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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin

Book II

Principles of Society



Nature of the enquiry -- Mode of pursuing it. -- Distinction between society and government.
{77} Mr. Locke begins his celebrated Treatise of Government with a refutation of the patriarchal scheme of sir Robert Filmer; and, having thus cleared his ground, proceeds to observe, that 'he, that will not give just occasion to think that all government in the world is the product only of force and violence, and that men live together by no other rules but that of beasts, {78} must of necessity find out another rise of government, and another original of political power1.' Accordingly he proceeds through the greater part of his treatise to reason abstractedly upon the probable history of the early ages of mankind, and concludes that no legitimate government could be built upon any other foundation than that of an original contract.

It is to be suspected that this great man, friend as he was to the liberty and interests of mankind, intrepid and sagacious in his search after truth, has been guilty of an oversight in the first step of the investigation.

There are two modes, according to which we may enquire into the origin of society and government. We may either examine them historically, that is, consider in what manner they have or ought to have begun, as Mr. Locke has done; or we may examine them philosophically, that is, consider the moral principles upon which they depend. The first of these subjects is not without its use; but the second is of a higher order and more essential importance. The first is a question of form; the second of substance. It would be of trivial consequence practically considered, from what source any form of society flowed, and by what mode its principles were sanctioned, could we be always secure of their conformity to the dictates of truth and justice.

{79} It is farther necessary before we enter upon the subject carefully to distinguish between society and government. Men associated at first for the sake of mutual assistance. They did not foresee that any restraint would be necessary, to regulate the conduct of individual members of the society, towards each other, or towards the whole. The necessity of restraint grew out of the errors and perverseness of a few. An acute writer has expressed this idea with peculiar felicity. 'Society and government,' says he, 'are different in themselves, and have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness. Society is in every state a blessing; government even in its best state but a necessary evil2.'


1. Book II. Chap. i. §. 1.

2. Common Sense, p. 1.