Administrative Nihilism (1871)

Collected Essays I

[251] To me, and, as I trust, to the great majority of those whom I address, the great attempt to educate the people of England which has just been set afoot, is one of the most satisfactory and hopeful events in our modern history. But it is impossible, even if it were desirable, to shut our eyes to the fact, that there is a minority, not inconsiderable in numbers, nor deficient in supporters of weight and authority, in whose judgment all this legislation is a step in the wrong direction, false in principle, and consequently sure to produce evil in practice.

The arguments employed by these objectors are of two kinds. The first is what I will venture to term the caste argument; for, if logically carried out, it would end in the separation of the people of this country into castes, as permanent and as [252] sharply defined, if not as numerous, as those of India. It is maintained that the whole fabric of society will be destroyed if the poor, as well as the rich, are educated; that anything like sound and good education will only make them discontented with their station and raise hopes which, in the great majority of cases, will be bitterly disappointed. It is said: There must be hewers of wood and drawers of water, scavengers and coal-heavers, day labourers and domestic servants, or the work of society will come to a standstill. But, if you educate and refine everybody, nobody will be content to assume these functions, and all the world will want to be gentlemen and ladies.

One hears this argument most frequently from the representatives of the well-to-do middle class; and, coming from them, it strikes me as peculiarly inconsistent, as the one thing they admire, strive after, and advise their own children to do, is to get on in the world, and, if possible, rise out of the class in which they were born into that above them. Society needs grocers and merchants as much as it needs coal-heavers; but if a merchant accumulates wealth and works his way to a baronetcy, or if the son of a greengrocer becomes a lord chancellor, or an archbishop, or, as a successful soldier, wins a peerage, all the world admires them; and looks with pride upon the social system which renders such achievements possible. [253] Nobody suggests that there is anything wrong: their being discontented with their station; or that, in their cases society suffers by men of ability reaching the positions for which Nature has fitted them.

But there are better replies than those of the tu quoque sort to the caste argument. In the first place, it is not true that education, as such, unfits men for rough and laborious, or even disgusting, occupations. The life of a sailor is rougher and harder than that of nine landsmen out of ten, and yet, as every ship's captain knows, no sailor was ever the worse for possessing a trained intelligence. The life of a medical practitioner, especially in the country, is harder and more laborious than that of most artisans, and he is constantly obliged to do things, which, in point of pleasantness, cannot be ranked above scavengering–yet he always ought to be, and he frequently is, a highly educated man. In the second place, though it may be granted that the words of the catechism, which require a man to do his duty in the station to which it has pleased God to call him, give an admirable definition of our obligation to ourselves and to society; yet the question remains, how is any given person to find out what is the particular station to which it has pleased God to call him? A new-born infant does not come into the world labelled scavenger, shopkeeper, bishop or duke. One mass of red pulp is just like another to all [254] outward appearance. And it is only by finding out what his faculties are good for, and seeking, not for the sake of gratifying a paltry vanity, but as the highest duty to himself and to his fellow-men, to put himself into the position in which they can attain their full development, that the man discovers his true station. That which is to be lamented, I fancy, is not that society should do its utmost to help capacity to ascend from the lower strata to the higher, but that it has no machinery by which to facilitate the descent of incapacity from the higher strata to the lower. In that noble romance, the "Republic" (which is now, thanks to the Master of Balliol, as intelligible to us all as if it had been written in our mother tongue), Plato makes Socrates say that he should like to inculcate upon the citizens of his ideal state just one "royal lie."

"'Citizens,' we shall say to them in our tale–'You are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and these He has composed of gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honour; others of silver, to be auxiliaries; others again, who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen, He has made of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children. But as you are of the same original family, a golden parent will sometimes have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son. And God proclaims to the rulers, as a first principle, that before all they should watch over their offspring, and see what elements mingle with their nature; for if the son of a golden or silver parent has an admixture of brass and iron, then nature orders a transposition of ranks, and the eye of the ruler must not be pitiful towards his child because he has to descend in the scale and become a [255] husbandman or artisan; just as there may be others sprung from the artisan class, who are raised to honour, and become guardians and auxiliaries. For an oracle says that when a man of brass and iron guards the State, it will then be destroyed.'"1

Time, whose tooth gnaws away everything else, is powerless against truth; and the lapse of more than two thousand years has not weakened the force of these wise words. Nor is it necessary that, as Plato suggests, society should provide functionaries expressly charged with the performance of the difficult duty of picking out the men of brass from those of silver and gold. Educate, and the latter will certainly rise to the top; remove all those artificial props by which the brass and iron folk are kept at the top, and, by a law as sure as that of gravitation, they will gradually sink to the bottom. We have all known noble lords who would have been coachmen, or gamekeepers, or billiard-markers, if they had not been kept afloat by our social corks; we have all known men among the lowest ranks, of whom every one has said, "What might not that man have become, if he had only had a little education?"

