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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Of heresy. -- Arguments by which the suppression of heresy is recommended. -- Answer. -- Ignorance not necessary to make men virtuous. -- Difference of opinion not subversive of public security. -- Reason, and not force, the proper corrective of sophistry. -- Absurdity of the attempt to restrain thought -- To restrain the freedom of speech. -- Consequences that would result. -- Fallibility of the men by whom authority is exercised. -- Of erroneous opinions in government. -- Iniquity of the attempt to restrain them. -- Tendency of unlimited political discussion.
{610} The same views which have prevailed for the introduction of religious establishments, have inevitably led to the idea of provisions against the rise and progress of heresy. No arguments can be adduced in favour of the political patronage of truth, that will not be equally cogent in behalf of the political discouragement of error. Nay, they will, of the two, be most cogent in the latter case for error and misrepresentation are the irreconcilable {611} enemies of virtue, and if authority were the true means to disarm them, there would then at least be no need of positive provisions to assist the triumph of truth. It has however happened that this argument, though more tenable, has had fewer adherents. Men are more easily reconciled to abuse in the distribution of rewards, than in the infliction of penalties. It will not therefore be requisite laboriously to insist upon the refutation of this principle; its discussion is principally necessary for the sake of method.

Various arguments had been alledged in defence of this restraint. 'The importance of opinion as a general proposition is notorious and unquestionable. Ought not political institution to take under its inspection that root from which all our actions are ultimately derived? The opinions of men must be expected to be as various as their education and their temper: ought not government to exert its foresight to prevent this discord from breaking out into anarchy and violence? There is no proposition so absurd or so hostile to morality and public good, as not to have found its votaries: will there be no danger in suffering these eccentricities to proceed unmolested, and every perverter of truth and justice to make as many converts as he is able. It has been found indeed a hopeless task to endeavour to extirpate by violence errors already established, but is it not the duty of government to prevent their ascendancy, to check the growth of their adherents and the introduction of heresies hitherto unknown? Can those persons, to whom the care of the {612} general welfare is confided, or who are fitted by their situation to their talents to suggest proper regulations to the adoption of the community, be justified in conniving at the spread of such extravagent and pernicious opinions as strike at the root of order and morality? Simplicity of mind and an understanding undebauched with sophistry have ever been the characteristics of a people among whom virtue has flourished: ought not government to exert itself to exclude the inroads of qualities opposite to these? It is thus that the friends of moral justice have ever contemplated with horror the progress of infidelity and latitudinarian principles. It was thus that the elder Cato viewed with grief the importation into his own country of that plausible and loquacious philosophy by which Greece had already been corrupted1.'

There are several trains of reflection which these reasonings suggest. None o them can be more important than that which may assist us in detecting the error of the elder Cato, and of other persons who have been the zealous but mistaken advocates of virtue. Ignorance is not necessary to render men virtuous. If it were, we might reasonably conclude that virtue was an imposture, and that it was our duty to free ourselves from its {613} shackles. The cultivation of the understanding has no tendency to corrupt the heart of man. A man who should possess all the science of Newton and all the genius of Shakespeare, would not on that account be a bad man. Want of great and comprehensive views had as considerable a share as benevolence in the grief of Cato. It is like the taking to pieces an imperfect machine in order by reconstructing it to enhance its value. An uninformed and timid spectator would be frightened at the temerity of the artist, at the confused heap of pins and wheels that were laid aside at random, and would take it for granted that nothing but destruction would be the consequence. But he would be disappointed. It is thus that the extravagant sallies of mind are the preclude of the highest wisdom, and that the dreams of Ptolemy were destined to precede the discoveries of Newton.

The event cannot be other than favourable. Mind would else cease to be mind. It would be more plausible to say that the perpetual cultivation of the understanding will terminate in madness, than that it will terminate in vice. As long as enquiry is suffered to proceed, and science to improve, our knowledge is perpetually increased. Shall we know everything else, and nothing of ourselves? Shall we become clear sighted and penetrating in all other subjects, without increasing our penetration upon the subject of man? Is vice most truly allied to wisdom or to folly? Can mankind perpetually increase in wisdom, without increasing in the knowledge of what is wise for them to do? Can a man {614} have a clear discernment, unclouded with any remains of former mistake, that this is the action he ought to perform, most conducive to his own interest and to the general good, most delightful at the instant and satisfactory in the review, most agreeable to reason, justice and the nature of things, and refrain from performing it? Every system which has been constructed relative to the nature of superior beings and Gods, amidst all its other errors has reasoned truly upon these topics, and taught that the increase of wisdom and knowledge led, not to malignity and tyranny, but to benevolence and justice.

