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 Title

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - Chapter 2 - Part 1

 Synopsis

The Liberty of Thought and Discussion - part of Sir Stephen's classic antithesis to John Stuart Mills' On Liberty

Part 2 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

Though, as I pointed out in my last chapter, Mr. Mill rather asserts than proves his doctrines about liberty, the second chapter of his essay on the Liberty of Thought and Discussion, and the third chapter on Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-being--may be regarded as arguments to prove certain parts or applications of the general principle asserted in his introduction; and as such I will consider them. I object rather to Mr. Mill's theory than to his practical conclusions. I hope to show hereafter how far the practical difference between us extends. The objection which I make to most of his statements on the subject is, that in order to justify in practice what might be justified on narrow and special grounds, he lays down a theory incorrect in itself and tending to confirm views which might become practically mischievous.

The result of his letter on Liberty of Thought and Discussion is summed up, with characteristic point and brevity, by himself in the following words:

We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion and freedom of the expression of opinion on four distinct grounds.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth, unless it is suffered to be and actually is vigorously and earnestly contested, it will by most of those who receive it be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.

Fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct; the dogma becoming a mere formal profession inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience.

The chapter in question is, I think, one of the most eloquent to be found in its author's writings, and it contains, as is not unfrequently the case with him, illustrations which are even more valuable for what they suggest than for what they say.

These illustrations are no doubt the part of this chapter which made the deepest impression when it was first published, and which have been most vividly remembered by its readers. I think that for the sake of them most readers forget the logical framework in which they were set, and read the chapter as a plea for greater freedom of discussion on theological subjects. If Mr. Mill had limited himself to the proposition that in our own time and country it is highly important that the great questions of theology should be discussed openly and with complete freedom from all legal restraints, I should agree with him. But the impression which the whole chapter leaves upon me is that for the sake of establishing this limited practical consequence, Mr. Mill has stated a theory which is very far indeed from the truth, and which, if generally accepted, might hereafter become a serious embarrassment to rational legislation.

His first reason in favour of unlimited freedom of opinion on all subjects is this: "If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly tell, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility."

He states fairly and fully the obvious objection to this--that "there is no greater presumption of infallibility in forbidding the propagation of error than in any other thing which is done by public authority on its own judgment and responsibility." In other words, the assumption is not that the persecutor is infallible, but that in this particular case he is right. To this objection he replies as follows: "There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right."

This reply does not appear to be satisfactory. It is not very easy to disentangle the argument on which it rests, and to put it into a perfectly distinct shape, but I think it will be found on examination to involve the following propositions:

  1. No one can have a rational assurance of the truth of any opinion whatever, unless he is infallible, or unless all persons are absolutely free to contradict it.
  2. Whoever prevents the expression of any opinion asserts by that act that he has a rational assurance of the falsehood of that opinion.
  3. At the same time he destroys one of the conditions of a rational assurance of the truth of the assertions which he makes, namely, the freedom of others to contradict him.
  4. Therefore he claims infallibility, which is the only other ground on which such an assurance of the truth of those assertions can rest.

The first and second of these propositions appear to me to be incorrect.

As to the first, I think that there are innumerable propositions on which a man may have a rational assurance that he is right whether others are or are not at liberty to contradict him, and that although he does not claim infallibility. Every proposition of which we are assured by our own senses, or by evidence which for all practical purposes is as strong as that of our own senses, falls under this head. There are plenty of reasons for not forbidding people to deny the existence of London Bridge and the river Thames, but the fear that the proof of those propositions would be weakened or that the person making the law would claim infallibility is not among the number.

A asserts the opinion that B is a thief. B sues A for libel. A justifies. The jury give a verdict for the plaintiff, with L1,000 damages. This is nearly equivalent to a law forbidding every one, under the penalty of a heavy fine, to express the opinion that in respect of the matters discussed B is a thief. Does this weaken the belief of the world at large in the opinion that in respect of those matters B is not a thief? According to Mr. Mill, no one can have a rational assurance upon the subject unless every one is absolutely free to contradict the orthodox opinion. Surely this cannot be so.

The solution seems to be this. The fact that people are forbidden to deny a proposition weakens the force of the inference in its favour to be drawn from their acquiescence in it; but the value of their acquiescence considered as evidence may be very small, and the weight of other evidence, independent of public opinion, may not only be overwhelming, but the circumstances of the case may be such as to be inconsistent with the supposition that any further evidence will ever be forthcoming.

