The history of mankind includes several intellectual movements which had a profound impact on the development of human civilization. One of such movements was the Enlightenment, which empowered the role of reason in the society, and shaped the balance of power between church and state basing on the new democratic values and approaches. During this period of time, many revolutions happened on the planet, preliminarily in the USA and Europe as well as cultural and educational revolutions. Well-known thinkers of the period of Enlightenment, such as Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, have developed their approaches and interpretations for the ideas of morality, freedom and human nature. These two thinkers had opposing views on the Enlightenment and on French revolution, although they both supported the American revolution. The purpose of this paper is to consider political views and ideas of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, analyze their approaches to revolution, and to provide personal reflection to the views of these philosophers.
1. Political philosophy of Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke is a famous representative of the classical school of thought. Being a conservative, Burke always called the enthusiasts of liberal politics to analyze the concepts of freedom and liberty, and to realize that these rights are only part of the whole range of benefits, and that focusing exactly on liberty will eliminate previous ideas and elaborations of the society (White, 2002). Burke’s political thought is centered around integral understanding of the society as a complex structure where politicians should consider all factors in order to create an effective system.
With regard to French revolution, Burke did not support the tendency of the Enlightenment to use reason as the sole background for determining political and moral principles of governing the state. In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (written in 1790) Burke rejects the use of rational deduction and logical reasoning as the major instrument for constructing ethical systems or political systems (White, 2002). He argued that human emotions and reactions cannot be integrated into a purely scientific model, and it is necessary to take into account historical and ethical background and cultural values and conventions affecting people’s lives in a particular country or region prior to constructing a political system. I absolutely agree with Burke that political systems are greatly affected by the experience of the generations and in addition to reasoning, political philosophers should necessarily consider social and religious traditions and the dynamics of adaptation an change undergoing in the society. In my opinion, this is a very wise and weighted approach, and it is not possible to apply abstract models to the society while disregarding other important factors.
One of great contributions of Edmund Burke into modern political system is the philosophic background for the resistance to abrupt changes in politics which are not connected with the historical and cultural conventions or institutions existing in the society. Burke does not oppose changes, but stress the importance of gradual changes and argues that any changes should be based on the “intimations of traditions” (White, 2002), i.e. should be logically aligned with all previous experience.
The appropriateness of Burke’s view can be illustrated by numerous historical events. For example, when the USSR ended its existence, the old system was broken down and the countries of the union were given independency. However, this change was abrupt, and these countries had been part of the empire for a long time. Political and economical change initiated by the USSA government was not based on the intimations of traditions, and as a result, the whole region went into economic, social and political collapse for almost a decade. Thus, Burke’s conservatism is very reasonable and his approach to change is, in my opinion, the most viable. However, there is one issue in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” where I would disagree with Burke, mainly because he does not explain his concept and does not provide any effective reasoning for his statements.
It is the transition for “foolish” individual and “foolish” momentary decisions of the multitude to the wisdom of the species (White, 2002). I do agree with Burke’s perception of the nation as of the continuity extending in time, space and quantity, and that the development of the nation reflects the election of generations and ages. However, Burke believes that it is the wisdom of the species which acts right in the course of time, and at the same time mentions that actions isolated in time, space or number of people involved are “foolish” (White, 2002). However, I would also say that species wisdom is not so “wise”: there were several historical periods when the humanity seemed to act against the preservation of the species (e.g. World War II and nuclear experiments).
In the reasoning, there is also a clear contradiction, because Burke speaks of a particular nation and then associates it with the whole human species. He evidently misses one link in the chain, which is the transition from state or nation to the whole species. First of all, it is absolutely not clear how and why this wisdom emerges at the level of species. Furthermore, adopting Burke’s point of view, it is possible to formulate that the nation might also be “foolish”, while at the highest level the species arrives to wisdom. So, even using Burke’s method of reasoning, his belief does not appear to be correct. I believe that it would be more useful to speak of some mechanism similar to the law of big numbers and normal distribution which can be applied to understanding the mass effects of collective decisions and actions which take place at the level of the whole nation.
2. Political philosophy of Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine is a prominent thinker and intellectual of the age of Enlightenment, and he is one of the Founding Fathers of the USA (Nelson, 2007). Paine was actively participating in social and political life, and strongly supported the ideas of the Enlightenment and the belief in human freedom as the core value. Paine believed that change is the main driving though of revolution and progress, and more radical ways such as revolution were permissible when the government did not protect the rights and interests of its people. In 1971, Thomas Paine has written his “”Rights of Man” as a response to Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (Nelson, 2007). Paine has created a very individualistic doctrine in the “Rights of man”, where he outlines the principles of society centered around the core rights of an individual (Nelson, 2007). Thomas Paine supported such directions of political thought as atomic and mechanical political theory, which regarded state as the product of an agreement (a contract) between individuals, whose rights exist prior to this agreement.
I find this argument very questionable. In a natural setting, if a human being is left alone with the other living creatures, I think that there are no inherent rights for these creatures and for the human being, as everyone follows the rules of natural selection (and violates the rights of others). With the development of civilization people have learned to secure their basic needs with external instruments, positioned themselves as the dominating species, and the problem of the distribution of rights shifted from the whole environment to human society only. I believe that with the development of civilization, people have created a cultural superstructure which allows to formulate basic rights for all human beings, and the state should indeed secure these rights. However, I do believe that rights are the product of human society and they appear at the moment when social agreements are shaped, not prior to this. My point of view on human rights is closer to Burke’s rather than to Paine’s.
