Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727– 1781): Father of Progressivsm

Johnathan Israel tells us that it was Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727– 1781), one of the founders together with Adam Smith (1723– 1790) of the science of economics, who first formulated a coherent, systematic doctrine of progress.1 He continues, saying:

An avowed providential Deist but one who attributed to Christianity a broadly positive role in the world, Turgot delivered two doctoral lectures at the Sorbonne, in Paris, in 1750, which together, as has been said, “framed a new conception of world history from remotest antiquity to the present and constituted the first important version in modern times of the ideology of progress.” 9 Turgot, linking epistemology, economics, and administration, argued that man’s capacity to receive new impressions from the outside world— and to sift, combine, and analyze them— had opened a path by which experience absorbs and builds an unending sequence of material improvement, technological advancement, and better organization. The empirically proven fact of progress in the past, furthermore, he construed as proof that retrogression would also be impossible in the future. It was this cumulative unidirectional process embracing all aspects of social development— something he viewed as divinely driven, and hence irreversible— that he designated “progress.”  …

The Enlightenment’s idea of progress, then, was invariably conceived as being “philosophical,” a revolution of the mind. But it was undoubtedly economic, technological, political, medical, and administrative as well, in addition to being legal, moral, educational, and aesthetic. Enlightenment “progress” was thus very wide-ranging and multifaceted. Moreover, it was also inherently unstable, a feature historians have by no means sufficiently focused on in the past. For it is apparent that Enlightenment progress could take specifically Christian, Deist, or atheistic forms; it could be conceived as endorsing or opposing the existing order of society, as being reversible or irreversible, God-ordained or purely natural.(Kindle Locations 227-232).

1. Israel, Jonathan (2011-09-06). A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Kindle Locations 212-213). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Thomas Paine: A Hero of the Radical Enlightenment

With how much more glory, and advantage to itself, does a nation act, when it exerts its powers to rescue the world from bondage, and to create itself friends, than when it employs those powers to increase ruin, desolation, and misery.

– Thomas Paine: Collected Writings

William Cobbett, the great English pamphleteer, who for so long had been an enemy of Thomas Paine, and who had once written within the pages of his Porcupine’s Gazette attacking him on issue after issue, said: “How Tom gets a living now, or what brothel he inhabits, I know not,” he wrote during Paine’s last years in physical and professional decline. “Whether his carcass is at last to be suffered to rot on the earth, or to be dried in the air, is of very little consequence. Whenever and wherever he breathes his last, he will excite neither sorrow nor compassion; no friendly hand will close his eyes, not a groan will be uttered, not a tear will be shed. Like Judas he will be remembered by posterity; men will learn to express all that is base, malignant, treacherous, unnatural and blasphemous, by the single monosyllable, PAINE.”1

Yet, after years of struggle against his own issues with the darkening world of England had reversed course, and become a convert to Thomas Paine, saying: “Any man may fall into error, but a fool or a knave will seldom acknowledge it…. I saw Paine first pointing the way, and then leading a nation through perils and difficulties of all sorts, to independence and to lasting liberty, prosperity and greatness.” Cobbett had become certain that his erstwhile nemesis had been right about everything all along, and he in turn was now Thomas Paine’s most devoted acolyte. He immediately became a friend to Mme. Bonneville, the woman who had inherited Paine’s literary estate, and worked to ensure that all of the great man’s writing would be safeguarded, and eventually published.(ibid)

In the preface to the Rights of Man we hear that powerful voice that would define an era as Paine realizes for the first time that Edmund Burke, his long time friend, has suddenly become an enemy of freedom and enlightenment: “when I saw the flagrant misrepresentations which Mr. Burke’s Pamphlet contains; and that while it is an outrageous abuse on the French Revolution, and the principles of Liberty, it is an imposition on the rest of the world”.2 He continues, saying:

When the French Revolution broke out, it certainly afforded to Mr. Burke an opportunity of doing some good, had he been disposed to it; instead of which, no sooner did he see the old prejudices wearing away, than he immediately began sowing the seeds of a new inveteracy, as if he were afraid that England and France would cease to be enemies. That there are men in all countries who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of Nations, is as shocking as it is true; but when those who are concerned in the government of a country, make it their study to sow discord, and cultivate prejudices between Nations, it becomes the more unpardonable.(435)