Again an opinion may be silenced without any assertion on the part of the person who silences it that it is false. It may be suppressed because it is true, or because it is doubtful whether it is true or false, and because it is not considered desirable that it should be discussed. In these cases there is obviously no assumption of infallibility in suppressing it. The old maxim, "the greater the truth the greater the libel," has a true side to it, and when it applies it is obvious that an opinion is silenced without any assumption of infallibility. The opinion that a respectable man of mature years led an immoral life in his youth may be perfectly true, and yet the expression of that opinion may be a crime, if it is not for the public good that it should be expressed.

In cases in which it is obvious that no conclusion at all can be established beyond the reach of doubt, and that men must be contented with probabilities, it maybe foolish to prevent discussion and prohibit the expression of any opinion but one, but no assumption of infallibility is involved in so doing. When Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth silenced to a certain extent both Catholics and Puritans, and sought to confine religious controversy within limits fixed by law, they did not assume themselves to be infallible. What they thought--and it is by no means clear that they were wrong--was that unless religious controversy was kept within bounds there would be a civil war, and they muzzled the disputants accordingly.

There are, in short, two classes of cases to which, as it appears to me, Mr. Mill's argument does not apply--cases in which moral certainty is attainable on the evidence, and cases in which it is not attainable on the evidence.

Where moral certainty is attainable on the evidence the suppression of opinion involves no claim to infallibility, but at most a claim to be right in the particular case.

Where moral certainty is not attainable on the evidence the suppression of opinion involves no claim to infallibility, because it does not assert the falsehood of the opinion suppressed.

The three remaining arguments in favour of unlimited liberty of thought and discussion are: 1. That the silenced opinion may be partially true and that this partial truth can be brought out by discussion only. 2. That a true opinion when established is not believed to be true unless it is vigorously and earnestly contested. 3. That it comes to be held in a dead conventional way unless it is discussed.

These arguments go to show, not that the suppression of opinion can never be right, but that it may sometimes be wrong, which no one denies. None of them show--as the first argument would if it were well founded--that persecution in all cases proceeds on a process involving distinct intellectual error. As to the first argument, it is obvious that if people are prepared to take the chance of persecuting a proposition which may be wholly true as if it were wholly false, they will be prepared to treat it in the same manner though it is only partially true. The second and third arguments, to which I shall have to return hereafter, apply exclusively to that small class of persons whose opinions depend principally upon the consciousness that they have reached them by intellectual processes correctly performed. The incalculable majority of mankind form their opinions in quite a different way, and are attached to them because they suit their temper and meet their wishes, and not because and in so far as they think themselves warranted by evidence in believing them to be true. The notorious result of unlimited freedom of thought and discussion is to produce general skepticism on many subjects in the vast majority of minds. If you want zealous belief, set people to fight. Few things give men such a keen perception of the importance of their own opinions and the vileness of the opinions of others as the fact that they have inflicted and suffered persecution for them. Unlimited freedom of opinion may be a very good thing, but it does not tend to zeal, or even to a distinct appreciation of the bearings of the opinions which are entertained. Nothing will give either but a deep interest in the subject to which those opinions relate, and this is so personal and deeply seated a matter that it is scarcely capable of being affected by external restraints, unless, indeed, it is irritated and so stimulated by them.

I pass over for the present the illustrations of this chapter, which, as I have already said, are by far the most important part of it; and I proceed to the chapter on Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-being.

The substance of the doctrine eloquently expounded in it is that freedom is essential to originality and individuality of character. It consists, however, almost entirely of eulogies upon individuality, to which Mr. Mill thinks the world is indifferent. He accordingly sets forth at length the advantage of having vigorous impulses and plenty of them, of trying experiments in life, of leaving every man of genius free, not indeed "to seize on the government of the world and make it do his bidding in spite of itself," but to "point out the way." This individuality and energy of character, he thinks, is dying out under various depressing influences. "The Calvinistic theory" regards "the crushing out the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, as "no evil," inasmuch as "man needs no capacity but that of surrendering himself to the will of God, and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually he is better without them." Apart, however, from this, "society has now fairly got the better of individuality." All of us are enslaved to custom. "Energetic characters on any large scale are becoming merely traditional. There is now scarcely any outlet for energy in this country except business." "The only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is Liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals." Individuality, however, is at a discount with us, and we arc on the way to a Chinese uniformity.

