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Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - Chapter 3


On the Distinction Between the Temporal and Spiritual Power - part of Sir Stephen's classic antithesis to John Stuart Mills' On Liberty


James Fitzjames Stephen

 Author Notes

Lawyer, professor and judge, principle draftee of the Criminal Code of Canada (1892), author of History of the Criminal Law (1883), Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873) and other works. The latter book has endured as the classic refutation of John Stuart Mills' On Liberty and the precepts of classical liberalism.

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Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: And Three Brief Essays
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 Essay - 1/1/1873

In the last chapter I more than once had to refer to the question of the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal power, or the spiritual and temporal order. It plays so large a part in discussions on this subject, that it will be worth while to examine it with some degree of attention.

I think it would not be unfair to state the common view upon the subject somewhat as follows:-- Life may be divided into two provinces, the temporal and the spiritual. In the temporal province are included all common affairs--war, commerce, inheritance; all that relates to a man's body and goods. Thought, feeling, opinion, religion, and the like form the spiritual province. These two provinces have usually been placed under separate governments. Kings, parliaments, lawyers, soldiers bear rule in the one; some sort of priests bear rule in the other. The recognition of this distinction and the practice of attaching great importance to it is one of the curious bonds of union between Positivists and Roman Catholics. It is also one of the favourite commonplaces of a large number of French political writers, and in particular it is the very foundation of the theories of Liberal Catholics, of those who try to reconcile the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church with modern notions about liberty.

If I understand them rightly, the Ultramontane party do not adopt this view, but take what to me at least appears a far more rational one. It might, I think, be expressed as follows:-- The spiritual and temporal power differ not in the province which they rule, but in the sanctions by which they rule it. Spiritual power means the power of the keys; power to open and shut; power in heaven, purgatory, and hell; possibly in some cases power to interfere in a supernatural manner with the common course of nature. Temporal power means power to deal with life and limb, goods, liberty, and reputation--all the hopes and fears of this visible world. Each of these may be so used as to affect both opinions and actions. A man may be excommunicated or may be imprisoned, either for theft or for heresy. The two powers exercise a concurrent jurisdiction over men's conduct. In a healthy state of things they ought to act in the same direction. In an unhealthy state of things, they will come into collision, and when they do so the stronger of the two forces will overcome the other. They proceed to say that the penalties which the spiritual power can inflict are infinitely heavier than those which the temporal power can inflict, which, if they are real, is obviously true. The final inference is that the Pope and his clergy are the rightful king and rulers of the whole world.

This argument is surely altogether unanswerable if its fundamental assumption is true; and the attempts of the Liberal Catholics to evade it by drawing a line, not between the sanctions of which the two powers dispose, but between the provinces over which they reign, are excusable only on the ground of their practical utility in the case of people who want an excuse for civilly ousting the priests from their position, and have not the moral courage to look them straight in the face and tell them the plain truth in plain words that their claims are unfounded.

That this is so is obvious from the following considerations. In the first place, human life forms a whole. Thought, motive, wish, intention each run into, and cannot be distinguished from, each other. Whatever the spirit or soul may be, it is not only one, but the ultimate type of unity from which we get the idea. It is the man himself as distinguished from his organs through which it acts; and the stream (so to speak) of its operations is uninterrupted from the first conception of a thought down to the outward act in which it culminates. Every act is spiritual. Every power is spiritual. Whether a man is saying his prayers or buying an estate, it is he the spirit or soul, whatever that may be, which prays or buys. Whether he hopes for heaven or for sensual pleasure, whether he fears hell hereafter or bodily pain here, it is he the spirit or soul which hopes or fears, and it is thus impossible to find either centre or circumference for the two spheres of which his life is said to consist, though it is easy to imagine any number of classes of hopes and fears by which the whole of it may be acted upon.

If we approach the matter from the other end and examine the attempts which have been made to draw the line between the two provinces, we are led back to the same result. No one has ever been able to draw the line upon any intelligible principle, or to decide who ought to draw it. To take prominent concrete cases, who can say whether laws about marriage, education, and ecclesiastical property belong to the spiritual or to the temporal province? They obviously belong to each. They go down to the very depths of the human soul. They affect the most important outward actions of every-day life. Again, if the two provinces exist, and if the temporal and spiritual powers are independent, it is obvious that the line between their territories must either be drawn by one of them, or must be settled by agreement between them. If either has the power of drawing it, that one is the superior of the other, and the other has only to take what its superior leaves to it. The result of this will be either that the Church will be the ruler of the world, and the State dependent on and subordinate to it, or that the State will be the ruler and the Church a voluntary association bound together by contracts dependent upon the laws of the State. In other words, the powers cannot be independent if either of them is to define its own limits. If the limits are settled by agreement (which has never yet been done in any part of the world), you have no longer two provinces divided by a natural boundary, but two conflicting powers making a bargain. You have not a Church and a State each with a province naturally its own, but two States or two Churches--call them which you please--of rather different characters coming into collision and making a treaty. This is a merely conventional and accidental arrangement, and does not answer, as according to the theory it ought, to a distinction founded on the nature of things.

