'Rights of man' - Thomas Paine's response to Edmund Burke's 'Reflections on the Revolution in France'. The book is divided into two parts.
In part 1, Paine starts with explaining the rights of individuals, the distinction between natural rights and civil rights, how every civil right is derived over a natural right and that these civil rights should not invade the natural right of the individuals.
He goes on to explain the evil of aristocratic or hereditary Government and how despotism is not restricted only to the Kings but also spreads all the way to the end of the system. Paine's Government is a system elected by the people and not the one formed arbitrarily. Paine's idea is that any Government principles and policies should be built over a strong Constitution like the one proposed by Marquis de La Fayette in the French National Assembly: 'The Declaration of the rights of Man and of Citizens' .
In a separate section Paine also provides his observation on these fundamental rights and explains how the below first three declarations form the basis for the rest.
- Men are born, and always continue, free, and equal in respect of their rights.Civil distinctions, therefor, can be founded only on public utility.
- The end of all political associations, is, the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty,property,security, and resistance of oppression.
- The nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any INDIVIDUAL, or ANY BODY OF MEN, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it.
Complete list here.
Though the book was written in simple direct language, it was not easy to comprehend without any background on the French Revolution and history of France. Besides this, as the book itself being a response to Burke's book, it was difficult to understand the context having not read Burke's.
Nevertheless one can still understand the core thought of Paine from his quote in the very first page of the book: "Society is in every state a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil"
Paine believes that Government,Tax and War are interrelated. The tax collected in the name of war is actually the revenue collected for the Government as the primary revenue for the Government is from tax. To Quote Paine:
"Whatever is the cause of taxes to a Nation, becomes also the means of revenue to a Government. Every war terminates with an addition of taxes, and consequently with an addition of revenue;" (pp:93)
Through his response to Burke, Paine covers some of the prominent issues prevailed during the French Revolution and the necessity for not only the French Revolution but also the earlier American Revolution.
Its been 200 years since this book was written, but many of his thoughts are still relevant, especially the ones on individual rights and Government.
"As war is the system of Government on the old construction, the animosity which Nations reciprocally entertain, is nothing more than what the policy of their Governments excites, to keep up the spirit of the system. Each Government accuses the other of perfidy, intrigue, and ambition, as a means of heating the imagination of their respective Nations, and incensing them to hostilities. Man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of Government. Instead, therefore, of exclaiming against the ambition of Kings,the exclamation should be directed against the principle of such Governments; and instead of seeking to reform the individual, the wisdom of the Nation should apply itself to reform the system." (pp:93)
My favorite one was about Ignorance:
"Ignorance is of a peculiar nature: and once dispelled, its impossible to re-establish it. It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he can not be made ignorant. The mind in discovering truth, acts in the same manner as it acts through the eye in discovering objects; when once any object has been seen, it is impossible to put the mind back to the same condition it was in before it saw it." (pp72)
This reminds me of what Michael Sandel had said :"Self knowledge is like lost innocence. However unsettling you find it, it can never be unthought or unknown."
Overall, part 1 of the book could make an interesting read for some one with the background of the French Revolution and has read Burke's Reflection. Otherwise the book might excite only at places, but still there is enough food for thought.