October 14th, 2007

Books!

Important stuff ...

I usually try to keep my reviews coming in the same order as I've read the books (the same way that I keep things cataloged over on LibraryThing), but every now and again I find myself with a stack of things I've just finished reading (a hazard of having 2-3 books going at any one time), and one just begs to get reviewed first. That was the case this weekend, and I really felt I should knock out the review of that Tabasco book first while the specifics were still fresh in my mind.

This is not to say that I've been letting Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine "go stale" in my head, but the two books are very different, and much of what I'm going to say about this is based on quotations, and not "impressions", so it was the easier one to put aside for a couple of days.

I have, of late, been filling in lacunae in my general education, bits and pieces that I'm running across now, that, on reflection, I probably should have read in highschool or college ... and Thomas Paine is certainly in that category. Of course, I was familiar enough with Paine, the titles of his works and their general drift, that I wouldn't embarrass myself in a discussion which referred to them, but I realized that I had very likely not read these except in various excerpts during my school career. The present volume presents his Common Sense and both volumes of Rights of Man in their entirety and includes "selections from" The Crisis, The Age Of Reason, and Agrarian Justice.

Frankly, my interest in catching up on Paine (and other revolutionary writers from the Enlightenment) dates back to some reading I did earlier this year, such as Brooke Allen's excellent Moral Minority ... further being fascinated by running into random quotes such as Teddy Roosevelt's slamming Paine as a “filthy little atheist”. Needless to say, I was surprised (OK, disappointed) by the "conventional Christian" setting of most everything in this book. Obviously, I need to track down a complete volume of The Age of Reason where Paine does let go with some delicious broadsides, and provides "rational context" on how so many otherwise sensible people can be delusional about their imaginary friends, an analysis as to the point today as it was two centuries back:

That many good men have believed this strange fable, and lived very good lives under that belief (for credulity is not a crime) is what I have no doubt of. In the first place, they were educated to believe it, and they would have believed any thing else in the same manner. There are also many who have been so enthusiastically enraptured by what they conceived to be the infinite love of God to man, in making a sacrifice of himself, that the vehemence of the idea has forbidden and deterred them from examining into the absurdity and profaneness of the story. The more unnatural any thing is, the more it is capable of becoming the object of dismal admiration.
... interestingly, Paine only penned The Age Of Reason when he was expecting to be soon dead, saying "I intended it to be the last offering I should make to my fellow citizens of all nations", however he lived on another 15 years after its release, no doubt regretting the timing! Again, there are only 20 pages of this classic in here (and most editions I've looked at on-line are over 150 pages), so this is something that I will have to put on my "to read" list.

The main parts of this book reflect Paine's literary support of the American and French revolutions. Common Sense being an anonymously-written pamphlet (which thereby netted him zero for the royalties of as many as half a million copies printed during the course of the Revolution!), with various follow-ups all released in the first two months of 1776. It is easy to see how Paine is much beloved of modern Libertarians in lines like:

"Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil."
Over half this volume consists of The Rights of Man which is Paine's defense of the French Revolution against the attacks of Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman who had supported the American Revolution, but strongly opposed the revolution in France. Paine goes beyond countering Burke (a former friend), and spins out a treatise on natural rights, although, to this modern reader, the details of the French court are hazy ghosts which make the reading somewhat anachronistic. Here too are found threads of the sort of clear-headedness which inspired The Age of Reason:

"With respect to what are called denominations of religion, if every one is left to judge of his own religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is wrong; but if they are to judge of each other's religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is right; and therefore all the world is right, or all the world is wrong."
Needless to say, it is a shame that Thomas Paine's words are not better known in these dark days of our Republic! It is not enough to advocate a return to the political vision of men the likes of Washington and Jefferson, we really must seek a return to the type of Deism, a personal, non-aggressive faith, that these men likewise espoused, and saw as a keystone to the success of a nation such as ours.

I would certainly recommend picking up a copy of Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine if you'd like to get "caught up" on some of the theoretical underpinnings of the American political experiment. This volume is a Signet Classic, and is priced very reasonably at $5.95 ... so you might as well go looking for it at your local brick-and-mortar store, or add it on to an internet order some time when you're looking for "something extra" to push the total into the free shipping zone.


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