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Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - Chapter 2 - Part 2


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

Part 1 of this chapter


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]

Such a course necessarily encounters the most virulent and passionate resistance. Unwelcome, however, and thorny as this path is, I believe that it ought, when necessary, to be taken; that it is desirable that legislators and their advisers should not legislate on the supposition that all sorts of conflicting creeds have an equal chance of being true, but should consider the question of the truth and falsehood of religious opinions; that legislation should when necessary proceed on distinct principles in this matter, and that such a degree of coercion as is necessary to obtain its end should be applied. What I have already said shows that in fact this is always done, though people are not always aware of it.

As I have observed more than once, Mr. Mill's illustrations of his principles are in some respects the most attractive and effective parts of his book. By far the most important passage of his Essay on Liberty is the well-known one in which he argues that people should be at perfect liberty to express any opinions whatever about the existence of God and a future state, and that for doing so they should neither be punished by law nor censured by public opinion. In the practical result I agree nearly, though not quite, but in order to set in as clear a light as possible the difference between his way of treating the subject and my own, I will deal with it in my own way, noticing his arguments in what I take to be their proper places.

The object of forbidding men to deny the existence of God and a future life would be to cause those doctrines to be universally believed, and upon my principles this raises three questions:

  1. Is the object good?
  2. Are the means proposed likely to be effective?
  3. What is the comparative importance of the object secured and of the means by which it is secured?

That the object is good if the doctrines are true, admits, in my opinion, of no doubt whatever. I entirely agree with the commonplaces about the importance of these doctrines. If these beliefs are mere dreams, life is a very much poorer and pettier thing; men are beings of much less importance; trouble, danger, and physical pain are much greater evils, and the prudence of virtue is much more questionable than has hitherto been supposed to be the case. If men follow the advice so often pressed upon them, to cease to think of these subjects otherwise than as insoluble riddles, all the existing conceptions of morality will have to be changed, all social tendencies will be weakened. Merely personal inclinations will be greatly strengthened. Men who say "to-morrow we die," will add "let us eat and drink." It would be not merely difficult but impossible in such a state of society to address any argument save that of criminal law (which Mr. Mill's doctrine about liberty would reduce to a minimum) to a man who had avowed to himself that he was consistently bad. A few people love virtue for its own sake. Many have no particular objection to a mild but useful form of it if they are trained to believe that it will answer in the long run; but many, probably most of them, would like it dashed into a liberal allowance of vice if they thought that no risk would be run by making the mixture. A strong minority, again, are so viciously disposed that all the considerations which can be drawn from any world, present or future, certain or possible, do not avail to hold them in. Many a man too stupid for speculative doubt or for thought of any kind says, "I've no doubt at all I shall be damned for it, but I must, and I will." In short, all experience shows that almost all men require at times both the spur of hope and the bridle of fear, and that religious hope and fear are an effective spur and bridle; though some people are too hard-mouthed and thick-skinned to care much for either, and though others will now and then take the bit in their teeth and rush where passion carries them, notwithstanding both. If, then, virtue is good, it seems to me clear that to promote the belief of the fundamental doctrines of religion is good also, for I am convinced that in Europe at least the two must stand or fall together.

It is sometimes argued that these beliefs are rather unimportant than either good or bad. It is said that great masses of the human race have done without any or with negative beliefs on these subjects. Interesting sketches are given of the creeds or no creeds of savage tribes, of educated men in classical times, of Buddhists, and others. Here, it is said, are cases of people living without reference to a God or a future state. Why cannot you do the same? A strong social impulse, a religion of humanity will fill your sails as well as the old wind which is dying away; and you will then think of these questions which now seem to you all-important as of insoluble riddles, mere exercises of ingenuity with which you have nothing to do.

This argument falls wide of the mark at which it seems to be aimed. Its object is to prove that the fundamental problems of religion may and ought to be laid aside as insoluble riddles on which it is waste of time to think. The evidence to prove this is that solutions of these problems, widely differing from those which are established in this part of the world, have been accepted in other countries and by other races of men. No doubt this is true, but what does it prove? Taken in connection with other facts equally notorious, it proves that as a man's religion is, so will his morals be. The Buddhists have a religion and a morality which closely correspond. How does this show that European morality is not founded on Christianity, and that you can destroy the one without affecting the other? It proves the reverse. If Buddhists became Christians or Christians became Buddhists, a corresponding moral change would soon make itself felt. The difference between Hindoo and Mahommedan morals closely follows the difference between their creeds. Whether Christianity is true or false, and whether European morality is good or bad, European morality is in fact founded upon religion, and the destruction the one must of necessity involve the reconstruction of the other. Many persons in these days wish to retain the morality which they like, after getting rid of the religion which they disbelieve. Whether they are right or wrong in disturbing the foundation, they are inconsistent in wishing to save the superstructure. If we are to think as Caesar thought of God and a future state, we cannot avoid considering the question whether Caesar's morals and principles of action were not superior to the common moral standards. Jesus Christ believed in God and a future state, and preached the Sermon on the Mount. Julius Caesar believed the questions about God and a future state to be mere idle curiosities. He also preached impressive sermons by example and otherwise. Many persons in these days appear to me to think that they can reconcile the morals of Jesus Christ with the theology of Julius Caesar by masquerading in the Pope's old clothes and asking the world at large to take their word of honour that all is well.

