The text is taken from my copy of the fourth edition, 1842. This version of Political Justice, originally published in 1793, is based on the corrected third edition, published in 1798.
Opinions as a Subject of Political Institution
OF THE SUPPRESSIONS OF ERRONEOUS OPINIONS IN RELIGION AND GOVERNMENT
Of heresy. - Arguments by which the suppres-
sion of heresy has been recommended. -
Answer. - Ignorance not necessary to make
men virtuous. - Reason, and not force, the
proper corrective of sophistry. - Incongruity
of the attempt to restrain thought - to restrain
the freedom of speech. _ Consequences that
would result. - Fallibility of the men by whom
authority is exercised. - Of erroneous opinions
in government. Iniquity of the attempt to
restrain them. - Difficulty of suppressing
opinions by force. - Severities that would be
necessary. - Without persecution and oppres-
sion, opinions do not lead to violence.
THE same views which have prevailed for the introduction of religious establishments have inevitably led to the idea of provisions against the rise and progress of heresy. No arguments can be adduced in favour of the political patronage of truth that will not be equally cogent in behalf of the political discouragement of error. Nay, they will, of the two, perhaps be most cogent in the latter case; as to prevent men from going wrong is a milder and more temperate assumption of power than to compel them to go right. It has however happened that this argument, though more tenable, has had fewer adherents. Men are more easily reconciled to abuse in the distribution of rewards, than in the infliction of penalties. It seems therefore the less necessary laboriously to insist upon the refutation of this principle; its discussion is principally requisite for the sake of method.
Various arguments have been alleged in defence of this restraint. 'The importance of opinion, as a general proposition, is notorious and unquestionable. Ought not political institution to take under its inspection that root from which all our voluntary actions are ultimately derived? The opinions of men must be expected to be as various as their education and their temper: ought not government to exert its foresight, to prevent this discord from breaking out into anarchy and violence? There is no proposition so absurd, or so hostile to morality and public good, as not to have found its votaries: will there be no danger in suffering these eccentricities to proceed unmolested, and every perverter of truth and justice to make as many converts as he is able? It may be found indeed to be a hopeless task to endeavour to extirpate by the hand of power errors already established; but is it not the duty of government to prevent their ascendancy, to check the growth of their adherents, and the introduction of heresies hitherto unknown? Can those persons to whom the care of the general welfare is confided, or who are fitted, by their situation, or their talents, to suggest proper regulations to the adoption of the community, be justified in conniving at the spread of such extravagant and pernicious opinions as strike at the root of order and morality? Simplicity of mind, and an understanding undebauched with sophistry, have ever been the characteristics of a people among whom virtue has flourished: ought not government to exert itself, to exclude the inroad of qualities opposite to these? It is thus that the friends of moral justice have ever contemplated with horror the progress of infidelity and latitudinarian principles. It was thus that the elder Cato viewed with grief the importation into his own country of that plausible and loquacious philosophy by which Greece had already been corrupted.'1
There are several trains of reflection which these reasoning suggest. None of them can be more important than that which may assist us in detecting the error of the elder Cato, and of other persons who have been the zealous, but mistaken, advocates of virtue. Ignorance is not necessary to render men virtuous. If it were, we might reasonably conclude that virtue was an imposture, and that it was our duty to free ourselves from its shackles. The cultivation of the understanding has no tendency to corrupt the heart. A man who should possess all the science of Newton, and all the genius of Shakespeare, would not, on that account, be a bad man. Want of great and comprehensive views had as considerable a share as benevolence in the grief of Cato. The progress of science and intellectual cultivation, in some degree, resembles the taking to pieces a disordered machine, with a purpose, by reconstructing it, of enhancing its value. An uninformed and timid spectator might be alarmed at the temerity of the artist, at the confused heap of pins and wheels that a-re laid aside at random, and might take it for granted that nothing but destruction could be the consequence. But he would be disappointed. It is thus that the extravagant sallies of mind are the prelude of the highest wisdom, and that the dreams of Ptolemy were destined to precede the discoveries of Newton.
The event cannot be other than favourable. Mind would else cease to be mind. It would be more plausible to say that the incessant cultivation of the understanding will terminate in madness than that it will terminate in vice. As long as enquiry is suffered to proceed, and science to improve, our knowledge is perpetually increased. Shall we know everything else, and nothing of ourselves? Shall we become clear-sighted and penetrating in all other subjects, without increasing our penetration upon the subject of man? Is vice most truly allied to wisdom, or to folly? Can mankind perpetually increase in wisdom, without increasing in the knowledge of what it is wise for them to do? Can a man have a clear discernment, unclouded with any remains of former mistake, that this is the action he ought to perform, most conducive to his own interest, and to the general good, most delightful at the instant, and satisfactory in the review, most agreeable to reason, justice and the nature of things, and refrain from performing it? Every system which has been constructed relative to the nature of superior. beings and Gods, amidst its other errors, has reasoned truly upon these topics, and taught that the accession of wisdom and knowledge led, not to malignity and tyranny, but to benevolence and justice.
