Book 8, Chapter 10 : Reflections
Revolt Library >> Anarchism >> An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue, Fourth Edition >> Book 00008, Chapter 00010
Book 8, Chapter 10
I. Supposed danger in disseminating leveling principles. -- Idea of massacre. -- Qualification of this idea. -- Skeptical suggestions -- Means of suppressing inquiry. -- Nature of political science. -- II. Political duties, 1. of those who are qualified for public instructors -- temper -- sincerity. -- Pernicious effects of dissimulation in this case. -- 2. of the rich and great. -- Many of them may be expected to be advocates of equality. -- Conduct which their interest as a body prescribes. -- 3. of the friends of equality in general. -- Importance of a mild and benevolent proceeding. -- III. Connection between liberty and equality. -- Cause of equality will perpetually advance. -- Symptoms of its progress. -- Idea of its future success. -- Conclusion.
We have now taken a general survey of the system of equality, and there remains only to state a few incidental remarks with which it may be proper to wind up the subject.
No idea has excited greater horror in the minds of a multitude of persons, than that of the mischiefs that will ensue from the dissemination of what they call leveling principles. They believe "that these principles will inevitably ferment in the minds of the vulgar, and that the attempt to carry them into execution will be art with every species of calamity." They represent to themselves "the uninformed and uncivilized part of mankind, as let loose from restraint, and hurried into every kind of excess. Knowledge and taste, the improvements of intellect, the discoveries of sages, the beauties of poetry and art, are trampled under foot and extinguished by barbarians. It is another inundation of Goths and Vandals, with this bitter aggravation, that the viper stings us to death, was fostered in our own bosom." They conceive the scene as beginning in massacre. They suppose "all that is great, preeminent and illustrious as ranking among the first victims. Such as are distinguished by peculiar refinement of manners, or energy of understanding and virtue, will be the inevitable objects of envy and jealousy. Such as intrepidly exert themselves to succor the persecuted, or to declare to the public what they are least inclined, but is most necessary for them, to hear, will be marked out for assassination."
Whatever may be the abstract recommendations of the system of equality, we must not allow ourselves any such partiality upon a subject in which the welfare of the species is involved, as should induce us to shrink from a due attention to the ideas here exhibited. Massacre is the too possible attendant upon revolution, and massacre is perhaps the most hateful scene, allowing for its momentary duration, that any imagination can suggest. The fearful, hopeless expectation of the defeated, and the bloodhound fury of their conquerors, is a complication of mischief that all which has been told of infernal regions can scarcely surpass. The cold blooded massacres that are perpetrated under the name of criminal justice, fall short of these in some of their most frightful aggravations. The ministers and instruments of law, have by custom reconciled their minds to the dreadful task they perform, and often bear their parts in the most shocking enormities without being sensible to the passions allied to these enormities. They do not always accompany their murders with the rudeness of an insulting triumph; and, as they conduct themselves, in a certain sort, by known principles of injustice, the evil we have reason to appre- hend, has its limits. But the instruments of massacre are discharged from every restraint. Whatever their caprice dictates, their hands are instantly employed to perpetrate. Their eyes emit flashes of cruelty and rage. They pursue their victims from street to street and from house to house. They tear them from the arms of their fathers and their wives. They glut themselves with barbarity, and utter shouts of horrid joy at the spectacle of tortures.
In answer to this representation it has sometimes been alleged by the friends of reform, "that the advantages possessed by a system of liberty are so great, as to be worth purchasing at any price; that the evils of the most sanguinary revolution are temporary; that the vises of despotism, which few pens indeed have ventured to record in all their demerits, are scarcely less atrocious in the hour of their commission, and infinitely more terrible by their extent and duration; and finally, that the crimes perpetrated in a revolutionary movement, can in no just estimate be imputed to the innovators; that they were engendered by the preceding oppression, and ought to be regarded as the last struggles of expiring tyranny."