For these reasons it appears to me that the Ultramontane view of the relation between Church and State is the true one; that the distinction is one of sanctions and not of provinces. If this is so, it is obvious that the distinction will not affect the question whether opinion is to be subject to coercion, but only the question as to the sort of coercion to which it is to be subject. The object, or one of the principal objects, for which the distinction between the temporal and spiritual province is attempted to be set up, is to secure a region for liberty. In the spiritual province it is argued there should be no temporal coercion. But opinion is in the spiritual province. Therefore, there should be no temporal coercion of opinion. If the whole of human life falls within each province, it is obvious that this argument cannot be applied.

The distinction of which I have thus denied the existence has a very prominent place in the writings of Positivists, and the attention which they have attracted in this country makes it desirable to examine their views on the subject. I ought to say that my notions as to their opinions are derived mainly from the writings of the English members of that body. I have read, I think, most of their writings, and have found in them, among other things, many statements about Comte's views on this and other matters. They have never persuaded me to go very deep into Comte himself. More reasons than I can even glance at here have led me to the conclusion that it would be an unprofitable investment of time to study his writings. [1] What the value of his speculations on natural science may have been I do not pretend to guess, but the writings of his disciples, still more the exposition given by them of his opinions, and perhaps, above all, their accounts of his life, give me a strong impression that his social and moral speculations will not ultimately turn out to be of much real value. I mention this because it is very possible that in discussing his views to a great extent at second hand I may not do them justice.

The writings, then, of his English disciples are full of discourse on the relations of the spiritual and the temporal power, which, as far as my experience goes, tend in every case to lower the importance of the latter and exalt the importance of the former. I think, too, that the distinction is used for the purpose of enforcing the universal duty of toleration on the grounds just stated. These views coming from Positivists are embarrassed by a difficulty which to me makes them unintelligible. I cannot understand what, thinking as they think, is the nature of the distinction.

What a believer in a future state of existence means by a spiritual power as distinguished from the temporal power is, as I have already shown, perfectly plain, The difficulty arises when we find the distinction insisted on by people whose leading doctrines are: that there is no future state at all, or that, if there is, we know nothing about it and have nothing to do with it; that such words as "spirit," "soul," and the like are the names of figments proper to what they describe as the metaphysical stage of thought. To find persons who think thus insisting on the distinction between spiritual and temporal power as inherent in the nature of things, is as if an atheist were to make the love of God the foundation of a system of morals, or as if a disciple of Locke were to found his philosophy upon a set of principles which he declared to be innate.

The nearest approach to a meaning which I can put upon the words as used by them is one which would make spiritual and temporal power correspond respectively to persuasion and force. The spiritual power is the power of those who appeal to and regulate public opinion. The temporal power is the power of those who make laws by which people are punished in body, goods, and reputation. If my knowledge of Comte is correct as far as it goes, his theory as to the spiritual power was that a certain class of specially well-instructed persons were to speak with the same sort of authority upon all the great questions of morals and politics as scientific bodies now speak with as to such subjects as astronomy, and that legislation and government, as we at present understand them, were to be carried on by an inferior class of persons in obedience to the principles so laid down for their guidance. I believe that he called these two classes respectively the spiritual and temporal powers, and justified his use of the expression by asserting that the real power of the clergy over men's minds when at its highest lay in the fact that they appealed to and represented public opinion as it then was, and not in the fact that they were supposed to have power over the future prospects of mankind, and even some degree of supernatural influence over their ordinary concerns.

I do not think this was true in fact, but, however that may be, the distinction thus expressed seems to me to be altogether groundless and misleading. To set up the temporal and spiritual powers thus understood as two distinct agents by which mankind are to be governed, each of which is to have its own sphere of action, and is entitled to be respected by the other so long as it keeps within that sphere, involves several errors, each of which separately is fatal to anything like an accurate view of the subject. The first error is that the theory entirely misconceives the relation to each other of persuasion and force. They are neither opposed to nor really altogether distinct from each other. They are alternative means of influencing mankind, which may be, constantly are, and obviously ought to be exercised by and upon the very same persons in respect of the very same matter. To confine any one who has to influence others in any capacity to the use of one of them to the exclusion of the other would be equivalent to destroying his influence. The old proverb which forbids the spurring of willing horses is of universal application. No one applies force when persuasion will do, and no sensible person applies force till persuasion has failed. Persuasion, indeed, is an indispensable condition to the application of force on any large scale. It is essential to the direction of force; nor is it possible for any practical purpose to separate the two. Whatever our spiritual power may be, nobody would deny that Parliament is in these islands the temporal power. It is only by and with the consent of Parliament that anybody can apply force in the ultimate form of legal punishment to any one else for any purpose. How much persuasion of every kind has to be employed before that consent can be obtained it, is needless to say. Force, therefore, is dependent upon persuasion, and cannot move without it. Under a system of parliamentary government this is a little more obvious than under other systems, but the same is true in all cases. No one ever yet ruled his fellow-men unless he had first, by some means or other, persuaded others to put their force at his disposal. No one ever yet used his force for any considerable time, or on any considerable scale, without more or less consultation as to the direction in which and the purposes for which it should be used.

