Author : William Godwin
Prevailing ideas on this subject.-Its importance in the science of politics. - I. Voluntary and involuntary action distinguished. -ln- ferences. -Opinion of certain religionists on this subject -of certain philosophers. -Conclusion. -II. Self-deception considered -Custom, or habit delineated. -Actions proceeding from this source imperfectly voluntary. -Subtlety of the mind. -Tendency of our progressive im- provements. -Application. -III. Comparative powers of sense and reason. -Nature of sensual gratification. -Its evident inferiority. - Objection from the priority of sensible impressions refuted from analogy -from the progressive power of other impressions -from ex- perience. Inference. -IV. Vulgar errors. -Meanings of the word passion -1. ardor-2. delusion -3. appetite -of the word nature. - V. Corollaries. -Truth will prevail over error -capable of being ade- quately communicated -omnipotent. -Vise not incurable. -Perfectability of man.
IF by the reasons already given, we have removed the supposition of any original bias in the mind that is inaccessible to human skill, and shown that the defects to which we are now subject are not irrevocably entailed upon us, there is another question of no less importance to be decided, before the ground can appear to be sufficiently cleared for political melioration. There is a doctrine the advocates of which have not been less numerous than those for innate principles and instincts, teaching "that the conduct of human beings in many important particulars is not determined upon any grounds of reasoning and comparison, but by immediate and irresistible impression, in defiance of the conclusions and conviction of the understanding Man is a compound being," say the favorers of this hypothesis, "made up of powers of reasoning and powers of sensation. These two principles are in perpetual hostility; and, as reason will in some cases subdue all the allurements of sense, so there are others ill which the headlong impulses of sense will for ever defeat the tardy decisions of judgment. He that should attempt to regulate man entirely by his understanding, and supersede the irregular influences of material excitement; or that should imagine it practicable by any process and in any length of time to reduce the human species under the influence of general truth;1 would show himself profoundly ignorant of some of the first laws of our nature."
This doctrine, which in many cases has passed so current as to be thought scarcely a topic for examination, is highly worthy of a minute analysis. If true, it no less than the doctrine of innate principles opposes a bar to the efforts of philanthropy, and the improvement of social institutions. Certain it is that our prospects of melioration depend upon the progress of inquiry and the general advancement of knowledge. If therefore there be points, and those important ones, in which, so to express myself, knowledge and the thinking principle in man cannot be brought into contact, if, however great be the improvement of his reason, he will not the less certainly in many cases act in a way irrational and absurd, this consideration must greatly overcloud the prospect of the moral reformer.
There is another consequence that will flow from the vulgarly received doctrine upon this subject. If man be, by the very constitution of his nature, the subject of opinion, and if truth and reason when properly displayed give us a complete hold upon his choice, then the search of the political enquirer will be much simplified. Then we have only to discover what form of civil society is most conformable to reason, and we may rest assured that, as soon as men shall be persuaded from conviction to adopt that form, they will have acquired to themselves an invaluable benefit. But, if reason be frequently inadequate to its task, if there be an opposite principle in man resting upon its own ground, and maintaining a separate jurisdiction, the most rational principles of society may be rendered abortive, it may be necessary to call in mere sensible causes to encounter causes of the same nature, folly may be the fittest instrument to effect the purposes of wisdom, and vise to disseminate and establish the public benefit. In that case the salutary prejudices and useful delusions (as they have been called) of aristocracy, the glittering diadem, the magnificent canopy, the ribands, stars and titles of an illustrious rank, may at last be found the fittest instruments for guiding and alluring to his proper ends the savage, man.2
Such is the nature of the question to be examined, and such its connection with the inquiry concerning the influence of political institutions.
The more accurately to conceive the topic before us, it is necessary to observe that it relates to the voluntary actions of man.
The distinction between voluntary and involuntary action, if properly stated, is exceedingly simple. That action is involuntary which takes place in us either without foresight on our part, or contrary to the full bent of our inclinations. Thus, if a child or a person of mature age burst into tears in a manner unexpected or unforeseen by himself, or if he burst into tears though his pride or any other principle make him exert every effort to restrain them, this action is involuntary. Voluntary action is where the event is foreseen previously to its occurrence, and the hope or fear of that event forms the excitement, or, as it is most frequently termed, the motive,3 inducing us, if hope be the passion, to endeavor to forward, and, if fear, to endeavor to prevent it. It is this motion, in this manner generated, to which we annex the idea of voluntariness. Let it be observed that the word action is here used in the sense of natural philosophers, as descriptive of a charge taking place in any part of the universe, without entering into the question whether that change be necessary or free.
Now let us consider what are the inferences that immediately result from the above simple and unquestionable explanation of voluntary action.
'Voluntary action is accompanied with foresight; the hope or fear of a certain event is its motive.' But foresight is not an affair of simple and immediate impulse: it implies a series of observations so extensive as to enable us from like antecedents to infer like consequents. Voluntary action is occasioned by the idea of consequences to result. Wine is set before me, and I fill my glass. I do this either because I foresee that the flavor will be agreeable to my palate, or that its effect will be to produce gaiety and exhilaration, or that my drinking it will prove the kindness and good humor I feel towards the company with which I am engaged. If in any case my action in filling dwindle into mechanical or semi-mechanical, done with little or no adverting of the mind to its performance, it so far becomes an involuntary action. But, if every voluntary action be performed for the sake of its consequences, then in every voluntary action there is comparison and judgment. Every such action proceeds upon the apprehended truth of some proposition. The mind decides "this is good" or "desirable;" and immediately upon that decision, if accompanied with a persuasion that we are competent to accomplish this good or desirable thing, the limbs proceed to their office. The mind decides "this is better than something else;" either wine and cordials are before me, and I choose the wine rather than the cordials; or the wine only is presented or thought of, and I decide that to take the wine is better than to abstain from it. Thus it appears that in every voluntary action there is preference or choice, which indeed are synonymous terms.
