Saturday, June 28, 2014

Common Sense and the Passionate Rhetoric of Reason

          Thomas Paine is rightly judged to be an heir and contributor to eighteenth century Enlightenment thought.  Paine followed the tradition of  rational inquiry laid out by Voltaire, Kant, Hobbs, and Locke, and often enjoyed the respect of contemporary political, scientific, and philosophical luminaries such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Burke.  He boldly dedicated himself to exploring the political and religious implications of reason and logic.  As he writes in the dedication to The Age of Reason, “The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason.  I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall” (351).   In The Rights of Man, when he wished to pin Edmund Burke into an inescapable corner, he concludes, “Is this the language of a rational man?  Is it the language of a heart feeling as it ought to feel for the rights and happiness of the human race?” 147).  In Common Sense, when concluding that the colonies should separate themselves from England, he writes, “It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages, to suppose that this continent can longer remain subject to any external power” (29).  Without question, Thomas Paine was a skillful devotee to the cause of reason.  Like other Enlightenment thinkers, he was willing to ask questions and follow a line of reasoning to its logical conclusions without regard to public reaction.  His years of poverty and isolation following his support of the French Revolution and his criticism of the Christian religion attest to that.  However, I think it is worth noting that Paine’s statement, “I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall,” is not entirely accurate. While Paine was dedicated to reason and rational argumentation, he was also a passionate communicator and was not above employing rhetorical tricks to move his readers.  In this paper, I will examine a few such instances in Common Sense.
            Historians generally agree that Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense changed the direction and manner of the political discussion in the American colonies.  He “not only exculpated the existing debate, but also called for a wholesale revision of the assumptions upon which that debate had been based”  (Liell 63).  For example, in one short year, from July 1775 to July 1776, the Continental Congress moved from expressing their desire to remain, peaceably, as British subjects to declaring their independence.  Between these two events was the publication of Common Sense.   Thomas Paine estimated that over 120,000 copies of Common Sense were sold.  One assumes that as a brief, inexpensive publication, its reach was much broader with each copy read by several citizens. Its success even provoked John Adams to express his dismay.  Adams substantially agreed with most of Paine’s arguments claiming, in fact, that he had expressed them previously in various settings.  Eric Forner writes, quoting Adams, “Its discussion of that subject, [Adams] insisted, was simply ‘a tolerable summary of the arguments which I have been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months’” (79).  Yet what Adams seemed most disturbed by was the power of the language Paine was able to marshal, which Adams described as phrases ‘suitable for an emigrant from New Gate, or one who had chiefly associated with such company” (qtd. in Forner 82). 
            Paine’s central argument is, of course, that the colonies should declare their independence from Britain.  He structures his argument and provides the bulk of its support rationally and logically, which is what he means in this case by “common sense.” However, Paine was certainly no classicist. In fact, David C. Hoffman concluded,
We may admire Paine as much as we wish for his independent thought and courage, for his luminous prose style, and for his practical contributions to the American and French Revolutions.  But there is no use in trying to make him a classicist in any sense of the words, for he is not.” (380)
That being said, Paine does an admirable job of adapting the classical structure of argumentation for his own purposes.  Rather than following the prescribed order of Introduction-Thesis-Background-Supporting Facts and Evidence-Refutation of Opposing Arguments-Conclusion, Paine leads his reader inductively through the gauntlet of established objections to American independence beginning with the first paragraph in which he extols the importance of naturally occurring “society” and decries the unpleaseantness of restrictive, punishing  “government.”    
It is not my purpose here to repeat his line of argument, which is as thorough as it is subtle.  Paine has to accomplish a great deal in a relatively brief publication, including separating the concepts of “society” from “government,” dislodging loyalties to the aristocracy and monarchy, demonizing hereditary rule, bonding the individual colonies to each other while separating their affections toward Britain, and illustrating the native strength of the colonies.  Rather it is to point out that throughout his essay, Paine employs the techniques of Pathos, or the use of emotion to spice and enhance the structural Logos of this argument. While the use of Pathos increases as the essay progresses, this early statement illustrates Paine’s skill.
I know it difficult to get over local or long standing prejudices, yet if we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new republican materials. (68)
Here, in one sentence, Paine encourages his readers to open their minds to new information and dispassionate reason, introduces an objective classification system, then nails two of three alternatives with a powerfully negative word choice.  He uses 46 words, and only one, “tyrannies,” emotionally charged.  It is an effective technique:  reason prevails but the emotions are engaged. 
            Another technique that I would argue supplies Logos and Pathos is Paine’s aphoristic style.  Throughout Common Sense, Paine enhances his long and complicated series of arguments with pithy, memorable proverb-like statements.  A few examples will illustrate the technique.
  • ·      Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.  (65)
  • ·      As a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge a wife, so any prepossession in favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.  (71)
  • ·      [Hereditary right] is one of those evils, which when once established is not easily removed; many submit from fear, others from superstition, and the more powerful part shares with the king the plunder of the rest.  (77)
  • ·      To talk of friendship with those in whom our reason forbids us to have faith, and our affections wounded through a thousand pores instruct us to detest, is madness and folly.  (99)
  • ·      Youth is the seedtime of good habits, as well in nations, as in individuals.  (107-108)
  • ·      Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society.  (109)

While rational, these statements also combine common sense with emotional satisfaction.  Stylistically they punctuate an argument with an undeniable truth.  They provide a moment of rational contemplation, but they also provide a moment of aesthetic appreciation at the ability of language to capture one’s knowledge and wisdom succinctly. Facts and analyses of cause and effect are useful, but a well-phrased summation of human behavior is a thing of beauty, and thus emotionally pleasing.
            Another method that Paine employs to engage his readers’ emotions is a judicial use of figurative language.  Paine’s use of emotionally charged literal language, such as his use of “tyrannies” is effective in engaging his readers’ emotions.  His use of figurative language is more so.   Paine is particularly fond of metonymy, the use of a word to evoke a wider range of symbolic or associated meanings.  Perhaps the most well-known of these is Paine’s statement, “[I]t is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of hereditary right:  if there are any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the ass and the lion, and welcome”  (76).  Here, Paine actually employs several emotional appeals, including attacks on an opponent’s strength and moral steadfastness, but his use of “ass” and “lion” illustrates the linguistic shorthand that charges an otherwise rational argument with emotion. Paine could have substituted “weak” and “strong” respectively, but those perfectly accurate words would not have provided the emotional complexity Paine creates by alluding to natural, Biblical, and historical understanding of the terms.  
            Paine also uses a somewhat complicated extended metaphor that is greatly charged with emotional power, that of the parents and family.  When Paine introduces the analogy, it is in the context of the section titled “Thoughts on the present state of American affairs,” but he extends it for much of the rest of the essay.  He writes, “But Britain is the parent country, some say.  Then the more shame upon her conduct.  Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families” (84).  One should notice the pronoun here:  “her,” the feminine.  “Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster”  (84).  By this point in the argument, the moment where he wants to paint the Colonial situation as dire and ripe for action, Paine is more or less habitually turning to emotionally charged ad hominem, insulting language:  “brutes,” “savages,” and “monster.”
            But a few pages later, when Paine employs the parental analogy again, he assigns the colonists the loving parental role:  “As parents, we can have no joy, in knowing that this government is not sufficiently lasting to ensure any thing which we may bequeath to posterity”  (87).  This is an strange switch in tactics but an effective one.  Paine can rely on his readers’ general view of what loving parents are and how they behave toward children.  In relatively few paragraphs, Paine has defined Britain as a bad parent, and assumed the colonists to be good parents.  It won’t be long, therefore, until the analogy makes clear that the it is time for the colonists to be their own parents.  Before that occurs, however, Paine extends his readers’ devotion for good parenting to a compassionate regard for other fellow families and citizens who have suffered at the hands of the British.  Essentially, he re-envisions the Colonies as one family.
Hath your house been burnt?  Hath your property been destroyed before your face?  Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on?  Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor?  If you have not, then you are not a judge of those who have.  But if you have, and still can shake hands with the murderers, then you are unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.” (89)
In this extraordinary passage, Paine doubles his use emotional appeals, first by moving his readers with calls to sorrow and personal loss, then by cornering the opposition by insulting their honor, loyalty, and family affection. 