Secondly, it is a mistake to suppose that speculative differences of opinion threaten materially to disturb the peace of society. It is only when they are enabled to arm themselves with the authority of government, to form parties in the state, and to struggle for that political ascendancy which is too frequently exerted in support of or in opposition to some particular creed, that they become dangerous. Wherever government is wise enough to maintain an inflexible neutrality, these jarring sects are always found to live together with sufficient harmony. The very means that have been employed for the preservation of order, have been the only means that have led to its disturbance. The moment government resolves to admit of no regulations oppressive to either party, controversy finds its level, and appeals to argument and reason, instead of appealing to the sword or the stake. The moment government descends to wear the badge of a sect, religious {615} war is commenced, the world is disgraced with inexpiable broils and deluged with blood.

Thirdly, the injustice of punishing men for their opinions and arguments will be still more visible, if we reflect a little on the nature of punishment. Punishment is one of those classes of coercion, the multiplication of which is so much to be deprecated, and which nothing but the most urgent necessity can in any case justify. That necessity is commonly admitted to exist, where a man had proved by his unjust actions the injuriousness of his character, and where the injury, the repetition of which is to be apprehended, is of such a nature as to be committed before we can have sufficient notice to guard ourselves against it. But no such necessity can possibly exist in the case of false opinions and perverse arguments. Does any man assert falshood? Nothing farther can be desired than that it should be confronted with truth. Does he bewilder us with sophistry? Introduce the light of reason, and his deceptions will vanish. There is in this case a clear line of distinction. In the only admissible province of punishment force it is true is introduced, but it is only in return for force previously exerted. Where argument therefore, erroneous statements and misrepresentation alone are employed, it is by argument only that they must be encountered. We should not be creatures of a rational and intellectual nature, if the victory of truth over error were not ultimately certain. {616}

To enable us to conceive properly of the value of laws for the punishment of heresy, let us suppose a country to be sufficiently provided with such laws, and observe the result. The object is to prevent men from entertaining certain opinions, or in other words from thinking in a certain way. What can be more absurd than to undertake to put fetters on the subtlety of thought? How frequently does the individual who desires to restrain it in himself fail in the attempt? Add to this, that prohibition and menace in this respect do but give new restlessness to the curiosity of the mind. I must not think of the possibility, that there is no God; that the stupendous miracles of Moses and Christ were never really performed; that the dogmas of the Athanasian creed are erroneous. I must shut my eyes, and run blindly into all the opinions, religious and political, that my ancestors regarded as sacred. Will this in all instances be possible?

There is another consideration, trite indeed, but the triteness of which is an additional argument of its truth. Swift says 'Men ought to be permitted to think as they please, but not to propagate their pernicious opinions2.' The obvious answer to this is, 'We are much obliged to him: how would he be able to punish our heresy, even if he desired it, so long as it was concealed?' The attempt to punish opinion is absurd: we may be {617} silent respecting our conclusions, if we please; the train of thinking by which those conclusions are generated cannot fail to be silent.

'But, if men be not punished for their thoughts, they may be punished for uttering those thoughts.' No. This is not less impossible than the other. By what arguments will you persuade every man in the nation to exercise the trade of an informer? By what arguments will you persuade my bosom friend, with whom I repose all the thoughts of my heart, to repair immediately from my company to a magistrate, in order to procure my commitment for so doing to the prisons of the inquisition? In countries where this is attempted, there will be a perpetual struggle, the government endeavouring to pry into our most secret transactions, and the people busy to countermine, to outwit and to detest their superintendents.

