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 Title

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - Chapter 4 - Part 2

 Synopsis

The Doctrine of Liberty in Its Application to Morals - part of Sir Stephen's classic antithesis to John Stuart Mills' On Liberty

Part 1 of this chapter

 Author

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.

Book by James Fitzjames Stephen
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Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: And Three Brief Essays
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 Essay - 1/1/1873

[Part 1 of this chapter]

I have already shown in what manner Mr. Mill deals with these topics. It is, I venture to think, utterly unsatisfactory. The impression it makes upon me is that he feels that such acts ought to be punished, and that he is able to reconcile this with his fundamental principles only by subtleties quite unworthy of him. Admit the relation for which I am contending between law and morals, and all becomes perfectly clear. All the acts referred to are unquestionably wicked. Those who do them are ashamed of them. They are all capable of being clearly defined and specifically proved or disproved, and there can be no question at all that legal punishment reduces them to small dimensions, and forces the criminals to carry on their practices with the greatest secrecy and precaution. In other words, the object of their suppression is good, and the means adequate. In practice this is subject to highly important qualifications, of which I will only say here that those who have due regard to the incurable weaknesses of human nature will be very careful how they inflict penalties upon mere vice, if even upon those who make a trade of promoting it, unless special circumstances call for their infliction. It is one thing however to tolerate vice so long as it is inoffensive, and quite another to give it a legal right not only to exist, but to assert itself in the face of the world as an "experiment in living" as good as another, and entitled to the same protection from law.

I now pass to the manner in which civil law may and does, and as I say properly, promote virtue and prevent vice. This is a subject so wide that I prefer indicating its nature by a few illustrations to attempting to deal with it systematically. It would, however, be easy to show that nearly every branch of civil law assumes the existence of a standard of moral good and evil which the public at large have an interest in maintaining, and in many cases enforcing--a proceeding which is diametrically opposed to Mr. Mill's fundamental principles.

The main subject with which law is conversant is that of rights and duties, and all the commoner and more important rights and duties presuppose some theory of morals. Contracts are one great source of rights and duties. Is there any country in the world the courts of which would enforce a contract which the Legislature regarded as immoral? and is there any country in which there would be much difficulty in specific cases in saying whether the object or the consideration of a contract was or was not immoral? Other rights are of a more general nature, and are liable to be violated by wrongs. Take the case of a man's right to his reputation, which is violated by defamation. How, without the aid of some sort of theory of morals, can it be determined whether the publication of defamatory matter is justifiable or not?

Perhaps the most pointed of all illustrations of the moral character of civil law is to be found in the laws relating to marriage and inheritance. They all proceed upon an essentially moral theory as to the relation of the sexes. Take the case of illegitimate children. A bastard is filius nullius--he inherits nothing, he has no claim on his putative father. What is all this except the expression of the strongest possible determination on the part of the Legislature to recognize, maintain, and favour marriage in every possible manner as the foundation of civilized society? It has been plausibly maintained that these laws bear hardly upon bastards, punishing them for the sins of their parents. It is not necessary to my purpose to go into this, though it appears to me that the law is right. I make the remark merely for the sake of showing to what great lengths the law does habitually go for the purpose of maintaining the most important of all moral principles, the principle upon which one great department of it is entirely founded. It is a case in which a good object is promoted by efficient and adequate means.

These illustrations are so strong that I will add nothing more to them from this branch of the law, but I may refer to a few miscellaneous topics which bear on the same subject. Let us take first the case of sumptuary laws. Mr. Mill's principles would no doubt condemn them, and, as they have gone out of fashion, it may be said, that unless my principle does so too, it is the worse for my principle. I certainly should not condemn sumptuary laws on the principle that the object in view is either bad or improper for legislation. I can hardly imagine a greater blessing to the whole community than a reduction in the lavish extravagance which makes life so difficult and laborious. It is difficult for me to look at a lace machine with patience. The ingenuity which went to devise it might have made human life materially happier in a thousand ways, and its actual effect has been to enable a great number of people to wear an imitation of an ornament which derives what little merit it has principally from its being made by hand. If any one could practically solve the problem of securing the devotion of the higher forms of human ingenuity to objects worthy of them, he would be an immense benefactor to his species. Life, however, has become so complicated, vested interests are so powerful and so worthy of respect, it is so clear that the enforcement of any conceivable law upon such a subject would be impossible, that I do not think any one in these days would be found to propose one. In a simpler age of the world and in a smaller community such laws may have been very useful. The same remarks apply to laws as to the distribution of property and to the regulation of trade.

