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Thomas Paine Priority Of The Present Notes

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*Cross-reference - PO201 Edmund Burke & Historical Legitimacy // PO219 Environmental Politics & Green Theory


1. 'Paine's claim that every generation must be as free to act as the previous generation neglects the freedom of subsequent generations'. Do you agree? [2015]
Is Paine's argument for the 'priority of the present' coherent? [2016, 2014]

2. 'Paine tried to combine liberal rights and republican civic virtue'. Discuss. [2017]

3. On what basis did Paine argue for popular sovereignty? [2013]
Is it fail to call Paine a populist?

4. How far is Paine's Rights of Man appropriately understood as an answer to Burke's Reflections?

'The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grace is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies'.
'Those who have quitted the world, and those who have not yet arrived in it, are as remote from each other as the utmost stretch of moral imagination can conceive. What possible obligations then can exist between them? What rule or principle can be laid down, that two nonentities - the one out of existence, and the other not in, and who never can meet in this world - that the one should control the other to the end of time?'
'The science of government ought, therefore, to be a science of principles... and these principles are accessible to the reason of every rational individual'.
'To render monarchy consistent with government, the next in succession should not be born a child, but a man at once,
and that man a Solomon. It is ridiculous that nations are to wait and government be interrupted till boys grow to be men'.
'[A republic] places government in a state of constant maturity... It is subject to neither nonage, nor dotage. It is never in the cradle, nor on crutches'.
'A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government; and government without constitution is power without a right'.

Burke's scathing attack on the French Revolution in Reflections (1790) prompted England-born American political activist
Thomas Paine to write Rights of Man in 1791. In this fiery exchange, we see - perhaps for the first time - a self-conscious,
systematic and public theoretical articulation of two competing ethics: an older ethic of stewardship* and a newer ethic of individualism.
Questions about the relation between generations and the sway our political past holds over our future, lies at the crux of this debate and indeed, of the modern mentalité itself.

Paine dismissed 'the vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave - i.e. Burke's intergenerational contract -
[as] the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies... [for generations] are as remote from each other as the utmost stretch of moral imagination can conceive'. Echoing Jefferson's claim that 'the earth belongs in usufruct to the living',
natural rights were exclusive to the present generation since only they could benefit/suffer from rights-related affairs;
unencumbered by the dead (via constitution, tradition) or the unborn.
A megaphone for the Enlightenment project, Paine believed that our freedom/capacity to examine, critique and redress political blunders was vital for the advancement of society. Each generation has the opportunity -
and responsibility - to begin the world anew, especially when said world fails to safeguard the 'rights of man'.

In his letter to John Monticello (1813), Paine likened each generation to a 'sovereign nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country'.

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