Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Rights of Man, Part 1, by Thomas Paine

This work is on the French Revolution as a rebuttal to Burke's work on the French Revolution that I read earlier.  Paine had stayed at Burke's house for a time, and they seem to have both taken opposite positions on just about everything, with the unifying theme that they are both prone to filling their works with lots of rhetorical fluff.  Paine is thus as critical of Burke as Burke is of the French Revolution.  Since Burke expended many pages on describing the superiority of the English Constitution, Paine spent a similar amount of verbiage denouncing it.  I am inclined to agree with both:  That the English system is/was messed up, but it was still superior to the French one.  So far, except for some Biblical references, the opinions of both seem unaffected by any classical writings, as if Aristotle never had a worthwhile opinion on the subject.

One of Paine's amusing claims is that Monarchy is the source of war, and war is the source of overtaxation, hence, by eliminating Monarchy we should eliminate both war and taxation!  This is one of those points where classical studies, in particular the Peloponnesian Wars, should have dispelled the ignorance.  For the moment Democratic-ish Europe is peaceful, but this is only because the people have determined to direct their resources towards materialism and idleness, while the US protects their mercantilist' interests.

The core complaint of Paine against Burke is that Burke argues that all change is to be perpetually banned, which Paine mocks as Governance by the Dead.  That this system had to come into existence at some time proves that the perpetual system of governance wasn't always perpetual, thus, we must conclude that perpetual governance is a fraud.  Paine then gives us a definitive lecture on what government was like before government and what religion was like before religion, along with how both came about, which I won't dispute since he lived closer to that era than I do.  Instead, Paine argues that each generation has the right to completely overthrow what went before, so I wonder if he meant this to apply to religion as he meant it to apply to government.

As Burke complains that the French know little or nothing about England, so Paine blasts Burke for knowing little or nothing about the French Revolution.  That being true, Paine is useless as to telling us about the irregularities that led to the legislature and although we hear constantly of how oppressed the French people were, there is not one detail as to the nature of that oppression, unless it is that the government frowned on rioting.  The French Revolution seemed to have wanted to do away with prisons, apparently thinking that crime was exclusively a product of Monarchy, so that without Monarchy we should no longer need prisons.  That many innocents were killed Paine acknowledges, but he helpfully explains that they were not killed due to hatred towards them as individuals, but rather as proxies of ideals which needed to be exterminated.  It would have been fitting if Paine too had been killed during the Reign of Terror that happened a few years after, as a proxy for an idea that needed to be discarded.

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