Much of what I had to say on this subject has been anticipated by an article lately published in Fraser's Magazine. [1] It expands and illustrates with great vigour the following propositions, which appear to me to be unanswerable:

  1. The growth of liberty in the sense of democracy tends to diminish not to increase originality and individuality. "Make all men equal so far as laws can make them equal, and what does that mean but that each unit is to be rendered hopelessly feeble in presence of an overwhelming majority?" The existence of such a state of society reduces individuals to impotence, and to tell them to be powerful, original, and independent is to mock them. It is like plucking a bird's feathers in order to put it on a level with beasts, and then telling it to fly.
  2. "The hope that people are to be rendered more vigorous by simply removing restrictions seems to be as fallacious as the hope that a bush planted in an open field would naturally develop into a forest tree. It is the intrinsic force which requires strengthening, and it may even happen in some cases that force will produce all the more effect for not being allowed to scatter itself."
  3. Though goodness is various, variety is not in itself good. "A nation in which everybody was sober would be a happier, better and more progressive, though a less diversified, nation than one of which half the members were sober and the other half habitual drunkards."

I might borrow many other points from the excellent essay in question, but I prefer to deal with the matter in my own way, and I will therefore add some remarks in confirmation and illustration of the points for which I am indebted to the writer.

The great defect of Mr. Mill's later writings seems to me to be that he has formed too favourable an estimate of human nature. This displays itself in the chapter now under consideration by the tacit assumption which pervades every part of it that the removal of restraints usually tends to invigorate character. Surely the very opposite of this is the truth. Habitual exertion is the greatest of all invigorators of character, and restraint and coercion in one form or another is the great stimulus to exertion. If you wish to destroy originality and vigour of character, no way to do so is so sure as to put a high level of comfort easily within the reach of moderate and common-place exertion. A life made up of danger, vicissitude, and exposure is the sort of life which produces originality and resource. A soldier or sailor on active service lives in an atmosphere of coercion by the elements, by enemies, by disease, by the discipline to which he is subjected. Is he usually a tamer and less original person than a comfortable London shopkeeper or a man with just such an income as enables him to do exactly as he likes? A young man who is educated and so kept under close and continuous discipline till he is twenty-two or twenty-three years of age will generally have a much more vigorous and more original character than one who is left entirely to his own devices at an age when his mind and his tastes are unformed. Almost every human being requires more or less coercion and restraint as astringents to give him the maximum of power which he is capable of attaining. The maximum attainable in particular cases depends upon something altogether independent of social arrangements--namely, the nature of the human being himself who is subjected to them; and what this is or how it is to be affected arc questions which no one has yet answered.

This leads me to say a few words on Mr. Mill's criticism on "the Calvinistic theory." He says: "According to that the one great offence of man is self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable is comprised in obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do and no otherwise." "Whatever is not a duty is a sin." "Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him." I do not profess to have a very deep acquaintance with Calvin's works, but from what I do know of them I should say that Mr. Mill uses the word Calvinistic almost at random. Calvin's general doctrine, as delivered in the first and second books of the Institutes, is something like this. The one great offence of man lies in the fact that, having before him good and evil, his weaker and worse appetites lead him to choose evil. The best thing for him is to obey a divine call to choose good. Man has a fearful disease, but his original constitution is excellent. Redemption consists not in killing but in curing his nature. Calvin describes original sin as "the inheritably descending perverseness and corruption (Book 2, ch. I, s. 8) of our nature poured abroad into all the parts of the soul," bringing forth "the works of the flesh," or, in other words, vice in all its forms. The result is (ch. 2) that "man is now spoiled of the freedom ot his will and made subject to miserable bondage" to his own vices. It is from this bondage, this preference of evil to good, that God rescues the elect. I think that if Calvin were translated into modern language it would be hard to deny this. Speak or fail to speak of God as you think right, but the fact that men are deeply moved by ideas about power, wisdom, and goodness, on a superhuman scale which they rather apprehend than comprehend, is certain. Speak of original sin or not as you please, but the fact that all men are in some respects and at some times both weak and wicked, that they do the ill they would not do, and shun the good they would pursue, is no less certain. To describe this state of things as a "miserable bondage" is, to say the least, an intelligible way of speaking. Calvin's theory was that in order to escape from this bondage men must be true to the better part of their nature, keep in proper subjection its baser elements, and look up to God as the source of the only valuable kind of freedom--freedom to be good and wise. To describe this doctrine as a depressing influence leading to the crushing out of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is to show an incapacity to separate from theological and scholastic husks the grain on which the bravest, hardiest, and most vigorous race of men that ever trod the face of this earth were nourished. No theory can possibly be right which requires us to believe that such a man as John Knox was a poor heartbroken creature with no will of his own.

