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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Arguments in its favour. -- Answer. -- It cannot fit men for a better order of society. -- The true remedy to private injustice described -- Is adapted to immediate practice. -- Duty of the community in this respect. -- Duty of individuals. -- Illustration from the case of war -- Of individual defence. -- Application. -- Disadvantages of anarchy -- Want of security -- Of progressive enquiry. -- Correspondent disadvantages of despotism. -- Anarchy awakens, despotism depresses the mind. -- Final result of anarchy -- How determined. -- Supposed purposes of coercion in a temporary view. -- Example -- Restraint. -- Conclusion.
{727} Thus much for the general merits of coercion considered as an instrument to be applied in the government of men. It is time that we should enquire into the arguments by which it may be apologised as a temporary expedient. No introduction {728} seemed more proper to this enquiry than such a review of the subject upon a comprehensive scale; that the reader might be inspired with a suitable repugnance against so pernicious a system, and prepared firmly to resist its admission in all cases where its necessity cannot be clearly demonstrated.

The arguments in favour of coercion as a temporary expedient are obvious. It may be alledged that, 'however suitable an entire immunity in this respect may be to the nature of mind absolutely considered, it is impracticable with regard to men as we now find them. The human species is at present infected with a thousand vices, the offspring of established injustice. They are full of factitious appetites and perverse habits: headstrong in evil, inveterate in selfishness, without sympathy and forbearance for the welfare of others. In time they may become accommodated to the lessons of reason; but at present they would be found deaf to her mandates, and eager to commit every species of injustice.'

One of the remarks that most irresistibly suggest themselves upon this statement is, that coercion has no proper tendency to prepare men for a state in which coercion shall cease. It is absurd to expect that force should begin to do that which it is the office of truth to finish, should fit men by severity and violence to enter with more favourable auspices into the schools of reason. {729}

But, to omit this gross misrepresentation in behalf of the supposed utility of coercion, it is of importance in the first place to observe that there is a complete and unanswerable remedy to those evils the cure of which has hitherto been sought in coercion, that is within the reach of every community whenever they shall be persuaded to adopt it. There is a state of society, the outline of which has already been sketched1, that by the mere simplicity of its structure would infallibly lead to the extermination of offence: a state, in which temptation would be almost unknown, truth brought down to the level of all apprehensions, and vice sufficiently checked by the general discountenance and sober condemnation of every spectator. Such are the consequences that would necessarily spring from an abolition of the craft and mystery of governing; while on the other hand the innumerable murders that are daily committed under the sanction of legal forms, are solely to be ascribed to the pernicious notion of an extensive territory; to the dreams of glory, empire and national greatness, which have hitherto proved the bane of the human species, without producing solid benefit and happiness to a single individual.

Another observation which this consideration immediately suggests, is, that it is not, as the objection supposed, by any means necessary, that mankind should pass through a state of purification, and be freed from the vicious propensities which {730} ill constituted governments have implanted, before they can be dismissed from the coercion to which they are at present subjected. In that case their state would indeed be hopeless, if it were necessary that the cure should be effected, before we were at liberty to discard those practices to which the disease owes its most alarming symptoms. But it is the characteristic of a well formed society, not only to maintain in its members those virtues with which they are already indued, but to extirpate their errors, and render them benevolent and just to each other. It frees us from the influence of those phantoms which before misled us, shows us our true advantage as consisting in the independence and integrity, and binds us by the general consent of our fellow citizens to the dictates of reason, more strongly than with fetters of iron. It is not to the sound of intellectual health that the remedy so urgently addresses itself, as to those who are infected with diseases of the mind. The ill propensities of mankind no otherwise tend to postpone the abolition of coercion, than as they prevent them from perceiving the advantages of political simplicity. The moment in which they can be persuaded to adopt any rational plan for this abolition, is the moment in which the abolition ought to he effected.

