Publisher: Basic Books (December 3, 2013)
The Great Debate is a masterful and loving piece of work, the kind of solo performance that commands mute attention and makes even a crinkled cough-drop wrapper sound like an errant clang of the gong. It does more than announce Levin s arrival; it is, in itself, a refutation this time with an inerrant clang of the factitious notion that intellectual conservatism is a bygone thing.
Levin enters into another great debate that riles academia: between historians insisting upon the uniqueness and specificity of events, which defy abstractions and generalizations, and philosophers impatient with the ephemera and contingency of events, which do not rise to the level of truth and certainty. Here too he rises to the occasion, satisfying the scruples of historians and philosophers alike. From a debate raged about an event centuries ago, he deduces truths that illuminate some of our most vexing political and social problems today.
In a Burkean manner, Mr. Levin enriches through wisdom rather than prescription. He gives us something more than a manual of past lessons namely, the historical framework to achieve greater understanding.
-Wall Street Journal
[A] wonderful book.
-Los Angeles Times
A judicious, nuanced, and accessible pr cis that reveals both Burke and Paine to be complicated and compelling thinkers. This sympathetic treatment of the two men, in turn, allows Levin to paint an intellectual picture of right and left that is more gray than black and white, something all too rare today.
[Has] potential to have long-lasting impact on a reader Levin’s book forces the reader to stop and create space for thought and reflection, and does not spoon-feed easy answers or applications to today’s politics. It does, however, raise serious questions about whether the new obsession with data-based decision-making, the Nate Silver-ization of journalism and politics, could be taken too far if we come to believe that everything in public life can be answered by the scientific method. It also poses significant queries worth grappling with for those rightly concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor. Levin echoes Burke’s challenge to reformers to proceed with caution, and with humility.
The Great Debate s excellent writing about 18th-century history and political theory will inform and educate readers.
-Washington Independent Review of Books
In this rigorous yet accessible work, Levin contextualizes the positions of British philosopher Edmund Burke, who has been viewed as both the founder of modern conservatism and an example of classical liberalism, and Thomas Paine, the author of several classic political texts, including Common Sense and The Rights of Man.
Levin s critique of liberalism is powerful and to be expected. But what makes his book much more interesting is his truly trenchant critique of his fellow conservatives as well. And it is a critique well-taken. I d be much tougher on them, but this book is a tonic for a new discourse.
-Andrew Sullivan, The Dish
Must-read primer on America s ideological faultline [a] wonderful new book a readable intellectual history that fairly crackles with contemporary relevance. The must-read book of the year for conservatives especially those conservatives who are profoundly and genuinely baffled by the declining popularity of the GOP as a national party.
-American Conservative’s State of the Union Blog
Mr. Levin, the editor of the journal National Affairs and a former aide to both Speaker Gingrich and President George W. Bush, provides a valuable service by dusting off the writings of Burke and Paine and by clearly, concisely, and accessibly summarizing them in a way that highlights their relevance to contemporary politics and policy The monarchist Burke and the religious skeptic Paine, an early supporter of the bloody French revolution, would seem to be unlikely models for today s American politicians of either party. But Mr. Levin has made a convincing case that, 200 years later, we can still learn from both men.
-New York Sun
A fine new book.
-Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg View
Two seminal thinkers anticipate the modern split between progressives and conservatives in this insightful study of 18th-century political theory. National Affairs editor Levin presents a lucid analysis of the ideological confrontation between Paine and Burke…he succeeds in establishing the continued relevance of Burke s thought and prescient critique of revolutionary excesses.
Making intricate contrasts between Paine and Burke throughout, Levin perceptively demonstrates the philosophical routes to liberalism and conservatism for politics-minded readers.
The Great Debate brilliantly brings out the richness of the tradition underlying our politics. It reminds us that politics is an intellectually serious thing that deserves better than the shallowness and cynicism that fills our political conversations. It reminds us that the right and left are each rooted in a desire to see politics serve the cause of human flourishing, even if they understand that cause very differently. And by the way, Burke was right.
Peggy Noonan, columnist, The Wall Street Journal
Yuval Levin s lucid and learned investigation of our origins is not only a study in the history of ideas, it is also a summons to first principles. Like Burke and Paine, Levin believes that philosophies are buried in the shabbiness of politics. His book is both clarifying and complicating: he writes sympathetically about both sides of the heroic disputation that he describes, and so his book will have the salutary effect of shattering ideological complacence. In our infamously polarized climate, The Great Debate may even be a public service.
The Great Debate is an exciting, narrative adventure in the contest of ideas. With two world-shaking revolutions as background, Levin brilliantly explains how two great minds shaped the broad debate between left and right that still governs our political debates today.
William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education and author of America: The Last Best Hope
The polarized character of contemporary American politics is widely noted, yet the intellectual origins of the division between right and left remain obscure. In his deeply historically informed and elegantly argued book, Yuval Levin casts a brilliant light on the matter. It is a work of lasting significance that will instruct liberals and conservatives alike on their intellectual heritage.
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University