There is one more point in this curious chapter which I must notice in conclusion. Nothing can exceed Mr. Mill's enthusiasm for individual greatness. The mass, he says, in all countries constitute collective mediocrity. They never think at all, and never rise above mediocrity, "except in so far as the sovereign many have let themselves be guided and influenced (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted or instructed one or few. The initiation of all wise or noble things comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual." The natural inference would be that these individuals are the born rulers of the world, and that the world should acknowledge and obey them as such. Mr. Mill will not admit this. All that the man of genius can claim is "freedom to point out the way. The power of compelling others into it is not only inconsistent with the freedom and development of all the rest, but corrupting to the strong man himself." This would be perfectly true if the compulsion consisted in a simple exertion of blind force, like striking a nail with a hammer; but who ever acted so on others to any extent worth mentioning? The way in which the man of genius rules is by persuading an efficient minority to coerce an indifferent and self-indulgent majority, which is quite a different process.

The odd manner in which Mr. Mill worships mere variety, and confounds the proposition that variety is good with the proposition that goodness is various, is well illustrated by the lines which follow this passage: "Exceptional individuals ... should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass" --in order that there may be enough of them to "point out the way." Eccentricity is much required in these days. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded, and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportioned to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric makes the chief danger of the time.

If this advice were followed, we should have as many little oddities in manner and behaviour as we have people who wish to pass for men of genius. Eccentricity is far more often a mark of weakness than a mark of strength. Weakness wishes, as a rule, to attract attention by trifling distinctions, and strength wishes to avoid it. Originality consists in thinking for yourself, not in thinking differently from other people.

Thus much as to Mr. Mill's view of this subject. I will now attempt to explain my own views on liberty in general, and in particular on liberty of thought.

To me the question whether liberty is a good or a bad thing appears as irrational as the question whether fire is a good or a bad thing? It is both good and bad according to time, place, and circumstance, and a complete answer to the question, In what cases is liberty good and in what cases is it bad? would involve not merely a universal history of mankind, but a complete solution of the problems which such a history would offer. I do not believe that the state of our knowledge is such as to enable us to enunciate any "very simple principle as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control." We must proceed in a far more cautious way, and confine ourselves to such remarks as experience suggests about the advantages and disadvantages of compulsion and liberty respectively in particular cases.

The following way of stating the matter is not and does not pretend to be a solution of the question, In what cases is liberty good? but it will serve to show how the question ought to be discussed when it arises. I do not see how Mr. Mill could deny its correctness consistently with the general principles of the ethical theory which is to a certain extent common to us both.

Compulsion is bad--

  1. When the object aimed at is bad.

  2. When the object aimed at is good, but the compulsion employed is not calculated to obtain it.
  3. When the object aimed at is good, and the compulsion employed is calculated to obtain it, but at too great an expense.

Thus to compel a man to commit murder is bad, because the object is bad.

To inflict a punishment sufficient to irritate but not sufficient to deter or to destroy for holding particular religious opinions is bad, because such compulsion is not calculated to effect its purpose, assuming it to be good.

To compel people not to trespass by shooting them with spring-guns is bad, because the harm done is out of all proportion to the harm avoided.

If, however, the object aimed at is good, if the compulsion employed such as to attain it, and if the good obtained overbalances the inconvenience of the compulsion itself, I do not understand how, upon utilitarian principles, the compulsion can be bad. I may add that this way of stating the case shows that Mr. Mill's "simple principle" is really a paradox. It can be justified only by showing as a fact that, self-protection apart, no good object can be attained by any compulsion which is not in itself a greater evil than the absence of the object which the compulsion obtains.

I will now proceed to apply the principles stated to the case of compulsion applied to thought and discussion. This Mr. Mill condemns in all cases. I should condemn it in those cases only in which the object itself is bad, or in which the means used are not suited to its attainment, or in which, though suited to its attainment, they involve too great an expense. Compare the results of these two ways of thinking. Few persons would be found, I suppose, in these days to deny the paramount expediency, the utility in the highest sense, of having true opinions; and by true I mean not merely honest, but correct, opinions. To believe true statements, to disbelieve false statements, to give to probable or improbable statements a degree of credit proportioned to their apparent probability or improbability, would be the greatest of intellectual blessings. Such a state of mind is the ideal state which a perfectly reasonable human being would regard as the one at which he ought to aim, as we aim at all ideals--that is to say, with a consciousness that we can never fully attain them. The most active-minded, the most sagacious, and those who are most favourably situated for the purpose, are in practice altogether unable to make more than an approximation to such a result, in regard to some few of the innumerable subjects which interest them. I am, of course, aware that this view is not universally admitted, but I need not argue at present with those who deny it.