A farther consequence that may be deduced from the principles that have been delivered, is that coercion of a domestic kind can in no case be the duty of the community. The community is always competent to change its institutions, and thus to extirpate offence {731} in a way infinitely more rational and just than that of coercion. If in this sense coercion has been deemed necessary as a temporary expedient, the opinion admits of satisfactory refutation. Coercion can at no time, either permanently or provisionally, make part of any political system that is built upon the principles of reason.

But, though in this sense coercion cannot be admitted so much as a temporary expedient, there is another sense in which it must be so admitted. Coercion exercised in the name of the state upon its respective members cannot be the duty of the community; but coercion may be the duty of individuals within the community. The duty of individuals is, in the first place, to display with all possible perspicuity the advantages of an improved state of society, and to be indefatigable in detecting the imperfections of the constitution under which they live. But, in the second place, it behoves them to recollect, that their efforts cannot be expected to meet with instant success, that the progress of knowledge has in all cases been gradual, and that their obligation to promote the welfare of society during the intermediate period is not less real, than their obligation to promote its future and permanent advantage. In reality the future advantage cannot be effectually procured, if we be inattentive to the present security. But, as long as nations shall be so far mistaken as to endure a complex government and an extensive territory, coercion will be indispensibly necessary to general security. It is therefore the duty of individuals to take an active share upon occasion, in {732} so much coercion, and in such parts of the existing system, as shall be sufficient to prevent the inroad of universal violence and tumult. It is unworthy of a rational enquirer to say, 'these things are necessary, but I am not obliged to take my share in them.' If they be necessary, they are necessary for the general good; of consequence are virtuous, and what no just man will refuse to perform.

The duty of individuals is in this respect similar to the duty of independent communities upon the subject of war. It is well known what has been the prevailing policy of princes under this head. Princes, especially the most active and enterprising among them, are seized with an inextinguishable rage for augmenting their dominions. The most innocent and inoffensive conduct on the part of their neighbours is an insufficient security against their ambition. They indeed seek to disguise their violence under plausible pretences; but it is well known that, where no such pretences occur, they are not on that account disposed to drop their pursuit. Let us suppose then a land of freemen invaded by one of these despots. What conduct does it behove them to adopt? We are not yet wise enough to make the sword drop out of the hands of our oppressors by the mere force of reason. Were we resolved, like quakers, neither to oppose nor obey them, much bloodshed might perhaps be avoided, but a more lasting evil would result. They would fix garrisons in our country, and torment us with {733} perpetual injustice. Supposing even it were granted that, if the invaded nation should conduct itself with unalterable constancy upon the principles of reason, the invaders would become tired of their fruitless usurpation, it would prove but little. At present we have to do, not with nations of philosophers, but with nations of men whose virtues are alloyed with weakness, fluctuation and inconstancy. At present it is our duty to consult respecting the procedure which to such nations would be attended with the most favourable result. It is therefore proper that we should choose the least calamitous mode of obliging the enemy speedily to withdraw himself from our territories.

The case of individual defence is of the same nature. It does not appear that any advantage can result from my forbearance, adequate to the disadvantages of my suffering my own life or that of another, a peculiarly valuable member of the community as it may happen, to become a prey to the first ruffian who inclines to destroy it. Forbearance in this case will be the conduct of a singular individual, and its effect may very probably be trifling. Hence it appears, that I ought to arrest the villain in the execution of his designs, though at the expence of a certain degree of coercion.

The case of an offender, who appears to be hardened in guilt, and to trade in the violation of social security, is clearly parallel to these. I ought to take up arms against the despot by whom my {734} country is invaded, because my capacity does not enable me by arguments to prevail on him to desist, and because my countrymen will not preserve their intellectual independence in the midst of oppression. For the same reason, I ought to take up arms against the domestic spoiler, because I am unable either to persuade him to desist, or the community to adopt a just political institution, by means of which security might be maintained consistently with the abolition of coercion.

