Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
Contributing Editor: Martin Roth
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Nature and Reason are not abstract principles for Paine. They are not categories through which it is useful to think about things, but dynamic principles that Paine almost literally sees at work in the world. Reason in Common Sense is masculine, a most concrete actor pleading with us to separate from England or forbidding us to have faith in our enemies. Nature is feminine; "she" weeps, and she is unforgiving as part of her deepest nature. Should these agencies be regarded as philosophical principles? As deities? Are they coherent characters? Can they be identified by collecting all their behaviors and their metaphoric qualifications?
How do we think about Paine as an author, a writing "I"? One of his works is presented as having been written by an embodied principle of "common sense," and another piece, The Age of Reason, a work on the general truth of religion, opens in an extremely private, confessional mode. But he writes in this way to prove that he could have no private motives for misleading others. What kind of stakes are being waged by writing a work on religious truth just before you die? Is there any distinction for Paine between the private and the public I, the private and the public life? Notice how many statements fold back upon the self: "it is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself" and "my own mind is my own church."
Paine evokes the splendor of the visible world to close a unit opened by the notion of a privileged book, a "revealed" book, a Bible. How are the book and the world opposed to each other? One of these ways is as writing and speech; although, actually, the world transcends the distinction between writing and speech: it "speaketh a universal language" which "every man can read." Could Paine's distrust and rejection of the Bible be applied to those other "revealed" and "privileged" pieces of writing, literary "masterpieces"? Much of Paine can be read as an attack on the book, a motif that connects him with Mark Twain at the end of the next century.
In The Rights of Man, Paine assumes that the right to engage in revolution is inalienable. How does he understand this? Can time and complexity alter this characteristic of the nature of things? What is a government for Paine? The metaphors that he uses should again remind us of Twain, images of stealth and deceit, images of theatricality used for purposes of fraud.
Family is crucial here too as Paine examines the absurdity of hereditary aristocracy. In this as in almost everything he does, the later writer that Paine most evokes is Mark Twain, here the Mark Twain of A Connecticut Yankee and The American Claimant. Among the resemblances to Twain that should not be overlooked is a vein of extremely cunning black humor in much of The Age of Reason.