Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thomas Paine: The Secular Moralist

English firebrand Thomas Paine certainly knew something about revolution - having long advocated for the American revolutionary and serving as one of the intellectual bulwarks that informed his friend Thomas Jefferson (who called him "a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination.") and later serving as voice of reason during the French Revolution in his attempts to prevent the execution of the King and the wider reign of terror.  I had intended to mark his birthday, which passed on February 9th, as the character of the Egyptian protesters is very Paine-esque.

I have a special affinity for Paine -  not merely because of his position as a pamphleteer  (of which blogging can be viewed as something of a modern equivalent) and a liberal reformist, but also as a result of Paine's involvement in Urban Planning.  Paine briefly worked a bridge-designer and urban developer in his native England - something between an architect and civil engineer.  It would not be too much to fall back on a trite and overused expression and call Paine a true "Renaissance Man" as indeed, he was very much a beneficiary of that era and it's emphasis on liberalism, rationality, art and science.

The lack of memory of Paine within the American canon (despite seeming near idyllic worship of the other 'founding fathers' of the constitution) is puzzling as Thomas Jefferson himself had a statue commissioned of Paine.  This likely has something to do with Paine's deep hostility towards organized religion (which Jefferson certainly shared).  He made a point of seeing Christianity as simply a new variation of the old creation myths of antiquity, declaring:
The Christian religion is a parody on the worship of the sun, in which they put a man called Christ in the place of the sun, and pay him the adoration originally payed to the sun.
He goes on to compare the idea of Christ to to it's apparent source material of ancient Egyptian mythology, with Christ being compared to Egyptian Messianic figure of Horace.  More importantly, Paine believed in the tradition of secular humanism, inherited from Spinoza and the other secular moralists, that would go on to nourish other great recent moral thinkers, including George Orwell, Albert Camus and Bertrand Russel among others.  Much of this alternative form of morality: built on reason, compassion and empathy underpins the Social Democracies of Europe today and Paine was one of the figures who gave this position substance.

It is time then to perhaps rehabilitate Paine as a figure not just of the left, but of one of supporter of struggles of resistance and self-determination as a whole.  In these heady days in which much of what makes the United States civilized is again trying to be dismantled by the radical right (frequently citing ecclesiastical justification), and repressed peoples are organizing in attempts to force the re-establishment of civil society in many countries, Paine's ideas represent something of a clarion call for those that will listen.

1 comment:

Alex Deley said...

I didn't realize Thomas Paine would become such an unfortunate meme for the Tea Party when I wrote this piece. It's unfortunate that the Tea Party knows so little about Thomas Paine, but then, I suspect if any of them had read "The Age of Reason" they might renounce their love for the man. For my part, I think modern liberalism, as Tony Judt pointed out, has shifted more towards the classical conservatism of thinkers such as Edund Burke.