To return to Mr. Mill. One of his arguments tends to show that the object of promoting these beliefs is bad. He considers that rulers ought not to decide religious questions for others without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. I am not, I own, much moved by this argument. It is what everyone does and must of necessity be continually doing in nearly every department of life. What is all education except a strenuous and systematic effort to give the whole character a certain turn and bias which appears on the whole desirable to the person who gives it? A man who did not, as far as he could, "undertake to decide" for his children the questions whether they should be truthful, industrious, sober, respectful, and chaste, and that "without allowing them to hear what was to be said on the contrary side," would be a contemptible pedant. Legislators and the founders of great institutions must to a very considerable extent perform precisely the same task for the world at large. Surely it is an idle dream to say that one man in a thousand really exercises much individual choice as to his religious or moral principles, and I doubt whether it is not an exaggeration to say that one man in a million is capable of making any very material addition to what is already known or plausibly conjectured on these matters. I repeat, then, that the object of causing these doctrines to be believed appears to me to be clearly good if and in so far as the doctrines themselves are true.

It may perhaps be suggested, on the other hand, that the object is good whether the doctrines are true or false, and no doubt the necessity for compulsion is greater if they are false; but the suggestion itself may be disposed of very shortly. It is a suggestion which it is childish to discuss in public, because no one could avow it without contradicting himself, and so defeating his own object. No one can publicly and avowedly ask people to believe a lie on the ground of its being good for them. Such a request is like asking a man to lift himself off the ground by pulling at his knees with his hands. The harder he tries to raise his feet with his hands, the harder he has to press his feet on the ground to get a purchase. The more you try to believe a lie because it will do you good, the more you impress on your mind the fact that it is a lie and that you cannot believe it. A man who wishes to persuade his neighbours to believe a lie must lie to them--he must say that the lie is true; and practically he must he to himself in the first instance, or he will not have the heart to go on with his lie. There are ways of doing this so very far below the surface that an ingenious person may manage it with little or, perhaps, no consciousness of the fact that he is lying. The favourite way of doing it is by weaving metaphysical webs by which it may be made to appear that the common tests of truth, falsehood, and probability do not apply to matters of this sort. But I need not pursue this subject. We are brought back, then, to the question, Are these doctrines true?

This is the vital question of all. It is the true centre, not only of Mr. Mill's book upon liberty, but of all the great discussions of our day and generation. Upon this hang all religion, all morals, all politics, all legislation--everything which interests men as men. Is there or not a God and a future state? Is this world all? I do not pretend to have anything to add to this tremendous controversy. It is a matter on which very few human beings have a right to be heard.

I confine myself to asserting that the attitude of the law and of public authority generally towards the discussion of this question will and ought to depend upon the nature of the view which happens to be dominant for the time being on the question itself, modified in its practical application by considerations drawn from the other two points above stated--namely, the adaptation of the means employed to the object in view, and the comparative importance of the measure of success which can be reasonably expected, and of the expense of the means necessary to its attainment. This, I say, is the only principle which can either serve as a guide in reference to any practical question, or enable us to do anything like justice to the historical problems of which Mr. Mill refers to one or two, and to which I propose to return immediately; and so much for the goodness of the object.

The next questions are as to the effectiveness and expense of the means, and these I will consider together. It is needless to discuss the question of legal prosecution in reference to these opinions. [4] Everyone must admit that it is quite out of the question. In the first place, it is impossible; and in the next place, to be effective, it would have to be absolutely destructive and paralysing, and it would produce at last no result for which anyone really wishes. I need not insist upon this point.

The real question is as to social intolerance. Has a man who believes in God and a future state a moral right to disapprove of those who do not, and to try by the expression of that disapproval to deter them from publishing, and to deter others from adopting, their views? I think that he has if and in so far as his opinions are true. Mr. Mill thinks otherwise. He draws a picture of social intolerance and of its effects which nothing but considerations of space prevent me from extracting in full. It is one of the most eloquent and powerful passages he ever wrote. The following is its key-note:

Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active efforts for their diffusion. With us heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain or even lose ground in each decade or generation; they never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or a deceptive light. And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.

The heretics, says Mr. Mill, are grievously injured by this, and are much to be pitied, but "the greatest harm is done to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped and their reason cowed by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?"

