Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke: A Response

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Submitted by Anonymous Guest on Thu, 2019-09-26 20:59

Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke: A Response to Olivia Pierson

If Tom Paine were alive today I am left to wonder if he would be a devotee of Foucault and the Cultural Marxists? This thought comes from reading Edmund Burke and an understanding of 18th C thought. Both writers are engaged with the “age of reason” and each represents that there were different responses to it. Their responses remain profoundly manifest today.

Yet by the mid 18th C, there was disquiet with Enlightenment thought and that it had limits. Romanticism represents one strand of response. A J Grieve notes Locke’s’ idea of the single mind goes to that of mankind as the starting point; religious transcendence moves to immanence (thence to the pantheism of Wordsworth). We can add empirically based ideas rather than a priori or Platonic derived ones. The French Revolution put some of these to the test and made known some of their consequences. Rousseau and de Sade are also a cause and product of those too.

Olivia Pierson’s excellent article (The Life of Thomas Paine Radical Revolutionary, 28 August 2019 at https://www.oliviapierson.org/...) detailing Tom Paine’s thought on liberty justly celebrates Paine’s writings. The Rights of Man is a mighty “over argued” polemic. What we do miss is a full reply by Burke. There exists a collection of seven letters by Burke, collected under the title of The Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, (The Liberty Fund Inc, 1992), but these are not a full reply to Citizen Thomas Paine’s points.

From these two author’s works the present left and right, radical/progressive liberal and the conservative dividing lines are delineated as are those of the liberty of the individual and the collective; and the source of fundamental rights: Custom, Social Practice, A priori Reason, ‘The State of Nature’ or God. Further, in ultimo, the views of human nature- as a corruption of human nature, the propensities of evil either cured or ameliorated by society, customs and its institutions or corrupted by them.

To stigmatise as "sulphurous" and a "counter-revolutionary" is to miss the value Burke’s essay, and I do not read Ms Pierson to be “batting” for the left given her citation of Ayn Rand. The Reflections on the Revolution in France contains astute observations (his paragraph on lawyers is still apposite), on human nature, character, evaluations on psychology, social relations and politics.

Burke notes, in considering liberty, the importance of existing circumstances, the past and the value of institutions and practical political exigencies. Burke’s predictions about the course of the revolution were largely correct. The revolution’s metastasis was well documented by Thomas Carlyle, which is not unlike Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago on Soviet Russia, and for similar reasons. After the Terror, ‘The Rights of Man doctrine’ for Carlyle was looking somewhat like a slogan, as ‘equality’ looked like after 1917 and more so after the Stalinist Terror of 1930’s Russia.

Burke, needless to say, was a man of his age and his views on change and ideas on politics and institutions match those of his contemporaries William Blackstone, Adam Smith (moral “sentiments” i.e. moral thought or rationality as emanating from social experience) and David Hume. The latter three were observers of human experience. It is why Hume, in particular, turned to the writing of history to look for data and precedent. Blackstone was opposed to a degree, and obviously as a common law lawyer delving into a precedent, to enlightenment a priori metaphysics and abstractions from the reasoning of philosophes. A J Grieve in the introduction to the Everyman Library Edition of The Reflections on the Revolution in France says, “Laws grow out of custom not glaringly contradict and oppose them.” Precedent and working and workable examples were sought from observation of jurisprudence, which in the 18th C included what we now call sociology. Both Hume and Adam Smith lectured on jurisprudence. They believed that people modify, adapt and improve things in their world, which is to take what is good and works and set out on improving it. We see this disposition in the development of aircraft and motor vehicles from word War One to the present.

Burke makes similar observations. Liberty must be viewed in the context of the circumstances of human experience. Holding ‘a right’ of liberty is one thing the next is the exercise of the right to liberty and its means. The right comes with jural correlative obligations. Liberties are said to be ‘enjoyed through social, economic religious and political institutions. They mediate …liberties through … obligations to them’. Burke says:

"I think I envy liberty as little as they do to any other nation. But I cannot stand forward and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind…but liberty, when men act in bodies, is power. Considerate people, before they declare themselves, will observe the use which is made of power and particularly of so trying a thing as a new power in new persons…[the Philosophes, the mechanical lawyers, the journalists…]."

Burke was not in opposition to liberty or change. He claimed rational liberty. That is liberty worked out in the circumstances of human experience, and from observing human nature in engaged from ‘practice’, not from the abstracted "metaphysical" reason of the Philosophes.

To obtain an understanding of what the above is saying, let us consider a modern Philosophe’s metaphysical abstraction, that of Michel Foucault’s “power.” Camille Paglia’s criticism of Michel Foucault, in ‘Junk Bonds Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf’, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol. 1, No. 2(Spring, 1991), pp. 139-212, disclose a parallel, to Burke’s last quote above, on contextual circumstances and history:

“…in, following Foucault, [ one] can never admit that aesthetics exists; the only permissible criterion of judgment in art or life is the ideology of power.” (150)

“Foucault represents the final decadence of Western Apollonianism, a cold, desiccated fetishism of pure I.Q. divorced from humour, compassion, ethics, eroticism, wisdom. It is this same combination of maniacal abstraction with lust for personal power that led to the deranged orderliness of the concentration camps. (189)

[Foucault’s] big squishy pink-marshmallow word is power, which neither he nor his followers fully understand. It caroms around picking up lint and dog hair but is no substitute for political analysis. Foucault's ignorance of prehistory and ancient history, based on the development and articulation of cultures and legal codes, makes his discussions of power otiose. He never asks how power is gained or lost, justly administered or abused. He does not show how efficient procedures get over formalized entrenched, calcified, then shattered and reformed. He has no familiarity with theories of social or biological hierarchies, such as the "pecking order" universally observed in farmyards and schoolyards. Because, in the faddish French way, he ridiculously denies personality exists, he cannot assess the impact of strong personalities on events nor can he, like Weber, catalogue types of authority or prestige. He is inept in comparing different governmental structures. Because he cannot deal with flux or dynamic change, he is hopeless with protracted power struggles.” (191).

The French Revolution let a genie of idealistic human rational perfectibility out of the bottle and we are still, and will remain, pondering the works of Tom Paine and Edmund Burke for more time to come: I believe the question that remains is whether ‘reason’ is the Solo Fides?

Graham Hill
Nelson, 23 September 2019


I Concur!

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Graham, I haven't the foggiest idea what your point is.

Graham, Burke and Paine...

Olivia's picture

I remember someone describing Jefferson and Adams as the North and South poles of the American Revolution - it may have been Benjamin Rush.

Regarding the French Revolution, from an Anglo-Saxon point of view, Burke and Paine well fit the 'North and South pole' metaphor.

I don’t have a lawyer’s mind, Graham, as you do, and I’m struggling to exactly see the gravity of your point here in your response?

However, if Paine could see what Foucault and Cultural Marxism had gone on to become in 21st Century Western universities and culture, he may not have bothered with the Rights of Man, let alone The Age of Reason. Context is absolutely everything.

Perhaps you might like to make your point a little stronger? Smiling

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