From Publishers Weekly
Thomas Paine's critique of monarchy and introduction of the concept of human rights influenced both the French and the American revolutions, argues Vanity Fair
contributor and bestselling author Hitchens (God Is Not Great
) in this incisive addition to the Books That Changed the World series. Paine's ideas even influenced later independence movements among the Irish, Scots and Welsh. In this lucid assessment, Hitchens notes that in addition to Common Sense'
s influence on Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, Paine wrote in unadorned prose that ordinary people could understand. Hitchens reads Paine's rejection of the ministrations of clergy in his dying moments as an instance of his unyielding commitment to the cause of rights and reason. But Hitchens also takes Paine to task for appealing to an idealized state of nature, a rhetorical move that, Hitchens charges, posits either a mythical past or an unattainable future and, Hitchens avers, disordered the radical tradition thereafter. Hitchens writes in characteristically energetic prose, and his aversion to religion is in evidence, too. Young Paine found his mother's Anglican orthodoxy noxious, Hitchens notes: Freethinking has good reason to be grateful to Mrs Paine. (Sept.)
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Hitchens' sprightly Books That Changed the World volume arrives fortuitously, while his atheist screed God Is Not Great (2007) rides high on American best-seller lists. For Paine, though not precisely atheist (he was a deist), contributed vitally to nonbelief through his logical, materialist rejection of biblical literalism. Hitchens inserts scraps of Paine's religious criticism into an appreciation that primarily stresses Paine's advocacy of antimonarchical revolution and constitutional republicanism. Paine's most practically influential writing was the pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which inspired the American Revolution, but Rights of Man (179192) is his greatest work. It is largely a reply to Edmund Burke's severely critical Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and Hitchens discusses it as such, giving Burke his due but affirming Paine's greater liberalism and demonstrating his more accessible and engaging literary style. Though Hitchens eschews discussion of rights per se, including Paine's definition of them, he refreshingly notes his hero's great shortcoming: he didn't see that ideologically driven revolution would lead to tyranny. Olson, Ray