This full elucidation of the nature of voluntary action enables us to proceed a step further. Hence it appears that the voluntary actions of men in all cases originate in their opinions. The actions of men, it will readily be admitted, originate in the state of their minds immediately previous to those actions. Actions therefore which are preceded by a judgment "this is good," or "this is desirable," originate in the state of judgment or opinion upon that subject. It may happen that the opinion may be exceedingly fugitive; it may have been preceded by aversion and followed by remorse; but it was unquestionably the opinion of the mind at the instant in which the action commenced.
It is by no means uninstructive to remark how those persons who seem most to have discarded the use of their reason have frequently fallen by accident, as it were, upon important truths. There has been a sect of Christians who taught that the only point which was to determine the future everlasting happiness or misery of mankind was their faith. Being pressed with the shocking immorality of their doctrine, and the cruel and tyrannical character it imputed to the author of the universe, some of the most ingenious of them have explained themselves thus.
"Man is made up of two parts, his internal sentiments and his external conduct. Between these two there is a close and indissoluble connection; as are his sentiments so is his conduct. Faith, that faith which alone entitles to salvation, is indeed a man's opinion, but not every opinion he may happen openly to profess, not every opinion which floats idly in his brain, and is only recollected when he is gravely questioned upon the subject. Faith is the opinion that is always present to the mind, that lives in the memory, or at least infallibly suggests itself when any article of conduct is considered with which it is materially connected. Faith is that strong, permanent and lively persuasion of the understanding with which no delusive temptations will ever be able successfully to contend. Faith modifies the conduct, gives a new direction to the dispositions, and renders the whole character pure and heavenly. But heavenly dispositions only can fit a man for the enjoyment of heaven. Heaven in reality is not so properly a place as a state of the mind; and, if a wicked man could be introduced into the society of 'saints made perfect,' he would be miserable. God therefore, when he requires faith alone as a qualification for heaven, is so far from being arbitrary that he merely executes the laws of reason, and does the only thing it was possible for him to do."
In this system there are enormous absurdities, but the view it exhibits of the source of voluntary action, sufficiently corresponds with the analysis we have given of the subject.
The author of the Characteristics has illustrated this branch of the nature of man in a very masterly manner. He observes: "There are few who think always consistently, or according to one certain hypothesis upon any subject so abstruse and intricate as the cause of all things and the economy or government of the universe. For it is evident in the case of the most devout people, even by their own confession, that there are times when their faith hardly can support them in the belief of a supreme, wisdom; and that they are often tempted to judge disadvantageously of a providence and just administration in the whole.
"That alone therefore is to be called a man's opinion, which is of any other the most habitual to him, and occurs upon most occasions. So that it is hard to pronounce certainly of any man, that he is an atheist; because, unless his whole thoughts are at all seasons and on all occasions steadily bent against all supposition or imagination of design in things, he is no perfect atheist. In the same manner, if a man's thoughts are not at all times steady and resolute against all imagination of chance, fortune, or ill design in things, he is no perfect theist. But, if any one believes more of chance and confusion than of design, he is to be esteemed more an atheist than a theist [this is surely not a very accurate or liberal view of the atheistical system] from that which most predominates, or has the ascendant. And, in case he believes more of the prevalency of an ill designing principle than of a good one, he is rather a demonist, and may be justly so called, from the side to which the balance or his judgment most inclines.'4
From this view of the subject we shall easily be led to perceive how little the fact of the variableness and inconstancy of human conduct is incompatible with the principle here delivered, that the voluntary actions of men in all cases originate in their opinions. The persuasion that exists in the mind of the drunkard in committing his first act of intoxication, that in so doing he complies with the most cogent and irresistible reason capable of being assigned upon the subject, may be exceedingly temporary; but it is the clear and unequivocal persuasion of his mind at the moment that he determines upon the action. The thoughts of the murderer will frequently be in a state of the most tempestuous fluctuation; he may make and unmake his diabolical purpose fifty times in an hour; his mind may be torn a thousand ways by terror and fury, malignity and remorse. But, whenever his resolution is formed, it is formed upon the suggestions of the rational faculty; and, when he ultimately works up his mind to the perpetration, he is then most strongly impressed with the superior recommendations of the conduct he pursues. One of the fallacies by which we are most frequently induced to a conduct which our habitual judgment disapproves is that our attention becomes so engrossed by a particular view of the subject as wholly to forget, for the moment, those considerations which at other times were accustomed to determine our opinion. In such cases it frequently happens that the neglected consideration recurs the instant the hurry of action has subsided, and we stand astonished at our own infatuation and folly.
This reasoning, however clear and irresistible it may appear, is yet exposed to one very striking objection. "According to the ideas here delivered, men always proceed in their voluntary actions upon judgments extant to their understanding. Such judgments must be attended with consciousness; and, were this hypothesis a sound one, nothing could be more easy than for a man in all cases to assign the precise reason that induced him to any particular action. The human mind would then be a very simple machine, always aware of the grounds upon which it proceeded, and self-deception would be impossible. But this statement is completely in opposition to experience and history. Ask a man the reason why he puts on his clothes, why he eats his dinner, or performs any other ordinary action of his life. He immediately hesitates, endeavors to recollect himself, and often assigns a reason the most remote from what the true philosophy of motive would have led us to expect. Nothing is more dear than that of the moving cause of this action was not expressly present to his apprehension at the time he performed it. Self-deception is so far from impossible that it is one of the most ordinary phenomena with which we are acquainted. Nothing is more usual than for a man to impute his actions to honorable motives, when it is nearly demonstrable that they flowed from some corrupt and contemptible source. On the other hand many persons suppose themselves to be worse than an impartial spectator will find any good reason to believe them. A penetrating observer will frequently be able to convince his neighbor that upon such an occasion he was actuated by motives very different from what he imagined. Philosophers to this hour dispute whether human beings in their most virtuous exertions are under the power of disinterested benevolence, or merely of an enlightened self-interest. Here then we are presented, in one or other of these sets of philosophers, with a striking instance of men's acting from motives diametrically opposite to those which they suppose to be the guides of their conduct. Self-examination is to a proverb one of the most arduous of those tasks which true virtue imposes. Are not these facts in express contradiction to the doctrine that the voluntary actions of men in all cases originate in the judgments of the understanding?"
