By: Arjun Verma
Thomas Paine was an American political philosopher famous for his impact and reflections on two of the most important moments in history: the American Revolution and the French Revolution. His conception of government thus can survive the test of time to offer advice for today.
What did Paine believe?
Paine first wrote a pamphlet entitled Common Sense regarding justifications for revolution against the British monarchy in the United States. He was deeply influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment and thus was an advocate for natural equality. This meant that people were equal in worth prior to government and the interests of the people and the interests of the ruling monarch were one and the same.
He believed that monarchs were typically tyrants who only harmed the society they ruled. Even a monarchy that was constrained by a legislature would still be detrimental as they would accumulate power and avoid the checks imposed upon them.
Paine applied these ideals to the American Revolution by claiming that independence is the only way for the American colonists to truly be free. They had to break away from the monarchy in order to avoid its tyranny. His pamphlet was enormously influential in persuading the public to support independence.
Likewise, during his analysis of the French Revolution, Paine relied on his belief of equality to argue that the previous monarchy had been despotic. Paine held a steadfast belief that government should be by the people, and thus the hereditary model that had been present in France previously was illegitimate and unjust.
Additionally, Paine expands on his belief that government was intended to secure the rights of the people by defending a right to welfare for those in need. He wished for redirecting military funds to the poor and improving access to education and other opportunities.
How can his philosophy be applied today?
Paine’s philosophical viewpoint might seem irrelevant in an age where democracy has become ubiquitous in the Western world, yet it does still offer some guidance on improving on its fundamental values.
First, his opposition of hereditary monarchy was grounded in the fact that wisdom and intelligence are not merely inherited. Therefore, it reminds us that democracy should not be corrupted by money and other factors that do not necessarily correlate to being a suitable politician. Instead, people with the talents and ideas to help the society should be more likely to govern effectively. As a result, working against corruption and other perverse influences can help improve modern democracy.
Second, Paine was a strong proponent of natural rights. This belief is a reminder that people have worth independent of how the law or society treats them. In a world with police violence and unequal treatment under the law, a return to natural rights can be beneficial as a mindset shift. This would reinforce the fundamental belief that everyone is deserving of equal liberty no matter their background.
Overall, Thomas Paine’s words during the 18th century were influential for a reason: they are important words of advice during pivotal times for democracy, equality, and liberty.
Arjun is a current high school junior. He is a captain of his high school's Lincoln Douglas debate team.
I am an undergraduate student who's fascinated by anything related to philosophy. I hope to show you how philosophy can apply to everyday life! Check out my Youtube Channel, Philosophy in Context.