Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Common Sense of Common Sense

Thomas Paine and the Birth of
Natural Religion, Natural Law
and Enlightenment Philosophy

by Brad Hart

In the October, 2008 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, historian Sophia Rosenfeld of the University of Virginia takes an in-depth look at a document, which despite its large popularity, often goes overlooked. As most history geeks already know, Thomas Paine's epic pamphlet, Common Sense was a literal best seller in 1776, catapulting the discussion of independence from Britain into the forefront of the American conversation. As a result, Paine became an overnight celebrity of sorts, a colonial J.K Rowling who followed up the success of Common Sense with a number of other influential works. Yet despite the massive attention that Common Sense has received over the centuries, there is still much about the text itself that deserves the undivided attention of historians today.

Hence the insightful article of historian Sophia Rosenfeld, who, despite all the superficial notions suggesting that Common Sense has been dissected thoroughly enough, provides us with a new and astute interpretation of this timeless American classic.

According to Rosenfeld, Common Sense can and should be seen in conjunction with the emergence of 18th century Enlightenment philosophy and the budding seeds of common sense beliefs. As Rosenfeld points out:

The history of common sense -- as a cognitive faculty, and a set of basic ideas, even as a rhetorical form -- has been interwoven with politics at every turn. Its rise as an important epistematic authority began in context not only of the decline of Aristotelian understandings of sense perception but also of the crisis in traditional forms of legitimation characteristic of late-seventeenth-century European religious and political life. From this moment onward, common sense, with its foundations in the basic mental abilities of common people, functioned alternately to bolster or to supersede more conventional sources of legitimation or evidence, including the Bible, law, history, custom, reason, and scholastic knowledge (635).
Keeping in mind the numerous blog conversations we have enjoyed on the role of natural religion, laws of nature, etc., Dr. Rosenfeld's interpretation of common sense as a palpable intellectual alternative to traditional forms of legitimation is striking. As she suggests, the common sense found within Common Sense is in complete agreement with the emerging unitarian/natural religion ideologies of the late 18th century. In fact, the British colonies in America were the perfect breeding ground for the development of such beliefs. As Dr. Rosenfeld states:

As anthropologists and historians of mentalities have frequently pointed out, most assumptions deemed self-evident by their propogators turn out, on inspection, to be highly culturally specific. This includes the very idea of common sense itself (635).
In other words, what one people uphold to be self-evident truths supported by the very laws of nature itself are sometimes seen by others in a very different way. Perhaps this explains why so many nations reject the American form of "self-evident" and "divinely-sanctioned" democratic government.

The success of Common Sense in the American colonies, though certainly the result of the intense political strife between the colonies and the mother country, has a much deeper root that is worthy of consideration. As Dr. Rosenfeld points out, the 18th century was an era of incredible advancement in rational thought, all of which inspired a return to the "glory days" of the Western world's ancient philosophers. Rosenfeld writes:

The 1700s, and particularly the 1770s, were one of the great ages of thinking about common sense and its meaning and function. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, this concept became a staple ingredient of polemical writing of all sorts...By the middle of the eighteenth century, the English phrase "common sense" could be used to mean, at once, a basic ability to form clear perceptions and make elementary judgements about everyday matters; the conventional wisdom born of those common judgements and shared by all sensible people (641).
When seen in this light, Benjamin Franklin's "public religion" and Jefferson's "natural religion" are essentially nothing more than an appeal to the Enlightenment doctrines of common sense. As a result, natural religion, deism, theistic rationalism, etc. are all deeply rooted in a shared "common sense."

