Book 5, Chapter 15 : Of Political Imposture

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Book 5, Chapter 15



Of Political Imposture

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. -
Vise has no essential advantage over virtue. - 
Motives of political im posture. - Effects that 
attend it. - Situation of the advocates of this 
system. - Absurdity of their reasonings.

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 neighbors? Can there be any solid ground of distinction except what is founded in personal merit? Are not men, really and strictly considered, equal, except so far as what is personal and inalienable, establishes a difference?' 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 necessary, to keep mankind in awe. Do we not see', say they, 'that, notwithstanding this terrible denunciation, the world is overrun with vise? 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. 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 sufficienltly 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. In Homer, the Elysian fields are a seat of perpetual weariness and languor: Elysium and Tartarus are enclosed in the same circuit; and the difference between them, as most, amounts to no more than the difference between sadness and misery. The same omission, of future retribution as the basis of moral obligation, runs 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 neighbor's throat, and inured to the commission of every enormity. 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 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 familiar, and, as it were, inmate to the mind. The respect I shall obtain, and the happiness I shall enjoy, for the remainder of my life are topics of which I feel the entire comprehension. I understand the value of ease, liberty and knowledge, 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 any supernatural and unusual interposition. 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 everything with which I am acquainted, that my mind in vain endeavors 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, overwhelming them with gratuitous anxiety, or 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 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 civilization into the cause. The legislator being deprived of assistance from the two grand operative causes among men, reasoning and force, is obliged to have recourse to an authority of a different sort, which may draw without compulsion, and persuade without elucidation.'1

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

In reality, no grand political system ever was introduced in the 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 habits and ideas? 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 scarcely 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 a company of such miserable dupes, as to receive a code, without any imagination that it is salutary 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 established customs 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 principal argument the intrinsic rectitude of that system, what is the argument which he would desire to use who had most at heart the 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 endeavor 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, or some luminous and irresistible argument, while everything 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 falsehood 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,' say they, '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 to 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. Citizens should serve their country, not with a frigid submission that scrupulously weighs its duties, but with an enthusiasm that places its honor 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 splendor 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 reason.2

This is still the same argument under another form. It takes for granted that a true observation of things 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 vise, they will love it too well; if they perceive the charms of error, they will never return to the simplicity of truth.' And, strange as it may appear, this bare-faced 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 endured with purity and vigor.3

There are two modes according to which the minds of human beings may be influenced by him who is desirous to conduct them. The first of these is a strong and commanding picture, taking hold of the imagination, and surprising the judgment; the second, a distinct and unanswerable statement of reasons, which, the oftener they are reflected upon, and the more they are sifted, will be found by so much the more cogent.

One of the tritest and most general, as well as most selfevident, maxims in the science of the human mind is that the former of these is only adapted to a temporary purpose, while the latter alone is adequate to a purpose that is durable. How comes it then eh et, in the business of politics and government, the purposes of which are evidently not temporary, the fallacious mode of proceeding should have been so generally and so eagerly resorted to?

This may be accounted for from two considerations: first the diffidence, and secondly, the vanity and selfapplause, of legislators and statesmen. It is an arduous task always to assign reasons to those whose conduct we would direct; it is by no means easy to answer objections and remove difficulties. It requires patience; it demands profound science and severe meditation. This is the reason why, in the instance already alluded to, parents and preceptors find a refuge for their indolence, while by false presences they cheat the young into compliance, in preference to showing them, as far as they may be capable of understanding it, the true face of things.

Statesmen secretly distrust their own powers, and therefore substitute quackery in the room of principle.

But, beside the recommendations that quackery derives from indolence and ignorance, it is also calculated to gratify the vanity of him that employs it. He that would reason with another, and honestly explain to him the motives of the action he recommends, descends to a footing of equality. But he who undertakes to delude us, and fashion us to his purpose by a specious appearance, has a feeling that he is our master. Though his task is neither so difficult nor so honorable as that of the ingenuous dealer, he regards it as more flattering. At every turn he admires his own dexterity; he triumphs in the success of his areifices, and delights to remark how completely mankind are his dupes.

