Literature Study GuidesRights Of ManPart 2 Chapter 1 Summary

Rights of Man | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Rights of Man | Part 2, Chapter 1 : Of Society and Civilization | Summary



The natural order of society and man would exist even without government because humans are mutually dependent on one another, which creates a greater chain of connection. Common interests regulate and form laws. In this view society is able to do for itself almost everything the government assigns itself. To take this line of thinking further, it means government itself is an imposition. One example of this is America during its revolution. The old government was abolished, but the country was too busy defending itself to take time to create a new one; yet order and harmony reigned among its citizens. This ability to maintain is because "common interest produces common security." The more peaceful and organized a society, the less use it has for government because it is able to regulate itself. People follow societal laws because they are largely the laws of nature, particularly when mutual or reciprocal interest is involved. Although it would seem America is a place ripe for discord—because of the many different backgrounds of its citizens—its government was formed upon the principle of the rights of man, and thus they exist in harmony. One key fact is in America, the poor are not oppressed, and the rich are not privileged. One benefit of the American Revolution was the fact it led to a discovery of these principles and showed how so many governments use imposition to maintain power.


Much of Paine's focus in Part 2 of Rights of Man is looking at the origins of things such as society, civilization, and government to understand how the natural rights of man began. Paine claims men are able to exist peacefully without a government because of "the mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man." This mutual dependence all but ensures men must learn to coexist peacefully and see each other as allies rather than threats—it's the government that creates enemies to profit from war. Because these common interests also form natural laws, Paine concludes, "Society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government." His claim here is a distinct rebuttal to Burke, who argues men need government to keep order and dictate laws. Paine here is interested more in the philosophical origins of the purpose of government by defining what it does and whether or not it is necessary. He even goes so far as to state, "A great part of what is called government is mere imposition" since hereditary governments tend to institute taxation that does not benefit the majority of its citizens and makes decisions about war and class without their input. Paine again points to America during the Revolutionary War, when it really had no new government to speak of yet. Curiously, the citizens' "common interest produced common security." Even as a new society they were able to govern themselves. According to Paine, "All the great laws of society are laws of nature." The laws of society, and by extension government, should always mirror the laws of nature to uphold the rights of man.

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