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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



The objection stated. -- Remoteness of its operation. -- Conjectural ideas respecting the antidote. -- Omnipotence of mind. -- Illustrations. -- Causes of decrepitude. -- Youth is prolonged by chearfulness -- By clearness of apprehension -- And a benevolent character. -- The powers we possess are essentially progressive. -- Effects of attention. -- The phenomenon of sleep explained. -- Present utility of these reasonings. -- Applications to the future state of society.
{860} An author who has speculated widely upon subjects of government1, has recommended equal, or, which was rather his idea, common property, as a complete remedy, to the usurpation and distress which are at present the most powerful enemies of human kind, to the vices which infect education in some instances, and the neglect it encounters in more, to all the turbulence of passion, and all the injustice of selfishness. But, after {861} having exhibited this picture, not less true than delightful, he finds an argument that demolishes the whole, and restores him to indifference and despair, in the excessive population that would ensue.

One of the most obvious answers to this objection is, that to reason thus is to foresee difficulties at a great distance. Three fourths of the habitable globe is now uncultivated. The parts already cultivated are capable of immeasurable improvement. Myriads of centuries of still increasing population may probably pass away, and the earth still be found sufficient for the subsistence of its inhabitants. Who can say how long the earth itself will survive the casualties of the planetary system? Who can say what remedies shall suggest themselves for so distant an inconvenience, time enough for practical application, and of which we may yet at this time have not the smallest idea? It would be truly absurd for us to shrink from a scheme of essential benefit to mankind, lest they should be too happy, and by necessary consequence at some distant period too populous.

But, though these remarks may be deemed a sufficient answer to the objection, it may not be amiss to indulge in some speculations to which such an objection obviously leads. The earth may, to speak in the style of one of the writers of the Christian Scriptures, 'abide for ever2.' It may be in danger of becoming too populous. A remedy may then be necessary. If it may, {862} why should we sit down in supine indifference and conclude that we can discover no simple glimpse of it? The discovery, if made, would add to the firmness and consistency of our prospects; nor is it improbable to conjecture that that which would form the regulating spring of our conduct then, might be the medium of a salutary modification now. What follows must be considered in some degree as a deviation into the land of conjecture. If it be false, it leaves the great system to which it is appended in all sound reason as impregnable as ever. If this do not lead us to the true remedy, it does not follow that there is no remedy. The great object of enquiry will still remain open, however defective may be the suggestions that are now to be offered.

Let us here return to the sublime conjecture of Franklin, that 'mind will one day become omnipotent over matter3.' If over all other matter, why not over the matter of our own bodies? If over matter at ever so great a distance, why not over matter which, however ignorant we may be of the tie that connects it with the thinking principle, we. always carry about with us, and which is in all cases the medium of communication between that principle and the external universe? In a word, why may not man one day be immortal?

{863} The different cases in which thought modifies the external universe are obvious to all. It is modified by our voluntary thoughts or design. We desire to stretch out our hand, and it is stretched out. We perform a thousand operations of the same species every day, and their familiarity annihilates the wonder. They are not in themselves less wonderful than any of those modifications which we are least accustomed to conceive. -- Mind modifies body involuntarily. Emotion excited by some unexpected word, by a letter that is delivered to us, occasions the most extraordinary revolutions in our frame, accelerates the circulation, causes the heart to palpitate, the tongue to refuse its office, and has been known to occasion death by extreme anguish or extreme joy. These symptoms we may either encourage or check. By encouraging them habits are produced of fainting or of rage. To discourage them is one of the principal offices of fortitude. The effort of mind in resisting pain in the stories of Cranmer and Mucius Scævola is of the same kind. It is reasonable to believe that that effort with a different direction might have cured certain diseases of the system. There is nothing indeed of which physicians themselves are more frequently aware, than of the power of the mind in assisting or retarding convalescence.

Why is it that a mature man soon loses that elasticity of limb, which characterises the heedless gaiety of youth? Because he desists from youthful habits. He assumes an air of dignity incompatible with the lightness of childish sallies. He is visited and vexed with all the cares that rise out of our mistaken institutions, {864} and his heart is no longer satisfied and gay. Hence his limbs become stiff and unwieldy. This is the forerunner of old age and death.

The first habit favourable to corporeal vigour is chearfulness. Every time that our mind becomes morbid, vacant and melancholy, a certain period is cut off from the length of our lives. Listlessness of thought is the brother of death. But chearfulness gives new life to our frame and circulation to our juices. Nothing can long be stagnant in the frame of him, whose heart is tranquil and his imagination active.

A second requisite in the case of which we treat is a clear and distinct conception. If I know precisely what I wish, it is easy for me to calm the throbs of pain, and to assist the sluggish operations of the system. It is not a knowledge of anatomy, but a quiet and steady attention to my symptoms, that will best enable me to correct the distemper from which they spring. Fainting is nothing else but a confusion of mind, in which the ideas appear to mix in painful disorder, and nothing is distinguished.

