Simple Facts and Plain Truths

David A. Bell

  • Common Sense: A Political History by Sophia Rosenfeld
    Harvard, 337 pp, £22.95, ISBN 0 674 05781 3

Readers of the LRB probably don’t have a lot of common sense: this, after all, is a journal of the ‘chattering classes’. Some of its contributors are Marxists, feminists and postmodern philosophers. Could anything be more at odds with the no-nonsense common sense of the ordinary man or woman?

We have become so accustomed to this usage that it is something of a shock to be reminded by Sophia Rosenfeld that ‘common sense’ once had a very different set of political connotations, and that 200 years ago asserting a belief in ordinary people’s common sense could see you branded as a radical democrat. In Common Sense, the 1776 pamphlet that made his reputation, Thomas Paine appealed over and over again to ‘simple facts’, ‘plain truth’ and the ‘simple voice of nature’ to justify America’s rebellion against Britain. As Rosenfeld notes, he also denounced ‘complexity or ambiguity in reasoning or expression as evidence of falsity or manipulation’, coming uncomfortably close to the present-day populists who mock economists and climate scientists for using long words. But in Paine’s case the invocation of common sense had a revolutionary rather than a reactionary moral: politics and government are not arcane mysteries that only the wisest and highest-born can engage in. They are within the capacities of ordinary, uneducated people, who therefore have the right to govern themselves. It is this belief which, in the 18th century, legitimated democracy and turned it from an abstract concept associated with Greek city-states into a desirable form of modern government.

As Rosenfeld observes in her provocative and wide-ranging book, the belief in the capacities of ordinary people – in the power of their common sense – had many roots. She discusses the tradition of English common law, which supposedly derived from the collective experience and wisdom of the community. She also alludes to the impact of Protestantism, with its ‘long … tradition of valuing simplicity and direct observation over elaborateness and higher reflection’. But for common sense to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the leaders of the American and French Revolutions, it also needed philosophical justification. Rosenfeld’s story is about this justification, and the intellectual background to Paine’s deceptively straightforward arguments. She shows how the concept actually worked in revolutionary politics in America and France, and briefly discusses its subsequent history, including its co-option by right-wing populists.

Rosenfeld argues, quite explicitly, that the Age of Reason was just as much the ‘age of common sense’, especially when it came to democratic politics. At this point it becomes hard to tar modern democracy, as so many critics have done, with the supposed original sin of intolerant Enlightenment rationalism. Rosenfeld contends that the intellectual currents which legitimated popular political participation were often harshly critical of what we now consider conventional Enlightenment ideas. At the same time her work points to modern democracy’s intrinsic intellectual fragility. Conservative populism, in her telling, is not some late capitalist corruption generated by consumerism and the mass media. It is democracy’s evil twin and perpetual temptation. She doesn’t always make these points quite as clearly as she might, or present enough evidence for them. Nonetheless, Common Sense: A Political History tells a compelling story.

Originally, the book explains, common sense was a term of Aristotelian epistemology, referring to a sixth sense charged with co-ordinating the evidence of the other five – only in the 17th century did natural philosophers cease to believe that this ‘sense’ actually existed somewhere in the brain. Cicero, following the Stoics, used the term sensus communis to mean the values and beliefs that all men held in common. Descartes and Locke both seized on the concept but in their hands it came to refer to basic mental capacities: above all, the ability to perceive things correctly and reason about them on an elementary level. But common sense and its French equivalent bon sens did not have strong political connotations. These didn’t emerge until the 1690s when, following the Glorious Revolution and the relaxing of censorship in 1695, a raucous new pluralism developed in the English press, coffee houses and political parties. Thinkers hoping to stop acrimony turning into violence seized on the idea that common sense might provide a baseline of agreement for a cohesive political order. Thus the Earl of Shaftesbury, in the 1709 tract Sensus Communis, held that the ‘common honest man’ had an instinctive sense of the public good. Lord Chesterfield in 1737 declared that ‘our constitution is founded upon common sense itself.’ Of course, the more common sense came into political usage, the more the parties used it as a rhetorical cudgel against one another.