Laws relating to education and to military service and the discipline of the army have a moral side of the utmost importance. Mr. Mill would be the first to admit this; indeed, in several passages of his book he insists on "the fact that society has complete control over the rising generation as a reason why it should not coerce adults into morality. This surely is the very opposite of the true conclusion. How is it possible for society to accept the position of an educator unless it has moral principles on which to educate? How, having accepted that position and having educated people up to a certain point, can it draw a line at which education ends and perfect moral indifference begins? When a private man educates his family, his superiority over them is founded principally on his superior age and experience; and as this personal superiority ceases, the power which is founded upon it gradually ceases also. Between society at large and individuals the difference is of another kind. The fixed principles and institutions of society express not merely the present opinions of the ruling part of the community, but the accumulated results of centuries of experience, and these constitute a standard by which the conduct of individuals may be tried, and to which they are in a variety of ways, direct and indirect, compelled to conform. This, I think, is one of the meanings which may be attached to the assertion that education never ceases. As a child grows into a man, and as a young man grows into an old man, he is brought under the influence of successive sets of educators, each of whom sets its mark upon him. It is no uncommon thing to see aged parents taught by their grown-up children lessons learned by the children in their intercourse with their own generation. All of us are continually educating each other, and in every instance this is and must be a process at once moral and more or less coercive.

As to Mr. Mill's doctrine that the coercive influence of public opinion ought to be exercised only for self-protective purposes, it seems to me a paradox so startling that it is almost impossible to argue against it. A single consideration on the subject is sufficient to prove this. The principle is one which it is simply impossible to carry out. It is like telling a rose that it ought to smell sweet only for the purpose of affording pleasure to the owner of the ground in which it grows. People form and express their opinions on each other, which, collectively, form public opinion, for a thousand reasons; to amuse themselves; for the sake of something to talk about; to gratify this or that momentary feeling; but the effect of such opinions, when formed, is quite independent of the grounds of their formation. A man is tried for murder, and just escapes conviction. People read the trial from curiosity; they discuss it for the sake of the discussion; but if, by whatever means, they are brought to think that the man was in all probability guilty, they shun his society as they would shun any other hateful thing. The opinion produces its effect in precisely the same way whatever was its origin.

The result of these observations is that both law and public opinion do in many cases exercise a powerful coercive influence on morals, for objects which are good in the sense explained above, and by means well calculated to attain those objects, to a greater or less extent at a not inadequate expense. If this is so, I say law and public opinion do well, and I do not see how either the premises or the conclusion are to be disproved.

Of course there are limits to the possibility of useful interference with morals, either by law or by public opinion; and it is of the highest practical importance that these limits should be carefully observed. The great leading principles on the subject are few and simple, though they cannot be stated with any great precision. It will be enough to mention the following:

  1. Neither legislation nor public opinion ought to be meddlesome. A very large proportion of the matters upon which people wish to interfere with their neighbours are trumpery little things which are of no real importance at all. The busybody and world-betterer who will never let things alone, or trust people to take care of themselves, is a common and a contemptible character. The commonplaces directed against these small creatures are perfectly just, but to try to put them down by denying the connection between law and morals is like shutting all light and air out of a house in order to keep out gnats and blue-bottle flies.
  2. Both legislation and public opinion, but especially the latter, are apt to be most mischievous and cruelly unjust if they proceed upon imperfect evidence. To form and express strong opinions about the wickedness of a man whom you do not know, the immorality or impiety of a book you have not read, the merits of a question on which you are uninformed, is to run a great risk of inflicting a great wrong. It is hanging first and trying afterwards, or more frequently not trying at all. This, however, is no argument against hanging after a fair trial.
  3. Legislation ought in all cases to be graduated to the existing level of morals in the time and country in which it is employed. You cannot punish anything which public opinion, as expressed in the common practice of society, does not strenuously and unequivocally condemn. To try to do so is a sure way to produce gross hypocrisy and furious reaction. To be able to punish, a moral majority must be overwhelming. Law cannot be better than the nation in which it exists, though it may and can protect an acknowledged moral standard, and may gradually be increased in strictness as the standard rises. We punish, with the utmost severity, practices which in Greece and Rome went almost uncensored. It is possible that a time may come when it may appear natural and right to punish adultery, seduction, or possibly even fornication, but the prospect is, in the eyes of all reasonable people, indefinitely remote, and it may be doubted whether we are moving in that direction.
  4. Legislation and public opinion ought in all cases whatever scrupulously to respect privacy. To define the province of privacy distinctly is impossible, but it can be described in general terms. All the more intimate and delicate relations of life are of such a nature that to submit them to unsympathetic observation, or to observation which is sympathetic in the wrong way, inflicts great pain, and may inflict lasting moral injury. Privacy may be violated not only by the intrusion of a stranger, but by compelling or persuading a person to direct too much attention to his own feelings and to attach too much importance to their analysis. The common usage of language affords a practical test which is almost perfect upon this subject. Conduct which can be described as indecent is always in one way or another a violation of privacy.

There is one perfect illustration of this, of which may say a few words. It is the case of the confessional and casuistry generally. So far as I have been able to look into the writings of casuists, their works appear to contain a spiritual penal code, in which all the sins of act and thought, of intention and imagination, which it is possible for men to commit, are described with legal minuteness and with specific illustrations, and are ranged under the two heads of mortal and venial, according as they subject the sinner to eternal damnation or only to purgatory. Nothing can exceed the interest and curiosity of some of the discussions conducted in these strange works, though some of them (by no means so large a proportion as popular rumour would suggest) are revolting. So far as my observation has gone, I should say that nothing can be more unjust than the popular notion that the casuists explained away moral obligations. Escobar in particular (Pascal's bete noire) gives me rather the impression of a sort of half-humorous simplicity.

