Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine!

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Let’s remember and salute the great Thomas Paine, father of our American identity, on his birthday. Born on January 29th, 1737, this British-American expatriate, a former entrepreneur and corset-maker, became one of the pre-eminent political and humanist writers in the Enlightenment tradition. He wrote brilliantly in language readily understood by readers from all walks of life yet long studied by and widely influential to scholars and other authors, from wildly popular pamphlets which the case for American independence from Britain, to books and short works centered on his John Locke-inspired conception of human rights. He argued for the primacy of reason in epistemology, politics, science, and theology. Paine is a primary influence in my own concept of America as ever a work-in-progress bastion of liberty, of reason, of freedom of conscience, of the idea that the establishment of property rights entails the obligation to share the wealth with those who lack what they need to live.

Here are a few links to some articles and works of art by, about, and inspired by Thomas Paine, including some of my own work:

Common Sense – Thomas Paine (1776)

The American Crisis – Thomas Paine (1776-83)

The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine (1791)

The Age of Reason – Thomas Paine (1794)

Agrarian Justice – Thomas Paine (1795-96)

Thomas Paine – from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson – history of ideas travel series in which I follow Thomas Paine’s life and ideas in the era of the French Revolution

Thomas Paine on Basic Income, and Why Welfare is Compatible with an Individualist Theory of Human Rights – my essay on how Paine’s ideas about property rights led him to advocate the unconditional allocation of public funds for the support of the young, the old, and the disabled

Pretty Pink Rose – David Bowie and Adrian Belew (1990) – ‘She tore down Paris on the tail of Tom Paine, but the left wing’s broken, the right’s insane’

As I Went Out One Morning – Bob Dylan (1968) ‘As I went out one morning to breathe the air around Tom Paine’s, I spied the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains’

Tom Paine’s Bones – Graham Moore (1995) Recorded by Dick Gaughan in 2001. ‘Well they say I preached revolution but let me say in my defence, all I did wherever I went was to talk a lot of Common Sense’

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Helvétius!

Claude-Adrien Helvétius, born on January 26th, 1715, is often credited with being a father of utilitarianism, or at least, for planting its philosophical seeds. Also an uncommonly egalitarian thinker for his time and place, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, perhaps filled with a tincture of some sort from time to time: Helvétius was the son and grandson of very wealthy physicians who ministered to royalty. Through these connections, Helvétius was appointed to a lucrative post as a tax collector and grew very wealthy when he was relatively young. By the time he was thirty-six and newly married, Helvétius had tired of courtly life, and retired to a country estate to take up a life of letters and scholarship.

The first published fruit of his study and writing was his famous philosophical work De l’esprit (Of the Mind). After it came out in 1758, it created an uproar at the University of Paris, among the clergy, among other philosophers, and at the court; on more than one occasion, it was publicly burned. To keep himself out of trouble, Helvétius was forced to publicly renounce the book. But as it is with so many things, all the controversy sparked intense public interest, and De l’esprit became one of the most widely read books of his time. And what exactly was it about the book that caused so much consternation? Salonnière, intellectual, and consummate letter-writer Madam du Deffand quipped that this was due to Helvétius putting into writing what everyone was already secretly thinking but not allowed to say.

More specifically, Helvétius’ controversial ideas include the notion that all animals, human beings included, form their mentalities from sensation and experience (thereby implicitly challenging religious concepts of the soul); that all actions we call right or just, wrong or unjust are ultimately the result of self-interest (though self-interest is so often bound up with our conception of ourselves as part of larger groups, such as nations, religious communities, tribes, and so on, so that self-interest and the interests of others can become virtually indistinguishable); that the passions are both the ultimate disguisers of truth while simultaneously providing the necessary drive to seek it at all; and that all human motivation consists of seeking the most pleasure and avoiding the most pain. The latter is a central tenet, in some form or another, of utilitarianism, and was developed into more comprehensive philosophical and ethical systems by those fathers of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Helvétius also had a theory of education and human aptitude that’s refreshingly egalitarian to modern sensibilities. He believed that everyone is just as capable of great learning and achievements, but that the only reasons people don’t equally achieve are either because they don’t care to, or because they were not taught well. While Helvétius did not have the benefit of later studies in psychology and the social sciences which reveal the picture to be more complicated than that, he did make the case that everyone could and should be able to develop themselves according to their interests and potential, and that the positive transformative power of education for individuals and societies is nearly boundless.