The true source of chearfulness is benevolence. To a youthful mind, while every thing strikes with its novelty, the individual situation must be peculiarly unfortunate, if gaiety of thought be not produced, or, when interrupted, do not speedily return with its healing oblivion. But novelty is a fading charm, and perpetually decreases. Hence the approach of inanity and {865} listlessness. After we have made a certain round, life delights no more. A deathlike apathy invades us. Thus the aged are generally cold and indifferent; nothing interests their attention, or rouses the sluggishness of their soul. How should it be otherwise? The pursuits of mankind are commonly frigid and contemptible and the mistake comes at last to be detected. But virtue is a charm that never fades. The soul that perpetually overflows with kindness and sympathy, will always be chearful. The man who is perpetually busied in contemplations of public good, will always be active.

The application of these reasonings is simple and irresistible. If mind be now in a great degree the ruler of the system, why should it be incapable of extending its empire? If our involuntary thoughts can derange or restore the animal economy, why should we not in the process of time, in this as in other instances, subject the thoughts which are at present involuntary to the government of design? If volition now can do something, why should it not go on to do still more and more? There is no principle of reason less liable to question than this, that, if we have in any respect a little power now, and if mind be essentially progressive, that power may, and, barring any extraordinary concussions of nature, infallibly will, extend beyond any bounds we are able to prescribe to it.

Nothing can be more irrational and presumptuous than to {866} conclude, because a certain species of supposed power is entirely out of the line of our present observations, that it is therefore altogether beyond the limits of the human mind. We talk familiarly indeed of the limits of our faculties, but nothing is more difficult than to point them out. Mind, in a progressive view at least, is infinite. If it could have been told to the savage inhabitants of Europe in the times of Theseus and Achilles, that man was capable of predicting eclipses and weighing the air, of explaining the phenomena of nature so that no prodigies should remain, of measuring the distance and the size of the heavenly bodies, this would not have appeared to them less wonderful, than if we had told them of the possible discovery of the means of maintaining the human body in perpetual youth and vigour. But we have not only this analogy, showing that the discovery in question forms as it were a regular branch of the acquisitions that belong to an intellectual nature; but in addition to this we seem to have a glimpse of the specific manner in which the acquisition will be secured. Let us remark a little more distinctly the simplicity of the process.

We have called the principle of immortality in man chearfulness, clearness of conception and benevolence. Perhaps we shall in some respects have a more accurate view of its potency, if we consider it as of the nature of attention. It is a very old maxim of practical conduct, that whatever is done with attention, is done well. It is because this was a principal requisite, that many persons {867} endowed in an eminent degree with chearfulness, perspicacity and benevolence, have perhaps not been longer lived than their neighbours. We are not capable at present of attending to every thing. A man who is engaged in the sublimest and most delightful exertions of mind, will perhaps be less attentive to his animal functions than his most ordinary neighbour, though he will frequently in a partial degree repair that neglect, by a more chearful and animated observation, when those exertions arc suspended. But, though the faculty of attention may at present have a very small share of ductility, it is probable that it may be improved in that respect to an inconceivable degree. The picture that was exhibited of the subtlety of mind in an earlier stage of this work4, gives to this supposition a certain degree of moral evidence. If we can have three hundred and twenty successive ideas in a second of time, why should it be supposed that we shall not hereafter arrive at the skill of carrying on a great number of contemporaneous processes without disorder?

Having thus given a view of what may be the future improvement of mind, it is proper that we should qualify this picture to the sanguine temper of some readers and the incredulity of others, by observing that this improvement, if capable of being realised, is however at a great distance. A very obvious remark will render this eminently palpable. If an unintermitted attention to the animal economy be necessary, then, before death can be banished, {868} we must banish sleep, death's image. Sleep is one of the most conspicuous infirmities of the human frame. It is not, as has often been supposed, a suspension of thought, but an irregular and distempered state of the faculty5. Our tired attention resigns the helm, ideas swim before us in wild confusion, and are attended with less and less distinctness, till at length they leave no traces in the memory. Whatever attention and volition are then imposed upon us, as it were at unawares, are but faint resemblances of our operations in the same kind when awake. Generally speaking, we contemplate sights of horror with little pain, and commit the most atrocious crimes with little sense of their true nature. The horror we sometimes attribute to our dreams, will frequently be found upon accurate observation to belong to our review of them when we wake.

One other remark my be proper in this place. If the remedies here prescribed tend to a total extirpation of our nature, then, though we cannot promise to them an early and complete success, we may probably find them of some utility now. They may contribute to prolong our vigour, though not to immortalise it, and, which is of more consequence, to make us live while we live. Every time the mind is invaded with anguish and gloom, the frame becomes disordered. Every time that languor and indifference creep upon us. our functions fall into decay. In proportion as we cultivate fortitude and equanimity, {869} our circulations will be chearful. In proportion as we cultivate a kind and benevolent propensity, we may be secure of finding something for ever to interest and engage us.