On this point I am utterly unable to agree with Mr. Mill. It seems to me that to publish opinions upon morals, politics, and religion is an act as important as any which any man can possibly do; that to attack opinions on which the framework of society rests is a proceeding which both is and ought to be dangerous. I do not say that it ought not to be done in many cases, but it should be done sword in hand, and a man who does it has no more right to be surprised at being fiercely resisted than a soldier who attacks a breach. Mr. Mill's whole charge against social intolerance is that it makes timid people afraid to express unpopular opinions. An old ballad tells how a man, losing his way on a hill-side, strayed into a chamber full of enchanted knights, each lying motionless in complete armour, with his war-horse standing motionless beside him. On a rock lay a sword and a horn, and the intruder was told that if he wanted to lead the army, he must choose between them. He chose the horn and blew a loud blast, upon which the knights and their horses vanished in a whirlwind and their visitor was blown back into common life, these words sounding after him on the wind:

Cursed be the coward that ever he was born

Who did not draw the sword before he blew the horn.

No man has a right to give the signal for such a battle by blowing the horn, unless he has first drawn the sword and knows how to make his hands guard his head with it. Then let him blow as loud and long as he likes, and if his tune is worth hearing he will not want followers. Till a man has carefully formed his opinions on these subjects, thought them out, assured himself of their value, and decided to take the risk of proclaiming them, the strong probability is that they are not much worth having. Speculation on government, morals, and religion is a matter of vital practical importance, and not mere food for curiosity. Curiosity, no doubt, is generally the motive which leads a man to study them; but till be has formed opinions on them for which he is prepared to fight, there is no hardship in his being compelled by social intolerance to keep them to himself and to those who sympathise with him. It should never be forgotten that opinions have a moral side to them. The opinions of a bad and a good man, the opinions of an honest and a dishonest man, upon these subjects are very unlikely to be the same.

It is the secret consciousness of this which gives its strange bitterness to controversies which might at first sight appear as unlikely to interest the passions as questions of mathematics or philology. What question can appear to be more purely scientific than the question whether people have or have not innate ideas? Yet it is constantly debated with a persistent consciousness on the part of the disputants that their argument is like a trumpery dispute made the pretext for a deadly duel, the real grounds of which are too delicate to be stated. The advocate of innate ideas often says in his heart, more or less distinctly, that his antagonist's real object is to get all the mysteries of religion submitted to the common processes of the understanding. The advocate of experience often says in his heart of his antagonist, "You are a liar; and the object of your lie is to protect from exposure what you ought to know to be nonsense." As opinions become better marked and more distinctly connected with action the truth that decided dissent from them implies more or less of a reproach upon those who hold them decidedly becomes so obvious that everyone perceives it. The fact is that we all more or less condemn and blame each other, and this truth is so unpleasant that oceans of sophistry have been poured out for the purpose of evading or concealing it. It is true, nevertheless. I cannot understand how a man who is not a Roman Catholic can regard a real Roman Catholic with absolute neutrality. A man who really thinks that a wafer is God Almighty, and who really believes that rational men owe any sort of allegiance to any kind of priest, is either right--in which case the man who differs from him ought to repent in sackcloth and ashes--or else he is wrong, in which case he is the partizan of a monstrous imposture. How the question whether he is right or wrong can be regarded as one indifferent to his general character and to the moral estimate which persons of a different way of thinking must form of him is to me quite inconceivable. The converse is equally true. I do not see how a man who deliberately rejects the Roman Catholic religion can, in the eyes of those who earnestly believe it, be other than a rebel against God. Plaster them over as thick as you will, controversies of this sort go to the very core and root of life, and as long as they express the deepest convictions of men, those who really differ are and must be enemies to a certain extent, though they may keep their enmity within bounds. When religious differences come to be and are regarded as mere differences of opinion, it is because the controversy is really decided in the sceptical sense, though people may not like to acknowledge it formally.

Let any one who doubts this try to frame an argument which could have been addressed with any chance of success to Philip II against the persecution of the Protestants, or to Robespierre and Danton against the persecution of Catholicism and the French aristocracy and Monarchy. Concede the first principle that unfeigned belief in the Roman Catholic creed is indispensably necessary to salvation, or the first principle that the whole Roman Catholic system is a pernicious falsehood and fraud, and it will be found impossible to stop short of the practical conclusions of the Inquisition and the Reign of Terror. Every real argument against these practical conclusions is an argument to show either that we cannot be sure as to the conditions of salvation, or that the Roman Catholic religion has redeeming points about it. A man who cannot be brought to see this will persecute, and ought to persecute--in the same sense of the word ought in which we say that a man who believes that twice two make five ought to believe that two and three make six. The attainment or approximate attainment of truth, and particularly the attainment of a true conception of the amount and nature of our own ignorance on religious subjects, is indispensable to the settlement of religious disputes. You can no more evade in politics the question, What is true in religion? than--you can do sums right without prejudice to a difference of opinion upon the multiplication table. The only road to peace leads through truth, and when a powerful and energetic minority, sufficiently vigorous to impose their will on their neighbours, have made up their minds as to what is true, they will no more tolerate error for the sake of abstract principles about freedom than any one of us tolerates a nest of wasps in his garden.