Undoubtedly the facts which have been here enumerated appear to be strictly true. To determine how far they affect the doctrine of the present chapter, it is necessary to return to our analysis of the phenomena of the human mind. Hitherto we have considered the actions of human beings only under two classes, voluntary and involuntary. In strictness however there is a third class, which belongs to neither, yet partakes of the nature of both.
We have already defined voluntary action to be that of which certain consequences, foreseen, and considered either as objects of desire or aversion, are the motive. Foresight and volition are inseparable. But what is foreseen must, by the very terms, be present to the understanding. Every action therefore, so far as it is perfectly voluntary, flows solely from the decision of the judgment. But the actions above cited, such as relate to our garments and our food, are only imperfectly voluntary.5
In respect of volition there appear to be two stages in the history of the human mind. Foresight is the result of experience; therefore foresight, and by parity of reasoning volition, cannot enter into the earliest actions of a human being. As soon however as the infant perceives the connection between certain attitudes and gestures and the circumstance of receiving such, for example, he is brought to desire those preliminaries for the sake of that result. Here, so far as relates to volition and the judgment of the understanding, the action is as simple as can well be imagined. Yet, even in this instance, the motive may be said to be complex. Habit, or custom, has its share. This habit is founded in actions originally involuntary and mechanical, and modifies after various methods such of our actions as are voluntary.
But there are habits of a second sort. In proportion as our experience enlarges, the subjects of voluntary action become more numerous. In this state of the human being, he soon comes to perceive a considerable similarity between situation and situation. In consequence he feels inclined to abridge the process of deliberation, and to act today conformably to the determination of yesterday. Thus the understanding fixes for itself resting places, is no longer a novice, and is not at the trouble continually to go back and revise the original reasons which determined it to a course of action. Thus the man acquire habits from which it is very difficult to wean him, and which he obeys without being able to assign either to himself or others any explicit reason for his proceeding. This is the history of prepossession and prejudice.
Let us consider how much there is of voluntary, and how much of involuntary in this species of action. Let the instance be of a man going to church today. He has been accustomed, suppose, to a certain routine of this kind from his childhood. Most undoubtedly then, in performing this function today, his motive does not singly consist of inducements present to his understanding. His feelings are not of the same nature as those of a man who should be persuaded by a train of reasoning to perform that function for the first time in his life. His case is partly similar to that of a scholar who has gone through a course of geometry, and who now believes the truth of the propositions upon the testimony of his memory, though the proofs are by no means present to his understanding. Thus the person in question, is partly induced to go to church by reasons which once appeared sufficient to his understanding, and the effects of which remain, though the reasons are now forgotten, or at least are not continually recollected. He goes partly for the sake of decorum, character, and to secure the good will of his neighbors. A part of his inducement also perhaps is that his parents accustomed him to go to church at first, from the mere force of authority, and that the omission of a habit to which we have been formed is apt to fit awkwardly and uneasily upon the human mind. Thus it happens that a man who should scrupulously examine his own conduct in going to church would find great difficulty in satisfying his mind as to the precise motive, or proportion contributed by different motives, which maintained his adherence to that practice.
It is probable however that, when he goes to church, he determines that this action is right, proper or expedient, referring for the reasons which prove this rectitude or expediency to the complex impression which remains in his mind, from the inducements that at different times inclined him to that practice. It is still more reasonable to believe that, when he sets out, there is an express volition, foresight or apprehended motive inducing him to that particular action, and that he proceeds in such a direction because he knows it leads to the church. Now, so much of this action as proceeds from actually existing foresight and apprehended motive, it is proper to call perfectly voluntary. So much as proceeds upon a motive, out of sight, and the operation of which depends upon habit, is imperfectly voluntary.
This sort of habit however must be admitted to retain something of the nature of voluntariness for two reasons. First, it proceeds upon judgment, or apprehended motives, though the reasons of that judgment be out of sight and forgotten; at the time the individual performed the first action of the kind, his proceeding was perfectly voluntary. Secondly, the custom of language authorizes us in denominating every action as in some degree voluntary which a volition, foresight or apprehended motive in contrary direction might have prevented from taking place.
Perhaps no action of a man arrived at years of maturity is, in the sense above defined, perfectly voluntary; as there is no demonstration in the higher branches of the mathematics which contains the whole of its proof within itself, and does not depend upon former propositions, the proofs of which are not present to the mind of the learner. The subtlety of the human mind in this respect is incredible. Many single actions, if carefully analyzed and traced to their remotest source, would be found to be the complex result of different motives, to the amount perhaps of some hundreds.
In the meantime it is obvious to remark that the perfection of the human character consists in approaching as nearly as possible to the perfectly voluntary state. We ought to be upon all occasions prepared to render a reason of our actions. We should remove ourselves to the furthest distance from the state of mere inanimate machines, acted upon by causes of which they have no understanding. We should be cautious of thinking it a sufficient reason for an action that we are accustomed to perform it, and that we once thought it right. The human understanding has so powerful a tendency to improvement that it is more than probable that, in many instances, the arguments which once appeared to us sufficient would upon reexamination appear inadequate and futile. We should therefore subject them to perpetual revisal. In our speculative opinions and our practical principles we should never consider the book of inquiry as shut. We should accustom ourselves not to forget the reasons that produced our determination, but be ready upon all occasions clearly to announce and fully to enumerate them.