Assuming it to be true, it will follow that all coercion which has the effect of falsifying the opinions of those who are coerced is coercion for an object bad in itself; and this at once condemns all cases of direct coercion in favour of opinions which are not, to say the least, so probable that a reasonable man would act upon the supposition of their truth. The second condition--namely, that coercion must be effective--and the third condition, that it must not inflict greater evils than it avoids, condemn, when taken together, many other cases of coercion, even when the object aimed at is good. For instance, they condemn all coercion applied directly to thought and unexpressed opinion, and all coercion which must be carried to the point of extermination or general paralysis of the thinking powers in order to be effective. In the first case the end is not attained. In the second it is attained at too great an expense. These two considerations are sufficient to condemn all the coarser forms of persecution. I have nothing to add to the well-known commonplaces which bear upon this part of the subject.

This being allowed, let us turn to the consideration of the other side of the question, and enquire whether there are no cases in which a degree of coercion, affecting, though not directly applied to, thought and the expression of opinion, and not in itself involving an evil greater than the evil avoided, may attain desirable ends. I think that such cases exist and are highly important. In general terms I think that the legal establishment and disestablishment of various forms of opinion, religious, political, and moral, their encouragement and recognition by law and public opinion as being true and useful, or their discouragement by law and public opinion as being false and mischievous, fall within this principle. I think, that is, that they are cases of coercion of which the object is or may be good, and in which the coercion is likely to be effective, and is not an evil great enough to counterbalance the evil which is avoided or the good which is attained. I think, in short, that Governments ought to take the responsibility of acting upon such principles, religious, political, and moral, as they may from time to time regard as most likely to be true, and this they cannot do without exercising a very considerable degree of coercion. The difference between, I do not say keeping up an Established Church at the public expense, but between paying a single shilling of public money to a single school in which any opinion is taught of which any single taxpayer disapproves, and the maintenance of the Spanish Inquisition, is a question of degree. As the first cannot be justified without infringing the principle of liberty as stated by Mr. Mill, so the last can be condemned on my principles only by showing that the doctrines favoured by the Inquisition were not true, that the means used to promote them were ineffective, or that their employment was too high a price to pay for the object gained; issues which I should be quite ready to accept.

In order to show more distinctly what I mean by coercion in favour of religious opinions, it is necessary to point out that I include under the head of religious opinions all opinions about religion, and in particular the opinion that a given religious creed is false, and the opinion that no religious creed is absolutely true, as well as the opinions which collectively form any one of the many confessions of faith adopted by religious bodies.

There are many subjects of legislation which directly and vitally interest all the members of religious bodies as such. Of these marriage, education, and the laws relating to religious endowments are the most prominent. Suppose, now, that the rulers of a nation were opposed to all religion, and were prepared to and did consistently legislate upon the principle that all religions are false. Suppose that in harmony with this view they insisted in every case on a civil marriage, and regarded it as the only one legally binding, although the addition of religious ceremonies was not forbidden; suppose that they confiscated all endowments for religious purposes, making provision for the life interests of the actual incumbents. Suppose that they legislated in such a way as to forbid all such endowments for the future, so as to render the maintenance of religious services entirely dependent on the temper of the existing generation. Suppose that, in addition to this, they were to organize a system of national education, complete in all its parts, from universities and special colleges for particular professions down to village day schools. Suppose that in all of these the education was absolutely secular, and that not a single shilling was allowed to be appropriated out of the public purse to the teaching of religion in any form whatever, or to the education of persons intended to be its ministers. No one, I think, will deny either that this would be coercion, or that it would be coercion likely to effect its purpose to a greater or less extent by means not in themselves productive of any other evil than the suppression of religion which the adoption of these means assumes to be a good. Here, then, is a case in which coercion, likely to be effective at a not inadequate price, is directed towards an end the goodness or badness of which depends upon the question whether religion is true or false. Is this coercion good or bad? I say good if and in so far as religion is false; bad if and in so far as religion is true. Mr. Mill ought, I think, to say that in every case it is bad, irrespectively of the truth or falsehood of religion, for it is coercion, and it is not self-protective.

