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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Importance of this topic. -- Example in the doctrine of eternal punishment -- Its inutility argued -- From history -- From the nature of mind. -- Second example: the religious sanction of a legislative system. -- This idea is 1. In strict construction impracticable -- 2. Injurious. -- Third example: principle of political order. -- Vice has no essential advantage over virtue. -- Imposture unnecessary to the cause of justice - Not adapted to the nature of man.
{499} All the arguments that have been employed to prove the insufficiency of democracy grow out of this one root, the supposed necessity of deception and prejudice for restraining the turbulence of human passions. Without the assumption of this principle the argument could not be sustained for a moment. The direct and decisive answer would be, 'Are kings and lords intrinsically wiser and better than their humbler neighbours? Can there be any solid ground of distinction except what is founded in personal merit? Are not men, really and {500} strictly considered, equal, except so far as what is personal and inalienable makes them to differ?' To these questions there can be but one reply, 'Such is the order of reason and absolute truth, but artificial distinctions are necessary for the happiness of mankind. Without deception and prejudice the turbulence of human passions cannot be restrained.' Let us then examine the merits of this theory; and these will be best illustrated by an instance.

It has been held by some divines and some politicians, that the doctrine which teaches that men will be eternally tormented in another world for their errors and misconduct in this, is 'in its own nature unreasonable and absurd, but that it is nevertheless necessary, to keep mankind in awe. Do we not see,' say, they, 'that notwithstanding this terrible denunciation the world is overrun with vice? What then would be the case, if the irregular passions of mankind were set free from their present restraint, and they had not the fear of this retribution before their eyes?'

This argument seems to be founded in a singular inattention to the dictates of history and experience, as well as to those of reason. The ancient Greeks and Romans had nothing of this dreadful apparatus of fire and brimstone, and a torment 'the smoke of which ascends for ever and ever.' Their religion was less personal than political. They confided in the Gods as protectors of the state, and this inspired them with invincible courage. {501} In periods of public calamity they found a ready consolation in expiatory sacrifices to appease the anger of the Gods. The attention of these beings was conceived to be principally directed to the ceremonial of religion, and very little to the moral excellencies and defects of their votaries, which were supposed to be sufficiently provided for by the inevitable tendency of moral excellence or defect to increase or diminish individual happiness. If their systems included the doctrine of a future existence, little attention was paid by them to the connecting the moral deserts of individuals in this life with their comparative situation in another. The same defect ran through the systems of the Persians, the Egyptians, the Celts, the Phenicians, the Jews, and indeed every system which has not been in some manner or other the offspring of the Christian. If we were to form our judgment of these nations by the above argument, we should expect to find every individual among them cutting his neighbour's throat, and hackneyed in the commission of every enormity without measure and without remorse. But they were in reality as susceptible of the regulations of government and the order of society, as those whose imaginations have been most artfully terrified by the threats of future retribution, and some of them were much more generous, determined and attached to the public weal.

Nothing can be more contrary to a just observation of the nature of the human mind, than to suppose that these speculative {502} tenets have much influence in making mankind more virtuous than they would otherwise be found. Human beings are placed in the midst of a system of things, all the parts of which are strictly connected with each other, and exhibit a sympathy and unison by means of which the whole is rendered intelligible and as it were palpable to the mind. The respect I shall obtain and the happiness I shall enjoy for the remainder of my life are topics of which my mind has a complete comprehension. I understand the value of plenty, liberty and truth to myself and my fellow men. I perceive that these things and a certain conduct intending them are connected, in the visible system of the world, and not by the supernatural interposition of an invisible director. But all that can be told me of a future world, a world of spirits or of glorified bodies, where the employments are spiritual and the first cause is to be rendered a subject of immediate perception, or of a scene of retribution, where the mind, doomed to everlasting inactivity, shall be wholly a prey to the upbraidings of remorse and the sarcasms of devils, is so foreign to the system of things with which I am acquainted, that my mind in vain endeavours to believe or to understand it. If doctrines like these occupy the habitual reflections of any, it is not of the lawless, the violent and ungovernable, but of the sober and conscientious, persuading them passively to submit to despotism and injustice, that they may receive the recompense of their patience hereafter. This objection is equally applicable to every species of deception. Fables may amuse the imagination; but can never stand {503} in the place of reason and judgment as the principles of human conduct. Let us proceed to a second instance.