Upon the question of the expense of persecution Mr. Mill argues at great length, that perfect freedom of discussion is essential to give a person a living interest in an opinion and a full appreciation of its various bearings. This, I think, is an excellent illustration of the manner in which the most acute intellect may be deceived by generalising upon its own peculiar experience. That Mr. Mill should feel what he describes is not, perhaps, unnatural, but it is not every one whose intellect is so enormously developed in proportion to his other faculties. I should say that doctrines come home to people in general, not if and in so far as they are free to discuss all their applications, but if and in so far as they happen to interest them and appear to illustrate and interpret their own experience. One remarkable proof of this is taken from the whole history of religious controversy, and can hardly be better exemplified than by Mr. Mill's own words. He remarks that "all ethical doctrines and religious creeds ... are full of meaning to those who originate them and to the direct disciples of their originators; their meaning continues to be felt in undiminished strength and is perhaps brought out with even fuller consciousness so long as the struggle lasts to give the doctrine or creed an ascendancy over other creeds." When the struggle is over the doctrine takes its place as a received opinion; "from this time may usually be dated the decline in its living power."

I do not agree with this. A doctrine which really goes to the hearts of men never loses its power if true, and never even if it is false until it is suspected or known to be false. There are in this day innumerable persons to whom the worship of the Virgin Mary and all the doctrines connected with it have as much life and freshness as they ever had to any one--a life and freshness from which the freest and fullest discussion would rub off all the gloss, even if it left the doctrine unimpaired. Millions of men hold with the most living perception of their truth the doctrine that honesty is the best policy, and the doctrine, Speak truth, and shame the devil. Experience and not discussion enforces maxims like these. Every racy popular proverb is a proof of it. If a dear friend, a man whom you have loved and honoured, and who is a well-wisher and benefactor to a large section of mankind, is stabbed to the heart by an assassin, it will give a very keen edge and profound truth to the maxim that murder is one of the most detestable of crimes, though I do not know that it admits of much discussion.

But whatever maybe thought of the truth of Mr. Mill's statement, its logic is defective. The facts that whilst a doctrine is struggling for ascendancy it is full of meaning, and that when it has become a received opinion its living power begins to decline, surely prove that coercion and not liberty is favourable to its appreciation. A "struggle for ascendancy" does not mean mere argument. It means reiterated and varied assertion persisted in, in the face of the wheel, the stake, and the gallows, as well as in the face of contradiction. If the Protestants and Catholics or the Christians and the Pagans had confined themselves to argument, they might have argued for ever, and the world at large would not have cared. It was when it came to preaching and fighting, to "Believe, and be saved," "Disbelieve, and be damned," "Be silent, or be burned alive," "I would rather be burned than be silent," that the world at large listened, sympathized, and took one side or the other. The discussion became free just in proportion as the subjects discussed lost their interest.

Upon the whole, it appears to me quite certain that if our notions of moral good and evil are substantially true, and if the doctrines of God and a future state are true, the object of causing people to believe in them is good, and that social intolerance on the behalf of those who do towards those who do not believe in them cannot be regarded as involving evils of any great importance in comparison with the results at which it aims, I am quite aware that this is not a pleasant doctrine, and that it is liable to great abuse. The only way of guarding against its abuse is by pointing out that people should not talk about what they do not understand. No one has a right to be morally intolerant of doctrines which he has not carefully studied. It is one thing to say, as I do, that after careful consideration and mature study a man has a right to say such and such opinions are dishonest, cowardly, feeble, ferocious, or absurd, and the person who holds them deserves censure for having shown dishonesty or cowardice in adopting them, and quite another thing to say that every one has a right to throw stones at everybody who differs from himself on religious questions. The true ground of moral tolerance in the common sense of the words appears to me to lie in this--that most people have no right to any opinions whatever upon these questions, except in so far as they are necessary for the regulation of their own affairs. When some wretched little curate calls his betters atheists and the like, his fault is not intolerance, but impudence and rudeness. If this principle were properly carried out, it would leave little room for moral intolerance in most cases; but I think it highly important that men who really study these matters should feel themselves at liberty not merely to dissent from but to disapprove of opinions which appear to them to require it, and should express that disapprobation.

I will now proceed to compare Mr. Mill's principles and my own by contrasting the ways in which our respective methods apply to the appreciation of the celebrated passages of history. He, as I understand him, condemns absolutely all interference with the expression of opinion. The judges of Socrates, Pontius Pilate, Marcus Aurelius, Philip II, and the rest are, when tried by his standard, simple wrongdoers. Allowances may be made for them in consideration of the temper of the times, but the verdict is guilty, with or without, and generally without, a recommendation to mercy. Their guilt and shame is necessary in order to condemn the principle on which they acted. They interfered with liberty otherwise than for purposes of self-protection, and they thus incurred such penalties as can be inflicted on the memory of the dead, however honest they may have been, and whatever may have been the plausibility of their opinions at the time. The law must be vindicated, and the law--Mr. Mill's law is that nothing but self-protection can ever justify coercion.