The true objection to the whole system, and the true justification of the aversion with which it has been regarded, is that it is perhaps the greatest intrusion upon privacy, the most audacious and successful invasion by law of matters which lie altogether out of the reach of law, recorded in history. Of course if the postulate on which it is founded is true--if, in fact, there is a celestial penal code which classifies as felonies or misdemeanours punishable respectively with hell or purgatory all human sins---and if priests have the power of getting the felonies commuted into misdemeanours by confession and absolution--there is no more to be said; but this supposition need not be seriously considered. It is, I think, impossible to read the books in question without feeling convinced that a trial in a court which administers such laws upon evidence supplied exclusively by the criminal must be either a mere form, a delusion of a very mischievous kind, or a process which would destroy all the self-respect of the person submitted to it and utterly confuse all his notions of right and wrong, good and evil. That justice should be done without the fullest possible knowledge of every fact connected with every transgression is impossible. That every such fact should be recalled, analyzed, dwelt upon, weighed and measured, without in a great measure renewing the evil of the act itself, and blunting the conscience as to similar acts in future, seems equally impossible. That any one human creature should ever really strip his soul stark naked for the inspection of any other, and be able to hold up his head afterwards, is not, I suppose, impossible, because so many people profess to do it; but to lookers-on from the outside it is inconceivable.

The inference which I draw from this illustration is that there is a sphere, none the less real because it is impossible to define its limits, within which law and public opinion are intruders likely to do more harm than good. To try to regulate the internal affairs of a family, the relations of love or friendship, or many other things of the same sort, by law or by the coercion of public opinion is like trying to pull an eyelash out of a man's eye with a pair of tongs. They may put out the eye, but they will never get hold of the eyelash.

These, I think, are the principal forms in which society can and actually does promote virtue and restrain vice. It is impossible to form any estimate of the degree in which it succeeds in doing so, but it may perhaps be said that the principal importance of what is done in this direction by criminal law is that in extreme cases it brands gross acts of vice with the deepest mark of infamy which can be impressed upon them, and that in this manner it protects the public and accepted standard of morals from being grossly and openly violated. In short, it affirms in a singularly emphatic manner a principle which is absolutely inconsistent with and contradictory to Mr. Mill's--the principle, namely, that there are acts of wickedness so gross and outrageous that, self-protection apart, they must be prevented as far as possible at any cost to the offender, and punished, if they occur, with exemplary severity.

As for the influence of public opinion upon virtue and vice, it is incalculably great, but it is difficult to say much as to its extent, because its influence is indefinite, and is shown in an infinite variety of ways. It must also be observed that, though far more powerful and minute than the influence of law, it is infinitely less well instructed. It is also exceedingly liable to abuse, for public opinion is multiform, and may mean the gossip of a village or the spite of a coterie, as well as the deliberate judgment of a section of the rational part of mankind. On the other hand, its power depends on its nature and on the nature of the person on whom it acts. A calm, strong, and rational man will know when to despise and when to respect it, though no rules can be laid down on the subject. It is, however, clear that this much may be said of it in general. If people neither formed nor expressed any opinions on their neighbours' conduct except in so far as that conduct affected them personally, one of the principal motives to do well and one of the principal restraints from doing ill would be withdrawn from the world.

I have now said what I had to say on the action of law and of public opinion in regard to the encouragement of virtue and the prevention of vice; and I hope I have shown that the object is one which they can and do promote in a variety of ways, the expense of which, if indeed it is to be regarded as an expense at all, is by no means disproportioned to the importance of the object in view.

Before taking leave of this part of the subject, I will make some observations upon a topic closely connected with it--I mean the compulsion which is continually exercised by men over each other in the sternest of all possible shapes--war and conquest. The effects of these processes upon all that interests men as such can hardly be overrated. War and conquest determine all the great questions of politics and exercise a nearly decisive influence in many cases upon religion and morals. We are what we are because Holland and England in the sixteenth century defeated Spain, and because Gustavus Adolphus and others successfully resisted the Empire in Northern Germany. Popular prejudice and true political insight agree in feeling and thinking that the moral and religious issues decided at Sadowa and Sedan were more important than the political issues. Here, then, we have compulsion on a gigantic scale producing vast and durable political, moral, and religious effects. Can its good and evil, its right and wrong, be measured by the single simple principle that it is good when required for purposes of self-protection, otherwise not?