To understand the full extent of this duty it is incumbent upon us to remark that anarchy as it is usually understood, and a well conceived form of society without government, are exceedingly different from each other. If the government of Great Britain were dissolved to-morrow, unless that dissolution were the result of consistent and digested views of political justice previously disseminated among the inhabitants, it would be very far from leading to the abolition of violence. Individuals, freed from the terrors by which they had been accustomed to be restrained, and not yet placed under the happier and more rational restraint of public inspection, or convinced of the wisdom of reciprocal forbearance, would break out into acts of injustice, while other individuals, who desired only that this irregularity should cease, would find themselves obliged to associate for its forcible suppression. We should have all the evils attached to a regular government, at the same time that we were deprived of that tranquillity and leisure which are its only advantages.

{735} It may not be useless in this place to consider more accurately than we have hitherto done the evils of anarchy. Such a review will afford us a criterion by which to discern, as well the comparative value of different institutions, as the precise degree of coercion which must be employed for the exclusion of universal violence and tumult.

Anarchy in its own nature is an evil of short duration. The more horrible are the mischiefs it inflicts, the more does it hasten to a close. But it is nevertheless necessary that we should consider both what is the quantity of mischief it produces in a given period, and what is the scene in which it promises to close. The first victim that is sacrificed at its shrine is personal security. Every man who has a secret foe, ought to dread the dagger of that foe. There is no doubt that in the worst anarchy multitudes of men will sleep in happy obscurity. But woe to him who by whatever means excites the envy, the jealousy or the suspicion of his neighbour! Unbridled ferocity instantly marks him for its prey. This is indeed the principle evil of such a state, that the wisest, the brightest, the most generous and bold will often be most exposed to an immature fate. In such a state we must bid farewel to the patient lucubrations of the philosopher and the labour of the midnight oil. All is here, like the society in which it exists, impatient and headlong. Mind will frequently burst forth, but its appearance will be like the coruscations of the meteor, not like the mild illumination of {736} the sun. Men, who start forth into sudden energy, will resemble in temper the state that brought them to this unlooked for greatness. They will be rigorous, unfeeling and fierce; and their ungoverned passions will often not stop at equality, but incite them to grasp at power.

With all these evils, we must not hastily conclude, that the mischiefs of anarchy are worse than those which government is qualified to produce. With respect to personal security anarchy is certainly not worse than despotism, with this difference that despotism is as perennial as anarchy is transitory. Despotism, as it existed under the Roman emperors, marked out wealth for its victim, and the guilt of being rich never failed to convict the accused of every other crime. This despotism continued for centuries. Despotism, as it has existed in modern Europe, has been ever full of jealousy and intrigue, a tool to the rage of courtiers and the resentment of women. He that dared utter a word against the tyrant, or endeavour to instruct his countrymen in their interests, was never secure that the next moment would not conduct him to a dungeon. Here despotism wreaked her vengeance at leisure, and forty years of misery and solitude were sometimes insufficient to satiate her fury. Nor was this all. An usurpation that defied all the rules of justice, was obliged to purchase its own safety by assisting tyranny through all its subordinate ranks. Hence the rights of nobility, of feudal vassalage, of primogeniture, of fines and inheritance. When the {737} philosophy of law shall be properly understood, the true key to its spirit and its history will be found, not, as some men have fondly imagined, in a desire to secure the happiness of mankind, but in the venal compact by which superior tyrants have purchased the countenance and alliance of the inferior.

There is one point remaining in which anarchy and despotism are strongly contrasted with each other. Anarchy awakens mind, diffuses energy and enterprize through the community, though it does not effect this in the best manner as its fruits, forced into ripeness, must not be expected to have the vigorous stamina of true excellence. But in despotism mind is trampled into an equality of the most odious sort. Every thing that promises greatness is destined to fall under the exterminating hand of suspicion and envy. In despotism there is no encouragement to excellence. Mind delights to expatiate in a field where every species of eminence is within its reach. A scheme of policy, under which ail men are fixed in classes or levelled with the dust, affords it no encouragement to enter on its career. The inhabitants of such countries are but a more vicious species of brutes. Oppression stimulates them to mischief and piracy, and superior force of mind often displays itself only in deeper treachery or more daring injustice.

