Monday, October 7, 2013

Thomas Paine's "The Rights of Man"

I JUST finished reading this really (REALLY) long essay by Thomas Paine, and let me just admit this: I didn't understand a good chunk of it. 

Part of this is due to Paine's essay being a response to Edmund Burke's essay Reflections on the Revolution in France. I haven't read Burke's work, so reading Paine is much like hearing half a conversation and trying to make sense of the whole.  The ever-helpful blurb on the back of the Dover Thrift Edition tells me that Paine was defending the French Revolution, though to my eyes he was mostly using that excuse to criticize British monarchy and aristocracy. 
Along with being ignorant of what Paine was arguing against, I am woefully ignorant of the history of that time. Especially the specific historical details that Paine delves into in Part Two of his essay, referring to English taxes, laws, and politics that went way over my head.

Was this a waste of my time since I didn't understand a lot of it?  I don't think so. No one can expand their reading repertoire if they merely maintain the status quo, if they refuse to leave their comfort zone of literature they DO understand for something they DON'T. When I first began reading "adult" level literature in my teens, I daresay I didn't understand a lot of the nuances or vocabulary, but I learned through immersion and looking up the things I didn't understand. 

So what do I take from Rights of Man? First, that I have a lot of history to brush up on. I've always been more of an Antiquities enthusiast, reading Classical Greek and Roman philosophers, poets, politicians, and playwrights (and other things starting with "P"). When it comes to the history of my own country (and the forces of Europe and other countries that shaped it, for that matter) I have a lot to learn. 

Second, as with any drama or philosophy book I read which I don't quite get a handle on, I must research. Burke is now on my reading-radar of literature to look out for at the library. Maybe once I put the two halves of the conversation together Paine's essay will make more sense. Speaking of Paine*, his Common Sense is also high on my "To Read" goal for this year. 

And what about similar reading material? Contemporaries of Paine and Burke might shed light on the questions that were being asked or argued over during that time period. My stack of nonfiction is topped off by** Alexis de Toqueville's The Old Regime and The French Revolution.

Reading begets more reading.

*Which, yeah, I know I've been doing this entire time.

**Not coincidentally, since I was in the History section of the library and practically cleared out the shelf on the French Revolution. 

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