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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Monarchy founded in imposture. -- Kings not entitled to superiority -- Inadequate to the functions they possess. -- Means by which the imposture is maintained -- 1. Splendour -- 2. Exaggeration. -- This imposture generates -- 1. Indifference to merit -- 2. Indifference to truth -- 3. Artificial desire -- 4. Pusillanimity. -- Moral incredulity of monarchical countries. -- Injustice of luxury -- Of the inordinate admiration of wealth.
{423} Let us proceed to consider the moral effects which the institution of monarchical government is calculated to produce upon the inhabitants of the countries in which it flourishes. And here it must be laid down as a first principle that monarchy is founded in imposture. It is false that kings are entitled to the eminence they obtain. They possess no intrinsic superiority over their subjects. The line of distinction that is drawn is the offspring of pretence, an indirect means employed for effecting certain purposes, and not the offspring of truth. It tramples upon the genuine nature of things, and depends for its support {424} upon this argument, 'that, were it not for impositions of a similar nature, mankind would be miserable.'

Secondly, it is false that kings can discharge the function of royalty. They pretend to superintend the affairs of millions, and they are necessarily unacquainted with these affairs. The senses of kings are constructed like those of other men, they can neither see nor hear what is transacted in their absence. They pretend to administer the affairs of millions, and they possess no such supernatural powers as should enable them to act at a distance. They are nothing of what they would persuade us to believe them. The king is often ignorant of that of which half the inhabitants of his dominions are informed. His prerogatives are administered by others, and the lowest clerk in office is frequently to this and that individual more effectually the sovereign than the king himself. He knows nothing of what is solemnly transacted in his name.

To conduct this imposture with success it is necessary to bring over to its party our eyes and our ears. Accordingly kings are always exhibited with all the splendour of ornament, attendance and equipage. They live amidst a sumptuousness of expence; and this not merely to gratify their appetites, but as a necessary instrument of policy. The most fatal opinion that could lay hold upon the minds of their subjects is that kings are but men. Accordingly they are carefully withdrawn from the profaneness {425} of vulgar inspection; and, when they are exhibited, it is with every artifice that may dazzle our sense and mislead our judgment.

The imposture does not stop with our eyes, but addresses itself to our ears. Hence the inflated style of regal formality. The name of the king every where obtrudes itself upon us. It would seem as if every thing in the country, the lands, the houses, the furniture and the inhabitants were his property. Our estates are the king's dominions. Our bodies and minds are his subjects. Our representatives are his parliament. Our courts of law are his deputies. All magistrates throughout the realm are the king's officers. His name occupies the foremost place in all statutes and decrees. He is the prosecutor of every criminal. He is 'Our Sovereign Lord the King.' Were it possible that he should die, 'the fountain of our blood, the means by which we live,' would be gone: every political function would be suspended. It is therefore one of the fundamental principles of monarchical government that 'the king cannot die.' Our moral principles accommodate themselves to our veracity: and accordingly the sum of our political duties (the most important of all duties) is loyalty; to be true and faithful to the king; to honour a man, whom it may be we ought to despise; and to obey; that is, to acknowledge no immutable criterion of justice and injustice. {426}

What must be the effects of this machine upon the moral principles of mankind? Undoubtedly we cannot trifle with the principles of morality and truth with impunity. However gravely the imposture may be carried on, it is impossible but that the real state of the case should be strongly suspected. Man in a state of society, if undebauched by falshoods like these, which confound the nature of right and wrong, is not ignorant of what it is in which merit consists. He knows that one man is not superior to another except so far as he is wiser or better. Accordingly, these are the distinctions to which he aspires for himself. These are the qualities he honours and applauds in another, and which therefore the feelings of each man instigate his neighbour to acquire. But what a revolution is introduced among these original and undebauched sentiments by the arbitrary distinctions which monarchy engenders? We still retain in our minds the standard of merit, but it daily grows more feeble and powerless, we are persuaded to think that it is of no real use in the transactions of the world, and presently lay it aside as Utopian and visionary.

Consequences equally injurious are produced by the hyperbolical pretensions of monarchy. There is a simplicity in truth that refuses alliance with this impudent mysticism. No man is entirely ignorant of the nature of man. He will not indeed be incredulous to a degree of energy and rectitude that may exceed the standard of his preconceived ideas. But for one man to {427} pretend to think and act for a nation of his fellows is so preposterous as to set credibility at defiance. Is he persuaded that the imposition is salutary? He willingly assumes the right of introducing similar falshoods into his private affairs. He becomes convinced that veneration for truth is to be classed among our errors and prejudices, and that, so far from being, as it pretends to be, in all cases salutary it would lead, if ingenuously practised, to the destruction of mankind.