There are disadvantages of no ordinary magnitude that attend upon the practice of political imposture.

It is utterly incompatible with the wholesome tone of the human understanding. Man, we have seen some reason to believe, is a being of progressive nature, and capable of unlimited improvement. But his progress must be upon the plain line of reason and truth. As long as he keeps the open road, his journey is prosperous and promising; but, if he turn aside into by-paths, he will soon come to a point where there is no longer either avenue or track. He that is accustomed to a deceitful medium will be ignorant of the true colors of things. He that is often imposed on will be no judge of the fair and the genuine. Human understanding cannot be tampered with, with impunity; if we admit prejudice, deception and implicit faith in one subject, the inquisitive energies of the mind will be more or less weakened in all. This is a fact so well known that the persons who recommend the governing mankind by deception are, to a man, advocates of the opinion that the human species is essentially stationary.

A further disadvantage of political imposture is that the bubble is hourly in danger of bursting, and the delusion of coming to an end. The playing upon our passions and our imagination, as we have already said, can never fully answer any but a temporary purpose. In delusion there is always inconsistency. It wil1 look plausibly, when placed in a certain light; but it will not bear handling, and examining on all sides. It suits us in a certain animated tone of mind; but, in a calm and tranquil season, it is destitute of power. Politics and government are affairs of a durable concern; they should therefore rest upon a basis that will abide the test.

The system of political imposture divides 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. Nor is it 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, or penetrate into the essences of things, but always rest in a deceitful appearance. It is iniquitous to deprive them of that chance for additional wisdom which would result from a greater number of minds being employed in the inquiry, and from the distinterested and impartial spirit that might be expected to accompany it.

How strangely incongruous is that state of mind which the system we are here examining is adapted to recommend. Shall those persons who govern the springs, and carry on the deception, be themselves in the secret of the imposition or not? This is a fundamental question. It has often been started in relation to the authors or abettors of a new fabric of superstition. On the one hand, we should be apt to imagine that, for a machine to be guided well, it is desirable that those who guide it should be acquainted with its principle. We should suppose that, otherwise, the governors we speak of would not always know the extent and the particulars as to which the deception was salutary and that, where 'the blind led the blind', the public welfare would not be in a much better condition than the greatest advocates of imposture could suppose it to be under the auspices of truth. But then again, on the other hand, no man can be powerful in persuasion in a point where he has not first persuaded himself. Beside that the secret must, first or last, be confided to so many hands that it will be continually in danger of being discovered by the public at large. So that for these reasons it would seem best that he who first invented the art of leading mankind at pleasure, and set the wheels of political craft in motion, should suffer his secret to die with him.

And what sort of character must exist in a state thus modified? Those at the head of affairs, if they be acquainted with the principle of the political machine, must be perpetually anxious lest mankind should unexpectedly recover the use of their faculties. Falsehood must be their discipline and incessant study. We will suppose that they adopt this system of imposture, in the first instance, from the most benevolent motives. But will the continual practice of concealment, hypocrisy and artifice make no breaches in their character? Will they, in despite of habit, retain all that ingenuousness of heart which is the first principle of virtue?

With respect to the multitude, in this system, they are placed in the middle between two fearful calamities, suspicion on one side, and infatuation on the other. Even children, when their parents explain to them that there is one system of morality for youth and another for mature age, and endeavor to cheat them into submission, are generally found to suspect the trick. It cannot reasonably be thought that the mass of the governed in any country should be less clear sighted than children. Thus they are kept in perpetual vibration, between rebellious discontent, and infatuated credulity. Sometimes they suppose their governors to be the messengers and favorites of heaven, a supernatural order of beings; and sometimes they suspect them to be a combination of usurpers to rob and oppress them. For they dare not indulge themselves in solving the dilemma, because they are held in awe by oppression and the gallows.