But, not to repeat arguments that have already been fully exhibited1, it must be recollected, that "the benefits which innovation may seem to promise are not to be regarded as certain. After all, it may not be utterly impossible, that the nature of man will always remain, for the most part, unaltered, and that he will be found incapable of that degree of knowledge and constancy, which seems essential to a liberal democracy or a pure equality. However cogent may be the arguments for the practicability of human improvement, is it then justifiable, upon the mere credit of predictions, to expose mankind to the greatest calamities? Who that has a just conception of the nature of human understanding will vindicate such a proceeding? A careful enquirer is always detecting his past errors; each year of his life produces a severe comment upon the opinions of the last; he suspects all his judgments, and is certain of none. We wander in the midst of appearances; and plausible appearances are to be found on all sides. The wisest men perhaps have generally proved the most confirmed skeptics. Speculations therefore upon the new modes in which human affairs may be combined, different from any that occur in the history of past ages, may seem fitter to amuse men of acuteness and leisure, than to be depended on in deciding the dearest interests of mankind. Proceedings, the effects of which have been verified by experience, furnish a surer ground of dependence, than the most labored reason can afford us in regard to schemes as yet untried."
Undoubtedly in the views here detailed there is considerable force; and it would be well if persons, who are eager to effect abrupt changes in human society, would give them an attentive consideration. They do not however sufficiently apply to the question proposed to be examined. Our inquiry was not respecting revolution, but disquisition. We are not concerned to vindicate any species of violence; we do not assume that leveling principles are to be acted upon through the medium of force; we have simply affirmed that he who is persuaded of their truth, ought to endeavor to render them a subject of attention. To be convinced of this we have only to consider the enormous and unquestionable political evils that are daily before our eyes, and the probability there is that, by temperate investigation, these evils may be undermined, with little or no tumultuary concussion2. In every affair of human life we are obliged to act upon a simple probability; and therefore, while it is highly worthy of a conscientious philanthropist to recollect the universal uncertainty of opinion, he is bound not to abstain from acting, with caution and sobriety, upon the judgments of his understanding, from a fear left, at the time that he intends to produce benefit, he should unintentionally be the occasion of evil.
But there is another consideration worthy of serious attention in this place. Granting, for a moment, the utmost weight to the objections of those who remind us of the mischief of political experiments, it is proper to ask, Can we suppress discussion? Can we arrest the progress of the inquiring mind? If we can, it must be by the most unmitigated despotism. Intellect has a perpetual tendency to proceed. It cannot be held back, but by a power that counteracts its genuine tendency, through every moment of its existence. Tyrannical and sanguinary must be the measures employed for this purpose. Misereable and disgustful must be the scene they produce. Their result will be barbarism, ignorance, superstition, servility, hypocrisy. This is the alternative, so far as there is any alternative in their choice, to which those who are impowered to consult for the general welfare must inevitably resort, if the suppression of inquiry be the genuine dictate of public interest.
Such has been, for the most part, the policy of governments through every age of the world. Have we slaves? We assiduously retain them in ignorance. Have we colonies and dependencies? The great effort of our care is to keep them from being populous and prosperous. Have we subjects? It is "by impotence and misery that we endeavor to render them supple: plenty is fit only to make them unmanageable, disobedient and mutinous3." If this were the true philosophy of social institutions, well might we shrink from it with horror. How tremendous an abortion would the human species be, if all that tended to invigorate their understandings, tended to make them unprincipled and profligate!
In the meantime it ought not to be forgotten, that to say that a knowledge of political truth can be injurious to the true interests of mankind, is to affirm and express contradiction. Political truth is that science which teaches us to weigh in the balance of an accurate judgment, the different proceedings that may be adopted, for the purpose of giving welfare and prosperity to communities of men. The only way in which discussion can be a reasonable object of terror, is by its power of giving to falsehood, under certain circumstances, the speciousness of truth, or by that partial propagation, the tendency of which is to intoxicate and mislead those understandings that, by an adequate instruction, would have been sobered and enlightened.
These considerations will scarcely permit us to doubt, that it is the duty of governments to maintain the most inflexible neutrality, and of individuals to publish the truths with which they appear to be acquainted. The more truth is discovered, the more it is known in its true dimensions, and not in its parts, the less is it possible that it should coalesce with, or leave room for the effects of, error. The true philanthropist, instead of suppressing discussion, will be eager to take a share in the scene, to exert the full strength of his faculties in investigation, and to contribute by his exertions to render the operation of inquiry at once perspicuous and profound.
The condition of the human species at the present hour is critical and alarming. We are not without grounds of reasonable hope that the issue will be uncommonly beneficial. There is however much to apprehend, from the narrow views, and angry passions, of the contending parties. Every interval that can be gained, provided it is not an interval of torpor and indifference, is perhaps to be considered in the light of an advantage.
Meanwhile, in proportion as the just apprehensions of explosion shall increase, there are high duties incumbent upon every branch of the community.
They are bound to be active, indefatigable and disinterested. It is incumbent upon them to abstain from inflammatory language, and expressions of acrimony and resentment. It is absurd in any government to erect itself into a court of criticism in this respect, and to establish a criterion of liberality and decorum4; but, for that very reason, it is doubly incumbent on those who communicate their thoughts to the public, to exercise a rigid censure over themselves. The lessons of liberty and equality are lessons of good will to all orders of men. They free the peasant from the iniquity that depresses his mind, and the privelaged from the luxury and despotism by which he is corrupted. It is disgraceful to those who teach these lessons, if they stain their benignity, by showing that that benignity has not become the inmate of their hearts.
Nor is it less necessary that they should express themselves with explicitness and sincerity. No maxim can be more suspicious than that which teaches us to consult the temper of the times, and tell only as much as we imagine our contemporaries will be able to bear5. This practice is at present almost universal, and it will perhaps not be difficult to observe its pernicious effects. We retail and mangle truth. We impart it to our fellows, not with the liberal measure with which we have received it, but with such parsimony as our own miserable prudence may chance to prescribe. That we may deceive others with a tranquil conscience, we begin with deceiving ourselves. We put shackles upon our minds, and dare not trust ourselves at large in the pursuit of truth. This practice seems to have been greatly promoted by the machinations of party, and the desire of one wise and adventurous leader to lead a troop of weak, timid and selfish adherents in his train. There can scarcely be a sufficient reason why I should not declare in any assembly upon the face of the earth "that I am a republican." There is no more reason to apprehend that, being a republican under a monarchical government, I shall enter into a desperate faction to invade the public tranquility, than if I were monarchical under a republic. Every community of men, as well as every individual, must govern itself according to its ideas of justice6. What I should desire is, not by violence to change its institutions, but by discussion to change its ideas. I have no concern, if I would study merely the public good, with factions or intrigue; but simply to promulgate the truth, and to wait the tranquil progress of conviction. If there be any assembly that cannot bear this, of such an assembly I ought to be no member. It probably happens, much oftener than we are willing to imagine, that "the post of honor," or, which is better, the post of utility, "is a private station7."
The dissimulation here censured, beside its ill effects upon him who practices it, and, by degrading and unnerving his character, upon society at large, has a particular ill consequence with respect to the point we are considering. It lays a mine, and prepares an explosion. This is the tendency of all unnatural restraint. The unfettered progress of investigation is perhaps always salutary. Its advances are gradual, and each step prepares the general mind for that which is to follow. They are sudden and unprepared, and therefore necessarily partial, emanations of truth that have the greatest tendency to deprive men of their sobriety and self-command. Reserve in this respect is calculated, at once, to give a rugged and angry tone to the multitude, whenever they shall happen to discover what is thus concealed, and to mislead the depositaries of political power. It soothes them into false security, and prompts them to maintain an inauspicious obstinacy.
Having considered what it is that belongs in such a crisis to the enlightened and wise, let us next turn our attention to a very different class of society, the rich and great. And here, in the first place, it may be remarked that it is a false calculation that leads us universally to despair of having these for the advocates of political justice. Mankind are not so miserably selfish, as satirists and courtiers have supposed. We perhaps never engage in any action of moment without having inquired what is the decision of justice respecting it. We are at all times anxious to satisfy ourselves that what our inclinations lead us to do, is innocent and right to be done8. Since therefore justice occupies so large a share in the contemplations of the human mind, it cannot reasonably be doubted that a strong and commanding view of justice, would prove a powerful motive to influence the choice of that description of men we are now considering. But that virtue which, for whatever reason, we have chosen, soon becomes recommended to us by a thousand other reasons. We find in it reputation, honor, and self-complacence, in addition to the recommendations it derives from impartial justice.
The rich and great are far from callous to views of general felicity, when such views are brought before them with that evidence and attraction of which they are susceptible. From one dreadful disadvantage their minds are free. They have not been soured with unrelenting tyranny, or narrowed by the perpetual pressure of distress. They are peculiarly qualified to judge of the emptiness of that pomp and those gratification, which are always most admired, when they are seen from a distance. They will frequently be found considerably indifferent to these things, unless confirmed by habit and rendered inveterate by age. If you show them the attractions of gallantry and magnanimity in resigning them, they will often be resigned without reluctance. Wherever accident of any sort has introduced an active mind, there enterprise is a necessary consequence; and there are few persons so inactive, as to sit down for ever in the supine enjoyment of the indulgences to which they were born. The same spirit that has led forth the young nobility of successive ages to encounter the hardships of a camp, might render them the champions of the cause of equality: nor is it to be believed that the consideration of superior virtue in this latter exertion, will be without its effect.
But let us suppose a considerable party of the rich and great to be actuated by no view but to their emolument and ease. It is not difficult to show them that their interest in this sense will admit of no more than a temperate and yielding resistance. To such we may say: "It is in vain for you to fight against truth. It is like endeavoring with the human hand to stop the inroad of the ocean. Be wise betimes. Seek your safety in concession. If you will not come over to the standard of political justice, temporize at least with an enemy whom you cannot of overcome. Much, inexpressibly much depends upon you. If your proceedings be moderate and judicious, it is not probable that you will suffer the privation, even of that injurious indulgence and accommodation to which you are so strongly attached. The genuine progress of political improvement is kind and attentive to the sentiments of all. It changes the opinions of men by insensible degrees; produces nothing by shock and abruptness; and is far from requiring the calamity of any. Confiscation, and the proscription of bodies of men, form no branch of its story. These evils, which by wise and sober men will always be regretted, will in all probability never occur, unless brought on by your indiscretion and obstinacy. Even in the very tempest and fury of explosion, if such an event shall arise, it may perhaps still be in your power to make advantageous conditions, and to be little or nothing sufferers by the change.
"Above all, do not be lulled into a rash and headlong security. Do not imagine that innovation is not at hand; or that the spirit of innovation can be defeated. We have already seen9 how much the hypocrisy and instability of the wise and enlightened of the present day, those who confess much, and have a confused view of still more, but dare not examine the whole with a steady and unshrinking eye, are calculated to increase this security. But there is a danger still more palpable. Do not be misled by the unthinking and seemingly general cry of those who have no fixed principles. Addresses have been found in every age a very uncertain criterion of the future conduct of a people. Do not count upon the numerous train of your adherents, retainers and servants. They afford a feeble dependence. They are men, and cannot be unconcerned as to the interests and claims of mankind. Some them will adhere to you, as long as a sordid interest seems to draw them in that direction. But the moment yours shall appear to be the losing cause, the same interest will carry them over to the enemy's standard. They will disappear like the morning's mist.
"Can it be supposed that you are incapable of receiving impression from another argument? Will you feel no compunction at the thought of resisting the greatest of all benefits? Are you content to be regarded by your impartial contemporaries, and to be recollected, as long as your memory shall endure, as the obstinate adversaries of philanthropy and justice? Can you reconcile it to your own minds that, for a sordid interest, for the cause of general corruption and abuse, you should be found active in stifling truth, and strangling the new-born happiness of mankind?" Would it were possible to take this argument felt by the enlightened and accomplished advocates of aristocracy! that they could be persuaded to consult neither passion, nor prejudice, nor the reveries of imagination, in deciding so momentous a question! "We know," I would say, "that truth will be triumphant, even though you refuse to be her ally. We do not fear your enmity. But our hearts bleed to see such gallantry, talents and virtue employed by the calamities of mankind. We recollect with grief that, when the luster of your merits shall fill distant generations with astonishment, they will not be less astonished that you could be made the dupes of prejudice, and deliberately surrender the larger portion of the good you might have achieved, and the unqualified affection that might have pursued your memory10."