That this is not an impossible case is proved by the action of the British Empire in India, which governs, not indeed on the principle that no religion is true, but distinctly on the principle that no native religion is true, The English have done, and are doing, the following things in that country:

  1. They have forced upon the people, utterly against the will of many of them, the principle that people of different religions are to live at peace with each other, that there is to be no fighting and no oppression as between Mahommedans and Hindoos, or between different sects of Mahommedans.
  2. They have also forced upon the people the principle that change of religion is not to involve civil disabilities. The Act [2] by which this rule was laid down utterly changed the legal position of one of the oldest and most widespread religions in the world. It deprived Brahminism of its coercive sanction.
  3. They have set up a system of education all over the country which assumes the falsehood of the creed of the Hindoos and--less pointedly, but not less effectually--of the Mahommedans.
  4. Whenever religious practices violate European ideas of public morality up to a certain point, they have, as in the cases of Suttee and human sacrifices, been punished as crimes.
  5. They compel the natives to permit the presence among them of missionaries whose one object it is to substitute their own for the native religions, and who do, in fact, greatly weaken the native religions.

In these and in some other ways the English Government keeps up a steady and powerful pressure upon their Indian subjects in the direction of those moral and religious changes which are incidental to, and form a part of what we understand by, civilisation. It is remarkable that this pressure is exerted, as it were, involuntarily. No act which can in the ordinary use of language be described as remotely resembling persecution can be laid to the charge of the Government of India. The most solemn pledges to maintain complete impartiality between different religious persuasions have been given on the most solemn occasions, and they have been observed with the most scrupulous fidelity. Every civilian, every person of influence and authority, is full of a sincere wish to treat the native religions with respect. It would be difficult to find a body of men less disposed on the whole to proselytize, or more keenly aware of the weak side of the proselytizing spirit. Whatever faults the English in India have committed, the fault of being too ecclesiastically minded, of being too much led by missionaries, is certainly not one of them. For many years the bare presence of missionaries in British India was not tolerated by the Indian Government. The force of circumstances, however, was too strong for them, and has put them, against their will, at the head of a revolution. Little by little they were forced to become the direct rulers of the whole country, and to provide it with a set of laws and institutions. They found, as every one who has to do with legislation must find, that laws must be based upon principles, and that it is impossible to lay down any principles of legislation at all unless you are prepared to say, I am right, and you are wrong, and your view shall give way to mine, quietly, gradually, and peaceably; but one of us two must rule and the other must obey, and I mean to rule.

I might multiply to any conceivable extent illustrations of the propositions that all government has and must of necessity have a moral basis, and that the connection between morals and religion is so intimate that this implies a religious basis as well. I do not mean by a religious basis a complete agreement in religious opinion among either the governors or the persons governed, but such an amount of agreement as is sufficient to determine the attitude of legislation towards religion. I think if these illustrations were fully stated and properly studied they would establish some such general inference as this:

There are three relations and no more in which legislation can stand towards religion in general, and towards each particular religious opinion or form of religion:

  1. It may proceed on the assumption that some one religion is true and all others false.
  2. It may proceed on the assumption that more than one religion is, so to speak, respectable, and it may favour them in the same or different degrees.
  3. It may proceed on the assumption that all religions or that some religions are false.

I believe it to be simply impossible that legislation should be really neutral as to any religion which is professed by any large number of the persons legislated for. He that is not for such a religion is against it. Real neutrality is possible only with regard to forms of religion which are not professed at all by the subjects of legislation, or which are professed by so few of them that their opinions can be regarded as unimportant by the rest. English legislation in England is neutral as to Mahommedanism and Brahminism. English legislation in India proceeds on the assumption that both are false. If it did not, it would have to be founded on the Koran or the Institutes of Menu. If this is so, it is practically certain that coercion will be exercised in favour of some religious opinions and against others, and the question whether such coercion is good or bad will depend upon the view of religion which is taken by different people.