One of the most interesting questions in relation to anarchy is {738} that of the manner in which it may be expected to terminate. The possibilities as to this termination are as wide as the various schemes of society which the human imagination can conceive. Anarchy may and has terminated in despotism, and in that case the introduction of anarchy will only serve to afflict us with variety of evils. It may lead to a modification of despotism, a milder and more equitable government than that which has gone before. And it does not seem impossible that it should lead to the best form of human society, that the most penetrating philosopher is able to conceive. Nay, it has something in it that suggests the likeness, a distorted and tremendous likeness, of true liberty. Anarchy has commonly been generated by the hatred of oppression. It is accompanied with a spirit of independence. It disengages men from prejudice and implicit faith, and in a certain degree incites them to an impartial scrutiny into the reason of their actions.

The scene in which anarchy shall terminate principally depends upon the state of mind by which it has been preceded. All mankind were in a state of anarchy, that is, without government, previously to their being in a state of policy. It would not be difficult to find in the history of almost every country a period of anarchy. The people of England were in a state of anarchy immediately before the Restoration. The Roman people were in a state of anarchy at the moment of their secession to the Sacred Mountain. Hence it follows that anarchy is {739} neither so good nor so ill a thing in relation to its consequences, as it has sometimes been represented.

It is not reasonable to expect that a short period of anarchy should do the work of a long period of investigation and philosophy. When we say, that it disengages men from prejudice and implicit faith, this must be understood with much allowance. It tends to loosen the hold of these vermin upon the mind, but it does not instantly convert ordinary men into philosophers. Some prejudices, that were never fully incorporated with the intellectual habit, it destroys; but other prejudices it arms with fury, and converts into instruments of vengeance.

Little good can be expected from any species of anarchy that should subsist for instance among American savages. In order to anarchy being rendered a seed plot of future justice, reflexion and enquiry must have gone before, the regions of philosophy must have been penetrated, and political truth have opened her school to mankind. It is for this reason that the revolutions of the present age (for every total revolution is a species of anarchy) promise much happier effects than the revolutions of any former period. For the same reason the more anarchy can be held at bay, the more fortunate will it be for mankind. Falshood may gain by precipitating the crisis; but a genuine and enlightened philanthropy will wait with unaltered patience for the harvest of instruction. The arrival of that harvest may be slow, but it {740} is infallible. If vigilance and wisdom be successful in their present opposition to anarchy, every benefit will be ultimately obtained, untarnished with violence, and unstained with blood.

These observations are calculated to lead us to an accurate estimate of the mischiefs of anarchy, and prove that there are forms of coercion and government more injurious in their tendency than the absence of organisation itself They also prove that there are other forms of government which deserve in ordinary cases to be preferred to anarchy. Now it is incontrovertibly clear that. where one or two evils is inevitable, the wise and just man will choose the least. Of consequence the wise and just man, being unable as yet to introduce the form of society which his understanding approves, will contribute to the support of so much coercion, as is necessary to exclude what is worse, anarchy.

If then constraint as the antagonist of constraint must in certain cases and under temporary circumstances be admitted, it is an interesting enquiry to ascertain which of the three ends of coercion already enumerated must be proposed by the individuals by whom coercion is employed. And here it will be sufficient very briefly to recollect the reasonings that have been stated under each of these heads.