            In just a few more pages, he delivers the final blow of rejecting any affection toward the King of England, again utilizing the family analogy.  Paine admits that before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, he was hoping for some reconciliation.  After that battle, “I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England for ever; and disdain the wretch, that with the pretended title of FATHER OF HIS PEOPLE can unfeelingly hear of their slaughter, and composedly sleep with their blood upon his soul”  (92).  First, we notice the repeat of his ad hominem attacks using allusion and insults:  “Pharaoh” and “wretch.”  “Pharaoh” layers the argument with connections to the oppression of the Jews, which Paine had introduced in the early portions of the essay with God’s sorrow over the Jews’ desire to have a king (73-76).  Next, we shudder at the images of “slaughter” and “blood.”  But in the center, in capital letters, again Paine employs the family metaphor.  This time the oppressor becomes male, the father.  By this point in the argument, we can see how brilliantly Thomas Paine spices his complicated, but rational argument for American independence.  Would Paine’s treatise have been as popular and effective without his use of rhetorical devices that enhance the emotional appeal?
            Before closing, I would like to highlight how artfully Paine adapted his analogy of the family.  We have already seen how Britain has become the bad parent—both bad mother and bad father—of the Colonies.  We have seen how American citizens are good parents wishing to protect their children from harm and extending their familial sympathies to others.  In the fourth section of his essay, Paine asks his readers to become, essentially in democratic fashion, the loving and protective parents to an infant nation. “The infant state of the Colonies, as it is called, so far from being against, is an argument in favor of independence” (107).  Here Paine turns the metaphor upside down, in that as an infant state, the Colonies are not helpless.  They are in a position to grow straight and strong and uncorrupted:  “Youth is the seed time of good habits”  (107).  Paine is saying that America is young, and we as good citizens, as loving parents, can help it grow strong and responsive to generations to come.  His argument leads to another of his aphorisms:  “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember, that virtue is not hereditary” (110).
            In his essay examining how Thomas Paine employs the concept of “prejudice” in Common Sense, David C. Hoffman emphasizes that the concept, in Paine’s time, named kind of thoughtless pre-rational, pre-judgment of situations.  Paine often portrays those who would oppose American independence as people who just haven’t reflected on the matter thoroughly enough.  However, as contemporaries such as John Adams realized Thomas Paine did not merely rely on a rational, logical presentation of pros and cons of independence, meant to persuade a dispassionate audience.  Paine, despite his assertions otherwise, also relied on emotional trickery through argumentation appealing to pathos.  These techniques, as much as reason, were just as important in creating the groundswell of popular support for independence.     

Works Cited
Aldridge, A. Owen.  “Thomas Paine and the Classics.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies
1:4 (Summer 1968):  370-380.  JSTOR <
Accessed 17/06/2014.
Foner, Eric.  Tom Paine and Revolutionary America.  London:  Oxford UP.  1977.
Fruchtman, Jack Jr.  Thomas Paine:  Apostle of Freedom.  New York:  Four Walls
Eight Windows.  1994.
Hoffman, David C.  “Paine and Prejudice:  Rhetorical Leadership through Perceptual Framing
 in Common Sense.  Rhetoric and Public Affairs.  9:3 (2006): 373-410.  ProQuest
Accessed 17/6/2014.
Liell, Scott.  46 Pages:  Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence.
              Philadelphia:  Running Press.  2003.
Paine, Thomas.  The Age of Reason, Part One (Selections).   Common Sense, Rights of
Man, and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine.  New York:  Signet Classics.
2003:  351-370.
------------.  Common Sense.  Ed.  Isaaac Kramnick.  London:  Penguin. 1986.
-----------.  Rights of Man.  Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings
of Thomas Paine.  New York:  Signet Classics. 2003.  129-35

Soundtrack.  John Prine:  "Common Sense."

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