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Journal of No. 118


November 6th, 2011

Thomas Paine, Selected Writings @ 09:35 am


At an estate sale a while back, I picked up a Franklin Library edition of some of Thomas Paine's writings.

Common Sense and the American Crisis papers go together, especially as the various numbers of the American Crisis were signed 'Common Sense'. They provide a summary of the goals of the revolution and the philosophy behind it. More importantly, they provide some inspiration to the rebels at a time when they sorely needed some; As Franklin put it, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Paine aimed higher: "These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

And also lower. Many of the Crisis papers are direct attacks on England, the King, American tories, and Lord Howe, commander of the English forces. These attacks combine wit and rudeness. Noting that Massachusetts had voted 250 pounds to erect a monument for his brother (who had fallen in the French & Indian War two decades before) at Westminster Abbey, Paine notes that the Continental Congress looked forward with some eagerness for the opportunity to do the same for him someday soon.

His talent for invective no doubt lifted the spirits of the Americans when it was directed against the King and monarchy. When he turned it on revealed religion, the priesthood, and the Bible in The Age of Reason, it didn't go down so well. It's kind of curious that at the time of publication, Paine was in jail in anticlerical revolutionary France, and narrowly escaped the guillotine, all for the crime of being too moderate for the taste of the Jacobins.

Part I is a fairly clear and compelling presentation of Paine's deism. Revelation is direct communication from God to some person. If that person writes it down, those writings are not revelation.
The only writing of certain Divine authorship is the universe itself, the book of nature. It has been revealed to everyone. God benevolently provided us with life and a bountiful earth.
"And the practice of moral truth, or, in other words, a practical imitation of the moral goodness of God, is no other than our acting toward each other as he acts benignly toward all. We cannot serve God in the manner we serve those who cannot do without such service; and, therefore, the only idea we can have of serving God, is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made."
Or more succinctly: "I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy."
Yes, there's some Bible bashing, but it doesn't hold a candle to

Part II, in which Paine puts on his cranky breeches. Perhaps his time in a French jail had altered his mood for the worse, but in Part II he sets about to dismantle the Bible bit by bit, and spares not the rudeness. Speaking of the gospel's treatment of Mary Magdalene's (and an indeterminate number of other women's and/or angels') discovery of the empty tomb: "They all, however, appear to have known most about Mary Magdalene ; she was a woman of a large acquaintance, and it was not an ill conjecture that she might be upon the stroll." Meow!
Or when speaking of the Holy Ghost descending as a dove: "It might as well have said a goose; the creatures are equally harmless, and the one is as much a nonsensical lie as the other."
By no means is it all poop-flinging. He does a lot of rather careful textual criticism as well. But he did keep the poo-bag near the writing desk at all times.

On the more positive side, he again reserves his religious admiration for the book of creation, and the pursuit of science. "The Bible of the creation is inexhaustible in texts. Every part of science, whether connected with the geometry of the universe, with the systems of animal and vegetable life, or with the properties of inanimate matter, is a text as well for devotion as for philosophy — for gratitude as for human improvement. It will perhaps be said, that if such a revolution in the system of religion takes place, every preacher ought to be a philosopher. Most certainly; and every house of devotion a school of science."

Vilified as an atheist, Paine was sincerely promoting what he considered true religion.
 
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Journal of No. 118