And who that attends, even in the most superficial way, to the conditions upon which the stability of modern society–and especially of a society like ours, in which recent legislation has placed sovereign authority in the hands of the [256] masses, whenever they are united enough to wield their power–can doubt that every man of high natural ability, who is both ignorant and miserable, is as great a danger to society as a rocket without a stick is to the people who fire it? Misery is a match that never goes out; genius, as an explosive power, beats gunpowder hollow; and if knowledge, which should give that power guidance, is wanting, the chances are not small that the rocket will simply run a-muck among friends and foes. What gives force to the socialistic movement which is now stirring European society to its depths, but a determination on the part of the naturally able men among the proletariat, to put an end, somehow or other, to the misery and degradation in which a large proportion of their fellows are steeped? The question, whether the means by which they purpose to achieve this end are adequate or not, is at this moment the most important of all political questions–and it is beside my present purpose to discuss it. All I desire to point out is, that if the chance of the controversy being decided calmly and rationally, and not by passion and force, looks miserably small to an impartial bystander, the reason is that not one in ten thousand of those who constitute the ultimate court of appeal, by which questions of the utmost difficulty, as well as of the most momentous gravity, will have to be decided, is prepared by education to comprehend the real [257] nature of the suit brought before their tribunal.

Finally, as to the ladies and gentlemen question, all I can say is, would that every woman-child born into this world were trained to be a lady, and every man-child a gentleman! But then I do not use those much-abused words by way of distinguishing people who wear fine clothes, and live in fine houses, and talk aristocratic slang, from those who go about in fustian, and live in back slums, and talk gutter slang. Some inborn plebeian blindness, in fact, prevents me from understanding what advantage the former have over the latter. I have never even been able to understand why pigeon-shooting at Hurlingham should be refined and polite, while a rat-killing match in Whitechapel is low; or why "What a lark" should be coarse, when one hears "How awfully jolly" drop from the most refined lips twenty times in an evening.

Thoughtfulness for others, generosity, modesty, and self-respect, are the qualities which make a real gentleman, or lady, as distinguished from the veneered article which commonly goes by that name. I by no means wish to express any sentimental preference for Lazarus against Dives, but, on the face of the matter, one does not see why the practice of these virtues should be more difficult in one state of life than another; and any one who has had a wide experience among all [258] sorts and conditions of men, will, I think, agree with me that they are as common in the lower ranks of life as in the higher.

Leaving the caste argument aside then, as inconsistent with the practice of those who employ it, as devoid of any justification in theory, and as utterly mischievous if its logical consequences were carried out, let us turn to the other class of objectors. To these opponents, the Education Act is only one of a number of pieces of legislation to which they object on principle; and they include under like condemnation the Vaccination Act, the Contagious Diseases Act, and all other sanitary Acts; all attempts on the part of the State to prevent adulteration, or to regulate injurious trades; all legislative interference with anything that bears directly or indirectly on commerce, such as shipping, harbours, railways, roads, cab-fares, and the carriage of letters; and all attempts to promote the spread of knowledge by the establishment of teaching bodies, examining bodies, libraries, or museums, or by the sending out of scientific expeditions; all endeavours to advance art by the establishment of schools of design, or picture galleries; or by spending money upon an architectural public building when a brick box would answer the purpose. According to their views, not a shilling of public money must be bestowed upon a public park or pleasure ground; not sixpence upon the relief of starvation, [259] or the cure of disease. Those who hold these views support them by two lines of argument. They enforce them deductively by arguing from an assumed axiom, that the State has no right to do anything but protect its subjects from aggression. The State is simply a policeman, and its duty is neither more nor less than to prevent robbery and murder and enforce contracts. It is not to promote good, nor even to do anything to prevent evil, except by the enforcement of penalties upon those who have been guilty of obvious and tangible assault upon purses or persons. And, according to this view, the proper form of government is neither a monarchy, an aristocracy, nor a democracy, but an astynomocracy, or police government. On the other hand, these views are supported a posteriori, by an induction from observation, which professes to show that whatever is done by a Government beyond these negative limits, is not only sure to be done badly, but to be done much worse than private enterprise would have done the same thing.

I am by no means clear as to the truth of the latter proposition. It is generally supported by statements which prove clearly enough that the State does a great many things very badly. But this is really beside the question. The State lives in a glass house; we see what it tries to do, and all its failures, partial or total, are made the most of. But private enterprise is sheltered under [260] good opaque bricks and mortar. The public rarely knows what it tries to do, and only hears of failures when they are gross and patent to all the world. Who is to say how private enterprise would come out if it tried its hand at State work? Those who have had most experience of joint-stock companies and their management, will probably be least inclined to believe in the innate superiority of private enterprise over State management. If continental bureaucracy and centralisation be fraught with multitudinous evils, surely English beadleocracy and parochial obstruction are not altogether lovely. If it be said that, as a matter of political experience, it is found to be for the best interests, including the healthy and free development, of a people, that the State should restrict itself to what is absolutely necessary, and should leave to the voluntary efforts of individuals as much as voluntary effort can be got to do, nothing can be more just. But, on the other hand, it seems to me that nothing can be less justifiable than the dogmatic assertion that State interference, beyond the limits of home and foreign police, must, under all circumstances, do harm.

Suppose, however, for the sake of argument, that we accept the proposition that the functions of the State may be properly summed up in the one great negative commandment,–"Thou shalt not allow any man to interfere with the liberty of [261] any other man,"–I am unable to see that the logical consequence is any such restriction of the power of Government, as its supporters imply. If my next-door neighbour chooses to have his drains in such a state as to create a poisonous atmosphere, which I breathe at the risk of typhoid and diphtheria, he restricts my just freedom to live just as much as if he went about with a pistol, threatening my life; if be is to be allowed to let his children go unvaccinated, he might as well be allowed to leave strychnine lozenges about in the way of mine; and if he brings them up untaught and untrained to earn their living, he is doing his best to restrict my freedom, by increasing the burden of taxation for the support of gaols and workhouses, which I have to pay.

