription, with its analogy of natural inheritance, is what makes this trial and error possible, and what helps us to distinguish error from success. It is a model of change, but one suited to help us discern the general shape of some permanent principles of justice.
The historical experience of social and political life essentially consists in a kind of rubbing up against the principles of natural justice, Burke argues, and the institutions and practices that survive that experience thereby take on something of the shape of those principles of justice, because only those that have that shape do survive. Over time, therefore, provided they develop in accordance with the model of prescription, societies evolve to express in their institutions, their charters, their traditions and their habits a kind of simulacrum of the standard of justice. Society as it exists after such long experience offers an approximation of society as it should exist. Social and political change can help bring a society slowly closer to the standard, if only by degrees, but that is likely to happen only if that change is in keeping with the spirit of society’s preexisting modes and orders.
In this sense, the fact that some institution or principle of government has lasted for ages and served society well tells us something about its validity. It’s not simply that what is, is right, but that what has been around for a long time and has made society happy and strong is more likely to be right than a new idea—at the very least, it should not be abandoned lightly in favor of an untried path.
Paine, of course, rejects this view as thoroughly misguided, if not just a cynical defense of privilege and power. And he does so, again, by rejecting the centrality of the element of time and the significance of generations in political life. “Time with respect to principles is an eternal NOW,” Paine writes. “It has no operation upon them; it changes nothing of their nature and qualities.” After all, he continues,
… what have we to do with a thousand years? Our lifetime is but a short portion of time, and if we find the wrong in existence as soon as we begin to live, that is the point of time at which it begins to us; and our right to resist it is the same as if it never existed before.
Paine’s adamant opposition to hereditary rule led him to make an explicit case against the past’s imposition on the present. “Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the ages and generations which preceded it,” Paine writes. And for that reason, politics exists for the sake of the present generation. “As government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it.”
This means that prior generations cannot expect to bind the present, and that the present one should not expect to bind the future. Laws and institutions exist at the pleasure of the living. Like his friend Thomas Jefferson, Paine suggests that it might be a good idea for every law enacted to come with an expiration date—he proposes thirty years—so that the entire frame of government can be presented as an option or a question, not as a given, to the next generation.
Precedent, in other words, should have no power over our judgment of the legitimacy or justice of political arrangements. And there is little to be gained from gradualism, which tries to build a firm edifice on rotten foundations. To change a corrupt society for the better, we have to start it over. This is the essence of Paine’s case for revolution.
The debate between Burke and Paine involves the premises, demands, means and ends of liberal democracy. The two parties to the argument do not represent liberalism and anti-liberalism, but rather two strands of modern liberal thought, divided over some of the deepest questions of political philosophy, but in most cases nonetheless united (as Burke and Paine were) by a commitment to certain political norms and ideals—open debate, freedom of expression and religion, the rule of law. They disagree, perhaps above all, about whether liberal democracy is a beginning or an end—a discovery that points toward a profound break from the past, or an achievement of countless generations to be conserved and refined.
One side tends to argue that the great contribution of modern liberalism is its discoveries regarding man and the state, and the principles that emerge from its new understanding. If these principles were more fully applied they would yield a more just, peaceful and prosperous world, free at last of the vestiges of barbarism and prejudice that for so long have oppressed the weak and the poor. The other side tends to argue that the great strength of modern liberalism is in how it has balanced order and freedom, property and justice, social peace and economic dynamism, morality and liberty in practice, and that these practical achievements must be strengthened and sustained.
These two liberalisms, a progressive and a conservative liberalism, have come to define the contours and boundaries of many liberal democracies, including our own. The debate between them animates our political life, and shapes our approaches and responses to social and political change. And the debate between Burke and Paine, which offers the first real iteration of that still ongoing argument, allows us to see a not-so-obvious fact: that where we stand on many of the great questions at the heart of liberal-democratic politics often depends decisively upon our view of the relationship between the present and the past.
For one side, liberalism offers the beginnings of a new kind of society and a new kind of man, to be rationally defined and fervently pursued. It is the product of a new discovery in political science, and among its implications is that politics must answer to the rational choices of the living—freed from the dead hand of the past, and determined to keep the future free as well.
For the other side, liberalism stands as the product of centuries of accumulated wisdom and experience about man and society, to be cherished and reinforced. The present owes the future not freedom from its authority and influence, but access to the accumulated accomplishments of the nation and the human race across the generations. To break sharply with the past would be to throw away that inheritance, and so to deny the future both the achievements of the past and the path to improvement and reform. “The whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken,” Burke writes, “no one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.”