Having thus explained the nature of human actions, involuntary, imperfectly voluntary and voluntary, let us consider how far this explanation affects the doctrine of the present chapter. Now it should seem that the great practical political principle remains as entire as ever. Still volition and foresight, in their strict and accurate construction, are inseparable. All the most important occasions of our lives are capable of being subjected at pleasure to a decision, as nearly as possible, perfectly voluntary. Still it remains true that, when the understanding clearly perceives rectitude, propriety and eligibility to belong to a certain conduct, and so long as it has that perception, that conduct will infallibly be adopted. A perception of truth will inevitably be produced by a clear evidence brought home to the understanding, and the constancy of the perception will be proportioned to the apprehended value of the thing perceived. Reason therefore and conviction still appear to be the proper instrument, and the sufficient instrument for regulating the actions of mankind.
Having sufficiently established the principle that in all cases of volition we act, not from impulse, but opinion, there is a further obstacle to be removed before this reasoning can be usefully applied to the subject of political melioration. It may be objected, by a person who should admit the force of the above arguments, "that little was gained by this exposition to the cause it was intended to promote. Whether or no the actions of men frequently arise, as some authors have asserted, from immediate impression, it cannot however be denied that the perturbations of sense frequently seduce the judgment, and that the ideas and temporary notions they produce are too strong for any force that can be brought against them. But, what man is now in this respect he will always to a certain degree remain. He will always have senses, and, in spite of all the attempts which can be made to mortify them, their pleasures will always be accompanied with irritation and allurement. Hence it appears that all ideas of vast and extraordinary improvement in man are visionary, that he will always remain in some degree the dupe of illusion, and that reason, and absolute, impartial truth, can never hope to possess him entire."
The first observation that suggests itself upon this statement is that the points already established tend in some degree to set this new question in a clearer light. From them it may be inferred that the contending forces of reason and sense, in the power they exercise over our conduct, at least pass through the same medium, and assume the same form. It is opinion contending with opinion, and judgment with judgment; and this consideration is not unattended with encouragement. When we discourse of the comparative powers of appetite and reason, we speak of those actions which have the consent of the mind, and partake of the nature of voluntary. The question neither is nor deserves to be respecting cases where no choice is exerted, and no preference shown. Every man is aware that the cases into which volition enters either for a part or the whole are sufficiently numerous to decide upon all that is most important in the events of our life. It follows therefore that, in the contention of sense and reason, it cannot be improbable to hope that the opinion which is intrinsically the best founded shall ultimately prevail.
But let us examine a little minutely these pleasures of sense, the attractions of which are supposed to be so irresistible. In reality they are in no way enabled to maintain their hold upon us but by means of the adscititious ornaments with which they are assiduously connected. Reduce them to their true nakedness, and they would be generally despised. Where almost is the man who would sit down with impatient eagerness to the most splendid feast, the most exquisite viands and highly flavored wines, "taste after taste upheld with kindliest change,"6 if he must sit down alone, and it were not relieved and assisted by the more exalted charms of society, conversation and mutual benevolence? Strip the commerce of the sexes of all its attendant circumstances; and the effect would be similar. Tell a man that all women, so far as sense is concerned, are nearly alike. Bid him therefore take a partner without any attention to the symmetry of her person, her vivacity, the voluptuous softness of her temper, the affectionate kindness of her feelings, her imagination or her wit. You would probably instantly convince him that the commerce itself, which by superficial observers is put for the whole, is the least important branch of the complicated consideration to which it belongs. It is probable that he who should form himself with the greatest care upon a system of solitary sensualism would come at last to a decision not very different from that which Epicurus is said to have adopted in favor of fresh herbs and water from the spring.
"But let it be confessed that the pleasures of sense are unimportant and trivial. It is next to be asked whether, trifling as they are, they may not nevertheless possess a delusive and treacherous power by means of which they may often be enabled to overcome every opposition?"
The better to determine this question, let us suppose a man to be engaged in the progressive voluptuousness of the most sensual scene. Here, if ever, we may expect sensation to be triumphant. Passion is in this case in its full career. He impatiently shuts out every consideration that may disturb his enjoyment; moral views and dissuasives can no longer obtrude themselves into his mind; he resigns himself, without power of resistance, to his predominant idea. Alas, in this situation, nothing is so easy as to extinguish his sensuality! Tell him at this moment that his father is dead, that he has lost or gained a considerable sum of money, or even that his favorite horse is stolen from the meadow, and his whole passion shall be instantly annihilated: so vast is the power which a mere proposition possesses over the mind of man. So conscious are we of the precariousness of the fascination of the senses that upon such occasions we provide against the slightest interruption. If our little finger ached, we might probably immediately bid adieu to the empire of this supposed almighty power. It is said to be an experiment successfully made by sailors and persons in that class of society, to lay a wager with their comrades that the sexual intercourse shall not take place between them and their bedfellow the ensuing night, and to trust to their veracity for a confession of the event. The only means probably by which any man ever succeeds in indulging the pleasures of sense, in contradiction to the habitual persuasion of his judgment, is by contriving to forget everything that can be offered against them. If, notwithstanding all his endeavors, the unwished for idea intrudes, the indulgence instantly becomes impossible. Is it to be supposed that the power of sensual allurement, which must be carefully kept alive, and which the slightest accident overthrows, can be invincible only to the artillery of reason, and that the most irresistible considerations of justice, interest and happiness will never be able habitually to control it?
To consider the subject in another point of view. It seems to be a strange absurdity to hear men assert that the attractions of sensual pleasure are irresistible, in contradiction to the multiplied experience of all ages and countries. Are all good stories of our nature false? Did no man ever resist temptation? On the contrary, have not all the considerations which have power over our hopes, our fears, or our weaknesses been, in competition with a firm and manly virtue, employed in vain? But what has been done may be done again. What has been done by individuals cannot be impossible, in a widely different state of society, to be done by the whole species.