The higher the state of civilisation, the more completely do the actions of one member of the social body influence all the rest, and the less possible is it for any one man to do a wrong thing without interfering, more or less, with the freedom of all his fellow-citizens. So that, even upon the narrowest view of the functions of the State, it must be admitted to have wider powers than the advocates of the police theory are disposed to admit.

It is urged, I am aware, that if the right of the State to step beyond the assigned limits is admitted at all, there is no stopping; and that the principle which justifies the State in enforcing [262] vaccination or education, will also justify it in prescribing my religious belief, or my mode of carrying on my trade or profession; in determining the number of courses I have for dinner. or the pattern of my waistcoat.

But surely the answer is obvious that, on similar grounds, the right of a man to eat when he is hungry might be disputed, because if you once allow that he may eat at all, there is no stopping him until he gorges himself, and suffers all the ills of a surfeit. In practice, the man leaves off when reason tells him he has had enough; and, in a properly organised State, the Government, being nothing but the corporate reason of the community, will soon find out when State interference has been carried far enough. And, so far as my acquaintance with those who carry on the business of Government goes, I must say that I find them far less eager to interfere with the people, than the people are to be interfered with. And the reason is obvious. The people are keenly sensible of particular evils, and, like a man suffering from pain, desire an immediate remedy. The statesman, on the other hand, is like the physician, who knows that he can stop the pain at once by an opiate; but who also knows that the opiate may do more harm than good in the long run. In three cases out of four the wisest thing he can do is to wait, and leave the case to nature. But in the fourth case, in which the symptoms are [263] unmistakable, and the cause of the disease distinctly known, prompt remedy saves a life. Is the fact that a wise physician will give as little medicine as possible any argument for his abstaining from giving any at all?

But the argument may be met directly. It may be granted that the State, or corporate authority of the people, might with perfect propriety order my religion, or my waistcoat, if as good grounds could be assigned for such an order as for the command to educate my children. And this leads us to the question which lies at the root of the whole discussion–the question, namely, upon what foundation does the authority of the State rest, and how are the limits of that authority to be determined?

One of the oldest and profoundest of English philosophers, Hobbes of Malmesbury writes thus:–

"The office of the sovereign, be it monarch or an assembly, consisteth in the end for which he was entrusted with the sovereign power, namely, the procuration of the safety of the people: to which he is obliged by the law of nature, and to render an account thereof to God, the author of that law, and to none but Him. But by safety, here, is not meant a bare preservation, but also all other contentments of life, which every man by lawful industry, without danger or hurt to the commonwealth, shall acquire to himself."

At first sight this may appear to be a statement of the police-theory of government, pure and simple; but it is not so. For Hobbes goes on to say:

[264] "And this is intended should be done, not by care applied to individuals, further than their protection from injuries, when they shall complain; but by a general providence contained in public instruction both of doctrine and example; and in the making and executing of good laws to which individual persons may apply their own cases."2

To a witness of the civil war between Charles I. and the Parliament, it is not wonderful that the dissolution of the bonds of society which is involved in such strife should appear to be "the greatest evil that can happen in this life;" and all who have read the "Leviathan" know to what length Hobbes's anxiety for the preservation of the authority of the representative of the sovereign power, whatever its shape, leads him. But the justice of his conception of the duties of the sovereign power does not seem to me to be invalidated by his monstrous doctrines respecting the sacredness of that power.

To Hobbes, who lived during the break-up of the sovereign power by popular force, society appeared to be threatened by everything which weakened that power; but, to John Locke, who witnessed the evils which flow from the attempt of the sovereign power to destroy the rights of the people by fraud and violence, the danger lay in the other direction.

The safety of the representative of the sovereign power itself is to Locke a matter of very small [265] moment, and he contemplates its abolition when it ceases to do its duty, and its replacement by another, as a matter of course. The great champion of the revolution of 1688 could do no less. Nor is it otherwise than natural that he should seek to limit, rather than to enlarge, the powers of the State, though in substance he entirely agrees with Hobbes's view of its duties:–

"But though men," says he, "when they enter into society, give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of nature, into the hands of the society, to be so far disposed of by the Legislature as the good of society shall require; yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse), the power of the society, or legislation, constituted by them can never be supposed to extend further than the common good, but is obliged to secure every one's property by providing against those three defects above mentioned, that made the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy. And so, whoever has the legislative or supreme power of any commonwealth, is bound to govern by established standing laws, promulgated and known to the people, and not by extemporary decrees; by indifferent and upright judges, who are to decide controversies by those laws; and to employ the force of the community at home only in the execution of such laws; or abroad, to prevent or redress foreign injuries, and secure the community from inroads and invasion. And all this is to be directed to no other end than the peace, safety, and public good of the people."3

Just as in the Case of Hobbes, so in that of Locke, it may at first sight appear from this passage that the latter philosopher's views of the [266] functions of government incline to the negative, rather than the positive, side. But a further study of Locke's writings will at once remove this misconception. In the famous "Letter concerning Toleration," Locke says:–

"The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.

"Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.

"It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all the people in general, and to every one of his subjects in particular, the just possession of those things belonging to this life.

"......The whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to these civil concernments.... All civil power, right, and dominion, is bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things."

Elsewhere in the same "Letter," Locke lays down the proposition that if the magistrate understand washing a child "to be profitable to the curing or preventing any disease that children are subject unto, and esteem the matter weighty enough to be taken care of by a law, in that case he may order it to be done."

Locke seems to differ most widely from Hobbes by his strong advocacy of a certain measure of toleration in religious matters. But the reason why the civil magistrate ought to leave religion alone is, according to Locke, simply this, that "true and saving religion consists in the inward [267] persuasion of the mind." And since "such is the nature of the understanding that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force," it is absurd to attempt to make men religious by compulsion. I cannot discover that Locke fathers the pet doctrine of modern Liberalism, that the toleration of error is a good thing in itself, and to be reckoned among the cardinal virtues; on the contrary, in this very "Letter on Toleration" he states in the clearest language that "No opinion contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate." And the practical corollary which he draws from this proposition is that there ought to be no toleration for either Papists or Atheists.

After Locke's time the negative view of the functions of Government gradually grew in strength, until it obtained systematic and able expression in Wilhelm von Humboldt's "Ideen,"4 the essence of which is the denial that the State has a right to be anything more than chief policeman. And, of late years, the belief in the efficacy of doing nothing, thus formulated, has acquired considerable popularity for several reasons. In the first place, men's speculative convictions have become less and less real; their tolerance is large [268] because their belief is small; they know that the State had better leave things alone unless it has a clear knowledge about them; and, with reason, they suspect that the knowledge of the governing power may stand no higher than the very low watermark of their own.

In the second place, men have become largely absorbed in the mere accumulation of wealth; and as this is a matter in which the plainest and strongest form of self-interest is intensely concerned, science (in the shape of Political Economy) has readily demonstrated that self-interest may be safely left to find the best way of attaining its ends. Rapidity and certainty of intercourse between different countries, the enormous development of the powers of machinery, and general peace (however interrupted by brief periods of warfare), have changed the face of commerce as completely as modern artillery has changed that of war. The merchant found himself as much burdened by ancient protective measures as the soldier by his armour–and negative legislation has been of as much use to the one as the stripping off of breast-plates, greaves, and buff-coat to the other. But because the soldier is better without his armour it does not exactly follow that it is desirable that our defenders should strip themselves stark naked; and it is not more apparent why laissez-faire–great and beneficial as it may be in all that relates to the accumulation of wealth–should be the one great commandment which the State is to obey in all other matters; and especially in those in which the justification of laissez-faire, namely, the keen insight given by the strong stimulus of direct personal interest, in matters clearly understood, is entirely absent.

Thirdly, to the indifference generated by the absence of fixed beliefs, and to the confidence in the efficacy of laissez-faire, apparently justified by experience of the value of that principle when applied to the pursuit of wealth, there must be added that nobler and better reason for a profound distrust of legislative interference, which animates Von Humboldt and shines forth in the pages of Mr. Mill's famous Essay on Liberty–I mean the just fear lest the end should be sacrificed to the means; lest freedom and variety should be drilled and disciplined out of human life in order that the great mill of the State should grind smoothly.

One of the profoundest of living English philosophers, who is at the same time the most thoroughgoing and consistent of the champions of astynomocracy, has devoted a very able and ingenious essay5 to the drawing out of a comparison between the process by which men have advanced from the savage state to the highest civilisation, and that by which an animal passes from the condition of an almost shapeless and [270] structureless germ, to that in which it exhibits a highly complicated structure and a corresponding diversity of powers. Mr. Spencer says with great justice–

"That they gradually increase in mass; that they become, little by little, more complex; that, at the same time, their parts grow more mutually dependent; and that they continue to live and grow as wholes, while successive generations of their units appear and disappear,–are broad peculiarities which bodies politic display, in common with all living bodies, and in which they and living bodies differ from everything else."

In a very striking passage of this essay Mr. Spencer shows with what singular closeness a parallel between the development of a nervous system, which is the governing power of the body in the series of animal organisms, and that of government, in the series of social organisms, can be drawn:–

"Strange as the assertion will be thought," says Mr. Spencer "our Houses of Parliament discharge in the social economy functions that are, in sundry respects, comparable to those discharged by the cerebral masses in a vertebrate animal..... The cerebrum co-ordinates the countless heterogeneous considerations which affect the present and future welfare of the individual as a whole; and the Legislature co-ordinates the countless heterogeneous considerations which affect the immediate and remote welfare of the whole community. We may describe the office of the brain as that of averaging the interests of life, physical, intellectual, moral, social; and a good brain is one in which the desires answering to their respective interests are so balanced, that the conduct they jointly dictate sacrifices none of them. Similarly we may describe the office of Parliament as that of averaging the interests of the various classes in a com[271]munity; and a good Parliament is one in which the parties answering to these respective interests are so balanced, that their united legislation concedes to each class as much as consists with the claims of the rest."