Again, if kings were exhibited simply as they are in themselves to the inspection of mankind, the salutary prejudice, as it has been called, which teaches us to venerate them, would speedily be extinct: it has therefore been found necessary to surround them with luxury and expence. Thus are luxury and expence made the standard of honour, and of consequence the topics of anxiety and envy. However fatal this sentiment may be to the morality and happiness of mankind, it is one of those illusions which monarchical government is eager to cherish. In reality, the first principle of virtuous feeling, as has been elsewhere said, is the love of independence. He that would be just must before all things estimate the objects about him at their true value. But the principle in regal states has been to think your father the wisest of men because he is your father1, and {428} your king the foremost of his species because he is a king. The standard of intellectual merit is no longer the man but his title. To be drawn in a coach of state by eight milk-white horses is the highest of all human claims to our veneration. The same principle inevitably runs through every order of the state, and men desire wealth under a monarchical government, for so the same reason that under other circumstances they would have desired virtue.

Let us suppose an individual who by severe labour earns a scanty subsistence, to become by accident or curiosity a spectator of the pomp of a royal progress. Is it possible that he should not mentally apostrophise this elevated mortal, and ask, 'What has made thee to differ from me?' If no such sentiment pass through his mind, it is a proof that the corrupt institutions of society have already divested him of all sense of justice. The more simple and direct is his character, the more certainly will these sentiments occur. What answer shall we return to his enquiry? That the well being of society requires men to be treated otherwise than according to their intrinsic merit? Whether {429} he be satisfied with this answer or no, will he not aspire to possess that (which in this instance is wealth) to which the policy of mankind has annexed such high distinction? Is it not indispensible, that, before he believes in the rectitude of this institution his original feelings of right and wrong should be wholly reversed? If it be indispensible, then let the advocate of the monarchical system ingenuously declare, that, according to that system, the interest of society in the first instance requires the total subversion of all principles of moral truth and justice.

With this view let us again recollect the maxim adopted in monarchical countries, 'that the king never dies.' Thus with true oriental extravagance we salute this imbecil mortal, 'O king, live for ever!' Why do we do this? Because upon his existence the existence of the state depends. In his name the courts of law are opened. If his political capacity be suspended for a moment, the centre to which all public business is linked, is destroyed. In such countries every thing is uniform: the ceremony is all, and the substance nothing. In the riots in the year 1780 the mace of the house of lords was proposed to be sent into the passages by the terror of its appearance to quiet the confusion; but it was observed that, if the mace should be rudely detained by the rioters, the whole would be thrown into anarchy. Business would be at a stand, their insignia, and with their insignia their legislative and deliberative functions be gone. Who can expect firmness and energy in a country, where every thing is made to {430} depend not upon justice, public interest and reason, but upon a piece of gilded wood? What conscious dignity and virtue can there be among a people, who, if deprived of the imaginary guidance of one vulgar mortal, are taught to believe that their faculties are benumbed, and all their joints unstrung?

Lastly, one of the most essential ingredients in a virtuous character is undaunted firmness; and nothing can more powerfully tend to destroy this principle than the spirit of a monarchical government. The first lesson of virtue is, Fear no man; the first lesson of such a constitution is, Fear the king. The first lesson of virtue is, Obey no man2; the first lesson of monarchy is, Obey the king. The true interest of mind demands the annihilation of all factitious and imaginary distinctions; it is inseparable from monarchy to support and render them more palpable than ever. He that cannot speak to the proudest despot with a consciousness that he is a man speaking to a man, and a determination to yield him no superiority to which his inherent qualifications do not entitle him, is wholly incapable of sublime virtue. How many such men are bred within the pale of monarchy? How long would monarchy maintain its ground in a nation of such men? Surely it would be the wisdom of society, instead of conjuring up a thousand phantoms to induce us into error, instead of surrounding us with a thousand fears to deprive {431} us of true energy, to remove every obstacle and smooth the path of improvement.

Virtue was never yet held in much honour and esteem in a monarchical country. It is the inclination and the interest of courtiers and kings to bring it into disrepute; and they are but too successful in the attempt. Virtue is in their conception arrogant, intrusive, unmanageable and stubborn. It is an assumed outside, by which those who pretend to it intend to gratify their rude tempers or their secret views. Within the circle of monarchy virtue is always regarded with dishonourable incredulity. The philosophical system which affirms self love to be the first mover of all our actions and the falsity of human virtues, is the growth of these countries3. Why is it that the language of integrity and public spirit is constantly regarded among us as hypocrisy? It was not always thus. It was not till the usurpation of Caesar, that books were written by the tyrant and his partisans to prove that Cato was no better than a snarling pretender4.