The system we are here combating, of the irresistible power of sensual allurements, has been numerously supported, and a variety of arguments has been adduced in its behalf. Among other things it has been remarked "that, as the human mind has no innate and original principles, so all the information it has is derived from sensation; and everything that passes within it is either direct impression upon our external organs, or the substance of such impressions modified and refined through certain intellectual strainers and alembics. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the original substance should be most powerful in its properties, and the pleasures of external sense more genuine than any other pleasure. Every sensation is, by its very nature, accompanied with the idea of pleasure or pain in a vigorous or feeble degree. The only thing which can or ought to excite desire is happiness or agreeable sensation. It is impossible that the hand can be stretched out to obtain anything except so far as it is considered as desirable; and to be desirable is the same thing as to have a tendency to communicate pleasure. Thus, after all the complexities of philosophy, we are brought back to this simple and irresistible proposition, that man is an animal purely sensual. Hence it follows that in all his transactions much must depend upon immediate impression, and little is to be attributed to the generalities of ratiocination."
All the premises in the objection here stated are unquestionably true. Man is just such an animal as the objection describes. Everything within him that has a tendency to voluntary action is an affair of external or internal sense, and has relation to pleasure or pain. But it does not follow from hence that the pleasures of our external organs are more exquisite than any other pleasures. It is by no means unexampled for the result of a combination of materials to be more excellent than the materials themselves. Let us consider the materials by means of which an admirable poem, or, if you will, the author of an admirable poem, is constructed, and we shall immediately acknowledge this to be the case. In reality the pleasures of a savage, or, which is much the same thing, of a brute, are feeble indeed compared with those of the man of civilization and refinement. Our sensual pleasures, commonly so called, would be almost universally despised had we not the art to combine them with the pleasures of intellect and cultivation. No man ever performed an act of exalted benevolence without having sufficient reason to know, at least so long as the sensation was present to his mind, that all the gratifications of appetite were contemptible in the comparison. That which gives the last zest to our enjoyments is the approbation of our own minds, the consciousness that the exertion we have made was such as was called for by impartial justice and reason; and this consciousness will be clear and satisfying in proportion as our decision in that respect is unmixed with error. Our perceptions can never be so luminous and accurate in the belief of falsehood as of truth.
The great advantage possessed by the allurements of sense is "that the ideas suggested by them are definite and precise, while those which deal in generalities are apt to be faint and obscure. The difference is like that between things absent and present; of the recommendations possessed by the latter we have a more vivid perception, and seem to have a better assurance of the probability of their attainment. These circumstances must necessarily, in the comparison instituted by the mind in all similar cases, to a certain degree incline the balance towards that side. Add to which, that what is present forces itself upon our attention, while that which is absent depends for its recurrence upon the capriciousness of memory."
But these advantages are seen upon the very face of them to be of a precarious nature. If my ideas of virtue, benevolence and justice, or whatever it is that ought to restrain me from an improper leaning to the pleasures of sense, be now less definite and precise, they may be gradually and unlimitedly improved. If I do not now sufficiently perceive all the recommendations they possess, and their clear superiority over the allurements of sense, there is surely no natural impossibility in my being made to understand a distinct proposition, or in my being fully convinced by an unanswerable argument. As to recollection, that is certainly a faculty of the mind which is capable of improvement; and the point, of which I have been once intimately convinced and have had a lively and profound impression, will not easily be forgotten when the period of action shall arrive.
It has been said "that a rainy day will frequently convert a man of valor into a coward." If that should be the case, there is no presumption in affirming that his courage was produced by very slight and inadequate motives. How long would a sensation of this kind be able to hold out against the idea of the benefits to arise from his valor, safety to his family and children, defeat to an unjust and formidable assailant, and freedom and felicity to be secured to his country? In reality, the atmosphere, instead of considerably affecting the mass of mankind, affects in an eminent degree only a small part of that mass. The majority are either above or below it; are either too gross to feel strongly these minute variations, or too busy to attend to them. The case is to a considerable degree the same with the rest of our animal sensations. "Indigestion," it has been said, "perhaps a fit of the tooth ache, renders a man incapable of strong thinking and spirited exertion." How far would they be able to maintain their ground against an unexpected piece of intelligence of the most delightful nature?
Pain is probably more formidable in its attacks upon us, and more exquisitely felt than any species of bodily pleasure. Yet all history affords us examples where pain has been contemned and defied by the energies of intellectual resolution. Do we not read of Mutius Scaevola who suffered his hand to be destroyed by fire without betraying any symptom of emotion, and archbishop Cranmer who endured the same trial two hundred years ago in our own country? Is it not recorded of Anaxarchus that, while suffering the most excruciating tortures, he exclaimed, "Beat on, tyrant! Thou mayest destroy the shell of Anaxarchus, but thou canst not touch Anaxarchus himself?" The very savage Indians sing amid the wanton tortures that are inflicted on them, and tauntingly provoke their tormentors to more ingenious cruelty. When we read such stories, we recognize in them the genuine characteristics of man. Man is not a vegetable to be governed by sensations of heat and cold, dryness and moisture. He is a reasonable creature, capable of perceiving what is eligible and right, of fixing indelibly certain principles upon his mind, and adhering inflexibly to the resolutions he has made.
