"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Do We Have Common Sense?

That’s the question my sister and I asked after our teacher assigned us Thomas Paine’s inflammatory Common Sense treatise. In the end we had to admit that no, we didn’t have it. So we went to the internet and found it. To bad the other kind of common sense isn’t that easy to get a hold of. We’re still looking…

Common Sense is one of those writings that most people have head of but few have actually read (come to think of it, a lot of books are that way). Common sense is one of those things that most people have heard about but few have actually used (did I just repeat myself?). As inaudible groans passed from desk to desk in our classroom, I secretly felt elated. Paine is not perhaps the sort of writer I would normally read in my free time but as an assignment I felt sure I would enjoy the experience. And I wasn’t wrong.

Pain is pretty easy to get through (oops, I mean Paine). It was written for the common man and sold something like 120,000 copies. (Our teacher said that each copy was reads by about ten people but I don’t know where she got that statistic). The pamphlet is only about 50 pages so in theory it could be read in one sitting. In fact, it took me two and I felt hurried during both. There is a lot to think about.

Supposedly, Common Sense was like gasoline thrown on the newly kindled fire of American independence. Already stirred by British injustice and heavy-handedness, they only needed a philosophical base to build their complaints against the English government on.

Paine argues that if all men are created equal, no men should be elevated above others. “The heathens paid divine honors to their deceased kings and the Christian world has improved on the plan by doing the same to their living ones. How impious is the title of Sacred Majesty applied to a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling.”

Although primarily arguing on the basis of reason and nature (“Does not nature teach us that the more simple anything is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.”) Paine takes the story of 1 Samuel 8 where the Israelites asked for a king to be like the other nations, as a clear indication that God does not think kings to be the best governors of men. He allowed them to have one but tried to warn them it was a curse. For a king will “take your sons and make them serve…He will take your daughters…He will take the best of your fields and vineyards…He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage…He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become slaves” (1 Sam. 8:11-17). Also, Paine points out, the succession is not hereditary as the removal of Saul proves.

From this general condemnation of kings he moves to the unjustness of the present king of England, King George III. He mocks the English Constitution as being powerless to stop the King, saying that it is the “constitution” of the English people, not the “Constitution” of the English government that has kept her free so long.

Moving to the practical and economic benefits of independence, Paine assures his readers that trade would be increased and expansion to the west made possible; and a free America would not be in danger from Britain’s enemies, France and Spain. All around it would be a good deal. And I can not help but agree that it has been a good deal for over 225 years, let’s hope it continues to be for at least as much again.

After the first publication, Paine added an appendix addressed to some Quakers who wrote against breaking ties with Britain. The letter, while trying to be courteous, comes across as a little condescending and chides the Quakers for their pamphlet, saying that by defending the British they are meddling in government affairs even though they claim they are not. To the argument that it is God who sets up and deposes kings, Paine very sensibly asks in return who or what God uses to bring about his will on earth. Is it not men? He asks. If the English throne came into existence through war and backstabbing why defend it as being specially ordained of God? But then in a hilarious Chestertonian stroke he says: “We neither mean to set up nor to put down [kings], neither to make nor to unmake, but to have nothing to do with them.”

No comments: