Americans have long thought of themselves as a pragmatic people who from their earliest history have met any challenge thrown their way. Or at least, that is the story we have told ourselves since well before Thomas Paine penned his pamphlet Common Sense (1776). Ironically, it is not hard to find evidence that Americans are anything but a rational people. To be fair to the citizens of the U.S., other members of our species on the planet do not exhibit any more common sense than we do and some are even more irrational then we are. This should cause us a great deal of anxiety, which it does, but we for the most part, stick our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t see what is happening in the Global Village. The ostrich rather than the golden eagle should be our national symbol.
Tom Paine, influenced by the “sensible” Enlightenment philosophers, was a political theorist, propagandist, revolutionary and no mean philosopher himself. One of his more profound insights was that of the guaranteed national income that is only now being seriously touted by some 21st century American economists. That common-sense policy has little chance in the U.S. although other nations that are both more pragmatic and more liberal than we Americans are finding it makes common sense.
Another of Paine’s several “common sense” ideas was found in an article he wrote in Philadelphia in 1774 entitled “Justice and Humanity,” denouncing the African slave trade which the U.S. abolished in 1808.
Two more insights that Paine had back then are still controversial today. As a Deist, he was opposed to organized religion and he also felt that capitalism and property ownership promoted inequality. He would undoubtedly be disappointed to see centuries after his death that there is a vast inequity between the infamous 10% in America and the rest of us. America is clearly headed in the wrong direction.
Although Paine revealed a number of nonsensical human behaviors in his books and pamphlets, he did not foresee perhaps the most potentially catastrophic of them all. President John F. Kennedy in a speech during the Cold War in 1961 observed that everyone in America lived under a nuclear sword of Damocles. The possibility of a post holocaust nuclear winter has never gone away and the bellicose behavior of North Korea’s Kim Jung Un has begun to disturb the American ostrich again of late.
Graham Allison comments in a review of Daniel Ellsberg’s recent book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, in which Ellsberg, in the tradition of Thomas Paine, calls upon the common sense of the American people. “And his inability to describe a feasible way to eliminate nuclear dangers does not distinguish him from scores of others who have also been trying to rethink the unthinkable.” (1)
Common sense is not unattainable for members of our species but even the likes of Thomas Paine, John F. Kennedy and Daniel Ellsberg would not qualify for inclusion in the Common Sense Thinkers Hall of Fame. Who are the people in that museum and what are their “common sense” insights? Click on the following link to find out.
Insight # 19: Greece respected wisdom as India respected holiness, as Renaissance Italy respected artistic genius, as young America naturally respects economic enterprise. Will Durant
- Allison, Graham. “Unnecessary Evils.” The New York Times Book Review. December 31, 2017, page 18.