To the general mass of the adherents of equality, it may be proper to address a few words. "If there be any force in the arguments of this work, we seem authorized to deduce thus much from them, that truth is irresistible. Let then this axiom be the rudder of our undertakings. Let us not precipitately endeavor to accomplish that to-day which the dissemination of truth will make unavoidable to-morrow. Let us not over-anxiously watch for occasions and events: of particular events the ascendancy of truth is independent. Let us anxiously refrain from violence: force is not a conviction, and is extremely unworthy of the cause of justice. Let us admit into our bosoms neither contempt, animosity, resentment nor revenge. The cause of justice is the cause of humanity. Its advocates should be penetrated with universal good-will. We should love this cause; for it conduces to the general happiness of mankind. We should love it; for there is not a man that lives, who, in the natural and tranquil progress of things, will not be made happier by its approach. The most powerful circumstance by which it has been retarded, is the mistake of its adherents, the air of ruggedness, brutishness and inflexibility which they have given to that which, in itself, is all benignity. Nothing less than this could have prevented the great masses of enquirers from bestowing upon it a patient examination. Be it the care of the now increasing advocates of equality, to remove this obstacle to the success of their cause. We have but two plain duties, which, if we set out right, it is not easy to mistake. The first is an unwearied attention to the great instrument of justice, reason. We should communicate our sentiments with the utmost frankness. We should endeavor to press them upon the attention of others. In this we should give way to no discouragement. We should sharpen our intellectual weapons; add to the stock of our knowledge; be pervaded with a sense of the magnitude of our cause; and perpetually add to that calm presence of mind and self-possession which must enable us to do justice to our principles. Our second duty is tranquility."
It will not be right to pass over a question that will inevitably suggest itself to the mind of the reader. "If an equalization of conditions be to take place, not by law, regulation or public institution, but only through the private conviction of individuals, in what manner shall it begin?" In answering this question it is not necessary to prove so simple a proposition, as that all republicanism, all reduction of ranks and immunities, strongly tends towards an equalization of conditions. If men go on to improve in discernment, and this they will with peculiar rapidity, when the ill-constructed governments which now retard their progress are removed, the same arguments which showed them the injustice of ranks, will show them the injustice of one man's wanting that which, while it is in the possession of another, conduces in no respect to his well being.
It is a common error to imagine "that this injustice will be felt only by the lower orders who suffer from it;" and from thence to conclude "that it can only be corrected by violence." But in answer to this it may, in the first place, be observed that all suffer from it, the rich who engross, as well as the poor who want. Secondly, it has been endeavored to be shown in the course of the present work11 that men are not so entirely governed by self-interest as has frequently been supposed. It appears, if possible, still more clearly that the selfish are not governed solely by sensual gratification or the love of gain, but that the desire of eminence and distinction is, in different forms, an universal passion12. Thirdly and principally, the progress of truth is the most powerful of all causes. Nothing can be more improbable than to imagine, that theory, in the best sense of the word, is not essentially connected with practice. That which we can be persuaded clearly and distinctly to approve, will inevitably modify our conduct. When men shall habitually perceive the folly of individual splendor, and when their neighbors are impressed with a similar disdain, it will be impossible they should pursue the means of it with the same avidity as before.
It will not be difficult to trace, in the progress of modern Europe from barbarism to refinement, a tendency towards the equalization of conditions. In the feudal times, as now in India and other parts of the world, men were born to a certain station, and it was nearly impossible for a peasant to rise to the rank of a noble. Except the nobles, there were no men that were rich; for commerce, either external or internal, had scarcely an existence. Commerce was one engine for throwing down this seemingly impregnable barrier, and shocking the prejudices of nobles, who were sufficiently willing to believe that their retainers were a different species of beings from themselves. Learning was another, and more powerful engine. In all ages of the church we see men of the basest origin rising to the highest eminence. Commerce proved that others could rise to wealth beside those who were cased in mail; but learning proved that the low-born were capable of surpassing their lords. The progressive effect of these ideas may easily be traced. Long after learning began to unfold its powers, its votaries still submitted to those obsequious manners and servile dedications, which no man reviews at the present day without astonishment. It is but lately that men have known that intellectual excellence can accomplish its purposes without a patron. At present, among the civilized and well informed, a man of slender income, but of great intellectual powers and a firm and virtuous mind, is constantly received with attention and deference; and his purse-proud neighbor who should attempt to treat him superciliously, is sure to encounter a general disapprobation. The inhabitants of distant villages, where long established prejudices are slowly destroyed, would be astonished to see how comparatively small a share wealth has, in determining the degree of attention with which men are treated in enlightened circles.
