Monday, May 25, 2015

The Age Of Reason (Final Notes) by Thomas Paine

There is a certain fatigue to listening to eight hours of someone mocking, accusing and condemning your religion.  There is hopefully a constructive goal in all this beyond simply blurting "same to you".

One curious claim that Paine came up with is that God would never use human language to communicate with humans, because human language is imperfect.  Of course human language is imperfect because humans are imperfect, so we are left concluding that any attempt by God to bother with humans would be beneath His dignity.  Certainly we can argue that way, but it begs the question of why a deist would concern himself with God in any way.

Since Paine has denounced all classical studies as being useless, unless it is to criticize the Bible, I would note the points where Paine has taken on a classical viewpoint unwittingly.  Since I have no doubt that most of his opinions arrived from somewhere else, I doubt that they are independent.

The first area of similarity being Paine's claim that under deism God can never make an evil command.  This was first noted by Epicurus, who claimed that his gods who never interacted with men likewise never commanded anything evil.  Of course such gods never commanded anything good either, nor did they ever reprimand anyone for doing evil or speaking falsehood.  For this reason, Plato in his Laws asserted that both atheism and deism should be condemned equally, since those who embraced this viewpoint would not be restrained by anything.  It must also be noted that Epicurus was the one who popularized the notion that he believed in "science", not religion, and this was done about 300BC.

This gets to one of the key points: Paine asserts that organized religion is the source of evil.  Christianity asserts that evil has its origin in man, so that with or without organized religion man will be evil.  That some evil men would concoct religion for their purposes is hardly surprising.  If religion were good, evil men would corrupt it, as they will do with everything.  At this point Paine and I aren't too far apart, except that he has not taken the step of acknowledging that man is by nature evil, and instead has blamed evil on something external to man.

Another point where Paine seems to match the ancients is in the employment of attack tactics similar to the Academics.  It is never the case that evil isn't intertwined with some specious form of good, so that we usually have to temper an attack by separating these things out and weighing the overall recipe.  The academics indiscriminately attacked everything.  The Roman emperor Julian's attack entitled Against The Galileans was a similar diatribe.  Their opponents  (e.g. Epictetus) simply note that this kind of attack rhetoric can be employed against everything, including anything that the academic finds necessary for the tolerance of life.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Flat Earth Notion according to Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine has a short note on the Flat Earth that deserves to be put into my collection.  After a brief note on Galileo, he gives us this:

"And prior to that time Virgilius was condemned to be burned for asserting the antipodes, or in other words, that the earth was a globe, and habitable in every part where there was land; yet the truth of this is now too well known even to be told." - The Age of Reason

The theory of the antipodes and whether it is agreed to or disagreed to both presumed a spherical Earth.  It assumes that the Earth is mostly water and that there might be widely separated land masses where men cannot sail between.  If men existed on these separate land masses, then we can dispute over whether or not they were descended from Adam, as we might now dispute whether men - or intelligent life - could exist on a different planet.  Paine clearly misunderstood the nature of this dispute.  Since Paine wrote long before Washington Irving wrote his fictional account of Columbus being opposed by clerics convinced of a flat earth, it appears that atheists had been actively working up this myth in the 18th, rather than the 19th century as I had previously thought.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine

This work invites a lot of comment on many subjects.  Given that I have been through several of Paine's earlier works, it should be first noted that he was a person whose every opinion was so self evident that anyone who disagreed was guaranteed to be deficient in their mental faculties.  This is all part of his extended world view, which is that his generation is the first to have encountered the phenomenon that we call "reason", it having been completely unknown to all prior generations.  Everything else derives from this.

One thing that Paine highlights is that the only things worth studying are science and technology.  Based on that viewpoint, I should have tossed his work away early on, especially since I am a technologist by profession, but I have persevered on in spite of this being a waste of mental resources.  We find that all ancient writings are mythology or errors, so we have nothing to learn from them, while Paine's generation had rediscovered, embraced and extended science, which was previously invented and known exclusively by the ancient Greeks.  A corollary is that there is nothing to be gained by studying dead languages, so only a handful of linguists need concern themselves with these matters.  Since Monarchy comes from ancient times, it is clearly wrong and needing to be reformed.  The same applies to religion.  His fury, however, is exclusively directed at Christianity, so the later half of this work is dedicated to proofs of the fabrication of the Bible.  For example, he clearly proves that the author of the book of Judges was not named Rabbi Judges, thus, this work has no authority.  This is so self evident that only a moron would disagree, and for making this great discovery, Paine is deemed a "philosopher".