It cannot be reformation. To reform a man is to change the {741} sentiments of his mind. Sentiments may be changed either for the better of the worse. They can only be changed by the operation of falshood or the operation of truth. Punishment we have already found, at least so far as relates to the individual, is injustice. The infliction of stripes upon my body can throw no new light upon the question between us. I can perceive in them nothing but your passion, your ignorance and your mistake. If you have any new light to offer, any cogent arguments to introduce; they will not fail, if adequately presented, to produce their effect. If you be partially informed stripes will not supply the deficiency of your arguments. Whatever be the extent or narrowness of your wisdom, it is the only instrument by which you can hope to add to mine. You cannot give that which you do not possess. When all is done, I have nothing but the truths you told me by which to derive light to my understanding. The violence with which the communication of them was accompanied, may prepossess me against giving them an impartial hearing, but cannot, and certainly ought not, to make their evidence appear greater than your statement was able to make it. These arguments are conclusive against coercion as an instrument of private or individual education.

But considering the subject in a political view it may be said, 'that, however strong may be the ideas I am able to communicate to a man in order to his reformation, he may be restless and impatient of expostulation, and of consequence it may be necessary {742} to retain him by force, till I can properly have instilled these ideas into his mind.' It must be remembered that the idea here is not that of precaution to prevent the mischiefs he might perpetrate in the mean time, for that belongs to another of the three ends of coercion, that of restraint. But, separately from this idea, the argument is peculiarly weak. If the truths I have to communicate be of an energetic and impressive nature, if they stand forward perspicuous and distinct in my own mind, it will be strange if they do not at the outset excite curiosity and attention in him to whom they are addressed. It is my duty to choose a proper season at which to communicate them, and not to betray the cause of truth by an ill timed impatience. This prudence I should infallibly exercise, if my object were to obtain something interesting to myself; why should I be less quick sighted when I plead the cause of justice and eternal reason? It is a miserable way of preparing a man for conviction, to compel him by violence to hear an expostulation which he is eager to avoid. These arguments prove, not that we should lose sight of reformation, if coercion for any other reason appear to be necessary; but that reformation cannot reasonably be made the object of coercion.

Coercion for the sake of example is a theory that can never be justly maintained. The coercion proposed to be employed, considered absolutely, is either right or wrong. If it be right, it should be employed for its own intrinsic recommendations. If it {743} be wrong, what sort of example does it display? To do a thing for the sake of example, is in other words to do a thing to day, in order to prove that I will do a similar thing to-morrow. This must always be a subordinate consideration. No argument has been so grossly abused as this of example. We found it under the subject of war2 employed to prove the propriety of my doing a thing otherwise wrong, in order to convince the opposite party that I should, when occasion offered, do something else that was right. He will display the best example, who carefully studies the principles of justice, and assiduously practises them. A better effect will be produced in human society by my conscientious adherence to them, than by my anxiety to create a specific expectation respecting my future conduct. This argument will be still farther inforced, if we recollect what has already been said respecting the inexhaustible differences of different cases, and the impossibility of reducing them to general rules.

The third object of coercion according to the enumeration already made is restraint. If coercion be in any case to be admitted, this is the only object it can reasonably propose to itself. The serious objections to which even in this point of view it is liable have been stated in another stage of the enquiry3: the amount of the necessity tending to supersede these objections has also been considered.4

{744} The subject of this chapter is of greater importance, in proportion to the length of time that may possibly elapse, before any considerable part of mankind shall be persuaded to exchange the present complexity of political institution for a mode which shall supersede the necessity of coercion. It is highly unworthy of the cause of truth to suppose, that during this interval I have no active duties to perform, that I am not obliged to cooperate for the present welfare of the community, as well as for its future regeneration. The temporary obligation that arises out of this circumstance exactly corresponds with what was formerly delivered on the subject of duty. Duty is the best possible application of a given power to the promotion of the general good. But my power depends upon the disposition of the men by whom I am surrounded. If I were inlisted in an army of cowards, it might be my duty to retreat, though absolutely considered it should have been the duty of the army to come to blows. Under every possible circumstance it is my duty to advance the general good by the best means which the circumstances under which I am placed will admit.


1. Book V, Chap. XXII, p. 565.

2. Book V, Chap. XVI, p. 518.

3. Chap. III.

4. Book IV, Chap. VI, p. 308, 9.