Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Great Debate: Burke Versus Paine, Part II

Thomas Paine and the Rise of Precious Petals

Thomas Paine was an Enlightenment Rationalist, of an extreme bent.  He really did believe in the autonomy of human reason.  Politics and just government could be sorted out by a bit of good, old-fashioned, hard-headed Reason.  The problem, he argued, with most of the Western European governments of his day (including the United Kingdom) was that they had little rhyme or reason to them--but lots and lots of tradition by which an aristocratic elite oppressed the common man.

Paine was a  believer in radical egalitarianism.  All men were equal--not in silly externalities like looks, height, strength or sizes of the nose, but in the faculty of Reason.  He was in many ways a silly man.  The poorest amongst us could reason just as well as the most educated (or so he argued).

In particular he hated the idea that each generation of mankind was somehow curtailed or bound by what the generation which went before believed and practised.
 He argued each generation must start with a blank sheet of paper and construct the society of its collective (Reason-informed) will.  This was his interpretation of the American Revolution.  The British nation represented an ancient regime; the colonial states of America represented a new generation, beginning life, as it were, in a new land.  The colonists need not abide the yoke of the English.  They could reason for themselves and set up a society and government that was best for them.  America represented (almost) a blank sheet of paper.

A few years later, Paine went on to throw himself wholeheartedly behind the French Revolution--for the same reasons.  The French had a Reason-given right to tear down everything in France and erect a form of government that Reason alone dictated.  Away with the ancien-regime.  Away with the superstition Church.  Away with the King.  Away with the remnants of feudalism.  None of these "institutions" met the tests of Reason.  Those who tried to cling to the vestiges of the past must be executed as traitors.

Paine believe that every society should take as its model an original "state of nature" before there was any government of any kind.  The "state of nature" was a pristine, idealised time of a "society" where there was no past.  This, naturally, had never actually existed, but it was a useful explanatory device, a benchmark by which modern societies could be contrasted and compared.  "In the beginning it was like this, or that, and so now we should become like that or this . . . "  But, the "beginning" was a fundamental premise to an argument--but one plucked out of the air.  Totally imaginary.

In the "state of nature" every man was an autonomous individual, beholden to no-one.  According to Paine nothing ought to pass from one generation to another--except, of course, Thomas Paine's world-view.  He argues:
. . . politics must focus on the present, not on the dead or those yet to be borne.  "Those who have quitted the world , and those who have not yet arrived in it, are as remote from each other as the utmost stretch of moral imagination can conceive.  What possible obligation, then, can exist between them?"  [Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (New York: Basic Books, 2014), p. 213.]
Every law in society, argued Paine, ought to have a sunset clause that expunges the law from the statute books within thirty years.  Each generation must begin afresh.  But, why not every year, or month, or week.  Why ought thirty years be sacrosanct and act as a tyrant over the consciences of reasonable human beings?

The demand for radical human autonomy, on the one hand, and the insistence that no-one can bind another, on the other hand, are hallmarks of the Left, or Progressive ideologies of our day.  We read recently of a most ardent Precious Petal who, having "fallen in love" with his sex robot, was demanding that society recognise his and its marriage.  And why not?  For modern Western society has substantially followed in Paine's footsteps.  It matters not a fig what centuries have held or believed: all that matters is what I believe and want.  A just, equitable, and fair society must accommodate and find room for me.

That's the outcome when an imaginary original "state of nature" meets up with Autonomous Man: insistent demands for "safe-spaces", "trigger-free zones" and Precious Petals crying on every street corner.

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