Secondly, the injustice of punishing men for their opinions and arguments will be still more visible if we reflect on the nature of punishment. Punishment is one of the classes of coercion, and, as such, may perhaps be allowed to have an occasional propriety, where the force introduced is the direct correlative of corporal violence previously exerted. But the case of false opinions and perverse arguments is of a very different nature. Does any man assert falsehood? Nothing further can appear requisite than that it should be confronted with truth. Does he bewilder us with sophistry? Introduce the light of reason, and his deceptions will vanish. Where argument, erroneous statements, and misrepresentation alone are employed, argument alone should be called forth to encounter them.
To enable us to estimate properly the value of laws for the punishment of heresy, let us suppose a country to be sufficiently provided with such laws, and observe the result. The object is to prevent men from entertaining certain opinions, or, in other words, from thinking in a certain way. What can be more absurd than to undertake to put fetters upon the subtlety of thought? How frequently does the individual who desires to restrain it in himself fail in the attempt? Add to this that prohibition and menace in this respect, will frequently give new restlessness to the curiosity of the mind. I must not so much as think of the propositions that there is no God; that the stupendous miracles of Moses and Christ were never really performed; that the dogmas of the Athanasian creed are erroneous. I must shut my eyes, and run blindly into all the opinions, religious and political, that my ancestors regarded as sacred. Will this, in all instances, be possible?
There is another consideration, trite indeed, but the triteness of which is an additional argument of its truth. Swift says 'Men ought to be permitted to think as they please, but not to propagate their pernicious opinions.'2 The obvious answer to this is, 'We are much obliged to him: how would he be able to punish our heresy, even if he desired it, so long as it was concealed?' The attempt to punish opinion is absurd: we may be silent respecting our conclusions, if we please; the train of thinking by which those conclusions are generated cannot fail to be silent.
'But, if men be not punished for their thoughts, they may be punished for uttering those thoughts.' No. This is not less impossible than the other. By what arguments will you persuade every man in the nation to exercise the trade of an informer? By what arguments will you persuade my bosom-friend, with whom I repose all the feelings of my heart, to repair immediately from my company to a magistrate, in order to procure my commitment, for so doing, to the prisons of the inquisition? In countries where this is attempted, there will be a frequent struggle, the government endeavouring to pry into our most secret transactions, and the people excited to countermine, to outwit and to execrate their superintendents.
But the most valuable consideration which this part of the subject suggests is, Supposing all this were done, what judgement must we form of the people among whom it is done? Though all this cannot, yet much may be performed; though the embryo cannot be annihilated, it may be prevented from expanding itself into the dimensions of a man. The arguments by which we were supposing a system for the restraint of opinion to be recommended were arguments derived from a benevolent anxiety for the virtue of mankind, and to prevent their degeneracy. Will this end be accomplished? Let us contrast a nation of men daring to think, to speak, and to act what they believe to be right, and fettered with no spurious motivesto dissuade them from right, with a nation that fears to speak, and fears to think upon the most interesting subjects of human enquiry. Can any spectacle be more degrading than this timidity? Can men in whom mind is thus annihilated be capable of any good or valuable purpose? Can this most abject of all slaveries be the genuine state, the true perfection of the human species?3
Another argument, though it has often been stated to the world, deserves to be mentioned in this place. Governments no more than individual men are infallible. The cabinets of princes and the parliaments of kingdoms, if there by any truth in considerations already stated, 4 are often less likely to be right in their conclusions than the theorist in his closet. But, dismissing the estimate of greater and less, it was to be presumed from the principles of human nature, and is found true in fact, that cabinets and parliaments are liable to vary from each other in opinion. What system of religion or government has not, in its turn, been patronized by national authority? The consequence therefore of admitting this authority is not merely attributing to government a right to impose some, but any, or all, opinions upon the governed. Are Paganism and Christianity, the religions of Mahomet, Zoroaster and Confucius, are monarchy and aristocracy, in all their forms, equally worthy to be perpetuated among mankind? Is it certain that the greatest of human calamities is change? Must we never hope for advance and improvement? Have no revolution in government, and no reformation in religion, been productive of more benefit than disadvantage? There is no species of reasoning, in defence of the suppression of heresy, which may not be brought back to this monstrous principle that the knowledge of truth, and the introduction of right principles of policy, are circumstances altogether indifferent to the welfare of mankind.
The same reasonings that are here employed against the forcible suppression of religious heresy will be found equally valid with respect to political. The first circumstance that will not fail to suggest itself to every reflecting mind is, What sort of constitution must that be which must never be examined? whose excellencies must be the constant topic of eulogium, but respecting which we must never permit ourselves to enquire in what they consist? Can it be the interest of society to proscribe all investigation respecting the wisdom of its regulations? Or must our debates be occupied with provisions of temporary convenience; and are we forbid to ask whether there may not be something fundamentally wrong in the principles of the structure? Reason and good sense will not fail to augur ill of that system of things which is too sacred to be looked into; and to suspect that there must be something essentially weak in what thus shrinks from the eye of curiosity. Add to which that, however we may doubt of the importance of religious disputes, nothing can less reasonably be exposed to question than that the happiness of mankind is essentially connected with the improvement of political science.