Medicine may reasonably be stated to consist of two branches, the animal and intellectual. The latter of these has been infinitely too much neglected. It cannot be employed to the purposes of a profession; or, where it has been incidentally so employed, it has been artificially and indirectly, not in an open and avowed manner. 'Herein the patient must minister to himself6.' How often do we find a sudden piece of good news dissipating a distemper? How common is the remark, that those accidents, which are to the indolent a source of disease, are forgotten and extirpated in the busy and active? It would no doubt be of extreme moment to us, to be thoroughly acquainted with the power of motives, habit, and what is called resolution, in this respect. I walk twenty miles in an indolent and half determined temper, and am extremely fatigued. I walk twenty miles full of ardour and with a motive that engrosses my soul, and I come in as fresh and alert as when I began my journey. We are sick and we die, generally speaking, because we consent to suffer these accidents. This consent in the present state of mankind is in some degree unavoidable. We must have stronger motives and clearer views, before we can uniformly refuse it. But, though we cannot always, we may frequently refuse. This is a truth of which all mankind are {870} to a certain degree aware. Nothing more common than for the most ignorant man to call upon his sick neighbour, to rouse himself, not to suffer himself to be conquered; and this exhortation is always accompanied with some consciousness of the efficacy of resolution. The wise and the good man therefore should carry with him the recollection of what chearfulness and a determined spirit are able to do, of the capacity with which he is endowed of expelling the seeds and first slight appearances of indisposition.

The principal part of the preceding paragraph is nothing more than a particular application of what was elsewhere delivered respecting moral and physical causes7. It would have been easy to have cast the present chapter in a different form, and to have made it a chapter upon health, showing that one of the advantages of a better state of society would be a very high improvement in the vigour and animal constitution of man. In that case the conjecture of immortality would only have come in as an incidental remark, and the whole would have assumed less the air of conjecture than of close and argumentative deduction. But it was perhaps better to give the subject the most explicit form, at the risk of a certain degree of prejudice.

To apply these remarks to the subject of population. The tendency of a cultivated and virtuous mind is to render us indifferent to the gratifications of sense. They please at present {871} by their novelty, that is, because we know not how to estimate them. They decay in the decline of life indirectly because the system refuses them, but directly and principally because they no longer excite the ardour and passion of mind. It is well known that an inflamed imagination is capable of doubling and tripling the seminal secretions. The gratifications of sense please at present by their imposture. We soon learn to despise the mere animal function, which, apart from the delusions of intellect, would be nearly the same in all cases; and to value it, only as it happens to be relieved by personal charms or mental excellence. We absurdly imagine that no better road can be found to the sympathy and intercourse of minds. But a very slight degree of attention might convince us that this is a false road, full of danger and deception. Why should I esteem another, or by another be esteemed? For this reason only, because esteem is due, and only so far as it is due.

The men therefore who exist when the earth shall refuse itself to a more extended population, will cease to propagate, for they will no longer have any motive, either of error or duty, to induce them. In addition to this they will perhaps be immortal. The whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation, nor truth have in a certain degree to recommence her career at the end of every thirty years. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice as it is called, and no government. These {872} latter articles are at no great distance; and it is not impossible that some of the present race of men may live to see them in part accomplished. But beside this there will be no disease, no anguish, no melancholy and no resentment. Every man will seek with ineffable ardour the good of all. Mind will be active and eager, yet never disappointed. Men will see the progressive advancement of virtue and good, and feel that, if things occasionally happen contrary to their hopes, the miscarriage itself was a necessary part of that progress. They will know, that they are members of the chain, that each has his several utility, and they will need not feel indifferent to that utility. They will be eager to enquire into the good that already exists, the means by which it was produced, and the greater good that is yet in store. They will never want motives for exertion, for that benefit which a man thoroughly understands and earnestly loves, he cannot refrain from endeavouring to promote.

Before we dismiss this subject it is proper once again to remind the reader, that the leading doctrine of this chapter is given only as matter of probable conjecture, and that the grand argument of this division of the work is altogether independent of its truth or falshood.


1. Wallace: Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature and Providence, 1761.

2. Ecclesiastes, Chap. I, ver. 4.

3. I have no other authority to quote for this expression than the conversation of Dr Price. Upon enquiry I am happy to find it confirmed to me by Mr William Morgan, the nephew of Dr Price, who recollects to have heard it repeatedly mentioned by his uncle.

4. Book IV, Chap. VII, p. 330.

5. Book IV, Chap. VII, p. 335.

6. Macbeth, Act V.

7. Book I, Chap. VII, Part I.