Let us attend for a moment to the general result of the preceding discussions. The tendency of the whole is to ascertain an important principle in the science of the human mind. If the arguments here adduced to be admitted to be valid, it necessarily follows that whatever can be adequately brought home to the conviction of the understanding may be depended upon as affording a secure hold upon the conduct. We are no longer at liberty to consider man as divided between two independent principles, or to imagine that his inclinations are in any case inaccessible through the medium of his reason. We find the principle within us to be uniform and simple; in consequence of which we are entitled to conclude, that it is in every respect the proper subject of education and persuasion, and is susceptible of unlimited improvement. There is no conduct, in itself reasonable, which the refutation of error, and dissipating of uncertainty, will not make appear to be such. There is no conduct which can be shown to be reasonable, the reasons of which may not sooner or later be made impressive, irresistible and matter of habitual recollection. Lastly, there is no conduct, the reasons of which are thus conclusive and thus communicated, which will not infallibly and uniformly be adopted by the man to whom they are communicated.
It may not be improper to attend a little to the light which may be derived from these speculations upon certain maxims, almost universally received, but which, as they convey no distinct ideas, may be productive of mischief, and can scarcely be productive of good.
The first of these is that the passions ought to be purified, but not to be eradicated. Another, conveying nearly the same lesson, but in different words, is that passion is not to be conquered by reason, but by bringing some other passion into contention with it.
The word passion is a term extremely vague in its signification. It is used principally in three senses. It either represents the ardor and vehemence of mind with which any object is purified; or secondly, that temporary persuasion of excellence and desirableness which accompanies any action performed by us contrary to our more customary and usual habits of thinking; or lastly, those external modes or necessities to which the whole human species is alike subject, such as hunger, the passion between the sexes, and others. In which of these senses is the word to be understood in the maxims above stated?
In the first sense, it has sufficiently appeared that none of our sensations, or, which is the same thing, none of our ideas, are unaccompanied with a consciousness of pleasure or pain; consequently all our volitions are attended with complacence or aversion. In this sense without doubt passion cannot be eradicated; but in this sense also passion is so far from being incompatible with reason that it is inseparable from it. Virtue, sincerity, justice and all those principles which are begotten and cherished in us by a due exercise of reason will never be very strenuously espoused till they are ardently loved; that is, till their value is clearly perceived and adequately understood. In this sense nothing is necessary but to show us that a thing is truly good and worthy to be desired, in order to excite in us a passion for its attainment. If therefore this be the meaning of passion in the above proposition, it is true that passion ought not to be eradicated, but it is equally true that it cannot be eradicated: it is true that the only way to conquer one passion is by the introduction of another; but it is equally true that, if we employ our rational faculties, we cannot fail of thus conquering our erroneous propensities. The maxims therefore are nugatory.
In the second sense, our passions are ambition, avarice, the love of power, the love of fame, envy, revenge and innumerable others. Miserable indeed would be our condition if we could only expel one bad passion by another of the same kind, and there was no way of rooting out delusion from the mind but by substituting another delusion in its place. But it has been demonstrated at large that this is not the case. Truth is not less powerful, or less friendly to ardent exertion, than error, and needs not fear its encounter. Falsehood is not, as such a principle would suppose, the only element in which the human mind can exist, so that, if the space which the mind occupies be too much rarefied and cleared, its existence or health will be in some degree injured. On the contrary, we need not fear any sinister consequences from the subversion of error, and introducing as much truth into the mind as we can possibly accumulate. All those notions by which we are accustomed to ascribe to anything a value which it does not really possess should be eradicated without mercy; and truth, a sound and just estimate of things, which is not less favorable to zeal or activity, should be earnestly and incessantly cultivated.
In the third sense of the word passion, as it describes the result of those circumstances which are common to the whole species, such as hunger and the propensity to the intercourse of the sexes, it seems sufficiently reasonable to say that no attempt ought to be made to eradicate them. But this sentiment was hardly worth the formality of a maxim. So far as these propensities ought to be conquered or restrained, there is no reason why this should not he effected by the due exercise of the understanding. From these illustrations it is sufficiently apparent that the care recommended to us not to extinguish or seek to extinguish our passions is founded in a confused or mistaken view of the subject.
Another maxim not inferior in reputation to those above recited is that of following nature. But the term nature here is still more loose and unintelligible than the term passion was before. If it be meant that we ought to accommodate ourselves to hunger and the other appetites which are common to our species, this is probably true. But these appetites, some of them in particular, lead to excess, and the mischief with which they are pregnant is to be corrected, not by consulting our appetites, but our reason. If it be meant that we should follow instinct, it has been proved that we have no instincts. The advocates of this maxim are apt to consider whatever now exists among mankind as inherent and perpetual, and to conclude that this is to be maintained, not in proportion as it can be shown to be reasonable, but because it is natural. Thus it has been said that man is naturally a religious animal, and for this reason, and not in proportion to our power of demonstrating the being of a God or the truth of Christianity, religion is to be maintained. Thus again it has been called natural that men should form themselves into immense tribes or nations, and go to war with each other. Thus persons of narrow views and observation regard everything as natural and right that happens, however capriciously or for however short a time, to prevail in the society in which they live. The only things which can be said to compose the nature or constitution of man are our external structure, which itself is capable of being modified with indefinite variety; the appetities and impressions growing out of that structure; and the capacity of combining ideas and inferring conclusions. The appetites common to the species we cannot wholly destroy: the faculty of reason it would be absurd systematically to counteract, since it is only by some sort of reasoning, bad or good, that we can so much as adopt any system. In this sense therefore no doubt we ought to follow nature, that is, to employ our understandings and increase our discernment. But, by conforming ourselves to the principles of our constitution in this respect, we most effectually exclude all following, or implicit assent. If we would fully comport ourselves in a manner correspondent to our properties and powers, we must bring everything to the standard of reason. Nothing must be admitted either as principle or precept that will not support this trial. Nothing must be sustained because it is ancient, because we have been accustomed to regard it as sacred, or because it has been unusual to bring its validity into question. Finally, if by following nature be understood that we must fix our preference upon things that will conduce to human happiness, in this there is some truth. But the truth it contains is extremely darkened by the phraseology in which it is couched. We must consider our external structure so far as relates to the mere question of our preservation. As to the rest, whatever will make a reasonable nature happy will make us happy; and our preference ought to be bestowed upon that species of pleasure which has most independence and most animation.