Once give up this, and where will you stop? Mr. Mill says, "Aware of the impossibility of defending the use of punishment for restraining irreligious opinions by any arguments which will not justify Marcus Aurelius, the enemies of religious freedom when hard pressed occasionally accept this consequence, and say with Dr. Johnson that the persecutors of Christianity were in the right; that persecution is an ordeal through which truth ought to pass, and always passes successfully." This argument, says Mr. Mill, is ungenerous, but it also involves distinct error. That "truth always triumphs over persecution is" a "pleasant falsehood." Truth does not triumph; on the contrary, a very little very gentle persecution is often quite enough to put it out. Choose, says Mr. Mill in substance, between a principle which will condemn Aurelius and a principle which will justify Pontius Pilate. I will try to meet this challenge.

Was Pilate right in crucifying Christ? I reply, Pilate's paramount duty was to preserve the peace in Palestine, to form the best judgment he could as to the means required for that purpose, and to act upon it when it was formed. Therefore, if and in so far as he believed in good faith and on reasonable grounds that what he did was necessary for the preservation of the peace of Palestine, he was right. It was his duty to run the risk of being mistaken, notwithstanding Mr. Mill's principle as to liberty. He was in the position of a judge whose duty it is to try persons duly brought before him for trial at the risk of error.

In order to justify this view I must first consider the question, In what sense can such words as "right" and "ought" be applied to questions of politics and government? If in criticising human history we are to proceed on the assumption that every act and every course of policy was wrong which would not have been chosen by an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly benevolent man, if such a being is conceivable, I suppose no course of policy and no action of importance and on a large scale can be said to have been right; but, in order to take a step towards the application of this method, it is necessary to know what the history of mankind ought to have been from the earliest ages to the present time. Even this is not enough. We ought to know what it ought to have been after each successive deviation from the highest possible standard. We ought to know not only what would have happened if Eve had not eaten the apple, but what would have happened if, Eve having eaten the apple, Adam had refused to eat, or had eaten of the tree of life; how it would have been if, when Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, Cain had not killed Abel, and so on. To take such a standard of right and wrong is obviously absurd.

The words "ought" and "right" must then be applied on a far more limited scale and must in all cases be interpreted with reference to the fact that men inevitably are and always will be weak and ignorant, and that their apparent and possibly their real interests clash. If "ought" and "right" are construed with reference to this consideration, it will follow that duty will frequently bring individuals, nations, and creeds into conflict with each other. There is no absurdity in the conclusion that it may be my duty to kill you if I can and your duty to kill me if you can, that the persecutors and the Christians, Luther and Charles V, Philip II and William of Orange, may each have been right, or may each have been partly right and partly wrong. When Hobbes taught that the state of nature is a state of war, he threw an unpopular truth into a shape liable to be misunderstood; but can any one seriously doubt that war and conflict are inevitable so long as men are what they are, except at the price of evils which are even worse than war and conflict? --that is to say, at the price of absolute submission to all existing institutions, good or bad, or absolute want of resistance to all proposed changes, wise or foolish. Struggles there must and always will be, unless men stick like limpets or spin like weathercocks.

I proceed to consider the case of the Romans and the Christians, and more particularly the case of Pilate.

It is for obvious reasons unnecessary to develop the Christian side of the question. No one in these days will deny that, taking the only view which it is fitting to take here, the purely human view of the subject, Christ and his disciples were right in preaching their religion at all risks. Apart from its supernatural claims, its history is their justification; no rational man can doubt that Christianity, taken as a whole and speaking broadly, has been a blessing to men. From it not all, but most of, the things which we value most highly have been derived.

Upon this it is needless to dwell. The Roman view of the subject from the time of Pontius Pilate to that of Diocletian requires more illustration. The substance of what the Romans did was to treat Christianity by fits and starts as a crime. As to the brutality of the punishments inflicted--crucifixion, burning, and judicial tortures--all that need be said is that it was the habit of the day. There does not seem to have been any particular difference made between the treatment of the three persons who were crucified on Calvary. What, then, was the position of the Roman authorities when they had to consider whether Christianity should be treated as a crime?

It has been often and truly pointed out that, humanly speaking, the establishment of the Roman Empire rendered Christianity possible, and brought about the "fullness of time" at which it occurred. The Pax Romana gave to all the nations which surrounded the Mediterranean and to those which are bounded by the Rhine and the Danube benefits closely resembling those which British rule has conferred upon the enormous quadrangle which lies between the mountains on the north-east and north-west, and the Indian Ocean on the south-east and south-west. Peace reigned in the days of Pilate from York to Jerusalem, which are about as far from each other as Peshawur and Point de Galle, and from Alexandria to Antwerp, which are about the same distance as Kurrachee and the extreme east of Assam. This peace actually was, and the more highly educated Romans must have seen that it was about to become, the mother of laws, arts, institutions of all kinds, under which our own characters have been moulded. The Roman law, at that period as clumsy as English law is at present, but nearly as rich, sagacious, and vigorous, was taking root in all parts of the world under the protection of Roman armed force, and all the arts of life, literature, philosophy, and art were growing by its side. An Englishman must have a cold heart and a dull imagination who cannot understand how the consciousness of this must have affected a Roman governor.

