Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The world was his country

Dispatches From the Culture Wars reminds us that today is the birthday of Thomas Paine.

"Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to person or place; the world is my country, and my religion is to do good," from The Rights of Man is one of the finest expressions of humanist thought around, and the following passage from Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson gives some indication of the dedication Paine had for the principles of liberty and free thought.

This pamphlet for the greater good would all but destroy Paine's American reputation, and its drafting would offer a profound insight into the author's very character. If there is any moment in his life that reveals Paine as the Enlightenment's most adamantine evangelist, it is this. For exactly what kind of man, with dozens of friends either imprisoned or dead by guillotine or by their own hand, with his own life directly imperiled, and expecting at any moment the knock at the door and the presentation of the warrant - just what kind of human being would write a book under such conditions, and call it The Age of Reason?
And here's a sample of Paine's efforts to prevent the execution of Lous XVI which are what put his life in danger in France. Paine had hoped that France, in addition to banishing the monarchy, could set an example to the world by also banishing executions. These words turned out to be extremely prescient.

I have the advantage of some experience; it is near twenty years that I have been engaged in the cause of liberty, having contributed something to it in the revolution of the United States of America. My language has always been that of liberty and humanity, and I know by experience that nothing so exalts a nation as the union of these principles, under all circumstances. I know that the public mind of France, and particularly that of Paris, has been heated and irritated by the dangers to which they have been exposed; but could we carry our thoughts into the future, when the dangers are ended, and the irritations forgotten, what today seems an act of justice may then appear an act of vengeance. My anxiety for the cause of France has become for the moment concern for its honor. If, on my return to America, I should employ myself on a history of the French Revolution, I had rather record a thousand errors dictated by humanity, than one inspired by a justice too severe.

No comments: