The strong hold of government has appeared hitherto to have consisted in seduction. However imperfect might be the political constitution under which they lived, mankind have ordinarily been persuaded to regard it with a sort of reverential and implicit respect. The privileges of Englishmen, and the liberties of Germany, the splendour of the most Christian, and the solemn gravity of the Catholic king, have each afforded a subject of exultation to the individuals who shared, or thought they shared, in the advantages these terms were conceived to describe. Each man was accustomed to deem it a mark of the peculiar kindness of providence that he was born in the country, whatever it was, to which he happened to be long. The time may come which shall subvert these prejudices. The time may come when men shall exercise the piercing search of truth upon the mysteries of government, and view without prepossession the defects and abuses of the constitution of their country. Out of this new order of things a new series of duties will arise. When a spirit of impartiality shall prevail, and loyalty shall decay, it will become us to enquire into the conduct which such a state of thinking shall make necessary. We shall then be called upon to maintain a true medium between blindness to injustice and calamity on the one hand, and an acrimonious spirit of violence and resentment on the other. It will be the duty of such as shall see these subjects in the pure light of truth to exert themselves for the effectual demolition of monopolies and usurpation; but effectual demolition is not the offspring of crude projects and precipitate measures. He who dedicates himself to these may be suspected to be under the domination of passion, rather than benevolence. The true friend of equality will do nothing unthinkingly, will cherish no wild schemes of uproar and confusion, and will endeavour to discover the mode in which his faculties may be laid out to the greatest and most permanent advantage.
The whole of this question is intimately connected with the enquiry which has necessarily occupied a share In the disquisitions of all writers on the subject of government, concerning the propriety and measures of resistance. "Are the worst government and best equally entitled to the toleration and forbearance of their subjects? Is there no case of political oppression that will authorize the persons who suffer it to take up arms against their oppressors? Or, if there be, what is the quantity of oppression at the measure of which insurrections begin to be justifiable? Abuses will always exist, for man will always be imperfect; what is the nature of the abuse which it would be pusillanimous to oppose by words only, and which true courage would instruct us was to be endured no longer?"
No question can be conceived more important than this. In the examination of it philosophy almost forgets its nature; it ceases to be speculation, and becomes an actor. Upon the decision, according as it shall be decided in the minds of a bold and resolute party, the existence of thousands may be suspended. The speculative enquirer, if he live in a state where abuse is notorious and grievances frequent, knows not, while he weighs the case in the balance of reason, how far that which he attempts to describe is already realized in the apprehension of numbers of his countrymen. Let us enter upon the question with the seriousness which so critical an inquiry demands.
Resistance may have its source in the emergencies either of the public or the individual. "A nation," it has commonly been said, "has a right to shake off any authority that is usurped over it." This is a proposition that has generally passed without question, and certainly no proposition can appear more plausible. But, if we examine it minutely, we shall find that it is attended with equivocal circumstances. What do we mean by a nation? Is the whole people concerned in this resistance, or only a part? If the whole be prepared to resist, the whole is persuaded of the injustice of the usurpation. What sort of usurpation is that which can be exercised by one or a few persons over a whole nation universally disapproving of it? Government is founded in opinion. Bad government deceives us first, before it fastens itself upon us like an incubus, oppressing all our efforts. A nation in general must have learned to respect a king and a house of lords, before a king and a house of lords can exercise any authority over them. If a man or a set of men, unsanctioned by any previous prejudice in their favour, pretend to exercise sovereignty in a country, they will become objects of derision rather than of serious resistance. Destroy the existing prejudice in favour of any of our present institutions, and they will fall into similar disuse and contempt.
It has sometimes been supposed "that an army, foreign or domestic, may be sufficient to hold a people in subjection, completely against their inclination." A domestic army at least will in some degree partake of the opinions and sentiments of the people at large. The more precautions are employed to prevent the infection, the doctrine will probably spread with so much the more certainty and rapidity. Show me that you are afraid of my entertaining certain opinions or hearing certain principles, and you will infallibly, sooner or later, awaken my curiosity. A domestic army will always be found a very doubtful instrument of tyranny in a period of crisis. - A foreign army after a time will become domesticated. If the question be of importing a foreign army for the specific purpose of supporting tottering abuse, great alarm will inevitably be excited. These men, it may be, are adapted for continuing the reign of tyranny; but who will pay them? A weak, superstitious or ignorant people may be held in the chains of foreign power; but the school of moral and political independence sends forth pupils of a very different character. In the encounter with their penetration and discernment, tyranny will feel itself powerless and transitory. In a word, either the people are unenlightened and unprepared for a state of freedom, and then the struggle and the consequences of the struggle will be truly perilous; or the progress of political knowledge among them is decisive, and then everyone will see how futile and short-lived will be the attempt to hold them in subjection, by means of garrisons and a foreign force. The party attached to liberty is, upon that supposition, the numerous one; they are the persons of true energy, and who have an object worthy of their zeal. Their oppressors, few in number, and degraded to the rank of lifeless machines, wander with no certain destination or prospect over the vast surface, and are objects of pity rather than serious alarm. Every hour diminishes their number and their resources; while, on the other hand, every moment's delay gives new strength to the cause, and fortitude to the champions, of liberty. Men would not be inclined pertinaciously to object to a short delay, if they recollected the advantages and the certainty of success with which it is pregnant. - Meanwhile these reasonings turn upon the probability that the purposes of liberty will be full as effectually answered without the introduction of force: there can be little doubt of the justifiableness of a whole nation having recourse to arms, if a case can be made out in which it shall be impossible for them to prevent the introduction of slavery in any other way.
The same reasonings, with little variation, will apply to the case of an unquestionable majority of a nation, as to that of the whole. The majority of a nation is irresistible; it as little needs to have recourse to violence; there is as little reason to expect that any usurper will be so mad as to contend with it. If ever it appear to be other wise, it is because, in one of two ways, we deceive ourselves with the term majority. First, nothing is more obvious than the danger incident to a man of a sanguine temper of overestimating the strength of his party. He associates perhaps only with persons of his own way of thinking, and a very small number appears to him as if it were the whole world. Ask persons of different tempers and habits of life how many republicans there are at this hour in England or Scotland, and you will immediately be struck with the very opposite answers you will receive. There are many errors of a sanguine temper that appear, at first sight, innocent or even useful: but surely every man of integrity and conscience will hesitate, before he suffers the possibility that an error of this sort should encourage him to plunge a nation in violence, and open a sea of blood. He must have a heart of strange composition who, for the precarious inferences he draws in moral or political calculation, would volunteer a mandate of death, or be the first to unsheath the sword of summary execution.
A second deception that lurks under the word majority lies, not in the question of number, but of quality and degree of illumination. A majority, we say perhaps, is dissatisfied with the present state of things, and wishes for such a specific alteration. Alas, it is to be feared that the greater part of this majority are often mere parrots who have been taught a lesson of the subject of which they understand little or nothing. What is it they dislike? A specific tax perhaps, or some temporary grievance. Do they dislike the vice and meanness that grow out of tyranny, and pant for the liberal and ingenuous virtue that would be fostered in their own minds in a different condition? No. They are very angry, and fancy themselves very judicious. What is it they desire? They know not. It would probably be easy to show that what they profess to desire is little better than what they hate. What they hate is not the general depravation of the human character; and what they desire is not its improvement. It is an insult upon human understanding, when we speak of persons in this state of infantine ignorance, to say that the majority of the nation is on the side of political renovation. Few greater misfortunes can befall any country than for such persons to be instigated to subvert existing institutions, and violently to take the work of political reformation into their own hands.
There is an obvious remedy to each of the deceptions here enumerated: Time: Is it doubtful whether the reformers be a real majority of the inhabitants of any country? Is it doubtful whether the majority truly understand the object of their professed wishes, and therefore whether they be ripe for its reception, and competent to its assertion? Wait but a little while, and the doubt will probably be solved in the manner that the warmest friend of human happiness and improvement would desire. If the system of independence and equality be the truth, it may be expected hourly to gain converts. The more it is discussed, the more will it be understood, and its value cherished and felt. If the state of the majority be doubtful, a very few years, perhaps a shorter time, will tend to place it beyond the reach of controversy. The great cause of humanity, which is now pleading in the face of the universe, has but two enemies; those friends of antiquity, and those friends of innovation, who, impatient of suspense, are inclined violently to interrupt the calm, the incessant, the rapid and auspicious progress which thought and reflection appear to be making in the world. Happy would it be for mankind if those persons who interest themselves most zealously in these great questions would confine their exertions to the diffusing, in every possible mode, a spirit of enquiry, and the embracing every opportunity of increasing the stock, and generalizing the communication, of political knowledge!
A third situation, which may be conceived to exist in a country where political reform has been made a topic of considerable attention, is that where neither the whole, nor the majority, of the nation is desirous of the reform in question, but where the innovators are an unquestionable minority. In this case nothing can be more indefensible than a project for introducing by violence that state of society which our judgements may happen to approve. In the first place, no persons are ripe for the participation of a benefit the advantage of which they do not understand. No people are competent to enjoy a state of freedom who are not already imbued with a love of freedom. The most dreadful tragedies will infallibly result from an attempt to goad mankind prematurely into a position, however abstractedly excellent, for which they are in no degree prepared. Secondly, to endeavour to impose our sentiments by force is the most detestable species of persecution. Others are as much entitled to deem themselves in the right as we are. The most sacred of all privileges is that by which each man has a certain sphere, relative to the government of his own actions, and the exercise of his discretion, not liable to be trenched upon by the intemperate zeal or dictatorial temper of his neighbour. To dragoon men into the adoption of what we think right is an intolerable tyranny. It leads to unlimited disorder and injustice. Every man thinks himself in the right; and, if such a proceeding were universally introduced, the destiny of mankind would be no longer a question of argument, but of strength, presumption or intrigue.
There is a further ambiguity in the term nation, as employed in the proposition above stated, "that a nation has a right forcibly to shake off any authority that is usurped over it." A nation is an arbitrary term. Which is most properly termed a nation, the Russian empire, or the canton of Berne? Or is everything a nation upon which accident shall bestow that appellation? It seems most accurate to say that any number of persons who are able to establish and maintain a system of mutual regulation for themselves conformable to their own opinions, without imposing a system of regulation upon a considerable number of others inconsistent with the opinion of these others, have a right, or, more properly speaking, a duty obliging them to adopt that measure. That any man, or body of men, should impose their sense upon persons of a different opinion is, absolutely speaking, wrong,and in all cases deeply to be regretted: but this evil it is perhaps in some degree necessary to incur, for the sake of a preponderating good. All government includes in it this evil, as one of its fundamental characteristics.
There is one circumstance of much importance to be attended to in this disquisition. Superficial thinkers lay great stress upon the external situation of men, and little upon their internal sentiments. Persevering enquiry will probably lead to a mode of thinking the reverse of this. To be free is a circumstance of little value, if we could suppose men in a state of external freedom, without the magnanimity, energy and firmness that constitute almost all that is valuable in a state of freedom. On the other hand, if a man have these qualities, there is little left for him to desire. He cannot be degraded; he cannot readily become either useless or unhappy. He smiles at the impotence of despotism; he fills up his existence with serene enjoyment and industrious benevolence. Civil liberty is chiefly desirable as a means to procure and perpetuate this temper of mind. They therefore begin at the wrong end, who make haste to overturn and confound the usurped powers of the world. Make men wise, and by that very operation you make them free. Civil liberty follows as a consequence of this; no usurped power can stand against the artillery of opinion. Everything then is in order, and succeeds at its appointed time. How unfortunate is it that men are so eager to strike and have so little constancy to reason!
It is probable that this question of resistance would never have admitted of so long a controversy, if the advocates of the system of liberty promulgated in the last century had not, unobserved to themselves, introduced a confusion into the question. Resistance may be employed, either to repel the injuries committed against the nation generally, or such as, in their immediate application, relate to the individual. To the first of these the preceding reasonings principally apply. The injuries to a nation depend for their nature, for the most part, upon their permanency, and therefore admit of the utmost sobriety and deliberation as to the mode in which they are to be remedied. Individuals may be injured or destroyed by a specific act of tyranny, but nations cannot; the principal mischief to the nation lies in the presage contained in the single act, of the injustice that is to continue to be exercised. Resistance, by the very meaning of the term, as it is used in political enquiry, signifies a species of conduct that is to be adopted in relation to an established authority: but an old grievance seems obviously to lead, as its counterpart, to a gradual and temperate remedy.
The consideration which, by being confounded with this, has served to mislead certain enquirers is that of what is commonly known by the name of self-defence, or, more properly, the duty obliging each individual to repel, as far as lies in his power, any violent attack made either upon himself or another. This, by the terms of the question, is a circumstance that does not admit of delay; the benefit of the remedy entirely.depends upon the time of the application. The principle in this case is of easy development. Force is an expedient the use of which is much to be deplored. It is contrary to the nature of intellect, which cannot be improved but by conviction and persuasion. It corrupts the man that employs it, and the man upon whom it is employed. But it seems that there are certain cases so urgent as to oblige us to have recourse to this injurious expedient: in other words, there are cases where the mischief to accrue from not violently counteracting the perverseness of the individual is greater than the mischief which the violence necessarily draws along with it. Hence it appears that the ground justifying resistance, in every case where it can be justified, is that of the good likely to result from such interference being greater than the good to result from omitting it.
There are probably cases where, as in a murder for example about to be committed on a useful and valuable member of society, the chance of preventing it by any other means than instantaneous resistance is so small as by no means to vindicate us in incurring the danger of so mischievous a catastrophe. But will this justify us, in the case of an individual oppressed by the authority of a community? Let us suppose that there is a country in which some of its best citizens are selected as objects of vengeance by an alarmed and jealous tyranny. It cannot reasonably be doubted that every man, a condemned felon or murderer, is to be commended for quietly withdrawing himself from the execution of the law; much more such persons as have now been described. But ought those well affected citizens that are still at large to rise in behalf of their brethren under persecution? Every man that is disposed to enter into such a project, and who is anxious about the moral rectitude of his conduct, must rest its justification upon one of the two grounds above stated: either the immediate purpose of his rising is the melioration of public institutions, or it is to be estimated with reference to the meritoriousness of the individuals in question. The first of these has been sufficiently discussed; we will suppose therefore that he confines himself to the last. Here, as has been already observed, the whole, as a moral question, will turn upon the comparative benefit or mischief to result from the resistance to be employed. The disparity is great indeed between the resistance ordinarily suggested by the term self-defence, and the resistance which must expect to encounter in its progress the civil power of the country. In the first, the question is of a moment; if you succeed in the instant of your exertion, you may expect the applause, rather than the prosecution, of executive authority. But, in the latter, the end will scarcely be accomplished but by the overthrow of the government itself. Let the lives of the individuals in supposition be as valuable as you please, the value will necessarily be swallowed up in the greater questions that occur in the sequel. Those questions therefore are the proper topics of attention; and we shall be to blame if we suffer ourselves to be led unawares into a conduct the direct tendency of which is the production of one sort of event, while all we intended was the production of another. The value of individuals ought not to be forgotten; there are men whose safety should be cherished by us with anxious attention; but it is difficult to imagine a case in which, for their sake, the lives of thousands, and the fate of millions, should be committed to risk.
. Book I, Chap. VI, p. 148; Book II, Chap. III, pp. 181-2.
. Book II, Chap. V, VI.
And here one of the first observations that offers itself is that it is not unworthy of a good member of society to be the adversary of the constitution of his country.
In contradiction to this proposition it has been said, "that we live under the protection of this constitution; and protection, being a benefit conferred, obliges us to a reciprocation of support in return."
To this it may be answered, first, that the benefit of this protection is somewhat equivocal. That civilization is a benefit may perhaps be conceded; but civilization, though in some degree preserved by the political constitution of every country in Europe, can scarcely be considered as the characteristic of a bad constitution, or as inseparably involved with the imperfections of any. A good member of society will, probably, be anxious to favour the cause of civilization; but his attachment to that cause may well excite his wishes to see it freed from the slough of corrupt and partial institutions.
Secondly, gratitude, in the sense in which it is here spoken of, has already been proved not to be a virtue, but a vice. Every man and collection of men ought to be treated by us in a manner founded upon their intrinsic qualities and capacities, and not according to a rule, which has existence only in relation to ourselves.
Add to this, thirdly, that no motive can be more equivocal than the gratitude here recommended. Gratitude to the constitution, an abstract idea, an imaginary existence, is altogether unintelligible. Affection to my countrymen will be much better proved by exertions to procure them a substantial benefit than by my supporting a system which I believe to be fraught with injurious consequences.
A demand of the nature which is here controverted is similar to the demand upon me to be a Christian because I am an Englishman, or a Mahometan because I am a native of Turkey. Instead of being an expression of respect, it argues contempt of all religion and government, and everything sacred among men. If government be an institution conducive to the public welfare, it deserves my attention and investigation. I am bound, in proportion as I desire the happiness of others, to consider it with all the accuracy my circumstances will allow, and employ my talents, and every honest influence I am able to exert, to render it such as justice and reason may require.
This general view of the duties of a citizen in relation to the government under which he lives being premised, we may now proceed with advantage to the particular points which are calculated to influence our judgement as to the conduct we ought to hold with respect to revolutions.
There is one extensive view upon the subject of revolutions which will be of great consequence in determining the sentiments and conduct we ought to maintain respecting them. The wise man is satisfied with nothing. It is scarcely possible there should be any institution in which impartial disquisition will not find defects. The wise man is not satisfied with his own attainments, or even with his principles and opinions. He is continually detecting errors in them; he suspects more; there is no end to his revisals and enquiries. Government is in its nature an expedient, a recourse to something ill to prevent an impending mischief; it affords therefore no ground of complete satisfaction. Finite things must be perpetually capable of increase and advancement; it would argue therefore extreme folly to rest in any given state of improvement, and imagine we had attained our summit. The true politician confines neither his expectations nor desires within any specific limits; he has undertaken a labour without end. He does not say, "Let me attain thus much, and I will be contented; I will demand no more; I will no longer counteract the established order of things; I will set those who support them at rest from further importunity." On the contrary, the whole period of his existence is devoted to the promotion of innovation and reform.
The direct inference from these sentiments seems to be unfavourable to revolutions. The politician who aims at a limited object, and has shut up his views within that object, may be forgiven if he manifest some impatience for its attainment. But this passion cannot be felt in an equal degree by him who aims at improvement, not upon a definite, but an indefinite scale. This man knows that, when he has carried any particular point, his task is far from complete. He knows that, when government has been advanced one degree higher in excellence, abuses will still be numerous. Many will be oppressed; many will be exposed to unjust condemnation; discontent will have its empire and its votaries; and the reign of inequality will be extensive. He can mark therefore the progress of melioration with calmness; though it will have all the wishes of his heart, and all the exertions of his understanding. That progress, which may be carried on through a longer time, and a greater variety of articles, than his foresight can delineate, he may be expected to desire should take place in a mild and gradual, though incessant advance, not by violent leaps, not by concussions which may expose millions to risk, and sweep generations of men from the stage of existence.
And here let us briefly consider what is the nature of revolution. Revolution is engendered by an indignation against tyranny, yet is itself ever more pregnant with tyranny. The tyranny which excites its indignation can scarcely be without its partisans; and, the greater is the indignation excited, and the more sudden and vast the fall of the oppressors, the deeper will be the resentment which fills the minds of the losing party. What more unavoidable than that men should entertain some discontent at being violently stripped of their wealth and their privileges? What more venial than that they should feel some attachment to the sentiments in which they were educated, and which, it may be, but a little before, were the sentiments of almost every individual in the community? Are they obliged to change their creed, precisely at the time at which I see reason to alter mine? They have but remained at the point at which we both stood a few years ago. Yet this is the crime which a revolution watches with the greatest jealousy, and punishes with the utmost severity. The crime which is thus marked with the deepest reprobation is not the result of relaxation of principle, of profligate living, or of bitter and inexorable hatred. It is a fault not the least likely to occur in a man of untainted honour, of an upright disposition, and dignified and generous sentiments.
Revolution is instigated by a horror against tyranny, yet its own tyranny is not without peculiar aggravations. There is no period more at war with the existence of liberty. The unrestrained communication of opinions has always been subjected to mischievous counteraction, but upon such occasions it is trebly fettered. At other times men are not so much alarmed for its effects. But in a moment of revolution, when everything is in crisis, the influence even of a word is dreaded, and the consequent slavery is complete. Where was there a revolution in which a strong vindication of what it was intended to abolish was permitted, or indeed almost any species of writing or argument, that was not, for the most part, in harmony with the opinions which happened to prevail? An attempt to scrutinize men's thoughts, and punish their opinions, is of all kinds of despotism the most odious; yet this attempt is peculiarly characteristic of a period of revolution.
The advocates of revolution usually remark "that there is no way to rid ourselves of our oppressors, and prevent new ones from starting up in their room, but by inflicting on them some severe and memorable retribution." Upon this statement it is particularly to be observed that there will be oppressors as long as there are individuals inclined, either from perverseness, or rooted and obstinate prejudice, to take party with the oppressor. We have therefore to terrify not only the man of crooked ambition but all those who would support him, either from a corrupt motive, or a well-intended error. Thus, we propose to make men free; and the method we adopt is to influence them, more rigorously than ever, by the fear of punishment. We say that government has usurped too much, and we organize a government tenfold more encroaching in its principles and terrible in its proceedings. Is slavery the best project that can be devised for making men free? Is a display of terror the readiest mode for rendering them fearless, independent and enterprising?
During a period of revolution, enquiry, and all those patient speculations to which mankind are indebted for their greatest improvements, are suspended. Such speculations demand a period of security and permanence; they can scarcely be pursued when men cannot foresee what shall happen tomorrow, and the most astonishing vicissitudes are affairs of perpetual recurrence. Such speculations demand leisure, and a tranquil and dispassionate temper; they can scarcely be pursued when all the passions of man are afloat, and we are hourly under the strongest impressions of fear and hope, apprehension and desire, dejection and triumph. Add to this, what has been already stated, respecting the tendency of revolution, to restrain the declaration of our thoughts, and put fetters upon the licence of investigation.
Another circumstance proper to be mentioned is the inevitable duration of the revolutionary spirit. This may be illustrated from the change of government in England in 1688. If we look at the revolution strictly so called, we are apt to congratulate ourselves that the advantages it procured, to whatever they may amount, were purchased by a cheap and bloodless victory. But, if we would make a solid estimate, we must recollect it as the procuring cause of two general wars, of nine years under king William, and twelve under queen Anne; and two intestine rebellions (events worthy of execration, if we call to mind the gallant spirit and generous fidelity of the Jacobites, and their miserable end) in 1715 and 1745. Yet this was, upon the whole, a mild and auspicious revolution. Revolutions are a struggle between two parties, each persuaded of the justice of its cause, a struggle not decided by compromise or patient expostulation, but by force only. Such a decision can scarcely be expected to put an end to the mutual animosity and variance.
Perhaps no important revolution was ever bloodless. It may be useful in this place to recollect in what the mischief of shedding blood consists. The abuses which at present exist in political society are so enormous, the oppressions which are exercised so intolerable, the ignorance and vice they entail so dreadful, that possibly a dispassionate enquirer might decide that, if their annihilation could be purchased by an instant sweeping of every human being now arrived at years of maturity from the face of the earth, the purchase would not be too dear. It is not because human life is of so considerable value that we ought to recoil from the shedding of blood. Alas! the men that now exist are for the most part poor and scanty in their portion of enjoyment, and their dignity is no more than a name. Death is in itself among the slightest of human evils. An earthquake, which should swallow up a hundred thousand individuals at once, would chiefly be to be regretted for the anguish it entailed upon survivors; in a fair estimate of those it destroyed, it would often be comparatively a trivial event. The laws of nature which produce it are a fit subject of investigation; but their effects, contrasted with many other events, are scarcely a topic of regret. The case is altogether different when man falls by the hand of his neighbour. Here a thousand ill passions are generated. The perpetrators, and the witnesses of murders, become obdurate, unrelenting and inhuman. Those who sustain the loss of relations or friends by a catastrophe of this sort are filled with indignation and revenge. Distrust is propagated from man to man, and the dearest ties of human society are dissolved. It is impossible to devise a temper more inauspicious to the cultivation of justice and the diffusion of benevolence.
To the remark that revolutions can scarcely be unaccompanied with the shedding of blood, it may be added that they are necessarily crude and premature. Politics is a science. The general features of the nature of man are capable of being understood, and a mode may be delineated which, in itself considered, is best adapted to the condition of man in society. If this mode ought not, everywhere, and instantly, to be fought to be reduced into practice, the modifications that are to be given it in conformity to the variation of circumstances, and the degrees in which it is to be realized, are also a topic of scientifical disquisition. Now it is clearly the nature of science to be progressive in its advances. How various were the stages of astronomy before it received the degree of perfection which was given it by Newton? How imperfect were the lispings of intellectual science before it attained the precision of the present century? Political knowledge is, no doubt, in its infancy; and, as it is an affair of life and action, will, in proportion as it gathers vigour, manifest a more uniform and less precarious influence upon the concerns of human society. It is the history of all science to be known first to a few, before it descends through the various descriptions and classes of the community. Thus, for twenty years, and Principia of Newton had scarcely any readers, and his system continued unknown; the next twenty perhaps sufficed to make the outlines of that system familiar to almost every person in the slightest degree tinctured with science.
The only method according to which social improvements can be carried on, with sufficient prospect of an auspicious event, is when the improvement of our institutions advances in a just proportion to the illumination of the public understanding. There is a condition of political society best adapted to every different stage of individual improvement. The more nearly this condition is successively realized, the more advantageously will the general interest be consulted. There is a sort of provision in the nature of the human mind for this species of progress. Imperfect institutions, as has already been shown, cannot long support themselves when they are generally disapproved of, and their effects truly understood. There is a period at which they may be expected to decline and expire, almost without an effort. Reform, under this meaning of the term, can scarcely be considered as of the nature of action. Men feel their situation; and the restraints that shackled them before vanish like a deception. When such a crisis has arrived, not a sword will need to be drawn, not a finger to be lifted up in purposes of violence. The adversaries will be too few and too feeble to be able to entertain a serious thought of resistance against the universal sense of mankind.
Under this view of the subject then it appears that revolutions, instead of being truly beneficial to mankind, answer no other purpose than that of marring the salutary and uninterrupted progress which might be expected to attend upon political truth and social improvement. They disturb the harmony of intellectual nature. They propose to give us something for which we are not prepared, and which we cannot effectually use. They suspend the wholesome advancement of science, and confound the process of nature and reason.
We have hitherto argued upon the supposition that the attempt which shall be made to effect a revolution shall be crowned with success. But this supposition must by no means be suffered to pass without notice. Every attempt of this sort, even if menaced only, and not carried into act, tends to excite a resistance which otherwise would never be consolidated. The enemies of innovation become alarmed by the intemperance of its friends. The storm gradually thickens, and each party arms itself in silence with the weapons of violence and stratagem. Let us observe the consequence of this. So long as the contest is merely between truth and sophistry, we may look with tolerable assurance to the progress and result. But, when we lay aside arguments, and have recourse to the sword, the case is altered. Amidst the barbarous rage of war, and the clamorous din of civil contention, who shall tell whether the event will be prosperous or adverse? The consequence may be the riveting on us anew the chains of despotism, and ensuring, through a considerable period, the triumph of oppression, even if it should fail to carry us back to a state of torpor, and obliterate the memory of all our improvements.
If such are the genuine features of revolution, it will be fortunate if it can be made appear that revolution is wholly unnecessary, and the conviction of the understanding a means fully adequate to the demolishing political abuse. But this point has already been established in a former part of our enquiry. It is common to affirm "that men may sufficiently know the error of their conduct, and yet be in no degree inclined to forsake it." This assertion however is no otherwise rendered plausible than by the vague manner in which we are accustomed to understand the term knowledge. The voluntary actions of men originate in their opinions. Whatever we believe to have the strongest inducements in its behalf, that we infallibly choose and pursue. It is impossible that we should choose anything as evil. It is impossible that a man should perpetrate a crime in the moment that he sees it in all its enormity. In every example of this sort, there is a struggle between knowledge on one side, and error or habit on the other. While the knowledge continues in all its vigour, the ill action cannot be perpetrated. In proportion as the knowledge escapes from the mind, and is no longer recollected, the error or habit may prevail. But it is reasonable to suppose that the permanence, as well as vigour, of our perceptions is capable of being increased to an indefinite extent. Knowledge in this sense, understanding by it a clear and undoubting apprehension, such as no delusion can resist, is a thing totally different from what is ordinarily called by that name, from a sentiment seldom recollected, and, when it is recollected, scarcely felt or understood.
The beauty of the conception here delineated, of the political improvement of mankind, must be palpable to every observer. Still it may be urged "that, even granting this, truth may be too tardy in its operation. Ages will elapse," we shall be told, "before speculative views of the evils of privilege and monopoly shall have spread so wide, and been felt so deeply, as to banish these evils without commotion or struggle. It is easy for a reasoner to sit down in his closet, and amuse himself with the beauty of the conception, but in the meantime mankind are suffering, injustice is hourly perpetrated, and generations of men may languish, in the midst of fair promises and hopes, and leave the stage without participating in the benefit. Cheat us not then," it will be said, "with remote and uncertain prospects; but let us embrace a method which shall secure us speedy deliverance from evils too hateful to be endured."
In answer to this representation, it is to be observed, first, that every attempt suddenly to rescue a whole community from an usurpation the evils of which few understand has already been shown to be attended, always with calamity, frequently with miscarriage.
Secondly, it is a mistake to suppose that, because we have no popular commotions and violence, the generation in which we live will have no benefit from the improvement of our political principles. Every change of sentiment, from moral delusion to truth, every addition we make to the clearness of our apprehension on this subject, and the recollectedness and independence of our mind, is itself abstracted from the absolute change of our institutions, an unquestionable acquisition. Freedom of institution is desirable chiefly because it is connected with independence of mind; if we gain the end, we may reasonably consent to be less solicitous about the means. In reality however, wherever the political opinions of a community, or any considerable portion of a community, are changed, the institutions are affected also. They relax their hold upon the mind; they are viewed with a different spirit; they gradually, and almost without notice, sink into oblivion. The advantage gained in every stage of the progress without commotion is nearly the precise advantage it is most for the interest of the public to secure.
In the meantime it is impossible not to remark a striking futility in the objection we are endeavouring to answer. The objectors complain "that the system which trusts to reason alone is calculated to deprive the present generation of the practical benefit of political improvements." Yet we have just shown that it secures to them great practical benefit; while, on the other hand, nothing is more common, than to hear the advocates of force themselves confess that a grand revolution includes in it the sacrifice of one generation. Its conductors encounter the calamities attendant on fundamental innovation, that their posterity may reap the fruits in tranquillity.
Thirdly, it is a mistake to suppose that the system of trusting to reason alone is calculated to place fundamental reform at an immeasurable distance. It is the nature of all science and improvement to be slow, and in a manner imperceptible, in its first advances. Its commencement is as it were by accident. Few advert to it; few have any perception of its existence. It attains its growth in obscurity; and its result, though long in the preparation, is to a considerable degree sudden and unexpected. Thus it is perhaps that we ought to regard the introduction of printing as having given its full security to the emancipation of mankind. But this progressive consequence was long unsuspected; and it was reserved for the penetrating mind of Wolfey to predict almost three centuries ago, speaking in the name of the Romish clergy, "We must destroy the press; or the press will destroy us." At present, It requires no extraordinary sagacity to perceive that the most enormous abuses of political institution are hastening to their end. There is no enemy to this auspicious crisis more to be feared than the well meaning, but intemperate, champion of the general good.
There is a passage in a work of Helvetius written to be published after his death, which happened in 1771, so much in the tone of the dissatisfied and despairing advocates of public liberty at present, as to deserve to be cited in this place. "In the history of every people," says he, "there are moments in which, uncertain of the side they shall choose, and balanced between political good and evil, they feel a desire to be instructed; in which the soil, so to express myself, is in some manner prepared, and may easily be penetrated by the dew of truth. At such a moment, the publication of a valuable book may give birth to the most auspicious reforms: but, when that moment is no more, the nation, become insensible to the best motives, is, by the nature of its government, irrecoverably plunged in ignorance and stupidity. The soil of intellect is then hard and impenetrable; the rains may fall, may spread their moisture upon the surface, but the prospect of fertility is gone. Such is the condition of France. Her people are become the contempt of Europe. No salutary crisis shall ever restore them to liberty."
It is scarcely necessary to add that the French revolution was at this time preparing by an incessant chain of events; and that the train may particularly be considered as taking its date from the circumstance, the destruction of the parliaments by Louis XV, which inspired Helvétius with so melancholy a presage.
An additional support to the objection we are here attempting to remove may be derived from the idea, not only "that truth is slow in its progress," but "that it is not always progressive, but subject, like other human things, to the vicissitudes of flux and reflux." This opinion has hitherto been of great influence in public affairs, and it has been considered as "the part of a wise statesman to embrace the opportunity, when the people are inclined to any measure in which he wishes to engage them, and not to wait till their fervour has subsided, and the moment of willing co-operation is past."
Undoubtedly there is the appearance of flux and reflux in human affairs. In subordinate articles, there will be a fashion, rendering one truth more popular, and more an object of attention, at one time, than at another. But the mass of truth seems too large a consideration to be susceptible of these vicissitudes. It has proceeded, from the revival of letters to the present hour, with an irresistible advance; and the apparent deviousnesses of literature seem to resolve themselves into a grand collective consistency. Not one step has been made in retrogression. Mathematics, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, philology and politics, have reached, by regular improvements, to their present degree of perfection.
"But, whatever may be said of the history of the human mind since the revival of letters, its history from the earliest records of man displays a picture of a different sort. Here certainly it has not been all progression. Greece and Rome present themselves like two favoured spots in the immense desert of intellect; and their glory in this respect was exceedingly transient. Athens arrived at an excellence so great, in poetry, in eloquence, in the acuteness and vigour of its philosophers, and in skill in the fine arts, as all the ages of the world are not able to parallel. But this skill was attained, only to be afterwards forgotten; it was succeeded by a night of barbarism; and we are at this moment, in some of these points, exerting ourselves to arrive at the ground which they formerly occupied. The same remarks which apply to individual improvement equally apply to the subject of politics; we have not yet realized the political advantages, to which they were indebted for their greatness."
There is but one consideration that can be opposed to this statement: the discovery of printing. By this art we seem to be secured against the future perishing of human improvement. Knowledge is communicated to too many individuals to afford its adversaries a chance of suppressing it. The monopoly of science, though, from the love of distinction, which so extensively characterizes the human race, it has been endeavoured to be prolonged, is substantially at an end. By the easy multiplication of copies, and the cheapness of books, everyone has access to them. The extreme inequality of information among different members of the same community, which existed in ancient times is diminished. A class of men is become numerous which was then comparatively unknown, and we see vast multitudes who, though condemned to labour for the perpetual acquisition of the means of subsistence, have yet a superficial knowledge of most of the discoveries and topics which are investigated by the learned. The consequence is that the possessors of knowledge being more, its influence is more certain. Under different circumstances, it was occasionally only that men were wrought upon to extraordinary exertions; but with us the whole is regular and systematical.
There is one general observation which ought to be made before the subject is dismissed. It has perhaps sufficiently appeared, from the preceding discussion, that revolutions are necessarily attended with many circumstances worthy of our disapprobation, and that they are by no means essential to the political improvement of mankind. Yet, after all, it ought not to be forgotten that, though the connection be not essential or requisite, revolutions and violence have too often been coeval with important changes of the social system. What has so often happened in time past is not unlikely occasionally to happen in future. The duty therefore of the true politician is to postpone revolution if he cannot entirely prevent it. It is reasonable to believe that the later it occurs, and the more generally ideas of political good and evil are previously understood, the shorter, and the less deplorable, will be the mischiefs attendant on revolution. The friend of human happiness will endeavour to prevent violence; but it would be the mark of a weak and valetudinarian temper to turn away our eyes from human affairs in disgust, and refuse to contribute our labours and attention to the general weal, because perhaps, at last, violence may forcibly intrude itself. It is our duty to make a proper advantage of circumstances as they arise, and not to withdraw ourselves because everything is not conducted according to our ideas of propriety. The men who grow angry with corruption, and impatient at injustice, and through those sentiments favour the abettors of revolution, have an obvious apology to palliate their errors; theirs is the excess of a virtuous feeling. At the same time, however amiable may be the source of their error, the error itself is probably fraught with consequences pernicious to mankind.
. Book II, Chap. II.
. p. 128
. Book I, Chap. VI.
. Book I, Chap. V.
. Book I, Chap. V.
. Chap. I.
. "Dans chaque nation il est des momens où les citoyens, incertains du parti qu'ils doivent prendre, et suspendus entre un bon et un mauvais gouvernement, éprouvent la soif de l'instruction, où les esprits, si je l'ose dire, préparés et ameublis peuvent être facilement pénetrés de la rosée de la vérité. Qu'en ce moment un bon ouvrage paroisse, il peut opérer d'heureuses réformes: mais cet instant passé, les citoyens, insensibles à la gloire, sont par la forme de leur gouvernement invinciblement entraînés vers l'ignorance et l'abrutissement. Alors les ésprits sont la terre endurcie: l'eau de la vérité y tombe, y coule, mais sans la féconder. Tel est l'état de la France. Cette nation avilie est aujourd'hui le mépris de l'Europe. Nulle crise salutaire ne lui rendra la liberté." De l'Homme, Préface.
Many arguments have been alleged in favour of such associations. It has been said "that they are necessary to give effect to public opinion, which, in its insulated state, is incapable of counteracting abuses the most generally disapproved, or of carrying into effect what is most generally desired." They have been represented "as indispensable for the purpose of ascertaining public opinion, which must otherwise forever remain in a great degree problematical." Lastly, they have been pointed out "as the most useful means for generating a sound public opinion, and diffusing, in the most rapid and effectual manner, political information."
In answer to these allegations, various things may be observed. That opinion will always have its weight; that all government is founded in opinion; and that public institutions will fluctuate with the fluctuations of opinion, without its being necessary for that purpose that opinion should be furnished with an extraordinary organ; are points perhaps sufficiently established in the preceding divisions of this work. These principles amount to a sufficient answer to the two first arguments in favour of political associations: the third shall receive a more particular discussion.
One of the most obvious features of political association is its tendency to make a part stand for the whole. A number of persons, sometimes greater and sometimes less, combine together. The tendency of their combination, often avowed, but always unavoidable, is to give to their opinion a weight and operation which the opinion of unconnected individuals cannot have. A greater number, some from the urgency of their private affairs, some from a temper averse to scenes of concourse and contention, and others from a conscientious disapprobation of the measures pursued, withhold themselves from such combinations. The acrimonious, the intemperate, and the artful will generally be found among the most forward in matters of this kind. The prudent, the sober, the sceptical, and the contemplative, those who have no resentments to gratify, and no selfish purposes to promote, will be overborne and lost in the progress. What justification can be advanced for a few persons who thus, from mere impetuosity and incontinence of temper, occupy a post the very principle of which is the passing them for some thing greater and more important in the community than they are? Is the business of reform likely to be well and judiciously conducted in such hands? Add to this that associations in favour of one set of political tenets are likely to engender counter-associations in favour of another. Thus we should probably be involved in all the mischiefs of resistance, and all the uproar of revolution.
Political reform cannot be usefully effected but through the medium of the discovery of political truth. But truth will never be investigated in a manner sufficiently promising if violence and passion be not removed to a distance. To whatever property adhering to the human mind, or accident affecting it, we are to ascribe the phenomenon, certain it is that truth does not lie upon the surface. It is laborious enquiry that has, in almost all instances, led to important discovery. If therefore we are desirous to liberate ourselves and our neighbours from the influence of prejudice, we must suffer nothing but arguments to bear sway in the discussion. The writings and the tenets which offer themselves to public attention should rest upon their own merits. No patronage, no recommendations, no lift of venerable names to bribe our suffrage, no importunity to induce us, to bestow upon them our consideration, and to consider them with favour. These however are small matters. It is much worse than this, when any species of publications is patronized by political associations. The publications are then perused, not to see whether what they contain is true or false, but that the reader may learn from them how he is to think upon the subjects of which they treat. A sect is generated, and upon grounds not less irrational than those of the worst superstition that ever infested mankind.
If we would arrive at truth, each man must be taught to enquire and think for himself. If a hundred men spontaneously engage the whole energy of their faculties upon the solution of a given question, the chance of success will be greater than if only ten men are so employed. By the same reason, the chance will also be increased in proportion as the intellectual operations of these men are individual, and their conclusions are suggested by the reason of the thing, uninfluenced by the force either of compulsion or sympathy. But, in political associations, the object of each man is to identify his creed with that of his neighbour. We learn the Shibboleth of a party. We dare not leave our minds at large in the field of enquiry, lest we should arrive at some tenet disrelished by our party. We have no temptation to enquire. Party has a more powerful tendency than perhaps any other circumstance in human affairs to render the mind quiescent and stationary. Instead of making each man an individual, which the interest of the whole requires, it resolves all understandings into one common mass, and subtracts from each the varieties that could alone distinguish him from a brute machine. Having learned the creed of our party, we have no longer any employment for those faculties which might lead us to detect its errors. We have arrived, in our own opinion, at the last page of the volume of truth; and all that remains is by some means to effect the adoption of our sentiments as the standard of right to the whole race of mankind. The indefatigable votary of justice and truth will adhere to a mode of proceeding the opposite of this. He will mix at large among his species; he will converse with men of all orders and parties; he will fear to attach himself in his intercourse to any particular set of men, lest his thoughts should become insensibly warped, and he should make to himself a world of petty dimensions, instead of that liberal and various scene in which nature has permitted him to expatiate. In fine, from these considerations it appears that associations, instead of promoting the growth and diffusion of truth, tend only to check its accumulation, and render its operation, as far as possible, unnatural and mischievous.
There is another circumstance to be mentioned, strongly calculated to confirm this position. A necessary attendant upon political associations is harangue and declamation. A majority of the members of any numerous popular society will look to these harangues as the school in which they are to study, in order to become the reservoirs of practical truth to the rest of mankind. But harangues and declamation lead to passion, and not to knowledge. The memory of the hearer is crowded with pompous nothings, with images and not arguments. He is never permitted to be sober enough to weigh things with an unshaken hand. It would be inconsistent with the art of eloquence to strip the subject of every meretricious ornament. Instead of informing the understanding of the hearer by a flow and regular progression, the orator must beware of detail, must render everything rapid, and from time to time work up the passions of his hearers to a tempest of applause. Truth can scarcely be acquired in crowded halls and amidst noisy debates. Where hope and fear, triumph and resentment, are perpetually afloat, the severer faculties of investigation are compelled to quit the field. Truth dwells with contemplation. We can seldom make much progress in the business of disentangling error and delusion but in sequestered privacy, or in the tranquil interchange of sentiments that takes place between two persons.
In every numerous association of men there will be a portion of rivalship and ambition. Those persons who stand forward in the assembly will be anxious to increase the number of their favourers and adherents. This anxiety will necessarily engender some degree of art. It is unavoidable that, in thinking much of the public, they should not be led, by this propensity, to think much also of themselves. In the propositions they bring forward, in the subjects they discuss, in the side they espouse of these subjects, they will inevitably be biassed by the consideration of what will be most acceptable to their partisans, and popular with their hearers. There is a sort of partiality to particular men that is commendable. We ought to honour usefulness, and adhere to worth. But the partiality which is disingenuously cultivated by weakness on both sides is not commendable. The partiality which grows out of a mutual surrender of the understanding, where the leader first resigns the integrity of his judgement, that he may cherish and take advantage of the defects of his followers, bears an unfavourable aspect upon the common welfare. In this scene truth cannot gain; on the contrary it is forgotten, that error, a more accommodating principle, may be exhibited to advantage, and serve the personal ends of its professors.
Another feature attendant on collections of men meeting together for the transaction of business is contentious dispute and long consultation about matters of the most trivial importance. Every human being possesses, and ought to possess, his particular mode of seeing and judging. The business upon such occasions is to twist and distort the sense of each, so that, though they were all different at first, they may in the end be all alike. Is any proposition, letter, or declaration, to be drawn up in the name of the whole? Perhaps it is confided to one man at first, but it is amended, altered and metamorphosed, according to the fancy of many, till at last, what once perhaps was reasonable comes out the most inexplicable jargon. Commas are to be adjusted, and particles debated. Is this an employment for rational beings? Is this an improvement upon the simple and inartificial scene of things, when each man speaks and writes his mind, in such eloquence as his sentiments dictate, and with unfettered energy; not anxious, while he gives vent to the enthusiasm of his conceptions, lest his words should not be exactly those in which his neighbours would equally have chosen to express themselves?
An appetite perpetually vexing the minds of political associators is that of doing something, that their association may not fall into insignificancy. Affairs must wait upon them, and not they wait upon affairs. They are not content to act when some public emergence seems to require their interference, and point out to them a just mode of proceeding; they must make the emergence to satisfy the restlessness of their disposition. Thus they are ever at hand, to mar the tranquillity of science, and the unshackled and unobserved progress of truth. They terrify the rest of the community from boldness of opinion, and chain them down to their prejudices, by the alarm which is excited by their turbulence of character. -- It should always be remembered in these cases that all confederate action is of the nature of government, and that consequently every argument of this work, which is calculated to display the evils of government, and to recommend the restraining it within as narrow limits as possible, is equally hostile to political associations. They have also a disadvantage peculiar to themselves, as they are an obvious usurpation upon the rights of the public, without any pretence of delegation from the community at large.
The last circumstance to be enumerated among the disadvantages of political association is its tendency to disorder and tumult. Nothing is more notorious than the ease with which the conviviality of a crowded feast may degenerate into the depredations of a riot. While the sympathy of opinion catches from man to man, especially among persons whose passions have been little used to the curb of judgement, actions may be determined on which the solitary reflection of all would have rejected. There is nothing more barbarous, blood-thirsty and unfeeling than the triumph of a mob. It should be remembered that the members of such associations are ever employed in cultivating a sentiment peculiarly hostile to political justice, antipathy to individuals; not a benevolent love of equality, but a bitter and personal detestation of their oppressors.
But, though association, in the received sense of that term, must be granted to be an instrument of very dangerous nature, unreserved communication, especially among persons who are already awakened to the pursuit of truth, is of no less unquestionable advantage. There is at present in the world a cold reserve that keeps man at a distance from man. There is an art in the practice of which individuals communicate for ever, without anyone telling his neighbour what estimate he forms of his attainments and character, how they ought to be employed, and how to be improved. There is a sort of domestic tactics, the object of which is to elude curiosity, and keep up the tenour of conversation, without the disclosure either of our feelings or opinions. The friend of justice will have no object more deeply at heart than the annihilation of this duplicity. The man whose heart overflows with kindness for his species will habituate himself to consider, in each successive occasion of social intercourse, how that occasion may be most beneficently improved. Among the topics to which he will be anxious to awaken attention, politics will occupy a principal share.
Books have by their very nature but a limited operation; though, on account of their permanence, their methodical disquisition, and their easiness of access, they are entitled to the foremost place. The number of those who almost wholly abstain from reading is exceedingly great. Books, to those by whom they are read, have a sort of constitutional coldness. We review the arguments of an "insolent innovator" with sullenness, and are unwilling to expand our minds to take in their force. It is with difficulty that we obtain the courage to strike into untrodden paths, and question tenets that have been generally received. But conversation accustoms us to hear a variety of sentiments, obliges us to exercise patience and attention, and gives freedom and elasticity to our disquisitions. A thinking man, if he will recollect his intellectual history, will find that he has derived inestimable benefit from the stimulus and surprise of colloquial suggestions; and, if he review the history of literature, will perceive that minds of great acuteness and ability have commonly existed in a cluster.
It follows that the promoting the best interests of mankind eminently depends upon the freedom of social communication. Let us figure to ourselves a number of individuals who, having stored their minds with reading and reflection, are accustomed, in candid and unreserved conversation, to compare their ideas, suggest their doubts, examine their mutual difficulties and cultivate a perspicuous and animated manner of delivering their sentiments. Let us suppose that their intercourse is not confined to the society of each other, but that they are desirous extensively to communicate the truths with which they are acquainted. Let us suppose their illustrations to be not more distinguished by impartiality and demonstrative clearness than by the mildness of their temper, and a spirit of comprehensive benevolence. We shall then have an idea of knowledge as perpetually gaining ground, unaccompanied with peril in the means of its diffusion. Their hearers will be instigated to impart their acquisitions to still other hearers, and the circle of instruction will perpetually increase. Reason will spread, and not a brute and unintelligent sympathy.
Discussion perhaps never exists with so much vigour and utility as in the conversation of two persons. It may be carried on with advantage in small and friendly circles. Does the fewness of their numbers imply the rarity of such discussion? Far otherwise: show to mankind, by an adequate example, the advantages of political disquisition, undebauched by political enmity and vehemence, and the beauty of the spectacle will soon render it contagious. Every man will commune with his neighbour. Every man will be eager to tell, and to hear, what the interests of all require them to know. The bolts and fortifications of the temple of truth will be removed. The craggy steep of science, which it was before difficult to ascend, will be levelled. Knowledge will be generally accessible. Wisdom will be the inheritance of man, and none will be excluded from it but by their own heedlessness and prodigality. Truth, and above all political truth, is not hard to acquisition, but from the superciliousness of its professors. It has been slow and tedious of improvement, because the study of it has been relegated to doctors and civilians. It has produced little effect upon the practice of mankind, because it has not been allowed a plain and direct appeal to their understandings. Remove these obstacles, render it the common property, bring it into daily use, and we may reasonably promise ourselves consequences of inestimable value.
But these consequences are the property only of independent and impartial discussion. If once the unambitious and candid disquisitions of enquiring men be swallowed up in the insatiate gulf of noisy assemblies, the opportunity of improvement is annihilated. The happy varieties of sentiment which so eminently contribute to intellectual acuteness are lost. A fallacious uniformity of opinion is produced, which no man espouses from conviction, but which carries all men along with a resistless tide. Truth disclaims the alliance of marshalled numbers.
The same qualifications belong to this subject, as before to the head of revolutions. Though, from what has been said, it may sufficiently appear that association is scarcely in any case to be desired, there are considerations which should lead us sometimes to judge it with moderation and forbearance. There is one mode according to which the benefit of mankind may best be promoted, and which ought always to be employed. But mankind are imperfect beings. While opinion is advancing with silent step, impatience and zeal may be expected somewhat to outrun her progress. Associations, as a measure intrinsically wrong, the wise man will endeavour to check and postpone, as much as he can. But, when the crisis arrives, he will not be induced by the irregularities of the friends of equality to remain neutral, but will endeavour to forward her reign, as far as the nature of the case shall appear to admit. It may even happen that, in the moment of convulsion, and the terror of general anarchy, something in the nature of association may be indispensably connected with the general safety. But, even granting this, it need not be prepared beforehand. Such preparation has a tendency to wear out the expedient. In a crisis really auspicious to public liberty, it is reason able to believe that there will be men of character and vigour, called out on the spur of the occasion, and by the state of political knowledge in general, who will be adequate to the scenes they have to encounter. The soil in which such men are to be matured is less that of action than of enquiry and instruction.
Again; there are two objects which association may propose to itself, general reform and the remedy of some pressing and momentary evil. These objects may be entitled to a different treatment. The first ought surely to proceed with a leisurely step, and in all possible tranquillity. The second appears to require somewhat more of activity. It is the characteristic of truth to trust much to its own energy, and to resist invasion rather by the force of conviction than of arms. The oppressed individual however seems particularly entitled to our assistance; and this can best be afforded by the concurrence of many. It appears reasonable that, when a man is unjustly attacked by the whole force of the party in power, he should be countenanced and protected by men who are determined to resist such oppressive partiality, and prevent the rights of all from being wounded through the medium of the individual, as far as that can be done consistently with peace and-good order. It is probable however that every association will degenerate, and become a mass of abuses that is suffered to perpetuate itself, or to exist longer than is necessary, for the single and momentary purpose for which only it can justly be instituted.
It seems scarcely necessary to add in treating this subject that the individuals who are engaged in the transactions here censured have frequently been excited by the best intentions, and inspired with the most liberal views. It would be in the highest degree unjust if their undertakings should be found of dangerous tendency, to involve the authors in indiscriminate censure for consequences they did not foresee. But, in proportion to the purity of their views and the soundness of their principles, it were to be desired they should seriously reflect on the means they employ. It will be greatly to be lamented if those who, so far as regards their intention, are among the truest friends to the welfare of mankind should, by the injudiciousness of their conduct, rank themselves among its practical enemies.
. Book I. Chap. V.
. Book I. Chap. VI; Book II, Chap. III.
. Book I. Chap. V; Book III, Chap.VII; Book IV, Chap. II.
The arguments in its favour are built upon a very obvious principle. "Justice ought universally to be administered. Crimes of an inferior description are restrained, or pretended to be restrained, by the ordinary operations of jurisprudence. But criminals by whom the welfare of the whole is attacked, and who overturn the liberties of mankind, are out of the reach of this restraint. If justice be partially administered in subordinate cases, and the rich man be able to oppress the poor with impunity, it must be admitted that a few examples of this sort are insufficient to authorize the last appeal of human beings. But no man will deny that the case of the usurper and the despot is of the most atrocious nature. In this instance, all the provisions of civil policy being superseded, and justice poisoned at the source, every man is left to execute for himself the decrees of immutable equity."
It may however be doubted whether the destruction of a tyrant be, in any respect, a case of exception from the rules proper to be observed upon ordinary occasions. The tyrant has indeed no particular sanctity annexed to his person, and may be killed with as little scruple as any other man, when the object is that of repelling personal assault. In all other cases, the extirpation of the offender by a self-appointed authority does not appear to be the appropriate mode of counteracting injustice.
For, first, either the nation whose tyrant you would destroy is ripe for the assertion and maintenance of its liberty, or it is not. If it be, the tyrant ought to be deposed with every appearance of publicity. Nothing can be more improper than for an affair, interesting to the general weal, to be conducted as if it were an act of darkness and shame. It is an ill lesson we read to mankind, when a proceeding, built upon the broad basis of general justice, is permitted to shrink from public scrutiny. The pistol and the dagger may as easily be made the auxiliaries of vice, as of virtue. To proscribe all violence, and neglect no means of information and impartiality, is the most effectual security we can have, for an issue conformable to reason and truth.
If, on the other hand, the nation be not ripe for a state of freedom, the man who assumes to himself the right of interposing violence may indeed show the fervour of his conception, and gain a certain notoriety; but he will not fail to be the author of new calamities to his country. The consequences of tyrannicide are well known. If the attempt prove abortive, it renders the tyrant ten times more bloody, ferocious and cruel than before. If it succeed, and the tyranny be restored, it produces the same effect upon his successors. In the climate of despotism some solitary virtues may spring up. But, in the midst of plots and conspiracies, there is neither truth, nor confidence, nor love, nor humanity.
Secondly, the true merits of the question will be still further understood if we reflect on the nature of assassination. The mistake which has been incurred upon this subject is to be imputed principally to the superficial view that has been taken of it. If its advocates had followed the conspirator through all his windings, and observed his perpetual alarm, lest truth should become known, they would probably have been less indiscriminate in their applause. No action can be imagined more directly at war with a principle of ingenuousness and candour. Like all that is most odious in the catalogue of vices, it delights in obscurity. It shrinks from the piercing light of day. It avoids all question, and hesitates and trembles before the questioner. It struggles for a tranquil gaiety, and is only complete where there is the most perfect hypocrisy. It changes the use of speech, and composes every feature the better to deceive.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim
is mystery and reserve. Is it possible to believe that a person who has upon him all the indications of guilt is engaged in an action which virtue enjoins? The same duplicity follows him to the last. Imagine to yourself the conspirators kneeling at the feet of Caesar, as they did the moment before they destroyed him! not all the virtue of Brutus can save them from your indignation.
There cannot be a better instance than that of which we are treating, to prove the importance of general sincerity. We see in this example that an action which has been undertaken from the best motives may, by a defect in this particular, tend to overturn the very foundations of justice and happiness. Wherever there is assassination, there is an end to all confidence among men. Protests and asseverations go for nothing. No man presumes to know his neighbour's intention. The boundaries that have hitherto served to divide the honest man from the profligate are gone. The true interests of mankind require, not the removal, but the confirmation of these boundaries. All morality proceeds upon mutual confidence and esteem, will grow and expand as the grounds of that confidence shall be more evident, and must inevitably decay, in proportion as they are undermined.
. Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Act ii.
Tenets the opposite of these constitute the great outline of the present work. If there be any truth in the reasonings hitherto adduced, we are entitled to conclude that morality, the science of human happiness, the principle which binds the individual to the species, and the inducements which are calculated to persuade us to model our conduct in the way most conducive to the advantage of all, does not rest upon imposture and delusion, but upon grounds that discovery will never undermine, and wisdom never refute. We do not need therefore to be led to that which is fitting and reasonable, by deceitful allurements. We have no cause to fear that the man who shall see furthest and judge with the most perfect penetration will be less estimable and useful, or will find fewer charms in another's happiness and virtue, than if he were under the dominion of error. If the conduct I am required to observe be reasonable, there is no plainer or more forcible mode of persuading me to adopt it than to exhibit it in its true colours, and show me the benefits that will really accrue from it. As long as these benefits are present to my mind I shall have a desire, an ardour for performing the action which leads to them, to the full as great as the occasion will justify; and, if the occasion be of real magnitude, my ardour will be more genuine, and better endure the test of experiment, than it can when combined with narrow views or visionary credulity. Truth and falsehood cannot subsist together: he that sees the merits of a case in all their clearness cannot in that instance be the dupe either of prejudice or superstition. Nor is there any reason to believe that sound conviction will be less permanent in its influence than sophistry and error.
The value of truth will be still further illustrated if we consider it in detail, and enquire into its effects, either abstractedly, under which form it bears the appellation of science and knowledge; or practically, as it relates to the incidents and commerce of ordinary life, where it is known by the denomination of sincerity.
Abstractedly considered, it conduces to the happiness and virtue of the individual, as well as to the improvement of our social institutions.
In the discovery and knowledge of truth seems to be comprised, for the most part, all that an impartial and reflecting mind is accustomed to admire. No one is ignorant of the pleasures of knowledge. In human life there must be a distribution of time, and a variety of occupations. Now there is perhaps no occupation so much at our command, no pleasure of the means of which we are so likely to be deprived, as that which is intellectual. Sublime and expansive ideas produce delicious emotions. The acquisition of truth, the perception of the regularity with which proposition flows out of proposition, and one step of science leads to another, has never failed to reward the man who engaged in this species of employment. Knowledge contributes two ways to our happiness: First by the new sources of enjoyment which it opens upon us, and next by furnishing us with a clue in the selection of all other pleasures. No well informed man can seriously doubt of the advantages with respect to happiness of a capacious and improved intellect over the limited conceptions of a brute. Virtuous sentiments are another source of personal pleasure, and that of a more exquisite kind than intellectual improvements. But virtue itself depends for its value upon the energies of intellect. If the beings we are capable of benefiting were susceptible of nothing more than brutes are, we should have little pleasure in benefiting them, or in contemplating their happiness. But man has so many enjoyments, is capable of so high a degree of perfection, of exhibiting, socially considered, so admirable a spectacle, and of himself so truly estimating and favouring the spectacle, that, when we are engaged in promoting his benefit, we are indeed engaged in a sublime and ravishing employment. This is the case whether our exertions are directed to the advantage of the species or the individual. We rejoice when we save an ordinary man from destruction more than when we save a brute, because we recollect how much more he can feel, and how much more he can do. The same principle produces a still higher degree of congratulation in proportion as the man we save is more highly accomplished in talents and virtues.
Secondly, truth conduces to our improvement in virtue. Virtue, in its purest and most liberal sense, supposes an extensive survey of causes and their consequences that, having struck a just balance between the benefits and injuries that adhere to human affairs, we may adopt the proceeding which leads to the greatest practicable advantage. Virtue, like every other endowment of man, admits of degrees. He therefore must be confessed to be most virtuous who chooses with the soundest judgement the greatest and most universal overbalance of pleasure. But, in order to choose the greatest and most excellent pleasures, he must be intimately acquainted with the nature of man, its general features and its varieties. In order to forward the object he has chosen, he must have considered the different instruments for impressing mind, and the modes of applying them, and must know the properest moment for bringing them into action. In whatever light we consider virtue, whether we place it in the act or the disposition, its degree must be intimately connected with the degree of knowledge. No man can so much as love virtue sufficiently who has not an acute and lively perception of its beauty, and its tendency to produce the most solid and permanent happiness. What comparison can be made between the virtue of Socrates, and that of a Hottentot or a Siberian? A humorous example how universally this truth has been perceived may be taken from Tertullian, who, as a father of the church, was obliged to maintain the hollowness and insignificance of pagan virtues, and accordingly assures us, "that the most ignorant peasant under the Christian dispensation possesses more real knowledge than the wisest of the ancient philosophers."
We shall be more fully aware of the connection between virtue and knowledge if we consider that the highest employment of virtue is to propagate itself. Virtue alone deserves to be considered as leading to true happiness, the happiness which is most solid and durable. Sensual pleasures are momentary; they fill a very short portion of our time with enjoyment, and leave long intervals of painful vacuity. They charm principally by their novelty; by repetition they first abate of their poignancy, and at last become little less than wearisome. It is perhaps partly to be ascribed to the high estimation in which sensual pleasures are held that old age is so early and regular in its ravages. Our taste for these pleasures necessarily declines; with our taste our activity; and with our activity gradually crumble away the cheerfulness, the energy and the lives, of those whose dependence was placed upon these resources. Even knowledge, and the enlargement of intellect, are poor when unmixed with sentiments of benevolence and sympathy. Emotions are scarcely ever thrilling and electrical without something of social feeling. When the mind expands in works of taste and imagination, it will usually be found that there is something moral in the cause which gives birth to this expansion; and science and abstraction will soon become cold, unless they derive new attractions from ideas of society. In proportion therefore to the virtue of the individual will be the permanence of his cheerfulness, and the exquisiteness of his emotions. Add to which, benevolence is a resource which is never exhausted; but on the contrary, the more habitual are our patriotism and philanthropy, the more will they become invigorating and ardent.
It is also impossible that any situation can occur in which virtue cannot find room to expatiate. In society there is continual opportunity for its active employment. I cannot have intercourse with a human being who may not be the better for that intercourse. If he be already just and virtuous, these qualities are improved by communication. If he be imperfect and erroneous, there must always be some prejudice I may contribute to destroy, some motive to delineate, some error to remove. If I be prejudiced and imperfect myself, it cannot however happen that my prejudices and imperfections shall be exactly coincident with his. I may therefore inform him of the truths that I know, and, even by the collision of prejudices, truth is elicited. It is impossible that I should strenuously apply myself to his improvement with sincere motives of benevolence, without some good being the result. Nor am I more at a loss in solitude. In solitude I may accumulate the materials of social benefit. No situation can be so desperate as to preclude these efforts. Voltaire, when shut up in the Bastille, and for aught he knew for life, deprived of the means either of writing or reading, arranged and in part executed the project of his Henriade.
All these reasonings are calculated to persuade us that the most precious boon we can bestow upon others is virtue, and that the highest employment of virtue is to propagate itself. But, as virtue is inseparably connected with knowledge in my own mind, so by knowledge only can it be imparted to others. How can the virtue we have just been contemplating be produced but by infusing comprehensive views, and communicating energetic truths? Now that man alone is qualified to infuse these views, and communicate these truths, who is himself pervaded with them.
Let us suppose for a moment virtuous dispositions existing without knowledge or outrunning knowledge, the last of which is certainly possible; and we shall presently find how little such virtue is worthy to be propagated. The most generous views will, in such cases, frequently lead to the most nefarious actions. A Cranmer will be incited to the burning of heretics, and a Digby contrive the Gunpowder Treason. But, to leave these extreme instances: in all cases where mistaken virtue leads to cruel and tyrannical actions, the mind will be rendered discontented and morose by the actions it perpetrates. Truth, immortal and ever present truth, is so powerful, that, in spite of all his prejudices, the upright man will suspect himself when he resolves upon an action that is at war with the plainest principles of morality. He will become melancholy, dissatisfied and anxious. His firmness will degenerate into obstinacy, and his justice into in exorable severity. The further he pursues his system, the more erroneous will he become. The further he pursues it, the less will he be satisfied with it. As truth is an endless source of tranquillity and delight, error will be a prolific fountain of new mistakes and discontent.
As to the third point, which is most essential to the enquiry in which we are engaged, the tendency of truth to the improvement of our political institutions, there can be little room for scepticism or controversy. If politics be a science, investigation must be the means of unfolding it. If men resemble each other in more numerous and essential particulars than those in which they differ, if the best purposes that can be accomplished respecting them be to make them free, virtuous and wise, there must be one best method of advancing these common purposes, one best mode of social existence deducible from the principles of their nature. If truth be one, there must be one code of truths on the subject of our reciprocal duties. Nor is investigation only the best mode of ascertaining the principles of political justice and happiness; it is also the best mode of introducing and establishing them. Discussion is the path that leads to discovery and demonstration. Motives ferment in the minds of great bodies of men, till their modes of society experience a variation, not less memorable than the variation of their sentiments. The more familiar the mind becomes with the ideas of which these motives consist, and the propositions that express them, the more irresistibly is it propelled to a general system of proceeding in correspondence with them.
. Book I, Chap. V; Book V, Chap. XV.
. Apologia, Cap. xlvi. See this subject further pursued in the Appendix.
. Vie de Voltaire, par M***. á Geneve, 1786. Chap. iv. This
is probably the best history of this great man which has yet appeared.
To determine these questions it is necessary we should recollect the nature of virtue. Considered as a personal quality, it consists in the disposition of the mind, and may be defined a desire to promote the happiness of intelligent beings in general, the quantity of virtue being as the quantity of desire. Now desire is wholly inseparable from preference, or a perception of the excellence, real or supposed, of any object. I say real or supposed, for aIl object totally destitute of real and intrinsic excellence may become an object of desire on account of the imaginary excellence that is ascribed to it. Nor is this the only mistake to which human intellect is liable. We may desire an object of absolute excellence, not for its real and genuine recommendations, but for some fictitious attractions we may impute to it. This is always in some degree the case when a beneficial action is performed from an ill motive.
How far is this mistake compatible with real virtue? If I desire the happiness of intelligent beings, without a strong and vivid perception of what it is in which their happiness consists, can this desire be admitted for virtuous? Nothing seems more inconsistent with our ideas of virtue. A virtuous preference is the preference of an object for the sake of certain qualities which really be long to it. To attribute virtue to any other species of preference would be nearly the same as to suppose that an accidental effect of my conduct, which was out of my view at the time of adopting it, might entitle me to the appellation of virtuous.
Hence it appears, first, that virtue consists in a desire of the happiness of the species: and, secondly, that that desire only can be eminently virtuous which flows from a distinct perception of the value, and consequently of the nature, of the thing desired. But how extensive must be the capacity that comprehends the full value and the real ingredients of true happiness? It must begin with a collective idea of the human species. It must discriminate, among the different causes that produce a pleasurable state of mind, that which produces the most exquisite and durable pleasure. Eminent virtue requires that I should have a grand view of the tendency of knowledge to produce happiness, and of just political institution to favour the progress of knowledge. It demands that I should perceive in what manner social intercourse may be made conducive to virtue and felicity, and imagine the unspeakable advantages that may arise from a coincidence and succession of generous efforts. These things are necessary, not merely for the purpose of enabling me to employ my virtuous disposition in the best manner, but also of giving to that disposition a just animation and vigour. God, according to the ideas usually conceived of that being, is more benevolent than man because he has a constant and clear perception of the nature of that end which his providence pursues.
A further proof that a powerful understanding is in separable from eminent virtue will suggest itself, if we recollect that earnest desire, in matters that fall within the compass of human exertion, never fails in some degree to generate capacity.
This proposition has been beautifully illustrated by the poets, when they have represented the passion of love as immediately leading, in the breast of the lover, to the attainment of many arduous accomplishments. It unlocks his tongue, and enables him to plead the cause of his passion with insinuating eloquence. It renders his conversation pleasing, and his manners graceful. Does he desire to express his feelings in the language of verse? It dictates to him the most natural and pathetic strains, and supplies him with a just and interesting language, which the man of more reflection and science has often sought for in vain.
No picture can be more truly founded in a knowledge of human nature than this. The history of all eminent talents is of a similar kind. Did Themistocles desire to eclipse the trophies of the battle of Marathon? The uneasiness of this desire would not let him sleep, and all his thoughts were occupied with the invention of means to accomplish the purpose he had chosen. It is a well known maxim in the forming of juvenile minds that the instruction which is communicated by mere constraint makes a slow and feeble impression; but that, when once you have inspired the mind with a love for its object, the scene and the progress are entirely altered. The uneasiness of mind which earnest desire produces doubles our intellectual activity; and as surely carries us forward with increased velocity towards our goal as the expectation of a reward of ten thousand pounds would prompt a man to walk from London to York with firmer resolution and in a shorter time.
Let the object be for a person uninstructed in the rudiments of drawing to make a copy of some celebrated statue. At first, we will suppose, his attempt shall be mean and unsuccessful. If his desire be feeble, he will be deterred by the miscarriage of this essay. If his desire be ardent and invincible, he will return to the attack. He will derive instruction from his failure. He will examine where and why he miscarried. He will study his model with a more curious eye. He will correct his mistakes, derive encouragement from a partial success, and new incentives from miscarriage itself.
The case is similar in virtue as in science. If I have conceived an earnest desire of being the benefactor of my species, I shall, no doubt, find out a channel in which for my desire to operate, and shall be quick-sighted in discovering the defects, or comparative littleness, of the plan I may have chosen. But the choice of an excellent plan for the accomplishment of an important purpose, and the exertion of a mind perpetually watchful to remove its defects, imply considerable understanding. The further I am engaged in the pursuit of this plan, the more will my capacity increase. If my mind flag and be discouraged in the pursuit, it will not be merely want of understanding, but want of desire. My desire and my virtue will be less than those of the man who goes on with unremitted constancy in the same career.
Thus far we have only been considering how impossible it is that eminent virtue should exist in a weak understanding; and it is surprising that such a proposition should ever have been contested. It is a curious question to examine how far the converse of this proposition is true, and in what degree eminent talents are compatible with the absence of virtue.
From the arguments already adduced, it appears that virtuous desire is wholly inseparable from a strong and vivid perception of the nature and value of the object of virtue. Hence it seems most natural to conclude that, though understanding, or strong percipient power, is the indispensable prerequisite of virtue, yet it is necessary that this power should be exercised upon this object, in order to its producing the desired effect. Thus it is in art. Without genius no man ever was a poet; but it is necessary that general capacity should have been directed to this particular channel, for poetical excellence to be the result.
There is however some difference between the two cases. Poetry is the business of a few, virtue and vice are the affair of all men. To every intellect that exists, one or other of these qualities must properly belong. It must be granted that, where every other circumstance is equal, that man will be most virtuous whose understanding has been most actively employed in the study of virtue. But morality has been, in a certain degree, an object of attention to all men. No person ever failed, more or less, to apply the standard of just and unjust to his own actions and those of others; and this has, of course, been generally done with most ingenuity by men of the greatest capacity.
It must further be remembered that a vicious conduct is always the result of narrow views. A man of powerful capacity, and extensive observation, is least likely to com mit the mistake, either of seeing himself as the only object of importance in the universe, or of conceiving that his own advantage may best be promoted by trampling on that of others. Liberal accomplishments are surely, in some degree, connected with liberal principles. He who takes into his view a whole nation as the subjects of his operation, or the instruments of his greatness, may be expected to entertain some kindness for the whole. He whose mind is habitually elevated to magnificent conceptions is not likely to sink, without strong reluctance, into those sordid pursuits which engross so large a portion of mankind.
But, though these general maxims must be admitted for true, and would incline us to hope for a constant union between eminent talents and great virtues, there are other considerations which present a strong drawback upon so agreeable an expectation. It is sufficiently evident that morality, in some degree, enters into the reflections of all mankind. But it is equally evident that it may enter for more or for less; and that there will be men of the highest talents who have their attention diverted to other objects, and by whom it will be meditated upon with less earnestness, than it may sometimes be by other men, who are, in a general view, their inferiors. The human mind is in some cases so tenacious of its errors, and so ingenious in the invention of a sophistry by which they may be vindicated, as to frustrate expectations of virtue, in other respects, the best founded.
From the whole of the subject it seems to appear that men of talents, even when they are erroneous, are not destitute of virtue, and that there is a fullness of guilt of which they are incapable. There is no ingredient that so essentially contributes to a virtuous character as a sense of justice. Philanthropy, as contradistinguished to justice, is rather an unreflecting feeling than a rational principle. It leads to an absurd indulgence, which is frequently more injurious than beneficial, even to the individual it proposes to favour. It leads to a blind partiality, inflicting calamity, without remorse, upon many perhaps, in order to promote the imagined interest of a few. But justice measures by one unalterable standard the claims of all, weighs their opposite pretensions, and seeks to diffuse happiness, because happiness is the fit and proper condition of a conscious being. Wherever therefore a strong sense of justice exists, it is common and reasonable to say that in that mind exists considerable virtue, though the individual, from an unfortunate concurrence of circumstances, may, with all his great qualities, be the instrument of a very small portion of benefit. Can great intellectual power exist without a strong sense of justice?
It has no doubt resulted from a train of speculation similar to this, that poetical readers have commonly remarked Milton's devil to be a being of considerable virtue. It must be admitted that his energies centred too much in personal regards. But why did he rebel against his maker? It was, as he himself informs us, because he saw no sufficient reason for that extreme inequality of rank and power which the creator assumed. It was because prescription and precedent form no adequate ground for implicit faith. After his fall, why did he still cherish the spirit of opposition? From a persuasion that he was hardly and injuriously treated. He was not discouraged by the apparent inequality of the contest: because a sense of reason and justice was stronger in his mind than a sense of brute force; because he had much of the feelings of an Epictetus or a Cato, and little of those of a slave. He bore his torments with fortitude, because he disdained to be subdued by despotic power. He sought revenge, because he could not think with tameness of the unexpostulating authority that assumed to dispose of him. How beneficial and illustrious might the temper from which these qualities flowed have been found, with a small diversity of situation!
Let us descend from these imaginary existences to real history. We shall find that even Caesar and Alexander had their virtues. There is great reason to believe that, however mistaken was their system of conduct, they imagined it reconcilable, and even conducive, to the general interest. If they had desired the general good more earnestly, they would have understood better how to promote it.
Upon the whole it appears that great talents are great energies, and that great energies cannot flow but from a powerful sense of fitness and justice. A man of uncommon genius is a man of high passions and lofty design; and our passions will be found, in the last analysis, to have their surest foundation in a sentiment of justice. If a man be of an aspiring and ambitious temper, it is because at present he finds himself out of his place, and wishes to be in it. Even the lover imagines that his qualities, or his passion, give him a title superior to that of other men. If I accumulate wealth, it is because I think that the most rational plan of life cannot be secured without it; and, if I dedicate my energies to sensual pleasures, it is that I regard other pursuits as irrational and visionary. All our passions would die in the moment they were conceived were it not for this reinforcement. A man of quick resentment, of strong feelings, and who pertinaciously resists everything that he regards as an unjust assumption, may be considered as having in him the seeds of eminence. Nor is it easily to be conceived that such a man should not proceed from a sense of justice, to some degree of benevolence; as Milton's hero felt real compassion and sympathy for his partners in misfortune.
If these reasonings are to be admitted, what judgement shall we form of the decision of Johnson, who, speaking of a certain obscure translator of the odes of Pindar, says that he was "one of the few poets to whom death needed not to be terrible?" Let it be remembered that the error is by no means peculiar to Johnson, though there are few instances in which it is carried to a more violent extreme than in the general tenour of the work from which this quotation is taken. It was natural to expect that there would be a combination among the multitude to pull down intellectual eminence. Ambition is common to all men; and those who are unable to rise to distinction are at least willing to reduce others to their own standard. No man can completely understand the character of him with whom he has no sympathy of views; and we may be allowed to revile what we do not understand. But it is deeply to be regretted that men of talents should so often have entered into this combination. Who does not recollect with pain the vulgar abuse that Swift has thrown upon Dryden, and the mutual jealousies and animosities of Rousseau and Voltaire, men who ought to have co-operated for the salvation of the world?
. Lives of the Poets: Life of West.
The powerful recommendations attendant upon sincerity are obvious. It is intimately connected with the general dissemination of innocence, energy, intellectual improvement, and philanthropy.
Did every man impose this law upon himself, did he regard himself as not authorized to conceal any part of his character and conduct, this circumstance alone would prevent millions of actions from being perpetrated in which we are now induced to engage by the prospect of secrecy and impunity. We have only to suppose men obliged to consider, before they determined upon an equivocal action, whether they chose to be their own historians, the future narrators of the scene in which they were acting a part, and the most ordinary imagination will instantly suggest how essential a variation would be introduced into human affairs. It has been justly observed that the popish practice of confession is attended with some salutary effects. How much better would it be if, instead of an institution thus equivocal, and which has been made so dangerous an instrument of ecclesiastical despotism, every man were to make the world his confessional, and the human species the keeper of his conscience?
There is a further benefit that would result to me from the habit of telling every man the truth, regardless of the dictates of worldly prudence and custom. I should acquire a clear, ingenuous and unembarrassed air. According to the established modes of society, whenever I have a circumstance to state which would require some effort of mind and discrimination to enable me to do it justice, and state it with the proper effect, I fly from the talk, and take refuge in silence or equivocation. But the principle which forbad me concealment would keep my mind for ever awake, and for ever warm. I should always be obliged to exert my attention, lest, in pretending to tell the truth, I should tell it in so imperfect and mangled a way as to produce the effect of falsehood. If I spoke to a man of my own faults or those of his neighbour, I should be anxious not to suffer them to come distorted or exaggerated to his mind, or to permit what at first was fact to degenerate into satire. If I spoke to him of the errors he had himself committed, I should carefully avoid those inconsiderate expressions which might convert what was in itself beneficent into offence; and my thoughts would be full of that kindness, and generous concern for his welfare, which such a talk necessarily brings along with it. Sincerity would liberate my mind, and make the eulogiums I had occasion to pronounce, clear, copious and appropriate. Conversation would speedily exchange its present character of listlessness and insignificance, for a Roman boldness and fervour; and, accustomed, at first by the fortuitous operation of circumstances, to tell men of things it was useful for them to know, I should speedily learn to study their advantage, and never rest satisfied with my conduct till I had discovered how to spend the hours I was in their company in the way which was most rational and improving.
The effects of sincerity upon others would be similar to its effects upon him that practised it. How great would be the benefit if every man were sure of meeting in his neighbour the ingenuous censor, who would tell him in person, and publish to the world, his virtues, his good deeds, his meannesses and his follies? We have never a strong feeling of these in our own case, except so far as they are confirmed to us by the suffrage of our neighbours. Knowledge, such as we are able to acquire it, depends in a majority of instances, not upon the single efforts of the individual, but upon the consent of other human understandings sanctioning the judgement of our own. It is the uncertainty of which every man is conscious as to his solitary judgement that produces, for the most part, zeal for proselytism, and impatience of contradiction. It is impossible I should have a true satisfaction in my dispositions and talents, or even any precise perceptions of virtue and vice, unless assisted by the concurrence of my fellows.
An impartial distribution of commendation and blame to the actions of men would be a most powerful incentive to virtue. But this distribution, at present, scarcely in any instance exists. One man is satirized with bitterness, and the misconduct of another is treated with inordinate lenity. In speaking of our neighbours, we are perpetually under the influence of sinister and unacknowledged motives. Everything is disfigured and distorted. The basest hypocrite passes through life with applause; and the purest character is loaded with unmerited aspersions. The benefactors of mankind are frequently the objects of their bitterest hatred and most unrelenting ingratitude. What encouragement then is afforded to virtue? Those who are smitten with the love of distinction will rather seek it in external splendour, and unmeaning luxury, than in moral attainments. While those who are led to benevolent pursuits by the purest motives yet languish under the privation of that honour and esteem which would give new firmness to rectitude, and ardour to benevolence.
A genuine and unalterable sincerity would not fail to reverse the scene. Every idle or malignant tale now produces its effect, because men are unaccustomed to exercise their judgement upon the probabilities of human action, or to possess the materials of judgement. But then the rash assertions of one individual would be corrected by the maturer information of his neighbour. Exercised in discrimination, we should be little likely to be misled. The truth would be known, the whole truth, and the unvarnished truth. This would be a trial that the most stubborn obliquity would be found unable to withstand. If a just and impartial character were awarded to all human actions, vice would be universally deserted, and virtue everywhere practised. Sincerity therefore. once introduced into the manners of mankind, would necessarily bring every other virtue in its train.
Men are now feeble in their temper because they are not accustomed to hear the truth. They build their confidence in being personally treated with artificial delicacy, and expect us to abstain from repeating what we know to their disadvantage. But is this right? It has already appeared that plain dealing, truth, spoken with kindness, but spoken with sincerity, is the most wholesome of all disciplines. How then can we be justified in thus subverting the nature of things, and the system of the universe, in breeding a set of summer insects upon which the breeze of sincerity may never blow, and the tempest of misfortune never beat?
In the third place, sincerity is, in an eminent degree, calculated to conduce to our intellectual improvement. If from timidity of disposition, or the danger that attends a disclosure, we suppress the reflections that occur to us, we shall neither add to, nor correct them. From the act of telling my thoughts, I derive encouragement to proceed. Nothing can more powerfully conduce to perspicuity than the very attempt to arrange and express them. If they be received cordially by others, they derive from that circumstance a peculiar firmness and consistency. If they be received with opposition and distrust, I am induced to revise them. I detect their errors; or I strengthen my arguments, and add new truths to those which I had previously accumulated. It is not by the solitary anchorite, who neither speaks, nor hears, nor reads the genuine sentiments of man, that the stock of human good is eminently increased. The period of bold and unrestricted communication is the period in which the materials of happiness ferment and germinate. What can excite me to the pursuit of discovery if I know that I am never to communicate my discoveries? It is in the nature of things impossible that the man who has determined never to utter the truths he may be acquainted with should be an intrepid and indefatigable thinker. The link which binds together the inward and the outward man is indissoluble; and he that is not bold in speech will never be ardent and unprejudiced in enquiry.
What is it that, at this day, enables a thousand errors to keep their station in the world; priestcraft, tests, bribery, war, cabal and whatever else excites the disapprobation of the honest and enlightened mind? Cowardice; the timid reserve which makes men shrink from telling what they know; and the insidious policy that annexes persecution and punishment to an unrestrained and spirited discussion of the true interests of society. Men either refrain from the publication of unpalatable opinions because they are unwilling to make a sacrifice of their worldly prospects; or they publish them in a frigid and enigmatical spirit, stripped of their true character, and incapable of their genuine operation. If every man today would tell all the truth he knew, it is impossible to predict how short would be the reign of usurpation and folly.
Lastly, a still additional benefit attendant on the practice of sincerity is good humour, kindness and benevolence. At present, men meet together with the temper less of friends than enemies. Every man eyes his neighbour, as if he expected to receive from him a secret wound. Every member of a polished and civilized community goes armed. He knows many things of his associate, which he conceives himself obliged not to allude to in his hearing, but rather to put on an air of the profoundest ignorance. In the absence of the person concerned, he scarcely knows how to mention his defects, however essential the advertisement may be, lest he should incur the imputation of a calumniator. If he mention them, it is under the seal of secrecy. He speaks of them with the sentiments of a criminal, conscious that what he is saying he would be unwilling to utter before the individual concerned. Perhaps he does not fully advert to this artificial character in himself; but he at least notes it with infallible observation in his neighbour. In youth, it may be, he accommodates himself with a pliant spirit to the manners of the world; and, while he loses no jot of his gaiety, learns from it no other lessons than those of selfishness and cheerful indifference. Observant of the game that goes forward around him, he becomes skilful in his turn to elude the curiosity of others, and smiles inwardly at the false scent he prompts them to follow. Dead to the emotions of a disinterested sympathy, he can calmly consider men as the mere neutral instruments of his enjoyments. He can preserve himself in a true equipoise between love and hatred. But this is a temporary character. The wanton wildness of youth at length subsides, and he is no longer contented to stand alone in the world. Anxious for the consolations of sympathy and frankness, he remarks the defects of mankind with a different spirit. He is seized with a shuddering at the sensation of their coldness. He can no longer tolerate their subterfuges and disguises. He searches in vain for an ingenuous character, and loses patience at the eternal disappointment. The defect that he before regarded with indifference he now considers as the consummation of vice. What wonder that, under these circumstances, moroseness, sourness and misanthropy become the ruling sentiments of so large a portion of mankind?
How would the whole of this be reversed by the practice of sincerity? We could not be indifferent to men whose custom it was to tell us the truth. Hatred would perish from a failure in its principal ingredient, the duplicity and impenetrableness of human actions. No man could acquire a distant and unsympathetic temper. Reserve, deceitfulness, and an artful exhibition of ourselves take from the human form its soul, and leave us the unanimated semblance of what man might have been; of what he would have been, were not every impulse of the mind thus stunted and destroyed. If our emotions were not checked, we should be truly friends with each other. Our character would expand: the luxury of indulging our feelings, and the exercise of uttering them, would raise us to the stature of men. I should not conceive alarm from my neighbour, because I should be conscious that I knew his genuine sentiments. I should not harbour bad passions and unsocial propensities, because the habit of expressing my thoughts would enable me to detect and dismiss them in the outset. Thus every man would be inured to the sentiment of love and would find in his species objects worthy of his affection. Confidence is upon all accounts the surest foil of mutual kindness.
The value of sincerity will be still further illustrated by a brief consideration of the nature of insincerity. Viewed superficially and at a distance, we are easily reconciled, and are persuaded to have recourse to it upon the most trivial occasions. Did we examine it in detail, and call to mind its genuine history, the result could not fail to be different. Its features are neither like virtue, nor compatible with virtue. The sensations it obliges us to undergo are of the most odious nature. Its direct business is to cut off all commerce between the heart and the tongue. There are organs however of the human frame more difficult to be commanded than the mere syllables and phrases we utter. We must be upon our guard, or our cheeks will be covered with a conscious blush, the awkwardness of our gestures will betray us, and our lips will falter with their unwonted task. Such is the issue of the first attempt, not merely of the liar, but of him who practises concealment, or whose object it is to mislead the person with whom he happens to converse. After a series of essays we become more expert. We are not, as at first, detected by the person from whom we intended to withhold what we knew; but we fear detection. We feel uncertainty and confusion; and it is with difficulty we convince ourselves that we have escaped unsuspected. Is it thus a man ought to feel? At last perhaps we become consummate in hypocrisy, and feel the same confidence and alacrity in duplicity that we before felt in entire frankness. Which, to an ordinary eye, would appear the man of virtue; he who, by the depth of his hypocrisy, contrived to keep his secret wholly unsuspected, or he who was precipitate enough to be thus misled, and to believe that his neighbour made use of words for the purpose of being understood?
But this is not all. It remains for the deceiver, in the next place, to maintain the delusion he has once imposed, and to take care that no unexpected occurrence shall betray him. It is upon this circumstance that the common observation is founded that "one lie will always need a hundred others to justify and cover it." We cannot determine to keep anything secret without risking to be involved in artifices, quibbles, equivocations and falsehoods without number. The character of the virtuous man seems to be that of a firm and unalterable resolution, confident in his own integrity. But the character that results from insincerity, begins in hesitation, and ends in disgrace. Let us suppose that the imposition I practised is in danger of detection. Of course it will become my wisdom to calculate this danger, and, if it be too imminent, not to think of attempting any further disguise. But, if the secret be important, and the danger problematical, I shall probably persist. The whole extent of the danger can be known only by degrees. Suppose the person who questions me return to the charge, and affirm that he heard the fact, as it really was, but not as I represent it, from another. What am I now to do? Am I to asperse the character of the honest reporter, and at the same time, it may be, instead of establishing the delusion, only astonish my neighbour with my cool and intrepid effrontery?
What has already been adduced may assist us to determine the species of sincerity which virtue prescribes, and which alone can be of great practical benefit to mankind. Sincerity may be considered as of three degrees. First, a man may conceive that he sufficiently preserves his veracity if he never utter anything that cannot be explained into a consistency with truth. There is a plain distinction between this man and him who makes no scruple of the most palpable and direct falsehood. Or, secondly, it may happen that his delicacy shall not stop here, and he may resolve, not only to utter nothing that is literally untrue, but also nothing which he knows or believes will be understood by the hearer in a sense that is untrue. This he may consider as amounting for the most part to an adequate discharge of his duty; and he may conceive that there is little mischief in the frequently suppressing information which it was in his power to supply. The third and highest degree of sincerity consists in the most perfect frankness, discards every species of concealment or reserve, and, as Cicero expresses it, "utters nothing that is false, and withholds nothing that is true."
The two first of these by no means answer the genuine purposes of sincerity. The former labours under one disadvantage more than direct falsehood. It is of little consequence, to the persons with whom I communicate, that I have a subterfuge by which I can, to my own mind, explain my deceit into a consistency with truth; while at the same time the study of such subterfuges is more adverse to courage and energy than a conduct which unblushingly avows the laxity of its principles. The second of the degrees enumerated, which merely proposes to itself the avoiding every active deception, seems to be measured less by the standard of magnanimity than of personal prudence. If, as Rousseau has asserted, "the great duty of man be to do no injury to his neighbour," then this negative sincerity may be of considerable value: but, if it be the highest and most indispensable business of man to study and promote his neighbour's welfare, a virtue of this sort will contribute little to so honourable an undertaking. If sincerity be, as we have endeavoured to demonstrate, the most powerful engine of human improvement, a scheme for restraining it within so narrow limits cannot be entitled to considerable applause. Add to this, that it is impossible, in many cases, to suppress information without great mastery in the arts of ambiguity and evasion, and such a perfect command of countenance as shall prevent it from being an index to our real sentiments. Indeed the man who is frequently accustomed to seem ignorant of what he really knows, though he will escape the open disgrace of him who is detected in direct falsehood or ambiguous imposition, will yet be viewed by his neighbours with coldness and distrust, and esteemed an unfathomable and selfish character.
Hence it appears that the only species of sincerity which can in any degree prove satisfactory to the enlightened moralist and politician is that where the frankness is perfect, and every degree of reserve is discarded.
Nor is there any danger that such a character should degenerate into ruggedness and brutality. Sincerity, upon the principles on which it is here recommended, is practised from a consciousness of its utility, and from sentiments of philanthropy. It will communicate frankness to the voice, fervour to the gesture and kindness to the heart. Even in expostulation and censure, friendliness of intention and mildness of proceeding may be eminently conspicuous. There should be no mixture of disdain and superiority. The interest of him who is corrected, not the triumph of the corrector, should be the principle of action. True sincerity will be attended with that equality which is the only sure foundation of love, and that love which gives the best finishing and lustre to a sentiment of equality.
. Book VI, Chap. VI.
. Emile, liv. ii.
Ascetic and puritanical systems of morality have accustomed their votaries to give a short answer to these difficulties, by directing us "to do our duty, without regard to consequences, and uninfluenced by a consideration of what may be the conduct of others." But these maxims will not pass unexamined with the man who considers morality as a subject of reasoning, and places its foundation in a principle of utility. "To do our duty without regard to consequences," is, upon this principle, a maxim completely absurd and self-contradictory. Morality is nothing else but a calculation of consequences, and an adoption of that mode of conduct which, upon the most comprehensive view, appears to be attended with a balance of general pleasure and happiness. Nor will the other part of the precept above stated appear, upon examination, to be less erroneous. There are many instances in which the selection of the conduct I should pursue altogether depends upon a foresight of "what will be the conduct of others." To what purpose contribute my subscription to an object of public utility, a bridge, for example, or a canal, at a time when I certainly foreknow that the subscription will not be generally countenanced? Shall I go and complete such a portion of masonry upon the spot as, if all my neighbours would do the same, would effect the desired purpose, though I am convinced that no one beside myself will move a finger in the undertaking? There are various regulations respecting our habits of living, expenditure and attire which, if generally adopted, would probably be of the highest benefit, which yet, if acted upon by a single individual, might be productive of nothing but injury. I cannot pretend to launch a ship or repel an army by myself, though either of these might be things, absolutely considered, highly proper to be done.
The duty of sincerity is one of those general principles which reflection and experience have enjoined upon us as conducive to the happiness of mankind. Let us enquire then into the nature and origin of general principles. Engaged, as men are, in perpetual intercourse with their neighbours, and constantly liable to be called upon without the smallest previous notice, in cases where the interest of their fellows is deeply involved, it is not possible for them, upon all occasions, to deduce, through a chain of reasoning, the judgement which should be followed. Hence the necessity of resting-places for the mind, of deductions, already stored in the memory, and prepared for application as circumstances may demand. We find this necessity equally urgent upon us in matters of science and abstraction as in conduct and morals. Theory has also a further use. It serves as a perpetual exercise and aliment to the understanding, and renders us competent and vigorous to judge in every situation that can occur. Nothing can be more idle and shallow than the competition which some men have set up between theory and practice. It is true that we can never predict, from theory alone, the success of any given experiment. It is true that no theory, accurately speaking, can possibly be practical. It is the business of theory to collect the circumstances of a certain set of cases, and arrange them. It would cease to be theory if it did not leave out many circumstances; it collects such as are general, and leaves out such as are particular. In practice however, those circumstances inevitably arise which are necessarily omitted in the general process: they cause the phenomenon, in various ways, to include features which were not in the prediction, and to be diversified in those that were. Yet theory is of the highest use; and those who decry it may even be proved not to understand themselves. They do not mean that men should always act in a particular case, without illustration from any other case, for that would be to deprive us of all understanding. The moment we begin to compare cases, and infer, we begin to theorize; no two things in the universe were ever perfectly alike. The genuine exercise of man therefore is to theorize, for this is, in other words, to sharpen and improve his intellect; but not to become the slave of theory, or at any time to forget that it is, by its very nature, precluded from comprehending the whole of what claims our attention.
To apply this to the case of morals. General principles of morality are so far valuable as they truly delineate the means of utility, pleasure, or happiness. But every action of any human being has its appropriate result; and, the more closely it is examined, the more truly will that result appear. General rules and theories are not infallible. It would be preposterous to suppose that, in order to judge fairly, and conduct myself properly, I ought only to look at a thing from a certain distance, and not consider it minutely. On the contrary, I ought, as far as lies in my power, to examine everything upon its own grounds, and decide concerning it upon its own merits. To rest in general rules is sometimes a necessity which our imperfection imposes upon us, and sometimes the refuge of our indolence; but the true dignity of human reason is, as much as we are able, to go beyond them, to have our faculties in act upon every occasion that occurs, and to conduct ourselves accordingly.
There is an observation necessary to be made, to prevent any erroneous application of these reasonings. In the morality of every action two things are to be considered, the direct, and the remote consequences with which it is attended. There are numerous modes of proceeding which might be productive of immediate pleasure that would have so ill an effect upon the permanent state of one or many individuals as to render them, in every rational estimate, objects, not of choice, but of aversion. This is particularly the case in relation to that view of any action whereby it becomes a medium enabling the spectator to predict the nature of future actions. It is with the conduct of our fellow beings, as with the course of inanimate nature: if events did not succeed each other in a certain order, there could be neither judgement, nor wisdom, nor morality. Confidence, in the order of the seasons, and the progress of vegetation, encourages us to sow our field, in expectation of a future harvest. Confidence, in the characters of our fellow men, that they will for the most part be governed by the reason of the case, that they will neither rob, nor defraud, nor deceive us, is not less essential to the existence of civilized society. Hence arises a species of argument in favour of general rules, not hitherto mentioned. The remote consequences of an action, especially as they relate to the fulfilling, or not fulfilling, the expectation excited, depend chiefly on general circumstances, and not upon particulars; belong to the class, and not to the individual. But this makes no essential alteration in what was before delivered. It will still be incumbent on us, when called into action, to estimate the nature of the particular case, that we may ascertain where the urgency of special circumstances is such as to supersede rules that are generally obligatory.
To return to the particular case of sincerity. Sincerity and plain dealing are obviously, in the majority of human actions, the best policy, if we consider only the interest of the individual, and extend our calculation of that interest only over a very short period. No man will be wild enough to assert, even in this limited sense, that it is seldomer our policy to speak truth than to lie. Sincerity and plain dealing are eminently conducive to the interest of mankind at large, because they afford ground for that confidence and reasonable expectation which are essential both to wisdom and virtue. Yet it may with propriety be asked, "Whether cases do not exist of peculiar emergency, where the general principle of sincerity and speaking the truth, ought to be superseded?"
Undoubtedly this is a question, to the treatment of which we should advance, with some degree of caution and delicacy. Yet it would be a strange instance of inconsistency that should induce us, right or wrong, to recommend a universal frankness, from an apprehension of the abuses which may follow from an opposite doctrine; and thus incur a charge of deception, in the very act of persuading our neighbours that deception is in no instance to be admitted.
Some persons, from an extreme tenderness of countenancing any particle of insincerity, at the same time that they felt the difficulty of recommending the opposite practice in every imaginable case, have thought proper to allege, "that it is not the propagation of truth, but of falsehood we have to fear; and that the whole against which we are bound to be upon our guard is the telling truth in such a manner as to produce the effects of false hood."
This will perhaps be found upon examination to be an injudicious and mischievous distinction. In the first place, it is of great benefit to the cause of morality that things should be called by their right names, without varnish or subterfuge. I am either to tell the simple and obvious truth, or I am not; I am to suppress, or I am not to suppress: this is the alternative upon which the present question calls us to decide. If suppression, concealment or falsehood can in any case be my duty, let it be known to be such; I shall at least have this advantage, I shall be aware that it can only be my duty in some extraordinary emergence. Secondly, whatever reason can be assigned for my not communicating the truth in the form in which it originally suggests itself to my mind must, if it be a good reason, ultimately resolve itself into a reason of utility. Sincerity itself is a duty only for reasons of utility; it seems absurd therefore, if, in any case, truth is not to be communicated in its most obvious form, to seek for the reason rather in the secondary principle of sincerity than in the paramount and original principle of general utility. Lastly, this distinction is of a nature that seems to deserve that we should regard it with a watchful and jealous eye, on account of its vague and indefinite application. If the question were respecting the mode of my communicating truth, there could not perhaps be a better maxim than that I should take care so to communicate it, that it might have the effects of truth, and not of falsehood. But it will be extremely dangerous if I accustom myself to make this the test whether I shall communicate it or no. It is a maxim that seems exactly fitted to fall in with that indolence and want of enterprise which, in some degree or other, are characteristic of all human minds. Add to which, it is a maxim which may be applied without the possibility of limitation. There is no instance in which truth can be communicated absolute!y pure. We can only make approximations to such a proceeding, without ever being able fully to arrive at it. It will be liable to some misconstruction, to some want of clearness and precision, to the exciting some passions that ought to lie for ever dormant. This maxim therefore will either prove too much, or is one to which no recourse must be had, but after such an investigation of the capacities of the human mind in each individual instance as to make the idea of introducing a general maxim by way of compendium ridiculous. Having cleared the subject of those ambiguities in which it has sometimes been involved, let us proceed to the investigation of the original question; and for this purpose it may be useful to take up the subject a little higher, and recur to the basis of moral obligation. All just reasoning in subjects of morality has been found to depend upon this as its fundamental principle, that each man is bound to consider himself as a debtor in all his faculties, his opportunities, and his industry, to the general welfare. This is a debt which must be always paying, never discharged. Every moment of my life can be better employed, or it cannot; if it cannot, I am in that very instance, however seemingly inconsiderable, playing the part of a true patriot of human kind; if it can, I then inevitably incur some portion of delinquency. Considering the subject in this point of view, there are two articles, which will always stand among the leading principles of moral decision, the good to result from the action immediately proposed, and the advantage to the public of my preserving in existence and vigour the means of future usefulness. Every man, sufficiently impressed with a sense of his debt to the species, will feel himself obliged to scruple the laying out his entire strength, and forfeiting his life, upon any single instance of public exertion. There is a certain proceeding which, in itself considered, I ought this day to adopt; change the circumstances, and make it unquestionable that, if adopted, my life will be the forfeit, will that make no change in my duty? This is a question which has been previously anticipated.
In the meantime, to render the decision in the subject before us still more satisfactory, let us suppose a case in which the uttering a falsehood shall be the only means by which I can escape from a menace of instant destruction. Let it be that of a virtuous man, proscribed and hunted by the unjust usurpers of the government of his country, and who has reason to know that, if discovered, he will fall an immediate victim to their sanguinary policy. Ought he, if questioned as to who he is, by their myrmidons, to render himself the instrument of their triumph in his death, rather than affirm an untruth? Ought the man to whom he may have entrusted his secret and his life to preserve his sincerity, at the expense of betraying his trust, and destroying his friend? Let us state the several arguments that offer themselves on both sides of this question.
The advantages affirmed of sincerity in general will be found equally to hold in this instance. All falsehood has a tendency to enervate the individual that practises it. With what sentiments of mind is he to utter the falsehood in question? Shall he endeavour to render it complete, and effectually to mislead the persons to whom it relates? This will require a systematical hypocrisy, and a vigilant attention lest his features and gestures should prove so many indications of what is passing in his mind. Add to this, that by such a conduct he is contributing his part to the cutting off the intercourse between men's tongues and their sentiments, infusing general distrust, and trifling with the most sacred pledge of human integrity. To assert, in a firm and resolute manner, the thing that is not, is an action from which the human mind unconquerably revolts. To avow the truth with a spirited defiance of consequences has something in it so liberal and magnanimous as to produce a responsive feeling in every human heart. Nor is it to be forgotten that the threatened consequences can scarcely, in any instance, be regarded as certain. The intrepidity of his behaviour, the sobriety and dignified moderation of his carriage, and the reasonableness of his expostulations may be such as to disarm the bitterest foe.
Let us consider the arguments on the other side of the question. And here it may be observed that there is nothing really humiliating in the discharge of our duty. If it can be shown that compliance, in the instance described, is that which it is incumbent to yield, then, without doubt, we ought to feel self-approbation, and not censure in the yielding it. There are many duties which the habits of the world make us feel it humiliating to discharge, as well as many vices in which we pride ourselves; but this is the result of prejudice, and ought to be corrected. Whatever it be that our duty requires of us, the man who is sufficiently enlightened will feel no repugnance to the performance. As to the influence of our conduct upon other men, no doubt, so far as relates to example, we ought to set an example of virtue, of real virtue, not of that which is merely specious. It will also frequently happen, in cases similar to that above described, that the memory of what we do will be entirely lost; our proceeding is addressed to prejudiced persons, who will admit no virtue in the man they hate or despise. Is it probable that the effect of my fortitude in this act of unvarying sincerity will be more extensively beneficial to society than all my future life, however industrious and however pure? Cases might easily have been put of private animosity, where my generous self-devotion would scarcely in any instance be heard of. No mistake can be more painful to an impartial observer than to see an individual of great utility irretrievably thrown away upon a trivial adventure. It may also be worth remarking that the most virtuous man that lives is probably guilty of some acts of insincerity in every day of his life. Though therefore he ought not lightly to add to the catalogue, yet surely there is something extremely contrary to reason in finding the same man deviating from a general rule of conduct for the most trifling and contemptible motives, and immediately after repelling an additional deviation at the expense of his life. As to the argument drawn from the uncertainty of the threatened consequences, it must be remembered that some degree of this uncertainty adheres to all human affairs; and that all calculation of consequences, or in other words all virtue, depends upon our adopting the greater probability, and rejecting the less.
No doubt considerable sacrifices (not only of the imbecility of our character, which ought in all instances to be sacrificed without mercy, but) of the real advantages of life, ought to be made, for the sake of preserving, with ourselves and others, a confidence in our veracity. He who, being sentenced by a court of judicature for some action that he esteems laudable, is offered the remission of his sentence, provided he will recant his virtue, ought probably, in every imaginable case, to resist the proposal. Much seems to depend upon the formality and notoriety of the action. It may probably be wrong to be minutely scrupulous with a drunken bigot in a corner, who should require of me an assent to his creed with a pistol at my breast; and right peremptorily to refuse all terms of qualification, when solemnly proposed by a court of judicature in the face of a nation.
If there be cases where I ought not to scruple to violate the truth, inasmuch as the alternative consists in my certain destruction, it is at least as much incumbent on me when the life of my neighbour is at stake. Indeed, the moment any exception is admitted to the general principle of unreserved sincerity, it becomes obviously impossible to fix the nature of all the exceptions. The rule respecting them must be that, wherever a great and manifest evil arises from disclosing the truth, and that evil appears to be greater than the evil to arise from violating, in this instance, the general barrier of human confidence and virtue, there the obligation of sincerity is suspended.