I have more than once referred in passing to this great question. I have already pointed out in general terms the practical impossibility of applying Mr. Mill's principle to it. The preceding observations enable me to enter upon it more fully. First, then, I would observe that, as has already been shown, struggles in different shapes are inseparable from life itself as long as men are interested in each other's proceedings, and are actuated by conflicting motives and views. The great art of life lies not in avoiding these struggles, but in conducting them with as little injury as may be to the combatants, who are, after all, rather friends than enemies, and without attaching an exaggerated importance to the object of contention. In short, toleration is in its proper sphere so long as its object is to mitigate inevitable struggles. It becomes excessive and irrational if and in so far as it aims at the complete suppression of these struggles, and so tends to produce a state of indifference and isolation, which would be the greatest of all evils if it could be produced.

In a very large proportion of cases--it may perhaps be said in the great majority of cases--these conflicts can be carried on without resorting to physical force. In each society taken by itself the class of cases in which the use of physical force is necessary is determined by the range of criminal law, and the principle that criminal law ought to be employed only for the prevention of acts of force or fraud which injure others than the agent may be accepted as a rough practical rule, which may generally be acted upon, though, as I have shown, it is no more than a practical rule, and even in that character is subject to numerous exceptions.

When, however, we come to consider the relations of independent nations to each other, a totally different set of considerations present themselves. Nations have no common superior. Their relations do not admit of being defined with the accuracy which the application of criminal law requires, nor if they were so defined would it be possible to specify or to inflict the sanctions of criminal law. The result of this is that nations always do consider for themselves in every particular case as it arises how their interests are to be asserted and protected, and whether or not at the expense of war. Even in the case of such references to arbitration as we have lately seen this is true. The arbitrators derive their whole authority from the will of the parties, and their award derives its authority from the same source.

Such being the relations between nation and nation, all history, and especially all modern history, shows that what happens in one nation affects other nations powerfully and directly. Indeed, the question what a nation is to be--how much or how little territory how many or how few persons it is to comprehend--depends largely on the state of other nations. A territory more or less compact, inhabited by a population more or less homogeneous, is what we mean by a nation; but how is it to be determined where the lines are to be drawn? Who is to say whether the Rhine or the Vosges is to divide France from Germany?--whether the English and the Welsh, the Scotch and the Irish, are or are not homogeneous enough to form one body politic? To these questions one answer only can be truly given, and that is, Force, in the widest sense of the word, must decide the question. By this I mean to include moral, intellectual, and physical force, and the power and attractiveness of the beliefs and ideas by which different nations arc animated. All great wars are to a greater or less extent wars of principle and sentiment: all great conquests embrace more or less of a moral element. Given such ideas as those of Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century suddenly seizing upon the nations of Europe, religious wars were inevitable, and in estimating their character we must take into account not merely the question, Who was on the offensive? Who struck the first blow? but much more the question, Which of the conflicting theories of life, which of the opposing principles brought into collision, was the noblest, the truest, the best fitted for the development of the powers of human nature, most in harmony with the facts which surround and constitute human life?

The most pointed and instructive modern illustration of this that can possibly be given is supplied by the great American civil war. Who, looking at the matter dispassionately, can fail to perceive the vanity and folly of the attempt to decide the question between the North and the South by lawyers' metaphysics about the true nature of sovereignty or by conveyancing subtleties about the meaning of the Constitution and the principles on which written documents ought to be interpreted? You might as well try to infer the fortunes of a battle from the shape of the firearms. The true question is, What was the real gist and essence of the dispute? What were the two sides really fighting for? Various answers may be given to these questions which I need neither specify nor discuss, but the answer to them which happens to be preferred, will, I think, settle conclusively the question which way the sympathies of the person who accepts that answer should go.

It seems, then, that compulsion in its most formidable shape and on the most extensive scale the compulsion of war is one of the principles which lie at the root of national existence. It determines whether nations are to be and what they are to be. It decides what men shall believe, how they shall live, in what mould their religion, law, morals, and the whole tone of their lives shall be cast. It is the ratio allima not only of kings, but of human society in all its shapes. It determines precisely, for one thing, how much and how little individual liberty is to be left to exist at any specific time and place.

From this great truth flow many consequences, some of which I have already referred to. They may all be summed up in this one, that power precedes liberty--that liberty, from the very nature of things, is dependent upon power; and that it is only under the protection of a powerful, well-organized, and intelligent government that any liberty can exist at all.

I will not insist further upon this, but I would point out that the manner in which war is conducted is worthy of much greater attention than it has received, as illustrating the character and limits of the struggles of civil life. The points to be noticed are two. In the first place, in war defeat after fair fight inflicts no disgrace, and the cheerful acceptance of defeat is in many cases the part of honourable and high-spirited men. Not many years ago an account was published of a great review held by the Emperor of Russia. Schamyl, who had so long defied him in the Caucasus, was said to have come forward and declared that as the Emperor had had no more obstinate enemy, so he should now have no more faithful subject than himself, that he saw that it was God's will that Russia should rule, and that he knew how to submit himself to the will of God. If the story was true and the speech sincere, it was the speech of a wise, good, and brave man.

