Speaking Common Sense With Thomas Paine

Portrait by Laurent Dabos (c. 1792)

Being one of the most common terms, one easily gets the impression that common sense is indeed common — especially in oneself! But is it?

Not an easy read by any stretch of even the wildest of imaginations — especially for the irregular reader or millennial. Thomas Paine was one of the founding fathers of the United States — arguably the most important one. Unfortunately he is one of the least known; the reason for which could be Theodore Roosevelt, who once referred to his as ‘that dirty little atheist’. The irony here is that he actually believed in a God; it was religious practices and ideological dogma he had a problem with.

Common Sense is the writing Paine is most known for; this book persuaded millions of American people, at the time still under the reign of the British empire, that independence — that breaking free from Britain — was an absolute must.

A barrage of incredibly well-reasoned arguments, irrefutable facts and damning statistics, and written in beautiful, witty prose — supplemented with eye-opening metaphors and colourful allusions — it was a book that opponents of American independence across the world simply couldn’t deal with.

Not everyone has the same definition of ‘common sense’; as definitions of cliches and common phrases often are, they’re largely subjective. But one thing is for sure: common sense isn’t as common as we like to think. In the very first sentence Paine gives us a distinct sense of his own definition with a blunt statement about the parasitical nature of unbanished falsehoods.

A long Habit of not thinking a Thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of Custom.

Regardless of the roots from which they stem, the longer beliefs about the truth, what is correct, fact, theory, and right and wrong are not challenged — either because of protection by authority or plain ignorance — the more we begin to see them as normal, custom, as tradition. As individuals we have a natural disposition to think our beliefs and sentiments are right; and we will fight hard, either with ourselves or others, for their survival. We are not always right, of course, and reasonable people usually change their mind in light of better arguments and facts. The problem becomes obvious when we consider the collective, which also has this natural disposition: it likes to think it is right, and it will fight tooth and nail to stay so. Addressing the problem of delusion and ignorance in one individual is not so difficult, and, even if no progress can be made, the problem is not so much a danger to others; 1It goes without saying if the individual has barbaric and murderous ideologies, then it does matter; but most people, luckily, don’t have such beliefs. but addressing delusion and ignorance at the collective level is a gargantuan matter: not only immensely complicated and difficult, but also extremely important, for it impacts the lives — and therefore, actions — of such a significant percentage of people.

Aside from attachment to our own ideas, we humans are easily swayed by the senses. Children spend their lives in a continuous state of flow, effortlessly moving from task to task without a care in the world for time, the opinions of others, food, goals, or anything other than what interests them; you could call this selfish, but you could also call it beautiful. Adults, on the other hand, spend their lives fighting, resisting and being defeated by the temptations, neuroses, and ambitions. One wouldn’t say these states do us any favours for inspiring common sense, which, as Paine points out, is primarily the product of nature and reason:

[…] And however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and reason will say, ’tis right.

One of the things that separated Paine from most writers of his generation was his ability to turn cold statements of hard logic and reason into poetic idioms fit for any dining room wall; his works are littered with witty remarks, clever plays on language and visually powerful analogies such as this:

“Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed-time of Continental union, faith and honour. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound would enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.”

And this, in which Paine addresses the perils of comfort, luxury and wealth: they diminish motivation, starve the spirit, and gradually render the entity (in this case, the British rule) incapable:

With the increase of commerce England hath lost its spirit. The city of London, notwithstanding its numbers, submits to continued insults with the patience of a coward. The more men have to lose, the less willing are they to venture. The rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel.

Speaking without any prior thinking is almost never a good idea — certainly when the matter is particularly touchy, and especially in situations where people scrupulously analyse every word, cite quotes without context, and even actively put words in your mouth. Cleverly disguised in a reference to his own thoughts, Paine urges reflection before speech:

I have frequently amused myself both in public and private companies, with silently remarking the spacious errors of those who speak without reflecting.

If Paine didn’t subsequently write The Age Of Reason and The Rights Of Man (both as brilliantly written, informing and entertaining), and other scathing attacks on religion, it’s entirely conceivable that he would today be remembered as the American founding father.

For anyone interested in philosophy or world history, this book is a must read; and it matters not whether you agree with Paine: the work is a series of painful (therefore, useful) lessons in critical thinking, writing, speaking and dialectic; it shines light on one of the most important moments in history; and above all else, once you get into it you can’t put it down.

footnotes   [ + ]

1.It goes without saying if the individual has barbaric and murderous ideologies, then it does matter; but most people, luckily, don’t have such beliefs.

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