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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Argument in favour of a variety of forms -- Compared with the argument in favour of a variety of religious creeds. -- That there is one best form of government proved -- From the unity of truth -- From the nature of man. -- Objection from human weakness and prejudice. -- Danger in establishing an imperfect code. -- Manner of nations produced by their forms of government. -- Gradual improvement necessary. -- Simplicity chiefly to be desired. -- Publication of truth the grand instrument -- By individuals, not by government -- The truth entire and not by parcels. -- Sort of progress to be desired.
{179} A proposition that by many political reasoners has been vehemently maintained, is that of the propriety of instituting different political governments suited to the characters, the habits and prejudices of different nations. 'The English constitution,' say the reasoners, 'is adapted to the thoughtful, rough and unsubmitting character of this island race; the {180} slowness and complication of Dutch formality to the phlegmatic Hollander; and the splendour of the grand monarque to the vivacity of Frenchmen. Among the ancients what could be better assorted than a pure democracy to the intellectual acuteness and impetuous energy of the Athenians; while the hardy and unpolished Spartan flourished much more under the rugged and inflexible discipline of Lycurgus? The great art of the legislator is to penetrate into the true character of the nation with whom he is concerned, and to discover the exact structure of government which is calculated to render that nation flourishing and happy.' Accordingly an Englishman who should reason upon these postulata might say, 'It is not necessary I should assert the English constitution to be the happiest and sublimest conception of the human mind; I do not enquire into the abstract excellence of that government under which France made herself illustrious for centuries. I contemplate with enthusiasm the venerable republics of Greece and Rome. But I am an enemy to the removing ancient landmarks, and disturbing with our crude devices the wisdom of ages. I regard with horror the Quixote plan, that would reduce the irregular greatness of nations to the frigid and impracticable standard of metaphysical accuracy1.' {181}

This question had been anticipated in various parts of the present work; but the argument is so popular and plausible to a superficial view, as justly to entitle it to a separate examination.

The idea bears some resemblance to one which was formerly insisted upon by certain latitudinarians in religion. 'It is impious,' said they, 'to endeavour to reduce all men to uniformity of opinion upon this subject. Men's minds are as various as their faces. God has made them so; and it is to be presumed that he is well pleased to be addressed in different languages, by different names, and with the consenting ardour of disagreeing sects.' Thus did these reasoners confound the majesty of truth with the deformity of falshood; and suppose that that being who was all truth, took delight in the errors, the absurdities, and the vices, for all falshood in some way or other engenders vice, of his creatures. At the same time they were employed in unnerving that activity of mind, which is the single source of human improvement. If truth and falshood be in reality upon a level, I shall be very weakly employed in a strenuous endeavour either to discover truth for myself, or to impress it upon others.

Truth is in reality single and uniform. There must in the {182} nature of things be one best form of government, which all intellects, sufficiently roused from the slumber of savage ignorance, will be irresistibly incited to approve. If an equal participation of the benefits of nature be good in itself, it must be good for you and me and all mankind. Despotism may be of use to keep human beings in ignorance, but can never conduce to render them wise or virtuous or happy. If the general tendency of despotism be injurious, every portion and fragment of it must be a noxious ingredient. Truth cannot be so variable, as to change its nature by crossing an arm of the sea, a petty brook or an ideal line, and become falshood. On the contrary it is at all times and in all places the same.

The subject of legislation is every where the same, man. The points in which human beings resemble are infinitely more considerable than those in which they differ. We have the same senses, the same inlets of pleasure and pain, the same faculty to reason, to judge and to infer. The same causes that make me happy will make you happy. We may differ in our opinions upon this subject at first, but this difference is only in prejudice, and is by no means invincible. An event may often conduce most to the benefit of a human being, which his erroneous judgment perhaps regarded with least complacency. A wise superintendent of affairs would pursue with steady attention the real advantage of those over whom he presided, careless of the temporary disapprobation he incurred, and which would last no {183} longer than the partial and misguided apprehension from which it flowed.

Is there a country in which a prudent director of education would propose some other object for his labours than to make his pupil temperate and just and wise? Is there a climate that requires its inhabitants to be hard drinkers or horse-jockies or gamesters or bullies, rather than men? Can there be a corner of the world, where the lover of justice and truth would find himself out of his element and useless? If no; then liberty must be every where better than slavery, and the government of rectitude and impartiality better than the government of caprice.

But to this it may be objected that 'men may not be every where capable of liberty. A gift however valuable in itself, if it be intended to be beneficial, must be adapted to the capacity of the receiver. In human affairs every thing must be gradual; and it is contrary to every idea that experience furnishes of the nature of mind to expect to advance men to a state of perfection at once. It was in a spirit somewhat similar to this, that Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, apologised for the imperfection of his code, saying, 'that he had not sought to promulgate such laws as were good in themselves, but such as his countrymen were able to bear.'

The experiment of Solon seems to be of a dangerous nature. A code, such as his, bid fair for permanence, and does not {184} appear to have contained in it a principle of improvement. He did not meditate that gradual progress which was above described, nor contemplate in the Athenians of his own time, the root from which were to spring the possible Athenians of some future period, who might realise all that he was able to conceive of good sense, fortitude and virtue. His institutions were rather calculated to hold them down in perpetuity to one certain degree of excellence and no more.

