Thursday, July 05, 2012

eReadings 18

Common Sense
Thomas Paine

Yes, this is that famous book, a pamphlet really, published in 1776 as the Revolution was taking shape. You know a book is small when you click to the next page and each Kindle page is 1% of the book.

I'll be honest, it's not such an easy read. The language is a little thick, with some unusual words to be sure, but the sentence structure very heavy with clauses and loaded with commas. One might think that this was the English language of the time, which in some respect may be true, but one can read works by Samuel Johnson or Boswell's Life of Johnson and find a very different readability of 18th century English literature. I read Life of Johnson some time ago and found it quite easy reading.

Look at this passage from early on in the book:

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. WHEREFORE, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever FORM thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
It's not that this isn't understandable, but reading page after page like this is certainly tiring. We have a way of getting to a point much quicker these days.

I would have probably stopped reading early on, but then I realized that July 4th was coming up so I persisted. One of the things which struck me in the early pages was that, if one translated to a more modern English, this was basically a rant such as one might read on the internet these days, or perhaps see on some news report. It becomes quite clear that Paine has no good words for monarchy, and in particular King George.

I did appreciate reading first hand some of the concepts that formed our country and its subsequent government, where he talks about creating a land governed by the rule of law rather than the rule of a man. It becomes a bit repetitious, but he sets out to bring up the many objections to the current state of affairs, the possible remedies, with the only sensible one being secession from England and formation of a new country with its own government, and finally that the time was NOW to do these things.

As a reminder of the history of the time, the thoughts of people at the time, this is a very enlightening book. Be prepared for slow reading of this formal 18th century English.

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