All this appears to be very just. But if the resemblances between the body physiological and the body politic are any indication, not only of what the latter is, and how it has become what it is, but of what it ought to be, and what it is tending to become, I cannot but think that the real force of the analogy is totally opposed to the negative view of State function.

Suppose that, in accordance with this view, each muscle were to maintain that the nervous system had no right to interfere with its contraction, except to prevent it from hindering the contraction of another muscle; or each gland, that it had a right to secrete, so long as its secretion interfered with no other; suppose every separate cell left free to follow its own "interest," and laissez-faire lord of all, what would become of the body physiological?

The fact is that the sovereign power of the body thinks for the physiological organism, acts for it, and rules the individual components with a rod of iron. Even the blood-corpuscles can't hold a public meeting without being accused of "congestion"–and the brain, like other despots whom we have known, calls out at once for the use of sharp steel against them. As in Hobbes's [272] "Leviathan," the representative of the sovereign authority in the living organism, though he derives all his powers from the mass which he rules, is above the law. The questioning of his authority involves death, or that partial death which we call paralysis. Hence, if the analogy of the body politic with the body physiological counts for anything, it seems to me to be in favour of a much larger amount of governmental interference than exists at present, or than I, for one, at all desire to see. But, tempting as the opportunity is, I am not disposed to build up any argument in favour of my own case upon this analogy, curious, interesting, and in many respects close, as it is, for it takes no cognisance of certain profound and essential differences between the physiological and the political bodies.

Much as the notion of a "social contract" has been ridiculed, it nevertheless seems to be clear enough, that all social organisation whatever depends upon what is substantially a contract, whether expressed or implied, between the members of the society. No society ever was, or ever can be, really held together by force. It may seem a paradox to say that a slaveholder does not make his slaves work by force, but by agreement. And yet it is true. There is a contract between the two which, if it were written out, would run in these terms:–"I undertake to feed, clothe, house, [273] and not to kill, flog, or otherwise maltreat you, Quashie, if you perform a certain amount of work." Quashie, seeing no better terms to be had, accepts the bargain, and goes to work accordingly. A highwayman who garrotes me, and then clears out my pockets, robs me by force in the strict sense of the words; but if he puts a pistol to my head and demands my money or my life, and I, preferring the latter, hand over my purse, we have virtually made a contract, and I perform one of the terms of that contract. If, nevertheless, the highwayman subsequently shoots me, everybody will see that, in addition to the crimes of murder and theft, he has been guilty of a breach of contract.

A despotic Government, therefore, though often a mere combination of slaveholding and highway robbery, nevertheless implies a contract between governor and governed, with voluntary submission on the part of the latter; and a fortiori, all other forms of government are in like case.

Now a contract between any two men implies a restriction of the freedom of each in certain particulars. The highwayman gives up his freedom to shoot me, on condition of my giving up my freedom to do as I like with my money: I give up my freedom to kill Quashie, on condition of Quashie's giving up his freedom to be idle. And the essence and foundation of every social organisation, whether simple or complex, is the [274] fact that each member of the society voluntarily renounces his freedom in certain directions, in return for the advantages which he expects from association with the other members of that society. Nor are constitutions, laws, or manners, in ultimate analysis, anything but so many expressed or implied contracts between the members of a society to do this, or abstain from that.

It appears to me that this feature constitutes the difference between the social and the physiological organism. Among the higher physiological organisms, there is none which is developed by the conjunction of a number of primitively independent existences into a complex whole. The process of social organisation appears to be comparable, not so much to the process of organic development, as to the synthesis of the chemist, by which independent elements are gradually built up into complex aggregations–in which each element retains an independent individuality, though held in subordination to the whole. The atoms of carbon and hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, which enter into a complex molecule, do not lose the powers originally inherent in them, when they unite to form that molecule, the properties of which express those forces of the whole aggregation which are not neutralised and balanced by one another. Each atom has given up something, in order that the atomic society, or molecule, may subsist. And as soon as any one or more of the [275] atoms thus associated resumes the freedom which it has renounced, and follows some external attraction, the molecule is broken up, and all the peculiar properties which depended upon its constitution vanish.

Every society, great or small, resembles such a complex molecule, in which the atoms are represented by men, possessed of all those multifarious attractions and repulsions which are manifested in their desires and volitions, the unlimited power of satisfying which, we call freedom. The social molecule exists in virtue of the renunciation of more or less of this freedom by every individual. It is decomposed, when the attraction of desire leads to the resumption of that freedom, the suppression of which is essential to the existence of the social molecule. And the great problem of that social chemistry we call politics, is to discover what desires of mankind may be gratified, and what must be suppressed, if the highly complex compound, society, is to avoid decomposition. That the gratification of some of men's desires shall be renounced is essential to order; that the satisfaction of others shall be permitted is no less essential to progress; and the business of the sovereign authority–which is, or ought to be, simply a delegation of the people appointed to act for its good–appears to me to be, not only to enforce the renunciation of the anti-social desires, but, wherever it may be [276] necessary, to promote the satisfaction of those which are conducive to progress.