The real opinion of most legislators in the present, day, the opinion in favour of which they do, in fact, exercise coercion, is the opinion that no religion is absolutely true, but that all contain a mixture of truth and falsehood, and that the same is the case with ethical and political systems. One inference from this is that direct. legislation against any religion as a whole is wrong, and this is one great objection to persecution. When you persecute a religion as a whole, you must generally persecute truth and goodness as well as falsehood. Coercion as to religion will therefore chiefly occur in the in. direct form, in the shape of treating certain parts vital parts, it may be--of particular systems as mischievous and possibly even as criminal falsehoods when they come in the legislator's way. When priests, of whatever creed, claim to hold the keys of heaven and hell and to work invisible miracles, it will practically become necessary for many purposes to decide whether they really are the representatives of God upon earth, or whether they are mere impostors, for there is no way of avoiding the question, and it admits of no other solution.

Many, perhaps most, of the extravagant theories which have been and are maintained about liberty, and in particular about the division between the temporal and spiritual powers, have been devised by persons who, holding this view and not choosing to avow it, wished to discover some means of leaving uncontested the claims to divine authority of various religious systems, and of showing that an admission of the truth of those claims would not involve the consequences which those who believed in them wished to draw from it. It is for immediate practical purposes highly convenient to say, Your creed is, no doubt, divine, and you are the agents of God for the purpose of teaching it, but liberty of opinion is also more or less divine, and the civil ruler has his own rights and duties as well as the successors of the Apostles. But, convenient as this is, it is a mere compromise. The theory is untrue, and no one really believes more than that half of it which suits him. If spiritual means that which relates to thought and feeling, every act of life is spiritual, for in every act there is a mental element which gives it its moral character. If temporal means outward and visible, then every act is temporal, for every thought and feeling tends towards and is embodied in action. In fact, every human action is both temporal and spiritual. The attempt to distinguish between temporal and spiritual, between Church and State, is like the attempt to distinguish between substance and form. Formless matter or unsubstantial form are expressions which have no meaning, and in the same way things temporal and things spiritual presuppose and run into each other at every point. Human life is one and indivisible, and is or ought to be regulated by one set of principles and not by a multitude. This subject, however, is too large and important to be disposed of parenthetically. I propose to discuss it separately. [3] With these preliminary observations, I proceed to say a few words on each of the three relations in which legislation may stand to religion. It will be found that the consideration of them will throw a strong light upon many of the illustrations of this subject discussed by Mr. Mill and others.

First, legislation may proceed on the assumption that one religion is true and all others false. This is the assumption which pervades nearly all early Christian legislation. It is made so unconsciously by Mahommedans and Hindoos that their law and their religion arc to a great extent one and the same thing. Our own minds have become so much sophisticated by commonplaces about liberty and toleration, and about the division between the temporal and spiritual power, that we have almost ceased to think of the attainment of truth in religion as desirable if it were possible. It appears to me that, if it were possible, the attainment of religious truth and its recognition as such by legislation would be of all conceivable blessings the greatest. If we were all of one mind, and that upon reasonable grounds, about the nature of men and their relation to the world or worlds in which they live, we should be able at once with but little difficulty to solve all the great moral and political questions which at present distract and divide the world, and cause us to waste in unfruitful though inevitable contests the strength which might make life happy.

Even when a religion is only partially true, the effect of a general and perfectly sincere belief in it is to give unity and vigour and a distinct and original turn to the life of those who really believe it. Such a belief is the root out of which grow laws, institutions, moral principles, tastes, and arts innumerable. The phrases about our common Christianity are vague enough, but it was in religious beliefs common to great masses of people that the foundations of all that we most justly prize were laid. If from the fall of the Roman Empire to the revival of learning there had been no moral and spiritual unity in the world, we should still, in all probability, have been little better than barbarians. If the divided forces of mankind could now be based upon one foundation of moral and spiritual truth, and directed towards a set of ends forming one harmonious whole, our descendants would probably surpass us quite as decisively as we surpass the contemporaries of Alfred or Gregory the Great. Progress has its drawbacks, and they are great and serious; but whatever its value may be, unity in religious belief would further it.

The question how such a state of things is to be produced is one which it is impossible not to ask and equally impossible to answer, except by the words, "the wind bloweth where it listeth, and ye know not whence it cometh nor whither it goeth." The sources of religion lie hid from us. All that we know is that now and again in the course of ages some one sets to music the tune which is haunting millions of ears. It is caught up here and there, and repeated till the chorus is thundered out by a body of singers able to drown all discords and to force the vast unmusical mass to listen to them. Such results as these come not by observation, but when they do come they carry away as with a flood and hurry in their own direction all the laws and customs of those whom they affect. To oppose Mr. Mill's "simple principle" about liberty to such powers as these is like blowing against a hurricane with a pair of bellows. To take any such principle as a rule by which such powers may be measured and may be declared to be good or bad is like valuing a painting by adding together the price of the colours, the canvas, and so much a day calculated on his average earnings for the value of the artist's labour.