After Helvétius’ death on December 26, 1771, his widow, Anne-Catherine, never remarried. She spent much of her time hosting a famous salon; some years ago, I visited the place where she welcomed the erudition, wit, and flirtation of Benjamin Franklin (who was a special friend and admirer), Thomas Jefferson, Condorcet, Napoléon, and other luminaries, and shocked John and Abigail Adams.

Learn more about the sophisticated, free-thinking, and well-read Helvétius at

Claude-Adrien Helvétius ~ NNDB

Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715—1771) ~ the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715 – 71) ~ by David Pearce for Utilitarianism.com

Claude-Adrien Helvétius: French PhilosopherEncyclopaedia Britannica

Enlightenment ~ by William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Helvétius appears in sect 2.2, ‘Ethical Theory‘)

Grand Illusions ~ Claude-Adrien Helvétius on passion blinders, republished in Lapham’s Quarterly

Madame Helvétius and Ben Franklin ~ at Rodama: A Blog of 18th Century & Revolutionary French Trivia

Salonnière Madame Helvétius ~ by Kristen O’Brien for The Salonnière blog

See also the works by Helvétius available online at the Internet Archive

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze!

Study of an African’s Head, 1830 by Paul-Jean Flandron, Seattle Art Museum. I could not find a portrait of Dr. Eze that I could share, so I chose this powerful portrait instead, with which I illustrated another guest-hosted piece by Dag Herbjørnsrud, which describes the ideas of the 17th-century Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob. Eze also studied Yacob’s ideas.

Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, born in Nigeria on January 18th, 1963, made a deep study of systems of thought in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Born of Catholic parents, he was educated in Jesuit colleges and universities. He mined philosophy and intellectual history from across the globe, widely and deeply. He particularly focused  on postcolonial thought in Africa and the Americas, and rejected attempts to relegate tools of thought to people of one culture or another. Instead, he emphasized the importance of difference and complexity in the practice of reason.

Learn more about Dr. Eze’s broad and rigorous approach to thought:

About Dr. Eze and his book On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism ~ Duke University Press

African Philosophy at the Turn of the Millennium ~  Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze in dialogue with Rick Lewis

Book review: Achieving our Humanity: The Ideal of the Postracial Future by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze ~ by Cleavis Headley and Kibujjo M. Kalumba

The Color of Reason: The Idea of “Race” in Kant’s Anthropology ~ by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze

A Defence of Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze’s Conception of Reason ~ by Mohammed Xolile Ntshangase

Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze ~ in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia 

Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, 1963-2007: A Personal Reflection ~ by Bruce B. Janz

Philosophia Africana ~ archive of the journal Dr. Eze edited and often published in at the Philosophy Documentation Center

Reading Reason with Emmanuel Eze ~ by John Pittman

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Feminist, Abolitionist, Immigrant, Socialist, Atheist, Jew: The Extraordinary Ernestine Rose, Human Rights Activist

5e5b1-ernestinerose2b1In honor of Ernestine Louise Rose on the anniversary of her birth, January 13th, 1810 

Why such a title, you might ask? Feminist. Abolitionist. Immigrant. Socialist. Atheist. Jew. A series of epithets in Rose’s day, they’re still too often used as such. Why be so provocative?

In her life as an activist and orator, Ernestine Rose wasn’t deliberately provocative in any shock-factor sort of way. She wore modest black, gray, and brown dresses, never the bloomers (puffy pants worn under short skirts) that the more ‘radical’ feminists adopted; she never railed against individual capitalists or slaveholders as evil oppressors; she was openly happy in her traditional-style marriage; and while she was not hesitant to respond abruptly, wittily, even sarcastically to insults and bad arguments, she was not given to preemptive personal attacks or calls for violence. Yet in a time when women stayed at home when not accompanied in public by chaperones, she traveled often and often alone; when women were expected to be demure and silent in public, she was a witty, incisive, passionate, and famous public speaker; when most women accepted their assigned roles, she argued and fought for their rights; when slavery was still widely considered acceptable or at a necessary evil, she worked for their emancipation; when many or even most of her fellow feminists did not consider the races and classes equal, she argued that all people should have the same political and social rights; when hierarchical class systems were considered a law of nature, she argued for economic equality; when most people were religious, she was an unapologetic atheist; in an insular and xenophobic Protestant Christian country, she was a cosmopolitan foreigner of Jewish ancestry.

