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Customer Review

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The right of it, February 19, 2011
This review is from: Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography (Books That Changed the World) (Hardcover)
There couldn't have been a better matchup for a volume in a series called Books that Changed the World than Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Paine. (None of the other pairs so far announced is nearly as good, and, though I have not read it, Karen Armstrong to write about the Bible strikes me as ill-chosen.)

Two Englishmen famous for critical thinking, harking back to the ancient republican traditions of Levellers and Roundheads, drawn to America, sharp of tongue. It's a match made in, well, not heaven, but a good place.

Although subtitled "A Biography," it is more a review of Paine's place, and many innovations, in political thought. The biography is exciting enough. Paine, unlike his adversary Burke, was a freedom fighter, not just a talker; and (like Orwell, who gets the barest mention from Hitchens) one who learned firsthand that revolutions are not for sissies, and that revolutionary rhetoric is subject to power politics no less than the corruptions of the ancien regime.

Americans know Paine as author of "Common Sense," though we don't read it, and we are told about it as if it were not much more than a very effective recruiting speech, and Paine was merely a less sinister version of George Creel. He was, as Hitchens demonstrates, much more.

However, Hitchens as an Englishman (born) and antimonarchist is more interested in "The Rights of Man." "The great achievement of Paine," he says, "was to have introduced the discussion of human rights, and of their concomitant in democracy, to a large and often newly literate popular audience."

And to have stuck by his guns. Paine's ideas evolved through experience, but he never went off the rails the way so many of the American revolutionaries did. Also, he understood (in his late work, "The Age of Reason") that humans had to do it themselves. John Adams, for one, hated Paine for reading god and religion out of politics, and he had fallings out with more liberal revolutionaries like Jefferson, not to mention the French, who would have executed him but for an administrative mistake.

Paine was lucky in having such a Colonel Blimp as Burke as his primary intellectual opponent. Hitchens and Paine both give credit to Burke for his eloquence, but the man was a florid nitwit, and Hitchens and Paine both have great fun with his romantic nonsense. It is the sad case that 21st-century conservatives still admire Burke, just as Catholics still admire Augustine, but reading either leads any sane person to roll his eyes.

Hitchens straightens out the record: Paine was a deist, not an atheist.

I agree with much of what Hitchens says in his inflammatory journalism, but I don't like to read it. His wit is biting but cruel. It is true that the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury does look remarkably like a sheep, and it is funny to read Hitchens call him a "sheep-faced prelate," but it distracts from the message. Williams is a fool not because he looks like a sheep but because he is a fool, and he would still be a fool if he looked like Olivier. Thankfully, Hitchens is on his better behavior in "Thomas Paine and the Rights of Man" (or his editors were curbing him), and there is none of his schoolyard heckling here.

That does not mean that Hitchens does not get his own in. In talking about Paine's views of supernatural beings, Hitchens says "at least he did not think that this creator was a lunatic or a sadist."

Hitchens' admiration for Paine is not uncritical, but it is strong. He notes that Paine's life overlapped, by a few months, those of Darwin and Lincoln (born the same day in 1809): "These two emancipators of humanity -- Darwin the greatest -- were in different ways to complete and round out the arguments that Paine had helped to begin."

He concludes: "In a time when both rights and reason are under several kinds of open and covert attack, the life and writings of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend."
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 21, 2011 10:40:37 AM PDT
writing prof says:
What a pleasure to find a review like this. Thank you.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 21, 2011 11:02:08 AM PDT
Harry Eagar says:
Thanks. Hitchens is such a deft stylist that reading him tends to sharpen my own, I think.
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Review Details



Harry Eagar

Location: Maui

Top Reviewer Ranking: 16,629