When the hearts of men are deeply stirred by what they regard as a gospel or new revelation, they, do as a fact not only believe it themselves, but compel others to accept it, and this compulsion for ages to come determines the belief and practice of enormous multitudes of people who care very little about the matter. Earth resembles heaven in one respect at least. Its kingdom suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. That such violence is or under circumstances may be highly beneficial to the world is, I think, abundantly proved by history. The evil and good done by it must in all cases be measured by the principles laid down above. Was the object good? Did the means conduce to it? Did they conduce to it at an excessive price? Apply this to the case of the establishment of Christianity as a State religion first in the Roman Empire and afterwards in modern Europe. It is obvious that we have before us the most intricate of all conceivable problems, a problem which no single and simple principle can possibly solve. Its solution would require answers to the following, amongst other questions : 1. What is Christianity? 2. How far is it true and useful? 3. How far was it and how far was each part of it promoted by coercion? 4. What kinds of coercion promoted the different parts of it? 5. What was the comparative importance of the coercion applied and the results obtained? Most of these questions are obviously insoluble.

The second case is that in which the Legislature regards various creeds as respectable, and favours them more or less according to circumstances, and either equally or unequally. This is the present state of things throughout the greater part of the civilised world. It is carried out to its fullest development in this country and in the United States, though in this country two State Churches are specially favoured, while in America all Churches stand upon the same footing as lawful associations based upon voluntary contracts. The way in which this arrangement is accepted as a final result which is to last indefinitely has always seemed to me to afford a strong illustration of the manner in which people are disposed to accept as final the temporary solutions of great questions which are in fashion in their own days. The fatal defect in the arrangement, which must sooner or later break it up, is that it tends to emasculate both Church and State. It cuts human life in two. It cuts off religion from active life, and it reduces the State to a matter of police. Moreover, it is but a temporary and not a very honest device, To turn Churches into mere voluntary associations, and to sever the connection between them and the State, is on the part of the State an act not of neutrality but of covert unbelief. On the part of the Churches which accept it it is a tacit admission of failure, a tacit admission that they have no distinct authoritative message from God to man, and that they do not venture to expect to be recognised as institutions to which such a message has been confided. But if this is not their character, there is no other character for them to hold than that of human institutions, like the old schools of philosophy, based upon various theories as to the nature, the destiny, and the duties of men.

If this is the light in which Churches are to be regarded, the division between Church and State, the maxim of a free Church in a free State, will mean that men in their political capacity are to have no opinions upon the topics which interest them most deeply; and, on the other hand, that men of a speculative turn are never to try to reduce their speculations to practice on a large scale, by making or attempting to make them the basis of legislation. If this principle is adopted and adhered to, one of two results must sooner or later inevitably follow. In so far as the principle is accepted and acted upon with real good faith, the State will be degraded, and reduced to mere police functions. Associations of various kinds will take its place and push it on one side, and completely new forms of society may be the result. Mormonism is one illustration of this, but the strong tendency which has shown itself on many occasions both in France and America on the part of enthusiastic persons to try "experiments in living," by erecting some entirely new form of society, has supplied many minor illustrations of the same principle. St. Simonianism, families of love by whatever name they are called, are straws showing the set of a wind which some day or other might take rank among the fiercest of storms. Such experiments as these have nothing whatever to do with liberty. They are embryo governments, little States which in course of time may well come to be dangerous antagonists of the old one.

Another possible result is that the State, finding itself confronted by Churches at all sorts of points, may at last renounce the notion that it is debarred from forming an opinion upon moral and religious problems, and from legislating in accordance with the opinions so formed. If and in so far as the state-that is to say, a number of influential people sufficient to dispose of the public force arrives at distinct views upon these points, it must of necessity revert from the provisional and neutral attitude to a belligerent attitude. It must assume the truth of some religious opinions, and as a necessary consequence the falsehood of others, and as to these last it will take up a position of hostility. Cases may occur, as the state of our own time shows, in which it is extremely difficult to say what is true, but comparatively easy to say what is false, and I do not see why conscious ignorance upon some points should interfere with or excuse people from acting upon a distinct negative conviction upon others.

[Part 2 of this chapter]


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