In short, Ernestine was just about as much of an outsider as one could be. Save being black, disabled, gay, or a single woman, she could hardly have belonged simultaneously to more of the marginalized groups of her day, yet even these found in her a champion as well. Feminist, Abolitionist, Immigrant, Socialist, Atheist, Jew can goad us into considering anew why and how these labels are simultaneously uncomfortable reminders of the persistence of prejudice, and remind us that they’re really badges of honor for passionate believers in universal human freedom.

3a25c-ernestine2broseIn spite of many obstacles, Ernestine Rose was a renowned public speaker and debater in her own time, and especially acclaimed for her role among the preeminent leaders of the feminist movement. The abolitionist, socialist, pro-immigrant, Jewish, freethinker, and Paineite (devotees to the life and ideas of Thomas Paine, who had become a target of hatred and slander due to his freethought views) communities also benefited from her staunch and tireless work on their behalf. She was widely praised as an orator, her style described as ‘powerful’, ‘eloquent’, ‘intelligent’, and ‘dignified’, and often sold out even the largest halls. When travel plans or one of her many bouts of serious illness kept her from speaking at conventions and other public events, organizers would worry about the possibility of success without her participation. Yet now she is virtually forgotten, more so than just about any other feminist or abolitionist of the time with her level of fame. How did this come to be?

It was, for Rose, a very similar situation as it was for her hero Thomas Paine, hailed as a father of the American Revolution who wrote Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Both of these great advocates of universal human rights had ideas that were simply too innovative, too outlandish, too challenging for widespread and sustained acceptance. Both inspired great admiration and achieved widespread fame for their abilities and achievements during their lifetime, but after the initial thrill of their progressive ideals wore off, conservative fearmongering that Rose’s and Paine’s ideas would undermine civilized society won the day. Successive generations would come to pick out what they liked from their work and enjoy the benefits, while vilifying Rose and Paine as radicals, corrupters of public morality, and would-be destroyers of civilization.

It’s only within the last fifty years or so that Paine’s reputation (Theodore Roosevelt still referred to him as a ‘filthy little atheist’) has been fully rehabilitated, his contributions widely celebrated. For Ernestine Rose, unjustly in my view, this hasn’t happened. Paine has the advantage of having been a white man, a friend of many of the Founding Fathers of the United States, a believer in free markets, and a deist. For Rose, a woman, a Jew, an atheist, and a socialist, the remnants of bigotry that she so eloquently called on us to overcome still cast a shadow over public memory, as the light of history belatedly re-illuminates the life and work of this extraordinary woman.

To learn more about the great Ernestine Rose, please check out:

About Ernestine Rose ~ by the Ernestine Rose Society at Brandeis University

Ernestine Louise Rose (1810-1892) ~ by the American Jewish Historical Society via the Jewish Virtual Library

Ernestine Rose, 1810-1892 ~ by Janet Freedman for the Jewish Women’s Archive

Ernestine Rose: American Social Reformer ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Forgotten Feminisms: Ernestine Rose, Free Radical ~ by Judith Shulevitz for the New York Review of Books’ NYR Daily

Interview with Bonnie Anderson, Author of The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer ~ by the New Books Network

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Review: Nancy’s Philosopher

Last night, I attended the one-woman play Nancy’s Philosopher starring the lovely and expressive Kelly Burke, written by David Black.

Through one side of an exchange between Nancy Ord, daughter of Robert Ord, Chief Baron of the Scottish Exchequer, and an unseen and unheard Angus, physician’s assistant, we learn about the social circle in Edinburgh’s well-heeled, sophisticated New Town scene, in which the Ords, James Boswell, Benjamin Franklin, Robert AdamJean Jacques Rousseau, and the great Enlightenment philosopher David Hume make their appearances. And through a series of anecdotes, we learn of Nancy’s growing love for the much older, much rounder, and controversial skeptic Hume.

This play is a history and a love letter all in one, and reveals as much about the admiration of the playwright for Nancy’s beloved as it does hers. I won’t offer any spoilers here since the play is so full of delightful revelations and unexpected, little-known connections between great figures in history. I very much recommend you go and see this little gem of a play!

Venue: Anatomy Lecture Theatre, Summerhall, at 1 Summerhall, Edinburgh, EH9 1PL

Price: £15 (concessions £12) / Sat: £20 (concessions £15)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!