My own opinion is that Reason has always been with mankind, this having been given to us by God.  The problem is that Reason is morally neutral, so that it can be employed for either good or evil, or to pass on truth or falsehood, depending on the character of the one who employs Reason.  It is Paine's failure to observe this most basic, self-evident truth that places him and his like-minded intellectuals purely into the class of Sophists, while entirely excluding them from the category of Philosophers.  So there.

A final point that I will note is that Paine calls himself a deist, while crediting his parents for giving him a good moral teaching from the Quaker religion.  Yet at the same time, he expects to live after the grave, while having no expectation of judgment for sin.  This seems to me to be just one step removed from Quakerism, since this religion was always closer to deism than to Christianity.  He wants to credit Jesus as a moral teacher, while rejecting any teaching that he doesn't like as being fraudulent.  The inconsistency in all this is his belief that deism is inherently superior morally to Christianity, yet acknowledging the moral upbringing that he owed to Christianity.  In the end, this sort of deism is doomed to moral decay, as it has proven, while at the same time it boasts of its morality more than any other religion.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Give Me Snarky Or Give Me Death: Thomas Paine continued

This is mainly some comments on the second half of The Rights of Man, and also includes a number of excerpts from Common Sense which are collectively entitled The American Crisis.

The reason for the title is that Thomas Paine's writings give me a sense of an early version of Baghdad Bob or Tokyo Rose.  It is an endless series of long winded articles full of sarcasm and mocking.  But then I found that Paine was from a Quaker family, thus, it all makes sense, since this was the manner of their founder, George Fox.  But now I am descending into the same morass so that perhaps I am hearing myself in the mirror.  The main thing that stuck in my mind was the alternation between claiming that the American colonists had been oppressed by taxation whereas elsewhere the English peasants were mocked for being poorer than their American counterparts.

The Rights of Man come across as a series of articles like Common Sense was.  The beginning part of this is a declaration of the Rights of Man by the French, which sound to me extraordinarily reasonable, but perhaps this is due to our current situation where those rights have multiplied astronomically.  An objection I had to the fixation on Rights was that it had nothing to say about Responsibilities, as if mankind should be utterly lacking in these.  This objection seems to have been raised at the beginning, and Paine's rebuttal is that their can be no Rights of Man unless their our Duties to protect the Rights of others.  While I can see some sense in this, it seems to me that if the Rights which were self evident needed to be explicitly enumerated, how much more so should the Duties of Man, since these, being derived from the Rights, should necessarily be less obvious.

A complaint that Paine gives is against governance by precedence, since the wisdom of the present age should be as good or better than precedents.  I will just note that America's judicial system continues to work by precedents to this day, under the name of case law.  A repeated insult hurled against monarchies is the epitaph of Political Popery.  America at this time included a number of Catholics, so I wonder how this was received.

The theme that Paine keeps returning to is taxes, which are outrageous due to the wars.  A key goal of his reforms is to shrink government by eliminating armies, thus, eliminating war.  But we must wage war to have the freedom to eliminate war.  He laments that in the process of raising taxes, government has intruded into vast areas of human industry with regulations designed to raise money or hamper trade so that monopolies can be engineered.  An evil associated with this lust for money is the raising of debt, and he blast those who take on unseemly levels of debt, and then boast of their wealth because of what they have been able to buy with the debt.

Finally, Paine makes some modest proposals for what could be done with the, um, Peace Dividend that would arise.  We could use a small sum to pay young families so that they could afford to pay to have their children taught.  A little more might be used to provide for those who were too old and worn out to continue at their labors.  Little did he know where that would lead.

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.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Common Sense, by Thomas Paine

There are two recorded works of Thomas Paine at Librivox.com.  The first is this pamphlet about the American Revolution.  The second is on the French Revolution.  Common Sense is clearly a polemic advocating war against England, while given its name, "Common Sense", it speciously declares itself to be neutral and guided only by reason.  One point I found sympathy with is the claim that the division of people into poor and rich was rarely the result of oppression.  There are many factors.