In Aberdeen in the mid-18th century, a group of high-minded ministers devised what Rosenfeld calls ‘an actual philosophy of common sense’. Thomas Reid and his follower James Beattie were devout Protestants, inspired by English dissenters as well as by their often rigid Presbyterian colleagues. They were horrified by the progress of philosophical scepticism, exemplified by David Hume, which they saw as corroding the foundations of Christian faith. Reid, in An Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense of 1764, argued in response that ‘there are certain principles … which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe.’ Reid and Beattie denied that philosophers had special purchase on the truth. ‘Too much learning is apt to make men mad,’ Reid wrote. If ordinary men agreed in finding a principle obvious – with the existence of God as exhibit A – then it was true, full stop. Beattie popularised these ideas, and Joshua Reynolds painted him inspiring a female personification of Truth to shove Voltaire and other non-believers down to hell.

Even as the Scots were enlisting common sense to fight the spectre of atheism, atheists were developing it as a weapon of their own. The centre of radical publishing at the time was the Netherlands (the Dutch, Voltaire said, had become ‘the agents of our thoughts as they were of our wines and salts’), where an eccentric set of libertine Francophone writers were publishing works that sought to undermine conventional wisdom and behaviour. One was the Marquis d’Argens, best known for his novel Thérèse Philosophe, which slid a materialist message into a luridly pornographic story of a woman who got more than she bargained for in the confessional. Another was the Baron d’Holbach, who anonymously published popular atheist tracts while living the life of a Parisian grandee. They followed the lead of early 18th-century writers, including the Baron de Lahontan, who had challenged religious certitudes in a fictitious dialogue between himself and a Huron Indian of ‘good sense’. But they went further, trying to make le bon sens into the basis of an entire philosophical system. Like Reid and Beattie, they argued that ordinary people – even women – were capable of grasping philosophical truths. But, unlike the Aberdeen ministers, they also argued that these intellectual capacities had to be turned towards the systematic debunking of superficially self-evident ideas – with the existence of God once again as exhibit A. Language itself, readers had to be taught, was inherently deceptive and subject to abuse. D’Holbach began to apply this idea to politics, claiming that ‘the true principles of politics are clear, self-evident,’ and need only to ‘be simplified to the point where they can be felt by the most ordinary of men’.

It was Paine, Rosenfeld claims, who brought these somewhat contradictory concepts of common sense together into a revolutionary package. From the Aberdeen ministers Paine took the idea that human nature itself led to belief in certain principles, and that the insights of ordinary people had more to recommend them than the lucubrations of over-educated philosophers. But he also insisted that ordinary people needed to be shaken out of their familiar prejudices and habits in order to formulate their insights correctly. British colonists in America needed to be shown, by a prophetic individual like himself, that respect for kingship, deference to social superiors and the bond to the mother country were illusions. Only when properly disabused would they be able to rely on their own common sense.

Here Rosenfeld’s claims run ahead of her evidence. Paine probably did have some familiarity with the Aberdeen school: his employer had recently emigrated from the city; his patron in Philadelphia, the Presbyterian physician Benjamin Rush, had many friends in their circle; and their books were in Philadelphia libraries. But the works of the Continental philosophers had little impact in Philadelphia, and Paine would probably have found their atheism repellent: his Common Sense repeatedly appealed to God and cited the Old Testament story of the Jews’ fatal desire for a king in its case against monarchy (‘’Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against’). Paine’s resentment of social elites, and his ‘prophetic’ stance in disabusing conventional wisdom, which Rosenfeld attributes to the philosophes, might be more plausibly attributed to radical Protestant sources: Paine was a Quaker’s son. His defiant egalitarianism, with its self-consciously plebeian language and scriptural references, has more in common with the Leveller pamphlets of the English Civil Wars than with d’Holbach’s arid treatises, or d’Argens’s strained attempts at bawdiness. The same is true of the first attempt to put Paine’s principles into practice: the radically egalitarian Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776.