These no doubt are but slight indications. It is with morality in this respect as it is with politics. The progress is at first so slow as, for the most part, to elude the observation of mankind; nor can it be adequately perceived but by the contemplation and comparison of events during a considerable portion of time. After a certain interval, the scene is more fully unfolded, and the advances appear more rapid and decisive. While wealth was every thing, it was to be expected that men would acquire it, though at the expense of conscience and integrity. The abstract ideas of justice had not yet been so concentered, as to be able to overpower what dazzles the eye, or promises a momentary gratification. In proportion as the monopolies of rank and corporation are abolished, the value of superfluities will decline. In proportion as republicanism gains ground, men will be estimated for what they are, and not for their accidental appendages.
Let us reflect on the gradual consequences of this revolution of opinion. Liberality of dealing will be among its earliest results" and, of consequence, accumulation will become less frequent and enormous. Men will not be disposed, as now, to take advantage of each other's distresses. They will not consider how much they can extort, but how much it is reasonable to require. The master-tradesman who employs laborers under him, will be disposed to give a more ample reward to their industry" which he is at present enabled to tax, chiefly by the accidental advantage of possessing a capital. Liberality on the part of his employer will complete in the mind of the artisan, what ideas of political justice will probably have begun. He will no longer spend the surplus of his earnings in that dissipation, which is one of the principal of those causes that at present subject him to the arbitrary pleasure of a superior. He will escape from the irresolution of slavery and the fetters of despair, and perceive that independence and ease are scarcely less within his reach than that of any other member of the community. This is an obvious step towards the still further progression, in which the laborer will receive entire whatever the consumer may be required to pay, without having a capitalist, an idle and useless monopolizer, as he will then be found, to fatten upon his spoils.
The same sentiments that lead to liberality of dealing will also lead to liberality of distribution. The trader, who is unwilling to grow rich by extorting from his customers or his workmen, will also refuse to become rich by the not inferior injustice, of withholding from his indigent neighbor the gratuitous supply of which he stands in need. The habit which was created in the former case of being contented with moderate gains, is closely connected with the habit of being contented with slender accumulation. He that is not anxious to add to his heap, will not be reluctant by a benevolent distribution to prevent its increase. Wealth was at one period almost the single object of pursuit that presented itself to the gross and uncultivated mind. Various objects will hereafter divide men's attention, the love of liberty, the love of equality, the pursuits of art and the desire of knowledge. These objects will not, as now, be confined to a few, but will gradually be laid open to all. The love of liberty obviously leads to a sentiment of union, and a disposition to sympathize in the concerns of others. The general diffusion of truth will be productive of general improvement; and men will daily approximate towards those views according to which every object will be appreciated at its true value. Add to which, that the improvement of which we speak is public, and not individual. The progress is the progress of all. Each man will find his sentiments of justice and rectitude echoed by the sentiments of his neighbors. Apostasy will be made eminently improbable, because the apostate will incur, not only his own censure, but the censure of every beholder.
One objection may perhaps be inferred from these considerations. "If the inevitable progress of improvement insensibly lead towards equality, what need was there of proposing it as a specific object to men's consideration?" The answer to this objection is easy. The improvement in question consists in a knowledge of truth. But our knowledge will be very imperfect, so long as this great branch of universal justice fails to constitute a part of it. All truth is useful; can this truth, which is perhaps the most fundamental of all moral principles, be without its benefit? Whatever be the object towards which mind irresistibly advances, it is of no mean importance to us to have a distinct view of that object. Our advances will thus become accelerated. It is a well known principle of morality "that he who proposes perfection to himself, though he will inevitably fall short of what he pursues, will make a more rapid progress, than he contented to aim only at what is imperfect." The benefits to be derived in the interval from a view of equality as one of the great objects to which we are tending, are exceedingly conspicuous. Such a view will strongly conduce to make us disinterested now. It will teach us to look with contempt upon mercantile speculations, commercial prosperity, and the cares of gain. It will impress us with a just apprehension of what it is of which man is capable, and in which his perfection consists; and will fix our ambition and activity upon the worthiest objects. Intellect cannot arrive at any great and illustrious attainment, however much the nature of intellect may carry us towards it, without feeling some presages of its approach; and it is reasonable to believe that, the earlier these presages are introduced, and the more distinct they are made, the more auspicious will be the event.
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