The great metaphysician, Immanuel Kant, who is at his greatest when he discusses questions which are not metaphysical, wrote, nearly a century ago, a wonderfully instructive essay entitled "A Conception of Universal History in relation to Universal Citizenship,"6 from which I will borrow a few pregnant sentences:–

"The means of which Nature has availed herself, in order to bring about the development of all the capacities of man, is the antagonism of those capacities to social organisation, so far as the latter does in the long run necessitate their definite correlation. By antagonism, I here mean the unsocial sociability of mankind–that is, the combination in them of an impulse to enter into society, with a thorough spirit of opposition which constantly threatens to break up this society. The ground of this lies in human nature. Man has an inclination to enter into society, because in that state he feels that he becomes more a man, or, in other words, that his natural faculties develop. But he has also a great tendency to isolate himself, because he is, at the same time, aware of the unsocial peculiarity of desiring to have everything his own way; and thus, being conscious of an inclination to oppose others, he is naturally led to expect opposition from them.

"Now it is this opposition which awakens all the dormant powers of men, stimulates them to overcome their inclination to be idle, and, spurred by the love of honour, or power, or wealth, to make themselves a place among their fellows, whom they can neither do with, nor do without.

[277] "Thus they make the first steps from brutishness towards culture, of which the social value of man is the measure. Thus all talents become gradually developed, taste is formed, and by continual enlightenment the foundations of a way of thinking are laid, which gradually changes the mere rude capacity of moral perception into determinate practical principles; and thus society, which is originated by a sort of pathological compulsion, becomes metamorphosed into a moral unity." (Loc. cit. p. 147)

"All the culture and art which adorn humanity, the most refined social order, are produced by that unsociability which is compelled by its own existence to discipline itself, and so by enforced art to bring the seeds implanted by Nature into full flower." (Loc. cit. p. 148.)

In these passages, as in others of this remarkable tract, Kant anticipates the application of the "struggle for existence" to politics, and indicates the manner in which the evolution of society has resulted from the constant attempt of individuals to strain its bonds. If individuality has no play, society does not advance; if individuality breaks out of all bounds, society perishes.

But when men living in society once become aware that their welfare depends upon two opposing tendencies of equal importance–the one restraining, the other encouraging, individual freedom–the question "What are the functions of Government?" is translated into another–namely, "What ought we men, in our corporate capacity, to do, not only in the way of restraining that free individuality which is inconsistent with the existence of society, but in encouraging that [278] free individuality which is essential to the evolution of the social organisation? The formula which truly defines the function of Government must contain the solution of both the problems involved, and not merely of one of them.

Locke has furnished us with such a formula, in the noblest, and at the same time briefest, statement of the purpose of government known to me:–

The End of Government Is the Good of Mankind7
But the good of mankind is not a something which is absolute and fixed for all men, whatever their capacities or state of civilisation. Doubtless it is possible to imagine a true "Civitas Dei," in which every man's moral faculty shall be such as leads him to control all those desires which run counter to the good of mankind, and to cherish only those which conduce to the welfare of society; and in which every man's native intellect shall be sufficiently strong, and his culture sufficiently extensive, to enable him to know what he ought to do and to seek after. And, in that blessed State, police will be as much a superfluity as every other kind of government.

But the eye of man has not beheld that State, and is not likely to behold it for some time to [279] come. What we do see, in fact, is that States are made up of a considerable number of the ignorant and foolish, a small proportion of genuine knaves, and a sprinkling of capable and honest men, by whose efforts the former are kept in a reasonable state of guidance, and the latter of repression. And, such being the case, I do not see how any limit whatever can be laid down as to the extent to which, under some circumstances, the action of Government may be rightfully carried.

Was our own Government wrong in suppressing Thuggee in India? If not, would it be wrong in putting down any enthusiast who attempted to set up the worship of Astarte in the Haymarket? Has the State no right to put a stop to gross and open violations of common decency? And if the State has, as I believe it has, a perfect right to do all these things, are we not bound to admit, with Locke, that it may have a right to interfere with "Popery" and "Atheism," if it be really true that the practical consequences of such beliefs can be proved to be injurious to civil society? The question where to draw the line between those things with which the State ought, and those with which it ought not, to interfere, then, is one which must be left to be decided separately for each individual case. The difficulty which meets the statesman is the same as that which meets us all in individual life, in which our abstract [280] rights are generally clear enough, though it is frequently extremely hard to say at what point it is wise to cease our attempts to enforce them.

The notion that the social body should be organised in such a manner as to advance the welfare of its members, is as old as political thought; and the schemes of Plato, More, Robert Owen, St. Simon, Comte, and the modern socialists, bear witness that, in every age, men whose capacity is of no mean order, and whose desire to benefit their fellows has rarely been excelled, have been strongly, nay, enthusiastically, convinced that Government may attain its end–the good of the people–by some more effectual process than the very simple and easy one of putting its hands in its pockets, and letting them alone.

It may be, that all the schemes of social organisation which have hitherto been propounded are impracticable follies. But if this be so the fact proves, not that the idea which underlies them is worthless, but only that the science of politics is in a very rudimentary and imperfect state. Politics, as a science, is not older than astronomy; but though the subject-matter of the latter is vastly less complex than that of the former, the theory of the moon's motions is not quite settled yet.

Perhaps it may help us a little way towards getting clearer notions of what the State may and [281] what it may not do, if, assuming the truth of Locke's maxim that 'The end of Government is the good of mankind," we consider a little what the good of mankind is.