Any transnational influences on common sense in revolutionary politics probably ran counter to the one Rosenfeld emphasises. During the craze for common sense language in France between 1790 and 1792, writers frequently adopted the persona of a wise, crusty old man of the people (the most famous, unmentioned by Rosenfeld, was Hébert’s Père Duchesne). Publications like La Feuille villageoise furnished a political education for ‘rural citizens’. Counter-revolutionary writers followed much the same strategy, and both parties made frequent appeal to le bon sens. Rosenfeld doesn’t pay enough attention to the fact that the phrase used most often was le gros bon sens – perhaps best rendered in English as ‘plain common sense’ – which in its plebeian overtones recalled Paine’s pamphlet, which was widely available in French by 1791. Paine visited France in 1789 and in 1792 moved there and won election to the National Convention. Rosenfeld is also too quick to conclude that ‘the great victors in the struggle for the mantle of common sense’ were the counter-revolutionaries. Robespierre, in one of his most famous speeches, excoriated ‘academicians’ and ‘makers of books’ for falling into treason, while simple artisans and farmers, imbued with le bon sens, embraced the rights of man and spread the light of philosophy in the countryside.

In short, the story is not quite the one of neat intellectual fusion that Rosenfeld presents. Slippery and elusive, common sense and le bon sens followed different paths that never quite intersected. Yet her larger point holds. In Revolutionary America and France, it was not enough to establish democracy by declaring the rational principle that ‘all men are created equal,’ or to call this ‘self-evident’, as Jefferson did in the Declaration of Independence. It was necessary to attribute to ‘all men’ (if not, yet, all people) sufficient cognitive ability to understand the principle and act on it – that is to say, to acknowledge their common sense. And as Rosenfeld observes, even as this affirmation of common sense fostered democracy, it immediately started to undermine democratic practice. For while the farmer, the artisan, the shopkeeper and the soldier were all held to possess common sense, other men were not, and therefore faced possible exclusion from the democratic community: for instance, the ‘academician’, the ‘maker of books’ and the philosopher. ‘Too much learning,’ as Thomas Reid had said, ‘is apt to make men mad.’ French counter-revolutionaries (and their British allies) used the language of common sense to deny the legitimacy of elected assemblies and call for the return of the king. Robespierre used it to condemn his Girondin enemies to the guillotine. In the United States, less violently, the young John Quincy Adams used it to portray Jefferson as a French-style revolutionary, and 30 years later, Jacksonian populists turned it with great success against Adams himself. Today, conservative American radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck use it to deny the legitimacy of Barack Obama. (Beck, as it happens, is the author of Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine.)

Is there no way to rescue common sense from the likes of Beck, and restore something of its democratic potential? Rosenfeld seems to think not. In her conclusion, she gives a wryly appreciative nod to Tristan Tzara, author of the best-known Dada manifestos, who deliberately embraced ‘nonsense’. ‘It is vital,’ she concludes, ‘that some individuals in the modern world consciously position themselves outside of the reigning common sense and keep a close eye on the complex and powerful work that it does.’ Yet she also examines the attempts by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Hannah Arendt to find a constructive place for common sense in contemporary culture and politics. She points to Arendt’s praise, in On Revolution, of the New England town meeting, and notes how Arendt linked the withering of community feeling to the rise of ideology and totalitarianism. In Arendt’s analysis, what distinguishes constructive common sense from simple collective prejudice is the way it is generated. It is one thing when members of a community come together as equals to discuss matters of common interest, another when ideologues use mass meetings or mass media to appeal to anxieties and antipathies, without the possibility of real interaction. True common sense, in other words, is generated ‘in common’. Isolated individuals, by definition, can’t possess it. ‘What individuals require,’ Rosenfeld writes, ‘is the return to a kind of public life that forces them to constantly weigh and consider things from the perspective of other people.’

She does not speculate on the forms this public life could take in the absence of Arendt’s (partly mythical) town meetings. So far, at least, the internet has proved ill-suited for the sort of give-and-take Arendt envisaged. Participants dip into discussions and then abandon them for something else, while anonymity encourages mud-slinging. Yet our pre-electronic public culture still provides unappreciated opportunities for keeping serious common discussion alive. A well-thought-out letter printed in a newspaper can still challenge conventional wisdom, and cut through obfuscation and deceptive language, just as the 18th-century philosophers hoped. At their best, such exchanges prompt readers to bring their own thinking to bear on problems of common interest, and to formulate reasoned opinions, even if these might sound like mere ‘chattering’. All of which is to say that the readers of the LRB may have some common sense after all.