In the second place, though war is the verv sternest form of coercion which can be devised, and though the progress of civilization makes wars more and more coercive as time goes on, there is at all times some recognition of the principle that they are not to be carried beyond certain bounds--a principle which continually tends to assert itself with increasing vigour and distinctness. The laws of war, as they are called, show that even in that extreme case of collision of interests there are ties of good feeling which lie deeper than the enmity, and are respected in spite of it. War is the ultimate limitation upon freedom. From war downwards to the most friendly discussion on a question which must ultimately be decided one way or another, there is an infinite series of degrees each of which differs from the rest, and each of which constitutes a distinct shade of coercion, a definite restraint upon liberty. In most of these instances anything which can be described as self-protection plays an inappreciably small part, if it plays any.

So far I have been considering the theory about liberty advanced by Mr. Mill, who is beyond all comparison the most influential and also the most reasonable of its advocates--I might say its worshippers. Mr. Mill, however, is far too rational to be taken as an exponent of the popular sentiment upon the subject, and upon this popular sentiment I should like to make some observations. It is always difficult to criticize sentiments, because they are so indeterminate and shifting that to argue against them is like firing a gun at a cloud. The words "liberty" and "freedom" are used by enthusiastic persons in all sorts of ways. Freedom sometimes means simply victory. It sometimes means a government which puts the restraints in the right place, and leaves men free to do well. This is obviously the Freedom of which Mr. Tennyson finely speaks as the

Grave mother of majestic works

From her isle altar gazing down,

Who godlike grasps the triple forks

And kinglike wears the crown.

Freedom often means authority, as when Roman Catholic archbishops talk of the freedom or liberty of the Church, and when Lord Clarendon (I think) speaks of the kings of England as being "as free and absolute as any kings in the world."

No way of using the word, however, is so common as when it is used to signify popular government. People who talk of liberty mean, as a general rule, democracy or some kind of government which stands rather nearer to democracy than the one under which they are living. This, generally speaking, is the Continental sense of the word. Now democracy has, as such, no definite or assignable relation to liberty. The degree in which the governing power interferes with individuals depends upon the size of the country, the closeness with which people are packed, the degree in which they are made conscious by actual experience of their dependence upon each other, their national temper, and the like. The form of the government has very little to do with the matter.

It would, of course, be idle to suppose that you can measure the real importance of the meaning of a popular cry by weighing it in logical scales. To understand the popular enthusiasm about liberty, something more is wanted than the bare analysis of the word. In poetry and popular and pathetic language of every kind liberty means both more and less than the mere absence of restraint. It means the absence of those restraints which the person using the words regards as injurious, and it generally includes more or less distinctly a positive element as well--namely, the presence of some distinct original power acting unconstrainedly in a direction which the person using the word regards as good. When used quite generally, and with reference to the present state of the political and moral world, liberty means something of this sort. The forward impulses, the energies of human nature are good; they were regarded until lately as bad, and they are now in the course of shaking off trammels of an injurious kind which had in former ages been imposed upon them. The cry for liberty, in short, is a general condemnation of the past and an act of homage to the present in so far as it differs from the past, and to the future in so far as its character can be inferred from the character of the present.

If it be asked, What is to be thought of liberty in this sense of the word, the answer would obviously involve a complete discussion of all the changes in the direction of the diminution of authority which have taken place in modern times, and which may be expected hereafter as their consequence. Such an inquiry, of course, would be idle, to say nothing of its being impossible. A few remarks may, however, be made on points of the controversy which are continually left out of sight.

The main point is that enthusiasm for liberty in this sense is hardly compatible with anything like a proper sense of the importance of the virtue of obedience, discipline in its widest sense. The attitude of mind engendered by continual glorification of the present time, and of successful resistance to an authority assumed to be usurped and foolish, is almost of necessity fatal to the recognition of the fact that to obey a real superior, to submit to a real necessity and make the best of it in good part, is one of the most important of all virtues--a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting. Every one would admit this when stated in general terms, but the gift of recognizing the necessity for acting upon the principle when the case actually arises is one of the rarest in the world. To be able to recognize your superior, to know whom you ought to honour and obey, to see at what point resistance ceases to be honourable, and submission in good faith and without mental reservation becomes the part of courage and wisdom, is supremely difficult. All that can be said about these topics on the speculative side goes a very little way. It is like the difficulty which every one who has had any experience of the administration of justice will recognize as its crowning difficulty, the difficulty of knowing when to believe and when to disbelieve a direct assertion on a matter of importance made by a person who has the opportunity of telling a lie if he is so minded.

In nearly every department of life we are brought at last by long and laborious processes, which due care will usually enable us to perform correctly, face to face with some ultimate problem where logic, analogy, experiment, all the apparatus of thought, fail to help us, but on the value of our answer to which their value depends, The questions, Shall I or shall I not obey this man? accept this principle? submit to this pressure? and the like, are of the number. No rule can help towards their decision; but when they are decided, the answer determines the whole course and value of the life of the man who gave it. Practically, the effect of the popularity of the commonplaces about liberty has been to raise in the minds of ordinary people a strong presumption against obeying any body, and by a natural rebound to induce minds of another class to obey the first person who claims their obedience with sufficient emphasis and self-confidence. It has shattered to pieces most of the old forms in which discipline was a recognized and admitted good, and certainly it has not produced many new ones.