Nor is it a valid objection to say"that, by such a rule, we are making every man a judge in his own case." In the courts of morality it cannot be otherwise; a pure and just system of thinking admits not of the existence of any infallible judge to whom we can appeal. It might indeed be further objected "that, by this rule, men will be called upon to judge in the moment of passion and partiality, instead of being referred to the past decisions of their cooler reason." But this also is an inconvenience inseparable from human affairs. We must and ought to keep our selves open, to the last moment, to the influence of such considerations as may appear worthy to influence us. To teach men that they must not trust their own understandings is not the best scheme for rendering them virtuous and consistent. On the contrary, to inure them to consult their understanding is the way to render it worthy of becoming their director and guide.
Nothing which has been alleged under this head of exception produces the smallest alteration in what was offered under the general discussion. All the advantages, the sublime and illustrious effects, which attend upon an ingenuous conduct, remain unimpeached. Sincerity, a generous and intrepid frankness, will still be found to occupy perhaps the first place in the catalogue of human virtues. This is the temper that ought to pervade the whole course of our reflections and actions. It should be acted upon every day, and confirmed in us every night. There is nothing which we ought to reject with more unalterable firmness than an action that, by its consequences, reduces us to the necessity of duplicity and concealment. No man can be eminently either respectable, or amiable, or useful, who is not distinguished for the frankness and candour of his manners. This is the grand fascination, by which we lay hold of the hearts of our neighbours, conciliate their attention, and render virtue an irresistible object of imitation. He that is not conspicuously sincere either very little partakes of the passion of doing good, or is pitiably ignorant of the means by which the purposes of true benevolence are to be effected.
. Book II, Chap. VI, pp. 200-201; Book III, Chap. VI, p. 241.
Let us then, according to the well known axiom of morality, put ourselves in the place of the man upon whom this ungracious task is imposed. Is there any of us that would be contented to perform it in person, and to say that our father or our brother was not at home, when they were really in the house? Should we not feel contaminated with the plebeian lie? Can we then be justified in requiring that from another which we should shrink from, as an act of dishonour, in ourselves?
Whatever sophistry we may employ to excuse our proceeding, certain it is that the servant understands the lesson we teach him, to be a lie. It is accompanied by all the retinue of falsehood. Before it can be skilfully practised, he must be no mean proficient in hypocrisy. By the easy impudence with which it is uttered, he best answers the purpose of his master, or in other words the purpose of deceit. By the same means, he stifles the upbraidings of his own mind, and conceals the shame imposed on him. Before this can be sufficiently done, he must have discarded all frankness of speech, and all ingenuousness of countenance. Some visitors are so ill-bred, as not immediately to take this answer without further examination; and some, unknown to the servant, are upon such unceremonious terms with his master as to think themselves entitled to treat the denial with incredulous contempt. Upon either of these suppositions, the insolence and prevarication of the servant must be increased, or his confusion rendered more glaring and despicable. When he has learned this degenerate lesson upon one subject, who will undertake that it shall produce no unfavourable effects upon his general conduct? But it is said, "This lie is necessary, and the intercourse of human society cannot be carried on without it. My friend may visit me at a time when it would be exceedingly inconvenient to me to see him; and this practice affords a fortunate alternative between submitting to have my occupations at the mercy of any accidental visitor on the one hand, and offending him with a rude denial on the other."
But let us ask, from what cause it is that truth, upon the simplest occasion, should be so offensive to our delicacy, and falsehood so requisite to soothe us? He must, in reality, be the weakest of mankind who should take umbrage at a plain answer in this case, when he was informed of the moral considerations that induced me to employ it. In fact, we are conscious of caprice in our mode of deciding respecting our visitors, and are willing to shelter our folly under this sort of irresponsibility. Would it be worthy of regret if we compelled ourselves to part with this refuge for our imbecility, and to do nothing which we were ashamed to be known to do?
A further argument which has been urged in favour of this disingenuous practice is that "there is no other way by which we can free ourselves from disagreeable acquaintance." Thus it is one of the perpetual effects of polished society to persuade us that we are incapable of doing the most trivial office for ourselves. It would be as reasonable to tell me "that it is a matter of indispensable necessity to have a valet to put on my stockings." If there be, in the list of our acquaintance, any person whom we particularly dislike, it usually happens that it is for some moral fault that we perceive or think we perceive in him. Why should he be kept in ignorance of our opinion respecting him, and prevented from the opportunity either of amendment or vindication? If he be too wise or too foolish, too virtuous or too vicious for us, why should he not be ingenuously told of his mistake in his intended kindness to us, rather than suffered to find it out by six months enquiry from our servant? If we practised no deceit, if we assumed no atom of cordiality and esteem we did not feel, we should be little pestered with these buzzing intruders. But one species of falsehood involves us in another; and he that pleads for these lying answers to our visitors in reality pleads the cause of a cowardice that dares not deny to vice the distinction and kindness that are due to virtue.
. Vide Appendices to Book II, Chap. II.
Some progress was made in the examination of this point in an earlier division of the present work. An attentive enquirer will readily perceive that no investigation can be more material, to such as would engage in a careful development of the principles of political justice. It cannot therefore be unproductive of benefit that we should here trace into their remoter ramifications the principles which were then delivered; as well as turn our attention to certain other considerations connected with the same topic which we have not hitherto had occasion to discuss. Of the many controversies which have been excited relative to the operation of opinion, none are of more importance than the question respecting free will and necessity, and the question respecting self-love and benevolence. These will occupy a principal portion of the enquiry.
We will first endeavour to establish the proposition that all the actions of men are necessary. It was impossible that this principle should not, in an indirect manner, be frequently anticipated in the preceding parts of this work. But it will be found strongly entitled to a separate consideration. The doctrine of moral necessity includes in it consequences of the highest moment, and leads to a more bold and comprehensive view of man in society than can possibly be entertained by him who has embraced the opposite opinion.
To the right understanding of any arguments that may be adduced under this head, it is requisite that we should have a clear idea of the meaning of the term necessity. He who affirms that all actions are necessary means that the man who is acquainted with all the circumstances under which a living or intelligent being is placed upon any given occasion is qualified to predict the conduct he will hold, with as much certainty as he can predict any of the phenomena of inanimate nature. Upon this question the advocate of liberty in the philosophical sense must join issue. He must, if he mean anything, deny this certainty of conjunction between moral antecedents and consequents. Where all is constant and invariable, and the events that arise uniformly correspond to the circumstances in which they originate, there can be no liberty.
It is generally acknowledged that, in the events of the material universe, everything is subjected to this necessity. The tendency of investigation and enquiry, relatively to this topic of human science, has been more effectually to exclude the appearance of irregularity, as our improvements extended. Let us recollect what is the species of evidence that has satisfied philosophers upon this point. Their only solid ground of reasoning has been from experience. The argument which has induced mankind to conceive of the universe as governed by certain laws has been an observed similarity in the succession of events. If, when we had once remarked two events succeeding each other, we had never had occasion to see that individual succession repeated; if we saw innumerable events in perpetual progression, without any apparent order, so that all our observation would not enable us, when we beheld one, to pronounce that another, of such a particular class, might be expected to follow; we should never have formed the conception of necessity, or have had an idea corresponding to that of laws and system.
Hence it follows that all that, strictly speaking, we know of the material universe is this uniformity of events. When we see the sun constantly rise in the morning, and set at night, and have had occasion to observe this phenomenon invariably taking place through the whole period of our existence, we cannot avoid receiving this as a law of the universe, and a ground for future expectation. But we never see any principle or virtue by which one event is conjoined to, or made the antecedent of, another.
Let us take some familiar illustrations of this truth. Can it be imagined that any man, by the inspection and analysis of gunpowder, would have been enabled, previously to experience, to predict its explosion? Would he, previously to experience, have been enabled to predict that one piece of marble, having a flat and polished surface, might with facility be protruded along another in a horizontal, but would, with considerable pertinacity, resist separation in a perpendicular direction? The simplest phenomena, of the most hourly occurrence, were originally placed at an equal distance from human sagacity.
There is a certain degree of obscurity, incident to this subject, arising from the following circumstance. All human knowledge is the result of perception. We know nothing of any substance, a supposed material body, for example, but by experience. If it were unconjoined, and bore no relation, to the phenomena of any other substance, it would be no subject of human intelligence. We collect a number of these concurrences, and having, by their perceived uniformity, reduced them into classes, form a general idea annexed to that part of the subject which stands as the antecedent. It must be admitted that a definition of any substance, that is anything that deserves to be called knowledge respecting it, will enable us to predict some of its future probable consequences, and that for this plain reason that definition is prediction under another name. But, though, when we have gained the idea of impenetrability as a general phenomenon of matter, we can predict some of the variations to which it leads, there are others which we cannot predict: or, in other words, we know none of these variations but such as we have actually remarked, added to an expectation that similar events will arise under similar circumstances, proportioned to the constancy with which they have been observed to take place in our past experience. Finding, as we do by repeated experiments, that material substances have the property of resistance, and that one substance in a state of rest, when struck upon by another, passes into a state of motion, we are still in want of more particular observation to enable us to predict the specific varieties that will follow from this collision, in each of the bodies. Enquire of a man who knows nothing more of matter than its general property of impenetrability what will be the result of one ball of matter impinging upon another, and you will soon find how little this general property can inform him of the particular laws of motion. We suppose him to know that motion will follow in to the second ball. But what quantity of motion will be communicated? What result will follow upon the collision, in the impelling ball? Will it continue to move in the same direction? Will it recoil in the opposite direction? Will it fly off obliquely; or will it subside into a state of rest? All these events will be found equally probable by him whom a series of observations upon the past has not instructed as to what he is to expect from the future.
From these remarks we may sufficiently collect what is the species of knowledge we possess respecting the laws of the material universe. No experiments we are able to make, no reasonings we are able to deduce, can ever instruct us in the principle of causation, or show us for what reason it is that one event has, in every instance in which it has been known to occur, been the precursor of another event of a given description. Yet this observation does not, in the slightest degree, invalidate our inference from one event to another, or affect the operations of moral prudence and expectation. The nature of the human mind is such as to oblige us, after having seen two events perpetually conjoined, to pass, as soon as one of them occurs, to the recollection of the other: and, in cases where this transition never misleads us, but the ideal succession is always found to be an exact copy of the future event, it is impossible that this species of foresight should not be converted into a general foundation of inference and reasoning. We cannot take a single step upon this subject which does not partake of the species of operation we denominate abstraction. Till we have been led to consider the rising of the sun tomorrow as an incident of the same species as its rising today, we cannot deduce from it similar consequences. It is the business of science to carry this talk of generalization to its furthest extent, and to reduce the diversified events of the universe to a small number of original principles.
Let us proceed to apply these reasonings concerning matter to the illustration of the theory of mind. Is it possible in this latter theory, as in the former subject, to discover any general principles? Can intellect be made a topic of science? Are we able to reduce the multiplied phenomena of mind to any certain standard of reasoning? If the affirmative of these questions be conceded, the inevitable consequence appears to be that mind, as well as matter, exhibits a constant conjunction of events, and furnishes all the ground that any subject will afford for an opinion of necessity. It is of no importance that we cannot see the ground of that necessity, or imagine how sensations, pleasurable or painful, when presented to the mind of a percipient being, are able to generate volition and animal motion; for, if there be any truth in the above statement, we are equally incapable of perceiving a ground of connection between any two events in the material universe, the common and received opinion, that we do perceive such ground of connection, being, in reality, nothing more than a vulgar prejudice.
That mind is a topic of science may be argued from all those branches of literature and enquiry which have mind for their subject. What species of amusement or instruction would history afford, if there were no ground of inference from moral antecedents to their consequents, if certain temptations and inducements did not, in all ages and climates, introduce a certain series of actions, if we were unable to trace a method and unity of system in men's tempers, propensities and transactions? The amusement would be inferior to that which we derive from the perusal of a chronological table, where events have no order but that of time; since, however the chronologist may neglect to mark the regularity of conjunction between successive transactions, the mind of the reader is busied in supplying that regularity from memory or imagination: but the very idea of such regularity would never have suggested itself if we had never found the source of that idea in experience. The instruction arising from the perusal of history would be absolutely none; since instruction implies, in its very nature, the classing and generalizing of objects. But, upon the supposition on which we are arguing, all objects would be irregular and disjunct, without the possibility of affording any grounds of reasoning or principles of science.
The idea correspondent to the term character inevitably includes in it the assumption of necessity and system. The character of any man is the result of a long series of impressions, communicated to his mind and modifying it in a certain manner, so as to enable us, a number of these modifications and impressions being given, to predict his conduct. Hence arise his temper and habits, respecting which we reasonably conclude that they will not be abruptly superseded and reversed; and that, if ever they be reversed, it will not be accidentally, but in consequence of some strong reason persuading, or some extraordinary event modifying his mind. If there were not this original and essential conjunction between motives and actions and, which forms one particular branch of this principle between men's past and future actions, there could be no such thing as character, or as a ground of inference, enabling us to predict what men would be, from what they have been.
From the same idea of regularity and conjunction arise all the schemes of policy in consequence of which men propose to themselves, by a certain plan of conduct, to prevail upon others to become the tools and instruments of their purposes. All the arts of courtship and flattery, of playing upon men's hopes and fears, proceed upon the supposition, that mind is subject to certain laws, and that, provided we be skilful and assiduous enough in applying the motive, the action will envitably follow.
Lastly, the idea of moral discipline proceeds entirely upon this principle. If I carefully persuade, exhort, and exhibit motives to another, it is because I believe that motives have a tendency to influence his conduct. If I reward or punish him, either with a view to his own improvement, or as an example to others, it is because I have been led to believe that rewards and punishments are calculated to affect the dispositions and practices of mankind.
There is but one conceivable objection against the inference from these premises to the necessity of human actions. It may be alleged that "though there is a real coherence between motives and actions, yet this coherence may not amount to a certainty, and of consequence, the mind still retains an inherent activity, by which it can at pleasure supersede and dissolve it. Thus for example, when I address argument and persuasion to my neighbour, to induce him to adopt a certain species of conduct, I do it not with a certain expectation of success, and am not utterly disappointed if my efforts fail of their object. I make a reserve for a certain faculty of liberty he is supposed to possess, which may at last counteract the best digested projects."
But in this objection there is nothing peculiar to the case of mind. It is just so in matter. I see a part only of the premises, and therefore can pronounce only with uncertainty upon the conclusion. A philosophical experiment which has succeeded a hundred times may altogether fail in the next trial. But what does the philosopher conclude from this? Not that there is a liberty of choice in his retort and his materials; by which they baffle the best-formed expectations. Not that the established order of antecedents and consequents is imperfect, and that part of the consequent happens without an antecedent. But that there was some other antecedent concerned, to which at the time he failed to advert, but which a fresh investigation will probably lay open to him. When the science of the material universe was in its infancy, men were sufficiently prompt to refer events to accident and chance; but the further they have extended their enquiries and observation, the more reason they have found to conclude that everything takes place according to necessary and universal laws.
The case is exactly parallel with respect to mind. The politician and the philosopher, however they may speculatively entertain the opinion of free will, never think of introducing it into their scheme of accounting for events. If an incident turn out otherwise than they expected, they take it for granted that there was some unobserved bias, some habit of thinking, some prejudice of education, some singular association of ideas, that disappointed their prediction; and, if they be of an active and enterprising temper, they return, like the natural philosopher, to search out the secret spring of this unlooked-for event.
The reflections into which we have entered upon the laws of the universe not only afford a simple and impressive argument in favour of the doctrine of necessity, but suggest a very obvious reason why the doctrine opposite to this has been, in a certain degree, the general opinion of mankind. It has appeared that the idea of uniform conjunction between events of any sort is the lesson of experience, and the vulgar never arrive at the universal application of this principle even to the phenomena of the material universe. In the easiest and most familiar instances, such as the impinging of one ball of matter upon another and its consequences, they willingly admit the interference of chance and irregularity. In this instance however, as both the impulse and its consequences are subjects of observation to the senses, they readily imagine that they perceive the absolute principle which causes motion to be communicated from the first ball to the second. Now the very same prejudice and precipitate conclusion, which induce them to believe that they discover the principle of motion in objects of sense, act in an opposite direction with respect to such objects as cannot be subjected to the examination of sense. The power by which a sensation, pleasurable or painful, when presented to the mind of a percipient being, produces volition and animal motion, no one can imagine that he sees; and therefore they readily conclude that there is no uniformity of conjunction in these events.
But, if the vulgar will universally be found to be the advocates of free will, they are not less strongly, however inconsistently, impressed with the belief of the doctrine of necessity. It is a well known and a just observation that, were it not for the existence of general laws to which the events of the material universe always conform, man could never have been either a reasoning or a moral being. The most considerable actions of our lives are directed by foresight. It is because he foresees the regular succession of the seasons that the farmer sows his field, and, after the expiration of a certain term, expects a crop. There would be no kindness in my administering food to the hungry, and no injustice in my thrusting a drawn sword against the bosom of my friend, if it were not the established quality of food to nourish, and of a sword to wound.
But the regularity of events in the material universe will not of itself afford a sufficient foundation of morality and prudence. The voluntary conduct of our neighbours enters for a share into almost all those calculations upon which our plans and determinations are founded. If voluntary conduct, as well as material impulse, were not subjected to general laws, and a legitimate topic of prediction and foresight, the certainty of events in the material universe would be productive of little benefit. But, in reality, the mind passes from one of these topics, of speculation to the other, without accurately distributing them into classes, or imagining that there is any difference in the certainty with which they are attended. Hence it appears that the most uninstructed peasant or artisan is practically a necessarian. The farmer calculates as securely upon the inclination of mankind to buy his corn when it is brought into the market, as upon the tendency of the seasons to ripen it. The labourer no more suspects that his employer will alter his mind, and not pay him his daily wages, than he suspects that his tools will refuse to perform those functions today in which they were yesterday employed with success.
Another argument in favour of the doctrine of necessity, not less clear and irresistible than that from the uniformity of conjunction of antecedents and consequents, will arise from a reference to the nature of voluntary action. The motions of the animal system distribute themselves into two great classes, voluntary and involuntary. "Voluntary action," as we formerly observed, "is where the event is foreseen, previously to its occurrence, and the hope or fear of that event, forms the excitement, prompting our effort to forward or retard it."
Here then the advocates of intellectual liberty have a clear dilemma proposed to their choice. They must ascribe this freedom, this imperfect conjunction of antecedents and consequents, either to our voluntary or our involuntary actions. They have already made their determination. They are aware that to ascribe freedom to that which is involuntary, even if the assumption could be maintained, would be altogether foreign to the great subjects of moral, theological or political enquiry. Man would not be in any degree more an agent or an accountable being, though it could be proved that all his involuntary motions sprung up in a fortuitous and capricious manner.
But, on the other hand, to ascribe freedom to our voluntary actions is an express contradiction in terms. No motion is voluntary any further than it is accompanied with intention and design, and has for its proper antecedent the apprehension of an end to be accomplished. So far as it flows, in any degree, from another source, it is involuntary. The new-born infant foresees nothing, therefore all his motions are involuntary. A person arrived at maturity, takes an extensive survey of the consequences of his actions, therefore he is eminently a voluntary and rational being. If any part of my conduct be destitute of all foresight of the events to result, who is there that ascribes to it depravity and vice? Xerxes acted just as soberly as such a reasoner when he caused his attendants to inflict a thousand lashes on the waves of the Hellespont.
The truth of the doctrine of necessity will be still more evident if we consider the absurdity of the opposite hypothesis. One of its principal ingredients is self-determination. Liberty, in an imperfect and popular sense, is ascribed to the motions of the animal system, when they result from the foresight and deliberation of the intellect, and not from external compulsion. It is in this sense that the word is commonly used in moral and political reasoning. Philosophical reasoners therefore who have desired to vindicate the property of freedom, not only to our external motions, but to the acts of the mind, have been obliged to repeat this process. Our external actions are then said to be free when they truly result from the determination of the mind. If our volitions, or internal acts, be also free, they must in like manner result from the determination of the mind, or in other words, "the mind in adopting them" must be "self-determined." Now nothing can be more evident than that in which the mind exercises its freedom must be an act of the mind. Liberty therefore, according to this hypothesis, consists in this, that every choice we make has been chosen by us, and every act of the mind been preceded and produced by an act of the mind. This is so true that, in reality, the ultimate act is not styled free from any quality of its own, but because the mind, in adopting it, was self-determined, that is, because it was preceded by another act. The ultimate act resulted completely from the determination that was its precursor. It was itself necessary; and, if we would look for freedom, it must be to that preceding act. But, in that preceding act also, if the mind were free, it was self-determined, that is, this volition was chosen by a preceding volition, and, by the same reasoning, this also by another antecedent to itself. All the acts, except the first, were necessary, and followed each other as inevitably as the links of a chain do when the first link is drawn forward. But then neither was this first act free, unless the mind in adopting it were self-determined, that is, unless this act were chosen by a preceding act. Trace back the chain as far as you please, every act at which you arrive is necessary. That act, which gives the character of freedom to the whole, can never be discovered; and, if it could, in its own nature includes a contradiction.
Another idea which belongs to the hypothesis of free will is that the mind is not necessarily inclined this way or that, by the motives which are presented to it, by the clearness or obscurity with which they are apprehended, or by the temper and character which preceding habits may have generated; but that, by its inherent activity, it is equally capable of proceeding either way, and passes to its determination from a previous state of absolute indifference. Now what sort of activity is that which is equally inclined to all kinds of actions? Let us suppose a particle of matter endowed with an inherent propensity to motion. This propensity must either be to move in one particular direction, and then it must for ever move in that direction, unless counteracted by some external impression; or it must have an equal tendency to all directions, and then the result must be a state of perpetual rest.
The absurdity of this consequence is so evident that the advocates of intellectual liberty have endeavoured to destroy its force, by means of a distinction. "Motive," it has been said, "is indeed the occasion, the sine qua non of volition, but it has no inherent power to compel volition. Its influence depends upon the free and unconstrained surrender of the mind. Between opposite motives and considerations, the mind can choose as it pleases, and, by its determination, can convert the motive which is weak and insufficient in the comparison into the strongest." But this hypothesis will be found exceedingly inadequate to the purpose for which it is produced. Not to repeat what has been already alleged to prove, that inherent power of production in an antecedent, is, in all cases, a mere fiction of the mind, it may easily be shown, that motives must either have a fixed and certain relation to their consequents, or they can have none.
For first it must be remembered that the ground or reason of any event, of whatever nature it be, must be contained among the circumstances which precede that event. The mind is supposed to be in a state of previous indifference, and therefore cannot be, in itself considered, the source of the particular choice that is made. There is a motive on one side and a motive on the other: and between these lie the true ground and reason of preference. But, wherever there is tendency to preference, there may be degrees of tendency. If the degrees be equal, preference cannot follow: it is equivalent to the putting equal weights into the opposite scales of a balance. If one of them have a greater tendency to preference than the other, that which has the greatest tendency must ultimately prevail. When two things are balanced against each other, so much amount may be conceived to be struck off from each side as exists in the smaller sum, and the overplus that belongs to the greater is all that truly enters into the consideration.
Add to this, secondly, that, if motive have not a necessary influence, it is altogether superfluous. The mind cannot first choose to be influenced by a motive, and afterwards submit to its operation: for in that case the preference would belong wholly to this previous volition. The determination would in reality be complete in the first instance; and the motive, which came in afterwards, might be the pretext, but could not be the true source of the proceedings.
Lastly, it may be observed upon the hypothesis of free will that the whole system is built upon a distinction where there is no difference, to wit, a distinction between the intellectual and active powers of the mind. A mysterious philosophy taught men to suppose that, when an object was already felt to be desirable, there was need of some distinct power to put the body in motion. But reason finds no ground for this supposition; nor is it possible to conceive (in the case of an intellectual faculty placed in an aptly organized body, where preference exists, together with a sentiment, the dictate of experience) of our power to obtain the object preferred) of anything beyond this that can contribute to render a certain motion of the animal frame the necessary result. We need only attend to the obvious meaning of the terms, in order to perceive that the will is merely, as it has been happily termed, "the last act of the understanding," "one of the different cases of the association of ideas." What indeed is preference but a feeling of something that really inheres, or is supposed to inhere, in the objects themselves? It is the comparison, true or erroneous, which the mind makes, respecting such things as are brought into competition with each other. This is indeed the same principle as was established upon a former occasion, when we undertook to prove that the voluntary actions of men originate in their opinions. But, if this fact had been sufficiently attended to, the freedom of the will would never have been gravely maintained by philosophical writers; since no man ever imagined that we were free to feel or not to feel an impression made upon our organs, and to believe or not to believe a proposition demonstrated to our understanding.
It must be unnecessary to add any thing further on this head, unless it be a momentary recollection of the sort of benefit that freedom of the will would confer upon us, supposing it possible. Man being, as we have here found him to be, a creature whose actions flow from the simple principle, and who is governed by the apprehensions of his understanding, nothing further is requisite but the improvement of his reasoning faculty to make him virtuous and happy. But did he possess a faculty in dependent of the understanding, and capable of resisting from mere caprice the most powerful arguments, the best education and the most sedulous instruction might be of no use to him. This freedom we shall easily perceive to be his bane and his curse; and the only hope of lasting benefit to the species would be by drawing closer the connection between the external motions and the understanding, wholly to extirpate it. The virtuous man, in proportion to his improvement, will be under the constant influence of fixed and invariable principles; and such a being as we conceive God to be, can never in any one instance have exercised this liberty, that is, can never have acted in a foolish and tyrannical manner. Freedom of the will is absurdly represented as necessary to render the mind susceptible of moral principles; but in reality, so far as we act with liberty, so far as we are independent of motives, our conduct is as independent of morality as it is of reason, nor is it possible that we should deserve either praise or blame for a proceeding thus capricious and indisciplinable.
. Book I, Chap. V.
. The reader who is indisposed to abstruse speculations will find the other members of the treatise sufficiently connected, without an express reference to this and the three following chapters of the present book.
. The reader will find the substance of the above arguments in a more diffusive form in Hume's Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, being the third part of his Essays.
. Book I, Chap. V, p. 119.
. The argument from the impossibility of free will is treated with great force of reasoning in Jonathan Edwards's Enquiry into the Freedom of the Will.
. Book I, Chap. V.