The most amusing part of this was Paine's argument that the constitutional monarchy of England was irrational and to be rejected because the king and the various chambers had checks on the others.  Apparently checks and balances in government are contrary to Common Sense!  His arguments for doing away with the monarchy are taken from the biblical texts of Gideon and Samuel, so that nothing of classical viewpoints intrudes into the discussion.  He postures himself as being strongly pro freedom of religion, with the only deviation being criticism of the Quakers who insist on both being pacifists and being politically noisy.  Verbal warfare is OK, but physical warfare isn't.  Somehow I suspect that he isn't going to employ this kind of argument in his other work, The Rights of Man.  There were also some crazy claims that the US was militarily very strong, which proved to be about as wrong as could be.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

France in the Nineteenth Century, by Elizabeth Latimer

Onward from the French Revolution!  Or perhaps I should say into the continuation of the Revolution.  This work at times is a bit like a polite tabloid as we are often treated to a verbal image of the queen's (or the aspiring queen's) dress.  There is also an emphasis on personal accounts, so that at times there is a sense that the overall picture is not being given with regard to economics and government.  There is little sense of what happened in the French Revolution of 1848.

What does come through is an impression of mediocrity in leadership that lasts from the time of Napoleon almost through the entire century, with only a few brief exceptions.  The French were divided between monarchists, depotists, socialists and communists.  What they did not have were any of what would have formerly been known as liberal republicans, even though they spoke of a republic.  What they called a republican was someone who intended to achieve socialism through the mechanisms of a superficially democratic, constitutional government.  But there was no regard for any constitution, which whatever it might be would be in need of constant change, or so everyone seems to think.  The text gives us a bit of Louis Phillip, Napoleon III, along with some peripheral characters like Maximilian.  Another novelty was to learn that the French only had one central body for deliberation, so that the municipal and state elections that we take for granted were unknown to in France.

The largest piece of writing is reserved for the Franco-Prussian War and the chaos and carnage of the Paris Commune.  The French clearly get the stupidity award for starting this war, but the thing that stuck out most in my mind is how the Prussians seem to have anticipated the revolt that led to the Commune and cleverly exploited this to their benefit.  But then the atheist Communists could not be restrained to any of the laws of humanity, which resulted in a counter-blow nearly as ruthless.  One has a sense that modern terrorism was invented at this time, but that may be a leap too far.  What seems clear is that the Prussian success with their policy likely inspired the Kaiser to repeat the trick by supporting Lenin in Russia during World War I.

The French finished this period with the Third Republic, which featured the removal of the Romanists from all teaching positions, as well as from charitable activities.  How - or if - they modernized during all this isn't quite clear, but perhaps it was just a spill over from the other side of the channel.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

French Revolutions: Burke (final)

This "letter to a gentleman" turned into a long winded book as Burke proceeded to critique the whole of the French government, military and economic system as it was then stumbling along.  There are a number of highlights.  The first was the note on how the intellectuals (i.e. "philosophers") managed to achieve a monopoly of the teaching institutions, so that a monotonous teaching of a single viewpoint was enforced to a degree that exceeded what the inquisition had obtained.  At the same time, the confiscation of the church property largely blocked further clergy from becoming learned, leading to a situation like our current one in which the orthodox christian clergy are generally less learned than the government funded clergy of atheism.  Charity was taken up by this government, not in the sense of Christian charity, but rather a false one that uses other peoples' money together with various contrivances for buying the favor of the masses.

The legislature itself took all power unto itself, and thus a major feature was the abolishment of checks and balances, so that the French Revolution first gave way to a classical democracy:  government of the mob.  A republic is what they had scorned.  A last point of amusement is the usage of paper money.  At that time, the government of England managed to retain a strong paper currency, but this was based on the convertibility of the money to gold.  The French had been more creative, so that the paper currency likely had more in common with that of the current Venezuela.  Burke laments what would happen with the public finances in the hands of populist crooks, which is another one of those perennial problems of government.  There is vastly more to this work, much of which almost prophecies the ailments of our current era.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

French Revolutions: Belloc and Burke (continued)

"Abbe Sieyes, could say, 'What is the third estate?  Everything.  What has it been hitherto in the body politic?  Nothing.  What does it demand?  To be something.'" - A Popular History of France from the Earliest Times, by Guizot

Guizot points out that the Third Estate - that is, everyone who wasn't clergy or nobility - had a long history of influence in the government, thus, the Third Estate had always been something.  What it demanded was to be everything, which was a nonsensical demand that doomed it to failure.

