This is my first foray into this literary period (style, genre, what-have-you), and based on these first few readings, I can’t help feeling a bit overwhelmed, as if I’m stepping into the marketplace of ideas and being pushed, prodded and poked by the various idea vendors hawking their wares. (Reading all these selections at one go sort of feels like the Romantic equivalent of modern-day punditry). And, with the exception of Jefferson and Paine, some of it is intensely philosophical and difficult to fathom without the context of all the content available (we only get snippets from most of the works).
I guess the easiest way for me to approach the more political stuff is to talk about the rhetorical style of the writers. In my opinion, Paine – though he might be considered the more revolutionary of the writers – doesn’t necessarily come off as a rabble-rousing provocateur type (I mean, compare him to the Godwin we encounter in the letters). Here’s Paine as he ends our selection from Common Sense:
Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others (Wu, 24).
Or, in his rejoinder to Burke:
The romantic and barbarous distinction of men into kings and subjects, though it may suit the conditions of courtiers, cannot that of citizens – and is exploded by the principle upon which governments are now founded. Every citizen is a member of the sovereignty, and as such can acknowledge no personal subjection, and his obedience can be only to the laws (25).
That last one isn’t exactly a grand and thundering declamation even if the subject matter is (merely) a justification for representational government founded on rule of law. In a way, I feel that both he and Jefferson find the strength of the rhetoric in the arguments themselves, which each makes in a very lucid, calm, and measured style (but still – it strikes a patriotic chord). Though we today might deconstruct or debate what constitutes a civil principle, or a moral law, or a natural right – and even if that debate was occurring at the time of the founding fathers – I think one important goal for both writers was probably to be as accessible and understandable to as wide an audience as possible. They don’t need to wrestle with esoteric philosophical issues when so much is at stake.
By comparison, Burke seemed more the defter (?) stylist, beginning with his constrained approach to the Versailles event (which heightens the drama) to his almost Spenserian eulogy to the soon-to-be-dead Queen’s youth (“Oh what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall!” (11). His argument for the Age of Chivalry reminds me a little of today’s Take Back our Country rhetoric, except at least Burke had a historical referent. Chivalry may have its good points as a code of behavior (we could certainly use some in today’s political environment), but as a political system…well, I think the weight of history pretty much works against Burke’s argument, and I can’t for the life of me understand why he didn’t make that distinction. I thought the point of this selection and his On Englishness selection was to resonate with readers based on a shared sense of what constitutes national identity and certainly, revolution should have no part in that! Even though he is a passionate writer, it’s still a weak argument when there is so much social and political injustice to be found…
Moving on to the Philosophical Enquiry: do you sort of get the feeling that the sublime is something every artist should strive for, but will probably never reach? What is it exactly? What’s the extra element which causes the sublime to transcend thrill or excitement? More importantly, can we even experience it in an age that has been so perversely de-sensitized to just about every calamity that could strike the human race? I don’t know…maybe I’m getting too old and cynical…
Okay…I feel like I need to wind down here, so I’ll end with Godwin. I had a difficult time connecting all of the separate “parts” we were given into a complete whole, so I’ll pick one entry which resonated somewhat with me, which is the entry from Book I, “The Voluntary Actions of Men Originate in Their Opinions.” I thought this was an interesting passage because Godwin seems to be saying that we should be hyper-aware of, nay – it’s our duty to be aware of — the reasons that lay behind our actions: “In the mean time it is obvious to remark, that the perfection of the human character consists in approaching as nearly as possible to the perfectly voluntary state. We ought to be upon all occasions prepared to render a reason of our actions. […] We should be cautious of thinking it a sufficient reason for an action, that we are accustomed to perform it, and that we once thought it right” (Godwin, 493). He seems to give a lot of weight to our capacity for reason, and implies that it’s everyone’s duty to cultivate this hyper-conscious attitude around it in terms of motivating our actions. It seems to be a bit idealistic to me, and doesn’t take into account all the many conflicting motives we may have for our actions. For instance, what if you have a perfectly reasonable short-term incentive to perform an action (such as gamble recklessly with someone else’s money) even though the longer term consequences may be severe (such as losing everything and needing to be bailed out)? Hint hint…does anyone remember the recent financial crash and the conflicting incentives that led to perfectly reasonable men acting in completely irrational ways? I don’t think reason is enough…I’m tempted to say you need a standard of behavior, and that may not come from a voluntary, individual level.