I do not envy the Englishman whose heart does not beat high as he looks at the scarred and shattered walls of Delhi or at the union jack flying from the fort at Lahore. Such sights irresistibly recall lines which no familiarity can vulgarize:

Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento:

Hoe tibi erunt artes; pacisque imponere morem,

Parcere subjects et debellare superbos.

Think how such words, when as new and fresh as the best of Mr. Tennyson's poems to us, must have come home to a Roman as he saw his sentries keeping guard on the Temple. The position of Pilate was not very unlike that of an English Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab. The resemblance would be still closer if for a lieutenant-governor we substitute a Resident with a strong armed force under his orders and Runjeet Singh by his side. At all events Pilate, more or less closely associated with a native ruler, was answerable for the peace probably of the most dangerous and important province of the empire. The history of the Jews shows what a nation they were. "A people terrible from the beginning," and most terrible of all in matters of religion. It would not be difficult, nor would it be altogether fanciful, to trace a resemblance between the manner in which they would strike Pilate and the manner in which the Afghans or the Sikhs strike us; and it may help us to appreciate Pilate's position if we remember that, as we now look back upon the Indian mutiny, he, if he was observant and well informed, must have looked forward to that awful episode in Roman history which closed with the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the last vestiges of Jewish national independence. We may be very sure that the predictions that not one stone of the Temple should be left upon another, that the eagles should be gathered together, that there should be fire and blood and vapour of smoke, were not isolated. Pilate and his successors must have known that they sat on a volcano long before the explosion came.

It was in such a state of things that Pilate learned that a prophet who for some years had been preaching in various parts of the province had entered Jerusalem with some of the circumstances which denote a powerful popular movement. Further he received from the priests, from the head of the established religion, complaints against the new religious reformer curiously like those which orthodox Mahommedans make against Wahabee preachers, or orthodox Sikhs against Kookas. As to the detail of the conduct which he pursued under these circumstances, we have not, I think, the materials for criticism. We know only one side of the story, and that side is told by men whose view of their position obviously is that they ought to submit with patient resignation to the deepest of all conceivable wrongs. Pilate's reports to his superiors and copies of the information on which he acted, with descriptions by impartial observers of the state of feeling in Palestine at the time, would be absolutely essential to anything like a real judgment on what he did. It may be true that he sacrificed one whom he believed to be an innocent man to pacify the priests. It may be that he was perfectly convinced that the step taken was necessary to the peace of the country, and he may have formed that opinion more or less rashly. On these points we are and shall for ever continue to be as much in the dark as on the merits of the quarrel which he is said to have made up with Herod. We know nothing whatever about it, nor is it material to the present subject.

The point to which I wish to direct attention is that Pilate's duty was to maintain peace and order in Judea and to maintain the Roman power. It is surely impossible to contend seriously that it was his duty, or that it could be the duty of any one in his position, to recognize in the person brought to his judgment seat, I do not say God Incarnate, but the teacher and preacher of a higher form of morals and a more enduring form of social order than that of which he was himself the representative. To a man in Pilate's position the morals and the social order which he represents are for all practical purposes final and absolute standards. If, in order to evade the obvious inference from this, it is said that Pilate ought to have respected the principle of religious liberty as propounded by Mr. Mill, the answer is that if he had done so he would have run the risk of setting the whole province in a blaze. It is only in very modern times, and under the influence of modern sophisms, that belief and action have come to be so much separated in these parts of the world that the distinction between the temporal and spiritual department of affairs even appears to be tenable; but this is a point for future discussion.

If this should appear harsh, I would appeal again to Indian experience. Suppose that some great religious reformer--say, for instance, some one claiming to be the Guru of the Sikhs, or the Imam in whose advent many Mahommedans devoutly believe--were to make his appearance in the Punjab or the North-West Provinces. Suppose that there was good reason to believe--and nothing is more probable--that whatever might be the preacher's own personal intentions, his preaching was calculated to disturb the public peace and produce mutiny and rebellion: and suppose further (though the supposition is one which it is hardly possible to make even in imagination), that a British officer, instead of doing whatever might be necessary, or executing whatever orders he might receive, for the maintenance of British authority, were to consider whether he ought not to become a disciple of the Guru or Imam. What course would be taken towards him? He would be instantly dismissed with ignominy from the service which he would disgrace, and if he acted up to his convictions, and preferred his religion to his Queen and country, he would be hanged as a rebel and a traitor.