The battle between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine never ended with their death, it continues still with every new generation of Conservative and Progressive partisan. As Jonathan Israel tells it “what distinguishes Paine’s discourse from that of mainstream American revolutionary ideology is its appeal to universal values and total refusal to invoke English tradition, precedents, and history”.3 Israel continues relating that Paine was the foremost spokesman of the Radical Enlightenment, saying, “Paine spoke in terms of universal human rights, not the liberties of Englishmen, grounding these universal rights in the freedom carried over from the state of nature into the state of society, loudly echoing Spinoza and the French radical philosophes.”( ibid.) Against the Radical Enlightenment of Paine and those that affirmed his stance on atheism, etc. those like Robespierre, would counter:

Robespierre’s and the Jacobins’s most powerful and effective argument against the Radical Enlightenment was their constant complaint that the “modern philosophy” opposes “feeling,” and especially the sentiments of the ordinary person. Here, ironically, Robespierre’s Jacobinism closely converged with royalist Counter-Enlightenment ideology, both propagating the myth of the Enlightenment as a coldly clinical, unfeeling machine of rational ideas, brutalizing natural sentiment and destroying instead of furthering what is best in human life. This allegation was taken up internationally and became a stock theme of British attacks on the “modern philosophers” in the 1790s.(Kindle Locations 2978-2983).

This attack against the Radical Enlightenment based on “affective politics” is with us still. As Israel tells us Tom Paine, dubbed by Joel Barlow “a luminary of the age, and one of the greatest benefactors of mankind,”  emerged as one of the most successful publicists of his time, one who propagated the radical cause with unprecedented impact in Britain, America, and France and who resonated also in Ireland. A key exponent of radical thought, Paine broke with all the time-honored conventions of traditional British radical Whiggism, with his cosmopolitan universalism and reaching out to French philosophy effecting what one scholar has aptly called “a striking departure from the conventions of English political writing.”

As Thomas Jefferson and his political heirs controlled the American government for a great part of the nineteenth century, Paine’s reputation was ascendant in the immediate decades after his death. During that time many in the United States forgave and forgot The Age of Reason and Letter to Washington while remembering and celebrating Common Sense and Rights of Man. Paine birthday dinners were widely popular, with the 1830s including galas in New York, Albany, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Boston; New York’s 1834 celebration drew seven hundred. Like their English counterparts, American working-class organizations passed out copies of Rights of Man to new members, and many union leaders could recite by heart great swaths of Paine. His American stature reached a peak under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who said that Rights of Man would be “more enduring than all the piles of marble and granite that man can erect…. Thomas Paine needs no monument by hands; he has erected a monument in the hearts of all who love liberty.” (Craig Nelson, KL 5990)


1. Nelson, Craig (2007-09-04). Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (Kindle Locations 179-185). Penguin Books. Kindle Edition.
2. Paine, Thomas; Foner, Eric (2012-09-21). Thomas Paine: Collected Writings (Library of America) (p. 434). Library of America. Kindle Edition.
3. Israel, Jonathan (2011-08-11). Democratic Enlightenment:Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (p. 453). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Thomas Jefferson: American Jacobin?

The Charnel-House has an interesting letter from Jefferson to William Short… interesting reading for this Independence Day!

The Charnel-House

The American revolutionary
on the French Revolution

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

On Independence Day, in anticipation of Bastille Day, here’s author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson on the French Revolution:

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Plasma Research at the University of Missouri

Ever wonder how stupid our government is? I do all the time. Take plasma fusion for instance. The science underpinning much of fusion energy research is plasma physics. Plasmas—the fourth state of matter—are hot gases, hot enough that electrons have been knocked free of atomic nuclei, forming an ensemble of ions and electrons that can conduct electrical currents and can respond to electric and magnetic fields. The science of plasmas is elegant, far-reaching, and impactful. Comprising over 99% of the visible universe, plasmas are also pervasive. It is the state of matter of the sun’s center, corona, and solar flares. Plasma dynamics are at the heart of the extraordinary formation of galactic jets and accretion of stellar material around black holes. On earth it is the stuff of lightning and flames. Plasma physics describes the processes giving rise to the aurora that gently illuminates the far northern and southern nighttime skies. Practical applications of plasmas are found in various forms of lighting and semiconductor manufacturing, and of course plasma televisions.

