Maurice Bisheff, Ph.D. on Thomas Paine...

from: Les Carpenter
Rational Nation USA
Purveyor of Truth

Found while giving thought to our founding principles and one of the giant's of the revolutionary era in America, Thomas Paine. The article, 'The Moral and Political Thought of Thomas Paine", was written by Maurice Bisheff, Ph.D., it is a good read for anyone interested in Paine. Thomas Paine and his views are as relevant today as they were during his era, erhas even more so.

Now, for the teaser.
Tom Paine thought of himself as a "gardener of ideas".

Thomas Paine's moral and political thought raises the question, "How can we become a more self-governing society?" Paine's vision of self-governance can be seen in his moral and political thought which is relevant today to each and all.

I. Reason and Self-Governing Individuals

Self-governing individuals are necessary to have a self-governing society. By self governing is meant the willingness of individuals to consciously choose and hold to principles or an ideal yet flexibly apply that ideal in diverse situations. Thomas Paine said "My country is the world and my religion is to do good." For Paine the source of the good went beyond a commitment to world citizenship. "The true deist has but one Deity; and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in every thing moral, scientifical, and mechanical" (A of R p.84). James Tepfer describes this as "our living awareness of the Infinite Presence."(Tepfer, p.1) Thus, Paine felt that the moral duty of man consists in imitating the moral and beneficience of God manifested in Man and Nature's laws. This was the ever renewing source of man's reason.

Placed in the language of the Age of Enlightenment, Paine believed that natural law is inscribed in the divine order, and emanates a Cosmos-a beautiful harmony and order which exists prior to and superior to history or governments. Natural law is at least partially knowable through the moral disposition in man and the depth of his conscience. Paine wrote, "As for morality, the knowledge of it exists in every man's conscience." (A of R p.185) If you break natural law, your conscience will tell you if you practice being attuned to it. In this regard, Paine quotes Cicero, "The true law is right reason, comfortable to the nature of things, constant, eternal diffuse through all, which call us to duty by commanding, deters from sin by forbidding, which never loses its influence with the good." (TP-Social and Political Thought p. 93)

The exertion of natural reason in pursuit of the good is the core basis by which individuals can become self-governing; thus strengthening a self-governing society. Paine advocated moving beyond "local thoughts", and encouraged individuals to think more principled and universally, which then permitted greater flexibility in application. Paine believed individuals can expand their ability to apply their reason for the good to greater and greater circles of social interaction. It is "by the exercise of reason that man can discover God. Take away that reason, and he would be incapable of understanding anything."(A of R p.70)

II. Self-Governance and Societal Interdependence

Paine believed that man can infuse and draw out the good of fellow men in society in theatres of political participation by using his conscience and his reason. Society arose because men needed one another, and is a workshop for its citizens to experiment and self-correct. "As nature created him for social life, she fitted him for the station she intended. In all cases she made his natural wants greater than his individual powers"(R of M pg. 187) ; thus the need for a natural reciprocity recognizing our moral and societal interdependence. It is through our sociability that we can expand our perspectives to greater mutual understanding and more inclusive, universal thought. In the process of reasoning with each other, we can view our own limitations, those of others, and correct our errors in thinking.

In order to let happiness blossom in society, men need the right to express their conscience. Self-evident human rights such as freedom of conscience and religion are the foundations of equality. Paine felt that human rights get translated into shared natural rights through making claims to be tested by reason. In order to help enforce these rights, then civil and legal rights by government create a civil society for citizens to manifest their political claims.

Each right has a corresponding duty. Paine said our first duty is to be kind to others. Paine also said that a person's corresponding duty is to allow the same rights to others as we allow ourselves. From this basis we can use our abilities to promote mutual understanding. These expanding circles of reciprocal duties and rights weave a tapestry, built on democratic norms, of liberty in the context of societal interdependence.

The right of commerce was seen as transforming the mind-set of feudal, dependent relations between men and their government. It helped transform subjects into confident citizens. Trade was viewed not as laissez-faire, but in a web of social interdependence. It was seen as a major modality for individuals to use their active minds to develop better mutual understanding of others interests in society. While aware that too much indulgence in commerce could lead to the decline of spirit and patriotism, making reason subservient to commercial interests, Paine believed commerce was an important element in a strong self-governing society of expanding universal happiness.