Is this the genuine state of man? Is this a condition so desirable that we should be anxious to entail it upon posterity for ever? Is it high treason to inquire whether it may be meliorated? Are we sure that every change from such a situation of things is severely to be deprecated? Is it not worth while to suffer that experiment which shall consist in a gradual, and almost insensible, abolition of such mischievous institutions?

It may not be uninstructive to consider what sort of discourse must be held, or book written, by him who should make himself the champion of political imposture. He cannot avoid secretly wishing that the occasion had never existed. What he undertakes is to lengthen the reign of 'salutary prejudices'. For this end, he must propose to himself the two opposite purposes, of prolonging the deception, and proving that it is necessary to deceive. By whom is it that he intends his book should be read? Chiefly by the governed; the governors need little inducement to continue the system. But, at the same time that he tells us, we should cherish the mistake as mistake, and the prejudice as prejudice, he is himself lifting the veil, and destroying his own system. While the affair of our superiors and the enlightened is simply to impose upon us, the task is plain and intelligible. But, the moment they begin to write books, to persuade us that we ought to be willing to be deceived, it may well be suspected that their system is upon the decline. It is not to be wondered at if the greatest genius, and the sincerest and most benevolent champion, should fail in producing a perspicuous or very persuasive treatise, when he undertakes so hopeless a task.

The argument of such a system must, when attentively examined, be the most untenable that can be imagined. It undertakes to prove that we must not be governed by reason. To prove! How prove? Necessarily, from the resources of reason. What can be more contradictory? If I must not trust the conclusions of reason relative to the intrinsic value of things, why trust to your reasons in favor of the benefit of being deceived? You cut up your own argument by the roots. If I must reject the dictates of reason in one point, there can be no possible cause why I should adopt them in another. Moral reasons and inducements, as we have repeatedly shown, consist singly in this, an estimate of consequences. What can supersede this estimate? Not an opposite estimate; for, by the nature of morality, the purpose, in the first instance, is to take into account all the consequences. Not something else, for a consideration of consequences is the only thing with which morality and practical wisdom are directly concerned. The moment I dismiss the information of my own eyes and my own understanding, there is, in all justice, an end to persuasion, expostulation or conviction. There is no presence by which I can disallow the authority of inference and deduction in one instance that will not justify a similar proceeding in every other. He that, in any case, designedly surrenders the use of his own understanding is condemned to remain for ever at the beck of contingence and caprice, and is even bound in consistency no more to frame his course by the results of demonstration than by the wildest dreams of delirium and insanity.


1'Pour qu'un peuple naissant pút goûter les seines maximes de la politique et suivre les régles fondamentales de la raison de l'ètat, il faudroit que l'effet pût devenir la cause, que l'esprit social, qui doit être l'ouvrage de l'institution, prèsidât á l'institution même, et que les hommes fussent avant les lois ce qu'ils doivent devenir par elles. Ainsi donc le le`gislateur ne pouvant employer ni la force ni le raisonnement; c'est une necessitè qu'il recour a une autoritè d'un autre ordre, qui puisse entrainer sans violence, et 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 continual 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 inquiry to establish. He only substituted, as the topic of his eulogium, the period that preceded government and laws, instead of the period that may possibly follow upon their abolition. 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 perennial source of the vises of mankind; and this principle was adopted from him by Helvetius and others. But he saw further than this, that government, however formed, was little capable of affording solid benefit to mankind, which they did not. This principle has since (probably without being suggested by the writings of Rousseau) been expressed with great perspicuity and energy, but not developed, by Thomas Paine, in the first page of his Common Sense.

Rousseau, notwithstanding his great genius, was full of weakness and prejudice. His Emile deserves perhaps, upon the whole, to be regarded as one of the principal reservoirs of philosophical truth as yet existing in the world; though with a perpetual mixture of absurdity and mistake. In his writings expressly political, Du Contrat Social and Consid`erations sur la Pologne, the superiority of his genius seems to desert him. To his merits as an investigator, 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, and of a multitude of other works, ancient and modern, upon the subject of government.

3 Book I, Chap. VII..

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