Force thus implies persuasion acting in immediate conjunction with it. Persuasion, indeed, is a kind of force. It consists in showing a person the consequences of his actions. It is, in a word, force applied through the mind. Force, on the other hand, is a kind of persuasion. When a man is compelled to act in a particular way by the fear of legal punishment, he is persuaded by the argument, "If you do not act thus, you will be punished." The argument is extremely simple, and can be made intelligible by gestures even to some animals; but still it is an argument. On the other hand, when a priest says, "Vote as I tell you or you will be damned," he employs force just as much as if he held a pistol to his parishioner's head, though the arguments through which the force is applied are more elaborate than in the other case. A surgeon tells a patient that he will die unless he submits to a painful operation. Is this persuasion or force? No man would lose a limb if he were not forced to do so by the fear of losing what he values even more, but the surgeon would usually be said to persuade his patient, and not to compel him.

Take again this consideration. In almost every instance in which force and persuasion are employed, some persons are persuaded and others are forced to the very same line of conduct by the very same act. A father has two sons who will not learn their lessons. He points out to both the importance of industry, and tells both that if they are idle he will punish them. One works and is not punished, the other is idle and is punished. Each has been exposed to the same motives, and they may be said to have persuaded the one and forced the other. This is only an example in a single instance of the action of civil society upon individuals. It presents to every one a series of alternatives. On the one side, health, wealth, honour, all the enjoyments of life; on the other, poverty, disgrace, and, in extreme cases, legal punishment extending to death itself. This is the net result of the whole working of social institutions. They persuade in some directions, and they threaten in others. Some of those who are addressed listen to the persuasions; others do not listen to the threats, and have to take the consequences in their various degrees. But every man who lives in society is both persuaded and threatened by society in every action of his life.

Now, if the spiritual power is the power which works by persuasion, and the temporal power the power which works by force, it will follow that every society in the world is both spiritual and temporal; in other words, it will follow that the distinction is unfounded. Every law and every institution in the world will serve as an illustration of this. Take, for instance, the great institution of private property. Persuasion and force upon this matter cannot be divorced from each other. The laws by which property is secured both persuade and threaten. They enable the owner of the property to enjoy it, and so persuade people to acquire property. They threaten those who infringe the rights of property, and operate against them in the shape of force; but they are persuasion or force, they appeal to hope or to fear, according to the point of view from which they are regarded.

If the attempt to make the spiritual and the temporal power correspond with persuasion and force breaks down, the only other common distinction to which it can be assimilated is the distinction between theory and practice. There is no particular reason why this familiar distinction should not be called by its own name; but if the common distinction between matter and spirit is to be given up as exploded and unmeaning, there is no other meaning which can be assigned to the words temporal and spiritual. There is no doubt a certain sort of uniformity with common usage in speaking of general principles as spiritual and of their practical application to details as temporal, and if it gives people who do not believe in the distinction between spirit and matter great pleasure to use the words spiritual power and temporal power, this is, perhaps, the least fallacious way of doing it. The objection to such a mode of using language is that it is peculiarly likely to be misunderstood. To speak of theoretical and practical men as two powers opposed to, or at all events independent of, each other, is to revive all the old fallacies which are written in Bentham's book of fallacies about the opposition between theory and practice. The construction of theories and their application to practice ought to go hand in hand; they ought to check and correct each other, and ought never on any account to be permitted to be long or widely separated. The result of doing so is that practical men construct for themselves crude, shallow, and false theories which react on their practice, and that theoretical men construct theories which are very slightly connected with facts. A society in which the two classes should form distinct castes, the one being subordinated to the other, looks like nothing better than a pedantic dream.

The general result is that the distinction between spiritual and temporal power becomes unmeaning as soon as we explode the distinction between spirit and matter, time and eternity, the Church which has its sanctions in the one, and the State which has its sanctions in the other.