It is affirmed by Rousseau in his treatise of the Social Contract, 'that no legislator could ever establish a grand political system without having recourse to religious imposture. To render a people who are yet to receive the impressions of political wisdom susceptible of the evidence of that wisdom, would be to convert the effect of civilisation into the cause. The legislator ought not to employ force and cannot employ reasoning; he is therefore obliged to have recourse to authority of a different sort, which may draw without compulsion, and persuade without conviction1.' {504}

These are the dreams of a fertile conception, busy in the erection of imaginary systems. To a rational mind that project would seem to promise little substantial benefit, which set out from so erroneous a principle. To terrify men into the reception of a system the reasonableness of which they were unable to perceive, is surely a very indirect method of rendering them sober, judicious, fearless and happy.

In reality no grand political system ever was introduced in the {505} manner Rousseau describes. Lycurgus, as he observes, obtained the sanction of the oracle at Delphi to the constitution he had established. But was it by an appeal to Apollo that he persuaded the Spartans to renounce the use of money, to consent to an equal division of land, and to adopt various other regulations the most contrary to their preconceived prejudices? No; it was by an appeal to their understandings, in the midst of long debate and perpetual counteraction, and through the inflexibility of his courage and resolution, that he at last attained his purpose. Lycurgus thought proper, after the whole was concluded, to obtain the sanction of the oracle, conceiving that it became him to neglect no method of substantiating the benefit he had conferred on his countrymen. It is indeed hardly possible to persuade a society of men to adopt any system without convincing them that it is their wisdom to adopt it. It is difficult to conceive of a society of such miserable dupes as to receive a code without any imagination that it is reasonable or wise or just, but upon this single recommendation that it is delivered to them from the Gods. The only reasonable, and infinitely the most efficacious method of changing the institutions of any people, is by creating in them a general opinion of their erroneousness and insufficiency.

But, if it be indeed impracticable to persuade men into the adoption of any system, without employing as our principle argument the intrinsic rectitude of that system, what is the argument which he would desire to use, who had most at heart the {506} welfare and improvement of the persons concerned? Would he begin by teaching them to reason well, or to reason ill? by unnerving their mind with prejudice, or new stringing it with truth? How many arts, and how noxious to those towards whom we employ them, are necessary, if we would successfully deceive? We must not only leave their reason in indolence at first, but endeavour to supersede its exertion in any future instance. If men be for the present kept right by prejudice, what will become of them hereafter, if by any future penetration or any accidental discovery this prejudice shall be annihilated? Detection is not always the fruit of systematical improvement, but may be effected by some solitary exertion of the faculty of some luminous and irresistible argument, while every thing else remains as it was. If we would first deceive, and then maintain our deception unimpaired, we shall need penal statutes, and licensers of the press, and hired ministers of falshood and imposture. Admirable modes these for the propagation of wisdom and virtue!

There is another case similar to that stated by Rousseau, upon which much stress has been laid by political writers. 'Obedience,' they say, 'must either be courted or compelled. We must either make a judicious use of the prejudices and the ignorance of mankind, or be contented to have no hold upon them but their fears, and maintain social order entirely by the severity of punishment. To dispense us from this painful necessity, authority ought carefully to be invested with a sort of magic persuasion. {507} Citizens should serve their country, not with a frigid submission that scrupulously weighs its duties, but with an enthusiasm that places its honour in its loyalty. For this reason our governors and superiors must not be spoken of with levity. They must be considered, independently of their individual character, as deriving a sacredness from their office. They must be accompanied with splendour and Veneration. Advantage must be taken of the imperfection of mankind. We ought to gain over their judgments through the medium of their senses, and not leave the conclusions to be drawn, to the uncertain process of immature reason2.'

This is still the same argument under another form. It takes for granted that reason is inadequate to teach us our duty; and of consequence recommends an equivocal engine, which may with equal ease be employed in the service of justice and injustice, but would surely appear somewhat more in its place in the service of the latter. It is injustice that stands most in need of superstition and mystery, and will most frequently be a gainer by the imposition. This hypothesis proceeds upon an assumption, which young men sometimes impute to their parents and preceptors. It says, 'Mankind must be kept in ignorance: if they know vice, they will love it too well; if they perceive the charms {508} of error, they will never return to the simplicity of truth.' And, strange as it may appear, this barefaced and unplausible argument has been the foundation of a very popular and generally received hypothesis. It has taught politicians to believe that a people once sunk into decrepitude, as it has been termed, could never afterwards be endued with purity and vigour3.

Is it certain that there is no alternative between deceit and unrelenting severity? Does our duty contain no inherent recommendations? If it be not our own interest that we should be temperate and virtuous, whose interest is it? Political institution, as has abundantly appeared in the course of this work, and will still farther appear as we go forward, has been too frequently the parent of temptations to error and vice of a thousand different denominations. It would be well, if legislators, instead of contriving farther deceptions and enchantments to retain us in our duty, would remove the impostures which at present corrupt our hearts and engender at once artificial wants and real distress. There would be less need, under the system of plain, unornamented truth, than under theirs, that 'every visto should be terminated with the gallows4.'