University of Missouri engineer Randy Curry and his team have developed a method of creating and controlling plasma that could revolutionize American energy generation and storage. Besides liquid, gas and solid, matter has a fourth state, known as plasma. Fire and lightning are familiar forms of plasma. Life on Earth depends on the energy emitted by plasma produced during fusion reactions within the sun. However, Curry warns that without federal funding of basic research, America will lose the race to develop new plasma energy technologies. The basic research program was originally funded by the Office of Naval Research, but continued research has been funded by MU.

The difference between these multibillion dollar programs and the one offered by the University of Missouri is that physicists usually rely on electromagnetic magnetic fields to harness the power of plasma, the fourth state of matter, in fusion power experiments. But University of Missouri researchers have managed to create rings of plasma that can hold their shape without the use of outside electromagnetic fields—possibly paving the way for a new age of practical fusion power and leading to the creation of new energy storage devices.

Traditional efforts to achieve nuclear fusion have relied upon multi-billion-dollar fusion reactors, called tokamaks, which harness powerful electromagnetic fields to contain the super-heated plasmas resulting from the fusion reactions. The ability to create plasma with self-confining electromagnetic fields in the open air could eliminate the need for external electromagnetic fields in future fusion experiments, and with it, much of the expense.

The researchers created plasma rings about 15 centimeters in diameter that flew through the air across distances up to 60 centimeters. The rings lasted just 10 milliseconds, but reached temperatures greater than the sun’s fiery fusion core surface at around 6600 to 7700 degrees K (6327 to 7427 degrees C). Plasma physicists suspect that magnetic fields are still involved—but that the plasma rings create their own.

“This plasma has a self-confining magnetic field,” said Randy Curry, an engineer and physicist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “If one can generate and contain it without large magnets involved, of course fusion energy would be an application.” But the researchers’ success in creating self-contained plasma rings came as a surprise. “We did not expect that,” Curry says.

The plasma device at MU could be enlarged to handle much larger amounts of energy, according to Curry. With sufficient funding, they could develop a system within three to five years that would also be considerably smaller. He noted that they used old technologies to build the current prototype of the plasma-generating machine. Using newer, miniaturized parts, he suggests they could shrink the device to the size of a bread box

According to Science President Barack Obama last week submitted a $3.8 trillion budget request to Congress for 2014 that, if enacted, would boost the research budgets of nearly every federal agency. His continued support for science stands out in an otherwise flat budget that aims to shrink the federal deficit by clamping down on entitlement programs and raising money by revising the tax code. The president’s spending blueprint should lift the spirits of a community that, along with all other sectors of the economy, has endured a bumpy political ride for the past year. The president’s $143 billion request for research and development more than erases a nearly $10 billion dip from 2012 to 2013 caused by sequestration—the $85 billion, across-the-board cut in discretionary spending that went into effect in March.

With such breakthroughs as the University of Missouri team is working with one sees just the opposite in both Europe and United States projects using large fusion reactors based on magnetic coils that are over budgeted an continue to cost taxpayers and governments more money than projected. At Joint European Torus (JET), where Euratom is investigating the possibility of recasting JET as an international facility after 2018, asking the other six ITER partners—China, India,    Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—to contribute to the cost of keeping it running. But with ITER already expected to cost several times    the original estimate, the partners may not be keen to shoulder the extra burden. (here)

So if Randy Clark of the University of Missouri and his team can produce plasma fusion that does not need magnetic coils why should we continue funding such large Manhattan style projects as JET and our own Max Planck reactors? “This plasma has a self-confining magnetic field” said Randy Clark: if this is true (see video here) then the cost of maintaining such large fusion reactors would be a thing of the past. What’s interesting is that if the International Community could get behind such projects we could truly have energy for the world that would be clean and safe, because unlike the older forms had waste products while this form does not and is self-renewable. Let’s hope within the next ten years they can make solid headway toward this goal.