The practical inference from this is that people who have the gift of using pathetic language ought not to glorify the word "liberty" as they do, but ought, as far as possible, to ask themselves before going into ecstasies over any particular case of it, Who is left at liberty to do what, and what is the restraint from which he is liberated? By forcing themselves to answer this question distinctly, they will give their poetry upon the subject a much more definite and useful turn than it has at present.

Of course these remarks apply, as all such remarks must, in opposite directions. When liberty is exalted as such, we may be sure that there will always be those who are opposed to liberty as such, and who take pleasure in dwelling upon the weak side of everything which passes by the name. These persons should ask themselves the converse questions before they glorify acts of power: Who is empowered to do what, and by what means? or, if the words chosen for eulogy are "order" and "society," it would be well for them to ask themselves, What order and what sort of society it is to which their praises refer?

In illustration of these remarks, I would refer to the works of two remarkable writers, Mr. Buckle and De Maistre. They form as complete a contrast as could be found in literary history. Each is a Manichee--a believer in Arimanes and Oromasdes, a good principle and a bad one; but Mr. Buckle's Arimanes, the past, the backward impulse, is De Maistre's Oromasdes; and De Maistre's Arimanes, the present, the forward impulse, is Mr. Buckle's Oromasdes. Mr. Buckle generalizes all history as consisting in a perpetual struggle between the spirit of scepticism, which is progress and civilization, and the spirit of protection, which is darkness and error. De Maistre does not draw out his opposition so pointedly; but in his opinion the notion of progress, the belief that the history of mankind is the history of a series of continual changes for the better, from barbarism up to modern civilization, is the erreur mere of these days. His own belief (very cloudily expressed) is that in ancient times men had a direct vision of truth of all sorts, and were able to take the a priori road to knowledge. It is impossible in a few lines to do, or attempt to do, justice to De Maistre's strange and versatile genius. For the purpose of my illustration, therefore, I will confine myself to Mr. Buckle, whose works are much better known in this country and whose theories are more definite. I mention De Maistre merely for the sake of the remark that if it were worth while to do so, the converse of the observations which I am about to make on Mr. Buckle might be made upon him.

It seems to me, then, that Mr. Buckle's ardent advocacy of scepticism and his utter condemnation of what he calls the spirit of protection is much as if a man should praise the centrifugal at the expense of the centripetal force, and revile the latter as a malignant power striving to drag the earth into the sun. It would be just as reasonable to reply, No, you, the centrifugal force, are the eternal enemy. You want to hurl the world madly through space into cold and darkness, and would do it, too, if our one friend the centripetal force did not persist in drawing it back towards the source of light and heat. The obvious truth is that the earth's orbit is a resultant, and that whatever credit it deserves must be rateably divided between its two constituent elements.

It surprises me that people should be enthusiastic either about the result or about either of the causes which have contributed to its production. As to the general result, what is it? Say, roughly, three hundred million Chinese, two hundred million natives of India, two hundred million Europeans and North Americans, and a miscellaneous hundred million or two Central Asians, Malays, Borneans, Javanese, South Sea Islanders, and all sorts and conditions of blacks; and, over and above all the rest, the library at the British Museum. This is the net result of an indefinitely long struggle between the forces of men, and the weights of various kinds in the attempt to move which these forces display themselves. Enthusiasts for progress are to me strange enough. "Glory, glory: the time is coming when there will be six hundred million Chinese, five hundred million Hindoos, four hundred million Europeans, and Heaven only knows how many hundred million blacks of various shades, and when there will be two British Museums, each with a library. 'Ye unborn ages, crowd not on my soul.'" This appears to me a very strange psalm, but it becomes infinitely stranger when a fiercer note is sounded: "Yea, verily, and but for the accursed restraints imposed by tyrants on the powers of man, there would now have been eight hundred million Chinese, seven hundred million Hindoos, and so on in proportion, all alive and kicking, and making this world of ours like a Stilton cheese run away with by its own mites." To the first enthusiast I feel inclined to say, There is no accounting for tastes. To the second, You are unjust. Your cheese-mites owe their existence not merely to impulse, but to that which resisted it. The cheese confined while it fed them. Disembody force, divorce it from matter and friction, in a word, set it free, and it ceases to exist. It is a chimera bombinans in vacuo.

If we apply these generalities to the more limited and yet, in comparison to our capacity, boundless field of political history, it surely needs little proof that, whatever our present condition may be worth, we are what we are (to use Mr. Buckle's terms) by virtue of protection as well as by virtue of scepticism. If a stream of water flows down a hill, the amount of fluid delivered at a given point depends upon the friction of the sides and bottom of the channel as well as upon the force of gravitation. It is quite true that since the seventeenth century--to go no farther back--the Puritan, the Whig, and the Radical have been more successful than the Cavalier, the Tory, and the Conservative; but the existing state of society is the result of each set of efforts, not of either set by itself, and certainly not the result of the forward effort by itself. Unless a man is prepared to say that all the existing evils of society are due to our having moved too slowly, that the clock is wrong solely because it has a pendulum, and that to take off the pendulum and allow the weights to pull the wheels round with no restriction at all will ensure universal happiness--he has no right to regard the forward impulse as an unmixed good. It appears to me that the erreur mere, so to speak, of most modern speculations on political subjects lies in the fact that nearly every writer is an advocate of one out of many forces, which, as they act in different directions, must and do come into collision and produce a resultant according to the direction of which life is prosperous or otherwise.

The same doctrine may be stated in less abstract terms as follows:- There are a number of objects the attainment of which is desirable for men, and which collectively may be called good, happiness, or whatever else you please so long as some word is used which sufficiently marks the fact that there is a real standard towards which human conduct must be directed, if the wishes which prompt us to action, and which are the deepest part of our nature--which are, indeed, our very selves in the attitude of wishing--are to be satisfied. These objects are very numerous. They cannot be precisely defined, and they are far from being altogether consistent with each other. Health is one of them. Wealth, to the extent of such a command of material things as enables men to use their faculties vigorously, is another. Knowledge is a third. Fit opportunities for the use of the faculties is a fourth. Virtue, the state in which given sets of faculties are so related to each other as to produce good results (whatever good may mean), is the most important and the most multiform and intricate of all. Reasonable men pursue these objects or some of them openly and avowedly. They find that they can greatly help or impede each other in the pursuit by exciting each other's hopes or fears, by promising payment for this and threatening punishment for that, and by leaving other matters to individual taste. This last department of things is the department of liberty in the proper sense of the word. Binding promises and threats always imply restraint. Thus the question, How large ought the province of liberty to be? is really identical with this: In what respects must men influence each other if they want to attain the objects of life, and in what respects must they leave each other uninfluenced?

If the object is to criticize and appreciate historical events, the question between liberty and law, scepticism and protection, and the like, will have to be stated thus: What are the facts? Which of them were caused, and to what extent, by the influence of men on each other's hopes and fears? Which of them were caused by the unrestrained and unimpelled impulses of individuals towards particular objects? How far did each class of results contribute to the attainment of the objects of life? To ask these questions is to show that they cannot be answered. Discussions about liberty are in truth discussions about a negation. Attempts to solve the problems of government and society by such discussions arc like attempts to discover the nature of light and heat by inquiries into darkness and cold. The phenomenon which requires and will repay study is the direction and nature of the various forces, individual and collective, which in their combination or collision with each other and with the outer world make up human life. If we want to know what ought to be the size and position of a hole in a water pipe, we must consider the nature of water, the nature of pipes and the objects for which the water is wanted; but we shall learn very little by studying the nature of holes. Their shape is simply the shape of whatever bounds them. Their nature is merely to let the water pass, and it seems to me that enthusiasm about them is altogether thrown away.

The result is that discussions about liberty are either misleading or idle, unless we know who wants to do what, by what restraint he is prevented from doing it, and for what reasons it is proposed to remove that restraint.

Bearing these explanations in mind, I may now observe that the democratic motto involves a contradiction. If human experience proves anything at all, it proves that, if restraints are minimized, if the largest possible measure of liberty is accorded to all human beings, the result will not be equality but inequality reproducing itself in a geometrical ratio. Of all items of liberty, none is either so important or so universally recognized as the liberty of acquiring property. It is difficult to see what liberty you leave to a man at all if you restrict him in this matter. When Lord Byron called Sir Walter Scott "Apollo's mercenary son," Sir Walter replied, "God help the bear who may not lick his own paws." All private property springs from labour for the benefit of the labourer; and private property is the very essence of inequality.

Assume that every man has a right to be on an equality with every other man because all are so closely connected together that the results of their labour should be thrown into a common stock out of which they are all to be maintained, and I you certainly give a very distinct sense to Equality and Fraternity, but you must absolutely exclude Liberty. Experience has proved that this is not merely a theoretical but also a practical difficulty. It is the standing and insuperable obstacle to all socialist schemes, and it explains their failure.

The only manner in which the famous Republican device can be rendered at once fully intelligible and quite consistent is by explaining Liberty to mean Democracy. The establishment of a Democratic government, which proposes to recognize the universal brotherhood of mankind by an equal distribution of property, is as definite a scheme as it is possible to imagine, and when the motto is used in real earnest and not as a piece of meretricious brag, this is what it does mean. When so used the words "or death" should be added to the motto to give it perfect completeness. Put together and interpreted in the manner stated, these five words constitute a complete political system, describing with quite sufficient distinctness for all practical purposes the nature of the political constitution to be established, the objects to which it is to be directed, and the penalty under which its commands are to be obeyed. It is a system which embodies in its most intense form all the bitterness and resentment which can possibly be supposed to be stored up in the hearts of the most disappointed envious and ferociously revengeful members of the human race against those whom they regard as their oppressors. It is the poor saying to the rich, We are masters now by the establishment of liberty, which means democracy, and as all men are brothers, entitled to share and share alike in the common stock, we will make you disgorge or we will put you to death. It is needless to say more about this doctrine than that those who are attracted by the Republican motto would do well to ask themselves whether they understand by it anything short of this and, if so, where and on what principle they draw the line. I think any one who has mind enough to understand the extreme complexity of the problem will see that the motto contributes either far too much or else nothing whatever towards its solution.