Why deceive me? It is either my wisdom to do the thing you require of me, or it is not. The reasons for doing it are either sufficient or insufficient. If sufficient, why should not they be the {509} machine to govern my understanding? Shall I most improve while I am governed by false reasons, by imposture and artifice, which, were I a little wiser, I should know were of no value in whatever cause they may be employed; or, while my understanding grows every day sounder and stronger by perpetual communication with truth? If the reasons for what you demand of me be insufficient, why should I comply? It is strongly to be suspected that that regulation, which dares not rest upon its own reasonableness, conduces to the benefit of a few at the expence of the many. Imposture was surely invented by him, who thought more of securing dignity to himself, than of prevailing on mankind to consent to their own welfare. That which you require of me is wise, no farther than it is reasonable. Why endeavour to persuade me that it is more wise, more essential than it really is, or that it is wise for any other reason than the true? Why divide men into two classes, one of which is to think and reason for the whole, and the other to take the conclusions of their superiors on trust? This distinction is not founded in the nature of things; there is no such inherent difference between man and man as it thinks proper to suppose. The reasons that should convince us that virtue is better than vice are neither complicated nor abstruse; and the less they be tampered with by the injudicious interference of political institution, the more will they come home to the understanding and approve themselves to the judgment of every man. {510}

Nor is the distinction less injurious, than it is unfounded. The two classes which it creates, must be more and less than man. It is too much to expect of the former, while we consign to them an unnatural monopoly, that they should rigidly consult for the good of the whole. It is an iniquitous requisition upon the latter, that they should never employ their understandings, never penetrate into the essences of things, but always rest in a deceitful appearance. It is iniquitous, that we should seek to withhold from them the principles of simple truth, and exert ourselves to keep alive their fond and infantine mistakes. The time must probably come when the deceit shall vanish; and then the impostures of monarchy and aristocracy will no longer be able to maintain their ground. The change will at that time be most auspicious, if we honestly inculcate the truth now, secure that men's minds will grow strong enough to endure the practice, in proportion as their understanding of the theory excites them to demand it.


1. 'Pour qu'un peuple naissant pût gouter les saines maximes de la politique & suivre les regles fondamentales de la raison de l'état, il faudroit que l'effet pût devenir la cause, que l'esprit social, qui doit êltre l'ouvrage de l'institution, présidât à l'institution même, & que les hommes fussent avant les lois ce qu'ils doivent devenir par elles. Ainsi donc le législateur ne pouvant employer ni le raisonnement; c'est une nécessité qu'il recoure à une autorité d'un autre ordre, qui puisse entrainer sans violence, & persuader sans convaincre.' Du Contrat Social, Liv. II Chap. VII.
Having frequently quoted
Rousseau in the course of this work, it may be allowable to say one word of his general merits as a moral and political writer. He has been subjected to perpetual ridicule for the extravagance of the proposition with which he began his literary career; that the savage state was the genuine and proper condition of man. It was however by a very slight mistake that he missed the opposite opinion which it is the business of the present work to establish. It is sufficiently observable that, where he describes the enthusiastic influx of truth that first made him a moral and political writer (in his second letter to Malesherbes), he does not so much as mention his fundamental error, but only the just principles which led him into it. He was the first to teach that the imperfections of government were the only permanent source of the vices of mankind; and this principle was adopted from him by Helvetius and others. But he saw farther than this, that government, however reformed, was little capable of affording solid benefit to mankind, which they did not. This principle has since (probably without any assistance from the writings of Rousseau) been expressed with great perspicacity and energy, but not developed, by Mr Thomas Paine in the first page of his Common Sense.

Rousseau, notwithstanding his great genius, was full of weakness and prejudice. His Emile is upon the whole to be regarded as the principal reservoir of philosophical truth as yet existing in the world, but with a perpetual mixture of absurdity and mistake. In his writings expressly political, Du Contrat Social and Considérations sur la Pologne, the unrivalled superiority of his genius appears to desert him. To his merits as a reasoner we should not forget to add, that the term eloquence is perhaps more precisely descriptive of his mode of composition, than of that of any other writer that ever existed.

2. This argument is the great common place of Mr Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, of several successive productions of Mr Necker, and of a multitude of other works upon the subject of government.

3. Book I, Chap. VIII.

4. Burke's Reflections.