Chapter 2 of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate (2013) is titled “Nature and History”. It’s where we begin a multi-week journey through the wardrobe of a moral imagination. The fundamental disagreement between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine starts with radically differing views on the importance of human history and exactly what we mean by human nature.
Paine insists that in order to understand human nature we have to go back to its earliest and deepest roots. The true nature of man, before history, gives rise to his natural rights. The core of human nature is that we are all equal individuals. Paine believed that social hierarchies have no natural foundation because they arose through a history of coercion. Existing power structures stem from some usurper who established himself over others by force. Burke rejects this emphasis on nature over history because it reduces human history to nothing more than a process of illegitimate governments forming and then oppressing people. That line of reasoning could be used to undermine any human institution.
The beginning of society is always some form of barbarism. But over time, we rise, becoming more mature as society mellows into legal governments that were violent in their commencement. Burke criticizes Paine’s oversimplification of humans as separate, equal, rational beings. That cold, lonely, naked perspective misses the reality of man as a social creature of not just pure reason, but of sympathies, sentiments and passions. Passion is natural but dangerous because if you “leave a man to his passions, you leave a wild beast to a savage and capricious nature”. One way or another, reason applies through passion, so it’s crucial to tend to our “moral imagination” to avoid violence and disorder. We cannot simply argue away our vices with reason, but we can be deterred from indulging in them by moral sentiments. These moral practices arose throughout history via a system of old fashioned chivalry – values that pacify two potentially dangerous relationships: Between men and women. Between rulers and the ruled.
Thomas Paine was a revolutionary, arguing to strip away all unchosen bonds and obligations – which are barriers to the true, pure, equal individual nature of humans. He considered inheritance the root of all societal evil. The powerful pass their illegitimate power on to their children, denying others their natural rights, resulting in oppression, poverty, wars and injustice. Chivalry is an antiquated excuse for maintaining existing, unfair power relationships and to keep the poor from rising, in Pain’s view. But Burke never argued for static adherence to past practices, he suggests gradual political reform, improving on our existing regime – evolution not revolution. Past moral practices are valuable not because their old but because they’re advanced – having developed through many centuries of trial and error.
Now that we’ve crawled up from barbarism, the next drawer in the wardrobe of our moral imagination is a dispute about justice and social order along with two very different understandings of social equality.