That indeed, in the present situation of human affairs, is sufficiently evident, which was formerly endeavoured to be controverted, that the opinions of men are calculated essentially to affect their social condition. We can no longer, with any plausibility, lay claim to toleration, upon pretence of the innocence of error. It would not, at this time, be mere indifference, it would be infatuation, in our rulers, to say, We will leave the busily idle votaries of speculation to manage their controversies for themselves, secure that their disputes are, in no degree, of concern to the welfare of mankind.
Opinion is the most potent engine that can be brought within the sphere of political society. False opinion, superstition and prejudice, have hitherto been the true supporters of usurpation and despotism. Enquiry, and the improvement of the human mind, are now shaking to the Centre those bulwarks that have so long held mankind in thraldom. This is the genuine state of the case: how ought our governors, and the friends of public tranquillity, to conduct themselves in this momentous crisis?
We no longer claim toleration, as was formerly occasionally done, from the unimportance of opinion; we claim it because a contrary system will be found pregnant with the most fatal disasters, because toleration only can give a mild and auspicious character to the changes that are impending.
It has lately become a topic of discussion with political enquirers whether it be practicable forcibly to effect the suppression of novel opinions. Instances have been cited in which this seems to have been performed. A cool and deliberate calculation has been made, as to the number of legal or illegal murders that must be committed, the quantity of misery that must be inflicted, the extent and duration of the wars that must be carried on, according to the circumstances of the case, to accomplish this purpose.
In answer to this sort of reasoning, it may be observed, first, that, if there are instances where a spreading opinion seems to have been extirpated by violence, the instances are much more numerous where this expedient has been employed in vain. It should appear that an opinion must be in a particular degree of reception, and not have exceeded it, in order to give to this engine a chance of effecting its purpose. Above all, it is necessary that the violence by which a set of opinions is to be suppressed should be unintermitted and invariable. If it should happen, as often has happened in similar cases, that the partisans of the new opinion should alternately gain the ascendancy over their oppressors, we shall then have only an alternate succession of irritation and persecution. If there be the least intermission of the violence, it is to be expected that the persecuted party will recover their courage, and the whole business will be to be begun over again. However seriously anyone may be bent upon the suppression of opinions, it would be absurd for him to build upon the supposition that the powers of government will never be transferred to other hands, and that the measures now adopted will be equably pursued to a distant termination.
Secondly, we must surely be induced on strong grounds to form a terrible idea of the consequences to result from the ascendancy of new opinions, before we can bring ourselves to assent to such severe methods for their suppression. Inexpressible must be the enormities committed by us, before we can expect to succeed in such an undertaking. To persecute men for their opinions is, of all the denominations of violence, that to which an ingenuous mind can with the greatest difficulty be reconciled. The persons, in this case, most obnoxious to our hostility are the upright and conscientious. They are of all men the most true to their opinions, and the least reluctant to evils in which those opinions may involve counter the evils in which those opinions may involve them. It may be they are averse to every species of disorder, pacific, benevolent, and peculiarly under the guidance of public spirit and public affections. A gallant spirit would teach us to encounter opinion with opinion, and argument with argument. It is a painful species of cowardice to which we have recourse, whatever be our motive, when we determine to overbear an opponent by violence, whom e cannot convince. The tendency of persecution is to generate the most odious vices: in one part of the community, those malevolent passions which teach us to regard our brethren as prodigies and monsters, and that treacherous and vindictive spirit which is ever lying in wait to destroy: the other part of the community, terror, hatred, hypocrisy and falsehood. Supposing us ultimately to succeed in our object, what sort of a people will be the survivors of this infernal purification?
Thirdly, opinion, though formidable in its tendencies, is perhaps never calamitous in its operation but so far as it is encountered with injustice and violence. In countries where religious toleration has been established, opposite sectaries have been found to pursue their disputes in tranquillity. It is only where measures of severity are adopted that animosity is engendered. The mere prospect of melioration may inspire a sedate and consistent ardour; but oppression and suffering are necessary to render men bitter, impatient and sanguinary. If we persecute the advocates of improvement, and fail of our object, we may fear a terrible retribution; but, if we leave the contest to its genuine course, and only apply ourselves to prevent mutual exasperation, the issue perhaps, whichever way it is determined, will be beneficent and auspicious.
1The reader will consider this as the language of the objectors. The most eminent of the Greek philosophers were, in reality, distinguished from all the other teachers by the fortitude with Which they conformed to the precepts they taught.
See above, Chap. 1, P. 563.
Book II, Chap. VI.
Book V, Chap. XXIII, P. 550.