Trifling, ridiculous cavillings

“INDEPENDANCE BEING A SINGLE SIMPLE LINE, CONTAINED WITHIN OURSELVES; AND RECONCILIATION, A MATTER EXCEEDINGLY PERPLEXED AND COMPLICATED, AND IN WHICH, A TREACHEROUS CAPRICIOUS COURT IS TO INTERFERE, GIVES THE ANSWER WITHOUT A DOUBT.”

– Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Something that struck me most forcibly in considering Paine in the context of the Bill of Rights, Winthrop’s Arabella sermon, the Declaration of Independence, and the few literary utopias with which I’m already familiar, is Paine’s hostility toward process of learning, debate, reason. While understanding that a polemic is, by nature, geared toward NOW NOW NOW as the TIME FOR CHANGE, the length at which Paine treats his subject is somewhat at odds with his stance. Consider how much time he devotes to the exegesis of Israel’s petition for a king; consider also the tables he includes for the costs of shipbuilding. Here is a man very attuned to the process of reason and its application. At the same time, he greatly fears the continuance of this process in national political affairs, as the above quote indicates.

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps a numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months. The Reflexion is awful — and in this point of view, How trifling, how ridiculous, do the little, paltry cavillings, of a few weak or interested men appear, when weighed against the business of a world.”

– Paine, CS

At stake for Paine is not just American independence, but cosmic matters very much in the New England religious tradition. What is particularly interesting of this second quote is his rhetorical strategy of positioning his opponents as standing in the way of a cataclysmic re-ordering of the world. Given how forcefully he asserts the primacy of human agency in worldly politics (“Kings are not taken away by miracles, neither are changes in governments brought about by any other means than such as are common and human…”), and how forcefully he excoriates the divine pretensions of monarchy (aka “the popery of government”), this passage is especially ironic. If divine intervention does not dictate the change of government, and if any human who claims divine authority is as evil as Paine repeatedly indicates, what does it say about the author that declaring the independence of America is akin to God destroying the world in the flood?

I contrast these quotes to think a bit about a certain kind of revolutionary mindset that displays hostility to the process of reason even as it claims reason as the most natural virtue in opposition to tyranny.

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