I take it that the good of mankind means the attainment, by every man, of all the happiness which he can enjoy without diminishing the happiness of his fellow men.8

If we inquire what kinds of happiness come under this definition, we find those derived from the sense of security or peace; from wealth, or commodity, obtained by commerce; from Art–whether it be architecture, sculpture, painting, music, or literature; from knowledge, or science; and, finally, from sympathy, or friendship. No man is injured, but the contrary, by peace. No man is any the worse off because another acquires wealth by trade, or by the exercise of a profession; on the contrary, he cannot have acquired his wealth, except by benefiting others to the full extent of what they considered to be its value; and his wealth is no more than fairy gold if he does not go on benefiting others in [282] the same way. A thousand men may enjoy the pleasure derived from a picture, a symphony, or a poem, without lessening the happiness of the most devoted connoisseur. The investigation of Nature is an infinite pasture-ground, where all may graze, and where the more bite, the longer the grass grows, the sweeter is its flavour, and the more it nourishes. If I love a friend, it is no damage to me, but rather a pleasure, if all the world also love him and think of him as highly as I do.

It appears to be universally agreed, for the reasons already mentioned, that it is unnecessary and undesirable for the State to attempt to promote the acquisition of wealth by any direct interference with commerce. But there is no such agreement as to the further question whether the State may not promote the acquisition of wealth by indirect means. For example, may the State make a road, or build a harbour, when it is quite clear that by so doing it will open up a productive district, and thereby add enormously to the total wealth of the community? And if so, may the State, acting for the general good, take charge of the means of communication between its members, or of the postal and telegraph services? I have not yet met with any valid argument against the propriety of the State doing what our Government does in this matter; except the assumption, which remains to be [283] proved, that Government will manage these things worse than private enterprise would do. Nor is there any agreement upon the still more important question whether the State ought, or ought not, to regulate the distribution of wealth. If it ought not, then all legislation which regulates inheritance–the Statute of Mortmain, and the like–is wrong in principle; and, when a rich man dies, we ought to return to the state of Nature, and have a scramble for his property. If, on the other hand, the authority of the State is legitimately employed in regulating these matters, then it is an open question, to be decided entirely by evidence as to what tends to the highest good of the people, whether we keep our present laws, or whether we modify them. At present the State protects men in the possession and enjoyment of their property, and defines what that property is. The justification for its so doing is that its action promotes the good of the people. If it can be clearly proved that the abolition of property would tend still more to promote the good of the people, the State will have the same justification for abolishing property that it now has for maintaining it.

Again, I suppose it is universally agreed that it would be useless and absurd for the State to attempt to promote friendship and sympathy between man and man directly. But I see no reason why, if it be otherwise expedient, the State [284] may not do something towards that end indirectly. For example, I can conceive the existence of an Established Church which should be a blessing to the community. A Church in which, week by week, services should be devoted, not to the iteration of abstract propositions in theology, but to the setting before men's minds of an ideal of true, just, and pure living; a place in which those who are weary of the burden of daily cares, should find a moment's rest in the contemplation of the higher life which is possible for all, though attained by so few; a place in which the man of strife and of business should have time to think how small, after all, are the rewards he covets compared with peace and charity. Depend upon it, if such a Church existed, no one would seek to disestablish it.

Whatever the State may not do, however, it is universally agreed that it may take charge of the maintenance of internal and external peace. Even the strongest advocate of administrative nihilism admits that Government may prevent aggression of one man on another. But this implies the maintenance of an army and navy, as much as of a body of police; it implies a diplomatic as well as a detective force; and it implies, further, that the State, as a corporate whole, shall have distinct and definite views as to its wants, powers, and obligations.

For independent States stand in the same [285] relation to one another as men in a state of nature, or unlimited freedom. Each endeavours to get all it can, until the inconvenience of the state of war suggests either the formation of those express contracts we call treaties, or mutual consent to those implied contracts which are expressed by international law. The moral rights of a State rest upon the same basis as those of an individual. If any number of States agree to observe a common set of international laws, they have, in fact, set up a sovereign authority or supra-national government, the end of which, like that of all governments, is the good of mankind; and the possession of as much freedom by each State, as is consistent with the attainment of that end. But there is this difference: that the government thus set up over nations is ideal, and has no concrete representative of the sovereign power; whence the only way of settling any dispute finally is to fight it out. Thus the supra-national society is continually in danger of returning to the state of nature, in which contracts are void; and the possibility of this contingency justifies a government in restricting the liberty of its subjects in many ways that would otherwise be unjustifiable.

Finally, with respect to the advancement of science and art. I have never yet had the good fortune to hear any valid reason alleged why that corporation of individuals we call the State may not do what voluntary effort fails in doing, either [286] from want of intelligence or lack of will. And here it cannot be alleged that the action of the State is always hurtful. On the contrary, in every country in Europe, universities, public libraries, picture galleries, museums, and laboratories, have been established by the State, and have done infinite service to the intellectual and moral progress and the refinement of mankind.

A few days ago I received from one of the most eminent members of the Institut of France a pamphlet entitled "Pourquoi la France n'a pas trouve d'hommes supérieurs au moment du péril." The writer, M. Pasteur, has no doubt that the cause of the astounding collapse of his countrymen is to be sought in the miserable neglect of the higher branches of culture, which has been one of the many disgraces of the Second Empiree if not of its predecessors.