Paine's Common Sense, provides ample examples of how Enlightenment common sense was applied to the American call for independence. On numerous occasions, Paine cites the "simple voice of nature and of reason," all of which suggest that the course of independence was right. On another occasion, this same "simple voice of nature" was employed to condemn the motherland for her actions:

The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'TIS TIME TO PART.' Even the distance which the Almighty has placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one, over the other, was never the design of Heaven [my emphasis].
And perhaps the best example of the common sense of Common Sense can be found in Paine's personal ideology of government:

I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be distorted; and the easier repaired when distorted [my emphasis.]
This doctrine of common sense was not exclusively unique to Paine alone. Religious leaders, who were themselves enmeshed in the changes brought on by Enlightenment philosophy, were beginning to turn to a more "common sense" -- i.e. theistic rationalism, deism, unitarianism -- creed. Rosenfeld writes:

Even the Presbyterian thinkers of mid-eighteenth-century Aberdeen used the idea of common sense to partisan advantage, hoping to sway public opinion in one particular direction, especially when it came to religious questions, and away from other. The radical continental Enlightenment forged it into a public weapon. That it sounded objective and indisputable yet popular was the source of its success as an organ of subjective, partisan and always potentially demagogic political action.
The 18th century "common sense" religion of the Enlightenment not only broke the bands of traditional orthodoxy, but also ushered in a commitment to embracing the "natural order" of "nature's God." By looking to a common sense understanding of the world the devotion to religious orthodoxy began to waver at an alarming rate. In conclusion, Dr. Rosenfeld best sums up the doctrine of 18th century common sense when she writes:

With Paine's polemic, then, we see common sense function not only as a foundation for certain knowledge but also a way to undermine what passes for unassailable fact in the present. We see common sense as the corollary of ordinary, commonplace language and simultaneously as a means to cut through the filter of words, especially those that serve to obfuscate or disguise reality. We see common sense as the voice of the peopleas a whole and as the voice of the clear-sighted, prophetic individual who intuits what the people should be able to grasp but cannot alone. And we see common sense mean not only what is common in the here and now but also what is authentical to the common until some later moment in time(653).
Or in other words, the emergence of natural religion, laws of nature, etc.


Tom Van Dyke said...

There's a lot of assertion here but not much argument I can detect, Brad. Yes, Common Sense was very popular in its time, and yes, Thomas Paine was areligious [although one of his cited arguments is the Providential physical distance between Britain and America], but a look at Dr. Rosenfeld's CV shows the alarming disposition of the academy to credit all good things to the Enlightenment.

But ideas of natural law, that of nature and nature's God, were hundreds if not thousands of years old by 1776.

I'm just not getting the there there or the here here.

Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

"But ideas of natural law, that of nature and nature's God, were hundreds if not thousands of years old by 1776."

Yes, you are right. The ideas of natural law were concepts that the ancients understood. However, I think that Dr. Rosenfeld is trying to illustrate that these concepts were quieted during the early years of the Christian church and for the majority of the Middle Ages. It wasn't until the Enlightenment era that such concepts were resurrected.

As for Paine's religion, I agee with you when you point out that even he -- who most consider to be a virtual atheist -- believed in some kind of deity. In my opinion, Paine was not a strict deist.

I have to disagree with you when you state that academics credit all good things to the Enlightment. I have studied under a couple of professors, and read works from others, who would agree with you about the Enlightenment being a "catch-all" or receiving too much attention. On the other hand, I know of historians (Dr. Rosenfeld may be one of them) who believe that the Enlightenment does not receive enough attention. I guess it is all in the eyes of the beholder.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The way I see it the concept of "nature" (that which is discoverable from reason) is quite old -- it traces back to Aristotle. And it has been used in Christendom since at least Aquinas for traditionalist ends. The Enlightenment philosophers took that concept of "nature-reason" and made something subversive out of it. And therein lies the debate, when the FFs spoke of the law of nature and nature's God was it some kind of traditionalist understanding of nature that would perfectly line up with Christian truths. Or was it some kind of theory that ultimately is incompatible with classical and Christian worldviews. This debate is one that still rages and has not been settled by any means.

Brad Hart said...

To be honest, I think that the FF's understanding of the "laws of nature" and "nature's God" were quite similar to those of antiquity. As we have already discussed in the past, the founders had a healthy obsession with the ancients. Enlightenment figures like Jefferson, Montesquieu, Franklin, Locke, etc. poured over the classics, hoping to glean as much as they could from the ancient world.

In addition, most of these same Enlightenment figures strongly disliked the orthodoxy of their day. After all, it was orthodox Christianity that had originally shunned the doctrine surrounding "nature's God." Medieval Christianity was hardly accepting of reason. Instead it exhaled faith and superstition to reason and natural law.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad, the problem arises when "Enlightenment" becomes synonymous with secular and areligious, and yes, I believe the academy has a "disposition" toward crediting it for all good things.

Did the Enlightenment "revive" medieval Christian arguments that were working toward liberty and rights as a function of natural law? I submit the game was on, with or without "Enlightenment" figures.

We start painting with far too broad a brush when "Enlightenment" is synonymous with reason and religion with superstition. See Washington's "Circular to the States," where he indeed credits a turn to liberality of thought away from superstition for America's good fortune, but also the "pure and benign" influence of revelation as its foundation.

As for "common sense," I find Dr. Rosenfeld's arguments unpersuasive if not contradictory. Her use of "conventional" here stands out---"conventional" reflects the status quo: if the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, was a "common sense" in the direction of liberty, it was an idea whose time had come, and the door in America was opened by its distance from the authoritarian mother country [as Paine admits] and also by Protestantism's rejection of clerics as the sole religious authority.

After the revolutions in England of the 1600s, neither church nor king held absolute authority even over their own spheres: politically, parliament and the rule of the people, and theologically, the individual conscience over the clergy were both in. Neither revolution was led by "Enlightenment" figures. The conditions for "common sense" in 1776 were being spawned for generations; Paine and the colonists simply picked up the baton.

Jonathan Rowe said...


A few things about GW's "Circular." You should know that it wasn't written in his own hand; GW rarely invoked revelation making it very hard to pin down his exact thoughts on the Bible (Was it divinely inspired at all? Partially? Or was it infallible? I've concluded he thought it partially inspired.) The Circular is one of only two places in Washington's public writings where he speaks of Jesus by name or example. And the other -- Washington's letter to Delaware Indians -- was also not written in his hand. In none of GW's private writings does he speak of JC by name OR person.

However, I still think the Circular well characterized the "zeitgeist" of the day. Indeed Richard Price praised the document. [On the other hand Washington's proposed Inaugural -- again, not written by him -- that Jared Sparks ripped to fragments, I DON'T think characterized Washington's thoughts or those of the other key FFs; that's why Sparks ripped it up and gave the pieces to his friends for momentos].

Indeed, I quoted from the Circular including the part that said "pure and benign light of Revelation" for my entry on GW in Cato's "Encyclopedia of Libertarianism."

Something to keep in mind: When the unitarians/theistic rationalists praised the Christian religion or the Bible, they tended to use qualifiers like "reasonable," "enlightened," "mild," "tolerating," "benign," "benevolent," etc. I would argue that these qualifiers suggested a theologically liberal or "enlightened" understanding of revelation that was not quite compatible with the harsh orthodoxy of the Calvinists like Jedidiah Morse or Timothy Dwight. The notion that you either accept Jesus as Lord and Savior or burn in Hell is not "benign," "benevolent," "enlightened" or "tolerant." And -- I know this isn't you, but many of the Christian Nation crowd fit this profile -- those who would argue that those enlightenment qualifiers are compatible with their idea of "Christ only" or Hell or prooftexting the Bible, in my opinion, are kidding themselves.

That's one thing I respect about Drs. Frazer/MacArthur and the like: They preach you either accept Christ alone or go to Hell and don't need to twist the words of the FFs to recruit them for the proposition like the late DJ Kennedy did. They understand that you don't call the Word of God "benign" -- certainly not "mild" or "tolerating" [as James Wilson did] else you risk corrupting the authenticity of its message.

Tom Van Dyke said...

No disagreement here, Jon, which is why I opened with the bit about politicians, pay grades and public v. private.

As for me, I don't give a hoot what the various Drs. you mention think about the cosmic salvation scheme, nor Barack Obama for that matter.