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Thursday, October 21, 2010
Thomas Paine IV: The Age of Reason
So onto the post that's been sitting in the unfinished bin for about three years. Originally I didn't want to put it up because four Thomas Paine posts in a row was too much. I sat on it for a while after that because I wanted to do some more reading and thinking. Right now I'm in the middle of God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens so I thought I should finish this post before I write about that book.
Thomas Paine left America as a hero, his pamphlets and articles inspired a nation in it's time of need. He made the clear case for American independence and then moved back to Europe to continue his work of inspiring men to take destiny into their own hands. In Europe he wrote Rights of Man, clearly explaining the case for the French revolution and furthering his case for representative democracy. One of his later works was the Age of Reason and it was his most poorly received works, at least by people without titles of nobility.
Paine starts out with a declaration of his faith in God, and follows shortly after with his declaration that he did not consider himself a believer in any current christian church. In his preamble he states "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." Brave words for a man who lived in the 18th century where church and state were one in most of the world. I don't know how much of his deism was a result of his moral evaluations of the state structures in the world at that time and how much was the result of his examination of the bible but it does appear that he examined the bible closely.
"I have now gone through the bible, as a man would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulder, and fell trees. Here they lie; and the priests, if they can, may replant them. They may, perhaps, stick them in the ground, but they will never make them grow." he says in part II of The Age of Reason. He spends fair portion of his book describing the inconsistencies between what is written in the bible and what he perceived as reality. According to legend, he lived his latter life in America impoverished and disowned by his former revolutionary colleagues. Later biographers seem to think that this is a myth and I hope that it is.
Thomas Paine bravely used his pen to speak truth to power without fear of consequence and deserves his place among the cannon of American patriotism and among enlightenment thinkers. That is a life and spirit worth celebrating with a 100th post.