The contrary of this having been the conception of the mass of mankind in all ages, and the ideas of contingency and accident having perpetually obtruded themselves, the established language of morality has been universally tinctured with this error. It will therefore be of no trivial importance to enquire how much of this language is founded in the truth of things, and how much of what is expressed by it is purely imaginary. Accuracy of language is the indispensable prerequisite of sound knowledge; and, without attention to that subject, we can never ascertain the extent and importance of the consequences of necessity.
First then it appears that, in the emphatical and refined sense in which the word has sometimes been used, there is no such thing as action. Man is in no case, strictly speaking, the beginner of any event or series of events that takes place in the universe, but only the vehicle through which certain antecedents operate, which antecedents, if he were supposed not to exist, would cease to have that operation. Action however, in its more simple and obvious sense, is sufficiently real, and exists equally both in mind and in matter. When a ball upon a billiard-board is struck by the mace, and afterwards impinges upon a second ball, the ball which was first in motion is said to act upon the second, though the results are in the strictest conformity to the impression received, and the motion it communicates is precisely determined by the circumstances of the case. Exactly similar to this, upon the reasonings already delivered, are the actions of the human mind. Mind is a real principle, an indispensable link in the great chain of the universe; but not, as has sometimes been supposed, a principle of that paramount description as to supersede all necessities, and be itself subject to no laws and methods of operation.
Is this view of things incompatible with the existence of virtue?
If by virtue we understand the operation of an intelligent being in the exercise of an optional power, so that, under the same precise circumstances, it might or might not have taken place, undoubtedly it will annihilate it.
But the doctrine of necessity does not overturn the nature of things. Happiness and misery, wisdom and error will still be distinct from each other, and there will still be a correspondence between them. Wherever there is that which may be the means of pleasure or pain to a sensitive being, there is ground for preference and desire, or on the contrary for neglect and aversion. Benevolence and wisdom will be objects worthy to be desired, selfishness and error worthy to be disliked. If therefore by virtue we mean that principle which asserts the preference of the former over the latter, its reality will remain undiminished by the doctrine of necessity.
Virtue, if we would reason accurately, should perhaps be considered by us, in the first instance, objectively, rather than as modifying any particular beings. Virtuous conduct is conduct proposing to itself a certain end; by its tendency to answer that end, its value and purity are to be tried. Its purpose is the production of happiness, and the aptitude or inaptitude of particular beings in this respect will decide their importance in the scale of existence. This aptitude is usually termed capacity or power. Now power, in the sense of the hypothesis of liberty, is altogether chimerical. But power, in the sense in which it is sometimes affirmed of inanimate substances, is equally true of those which are animate. A candlestick has the power or capacity of retaining a candle in a perpendicular direction. A knife has a capacity of cutting. In the same manner a human being has a capacity of walking: though it may be no more true of him than of the inanimate substance that he has an option to exercise or not to exercise that capacity. Again, there are different degrees as well as different classes of capacity. One knife is better adapted for the purposes of cutting than another.
There are two considerations relative to any particular being that generate approbation, and this whether the being be possessed of consciousness or no. These considerations are capacity, and the application of capacity. We approve of a sharp knife rather than a blunt one, because its capacity is greater. We approve of its being employed in carving food, rather than in maiming men or other animals, because that application of its capacity is preferable. But all approbation or preference is relative to utility or general good. A knife is as capable as a man of being employed in purposes of utility; and the one is no more free than the other as to its employment. The mode in which a knife is made subservient to these purposes is by material impulse. The mode in which a man is made subservient is by inducement and persuasion. But both are equally the affair of necessity. The man differs from the knife, as the iron candlestick differs from the brass one; he has one more way of being acted upon. This additional way in man is motive; in the candlestick, is magnetism.
Virtue is a term which has been appropriated to describe the effects produced by men, under the influence of motives, in promoting the general good: it describes the application of sentient and human capacity, and not the application of capacity in inanimate substances. The word, thus explained, is to be considered as rather similar to grammatical distinction than to real and philosophical difference. Thus, in Latin, bonus is good as affirmed of a man, bona is good as affirmed of a woman. In the same manner we can as easily conceive of the capacity of an inanimate, as of an animate, substance being applied to the general good; and as accurately describe the best possible application of the one, as of the other. The end, that upon which the application depends for its value, is the same in both instances. But we call the latter virtue and duty, and not the former. These words may, in a popular sense, be considered as either masculine or feminine, but never neuter. The existence of virtue therefore, if by this term we mean the real and essential difference between virtue and vice, the importance of a virtuous character, and the approbation that is due to it, is not annihilated by the doctrine of necessity, but rather illustrated and confirmed.
But, if the doctrine of necessity do not annihilate virtue, it tends to introduce a great change into our ideas respecting it. According to this doctrine it will be absurd for a man to say, 'I will exert myself', 'I will take care to remember', or even 'I will do this'. All these expressions imply as if man were, or could be, something else than what motives make him. Man is in reality a passive, and not an active being. In another sense however he is sufficiently capable of exertion. The operations of his mind may be laborious, like those of the wheel of a heavy machine in ascending a hill, may even tend to wear out the substance of the shell in which it acts, without in the smallest degree impeaching its passive character. If we were constantly aware of this, our minds would not glow less ardently with the love of truth, justice, happiness and mankind. We should have a firmness and simplicity in our conduct, not wasting itself in fruitless struggles and regrets, not hurried along with infantine impatience, but seeing actions with their consequences, and calmly and unreservedly given up to the influence of those comprehensive views which this doctrine inspires.
As to our conduct towards others, in instances where we were concerned to improve and meliorate their minds, we should address our representations and remonstrances to them with double confidence. The believer in free will can expostulate with, or correct, his pupil, with faint and uncertain hopes, conscious that the clearest exhibition of truth is impotent, when brought into contest with the unhearing and indisciplinable faculty of will; or in reality, if he were consistent, secure that it could produce no effect. The necessarian on the contrary employs real antecedents, and has a right to expect real effects.
But, though he would represent, he would not exhort, for this is a term without a meaning. He would suggest motives to the mind, but he would not call upon it to comply, as if it had a power to comply, or not to comply. His office would consist of two parts, the exhibition of motives to the pursuit of a certain end, and the delineation of the easiest and most effectual way of attaining that end.
There is no better scheme for enabling us to perceive how far any idea that has been connected with the hypo thesis of liberty has a real foundation than to translate the usual mode of expressing it into the language of necessity. Suppose the idea of exhortation, so translated, to stand thus: 'To enable any arguments I may suggest to you to make a suitable impression, it is necessary that they should be fairly considered. I proceed therefore to evince to you the importance of attention, knowing that, if I can make this importance sufficiently manifest, attention will inevitably follow.' I should surely be far better employed in enforcing directly the truth I am desirous to impress, than in having recourse to this circuitous mode of treating attention as if it were a separate faculty. Attention will, in reality, always be proportionate to our apprehension of the importance of the subject proposed.
At first sight it may appear as if, the moment I was satisfied that exertion on my part was no better than a fiction, and that I was the passive instrument of causes exterior to myself, I should become indifferent to the objects which had hitherto interested me the most deeply, and lose all that inflexible perseverance which seems inseparable from great undertakings. But this cannot be the true state of the case. The more I resign myself to the influence of truth, the clearer will be my perception of it. The less I am interrupted by questions of liberty and caprice, of attention and indolence, the more uniform will be my constancy. Nothing could be more unreasonable than that the sentiment of necessity should produce in me a spirit of neutrality and indifference. The more certain is the conjunction between antecedents and consequents, the more cheerfulness should I feel in yielding to painful and laborious employments.
It is common for men impressed with the opinion of free will, to entertain resentment, indignation, and anger against those who fall into the commission of vice. How much of these feelings is just, and how much erroneous? The difference between virtue and vice will equally remain upon the opposite hypothesis. Vice therefore must be an object of rejection, and virtue of preference; the one must be approved, and the other disapproved. But our disapprobation of vice will be of the same nature as our disapprobation of an infectious distemper.
One of the reasons why we are accustomed to regard the murderer with more accuse feelings of displeasure than the knife he employs is that we find a more dangerous property, and greater cause for apprehension, in the one than in the other. The knife is only accidentally an object of terror, but against the murderer we can never be enough upon our guard. In the same manner we regard the middle of a busy street with less complacency, as a place for walking, than the side; and the ridge of a house with more aversion than either. Independently therefore of the idea of freedom, mankind in general will find in the enormously vicious a sufficient motive of apprehension and displeasure. With the addition of that idea, it is no wonder that they should be prompted to sentiments of the most intemperate abhorrence.
These sentiments obviously lead to the examination of the prevailing conceptions on the subject of punishment. The doctrine of necessity would teach us to class punishment in the list of the means we possess of influencing the human mind, and may induce us to enquire into its utility as an instrument for reforming error. The more the human mind can be shown to be under the influence of motive, the more certain it is that punishment will produce a great and unequivocal effect. But the doctrine of necessity will teach us to look upon punishment with no complacence, and at times to prefer the most direct means of encountering error, the development of truth. Whenever punishment is employed under this system, it will be employed, not for any intrinsic recommendation it possesses, but only as it shall appear to conduce to general utility.
On the contrary it is usually imagined that, independently of the supposed utility of punishment, there is proper desert in the criminal, a certain fitness in the nature of things that renders pain the suitable concomitant of vice. It is therefore frequently said that it is not enough that a murderer should be transported to a desert island, where there should be no danger that his malignant propensities should ever again have opportunity to act; but that it is also right the indignation of mankind against him should express itself in the infliction of some actual ignominy and pain. On the contrary, under the system of necessity, the terms, guilt, crime, desert and accountableness, in the abstract and general sense in which they have sometimes been applied, have no place.
Correlative to the feelings of resentment, indignation and anger against the offences of others are those of repentance, contrition and sorrow for our own. As long as we admit of an essential difference between virtue and vice, no doubt all erroneous conduct, whether of ourselves or others, will be regarded with disapprobation. But it will in both cases be considered ' under the system of necessity, as a link in the great chain of events, which could not have been otherwise than it is. We shall therefore no more be disposed to repent of our own faults than of the faults of others. It will be proper to view them both as actions injurious to the public good, and the repetition of which is to be deprecated. Amidst our present imperfections, it will perhaps be useful to recollect what is the error by which we are most easily seduced. But, in proportion as our views extend, we shall find motives sufficient to the practice of virtue, without a partial retrospect to ourselves, or a recollection of our own propensities and habits.
In the ideas annexed to the words resentment and repentance, there is some mixture of true judgement and a sound conception of the nature of things. There is perhaps still more justice in the notions conveyed by praise and blame, though these also have been vitiated and distorted by the hypothesis of liberty. When I speak of a beautiful landscape or an agreeable sensation, I employ the language of panegyric. I employ it still more emphatically when I speak of a good action; because I am conscious that the panegyric to which it is entitled has a tendency to procure a repetition of such actions. So far as praise implies nothing more than this, it perfectly accords with the severest philosophy. So far as it implies that the man could have abstained from the virtuous action I applaud, it belongs only to the delusive system of liberty.
A further consequence of the doctrine of necessity is its tendency to make us survey all events with a tranquil and placid temper, and approve and disapprove without impeachment to our self-possession. It is true that events may be contingent, as to any knowledge we possess respecting them, however certain they are in themselves. Thus the advocate of liberty knows that his relation was either lost or saved in the great storm that happened two months ago; he regards this event as past and certain, and yet he does not fail to be anxious about it. But it is not less true that anxiety and perturbation for the most part include in them an imperfect sense of contingency, and a feeling as if our efforts could make some alteration in the event. When the person recollects with clearness that the event is over, his mind grows composed; but presently he feels as if it were in the power of God or man to alter it, and his agitation is renewed. To this may be further added the impatience of curiosity; but philosophy and reason have an evident tendency to prevent useless curiosity from disturbing our peace. He therefore who regards all things past, present, and to come as links of an indissoluble chain will, as often as he recollects this comprehensive view, find himself assisted to surmount the tumult of passion; and be enabled to reflect upon the moral concerns of mankind with the same clearness of perception, the same firmness of judgement, and the same constancy of temper, as we are accustomed to do upon the truths of geometry.
This however must be expected to be no more than a temporary exertion. A sound philosophy may afford us intervals of entire tranquillity. It will communicate a portion of this tranquillity to the whole of our character. But the essence of the human mind will still remain. Man is the creature of habit; and it is impossible for him to lose those things which afforded him a series of pleasurable sensations without finding his thoughts in some degree unhinged, and being obliged, under the pressure of considerable disadvantages, to seek, in paths untried, and in new associations, a substitute for the benefits of which he has been deprived.
It would be of infinite importance to the cause of science and virtue to express ourselves upon all occasions in the language of necessity. The contrary language is perpetually intruding, and it is difficult to speak two sentences, upon any topic connected with human action, without it. The expressions of both hypotheses are mixed in inextricable confusion, just as the belief of both hypotheses, however incompatible, will be found to exist in all uninstructed minds. The reformation of which I speak will probably be found exceedingly practicable in itself; though, such is the subtlety of error, that we should, at first, find several revisals and much laborious study necessary, before it could be perfectly weeded out. This must be the author's apology for not having attempted in the present work what he recommends to others.
. Book II, Chap. IV.
But there are two sorts of mechanism capable of being applied to the solution of this case, one which has for its medium only matter and motion, the other which has for its medium thought. Which of these is to be regarded as most probable?
According to the first, we may conceive the human body to be so constituted as to be susceptible of vibrations, in the same manner as the strings of a musical instrument. These vibrations, having begun upon the surface of the body, are conveyed to the brain; and, in a manner that is equally the result of construction, produce a second set of vibrations beginning in the brain, and conveyed to the different organs or members of the body. Thus it may be supposed that a piece of iron considerably heated is applied to the body of an infant, and that the report of this irritation and separation of parts being conveyed to the brain vents itself again in a shrill and piercing cry. It is in this manner that certain convulsive and spasmodic affections appear to take place in the body. The case, as here described, is similar to that of the bag of a pair of bagpipes, which, being pressed in a certain manner, utters a groan, without anything more being necessary to account for this phenomenon than the known laws of matter and motion. Let us add to these vibrations a system of associations to be carried on by traces to be made upon the medullary substance of the brain, by means of which past and present impressions are connected according to certain laws, as the traces happen to approach or run into each other; and we have then a complete scheme of a certain sort, of the phenomena of human action. It is to be observed that, according to this system, mind, or perception, is altogether unnecessary to explain the appearances. It might for other reasons be desirable or wise, in the author of the universe for example, to introduce a thinking substance, or a power of perception, as a spectator of the process. But this percipient power is altogether neutral, having apparently no concern, either as a medium or otherwise, in the events to be produced.
The second system, which represents thought as the medium of operation, is not less a system of mechanism according to the doctrine of necessity, but it is a mechanism of a totally different kind.
There are various reasons calculated to persuade us that this last hypothesis is the most profitable. No inconsiderable argument may be derived from the singular and important nature of that property of human beings which we term thought; which it is surely somewhat violent to strike out of our system, as a mere superfluity.
A second reason still more decisive than the former arises from the constancy with which thought, in innumerable instances, accompanies the functions of this mechanism. Now this constancy of conjunction has been shown to be the only ground we have, in any imaginable subject, for proceeding from antecedent to consequent, and expecting, when we see one given event, that another event of a given sort will succeed it. We cannot therefore reject the principle which supposes thought to be a real medium in the mechanism of man, but upon grounds that would vitiate our reasonings in every topic of human enquiry.
It may be objected 'that, though this regularity of event is the only rational principle of inference, yet thought may be found not to possess the character of a medium, motion being in all instances the antecedent, and thought never anything more than a consequent'. But this is contrary to everything we know of the system of the universe, in which each event appears to be alternately both the one and the other, nothing terminating in itself, but everything leading on to an endless chain of consequences.
It would be equally vain to object 'that we are unable to conceive how thought can have any tendency to promotion in the animal system'; since it has just appeared that this ignorance is by no means peculiar to the subject before us. We are universally unable to perceive a foundation of necessary connection.
It being then sufficiently clear that there are cogent reasons to persuade us that thought is the medium through which the motions of the animal system are generally carried on, let us proceed to consider what is the nature of those thoughts by which the limbs and organs of our body are set in motion. It will then probably be found that the difficulties which have clogged the intellectual hypothesis are principally founded in erroneous notions derived from the system of liberty; as if there were any essential difference between those thoughts which are the medium of generating motion, and thoughts in general.
First, thought may be the source of animal motion, without partaking, in any degree, of volition, or design. It is certain that there is a great variety of motions in the animal system which are, in every view of the subject, involuntary. Such, for example, are the cries of an infant, when it is first impressed with the sensation of pain. In the first motions of the animal system, nothing of any sort could possibly be foreseen, and therefore nothing of any sort could be intended. Yet these motions have sensation or thought for their constant concomitant; and therefore all the arguments which have been already alleged remain in full force, to prove that thought is the medium of their production.
Nor will this appear extraordinary, if we consider the nature of volition itself. In volition, if the doctrine of necessity be true, the mind is altogether passive. Two ideas present themselves in some way connected with each other; and a perception of preferableness necessarily follows. An object having certain desirable qualities is perceived to be within my reach; and my hand is necessarily stretched out with an intention to obtain it. If a perception of preference, or desirableness, irresistibly lead to animal motion, why may not the mere perception of pain? All that the adversary of automatism is concerned to maintain is that thought is an essential link in the chain; and that, the moment it is taken away, the links that were before no longer afford the slightest ground to expect motion in the links that were after. - It is possible that, as a numerous class of motions have their constant origin in thought, so there may be no thoughts altogether unattended with motion.
Secondly, thought may be the source of animal motion and at the same time be unattended with consciousness This is undoubtedly a distinction of considerable refine-. meet, depending upon the precise meaning of words; and, if any person should choose to express himself differently on the subject, it would be useless obstinately to dispute that difference with him. By the consciousness which accompanies any thought, there seems to be something implied distinct from the thought itself. Consciousness is a sort of supplementary reflection, by which the mind not only has the thought, but adverts to its own situation and observes that it has it. Consciousness therefore, however nice the distinction, seems to be a second thought.
In order to ascertain whether every thought be attended with consciousness, it may be proper to consider whether the mind can ever have more than one thought at any one time. Now this seems altogether contrary to the very nature of mind. My present thought is that to which my present attention is yielded; but I cannot attend to several things at once. This assertion appears to be of the nature of an intuitive axiom; and experience is perpetually reminding us of its truth. In comparing two objects, we frequently endeavour, as it were, to draw them together in the mind, but we seem obliged to pass successively from the one to the other.
But, though it be intuitively true that we can attend to but one thing, or, in other words, have but one thought, at one time, and though intuitive and self-evident propositions do not, properly speaking, admit of being supported by argument, yet there is a collateral consideration, something in the nature of an argument, that may be adduced in support of this proposition. It is at present generally admitted, by all accurate reasoners upon the nature of the human mind, that its whole internal history may be traced to one single principle, association. There are but two ways in which a thought can be excited in the mind, first, by external impression, secondly, by the property which one thought existing in the mind is found to have, of introducing a second thought through the means of some link of connection between them. This being premised, let us suppose a given mind to have two ideas at the same time. There can be no reason why either of these ideas should prove ungenerative, or why the two ideas they are best fitted to bring after them should not coexist as well as their predecessors. Let the same process be repeated indefinitely. We have then two trains of thinking exactly contemporary in the same mind. Very curious questions will here arise. Have they any communication? Do they flow separately, or occasionally cross and interrupt each other? Can any reason be given, why one of them should not relate to the doctrine of fluxions, and the other to the drama? in other words, why the same man should not, at the same time, be both Newton and Shakespeare? Why may not one of these coexisting trains be of a joyful and the other of a sorrowful tenor? There is no absurdity that may not be supported upon the assumption of this principle. In fact we have no other conception of fidelity, as it relates to the human mind, than that of a single idea, supersedable by external impression, or regularly leading on, by means of various connections, to an indefinite train of ideas in uninterrupted succession.
But this principle, though apparently supported both by reason and intuition, is not unattended with difficulties. The first is that which arises from the case of complex ideas. This will best be apprehended if we examine it, as it relates to visible objects. 'Let us suppose that I am at present employed in the act of reading. I appear to take in whole words, and indeed clusters of words, by a single act of the mind. But let it be granted for a moment that I see each letter successively. Yet each letter is made up of parts: the letter D, for example, of a right line and a curve, and each of these lines of the successive addition or fluxion of points. If I consider the line as a whole, yet its extension is one thing, and its terminations another. I could not see the letter, if the black line that describes it, and the white surface that bounds it, were not each of them in the view of my organ. There must therefore, as it should seem, upon the hypothesis above stated, to be an infinite succession of ideas in the mind, before it could apprehend the simplest objects with which we are conversant. But we have no feeling of any such thing, but rather of the precise contrary. Thousands of human beings go out of the world, without ever apprehending that lines are composed of the addition or fluxion of points. An hypothesis that is in direct opposition to so many apparent facts must have a very uncommon portion of evidence to sustain it, if indeed it can be sustained.'
The true answer to this objection seems to be as follows. The mind can apprehend only a single idea at once, but that idea needs not be a simple idea. The mind can apprehend two or more objects at a single effort, but it cannot apprehend them as two. There seems no sufficient reason to deny that all those objects which are painted at once upon the retina of the eye produce a joint and simultaneous impression upon the mind. But they are not immediately conceived by the mind as many, but as one: the recollection may occur that they are made up of parts, but these parts cannot be considered by us otherwise than successively. The resolution of objects into their simple elements is an operation of science and improvement; but it is altogether foreign to our first and original conceptions. In all cases, the operations of our understanding are rather analytical than synthetical, rather those of resolution than composition. We do not begin with the successive perception of elementary parts till we have obtained an idea of a whole; but beginning with a whole, are capable of reducing it into its elements.
A second difficulty is of a much subtler nature. It consists in the seeming 'impossibility of performing any mental operation, such as comparison for example, which has relation to two or more ideas, if we have not both ideas before us at once, if one of them be completely vanished and gone, before the other begins to exit'. The source of this difficulty seems to lie in the mistake of supposing that there is a real interval between the two ideas. It will perhaps be found upon an accurate examination that, though we cannot have two ideas at once, yet it is not just to say that the first has perished, before the second begins to exist. The instant that connects them is of no real magnitude, and produces no real division. The mind is always full. It is this instant therefore that is the true point of comparison.
It may be objected 'that comparison is rather a matter of retrospect, deciding between two ideas that have been completely apprehended, than a perception which occurs in the middle, before the second has been observed'. To this objection experience will perhaps be found to furnish the true answer. We find in fact that we cannot compare two objects till we have passed and repassed them in the mind.
'Supposing this account of the operation of the mind in comparison to be admitted, yet what shall we say to a complex sentence, containing twenty ideas, the sense of which I fully apprehend at a single hearing, nay, even, in some cases, by the time one half of it has been uttered?'
The mere talk of understanding what is affirmed to us is of a very different nature from that of comparison, or of any other species of judgment that is to be formed concerning this affirmation. When a number of ideas are presented in a train, though in one sense there be variety, yet in another there is unity. First, there is the unity of uninterrupted succession, the perennial flow as of a stream, where the drop indeed that succeeds is numerically distinct from that--which went before, but there is no cessation. Secondly, there is the unity of method, The mind apprehends, as the discourse proceeds, a strict association from similarity or some other source, between each idea: as it follows in the process, and that which went before it.
The faculty of understanding the different parts of a discourse in their connection with each other, simple as it appears, is in reality of gradual and slow acquisition. We are, by various causes, excluded from a minute observation of the progress of the infant mind, and therefore do not readily conceive by how imperceptible advances it arrives at a quickness of apprehension, relative to the simplest sentences. But we more easily remark its subsequent improvement, and perceive how long it is, before it can apprehend a discourse of considerable length, or a sentence of great abstraction.
Nothing is more certain than the possibility of my perceiving the sort of relation that exists between the different parts of a methodical discourse, for example, Mr Burke's Speech upon Oeconomical Reform, though it be impossible for me, after the severest attention, to consider the several parts otherwise than successively. I have a latent feeling of this relation as the discourse proceeds, but I cannot give a firm judgement respecting it, otherwise than by retrospect. It may however be suspected, even in the case of simple apprehension, that an accurate attention to the operations of the mind would show that we scarcely in any instance hear a single sentence without returning again and again upon the steps of the speaker and drawing more closely in our minds the preceding members of his period, before he arrives at its conclusion; though even this exertion of mind, subtle as it is, be not of itself thought sufficient to authorize us to give a judgement of the whole.
But, if the principle here stated be true, how infinitely rapid must be the succession of ideas? While I am speaking, no two ideas are in my mind at the same time, and yet with what facility do I pass from one to another? If my discourse be argumentative, how often do I pass in review the topics of which it consists, before I utter them; and, even while I am speaking, continue the review at intervals, without producing any pause in my discourse? How many other sensations are experienced by me during this 'period, without so much as interrupting, that is, without materially diverting the train of my ideas? My eye successively remarks a thousand objects that present themselves. My mind wanders to the different parts of my body, and receives a sensation from the chair upon which I sit, or the table upon which I lean; from the pinching of a shoe, from a singing in my ear, a pain in my head, or an irritation of the breast. When these most perceptibly occur, my mind passes from one to another without feeling,the minutest obstacle, or being in any degree distracted by their multiplicity. From this cursory view of the subject, it appears that we have a multitude of different successive perceptions in every moment of our existence. -- To return.
Consciousness, as it has been above defined, appears to be one of the departments of memory. Now the nature of memory, so far as it relates to the subject of which we are treating, is obvious. An infinite number of thoughts passed through my mind in the last five minutes of my existence. How many of them am I now able to recollect? How many of them shall I recollect tomorrow? One impression after another is perpetually effacing from this intellectual register. Some of them may with great attention and effort be revived; others obtrude themselves uncalled for; and a third sort are perhaps out of the reach of any power of thought to reproduce, as having never left their traces behind them for a moment. If the memory be capable of so many variations and degrees of intensity, may there not be some cases with which it never connects itself? If the succession of thought be so inexpressibly rapid, may they not pass over some topics with so delicate a touch as to elude the supplement of consciousness?