There is a farther consideration, which has seldom been adverted to upon this subject, but which seems to be of no inconsiderable {432} importance. In our definition of justice it appeared that our debt to our fellow men extended to all the efforts we could make for their welfare, and all the relief we could supply to their necessities. Not a talent do we posses, not a moment of time, not a shilling of property, for which we are not responsible at the tribunal of the public, which we are not obliged to pay into the general bank of common advantage. Of every one of these things there is an employment which is best, and that best justice obliges us to select. But how extensive is the consequence of this principle with respect to the luxuries and ostentation of human life? Are there many of these luxuries that will stand the test, and approve themselves upon examination to be the best objects upon which our property can be employed? Will it often come out to be true, that hundreds of individuals ought to be subjected to the severest and most incessant labour, that one man may spend in idleness what would afford to the general mass ease, leisure, and consequently wisdom?

Whoever frequents the habitation of the luxurious will speedily be infected with the vices of luxury. The ministers and attendants of a sovereign, accustomed to the trappings of magnificence, will turn with disdain from the merit that is obscured with the clouds of adversity. In vain may virtue plead, in vain may talents solicit distinction, if poverty seem to the fastidious sense of the man in place to envelop them as it were {433} with its noisome effluvia. The very lacquey knows how to repel unfortunate merit from the great man's door.

Here then we are presented with the lesson which is loudly and perpetually read through all the haunts of monarchy. Money is the great requisite for the want of which nothing can atone. Distinction, the homage and esteem of mankind, are to be bought, not earned. The rich man need not trouble himself to invite them, they come unbidden to his surly door. Rarely indeed does it happen, that there is any crime that gold cannot expiate, any baseness and meanness of character that wealth cannot cover with oblivion. Money therefore is the only object worthy of your pursuit, and it is of little importance by what sinister and unmanly means, so it be but obtained.

It is true that virtue and talents do not stand in need of the great man's assistance, and might, if they did but know their worth, repay his scorn with a just and enlightened pity. But unfortunately they are too often ignorant of their strength, and adopt the errors they see universally espoused in the world. Were it otherwise, they would indeed be happier, but the general manners would probably remain the same. The general manners are fashioned by the form and spirit of the national government; and, if in extraordinary cases they become discordant, they speedily subvert it.

The evils that arise out of avarice, an inordinate admiration {434} of wealth and an intemperate pursuit of it, are so obvious, that they have constituted a perpetual topic of lamentation and complaint. The object in this place is to consider how far they are extended and aggravated by a monarchical government, that is, by a constitution the very essence of which is to accumulate enormous wealth upon a single head, and to render the ostentation of splendour the chosen instrument for securing honour and veneration. The object is to consider in what degree of luxury of courts, the effeminate softness of favourites, the system, never to be separated from the monarchical form, of putting men's approbation and good word at a price, of individuals buying the favour of government, and government buying the favour of individuals, is injurious to the moral improvement of mankind. As long as the unvarying practice of courts is cabal, and as long as the unvarying tendency of cabal is to bear down talents, and discourage virtue, to recommend cunning in the room of sincerity, a servile and supple disposition in preference to firmness and inflexibility, a convenient morality as better than a strict one, and the study of the red book of promotion rather than the study of general welfare, so long will monarchy be the bitterest and most potent of all the adversaries of the true interests of mankind.


1. 'The persons whom you ought to love infinitely more than me, are those to whom you are indebted for your existence.' 'Their conduct ought to regulate yours and be the standard of your sentiments.' 'The respect we owe to our father and mother is a sort of worship, as the phrase filial piety implies.' 'Ce que vous devez aimer avant moi sans aucune comparaison, ce sont ceux à qui vous devez la vie.' 'Leur conduite doit regler la vôtre et fixer votre opinion.' 'Le respect que nous devons à notre pere et à notre mere est un culte, comme l'exprime le mot piété.' Lecons d'une Gouvernante, Tome I.

2. Book III, Chap. VI.

3. Maximes, par M. le Duc de la Rochefoucault: De la Fausseté des Vertus Humaines, par M. Esprit.

4. See Plutarch's Lives; Lives of Caesar and Cicero: Ciceronis Epistolae ad Atticum, Lib. XII. Epist. XL, XLI.