Why, then, it maybe asked, do Positivists attach such importance to this distinction? If it arises out of a mere confusion of ideas, why has it such attractions for them? The passages referred to above [2] have led me to doubt whether Comte really meant much more than that his followers would do well under existing circumstances to stand aloof from practical politics, and to confine themselves to teaching the theory of their creed. Speculative men constantly throw very obvious remarks of this kind into the form of enormously wide general assertions, as our own experience shows: but however this may be, all religious reformers like to pour new wine into old bottles. Instances are to be found in abundance in the history of speculation, and especially in the history of religious speculation, in which people have tried to show that all previous writers and thinkers were merely their precursors, and that these precursors were groping blindly after great truths, certain aspects of which they dimly recognized, though the full knowledge of them was reserved for the reformers themselves. "See how my theory reconciles and gives symmetry to all the great doctrines which you, my predecessors, who were all very well in your way, did not succeed in grasping," is the remark more or less emphatically made by many a reformer when he looks on his work and, behold, it is very good. This taste was strongly developed in Comte, and as on the one hand he had a deep admiration for certain sides of Catholicism, and on the other a conviction that the doctrine of a future state and of the distinctions between spirit and matter as usually understood were unfounded, he was obliged either to invent some new meaning for the distinction between spirit and matter and spiritual and temporal power, or to admit that the Roman Catholic Church was based upon a delusion. He preferred the first branch of the alternative, and attempted to give a theory about spirit and matter, spiritual and temporal, which should replace and complete the old one.

Of this theory his disciples, so far as I know (for I write under correction), have never given any distinct account, and the want of such an account is closely connected with the objection to their system, which has been continually made, and, so far as I am aware, has never been answered. The objection is the familiar one that they expect the clock to go when the weights are cut off. They would like to have a priesthood and a spiritual rule after they have denied the existence of the conditions which make these things possible. The subject is so important that it will bear a little remark.

All religions whatever, the professors of which aspire to rule mankind, have the same problem to grapple with. Each has an ideal of human nature to which its professors wish mankind in general to conform, or which they wish them, at all events, to admit to be entitled to reverence, whether they conform to it or not. Each of these religions finds a number of earnest and disinterested supporters, who are so much struck with its moral beauty and its inherent essential attractions that they become converts to it, as a lawyer would say, "upon the view." Christ would have many disciples and worshippers if all notion of individual profit or loss hereafter from his worship were at an end. The earliest Buddhists looked, and the purest Buddhists still look, for nothing better for themselves than final absorption or annihilation. The loving, trusting, believing spirit wants neither reward nor punishment. He falls in love with his creed as a man might fall in love with a woman, without hope, but beyond the possibility of recovery. Persons like these are the core and heart of every great religion.

They, form, however, a very small minority of the human race. The great mass of men is not capable of this kind of disinterested passion for anything whatever. On the other hand, they are open to offers. They can be threatened or bribed into a more or less nominal adherence to almost any creed which does not demand too much of them. Indeed, they like it rather than not; but some degree of consideration is, essential. The real leading motives of the mass of mankind are personal prudence and passion. Their centre is self; and every religion which means to govern men must recognize this fact and appeal to personal motives. It does not become a spiritual power in the true sense of the word power. It cannot, that is to say, impose itself in invitos until it has practically solved this problem. How Christianity, Mahommedanism, and Brahmanism solved it we all know. Even Buddhism had, after a time, to set up its hell; but to the worldly, the selfish, the indifferent, Positivism has nothing whatever to say. Considered as an organized religion, it is superfluous to those who like it, and impotent as against those who like it not, and its attempts to attach new meanings to the word "spiritual," to arrogate to its professors spiritual power, to sit in the seats of the priests whom it helps to dethrone, are mere fictions meant to conceal its fundamental impotence. No Positivist has ever yet been able to answer the question, How do you propose to deal with a person who either thinks in his heart or says boldly with his lips, "Tried by your standard, I am a bad and selfish man. I mean to be bad and selfish, and as for your spiritual power, I set it and you at defiance, and I shall take my own course in despite of you." All that the Positivist can say to such a person is, "For the present, take your own course. Our tastes differ. In time we shall be a majority, and then we shall persuade others to coerce you." The answer to this is, "I and people like me form the incalculable majority of mankind, and you will never persuade the mass of men or any mass of men till you can threaten them. Here and there a horse may be disposed to go by himself, but you cannot drive a coach without reins and a whip. Religious teachers who have no hold on the selfish must renounce the notion of being a power at all, either spiritual or temporal; for a power which can be defied with impunity is no power, and as for you, you will never be anything more than a Ritualistic Social Science Association."


1. I will give one reason as a specimen. In Comte's General View of Positivism (translated by Dr. Bridges) there occurs the following cardinal statement: "The great problem, then, is to raise social feeling by artificial effort to the position which in the natural condition is held by selfish feeling." (Gen. View, p. 98). To me this is like saying, The great object of mechanics is to alter the laws of gravitation. The following passages in the work quoted bear on the relation of the spiritual and temporal powers, but I find no definition of the words spiritual and temporal--pp. 81-4, 122-7, 144-8, 378-85.

2. See note 1.

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