It seems to be consciousness, rather than the succession of ideas, that measures time to the mind. The succession of ideas is, in all cases, exceedingly rapid, and it is by no means clear that it can be accelerated. We find it impracticable in the experiment to retain any idea in our mind unvaried for any perceptible duration. Continual flux appears to take place in every part of the universe. Of thought, may be said, in a practical sense, what has been affirmed of matter, that it is infinitely divisible. Yet time seems, to our apprehension, to flow now with a precipitated, and now with a tardy course. The indolent man reclines for hours in the shade; and, though his mind be perpetually at work, the silent progress of time is unobserved. But, when acute pain, or uneasy expectation, obliges consciousness to recur with unusual force, the time appears insupportably long. Indeed it is a contradiction in terms to suppose that the succession of thoughts, where there is nothing that perceptibly links them together, where they totally elude the memory and instantly vanish, can be a measure of time to the mind. That there is such a state of mind, in some cases assuming a permanent form, has been so much the general opinion of mankind that it has obtained a name, and is called reverie. It is probable from what has been said that thoughts of reverie, understanding by that appellation thoughts untransmitted to the memory, perpetually take their turn with our more express and digested thoughts, even in the most active scenes of our life.
Lastly, thought may be the source of animal motion, and yet there may be no need of a distinct thought producing each individual motion. This is a very essential point in the subject before us. In uttering a cry for example, the number of muscles and articulations of the body concerned in this operation is very great; shall we say that the infant has a distinct thought for each of these articulations?
The answer to this question will be considerably facilitated if we recollect the manner in which the impressions are blended which we receive from external objects. The sense of feeling is diffused over every part of my body, I feel the different substances that support me, the pen I guide, various affections and petty irregularities in different parts of my frame, nay, the very air that environs me. But all these impressions are absolutely simultaneous, and I can have only one perception at once. Out of these various impressions, the most powerful, or that which has the greatest advantage to solicit my attention, overcomes and drives out the rest; or, which not less frequently happens, some idea of association, suggested by the last preceding idea, wholly withdraws my attention from every external object. It is probable however that this perception is imperceptibly modified by the miniature impressions which accompany it, just as we actually find that the very same ideas presented to a sick man take a peculiar tinge which renders them exceedingly different from what they are in the mind of a man in health. It has been already shown that, though there is nothing less frequent than the apprehending of a simple idea, yet every idea, however complex, offers itself to the mind under the conception of unity. The blending of numerous impressions into one perception is a law of our nature; and the customary train of our perceptions is entirely of this denomination. After this manner, not only every perception is complicated by a variety of simultaneous impressions, but every idea that now offers itself to the mind is modified by all the ideas that ever existed in it. It is this circumstance that constitutes the insensible empire of prejudice; and causes every object which is exhibited to a number of individuals to assume as many forms in their mine as there are individuals who view it.
These remarks furnish us with an answer to the long disputed question, whether the mind always thinks? It appears that innumerable impressions are perpetual!' made upon our body; and the only way in which the slightest of these is prevented from conveying a distinct report to the mind is in consequence of its being overpowered by some more considerable impression. It cannot therefore be alleged 'that, as one impression is found to be overpowered by another while we wake, the strongest only of the simultaneous impressions furnishing an idea to the mind; so the whole set of simultaneous impressions during sleep may be overpowered by some indisposition of the sensorium, and entirely fail of its effect'. For, first, the cases are altogether different. From the explication above given, it appeared that not one of the impressions was really lost, but tended, though in a very limited degree, to modify the predominant impression. Secondly, nothing can be more absurd than this supposition. Sleep ought, according to this scheme, to cease of itself after the expiration of a certain term, but to be incapable of interruption from any experiment I might make upon the sleeper. To what purpose call or shake him? This act evinces my knowledge, and its success the truth of my knowledge, that he is in a state susceptible of impression. But, if susceptible of impression, then impressed, by bedclothes, etc. Shall we say, 'that it requires an impression of a certain magnitude to excite the sensorium'? But a dock shall strike in the room and not wake him, when a voice of a much lower key produces that effect. What is the precise degree of magnitude necessary? We actually find the ineffectual calls that are addressed to us, as well as various other sounds, occasionally mixing with our dreams, without our being aware from whence these new perceptions arose. Thus it appears that every, the most minute, impression that is made upon our bodies in a state of sleep or deliquium is conveyed to the mind, however faint may be its effect, or however it may be overpowered and swallowed up by other sensations or circumstances.
Let it however be observed that the question whether the mind always thinks is altogether different from the question, which has sometimes been confounded with it, whether a sleeping man always dreams. The arguments here adduced seem conclusive as to the first question, but there is some reason to believe that there have been men who never once dreamed in the whole course of their lives.
To apply these observations. If a number of impressions acting upon the mind may come to us so blended as to make up one thought or perception, why may not one thought, in cases where the mind acts as a principle, produce a variety of motions? It has already been shown that there is no essential difference between the two cases. The mind is completely passive in both. Is there any sufficient reason to show that, though it be possible for one substance, considered as the recipient of effects, to be the subject of a variety of simultaneous impressions, yet it is impossible for one substance, considered as a cause, to produce a variety of simultaneous motions? If it be granted that there is not, if the mere modification of a thought designing a motion in chief (a cry, for example, or a motion of the limbs), may produce a secondary motion, then it must perhaps further be confessed possible for that modification which my first thought produced in my second to carry on the motion, even though the second thought be upon a subject altogether different.
The consequences which seem deducible from this theory of mind are sufficiently memorable. By showing the extreme subtlety and simplicity of thought, it removes many of the difficulties that might otherwise rest upon its finer and more evanescent operations. If thought, in order to be the source of animal motion, need not have either the nature of volition, or the concomitant of consciousness, and if a single thought may become a complex source, and produce a variety of motions, it will then become exceedingly difficult to trace its operations, or to discover any circumstances in a particular instance of animal motion which can sufficiently indicate that thought was not the principle of its production, and by that means supersede the force of the general arguments adduced in the beginning of this chapter. Hence therefore it appears that all those motions which are observed to exist in substances having perception, and which are not to be discovered in substances of any other species, may reasonably be suspected to have thought, the distinguishing peculiarity of such substances, for their source.
There are various classes of motion which will fall under this definition, beside those already enumerated. An example of one of these classes suggests itself in the phenomenon of walking. An attentive observer will perceive various symptoms calculated to persuade him that every step he takes, during the longest journey, is the production of thought. Walking is, in all cases, originally a voluntary motion. In a child, when he learns to walk, in a rope-dancer, when he begins to practice that particular exercise, the distinct determination of mind, preceding each step, is sufficiently perceptible. It may be absurd to say that a long series of motions can be the result of so many express volitions, when these supposed volitions leave no trace in the memory. But it is not unreasonable to believe that a species of motion which began in express design may, though it ceases to be the subject of conscious attention, owe its continuance to a continued series of thoughts flowing in that direction, and that, if life were taken away, material impulse would not carry on the exercise for a moment. We actually find that, when our thoughts in a train are more than commonly earnest, our pace slackens, and sometimes our going forward is wholly suspended, particularly in any less common species of walking, such as that of descending a flight of stairs. In ascending the case is still more difficult, and accordingly we are accustomed wholly to suspend the regular progress of reflection during that operation.
Another class of motions of a still subtler nature are the regular motions of the animal economy, such as the circulation of the blood, and the pulsation of the heart. Are thought and perception the medium of these motions? We have the same argument here as in the former instances, conjunction of event. When thought begins, these motions also begin; and, when it ceases, they are at an end. They are therefore either the cause or effect of percipiency, or mind; but we shall be inclined to embrace the latter side of this dilemma when we recollect that we are probably acquainted with many instances in which thought is the immediate cause of motions, which scarcely yield in subtlety to these; but that, as to the origin of the faculty of thought, we are wholly uninformed. Add to this that there are probably no motions of the animal economy which we do not find it in the power of volition, and still more of our involuntary sensations, to hasten or retard.
It is far from certain that the phenomenon of motion can anywhere exist where there is not thought. Motion may be distributed into four classes; the simpler motions, which result from what are called the essential properties of matter, and the laws of impulse; the more complex ones, which cannot be accounted for by the assumption of these laws; such as gravitation, elasticity, electricity and magnetism, the motions of the vegetable, and of the animal systems. Each of these seems further than that which preceded it, from being accounted for by anything we understand of the nature of matter.
Some light may be derived from what has been here advanced, upon the phenomenon of dreams. 'In sleep we sometimes imagine,' for example, 'that we read long passages from books, or hear a long oration from a speaker. In all cases, scenes and incidents pass before us that, in various ways, excite our passions, and interest our feelings. Is it possible that these should be the unconscious production of our own minds?'
It has already appeared that volition is the accidental, and by no means the necessary concomitant, even of those thoughts which are most active and efficient in the producing of motion. It is therefore no more to be wondered at that the mind should be busied in the composition of books, which it appears to read, than that a train of thoughts of any other kind should pass through it, without a consciousness of its being the author. In fact we perpetually annex erroneous ideas to this phrase, that we are the authors. Though mind be a real and proper antecedent, it is in no case a first cause, a thing indeed of which we have in no case any experimental knowledge. Thought is the medium through which operations are produced. Ideas succeed each other in our sensorium according to certain necessary laws. The most powerful impression, either from without or within, constantly gets the better of its competitors, and forcibly drives out the preceding thought, till it is in the same irresistible manner driven out by its successor.
. The above will be found to be a tolerably accurate description of the hypothesis of the celebrated Hartley. It was unnecessary to quote his words, as it would be foreign to the purpose of the present work to enter into a refutation of any individual writer. The sagacity of Hartley, in having arranged and analysed the phenomena of mind, and shown the practicability of reducing its different operations to a simple principle, cannot be too highly applauded. The reasonings of the present chapter, if just, may be considered as giving farther stability to his principal doctrine, by freeing it from the scheme of material automatism with which it was unnecessarily clogged.
. Book IV, Chap. VII.
. Book IV, Chap. VII.
. Book I, Chap. V.
. An attempt has been made to calculate these, but there is no reason to believe that the calculation deserves to be considered as a standard of truth. Sensations leave their images behind them, some for a longer and some for a shorter time; so that, in two different instances, the calculation is in one case eight, and in another three hundred and twenty to a second. See Watson on Time, Ch. 11.
The enquiry here proposed, is the same in effect, as the question, whether we are capable of being influenced by disinterested considerations. Once admit that we are, and it will not be disputed that it is by such considerations we ought to be influenced, in cases where our neighbour or the public is to be eminently benefited.
This question has been long and eagerly contested, and the majority of persons who are accustomed to give some attention to speculations of this sort, have ranged themselves on the side of self-love. Among the French, not a single writer upon that nature of the human mind, is to be found, who does not, with more or less explicitness, declare for this hypothesis. Among ourselves, several authors of eminence, have undertaken to support the practicability of disinterested action.
One of the writers who first contributed to render this enquiry a subject of general attention, was the duke de la Rouchefoucault. He asserted the system of self-love in its grossest form; and his exposition of it amounts to little less, than "that, in every action of our lives, we are directed by a calculation of personal interest." This notion has been gradually softened down by his successors; and the hypothesis of self-love is now frequently explained to mean only, "that, as every state of a percipient being has in it a mixture of pleasure or pain, the immediate sensation in either of these kinds is to be regarded as the sole, proper, and necessary cause of the subsequent action." This fluctuation among the adherents of self-love, has had the effect, of making some of the arguments with which their principle has been attacked, apparently inapplicable to the newest state of the question. Let us see whether the point may not be put upon a simpler issue than has usually been attempted.
An unanswerable argument for the system of disinterestedness, is contained in a proposition so obvious, as for its very plainness to be exposed to the risque of contempt, viz. that the motive of every voluntary action, consists in the view present to the mind of the agent at the time of his determination. This is an inference which immediately results from the nature of volition. Volition is an affair of foresight. "No motion is voluntary, any further than it is accompanied with intention and design, and has for its proper antecedent the apprehension of an end to be accomplished. So far as it flows in any degree from another source, it is involuntary." But if this be a just description of voluntary action, then the converse of this assertion must also be true; that whatever is proposed by the mind as an end to be accomplished, whether it be life or death, pleasure or pain, and relate to myself or my neighbour, has in it the true essence of a motive. -- To illustrate this in relation to the subject in hand.
Voluntary action cannot exist but as the result of experience. Neither desire nor aversion can have place, till we have had a consciousness of agreeable and disagreeable sensations. Voluntary action implies desire, and the idea of certain means to be employed for the attainment of the thing desired.
The things first desired by every thinking being, will be agreeable sensation, and the means of agreeable sensation. If he forsee any thing that is not apprehended to be pleasure or pain, or the means of pleasure or pain, this will excite no desire, and lead to no voluntary action.
A disposition to promote the benefit of another, my child, my friend, my relation, or my fellow being, is one of the passions; understanding by the term passion, a permanent and habitual tendency towards a certain course of action. It is of the same general nature, as avarice, or the love of fame. The good of my neighbour could not, in the first instance, have been chosen, but as the means of agreeable sensation. His cries, or the spectacle of his distress importune me, and I am irresistibly impelled to adopt means to remove this importunity. The child perceives, in his own case, that menaces or soothing tend to stop his cries, and he is induced to employ, in a similar instance, that mode of the two which seems most within his reach. He thinks little of the sufferings endured, and is only uneasy at the impression made upon his organs. To this motive, he speedily adds the idea of esteem and gratitude, which are to be purchased by this beneficence. Thus the good of our neigbour, like the possession of money, is originally pursued for the sake of its advantage to ourselves.
But it is the nature of the passions, speedily to convert what at first were means, into ends. The avaricious man forgets the utility of money which first incited him to pursue it, fixes his passion upon the money itself, and counts his gold, without having in his mind any idea but that of seeing and handling it. Something of this sort happens very early in the history of every passion. The moment we become attached to a particular source of pleasure, beyond any idea we have of the rank it holds in the catalogue of sources, it must be admitted that it is loved for its own sake. The man who pursues wealth or fame with any degree of ardour, soon comes to concentre his attention in the wealth or the fame, without carrying his mind beyond, or thinking of any thing that is to result from them.
This is merely one case of the phenomena of habit. All indulgence of the senses, is originally chosen, for the sake of the pleasure that accrues. But the quantity of accruing pleasure or pain, is continually changing. This however is seldom adverted to; and when it is, the power of habit is frequently too strong to be thus subdued. The propensity to do again what we have been accustomed to do, recurs, when the motive that should restrain us has escaped from our thoughts. Thus the drunkard and the letcher continue to pursue the same course of action, long after the pains have outweighed the pleasures, and even after they confess and know this to be the real state of the case. It is in this manner that men will often, for the sake of that which has become the object of a favourite passion, consent to sacrifice what they generally know to contain in it a greater sum of agreeable sensations. It is a trite and incontrovertible axiom, "that they will rather die, than part with it."
If this be the case in the passion of avarice or the love of fame, it must also be true in the instance of beneficence, that, after having habituated ourselves to promote the happiness of our child, our family, our country or our species, we are at length brought to approve and desire their happiness without retrospect to ourselves. It happens in this instance, as in the former, that we are occasionally actuated by the most perfect disinterestedness, and willingly submit to tortures and death, rather than see injury committed upon the object of our affections.
Thus far there is a parallel nature in avarice and benevolence. But ultimately there is a wide difference between them. When once we have entered into so auspicious a path as that of disinterestedness, reflection confirms our choice, in a sense in which it never can confirm any of the factitious passions we have named. We find by observation, that we are surrounded by beings of the same nature with ourselves. They have the same senses, are susceptible of the same pleasures and pains, capable of being raised to the same excellence, and employed in the same usefulness. We are able in imagination to go out of ourselves, and become impartial spectators of the system of which we are a part. We can then make an estimate of our intrinsic and absolute value; and detect the imposition of that self-regard, which would represent our own interest as of as much value as that of all the world beside. The delusion being thus sapped, we can, from time to time at least, fall back in idea into our proper post, and cultivate those views and affections which must be most familiar to the most perfect intelligence.
It is admitted on all hands that it is possible for a man to sacrifice his own existence to that of twenty others. Here then is an action possessing various recommendations: the advantage to arise to twenty men; their tranquillity and happiness through a long period of remaining existence; the benefits they will not fail to confer on thousands of their contemporaries, and through them on millions of posterity; and lastly his own escape from uneasiness, and momentary exultation in an act of virtue. The advocates of the system of self-love are compelled to assert that the last consideration only is of any value with him; and that he perceives the real state of the case without feeling himself in the smallest degree directly and properly affected by it. He engages in an act of generosity without one atom of true sympathy, and wholly and exclusively influenced by considerations of the most selfish description.
It is not easily to conceive an hypothesis more singular than this. It is in direct opposition to experience, and what every man seems to know of himself. It undertakes to maintain that we are under a delusion of the most extraordinary sort; and which would appear to a person not trained in a philosophical system of all others the most improbable. It affirms that we are wholly incapable of being influenced by motives which seem to have an absolute power; that the philanthropist has no love for mankind, nor the patriot for his country; in a word that, when we imagine we are most generously concerned for another, we have no concern for him, but are anxious only for ourselves. Undoubtedly a thesis of this sort is in need of very cogent arguments to support it.
It must be admitted indeed as characteristic of every determination of the mind that, when made, we feel uneasiness in the apprehension of any obstacle, and pleasure in indulging the desire, and seeing events turn out conformably to the desire. But it would be absurd to say: 'that the motive of our proceeding, in this case, is impatience and uneasiness, and that we are impelled to the sacrifices which are frequently made, by the mere wish to free ourselves from intolerable pain'. Impatience and uneasiness are only generated by obstacles to the attainment of our desires; and we often fulfil our purposes with a swiftness and impetuosity that leave no leisure for the recurrence of pain. The uneasiness of unfulfilled desire implies the desire itself as the antecedent and parent of the uneasiness. It is because I wish my neighbour's advantage that I am uneasy at his misfortune. I should no more be uneasy about this than about the number of syllables contained in the present paragraph, if I had not previously loved it for its own sake.
This pleasure and pain however, though not the authors of my determination, undoubtedly tend to perpetuate and strengthen it. Such is conspicuously the case in the present instance. The man who vigilantly conforms his affections to the standard of justice, who loses the view of personal regards in the greater objects that engross his attention, who, from motives of benevolence, sits loose to life and all its pleasures, and is ready without a sigh, to sacrifice them to the public good, has an uncommonly exquisite source of happiness. When he looks back, he applauds the state of his own affections; and, when he looks out of himself, his sensations are refined, in proportion to the comprehensiveness of his sentiments. He is filled with harmony within; and the state of his thoughts is uncommonly favourable to what we may venture to style the sublime emotions of tranquillity. It is not to be supposed that an experience of the pleasures of benevolence should not tend to confirm in us a benevolent propensity.
The hypothesis of disinterestedness would never have had so many adversaries if the complexity of human motives had been sufficiently considered. To illustrate this, let it be recollected that every voluntary action has in it a mixture of involuntary. In the sense in which we have used the word motive in an early part of this work, it is equally descriptive of the cause of action in both cases. Motive may therefore be distinguished, according to its different relations, into direct and indirect; understanding by the direct, that which is present to the mind of the agent at the time of his determination, and which belongs to every voluntary action, and to so much of every action as is voluntary; and by the indirect, that which operates without being adverted to by the mind, whether in the case of actions originally involuntary, or that have become so, in whole, or in part, by the force of habit. Thus explained, it is incontrovertibly evident that the direct motive to many of our actions is purely disinterested. We are capable of self-oblivion, as well as of sacrifice. All that is strictly voluntary, in the beneficence of a man habitually generous and kind, commences from this point: if other considerations intervene in the sequel, they are indebted for their intervention to the disinterested motive. But, at the same time that this truth is clearly established, it is not less true, first, that the indirect and original motive, that which laid the foundation of all our habits, is the love of agreeable sensation. Secondly, it is also to be admitted that there is probably something personal directly and perceptibly mixing itself with such of our beneficent actions as are of a sensible duration. We are so accustomed to fix our attention upon agreeable sensation that we can scarcely fail to recollect, at every interval the gratitude we shall excite, or the approbation we shall secure, the pleasure that will result to ourselves from our neighbour's well-being, the joys of self-applause, or the uneasiness that attends upon ungratified desire. Yet, after every deduction that can be made, the disinterested and direct motive, the profit and advantage of our neighbour, seems to occupy the principal place. This is at least the first, often the only, thing in the view of the mind, at the time the action is chosen. It is this from which, by way of eminence, it derives the character of voluntary action.
There is an observation arising in this place which it seems of some importance to mention. Pure malevolence is the counterpart of disinterested virtue; and almost all the considerations that prove the existence of the one are of equal avail to prove the existence of the other. It is not enough to say, I choose the pleasure or pain of my neighbour for the sake of the gratification I have in contemplating it. This only removes the difficulty a single step, and will not account for the phenomenon of habit in either case. Both the one and the other are originally chosen with a view to agreeable sensation; but in both cases the original view is soon forgotten. It is as certain that there are human beings who take pleasure in shrieks and agony, without a prospect to anything further or different; as that the miser comes at last to regard his guineas with delight, independently of a recollection of the benefits they may purchase.
There is one further remark which, though by no means so conclusive as many that have been adduced, ought not to be omitted. If self-love be the only principle of action, there can be no such thing as virtue. Benevolent intention is essential to virtue. Virtue, where it exists in any eminence, is a species of conduct modelled upon a true estimate of the different reasons inviting us to preference. He that makes a false estimate, and prefers a trivial and partial good to an important and comprehensive one, is vicious. Virtue requires a certain disposition and view of the mind, and does not belong to the good which may accidentally and unintentionally result from our proceeding. The creditor that, from pure hardness of disposition, should cast a man into prison who, unknown to him, was upon the point of committing some atrocious and sanguinary action, would be not virtuous but vicious. The mischief to result from the project of his debtor was no part of his motive; he thought only of gratifying his inordinate passion. Just so, in the case stated a little before, the public benefactor, upon the system of self-love, prefers a single individual to twenty, or to twenty millions. So far as relates to the real merits of the case, his own advantage or pleasure is a very insignificant consideration, and the benefit to be produced, suppose to a world, is inestimable. Yet he falsely and unjustly prefers the first, and regards the latter, separately taken, as nothing. If there be such a thing as justice, if I have a real and absolute value upon which truth can decide, and which can be compared with what is greater or less, then, according to this system, the best action that ever was performed may, for anything we know, have been the action, in the whole world, of the most exquisite and deliberate injustice. Nay, it could not have been otherwise, since it produced the greatest good, and therefore was the individual instance in which the greatest good was most directly postponed to personal gratification. Such is the spirit of the doctrine we have endeavoured to refute.
On the other hand, the just result of the arguments above adduced is that men are capable of understanding the beauty of virtue, and the claims of other men upon their benevolence; and, understanding them, that these views, as well as every other perception which has relation to sensitive existence, are of the nature of motives, sometimes overpowered by other considerations, and sometimes overpowering them, but always in their own nature capable of exciting to action, when not counteracted by pleas of a different sort. Men are capable, no doubt, of preferring an inferior interest of their own to a superior interest of others; but this preference arises from a combination of circumstances and is not the necessary and invariable law of our nature.
There is no doctrine in which the generous and elevated mind rests with more satisfaction than in that of which we are treating. If it be false, it is no doubt incumbent upon us to make the best of the small remnant of good that remains. But it is a discouraging prospect for the moralist, who, when he has done all, has no hope to persuade mankind to one atom of real affection towards any one individual of their species. We may be made indeed the instruments of good, but in a way less honourable than that in which a frame of wood, or a sheet of paper, may be made the instrument of good. The wood, or the paper, is at least neutral. But we are drawn into the service with affections of a diametrically opposite direction. When we perform the most benevolent action, it is with a view only to our own advantage, and with the most sovereign and unreserved neglect of that of others. We are instruments of good, in the same manner as bad men are said to be the instruments of providence, even when their inclinations are most refractory to its decrees. In this sense, we may admire the system of the universe, where public utility results from each man's contempt of that utility, and where the most beneficial actions, of those whom we have been accustomed to term the best men, are only instances in which justice and the real merits of the case are most flagrantly violated. But we can think with little complacence of the individuals of whom this universe is composed. It is no wonder that philosophers whose system has taught them to look upon their fellow men as thus perverse and unjust have been frequently cold in their temper, or narrow in their designs. It is no wonder that Rousseau, the most benevolent of them, and who most escaped the general contagion, has been driven to place the perfection of virtue in doing no injury. Neither philosophy, nor morality, nor politics will ever show like itself till man shall be acknowledged for what he really is, a being capable of rectitude, virtue and benevolence, and who needs not always be led to actions of general utility, by foreign and frivolous considerations.
The system of disinterested benevolence proves to us that it is possible to be virtuous, and not merely to talk of virtue; that all which has been said by philosophers and moralists respecting impartial justice is not an unmeaning rant; and that, when we call upon mankind to divest themselves of selfish and personal considerations, we call upon them for something they are able to practise. An idea like this reconciles us to our species; teaches us to regard, with enlightened admiration, the men who have appeared to lose the feeling of their personal existence, in the pursuit of general advantage; and gives us reason to expect that, as men collectively advance in science and useful institution, they will proceed more and more to consolidate their private judgement, and their individual will, with abstract justice, and the unmixed approbation of general happiness.
What are the inferences that ought to be made from this doctrine with respect to political institution? Certainly not that the interest of the individual ought to be made incompatible with the part he is expected to take in the interest of the whole. This is neither desirable, nor even possible. But that social institution needs not despair of seeing men influenced by other and better motives. The true politician is bound to recollect that the perfection of mind consists in disinterestedness. He should regard it as the ultimate object of his exertions to induce men to estimate themselves at their just value, and neither to grant to themselves, nor claim from others, a higher consideration than they deserve. Above all, he should be careful not to add vigour to the selfish passions. He should gradually wean men from contemplating their own benefit in all that they do, and induce them to view with complacence the advantage that is to result to others. Great mischief, in this respect, has probably been done by those moralists who think only of stimulating men to good deeds by considerations of frigid prudence and mercenary self-interest, and never apply themselves to excite one generous and magnanimous sentiment of our natures. This has been too much the case with the teachers of religion, even those of them who are most eager in their hostility to religious enthusiasm.
The last perfection of the sentiment here vindicated consists in that state of mind which bids us rejoice as fully in the good that is done by others, as if it were done by ourselves. The man who shall have attained to this improvement will be actuated neither by interest nor ambition, the love of honor, nor the love of fame. He has a duty indeed obliging him to seek the good of the whole; but that good is his only object. If that good be effected by another hand, he feels no disappointment. All men are his fellow laborers, but he is the rival of no man. Like Pedaretus in ancient story, he is ready to exclaim: 'I also have endeavored to deserve; but there are three hundred citizens in Sparta better than myself, and I rejoice.'