But let us pass from Pilate to his successors, the various persecutors who at intervals opposed the progress of Christianity during the first three centuries of its history. The charge against them is that they interfered with liberty, that they exercised coercion otherwise than for the purpose of self-protection, that they ought to have acted with absolute indifference and complete toleration. That is certainly not the lesson which I should be inclined to draw from the history in question. It is, I think, altogether unjust to blame them for maintaining and defending their own view. The true charge is, that they acted as if they bad no such view to maintain; that, instead of offering an intelligent opposition to Christianity in so far as they deliberately thought it wrong, they inflicted on it occasional brutalities, proceeding from a blind instinct of fear and hatred, and unaccompanied by any sort of appreciation of the existence of the problems which Christianity was trying to solve. I should say, that they were to blame quite as much for what they left undone as for what they did. Neither Marcus Aurelius nor his successors were wrong in seeing that the Christian and the Roman ideas of life differed widely, that there was not room for both, and that the two systems must of necessity struggle. Their faults were these among others. In the first place, their treatment of Christianity was, as far as we can now judge, brutal and clumsy. They persecuted just enough to irritate their antagonists, to give them a series of moral victories, and not enough to crush and exterminate. Atrocious as an exterminating policy would have been, it would probably have succeeded, in the same miserable sense in which the Spanish Inquisition succeeded, but it would at all events have been intelligible. The guilt incurred would not have been incurred for nothing. It would not have defeated itself.

In the second place, they are to blame for not having recognized the patent fact that Christianity had an intensely strong hold on men, and for being debarred by their pride and other evil tempers from trying to discover its source. I do not say that the Roman emperors and governors ought all to have become Christians, but men worthy to be regarded as rulers of men ought to have studied Christianity with deep attention. If it appeared to them to be false, or to be true in part only, they ought to have treated it as false, or partially true, and to have made public and put on record the grounds on which they regarded other parts of it as false. It may sometimes be necessary for Governments to legislate directly against religions. It may often be necessary for them to adopt a policy indirectly unfavourable to them, but it never can be right or wise to trust in such matters to sheer brute force producing bodily fear. Governments ought not only to threaten, but to persuade and to instruct. The Romans ought to have had a great deal more faith in themselves and in their own principles of conduct than they ever showed. They ought not to have left the whole management of the human heart and soul in the hands of devotional passion. They should have stood forward as competitors with Christianity in the task of improving the world which they had conquered. They should have admitted fully and at once the truth of one most important side of the Christian religion, a side which has been far too much forgotten--I mean its negative side. They should have owned that idolatry had had its day, that the Gods of their Pantheon, whatever they might once have represented, were mere dead idols, lies in marble, and gold. They should have dethroned Jupiter and his fellows, and stood forward frankly and honourably to meet the new creed upon its merits, resolved to learn, and no less resolved to teach, for they had much to teach. If they had met as enemies in this spirit, would they not have been generous enemies? If there had been strife, would it not have been a noble strife? Would the Christian priests and bishops, full of religious emotions, and ready, as the event showed, to degrade the human race by wild asceticism and to bewilder it with metaphysical dreams, have had nothing to learn from the greatest masters of every form of organised human effort, of law, of government, of war, and of morals that the world has ever seen? In point of fact we know that the Church did learn much from ancient Rome. It might have learned much more, it might have unlearned much, if the two great powers of the world had stood to each other in the attitude of generous opponents, each working its way to the truth from a different side, and not in the attitudes of a touching though slightly hysterical victim mauled from time to time by a sleepy tyrant in his intervals of fury. In short, the indifference of the Empire to the whole subject of religion, which had grown out of its plethora of wealth and power, was its real reproach.

This illustration of the way in which I look at the history of religious struggles is enough for my purpose. If it were thrown, as it easily might be, into a logical shape, it would show that the merits of the attitude of the Empire towards Christianity depend upon our estimate of the object in view, and the efficiency and expense of the means adopted to obtain it; but this is of little importance. The main fact to bear in mind is that there are and there must be struggles between creeds and political systems, just as there are struggles between different nations and classes if and in so far as their interests do not coincide. If Roman and Christian, Trinitarian and Arian, Catholic and Protestant, Church and State, both want the allegiance of mankind, they must fight for it. No peace is possible for men except upon one of two conditions. You may purchase absolute freedom by the destruction of all power, or you may measure the relative powers of the opposing forces by which men are acted upon, and conduct yourself accordingly. The first of these courses is death. The second is harmonious and well-regulated life; but the essence of life is force, and force is the negation of liberty.

It may very naturally be asked upon this, Do you then oppose yourself to the whole current of civilised opinion for three hundred years at least? Do you wish to go back to the Inquisition and the war which desolated the Netherlands and Germany for about eighty years? Is the whole theory and practice of English Liberalism a complete mistake, and are writers like De Maistre and his modern disciples and imitators our true guides?

To this I should answer most emphatically, No. I do not object to the practice of modern Liberals. Under great difficulties they have contrived to bring about highly satisfactory and creditable results, but their theories have presented those defects which are inseparable from the theories of a weak and unpopular party making its way towards power. They could persuade those whom they had to persuade only by discovering arguments to show how toleration could be reconciled with the admission of the absolute truth of religious dogmas. They had to disconnect religious liberty from scepticism, and it is pretty clear that they were not aware of the degree in which they really are connected. At all events, they avoided the admission of the fact by resting their case principally on the three following points, each of which would have its due weight upon the theory which I have stated:

The first point was that, though persecution silences, it does not convince, and that what is wanted is conviction and not acquiescence. This is an argument to show that persecution does not effect its purpose, and is answered, or at least greatly diminished in weight, by the consideration that, though by silencing A you do not convince A, you make it very much easier to convince B, and you protect B's existing convictions against A's influence.

