Lefties vs Righties, a 200-year-old comparison

Aug 26

Edmund Burke

First of all, I don’t consider myself left or right wing. I consider myself of the left on some issues, of the right on others. But I do think this: right wing writers write better than their left wing counterparts. Or at least, they do when their writing is explicitly political (let’s leave the Romantics out of this). To that end, I think P.J. O’Rourke’s writing shits on Polly Toynbee’s.

It’s 200 years ago. There’s been a revolution in France. People are wondering if there’ll be one here. For Toynbee, let’s substitute Thomas Paine, with The Rights of Man. He would see wealth redistributed, and our monarchy removed. For O’Rourke, let’s substitute Edmund Burke, with his Reflections on the Revolution in France. He would not. Paine’s Rights of Man had little immediate impact. Burke’s work was more favourably received, though we note that Burke remained disliked by Foxites, other Whig groups and the Church (the last due to his views on Ireland).

The difference between them is how they make judgements. Paine judges through nouns, Burke through adjectives. Paine famously attacks the monarchy by describing William the Conqueror as ‘the son of a prostitute’.[i] Burke, by contrast, describes the French Revolution as ‘the display of ignorant and presumptuous, because unresisted and irresistible, authority’.[ii] This highlights unspoken convictions behind each work. The adjective implies an arbitrary and subjective method of judgement; opinion, as opposed to fact, suggested by nouns. Paine resorts to using facts, because while he believes in the truth of his arguments, he doubts their effectiveness in rousing a fundamentally conservative working class; Burke, by contrast, has confidence in his rhetorical strategies, and to some extent this is because he is preaching to the converted.

Now: consider this, from Hazlitt’s essay on Coriolanus:

A lion hunting a flock of sheep or a herd of wild asses is a more poetical subject than they; and we even take part with the lonely beast […] There is nothing heroical in a multitude of miserable rogues not wishing to be starved […] but when a single man comes forward to brave their cries […] our admiration of his prowess is immediately converted into contempt for their pusillanimity.

The romantic interest in the individual over the species here opposes the revolutionary politics which informs much romantic poetry (this concept can be used to explain much of the tension in Wordsworth). The poetical image is suitably divorced from reality – one would do well to find a lion hunting sheep – but the message is clear. And it’s the contrast between the one and the many – the former possessed of an identity, the latter by their incorporation deprived of one – that means Paine must resort to concentrating on ‘matter’ rather than use words as Burke does.

In another essay, Hazlitt suggests a motive for Burke’s style, and in the process alerts us to more rhetorical strengths:

The principle which guides his pen is truth, not beauty – not pleasure, but power. He has no choice, no selection of subject to flatter the reader’s idle taste, or assist his own fancy: he must take what comes, and make the most of it.

Unlike Burke’s contemporary radicals, Hazlitt sympathises with the way Burke re-imagines the world as literature, defending the mind against the abstraction of theory; he would echo similar sentiments in his attack on Bentham and Utilitarianism.

We have heard Hazlitt’s thoughts on Burke, but what of Paine’s? Just as he uses form to connect the spoken and written, so Burke uses metaphor to connect the social and political – but to the radicals, metaphor was simply illustrative, and the points of Burke’s highly literary style were quite pointless, as Paine argued in The Rights of Man (1792):

I know a place in America called to Point-no-Point; because as you proceed along the shore, gay and flowery as Mr. Burke’s language, it continually recedes and presents itself at a distance before you; but when you have got as far as you can go, there is no point at all.

There is no knowing irony behind Paine’s use of metaphor to attack Burke’s style. The imagery by which Burke sought to mediate between man and his world was to Paine the source of political servitude. Against this he attempts to set logical, ‘transparent’ prose, the structured argument of scientific demonstration.

He argues in ‘An Essay on Dream’, prefixed to Part the Third of The Age of Reason (1794), that the imagination is the source of all mental energy and is, as such, dangerous, a mob-activity of the mind:

If the judgement sleeps while the imagination keeps awake, the dream will be a riotous assemblage of misshapen images and ranting ideas […] the master of the school is out, and the boys are in an uproar.

Paine sees the religion as being founded on dream and vision, and filled with fables. He translates the Hebrew word for ‘prophet’ as ‘poet’ and finds in The Book of Isaiah an epitome of all those literary flourishes, structural deficiencies and figurative caprices that were his aversion in the Bible.

However, despite Paine’s faith in the one true reality, it is clear that the truth and transparency of language are not enough. As the quotations show, he similarly needed to rely on paradox, metaphor and analogy, and in doing so, because ‘matter’ alone held little rhetorical weight, he found himself grudgingly using his ‘tongue’, rebelling against his own linguistic theory.

A rather dreadful tangle to be in. One would never find Boris Johnson, one of our age’s better columnists, in such a pickle, born aloft as he usually is on his multi-clausal flights of rhetorical fancy. So pity poor Polly Toynbee, who like Paine, seems to be left clinging to information that, when rendered in diffident, puritanical prose, serves to generate bile among the floating readers.

[i] Paine, Thomas, Rights of Man, (Penguin, 1987), p.112

[ii] Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolutions in France (Hackett, 1987), p.34. All further references are to this edition, incorporated in the text.