Paine felt that man would use his religion of reason to place commerce within a broader quest for lifelong education in the arts, sciences, engineering, and philosophy in order to progress to a universal society and universal happiness. For Paine, knowledge starts with the Divine. "It is from the study of the true theology that all our knowledge of science is derived; and it is from that knowledge that all the arts have originated." (A of R p.76) Thus, the arts and sciences should illuminate man's highest spirit of reason in its motives and applications such that it does not have to be concentrated solely in pursuit of commercial interests. Art, science, and commercial enterprise can be placed in service to humanity and universal happiness.

Some men and women, through greed or disproportionate natural or social advantages, will contribute to others being systematically impoverished in the imperfections of manmade civilization. Since in a natural state, "The earth is the common property of the human race"; thus each human being is equally entitled to have dignity and minimal share of the earth's bounty, including clean water, air, and access or rents from land.(T.P.-Social and Political Thought p. 93) Gregory Claeys points out that what was important in Paine's thinking is that property not be made a pretense for unequal or exclusive rights, and poverty should not be made insufferable.(T.P-Social and Political Thought p.100)

Thus, men and women must discover those laws operating in society which will create a greater harmony of overall interests. Democratic communities will have to choose to redistribute some minimal baseline of societal resources to those at least most vulnerable not as charity, but as a right in the name of social harmony.

III. Government and the Common Good

Paine's ideal of a self-governing society is encapsulated as "The more perfect civilization is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs and govern it." (Rights of Man p. 189 Appleby) In this context, government was not to be glorified, but is simply needed as a contingent, malleable solution to restrain our vices and to restore some degree of harmony and social justice through minimal social welfare to each and all.

Raghavan Iyer writes in Parapolitics, (p. 290-291) "No man can fulfill his many wants except in the company of others; because ofthe collective wants of human beings, there is validity and value to human societies. But unfortunately, men want to bequeath the burden of finding fulfillment to some external authority. When embodied in imperfect men, whatever the laws, systems, or government, this will gradually license every abomination" .

Paine wrote that democratic republics would be judged by its citizens through a standard of res publica or a common good. The "common good" involves a mental posture taken by citizens in their deliberations where they account for yet transcend partial interests to look at the good for each and all in their decisions. The common good and a democratic government are thus posited as broad criteria for making government indirectly self governing because representative government is "owned" by citizens, and citizens are free to appraise the outcomes of their government. Fair elections, clear laws impartially enforced, clear performance accountability, and a transparent appraisal of governmental outcomes were qualities of a democratic republic. Since all human institutions can become deformed over time, Paine recommended that each generation should renew their associations in developing new written Constitutions appropriate to their times.

As individuals become more adept at using reason to becoming more self-governing, collectively they would be able to self-organize, trust each other, and need less government. Thus, the spirit of communes, collectives, and self-organization can be seen as microcosmic experiments in direct self-governance, providing prospects and possibilities for a society of the future and a more self-governing society.

Continue reading BELOW THE FOLD.


  1. He was an interesting character. A sort of proto-Democratic Socialist.


  2. Paine imbibed the Enlightenment as much or more than many of the founders. IMO, his thinking and writing were presciently modern. He managed to insult church and government to the extent that he was jailed in France (almost guillotined), arrested in England and shunned in the US. ..and six folks attended his funeral.

  3. Replies
    1. Indeed. Old Paine would have lit up the blogosphere, for sure.

    2. Yeah. He doesn't fit any popular mold you see these days, yet his views seem to fit the times strikingly well. He's a unique figure.


    3. Do you find it as intrresting as I do that the Tea Party and most far right conservatives hold Paine up as a shining example of the cause(s) they stand for? Yep, obviously cherry picking at its finest.

    4. Cherry picking: Paine is a smorgasbord of cherries. For example from this to that . IMO, like
      Jefferson, Paine would enjoy our times immensely.

  4. Les, an interesting book by Yuval Levin came out last year called "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right". I haven't read it but I've seen a number of Levin's videos on Youtube and it does sound pretty interesting (and the reviews have been almost uniformly positive; from Andrew Sullivan and the Huffington Post to the Weekly Standard and Wall Street Journal). You just might want to check it out.

  5. Yeah, I guess you're right. But I think Paine was pretty consistent when viewed in total.

    Isn't cherry picking the American way, or put another way, one of its pastimes?


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