This suggestion furnishes us with the real clue to that striking coincidence between the manners of a nation and the form of its government, which was mentioned in the beginning of the chapter, and which has furnished so capital an argument to the advocates for the local propriety of different forms of government. It was in reality somewhat illogical in these reasoners to employ this as an argument upon the subject, without previously ascertaining which of the two things was to be regarded as a cause and which as an effect, whether the government arose out of the manners of the nation, or the manners of the nation out of the government. The last of these statements appears upon the whole to be nearest to the fact. The government may be indebted for its existence to accident or force. Revolutions, as they have most frequently taken place in the world, are epochas, in which the temper and wishes of a nation are least consulted2. When it is otherwise, still the real effect of the government {185} which is instituted, is to perpetuate propensities and sentiments, which without its operation would speedily have given place to other propensities. Upon every supposition, the existing correspondence between national character and national government will be found in a just consideration to arise out of the latter.

The principle of gradual improvement advanced in the last cited objection must be admitted for true; but then it is necessary, while we adopt it, that we should not suffer ourselves to act in direct opposition to it; and that we should choose the best and most powerful means for forwarding that improvement.

Man is in a state of perpetual progress. He must grow either better or worse, either correct his habits or confirm them. The government proposed must either increase our passions and prejudices by fanning the flame, or by gradually discouraging tend to extirpate them. In reality, it is sufficiently difficult to imagine a government that shall have the latter tendency. By its very nature political institution has a tendency to suspend the elasticity, and put an end to the advancement of mind. Every scheme for embodying imperfection must be injurious. That which is to-day a considerable melioration, will at some future period, if preserved unaltered, appear a defect and disease in the body politic. It were earnestly to be desired that each man was wise enough to govern himself without the intervention of any compulsory restraint; and, since government even in its best state is {186} an evil, the object principally to be aimed at is, that we should have as little of it as the general peace of the human society will permit.

But the grand instrument for forwarding the improvement of mind is the publication of truth. Not the publication on the part of the government; for it is infinitely difficult to discover infallibly what the truth is, especially upon controverted points, and government is as liable as individuals to be mistaken in this respect. In reality it is more liable; for the depositaries of government have a very obvious temptation to desire, by means of ignorance and implicit faith, to perpetuate the existing state of things. The only substantial method for the propagation of truth is discussion, so that the errors of one man may be detected by the acuteness and severe disquisition of his neighbours. All we have to demand from the officers of government, at least in their public character, is neutrality. The intervention of authority in a field proper to reasoning and demonstration is always injurious. If on the right side, it can only discredit truth, and call off the attention of men to a foreign consideration. If on the wrong, though it may not be able to suppress the spirit of enquiry, it will have a tendency to convert the calm pursuit of knowledge into passion and tumult.

'But in what manner shall the principles of truth be communicated so as best to lead to the practice? By showing to mankind {187} truth in all its evidence, or concealing one half of it? Shall they be initiated by a partial discovery, and thus led on by regular degrees to conclusions that would at first have wholly alienated their minds?'

This question will come to be more fully discussed in a following chapter. In the mean time let us only consider for the present the quantity of effect that may be expected from these two opposite plans.

An inhabitant of Turkey or Morocco may perhaps be of opinion, that the vesting power in the arbitrary will or caprice of an individual has in it more advantages than disadvantages. If I be desirous to change his opinion, should I undertake to recommend to him in animated language some modification of this caprice? I should attack its principle. If I do otherwise, I shall betray the strength of my cause. The principle opposite to his own, will not possess half the irresistible force which I could have given to it. His objections will assume vigour. The principle I am maintaining being half truth and half falshood, he will in every step of the contest possess an advantage in the offensive, of which, if he be sufficiently acute, I can never deprive him.

Now the principle I should have to explain of equal law and equal justice to the inhabitant of Morocco, would be as new to {188} him, as any principle of the boldest political description that I could propagate in this country. Whatever apparent difference may exist between the two cases, may fairly be suspected to owe its existence to the imagination of the observer. The rule therefore which suggests itself in this case is fitted for universal application.

As to the improvements which are to be introduced into the political system, their quantity and their period must be determined by the degree of knowledge existing in any country, and the state of preparation of the public mind for the changes that are to be desired. Political renovation may strictly be considered as one of the stages in intellectual improvement. Literature and disquisition cannot of themselves be rendered sufficiently general; it will be only the cruder and grosser parts that can be expected to descend in their genuine form to the multitude; while those abstract and bold speculations, in which the value of literature principally consists, must necessarily continue the portion of the favoured few. It is here that social institution offers itself in aid of the abstruser powers of argumentative communication. As soon as any important truth has become established to a sufficient extent in the minds of the enterprising and the wise, it may tranquilly and with ease be rendered a part of the general system; since the uninstructed and the poor are never the strenuous supporters of those complicated systems by which oppression is maintained; and since they have an obvious interest {189} in the practical introduction of simplicity and truth. One valuable principle being thus realised, prepares the way for the realising of more. It serves as a resting-place to the human mind in its great business of exploring the regions of truth, and gives it new alacrity and encouragement for farther exertions.


1. These arguments bear some resemblance to those of Mr. Burke. It was not necessary that they should do so precisely, or that we should take advantage of the argumentum ad hominem built upon his fervent admiration of the English consutution. Not to say that we shall feel ourselves more at our ease in examining the question generally, than in a personal attack upon this illustrious and virtuous hero of former times.

2. See Hume's Essays. Part II. Essay xii.