The corollaries respecting political truth, deducible from the simple proposition, which seems clearly established by the reasonings of the present chapter, that the voluntary actions of men are in all instances conformable to the deductions of their understanding, are of the highest importance. Hence we may infer what are the hopes and prospects of human improvement. The doctrine which may be founded upon these principles may perhaps best be expressed in the five following propositions: Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error: Sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so communicated: Truth is omnipotent: The vises and moral weakness of man are not invincible: Man is perfectible, or in other words susceptible of perpetual improvement.
These propositions will be found in part synonymous with each other. But the time of the enquirer will not be unprofitably spent in copiously clearing up the foundations of moral and political system. It is extremely beneficial that truth should be viewed on all sides, and examined under different aspects. The propositions are even little more than so many different modes of stating the principal topic of this chapter. But, if they will not admit each of a distinct train of arguments in its support, it may not however be useless to bestow upon each a short illustration.
The first of these propositions is so evident that it needs only be stated, in order to the being universally admitted. Is there anyone who can imagine that, when sound argument and sophistry are fairly brought into comparison, the victory can be doubtful? Sophistry may assume a plausible appearance, and contrive to a certain extent to bewilder the understanding. But it is one of the prerogatives of truth, to follow it in its mazes and strip it of disguise. Nor does any difficulty from this consideration interfere with the establishment of the present proposition. We suppose truth not merely to be exhibited, but adequately communicated; that is, in other words, distinctly apprehended by the person to whom it is addressed. In this case the victory is too sure to admit of being controverted by the most inveterate skepticism.
The second proposition is that sound reasoning and truth are capable of being adequately communicated by one man to another. This proposition may be understood of such communication, either as it affects the individual, or the species. First of the individual.
In order to its due application in this point of view, opportunity for the communication must necessarily be supposed. The incapacity of human intellect at present requires that this opportunity should be of long duration or repeated recurrence. We do not always know how to communicate all the evidence we are capable of communicating in a single conversation, and much less in a single instant. But, if the communicator be sufficiently master of his subject, and if the truth be altogether on his side, he must ultimately succeed in his undertaking. We suppose him to have sufficient urbanity to conciliate the good will, and sufficient energy to engage the attention, of the party concerned. In that case, there is no prejudice, no blind reverence for established systems, no false fear of the inferences to be drawn, that can resist him. He will encounter these one after the other, and he will encounter them with success. Our prejudices, our undue reverence, and imaginary fears, flow out of some views the mind has been induced to entertain; they are founded in the belief of some propositions. But every one of these propositions is capable of being refuted. The champion we describe proceeds from point to point; if in any his success have been doubtful, that he will retrace and put out of the reach of mistake; and it is evidently impossible that with such qualifications and such perseverance he should not ultimately accomplish his purpose.
Such is the appearance which this proposition assumes when examined in a loose and practical view. In strict consideration it will not admit of debate. Man is a rational being. If there be any man who is incapable of making inferences for himself, or of understanding, when stated in the most explicit terms, the inferences of another, him we consider as an abortive production, and not in strictness belonging to the human species. It is absurd therefore to say that sound reasoning and truth cannot be communicated by one man to another. Whenever in any case he fails, it is that he is not sufficiently laborious, patient and clear. We suppose of course the person who undertakes to communicate the truth really to possess it, and be master of his subject; for it is scarcely worth an observation to say that that which he has not himself he cannot communicate to another.
If truth therefore can be brought home to the conviction of the individual, let us see how it stands with the public or the world. Now in the first place, it is extremely clear that, if no individual can resist the force of truth, it can only be necessary to apply this proposition from individual to individual, and we shall at length comprehend the whole. Thus the affirmation in its literal sense is completely established.
With respect to the chance of success, this will depend, first, upon the precluding all extraordinary convulsions of nature, and after this upon the activity and energy of those to whose hands the sacred cause of truth may be entrusted. It is apparent that, if justice be done to its merits, it includes in it the indestructible germ of ultimate victory. Every new convert that is made to its cause, if he be taught its excellence as well as its reality, is a fresh apostle to extend its illuminations through a wider sphere. In this respect it resembles the motion of a falling body, which increases its rapidity in proportion to the squares of the distances. Add to which that when a convert to truth has been adequately informed it is barely possible that he should ever fail in his adherence; whereas error contains in it the principle of its own mortality. Thus the advocates of falsehood and mistake must continually diminish, and the well informed adherents of truth incessantly multiply.
It has sometimes been affirmed that, whenever a question is ably brought forward for examination, the decision of the human species must ultimately be on the right side. But this proposition is to be understood with allowances. Civil policy, magnificent emoluments and sinister motives may upon many occasions, by distracting the attention, cause the worse reason to pass as if it were the better. It is not absolutely certain that, in the controversy brought forward by Clarke and Whiston against the doctrine of the Trinity, or by Collins and Woolston against the Christian revelation, the innovators had altogether the worst of the argument. Yet fifty years after the agitation of these controversies, their effects could scarcely be traced, and things appeared on all sides as if the controversies had never existed. Perhaps it will be said that, though the effects of truth may be obscured for a time, they will break out in the sequel with double luster. But this at least depends upon circumstances. No comet must come in the meantime and sweep away the human species: no Attila must have it in his power once again to lead back the flood of barbarism to deluge the civilized world: and the disciples, or at least the books of the original champions must remain, or their discoveries and demonstrations must be nearly lost to the world.
