Student Question

How is Common Sense still revolutionary today in relation to the UN's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights"?

Quick answer:

Paine's Common Sense is still revolutionary because the history of the world has continued to show that some governments and individuals still resist the idea of universal human rights. Paine articulated, in a concise and readable form, the principles of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. But the need for the United Nations to restate, in a more complete form, these principles as recently as the 1940s shows how incomplete their realization throughout history has unfortunately been.

Expert Answers

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Published in 1776, Common Sense had a twofold purpose. Thomas Paine wished to state the reasons that the North American colonies should be separated from Great Britain, but also to lay out, in terms the average person would understand, a general philosophy of government and of social principles that should, in an enlightened world, govern relations among people.

Paine himself, as a representative of the European (and by extension American) Enlightenment, was successful in the sense that the colonies would shortly declare their independence and would found a new country explicitly on principles rather than allowing it to rest on indefinite notions of ancestry, language, and myth like the existing states throughout the world at the time. Paine states that the monarchical form of government in Great Britain is obsolete, since the notion of kingship rests on a belief that all human beings are not free and equal and that people are subject to arbitrary rules governing their behavior and their rights. Yet the new nation conceived in liberty and equality did not follow through on that principle and, despite the progress that genuinely has occurred since then, is still imperfect today. Given the undemocratic governments, wars, brutality, and genocides that have taken place throughout the world in the past 250 years, it would be hard to conclude that anything like universal acceptance of Paine's ideas has actually come about. This is why the United Nations had the need to create its Declaration of Human Rights, especially coming at a time just after the world had seen the most widespread and shocking mayhem in recorded history during World War II. Paine's ideas, though they should be universally accepted, are still rejected by many in both theory and practice. If his prescriptions for government and for the treatment of people had been adopted by everyone, the course of history since 1776 would have been quite different, both in Paine's adopted country, the new United States, and elsewhere in the world.

That said, in one sense Paine's words obviously did not fall on deaf ears. That his ideas were adopted as a goal is significant, even if the goal is imperfectly achieved. Without its founding principles, regardless of their not having been carried out in practice, the United States might never have abolished slavery or made the other changes that have enabled the degree of equality of race, religion, and gender that have been accomplished, even if enormous problems and imperfections still exist. Similarly, throughout the world far fewer people today can view violence, brutality, and violations of human rights with the kind of indifference or even approval common in the past. The history of the world since the American and French Revolutions has been a paradox, encompassing both good and evil, both idealism and the persistence of the old, obsolete notions Paine and others decried two and half centuries ago. The revolution symbolized by his writings is an ongoing one, in which progress is constant but perhaps, unfortunately, the absolute goal will never be fully achieved so long as human weakness is a reality.

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