The second point was that people will not be damned for bona-fide errors of opinion. This is an argument to show that a severe and bloody persecution is too high a price to pay for the absence of religious error.

The third point, which I am inclined to think was in practice the most powerful of all with the class who feel more than they think, was that to support religion by persecution is alien to the sentiment of most religions, and especially to that of the Christian religion, which is regarded as peculiarly humane. In so far as Christianity recognises and is founded on hell, this has always appeared to me to be an inconsistency, not in all cases unamiable when genuine, but weak and often hypocritical. Whatever its value may be, it falls under the same head as the second point. It is an argument to show that persecution is an excessive price to pay for religious uniformity.

The true inference from the commonplaces about the doubtfulness of religious theories, and the inefficacy of persecution as a means of obtaining the object desired except at a ruinous price, is to moderate the passions of the combatants, not to put an end to the fight. Make people understand that there are other objects in life than the attainment of religious truth; that they are so ignorant and so likely to be mistaken in their religious opinions that if they persecute at all they are as likely to persecute truth as falsehood; that in order to be effectual a persecution must be so powerful, so systematic, and so vigorously sustained as to crush, paralyse, and destroy; and that the result when obtained will probably be of exceedingly small importance, and perhaps mischievous as far as it goes, and you teach people not to live at peace, but to strive with moderation, and with a better appreciation of the character and importance of the contest, its intricacy, its uncertainty, and the difficulty of distinguishing friends from enemies, than is possible in simpler times. Sceptical arguments in favour of moderation about religion are the only conclusive ones.

If it should be supposed that moderation would render controversy uninteresting or ineffective, it should be remembered that there is a confusion in common thought and language between brutality and efficiency. There is a notion that the severest, the most effectual contest is that in which the greatest amount of bodily injury is done by the side which wins to the side which loses; but this is not the case. When you want a fair and full trial of strength, elaborate precautions are taken to make the test real and to let the best man win. If prizefighters were allowed to give foul blows and hit or kick a man when he is down, they would hurt each other much more than they do, but their relative strength and endurance would be far less effectually tested. So with religions; what is wanted is not peace, but fair play.

De Maistre somewhere says that the persecution which the Church had suffered from the syllogism was infinitely worse than all that racks and crosses could inflict; and the remark, though odd, is perfectly true. Modern religious struggles--conducted by discussion, by legislation, by social intolerance--are to the religious persecutions of earlier times what modern war is to ancient war. Ancient war meant to the defeated at best death, at worst slavery, exile, and personal degradation. Modern war is far more effective, though the procedure is infinitely less brutal and degrading. Either the German or the French army in 1870-1 would have crushed the hordes which fought at Chalons or Tours as a steam-engine cracks a nut. The French armies were just as effectually defeated and disabled by the Germans as if the prisoners had been sold for slaves.

It is the same with controversy. Civil war, legal persecution, the Inquisition, with all their train of horrors, form a far less searching and effective conflict than that intellectual warfare from which no institution, no family, no individual man is free when discussion is free from legal punishment. Argument, ridicule, the expression of contempt for cherished feelings, the exposure of cherished fallacies, chilled or wounded affection, injury to prospects public or private, have their terrors as well as more material weapons and more definite wounds. The result of such a warfare is that the weaker opinion--the less robust and deeply seated feeling--is rooted out to the last fibre, the place where it grew being seared as with a hot iron; whereas the prison, the stake, and the sword only strike it down, and leave it to grow again in better circumstances. A blow bruises, and discolours for a time. Nitrate of silver does not bruise, but it changes the colour of the whole body for its whole life. It is impossible to draw any definite line at which the sensation of pressure becomes painful. It may be a touch just sufficient to attract attention. It may inflict the most agonising pain in many different ways. It is the same with respect to the pain occasioned by treating a man;s opinions as false. The disagreement may be pleasant, it may be of trifling importance, it may cause intense pain, and this may be of many different kinds, the immediate causes of which are very various. Every mode of differing from a man which causes him pain infringes his liberty of thought to some extent. It makes it artificially painful for him to think in a certain way, and so violates Mr. Mill's canon about liberty, unless it is done for self-protection, which is seldom the case. Mr. Mill's doctrines about liberty of opinion and discussion appear to me to be a kind of Quakerism. They are like teaching that all revenge whatever, even in its mildest form, is wrong, because revenge carried to an extreme is destructive of society.


  1. "On 'Social Macadamisation,'" by L. S., in Fraser's Magazine for August, 1872.
  2. Act xxi of 1850. Commonly, though not very correctly, called the "Lex Loci Act."
  3. See chap. iii. p. 105.
  4. There is a statute, 9 Will. III c. 35, which inflicts severe penalties on persons "who assert, or maintain, that there are more Gods than one, or deny the Christian religion to be true, or the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be of divine authority;" and blasphemy is an offence at common law; but I believe the statute has never been enforced in modern times, and it ought to be repealed. It is singular that the statute does not punish the profession of Atheism.

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