Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by Christopher Hitchens Book Review

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This is a biography of one of the founding father’s of America Thomas Paine by a journalist called Christopher Hitchens. To be more precise this is more of a biography of his works rather than a retelling of Paine’s life. Only those events relevant to the texts by Paine and other contemporaries(such as Edmund Burke) and some non-contemporaries are discussed. I have not read any of Mr. Paine’s works so this has served me as an introduction to his works. All that I know about Paine comes from this book, so the character I will discuss here is Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Paine. Paine the emissary, the republican, the revolutionary, the committee member, the deist and opposer to organized religion. I have to confess to have lost the plot once as it is easy to get lost in history when one is met with references to events and people that one is not aware of. Overall it felt like reading a long article whose climax was somewhere in the latter half but even that is better than a forced climax.

It was interesting to read how Paine’s views changed over time especially after he was imprisoned in France (rather than his views themselves) but I couldn’t understand how he could have still being in favour of France and then of the Bonaparte regime even after he had declared himself emperor. It almost felt like his hatred for monarchy had blinded his judgement. I think that the reason that I did not find Paine interesting as Christopher presented him was because I already agreed mostly with Paine’s views are and where I didn’t Christopher didn’t either and it was mainly due to Paine’s overly naive and optimistic views about government and human nature. The most interesting bit of the book was when Christopher briefly in a slight detour from the subject and discussed his views on human nature and human solidarity, I have heard Christopher bring up human solidarity as a source for human morality before but this is the first time I have seen him say that it wasn’t about idealism, altruism or benevolence or in other words that morality is simply born out of necessity, convenience and desire (and that “it hardly matters” if this is selfishness or not).

The back and forth argument between Paine and Edmund Burke constitute the first half of the book. Burke’s argument about chivalry in Europe being undone by evil economists just was ridiculous and it felt that the argument was about who had the better rhetoric skills and Burke overdid his hand with irrelevant romantic twaddle and “misplaced gallantry” about a certain Austrian woman aristocrat in France, Marie Antoinette and King Louis of France. After that it was too easy for Paine to win there. Burke however was vindicated by history as the French revolution degenerated exactly to the military despotism where all dreams of human equality would fly out the window. Christopher then concludes that they were both right in some ways as Paine’s was right about the end of Chivalry and Burke about the French revolution. Though in my opinion Napoleon’s rise is strictly speaking an argument to keep the army totally under the states control and not an argument for the monarchy, as any weakening of the state with or without a monarchy can lead to a power imbalance with an unchecked army. Just look at Thailand and see how the military junta has taken control of the country by worshipping the royal family and in turn worshipping themselves but I digress. Paine however seems to be correct on principles as he rightfully scorns Burke’s notion that the dead should be allowed to rule over the living for any generation let alone forever.

There is a brief discussion about the advantages of having a constitution and indeed I wish we in Britain had a written one too, not leaving the liberty and rights of the people entirely in the hands of trends. A constitution is in fact a better guard against trends than a populist monarchy can ever hope to be. The final part of the book is a recantation of Paine’s anti-organized religion (and therefore anti-Christian) but pro-deist Age Of Reason which according to Christopher acts as a sequel to Rights of Man as well as Paine’s most potent work. Once again the criticism by Paine against religion and the bible seem so obvious and self-evident that it’s boring. That little Irish poem at the end was appropriately placed and Paine’s legacy is present in Christopher Hitchens writing if anywhere else.