Burke delves more into the hypocrisy of the Third Estate, by first making it clear that a majority of the legislature were low-life lawyers, sophists, charlatans and others who stood to personally make a nice profit on the revolutionary upheaval.  In the end, the good among them were driven into exile.  He goes on to point out how these politicians routinely give grand speeches about the virtues of Democracy and popular choice, only to express within the elite cliques their utter contempt for the voting masses.  Some things never change.

Burke is really in a long-winded rant mode, so I have to try to remember the occasional point that falls out of a mass of words.  One point that stood out was that in almost all revolutions that preceded the French Revolution, the goal had been to reform morals and religion for the betterment of society.  The French Revolution stood apart for having been intended to do harm both to morals and religion, thus, leading to the frenzied mob that behaved in a manner similar to that of the St. Bartholomew massacre.  At the time Burke wrote, the king and queen were locked up and not yet executed.  Burke notes that of all the vicious tyrannical kings in history that perhaps deserved an ill fate, the king and queen of France were being persecuted for being too soft, while many of their retainers had been ruthlessly murdered by the mob without any due process.  In the end, those who boasted of the Rights of Man proved to be as frenzied and barbaric as any in history.  Combining Burke's observations with Guizot's, the sense is one of a bunch of ingrates.  The more they received, the more vicious they became towards the ones who gave to them.  A problem for the revolutionaries in arguing that any established institution should be overthrown because it is established is that a generation later, what the revolution established should then need to be overthrown again.  Or we can do what we do in the modern era, which is that the establishment cites a different group as being "the establishment", so that the mobs will be perpetually overthrowing what is not the establishment, while being content that they have done their riotous duty.

An amusing bit was Burke's claim that the French hardly understood England, and the works of great literature from earlier generations were wholly unknown to the educated of today.  This reminded me of Belloc's complaint that few had read Rousseau, and many did not understand Rousseau's French, or were too impatient and rushed through without processing the ideas.  My recorded books include a "rebuttal" by Thomas Paine of Burke's work, entitled The Rights of Man.  I suppose that this would be worth reading next.

Monday, May 04, 2015

French Revolutions: Belloc and Burke

Unfortunately neither of these are actually short histories of the French Revolution.  Belloc wrote his a few generations later with the intent of correcting misunderstandings, while Burke wrote his while the Revolution was in process.

Belloc begins with a praise for Rousseau's Social Contract, which he contends that few have read and those who did read had misunderstood it.  I read it partially, but roughly have the idea that it presumes that government and social institutions are the result of a agreement among the peoples.  My own opinion is that all this was said better by Aristotle with his description of the various forms of government, along with a few other classical authors.

Then there is this thing called Liberty, which is deemed to be a good in itself.  Burke rightly notes that the important thing is what people do with Liberty, and wants to wait and see.  The classical authors note that the first generation who achieve Liberty will use it for good, while following generations will increasingly see Liberty as a justification for vice.  To this Belloc is silent.  So which is it?  Liberty for good?  Or Liberty for evil?  Is Fraternity the brotherhood of virtue and vice?  Equality the sameness of right and wrong?  The classical writers noted that government is called upon to encourage virtue and thwart evil, which is precluded by the non-principles of the French Revolution.  Of course nobody really believes in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity if pushed on specific points.

What Belloc does give is a history of the war between the French and the powers around France that resulted from the civil war.  This is something I knew nothing about, but follows directly from the practice of the European nations to try to impose a choice of king on a country through war, such as the Spanish Succession and the Austrian Succession.  This was not nearly so unequal as the American Revolution, but a disorderly France still had a struggle against the large, organized continental armies.  Superior tactics helped the French at crucial points, but for the most part the war was won by throwing masses of peasants into the battles.  What strikes me here is that for centuries the Huguenots tried desperately to be able to live their principles out in peace, but were ruthlessly persecuted by their countrymen.  Now, in the cause of non-principle, the French finally bother to rise up nearly unanimously and throw off the yoke of a principle that is clearly wrong.

Belloc is a Catholic, yet notes that the Catholic leadership of the times just preceding the Revolution was nearly universally atheist, even though many of the parish priests and church attenders were still Christian.  Why is it that Christianity seems doomed to have atheists worming their way to the top of the power structures, then corrupting the institution, robbing the church, and using whatever power they can obtain to destroy others?  As noted earlier, the French economy was in a complete mess, but it seems that selling assets of the church and the elites was one of their solutions for gaining money.  This I am not so sure about, since I really don't see much in these histories on this subject.  I am just starting Burke's work, so this will take some time to finish.