Sunday, April 26, 2009

Come, let us reason...

Thomas Paine is far more important than you know. Utterly pivotal in creating the mood for the American Revolution. Not a hero though, by any manner of means -- at least not heroic in his mien. He was a face-on-the-table drunkard, notoriously filthy in his hygiene. Yet his portrait has him smiling -- a rare thing for that age.

Even Ben Franklin appears more pursed than smiling -- the upturned lips seem to be just the way his mouth is shaped. But Tom is smiling. A modern man, indeed.

In England he had been a merchant seaman, a corset shop owner, a tax collector, a staymaker, a servant, an Anglican minister (!), and a schoolteacher. Failure dogged him. At age 38 he effectively abandoned his second wife and fled to the distant shores and presumed prosperity of the American Colonies. The shores proved prosperous, but prosperity proved distant. He wrote so well you'd think he'd be a thousandaire, what with an astronomicial 400,000 copies of his Common Sense being sold. But he published anonymously, and he gave his copyright to the Continental Congress.

For this, we forgive him his filth and his abandonment and his failures.

He called the King "a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man". He said that everything "that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'Tis time to part.'" Neither of these is, strictly speaking, true. They're not even true figuratively. They are just propaganda and high-flown invective. John Adams, that acrid little man, styled Common Sense "a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass." But here we are, enjoying the outworkings of Paine's nominal truths and crapulent exudations.

For this, we remember him as great.

His seems to be the first use of "the United States of America." He seems to have been the first to use "Republic" in its modern, positive sense, and is said to have given the word "revolution" its political meaning (although what then of the "Glorious Revolution"? -- did that pick up its current name later? A historiographical question). Paine knew how to use words. Not an innovator, not a great or subtle thinker, but a wordsmith. The first great American adman. The P.T. Barnum of the Revolution.

He was no officer of the Continental Army. A common foot soldier. In France, Robespierre clapped him in irons. Back in America, obscure and impoverished, he became little better than the town drunk. Shortly prior to his death an old friend found him passed out in a tavern, reeking with "the most disagreeable smell possible." He wore utter rags and had not trimmed his nails in years. He had to be bathed and scrubbed down three times before he was tolerable.

Paul Jacob tells us that “a former political opponent [William Cobbett] dug up his body and brought it to England, where the brain got removed from the skull; where the skull and arm got removed from the rest; where most of it got lost in a bizarre string of inheritances by dissidents who supported free speech, republicanism, evolution, phrenology -- and bizarreries even greater than the pseudoscience of head bumps. But the shriveled brain somehow came home to America.” Some of his bones were carted off by a rag-and-bone man. Perhaps they were fed to dogs. Calls to mind the fate of the Mayflower: broken up and used to build a barn in Buckinghamshire.

For all this, we are reminded to tend wisely to our own affairs.

Paine was an atheist, or if not, his great hatred was certainly the God of the Bible -- God, and King George. “Yet this is trash that the Church imposes upon the world as the Word of God; this is the collection of lies and contradictions called the Holy Bible! This is the rubbish called Revealed Religion!” Sort of ties God’s hands, doesn’t it, if he can’t reveal himself. Well, Paine allows for one way: “Had the news of salvation by Jesus Christ been inscribed on the face of the sun and the moon, in characters that all nations would have understood, the whole earth had known it in twenty-four hours, and all nations would have believed it.” No room for faith, here ... but faith is so hard.

“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.” So … what’s he saying? I don’t get it. He doesn’t like creeds? -- or Churches? Am I missing something? It doesn't seem clear. ”My own mind is my own Church.” Oh, so he doesn’t like other people’s churches. And since a “creed” is just a statement of belief, yet all his writings are about his beliefs, then … uh, he only believes his own beliefs? Fair enough. That’s pretty much the way everyone feels.

“What is it the Bible teaches us? -- raping, cruelty, and murder.” Honestly? Might you suppose he demonstrates an imperfect mastery of theological exegesis?

“What is it the New Testament teaches us? -- to believe that the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married, and the belief of this debauchery is called faith.” His understanding of the mechanism of the Incarnation seems imperfect.

“The age of ignorance commenced with the Christian system.” Yes -- although some believe the “Christian system” commenced with the Fall from Grace.

“That man should redeem himself from the sin of eating an apple by committing a murder on Jesus Christ, is the strangest system of religion ever set up.” Agreed. What religion does that come from?

“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.” I’d argue with him, except I don't argue with dead men. Whatever demons tormented Thomas Paine in his final days, they did not write the Bible.

For all this, and given the state in which he went down to death, we must remember him with pity. And with dread.


1 comment:

fathemi said...

Best commentary on Paine I have ever read.