"Au point où nous somnes arrivés de ce qu'on appelle la civilisation modern, la culture des sciences dans leur expression la plus élevée est peut-être plus necessaire encore a l'état moral d'une nation qu'à sa prospérité matérielle.

"Les grandes découvertes, les méditations de la pensée dans les arts, dans les sciences et dans les lettres, en un mot les travaux désintéressés de l'esprit dans tous les genres, les centres d'enseignement propres à les faire connaître, introduisent dans le corps social tout entier l'esprit philosophique ou scientifique, cet esprit de discernement qui soumet tout à une raison sévère, condamne l'ignorance, dissipe les préjugés et les erreurs. Ils élèvent le niveau intellectuel, le sentiment moral; par eux, l'idée divine elle-méme se répand et s'exalte.... Si, au moment du péril suprême, la France n'a pas trouvé des hommes supérieurs pour mettre en oeuvre ses resources et [287] le courage de ses enfants, il faut l'attribuer, j'en ai la conviction, à ce que la France s'est désintéressée, depuis un demi-siécle, des grands travaux de la pensée, particulièrement dans les sciences exactes."

Individually, I have no love for academies on the continental model, and still less for the system of decorating men of distinction in science, letters, or art, with orders and titles, or enriching them with sinecures. What men of science want is only a fair day's wages for more than a fair day's work; and most of us, I suspect, would be well content if, for our days and nights of unremitting toil, we could secure the pay which a first-class Treasury clerk earns without any obviously trying strain upon his faculties. The sole order of nobility which, in my judgment, becomes a philosopher, is that rank which he holds in the estimation of his fellow-workers, who are the only competent judges in such matters. Newton and Cuvier lowered themselves when the one accepted an idle knighthood, and the other became a baron of the empire. The great men who went to their graves as Michael Faraday and George Grote seem to me to have understood the dignity of knowledge better when they declined all such meretricious trappings.

But it is one thing for the State to appeal to the vanity and ambition which are to be found in philosophical as in other breasts, and another to offer men who desire to do the hardest of work for [288] the most modest of tangible rewards, the means of making themselves useful to their age and generation. And this is just what the State does when it founds a public library or museum, or provides the means of scientific research by such grants of money as that administered by the Royal Society.

It is one thing, again, for the State to take all the higher education of the nation into its own hands; it is another to stimulate and to aid, while they are yet young and weak, local efforts to the same end. The Midland Institute, Owens College in Manchester, the newly-instituted Science College in Newcastle, are all noble products of local energy and munificence. But the good they are doing is not local–the commonwealth, to its uttermost limits, shares in the benefits they confer; and I am at a loss to understand upon what principle of equity the State, which admits the principle of payment on results, refuses to give a fair equivalent for these benefits; or on what principle of justice the State, which admits the obligation of sharing the duty of primary education with a locality, denies the existence of that obligation when the higher education is in question.

To sum up: If the positive advancement of the peace, wealth, and the intellectual and moral development of its members, are objects which the Government, as the representative of the corporate authority of society, may justly strive [289] after, in fulfilment of its end–the good of mankind; then it is clear that the Government may undertake to educate the people. For education promotes peace by teaching men the realities of life and the obligations which are involved in the very existence of Society; it promotes intellectual development, not only by training the individual intellect, but by sifting out from the masses of ordinary or inferior capacities, those who are competent to increase the general welfare by occupying higher positions; and, lastly, it promotes morality and refinement, by teaching men to discipline themselves, and by leading them to see that the highest, as it is the only permanent, content is to be attained, not by grovelling in the rank and steaming valleys of sense, but by continual striving towards those high peaks, where, resting in eternal calm, reason discerns the undefined but bright ideal of the highest Good–"a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night."

1 The Dialogues of Plato. Translated into English, with Analysis and Introduction, by B. Jowett, M. A. Vol. ii, p. 243.

2 Leviathan, Molesworth's ed. p. 322.

3 Locke's Essay, Of Civil Government, § 131.

4 An English translation has been published under the title of Essay on the Sphere and Duties of Government.

5 The Social Organism: Essays. Second Series.

6 Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht, 1784. This paper has been translated by De Quincey, and attention has been recently drawn to its "signal merits" by the Editor of the Fortnightly Review in his Essay on Condorcet. (Fortnightly Review, No. xxxviii, N.S., pp. 136, 137.)

7 Of Civil Government, § 229.

8 "Hic est itaque finis ad quem tendo, talem scilicet Naturam acquirere, et ut multi mecum eam acquirant, conari hoc est de mea felicitate etiam operam dare, ut alii multi idem atque ego intelligant, ut eorum intellectus et cupiditas prorsus cum meo intellectu et cupiditate conveniant: atque hoc fiat, necesse est tantum de Natura intelligere, quantum sufficit ad talem naturam acquirendam; deinde formare talem societatem qua1is est desideranda, ut quam plurimi quam facillime et secure eo pervenlant."–B. Spinoza, De Intellectus Emendations Tractatus.


T. H. H. drawing on proof of Spencer's Principles of Biology 1864

Huxley Archives

Preface and Table of Contents to Volume I, Results and Methods, of Huxley's Collected Essays.

Next article: On the Natural Inequality of Men [1890], pages 290-335.

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1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden