Tag Archives: Common Sense

“Enlightenment and Common Sense” by Umberto Eco

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This is a short essay included in Turning Back the Clock that addresses the question: What is an enlightened thinker? While he lists several traits that are found in the modern enlightened thinker, he asserts that two essential qualities are common sense and skepticism.

While I am in complete agreement regarding Eco’s assertion about common sense, I am somewhat more skeptical when it comes to his claim on skepticism (a pun is intended here). While it is true that healthy skepticism promotes inquiry and testing of claims that are posited as fact, in the information age where a quick Google search can turn up supporting “data” for any claim, regardless of how ridiculous it may be, skepticism has opened the door to the denial of proven information that is crucial to society and humanity. The perfect example is climate change. The theory of biological imperialism asserts that a species will alter its environment to make it more conducive to its survival and comfort. It’s a hard theory to refute. If you accept this premise, then it stands to reason that humans, in modifying their surroundings, have changed the environment. When you consider this fact in conjunction with scientific evidence of changes in the climate and their connection with human activity, then our impact on climate change should be evident and not disputed. In spite of this, there is no shortage of “skeptics” who reject scientific findings and bolster their views with supporting data from “experts” in the field (often hired by corporations). And there is the problem with associating skepticism with enlightened thinking.

While I agree with 99% of what Eco asserts, I feel he is off in this area. There is a real danger in skepticism and I feel that common sense is much more important than skepticism. Hence to quote the old adage: Common sense is not all that common.

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Applying “Common Sense” to Current Issues

CommonSenseLast year for my Independence Day blog post I read and commented on the Declaration of Independence. This year I opted for Common Sense by Thomas Paine. I’d read it years ago in college in my “Survey of American Literature” class, so I understood the concepts that Paine was trying to convey, essentially making a “common sense” argument in support of independence for the colonies.

In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense. (p 23)

Overall, I found this to be pretty dull reading. Paine is slow in getting to the point and as far as his simple facts go, he sure uses a lot of words to state them. That said, I approached the text with the intent of seeing what, if anything, is still relevant today. I found a couple of passages that could be applied to current issues.

The first issue I would like to address is marriage equality. In the US, we have a history of failing to acknowledge that discrimination based upon sexual preference is morally wrong. Many people are still attempting to pass legislation narrowly dictating what types of marriages should be accepted in this country. Essentially, this behavior is what Paine asserts is the defense of custom.

A long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason. (pp 1-2)

I see the tumult finally subsiding, as demonstrated by the recent Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. The antiquated ideas that have been promoted as custom and tradition are finally being swept aside.

The next issue is that of commerce. Paine states that when commerce, or capitalism, becomes the main focus of a country, that country suffers. People become complacent and are not willing to take the risks necessary to advance society as a whole.

Commerce diminishes the spirit, both of patriotism and military defence. And history sufficiently informs us, that the bravest achievements were always accomplished in the non-age of a nation… The more men have to lose, the less willing are they to venture. (p 51)

Paine concludes his pamphlet by addressing the issue that has plagued us from the beginning: the separation of church and state. Today, there are still people who use religion as a reason for promoting laws, especially laws that deny or restrict the rights of others. We must always remember the words of those who founded this country and oppose the influence or religion on politics whenever it rears its head.

And here without anger or resentment I bid you farewell. Sincerely wishing, that as men and christians, ye may always fully and uninterruptedly enjoy every civil and religious right; and be, in your turn, the means of securing it to others; but that the example which ye have unwisely set, of mingling religion with politics, MAY BE DISAVOWED AND REPROBATED BY EVERY INHABITANT OF AMERICA. (p 73)

Have a happy and safe Fourth of July, and help keep freedom and equality safe in this country.

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