The Rights of Man

18 Jun

“All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.” —Edmund Burke

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was written for a number of reasons but one main one was as a reply to a speech that Edmund Burke made in Parliament against the French Revolution. This speech denounced the Revolution and at the same time praised the existing English system of government.

As Eric Foner says in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Rights of Man, “The Burke-Paine debate was the classic confrontation between tradition and innovation, hierarchy and equality, order and revolution.”

Paine and Burke had been acquaintances for some time before their divergence of ways. Burke had been an advocate of the American revolution and is acknowledged by Paine in his preface to the English edition of Rights of Man; “From the part Mr Burke took…it was natural that I should consider him a friend to mankind.”

It is over the French Revolution and the English government that the great divide came. Burke’s view was that change should come gradually and it should be carried out by the system. Paine saw that in some cases, most of Europe in fact, the system would not accommodate change and must thus be overthrown for the benefit of the ‘nation’ as a whole.

Here they differed again. Paine defined the ‘nation’ as the people who made up the country but Burke saw it in terms of its rulers – the monarchy. While Pained argued for the rights of a ‘nation’ to choose its own form of government, Burke saw government as an inheritance from the past; the right of Monarchs to govern the people, choose their ministers etc. Burke also saw all that which was written on the statute books as binding to all ‘citizens’ of the ‘nation’.

Paine attacks this argument, noting that laws are only valid as long as they are observed and that they may be repealed. While Burke talks at length of the importance of Authority and Religion, Paine uses the religious argument to say that as God created man there was no precedent for him to rule over his kin.

Paine continues this argument to ‘prove’ that democracy is the natural order of man. It is interesting to note how Burke and Paine often use similar arguments but draw very different conclusions. While Burke condemns the revolutionaries as murderous, immoral without respect for the law, Paine speaks of ‘natural law’. He says that when the old order is stagnant it is just to replace it by reasonable means. He points out that the violence was very limited considering its potential reach and where Burke would condemn he praises restraint.

The main difference in the two men’s thinking appears to be based on their view of the ‘masses’. As I have mentioned, Paine saw the nation and its people as one and the same. Burke on the other side of the argument once describes them as “the swinish multitude”. Burke lacks Paine’s compassion for the poor. He would disagree fervently with Paine’s proposals for social welfare through changes in tax, mentioned in Part 2 of Rights of Man.

The main element of disagreement remains the heredity principal and the class structure. As Paine illustrates, the French no longer have use for the titles of Duke and Duchess. In Burke’s mind these class structures in society are the very fabric of society itself, remove them and society will fall. Paine can see that it is man himself who makes society.

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Politics, Society


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