. Book I, Chap. V.
. Particularly Shaftesbury, Butler, Hutcheson and Hume. The active and ardent spirit of the founders of religion, has perhaps always carried them into the liberal system. See MATT. ch. xxii. ver. 37-41
. Book I, Chap. V.
. Book IV, Chap. VII.
. Book I, Chap. V.
. Book II, Chap. III.
. Book I, Chap. V.
. Book I, Chap. V.
. Book II, Chap. IV.
. Some persons, friendly to the doctrine of this chapter, have objected to the remark that 'upon the system of self-love, there can be no such thing as virtue', as too broad, or too incautiously expressed. Undoubtedly it was not intended in this place to assert that the different tendencies of actions would not remain upon both systems, or that habits conducive to the general welfare would not deserve to be sedulously cultivated, in ourselves and others, however mean and ignoble might be the motives from which they sprung.
. 'La plus sublime vertu est négative; elle nows instruit de ne jamais faire du mal à personne.' Emile, Liv. II.
The nature of good and evil, which is one of the plainest subjects upon which the human mind can be engaged, has been obscured by two sets of men: those who, from an eagerness to refine and exalt beyond measure the nature of virtue, have elevated it into something impossible and unmeaning: and those who, spurning the narrow limits science and human understanding, have turned system-builders, and fabricated a universe after their own peculiar fancy. We shall see, as we proceed, what has been the operation of these two errors. In the mean time it may be most safe, to examine the subject in its genuine simplicity, uninfluenced by the preconceptions of party.
Good is a general name, including pleasure, and the means by which pleasure is procured. Evil is a general name, including pain, and the means by which pain is produced. Of the two things included in these general names, the first is cardinal and substantive, the second has no intrinsic recommendations but depends for its value on the other. Pleasure therefore is to be termed an absolute good; the means of pleasure are only relatively good. The same observation may be stated of pain.
We inhabit a world where sensations do not come detached, but where everything is linked and connected together. Of consequence, among things absolutely good there may be two classes. There are some things that are good and only good, pleasures that do not draw after them mischief, anguish and remorse. There may be other pleasures that are attended in the sequel with an overbalance of pain, and which, though absolutely good, are relatively evil. There may also be pains which, taken together with their consequences, are salutary. But this does not alter the original proposition: where there is a mixture of evil, all is not good; just as, where there is a mixture of pain, all is not pleasure.
Let us see how this statement affects the theory and practice of virtue.
First, we are hereby enabled to detect their mistake, who denied that "pleasure was the supreme good." The error of the Epicurean philosophers seems to have been, not in affirming that "pleasure was the supreme good," for this cannot be refuted; but in confining that pleasure which is the proper scope of human actions, to the pleasure of the individual who acts, and not admitting that the pleasures of others was an object which, of its own sake, could, and ought to be pursued.
That "pleasure is the supreme good," cannot be denied by him who is sufficiently attentive to the meaning of words. That which will give pleasure neither to ourselves nor others, and from which the fruits of joy can be reaped, in no stage, and at no period, is necessarily good for nothing.
The opposers of the Epicurean maxim, were terrified by a consequence which they hastily concluded might be built upon it. If pleasure were the only thing that is worthy to be desired, they thought that every man might reasonably be justified in "walking in the fight of his own eyes," and there would be no longer any rule of human conduct. Each man might say, "Pleasure is the proper object of my pursuit; I best know what pleases me; and therefore, however opposite is the plan of my conduct to your conceptions, it is unreasonable and unjust for you to interfere with me."
An inference the opposite of this, might, with more propriety, have been drawn from the maxim upon which we are descanting. Is "pleasure the only good?" Then have we the most cogent reason for studying pleasure, and reducing it to a science, and not for leaving every man to pursue his own particular taste, which is nothing more than the result of his education, and of the circumstances in which he happens to have been placed, and which by other lessons and circumstances may be corrected.
No man is entitled to complain of my sober and dispassionate expostulations respecting the species of pleasure he thinks proper to pursue, because no man stands alone, and can pursue his private conceptions of pleasure, without affecting, beneficially or injuriously, the persons immediately connected with him, and, through them, the rest of the world. Even if he have persuaded himself that it is his business to pursue his own pleasure, and that he is not bound to attend ultimately to the pleasure of others, yet it may easily be shown that it is, generally speaking, the interest of each individual, that all should form their plan of personal pleasure with a spirit of deference and accommodation to the pleasure of each other.
But putting the circumstance of the action and re-action of men in society out of the question, still there will be a science of pleasure, and it will be idle and erroneous to consider each man separately, and leave each to find his source of pleasure suitable to his particular humour. We have a common nature, and that common nature out to be consulted. There is one thing, or series of things, that constitutes the true perfection of man.
In the discussions that took place a few years ago, in the English parliament and nation, respecting the slave-trade, the sentiment we are here combating, was used as a topic of argument, by some of those persons who, from certain deplorable prejudices, were able to prevail upon themselves to appear as advocates for this trade. "The slaves in the West Indies," they said, "are contented with their situation, they are not conscious of the evils against which you exclaim; why then should you endeavour to alter their condition?"
The true answer to this question, even granting them their fact, would be: "It is not very material to a man of a liberal and enlarged mind, whether they are contented or no. Are they contented? I am not contented for them. I see in them beings of certain capacities, equal to certain pursuits and enjoyments. It is of no consequence in the question, that they do not see this, that they do not know their own interests and happiness. They do not repine? Neither does a stone repine. That which you mention as an alleviation, finishes in my conception the portrait of their calamity. Abridged as they are of independence and enjoyment, they have neither the apprehension nor spirit of men. I cannot bear to see human nature thus degraded. It is my duty, if I can, to make them a thousand times happier, than they are, or have any conception of being."
It is not difficult to form a scale of happiness. Suppose it to be something like the following.
The first class shall be such as we may perhaps sometimes find, among the labouring inhabitants of the civilized states of Europe. We will conceive a man, working with his hands every day to obtain his subsistence. He rises early to his labour, and leaves off every night weary and exhausted. He takes a tranquil or a boisterous refreshment, and spends the hours of darkness in uninterrupted slumber. He does not quarrel with his wife oftener than persons of his class regularly do; and his cares are few, as he has scarcely known the pressure of absolute want. He never repines but when he witnesses luxuries he cannot partake, and that sensation is transient; and he knows no diseases but those which rise from perpetual labour. The range of his ideas is scanty; and the general train of his sensations, comes as near, as the nature of human existence will admit, to the region of indifference. This man is in a certain sense happy. He is happier than a stone.
Our next instance shall be taken from among the men of rank, fortune and dissipation. We will suppose the individual in question to have an advantageous person and a sound constitution. He enjoys all the luxuries of the palate, the choicest viands, and the best-flavoured wines. He takes his pleasures discreetly, so as not, in the pursuit of pleasure, to lose the power of feeling it. He shoots, he hunts. He frequents all public places. He sits up late in scenes of gay resort. He rises late. He has just time to ride and dress before he goes into company again. With a happy flow of spirits and a perpetual variety of amusements, he is almost a stranger to ennui. But he is a model of ignorance. He never reads, and knows nothing beyond the topic of the day. He can scarcely conceive the meaning of the sublime or pathetic; and he rarely thinks of any thing beyond himself. This man is happier than the peasant. He is happier, by all the pleasures of the palate, and all the gratifications, of neatness, elegance and splendour, in himself, and the objects around him. Every day he is alive, inventing some new amusement, or enjoying it. He tastes the pleasures of liberty; he is familiar with the gratifications of pride: while the peasant slides through life, with something of the contemptible insensibility of an oyster.
The man of taste and liberal accomplishments, is more advantageously circumstanced than he whom we have last described. We will suppose him to possess as many of the gratifications of expence as he desires. But, in addition to these, like the mere man of fortune in comparison with the peasant, he acquires new senses, and a new range of enjoyment. The beauties of nature are all his own. He admires the overhanging cliff, the wide-extended prospect, the vast expanse of the ocean, the foliage of the woods, the sloping lawn and the waving grass. He knows the pleasures of solitude, when man holds commerce alone with the tranquil solemnity of nature. He has traced the structure of the universe; the substances which compose the globe we inhabit, and are the materials of human industry; and the laws which hold the planets in their course amidst the trackless fields of space. He studies; and has experienced the pleasures which result from conscious perspicacity and discovered truth. He enters, with a true relish, into the sublime and pathetic. He partakes in all the grandeur and enthusiasm of poetry. He is perhaps himself a poet. He is conscious that he has not lived in vain, and that he shall be recollected with pleasure, and extolled with ardour, by generations yet unborn. In this person, compared with the two preceding classes, we acknowledge something of the features of man. They were only a better sort of brutes; but he has sensations and transports of which they have no conception.
But there is a rank of man more fitted to excite our emulation than this, the man of benevolence. Study is cold, if it be not enlivened with the idea of the happiness to arise to mankind from the cultivation and improvement of sciences. The sublime and pathetic are barren, unless it be the sublime of true virtue, and the pathos of true sympathy. The pleasures of the mere man of taste and refinement, "play round the head, but come not to the heart." There is no true joy but in the spectacle and contemplation of happiness. There is no delightful melancholy but in pitying distress. The man who has once performed an act of exalted generosity, knows that there is no sensation of corporeal or intellectual taste to be compared with this. The man who has sought to benefit nations, rises above the mechanical ideas of barter and exchange. He asks no gratitude. To see that they are benefited, or to believe that they will be so, is its own reward. He ascends to the highest of human pleasures, the pleasures of disinterestedness. He enjoys all the good that mankind possess, and all the good that he perceives to be in reserve for them. No man so truly promotes his own interest as he that forgets it. No man reaps so copious a harvest of pleasure as he who thinks only of the pleasures of other men.
The inference from this survey of human life, is, that he who is fully persuaded that pleasure is the only good, ought by no means to leave every man to enjoy his peculiar pleasure according to his own peculiar humour. Seeing the great disparity there is between different conditions of human life, he ought constantly to endeavour to raise each class, and every individual of each class, to a class above it. This is the true equalization of mankind. Not to pull down those who are exalted, and reduce all to a naked and savage equality. But to raise those who are abased; to communicate to every man all genuine pleasures, to elevate every man to all true wisdom and to make all men participators of a liberal and comprehensive benevolence. This is the path in which the reformers of mankind ought to travel. This is the prize they should pursue. Do you tell me, "that human society can never arrive at this improvement?" I do not stay to dispute that point with you. We can come nearer it than we are. We can come nearer and nearer yet. This will not be the first time that persons, engaged in the indefatigable pursuit of some accomplishment, have arrived at an excellence that surpassed their most sanguine expectations.
The result of this part of the subject is, that those persons have been grossly mistaken who taught that virtue was to be pursued for its own sake, and represented pleasure and pain as trivial matters and unworthy consideration. Virtue is upon no other account valuable, than as it is the instrument of the most exquisite pleasure. -- Be it observed, that it is one thing to say that pain is not an evil, which is absurd, and another thing to say that temporary pains and pleasures are to be despised, when the enduring of the one is necessary, and the declining the other unavoidable in the pursuit of excellent and permanent pleasure, which is a most fundamental precept of wisdom and morality.
Let us proceed to a second point announced by us in the outset, the consideration of how the subject of good and evil has been darkened by certain fabulists and system-builders. The system alluded to under this head, is that of the optimists, who teach "that everything in the universe, is for the best; and that, if anything had happened otherwise than it has happened, the result would have been, a diminution of the degree of happiness and good." That we may escape the error into which these persons have been led, by the daringness of their genius, and their mode of estimating things in the gross, and not in detail, we must be contented to follow experience, and not to outrun it.
It has already appeared that there is in the universe absolute evil: and, if pain be evil (and it has been proved to be the only absolute evil), it cannot be denied that, in the part of the universe with which we are acquainted, it exists in considerable profusion. It has also appeared, that there is a portion of absolute evil, which is relatively good, and which therefore, the preceding circumstances being assumed, was desirable. Such, for example, is the amputation of a gangrened limb.
Whether or no those preceding circumstances were, universally, and in a comprehensive sense, good, which rendered the introduction of the absolute evil in question necessary, is, to say the least, a very doubtful point. But, if there be some presumption in the negative even in the smallest instance, this presumption against universal good is incalculably increased, when we recollect all the vice, disorder and misery, that exist in the world.
Let us consider what portion there is of truth, that has been mixed with the doctrine of optimism. This is the same thing as to enquire by means of what plausibilities it gained footing in the world. The answer to the sequestions lies in two circumstances.
First, there is a degree of improvement real and visible in the world. This is particularly manifest, in the history of the civilised part of mankind, during the three last centuries. The taking of Constantinople by the Turks (1453) dispersed among European nations, the small fragment of learning, which was, at that time, shut up within the walls of this metropolis. The discovery of printing was nearly contemporary with that event. These two circumstances greatly favoured the reformation of religion, which gave an irrecoverable shock to the empire of superstition and implicit obedience. From that time, the most superficial observation can trace the improvements of art and science, which may, without glaring impropriety, be styled incessant. Not to mention essential improvements which were wholly unknown to the ancients, the most important characteristics of modern literature, are the extent of surface over which it is diffused, and the number of persons that participate in it. It has struck its roots deep, and there is no probability that it will ever be subverted. It was once the practice of moralists, to extol past times, and declaim without bound on the degeneracy of mankind. But this fashion is nearly exploded. The true state of the fact is too gross to be mistaken. And, as improvements have long continued to be incessant, so there is no chance but they will go on. The most penetrating philosophy cannot prescribe limits to them, nor the most ardent imagination adequately fill up the prospect.
Secondly, the doctrine of necessity teaches us that all things in the universe are connected together. Nothing could have happened otherwise than it has happened. Do we congratulate ourselves upon the rising genius of freedom? Do we view with pride the improvements of mankind, and contrast, with wonder, man in the state in which he once was, naked, ignorant and brutal, with man as we now sometimes behold him, enriched with boundless stores of science, and penetrated with sentiments of the purest philanthropy? These things could not have existed in their present form, without having been prepared by all the preceding events. Everything the most seemingly insignificant, the most loathsome, or the most retrograde, was indissolubly bound to all that we most admire in the prospect before us. We may perhaps go a step further than this. The human mind is a principle of the simplest nature, a mere faculty of sensation or perception. It must have begun from absolute ignorance; it must obtain its improvement by slow degrees; it must pass through various stages of folly and mistake. Such is, and could not but be, the history of mankind.
There are three considerations which limit that idea of optimism, which some men have been inclined to deduce from the above circumstances.
First, it applies only to that part of the universe with which we are acquainted. That deduction, whatever it is, which is authorised by the above circumstances, depends upon their junction. The general tendency to improvement, would be an insufficient apology for untoward events, if every thing were not connected; and the connection of all events, would have no just tendency to reconcile us to the scene, were it not for the visible improvement. But has improvement been the constant characteristic of the universe? The human species seems to be but, as it were, of yesterday. Will it continue for ever? The globe we inhabit bears strong marks of convulsion, such as the teachers of religion, and the professors of natural philosophy, agree to predict, will one day destroy the inhabitants of the earth. Vicissitude therefore, rather than unbounded progress, appears to be the characteristic of nature.
Secondly, the quantity of good deducible from these circumstances, instead of meriting the name of optimism, is, on one respect, directly contrasted with it. Nothing is positively best. So far from it, that the considerations here alleged, are calculated to prove, that every thing is valuable, for this reason among others, that it leads to something better than itself.
Lastly, the points here affirmed, are by no means calculated to bear out the conclusion, that, if something else had happened, in the place of what did actually happen in any given instance, it might not have been a fortunate event. We are taught, by the doctrine of necessity, that nothing else could possibly happen under the circumstances; not that, if something else had been possible, it would not have been attended with more desireable consequences. Caesar enslaved his country; the event was unavoidable; and the general progress of human improvement upon the whole went on, notwithstanding this disastrous occurrence. But, if it had been possible that Caesar should have been diverted from this detestable enterprise, if the republic could have been restored by the battle of Mutina, or made victorious in the plains of Philippi, it might have been a most fortunate event for the whole race of mankind. There is a difficulty in conceiving that things should have been, in any respect, otherwise than they are. It may be conjectured, with much plausibility, that this is in all cases impossible. But the consideration of this, affords no ground of rejoicing in untoward events. More auspicious harbingers, would have led to more extended improvements. As to what was stated of the simplicity of the human mind, it may be observed that the history of the species exhibits the united effects, of this internal principle, and the structure of the human body, as well as of the material universe. Brutes appear to have the same internal principle of perception that we have, but they have never made our progress. There may be other conscious beings in existence who possess the most essential advantages over us.
It may be worthy of remark, that the support the system of optimism derives from the doctrine of necessity, is of a very equivocal nature. The doctrine of necessity teaches, that each event is the only thing, under the circumstances, that could happen; it would, of consequence, be as proper, upon this system, to say that every thing that happens, is the worst, as that is is the best, that could possibly happen. It was observed in the commencement of this discussion upon the subject of optimism, that, though there is some pain, or absolute evil, which, relatively taken, must be admitted to be attended with an overbalance of good, yet it is a matter of great delicacy and difficulty, in most instances, to decide in favour of pain, which, whatever be its relative value, is certainly a negative quantity to be deducted in the sum total of happiness. There is perhaps some impropriety in the phrase, thus applied, of relative good. Pain, under the most favourable circumstances, must be admitted to be absolutely, though not relatively, an evil, In every instance of this kind we are reduced to a choice of evils: consequently, whichever way we determine our election, it is still evil that we choose.
Taking these considerations along with us, the rashness of the optimist will appear particularly glaring, while we recollect the vast portion of the pain and calamity that is to be found in the world. Let us not amuse ourselves with a pompous and delusive survey of the whole, but let us examine parts severally and individually. All nature swarms with life. This may, in one view, afford an idea of an extensive theatre of pleasure. But unfortunately every animal preys upon his fellow. Every animal, however minute, has a curious and subtle structure, rendering him susceptible, as it should seem, of piercing anguish. We cannot move our foot, without becoming the means of destruction. The wounds inflicted are of a hundred kinds. These petty animals are capable of palpitating for days in the agonies of death. It may be said, with little licence of phraseology, that all nature suffers. There is no day nor hour, in which, in some regions of the many-peopled globe, thousands of men, and millions of animals, are not tortured, to the utmost extent that organised life will afford. Let us turn our attention to our own species. Let us survey the poor; oppressed, hungry, naked, denied all the gratifications of life, and all that nourishes the mind. They are either tormented with the injustice, or chilled into lethargy. Let us view man, writing under the pangs of disease, or the fiercer tortures that are stored up for him by his brethren. Who is there that will look on and say, "All this is well; there is no evil in the world?" Let us recollect the pains of the mind; the loss of friends, the rankling tooth of ingratitude, the unrelenting rage of tyranny, the slow progress of justice, the brave and honest consigned to the fate of guilt. Let us plunge into the depth of dungeons. Let us observe youth languishing in hopeless despair, and talents and virtue shrouded in eternal oblivion. The evil does not consist merely in the pain endured. It is the injustice that inflicts it, that gives it its sharpest sting. Malignity, an unfeeling disposition, vengeance and cruelty, are inmates of every climate. As these are felt by the sufferer with peculiar acuteness, so they propagate themselves. Severity begets severity, and hatred engenders hate. The whole history of the human species, taken in one point of view, appears a vast abortion. Man seems adapted for wisdom and fortitude and benevolence. But he has always, through a vast majority of countries, been the victim of ignorance and superstition. Contemplate the physiognomy of the species. Observe the traces of stupidity, of low cunning, of rooted insolence, of withered hope, and narrow selfishness, where the characters of wisdom, independence and disinterestedness, might have been inscribed. Recollect the horrors of war, that last invention of deliberate profligacy for the misery of man. Think of the variety of wounds, the multiplication of anguish, the desolation of countries, towns destroyed, harvests flaming, inhabitants perishing by thousands of hunger and cold.
A sound philosophy will teach us to contemplate this scene without madness. Instructed in its lessons, we shall remember that, though there is much of evil, there is also much of good in the world, much pleasure, as well as much pain. We shall not even pronouce that some small portion of this evil is not relatively not an evil. Above all, we shall be cheered with the thought of brighter prospects and happier times. But the optimist must be particularly rash, who takes upon him to affirm of all this mass of evil without exception, that it is relatively not evil, and that nothing could have happened otherwise than it has happened, without the total being worse than it is.
There is reason to think that the creed of optimism, or an opinion bearing some relation to that creed, has done much harm in the world.
It is calculated to overturn all distinction between virtue and vice. The essential part of these ideas, as has been already observed, consists in the tendency of the actions so denominated with respect to the general good. But, according to the doctrine of optimism, if I do a virtuous action, I contribute to the general good; and, if I do a vicious action, it is still the same. Every man, according to this system, is privileged, as the elect are privileged according to the system of certain religionists: "he may live as he list, for he cannot commit sin." Whether I murder my benefactor, or preserve him from being murdered by another, I still do the very best thing that could have been done or thought of.
It will be admitted on all hands that the conduct of a man may be such as to produce evil and pain to himself, to involve him in perpetual obloquy and remorse. It may be such as to inflict intolerable pain, and the most horrible mischief, upon another, or upon many others. A man therefore, upon this scheme, may reasonably study his own interest; he may study the benefit and advantage of his friends or his neighbours. But, if he affect to study the good of the whole, he is only deceiving himself. It is impossible for him to have the slightest notion what acts of an individual, under any given circumstances, will or will not contribute to the general good. Nero, when he pronounced sentence upon Lucan or Seneca, when he castrated Sporus, set fire to the city of Rome, or, enclosing the Christians in cloth of pitch, burned them by night after the manner of torches, adopted the conduct, though perhaps he was not aware of it, most aptly conducing to the happiness of the whole. It is not indeed, absolutely speaking, indifferent what I shall do; but, practically speaking, it is, since I am wholly unable to conjecture what will be beneficial or what injurious. We saw, upon the system of self-love, public utility resulting from each man's determining to postpone that utility to his private advantage: but it is much more absurd and repulsive to suppose universal happiness to be essentially promoted by the profligacy, malevolence and misery of innumerable multitudes.
But, though optimism, pursued into its consequences, is destructive of the distinction between virtue and vice, or rather teaches that there neither is nor can be such a thing as vice, yet it is the fate of this, like many other errors, that the truths which lie undeveloped in the mind, and cannot be deracinated, serve to check its influence and counteract its evil tendency.
It may however be suspected that, while its pernicious effects are thus counteracted, they are not destroyed. It is unavoidable that men should, in some respects, imitate what they persuade themselves is right. Thus in religion, those persons who believe that a large portion of mankind are objects of God's wrath, and reserved for eternal perdition, can never be prevailed on to regard, with a true and genuine sympathy, those whom God has cursed. In the same manner it will probably happen in the present case: those who believe that all the unfortunate events and sufferings that exist in the world will be found, in some mysterious way, to have been the fittest instruments of universal good, are in danger of being less scrupulous than they ought to be, in the means they shall themselves select for the accomplishment of their purposes. If pain, horrors and devastation be frequently found means of kindness in the system of the universe, it is impossible to assign a good reason why they should not be such under the direction of man.
There is another crude notion diffused in the world, which the principle of optimism is calculated to encourage, and which the views here explained have a tendency to correct. It is not uncommon to congratulate ourselves upon the perverseness and misconduct of those whose views we oppose, under the imagination that such misconduct conduces to the more speedy subversion of error and establishment of justice. But the maxim is safer and better founded than this, which should instruct us that we "rejoice not in evil, but rejoice in the truth." It has already appeared that it is a matter of great delicacy and difficulty, to decide in favour of pain and calamity, as the probable means of a preponderance of good. It was sufficiently seen, when we treated of resistance and revolutions, that the angry passions are not the most promising instruments of human happiness. A perverse conduct tends to the production of confusion and violence. A government that employed every species of persecution against those who should desire its reform, and that involved the country over which it presided in war, for the purpose of checking or exterminating sentiments of reason and equality, would do harm, and not good. It might indeed defeat its own purposes; but it would produce resentment and contention. It might excite a revulsion in the public mind against its designs; but this revulsion would be the offspring of irritation, and not of the understanding. Diminish the irritation, and the progress of real knowledge would be more substantial and salutary. Real knowledge is benevolent, not cruel and retaliating. The change that grows up among any people from a calm conviction of the absurdity of their former errors, is of the most admirable sort; but the change that grows from distress, distemper and crisis, is an explosion pregnant with fate to thousands. From all these considerations it appears, that every departure from enormous vice, should be accounted as so much gained to the cause of general happiness.
Let any person who entertains the contrary opinion ask himself whether, if he had a part in the government we have supposed, he would think himself obliged to act, in the manner in which he professes to desire the government should act? If, as he imagines, that action be most conducive to the public good, most undoubtedly, were it his own case, he ought to adopt it. Again, would he advise or incite the government, in any way, to this perverse conduct? There cannot be a clearer principle in morals, than "that the action it would be vice in us to adopt, it is vice in us to desire to see adopted by another."
A further consequence that flows from these speculations, is relative to the persecution and sufferings to be endured by the advocates of justice. The same reasoning that has persuaded men to rejoice in beholding acts of oppression has led them to court oppression and martyrdom. A sound philosophy, it should seem, would never instigate us to provoke the passions of others, or to regard injustice as the suitable means of public happiness. It is reason, and not anger, that will benefit mankind. Dispassionate enquiry, not bitterness and resentment, is the parent of reform. The wise man will avoid persecution, because a protracted life, and an unfettered liberty, are likely to enable him to produce a greater sum of good. He will avoid persecution, because he will be unwilling to add fuel to the flames of contention. He will regret it when it arrives, because he believes it to be both wicked and mischievous. But he will not avoid it by the sacrifice of a virtuous, but tempered, activity. He will not regret it with a mean and pusillanimous spirit, but will meet it, when it can no longer be prevented, with that dignity of soul and tranquillity of temper that are characteristic of true wisdom. He will not imagine that the cause of truth will perish, though he should be destroyed. He will make the best of the situation to which he is reduced, and endeavour that his death, like his life, may be of use to mankind.
. Book III, Chap. III.
. Book IV, Chap. X
. Book II, Chap. III; Book III, Chap. VII.
. Book IV, Chap. V.
. Book IV, Chap. II.
. Book II, Chap. IV.
. Book IV, Chap. X.
Writings of William Godwin