The third of the propositions enumerated is that truth is omnipotent. This proposition, which is convenient for its brevity, must be understood with limitations. It would be absurd to affirm that truth, unaccompanied by the evidence which proves it to be such, or when that evidence is partially and imperfectly stated, has any such property. But it has sufficiently appeared from the arguments already adduced that truth, when adequately communicated, is, so far as relates to the conviction of the understanding, irresistible. There may indeed be propositions which, though true in themselves, may be beyond the sphere of human knowledge, or respecting which human beings have not yet discovered sufficient arguments for their support. In that case, though true in themselves, they are not truths to us. The reasoning by which they are attempted to be established is not sound reasoning. It may perhaps be found that the human mind is not capable of arriving at absolute certainty upon any subject of inquiry; and it must be admitted that human science is attended with all degrees of certainty, from the highest moral evidence to the slightest balance of probability. But human beings are capable of apprehending and weighing all these degrees; and to know the exact quantity of probability which I ought to ascribe to any proposition may be said to be in one sense the possessing certain knowledge. It would further be absurd, if we regard truth in relation to its empire over our conduct, to suppose that it is not limited in its operations by the faculties of our frame. It may be compared to a connoisseur who, however consummate be his talents, can extract from a given instrument only such tones as that instrument will afford. But, within these limits, the deduction which forms the principal substance of this chapter proves to us that whatever is brought home to the conviction of the understanding, so long as it is present to the mind, possesses an undisputed empire over the conduct. Nor will he who is sufficiently conversant with the science of intellect be hasty in assigning the bounds of our capacity. There are some things which the structure of our bodies will render us forever unable to effect; but in many cases the lines which appear to prescribe a term to our efforts will, like the mists that arise from a lake, retire further and further, the more closely we endeavor to approach them.
Fourthly, the vises and moral weakness of man are not invincible. This is the preceding proposition with a very slight variation in the statement. Vise and weakness are founded upon ignorance and error; but truth is more powerful than any champion that can be brought into the field against it; consequently truth has the faculty of expelling weakness and vise, and placing nobler and more beneficent principles in their stead.
Lastly, man is perfectible. This proposition needs some explanation.
By perfectible, it is not meant that he is capable of being brought to perfection. But the word seems sufficiently adapted to express the faculty of being continually made better and receiving perpetual improvement; and in this sense it is here to be understood. The term perfectible, thus explained, not only does not imply the capacity of being brought to perfection, but stands in express opposition to it. If we could arrive at perfection, there would be an end to our improvement. There is however one thing of great importance that it does imply: every perfection or excellence that human beings are competent to conceive, human beings, unless in cases that are palpably and unequivocally excluded by the structure of their frame, are competent to attain.
This is an inference which immediately follows from the omnipotence of truth. Every truth that is capable of being communicated is capable of being brought home to the conviction of the mind. Every principle which can be brought home to the conviction of the mind will infallibly produce a correspondent effect upon the conduct. If there were not something in the nature of man incompatible with absolute perfection, the doctrine of the omnipotence of truth would afford no small probability that he would one day reach it. Why is the perfection of man impossible?
The idea of absolute perfection is scarcely within the grasp of human understanding. If science were more familiarized to speculations of this sort, we should perhaps discover that the notion itself was pregnant with absurdity and contradiction.
It is not necessary in this argument to dwell upon the limited nature of the human faculties. We can neither be present to all places nor to all times. We cannot penetrate into the essences of things, or rather we have no sound and satisfactory knowledge of things external to ourselves, but merely of our own sensations. We cannot discover the causes of things, or ascertain that in the antecedent which connects it with the consequent, and discern nothing but their contiguity With what pretense7 can a being thus shut in on all sides lay claim to absolute perfection?
But, not to insist upon these considerations, there is one principle in the human mind which must forever exclude us from arriving at a close of our acquisitions, and confine us to perpetual progress. The human mind, so far as we are acquainted with it, is nothing else but a faculty of perception. All our knowledge, all our ideas, everything we possess as intelligent beings, comes from impression. All the minds that exist set out from absolute ignorance. They received first one impression, and then a second. As the impressions became more numerous, and were stored by the help of memory, and combined by the faculty of association, so the experience increased, and with the experience the knowledge, the wisdom, everything that distinguishes man from what we understand by a "clod of the valley." This seems to be a simple and incontrovertible history of intellectual being; and, if it be true, then as our accumulations have been incessant in the time that is gone, so, as long as we continue to perceive, to remember or reflect, they must perpetually increase.
1Objections have been started to the use of the word truth in this absolute construction, as if it implied in the mind of the writer the notion of something having an independent and separate existence, whereas nothing can be more certain than that truth, that is, affirmative and negative propositions, has strictly no existence but in the mind of him who utters or hears it. But these objections seem to have been taken up too hastily. It cannot be denied, that there are some propositions which are believed for a time and afterwards refuted; and others, such as most of the theorems of mathematics, and many of those of natural philosophy, respecting which there is no probability that they ever will be refuted. Every subject of inquiry is susceptible of affirmation and negation; and those propositions concerning it, which describe the real relations of things, may in a certain sense, whether we be or be not aware that they do so, be said to be true. Taken in this sense, truth is immutable. He that speaks of its immutability, does nothing more than predict with greater or less probability, and say "This is what I believe, and what all reasonable beings, till they shall fall short of me in their degree of informationm, will continue to believe."
2Book V, Chap. XV.
3The term motive is applicable in all cases where the regular operations of inanimate matter are superseded by the interference of intelligence. Whatever sensation or perception in the mind is capable of influencing this interference, is called motive. Motive therefore is applicable to the case of all actions originating in sensation or perception, whether voluntary or involuntary.
4Characteristics; Treatise IV., B, I., Part i., Paragraph 2.
5This distribution is in substance the same as that of Hartley; but is here introduced without any intention to adopt the peculiarities of his phraseology. Observations on Man, Chapter. I., Paragraph iii, Prop. 21.
6Milton: Paradise Lost, b., v.
7Book IV, Chap. VII.
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