But the most valuable consideration which this part of the subject suggests, is, supposing all this were done, what judgment must we form of the people among whom it is done? Though all this cannot, yet much may be performed; though the embryo cannot be annihilated, it may be prevented from ever expanding itself into the dimensions of a man. The arguments by which we were supposing a system for the restraint of opinion to be recommended, were arguments derived from a benevolent anxiety for the virtue of mankind, and to prevent their degeneracy. {618} Will this end be accomplished? Let us contrast a nation of men, daring to think, to speak and to act what they believe to be right, and fettered with no spurious motives to dissuade them from right, with a nation that fears to speak, and fears to think upon the most interesting subjects of human enquiry. Can any spectacle be more degrading than this timidity? Can men in whom mind is thus annihilated be capable of any good or valuable purpose? Can this most abject of all slaveries be the genuine state, the true perfection of the human species?

Another argument, though it has often been stated to the world, deserves to be mentioned in this place. Governments, no more than individual men, are infallible. The cabinets of princes and the parliaments of kingdoms, if there be any truth in considerations already stated3, are often less likely to be right in their conclusions than the theorist in his closet. But, dismissing the estimate of greater and less, it was to be presumed from the principles of human nature, and is found true in fact, that cabinets and parliaments are liable to vary from each other in opinion. What system of religion or government has not in its turn been patronised by national authority? The consequence therefore of admitting this authority is, not merely attributing to government a right to impose some, but any or all opinions upon the community. Are Paganism and Christianity, the religions of {618} Mahomet, Zoroaster and Confucius, are monarchy and aristocracy in all their forms equally worthy to be perpetuated among mankind? Is it quite certain that the greatest of all human calamities is change? Must we never hope for any advance, any improvement? Have no revolution in government, and no reformation in religion been productive of more benefit than disadvantage? There is no species of reasoning in defense of the suppression of heresy which may not be brought back to this monstrous principle, that the knowledge of truth and the introduction of right principles of policy, are circumstances altogether indifferent to the welfare of mankind.

The same reasonings that are here employed against the forcible suppression of religious heresy, will be found equally valid with respect to political. The first circumstance that will not fail to suggest itself to every reflecting mind, is, What sort of constitution must that be which must never be examined? whose excellencies must be the constant topic of eulogium, but respecting which we must never permit ourselves to enquire in what they consist? Can it be the interest of society to proscribe all investigation respecting the wisdom of its regulations? Or must our debates be occupied with provisions of temporary convenience; and are we forbid to ask, whether there may not be something fundamentally wrong in the design of the structure? Reason and good sense will not fail to augur ill of that system of things {620} which is too sacred to be looked into; and to suspect that there must be something essentially weak that thus shrinks from the eye of curiosity. Add to which, that, however we may doubt of the importance of religious disputes, nothing can less reasonably be exposed to question than that the happiness of mankind is essentially connected with the improvement of political science.

'But will not demagogues and declaimers lead to the subversion of all order, and introduce the most dreadful calamities?' What is the state they will introduce? Monarchy and aristocracy are some of the most extensive and lasting mischiefs that have yet afflicted mankind. Will these demagogues persuade their hearers to institute a new dynasty of hereditary despots to oppress them? Will they persuade them to create out of their own body a set of feudal chiefs to hold their brethren in the most barbarous slavery. They would probably find the most copious eloquence inadequate to these purposes. The arguments of declaimers will not produce an extensive and striking alteration in political opinions, except so far as they are built upon a basis of irresistible truth. Even if the people were in some degree intemperate in carrying the conclusions of these reasoners into practice, the mischiefs they would inflict would be inexpressibly trivial, compared with those which are hourly perpetuated by the most cold blooded despotism. But in reality the duty of government {621} in these cases is to be mild and equitable. Arguments alone will not have the power, unassisted by the sense or the recollection of oppression or treachery, to hurry the people into excesses. Excesses are never the offspring of reason, are never the offspring of misrepresentation only, but of power endeavouring to stifle reason and traverse the common sense of mankind.


1. The reader will consider this as the language of the objectors. The most eminent of the Greek philosophers were in reality distinguished from all other teachers, by the fortitude with which they conformed to the precepts they taught.

2. See above, Chap. I, p. 590.

3. Book V, Chap. XXIII, p. 572.