Common Sense, by Thomas Paine

June 12, 2011 at 19:35 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Politics) (, , , )

9/10

Common Sense and The Rights of Man are so much two sides of the same coin that it is impossible to treat them separately. Despite the rather universal title, Thomas Paine’s chief intention is less a manumission of the human creature than it is a thorough indictment of the British Empire at the end of the Eighteenth Century. Addressed in excruciating detail are the nobility, the monarchy, Wat Tyler and the Civil War, the Republic and the Restoration, rotten boroughs and general disenfranchisement: all given their place in the sun, and none permitted to spare a single blush on Britannia’s cheek.

Paine goes on to expound in the detail of a clerk or petty accountant his redistributive plan for the abolition of hereditary wealth and a proto-socialist state, a federalist agenda for Europe, and a clearly-stated confidence that the Christian churches of Europe would henceforth unite (although he has no plan for this save bewilderment that they had not already done so). On the subject of religion, he professes dumbness, yet expounds meticulously and convincingly on the theological problems and contradictions inherent to monarchy, turning over the bones of David, Samuel and Saul, of Abraham and of Adam, and trawling through the Gospels (though not, for obvious reasons, the Pauline epistles) to form not merely an incidental, but a key pillar of his argument.

It is all too evident throughout that Paine had the mind of an economist and the heart of an optimist and a humanist, and that his political theory plays a distant second behind his instructions to his own fictional treasury; he refuses to countenance anything but altruism in any member of a democratic government (or indeed any commoner); and that his utopian vision has room for no ounce of cynicism or even unhappy accident. In all of these, his work is less thorough, and for that, less convincing, than Hobbes (albeit much easier to read).

In spite of these failings, and in spite of his myopic preoccupation with Great Britain and his unquestioning naïveté in lauding every step of the French Revolution, Paine is a passionate pamphleteer, and seems to have been an honest man and a philanthropist down to his bones. It could be very easily argued that for every claim he makes that is impractical, the world would be a more kindly place even for hearing and acknowledging it; that for every blindness he exhibits, his eyes are wider than any man’s to a dozen other issues that must be set right.

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2 Comments

  1. Hannah said,

    J. H. Stevenson, is that you?

  2. Hannah said,

    Nice. I realized too late that I had inexcusably butchered the spelling of your first name.

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