I have now said what I had to say about liberty, and I may briefly sum up the result. It is that, if the word "liberty" has any definite sense attached to it, and if it is consistently used in that sense, it is almost impossible to make any true general assertion whatever about it, and quite impossible to regard it either as a good thing or a bad one. If, on the other hand, the word is used merely in a general popular way without attaching any distinct signification to it, it is easy to make almost any general assertion you please about it; but these assertions will be incapable of either proof or disproof as they will have no definite meaning. Thus the word is either a misleading appeal to passion, or else it embodies or rather hints at an exceedingly complicated assertion, the truth of which can be proved only by elaborate historical investigations. "The cause of liberty, for which Hampden died on the field and Sydney on the scaffold," means either that Hampden and Sydney were right in resisting Charles I and Charles II respectively, or else merely that they did as a fact die in resisting those kings. The first assertion obviously requires, before it can be accepted, a full account of all the circumstances by way of proof. The second tells us nothing worth knowing except a bare matter of fact, and would be consistent with Hampden's having being shot when trying to rob on the highway and Sydney's having been hanged for a highway robbery.

This may appear to be quibbling, but I believe that it will be found on examination to be no more than an illustration, and a very important one, of the first condition of accurate and careful thought--the precise definition of fundamental terms. Men have an all but incurable propensity to try to prejudge all the great questions which interest them by stamping their prejudices upon their language. Law, in many cases, means not only a command, but a beneficent command. Liberty means not the bare absence of restraint, but the absence of injurious restraint. justice means not mere impartiality in applying general rules to particular cases, but impartiality in applying beneficent general rules to particular cases. Some people half consciously use the word "true" as meaning useful as well as true. Of course language can never be made absolutely neutral and colourless; but unless its ambiguities are understood, accuracy of thought is impossible, and the injury done is proportionate to the logical force and general vigour of character of those who are misled. Not long ago Mr. Mill gave an important illustration of this. A political association forwarded to him some manifesto of their views, in which appeared the phrase "the Revolution," used in the sense in which French writers are accustomed to use it. Mr. Mill very properly replied that the expression thus used was bad English. "The Revolution," he said, always means in English some particular revolution, just as "the man" always means some particular man. To talk of the English or the French Revolution is proper, but to talk of the Revolution generally is to darken counsel by words, which, in fact, are only the names of certain intellectual phantoms. He advised his correspondents to seek their political objects without introducing into English phraseology one of the worst characteristics of Continental phraseology, and without depriving it of one of the most valuable of its own characteristics. The advice was admirable, but ought not Mr. Mill to have remembered it himself in writing as he does about liberty?

It requires no great experience to see that, as a rule, people advance both in speculation and in politics principles of very great generality for the purpose of establishing some practical conclusion of a very narrow kind, and this, I think, is the case in this discussion about liberty. What specific thing is there which any one is prevented from doing, either by law or by public opinion, which any sensible person would wish to do? The true answer to this is that thirteen years ago a certain number of persons were, to a certain extent, deterred from expressing a disbelief in common religious opinions by the consciousness that their views were unpopular, and that the expression of them might injure their prospects in life. I have already said what I had to say on this, and need not return to it. As to legislation intended to discourage vice, I do not believe that any one would succeed in getting himself listened to if he were to say plainly, "I admit that this measure will greatly discourage and diminish drunkenness and licentiousness. I also admit that it will involve no cruelty, no interference with privacy--nothing that can in itself be described as an inadequate price for the promotion of sobriety or chastity. I oppose it on the broad, plain ground, that if people like to get drunk and to lead dissolute lives, no one else ought to interfere. I advocate liberty--to wit, the liberty of a set of lads and girls to get drunk of an evening at a particular house of entertainment specially provided for that and other purposes; and though I own that that evil can be prevented by fining the person who keeps the house 5 pounds, the sacred principles of liberty forbid it, at least as regards people over twenty-one. Virtue up to twenty-one knows no compromise, but we must draw the line somewhere, and when the twenty-first birthday is passed liberty claims her prey, and I concede the demand. "Fiat libertas ruat justitia." I think the public would say to such a speech, You and liberty may settle the matter as you please, but we see our way to a measure which will do no harm to any one, and which will keep both young fools and old fools out of harm's way. If freedom does not like it, let her go and sit on the heights self-gathered in her prophet mind, and send the fragments of her mighty voice rolling down the wind. She will be better employed in spouting poetry on the rocks of the Matterhorn than in patronizing vice on the flags of the Haymarket.


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