Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was a remarkable fellow who lived at a time of, and helped bring about two great revolutions of the modern age – the American and French ones. His time discovered political pamphleteering in a way that’s quite similar to blogging today. People wrote pamphlets and then others responded – with subsequent editions of the original pamphlet going out with responses to later pamphlets.

Letters, the tongue of the world, have in some measure brought all mankind acquainted, and, by an extension of their uses, are every day promoting some new friendship. Through them distant nations became capable of conversation, and losing by degrees the awkwardness of strangers, and the moroseness of suspicion, they learn to know and understand each other. Science, the partizan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet. Her influence on the mind, like the sun on the chilled earth, has long been preparing it for higher cultivation and further improvement. The philosopher of one country sees not an enemy in the philosopher of another: he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him.

Yet even at the height of his fame and after the American revolutionaries’ success in breaking away from the mother country, he was already  disillusioned by how little his own public achievements and spiritedness had served his own interests. He was a man of great generosity – and some impetuousness. He had given away what wealth and security he might have had in support of the revolution and felt unacknowledged by his adopted United States while others had profited mightily from the revolution, either financially or in acquiring high office. Against the extension of civilization being worked by letters and the spirit of science there was a counterforce:

The principal and almost only remaining enemy it now has to encounter, is prejudice. . . . 1rejudice, like the spider, makes every where its home. It has neither taste nor choice of place, and all that it requires is room. There is scarcely a situation, except fire or water, in which a spider will not live. So, let the mind be as naked as the walls of an empty and forsaken tenement, gloomy as a dungeon, or ornamented with the richest abilities of thinking; let it be hot, cold, dark, or light, lonely or inhabited, still prejudice, if undisturbed, will fill it with cobwebs, and live, like the spider, where there seems nothing to live on. If the one prepares her food by poisoning it to her palate and her use, the other does the same; and as several of our passions are strongly charactered by the animal world, prejudice may be denominated the spider of the mind.

Paine would come to despair of both revolutions he had helped set in place. Paine was elected to the French National Assembly (I think that’s what it was called at the time, it kept changing and changing its name). He defended the King with energy, decency, courage and ultimately naiveté – arguing in a debate after the sentence of death had been passed that it carried the stain of revenge rather than justice. “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 two principles, under all circumstances. . . . My anxiety for the cause of France has become for the moment concern for its honour.”

As France descended into chaos and horror his naturally sunny and disposition turned to another cause – that of deism.  He wrote The Age of Reason to promote deist views. As he began the book “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.” Deism was very common amongst enlightenment intellectuals and men in high places. But they had always understood that it was polite not to be too trenchant about them publicly or to promote deism in competition with Christianity further down the social order. It was typical of Paine that his deism was democratic and generous of spirit.

I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

And it was also typical that his deism was simple and combative.

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine.

But it is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

This ruined his reputation in polite society for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile in Paris he stuck around as things went from bad to worse, helping others to leave but not leaving himself – perhaps out of vanity and/or naiveté believing that he would be OK. Paine’s heart and health were broken awaiting execution in a Paris jail though he survived long enough to outlive Robespierre’s and so the terror. He lived many more years, but he nevertheless emerged a changed man.

Memory, like a beauty that is always present to hear itself flattered, is flattered by everyone. But the absent and silent goddess, Forgetfulness, has no votaries, and is never thought of; yet we owe her much. She is the goddess of ease, though not of pleasure.

When the mind is like a room hung with black, and every corner of it crowded with the most horrid images imagination can create, this kind, speechless goddess of a maid, Forgetfulness, is following us night and day with her opium wand, and gently touching first one and then another, benumbs them into rest, and at last glides them away with the silence of a departing shadow. It is thus the tortured mind is restored to the calm condition of ease, and fitted for happiness.

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Michael L
12 years ago

Paine was truly a visionary. He really had a way with words, didn’t he?

12 years ago

How true that last quote is!

Thomas the Tout
Thomas the Tout
12 years ago

Well done Nicholas ( I rather like your work except when you pontificate about current politics).

James Baldman
12 years ago

“My own mind is my own church”

I may have to get this as my next tatoo!