The main argument of Thomas Paine is that human rights are innate and originate in nature (Nelson, 2007). He further states that any charter is in fact the limitation of the rights for some groups of people; as all citizens have equal rights, any document establishing the difference in rights is the instrument of social injustice. Paine states that society is the product of contract between individuals in order to produce a government, and claims that this is the only order in which the governments may arise. By this doctrine Paine laid the background of democratic way of thinking and of the perception of human rights. Basing on his core concepts of rights and government, Paine strongly opposed any type of government which does not benefit the nation, and criticized all other forms of government, the Monarchy, the Military and the Nobility in particular (Nelson, 2007).
Here I would also disagree with Thomas Paine, because it is absolutely not clear whether the government based on the principles of monarchy or nobility would necessarily harm the interests of its citizens. Plato in his famous “Republic” perceived the rule of the enlightened nobility (philosophers) as the best possible form of government, because these people would acquire wisdom and would be able to govern the country in an optimal way. I think that Paine incorrectly links the method of how the government was shaped with its perceived effectiveness for the people, and here I would again agree with Burke that it is necessary to look at the historical and cultural conditions prior to applying any theories regarding the government.
Paine states that every generation has the right to form own governmental system, and one of his famous claims is that laws should be rewritten every 30 years (Nelson, 2007). Thomas Paine has contributed to current political and social potential of the USA by his radical and innovative approach, and many of his thoughts were incorporated into modern republican system. Paine believes in the wisdom of human nature, and that the mankind can realize its full potential only acting in accordance with the democratic principles, which discourage caste society and allow freedom for individuals. These ideas had a profound impact, and I do support Burke in his belief into the wisdom of human nature, but I strongly disagree that the republican form of government is a “one size fits all” regime and that this form of government can be optimal for any kind of society. For example, the attempts of establishing democracy in Muslim countries face fierce opposition, and it is not likely that democracy in its current form will now work effectively for these societies. Rather, they can develop a hybrid form of government and then evolve to republican state structure – but this cannot be changed by one abrupt revolution, and here I again agree with Burke and in my opinion, only gradual changes can have a lasting effect on the society.
3. Similarities and differences
Although Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke are often viewed as opposing political and philosophical thinkers, and the controversies between their works are addressed in many sources dating back to the period of Enlightenment and older. However, in my opinion, there is no clear controversy, and the main clash between their opinions and writings took place due to the views on revolution, and due to Paine’s active attempts to convince Burke that revolutions were necessary (Nelson, 2007). In particular, Paine wanted to propagate the idea of radical revolution according the French type in the Great Britain (Nelson, 2007), while Burke was strongly opposing this idea. However, I believe that in other areas of political and philosophic thought these public men mostly do not contradict each other.
Indeed, they both do support the idea of basic human rights and that these rights should be secured by the society. Burke states that human rights emerge when the society is established, while, according to Paine’s view, rights exist prior to the society. Despite this important difference, other ideas on rights of these philosophers are quite consonant.
The same takes place with regard to change: both authors support change and state that changes are needed for the society to progress. Paine has a more radical view, and it is natural that in the era of Enlightenment he eventually gained more supporters than Edmund Burke. The major differences with regard to the attitude to change of Burke and Paine include the speed of changes, the legitimacy of revolt and revolution, and the choice of the form of government. However, both thinkers believed that the government should act in the interests of people and protect their rights. One point where I do disagree with Edmund Burke is his strong attachment to formal laws (although they might not always effectively reflect the needs of the society, if these laws are created by corrupt elite). In my opinion, social laws and the unwritten orders existing in the society more exactly reflect political and social order. Both thinkers support the value of the constitution and other governing documents, and while Paine opposes these documents if they are developed by hereditary power, Burke focuses on the appropriateness of these decisions for the current situation. In many points, I agree with Burke and Paine, because they do not contradict each other, except several particular axioms. Overall, the views and beliefs of Burke are closer to my world outlook, with several amendments mentioned above.
Both Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine supported the American revolution, but occupied opposing positions with regard to the revolution in France in the Enlightenment period. Burke’s focus is on gradualism and continual reform, and he strongly criticized abstract reasoning as the main basis for reforms. Burke stressed out the importance of historical and cultural factors affecting the society, and the need for sustainable change. From this point of view, Burke criticized the French revolution and glorified the English revolution, because the latter was based on the framework of law and precedents (and, therefore, retained the “intimations of traditions”), while the former was far away for the previous history of France and common precedents of change.
Paine, in his turn, firmly supported the changes brought by the Enlightenment, and the values of freedom and equality which actualized during this period. Paine argued that the past should be left in the past, and that old laws should belong to the past as well, while the people living at the moment had the right to create own government and own laws, even if these interfered with the traditions. Paine was one of the revolutionary ideologists, and he made a significant contribution into the creation of modern democratic and republican traditions. Although both thinkers have viable theories and each of them pursues own reasoning, I mostly support the beliefs of Edmund Burke, with some major adaptations (with regard to formal law and to the wisdom of the species), and in my opinion, gradual changes undertaken in accordance with the traditions and norms of the society will be more effective in the long-term perspective than radical revolutionary change.
Nelson, C. (2007). Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. Penguin Books.
White, S.K. (2002). Edmund Burke: modernity, politics and aesthetics. Rowman & Littlefield.