Book of a lifetime: Rights of Man, By Tom Paine


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The Independent Culture

Tom Paine reminds you that some arguments matter, it is important to win them, and that the written word may help. He answered Edmund Burke's 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' (November 1790) with his 'Rights of Man' (1791-2). Mary Wollstonecraft pitched in too. What times those were!

Paine believed that good government – representative democracy – was a matter of common sense; and that monarchy, aristocracy, any system based on precedent and heredity, was an odious nonsense. He writes accordingly: a lucid, forthright language, the language of common sense. Paine can teach us how to write to win the arguments that matter.

Paine writes about Britain from the perspectives of America and France; the first after, the second in the midst of, its revolution. He estranges the familiar. In the light of the achievement in America and the progress in France, Britain shows up badly.

Those revolutions are history. But if we read Paine and understand what he makes of them, we have a measure of where we are now, how well or badly we are governed. He can help us assess the health of our civic life, our res publica. Is it fit to be looked at from any angle? Answer: No. Paine is a writer who obeys Blake's injunction to "Labour well the Minute Particulars". For example, he advances the idea of a welfare state (he believed in "reciprocal aid") and a system of progressive taxation to fund it. He has the idea – and, minutely, he costs it.

He describes in detail the taking of the Bastille – and comments: "The downfall of it included the idea of the downfall of Despotism; and this compounded image was become as figuratively united as Bunyan's Doubting Castle and Giant Despair." So in minute particulars he sees incarnated a figurative sense.

Because Paine reveals the figurative in the details of real events, his insights are applicable again and again, beyond those particulars. His writing is transferable to other circumstances, including our own. Here he is on certain politicians "who went no farther with any principle than as it suited their purpose as a party". And here on rioting: "It shows that something is wrong in the system of government, that injures the felicity by which society is to be preserved." This fits us too: "Public money ought to be touched with the most scrupulous consciousness of honour. It is not the produce of riches only, but of the hard earnings of labour and poverty."

'Rights of Man' is the citizen's book of a lifetime now, as it was back then.

David Constantine's new collection of stories is 'Tea at the Midland' (Comma)