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Thursday, December 3, 2009

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.

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