E457 William Godwin's An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

Chapter 2: Of Revolutions

(1) The question of resistance is closely connected with that of revolutions. It may be proper therefore, before we dismiss this part of the subject, to enter into some disquisition respecting the nature and effects of that species of event which is commonly known by this appellation, and the sentiments which a good citizen should entertain concerning it.

(2) And here one of the first observations that offers itself is that it is not unworthy of a good member of society to be the adversary of the constitution of his country.

(3) In contradiction to this proposition it has been said, "that we live under the protection of this constitution; and protection, being a benefit conferred, obliges us to a reciprocation of support in return."

(4) To this it may be answered, first, that the benefit of this protection is somewhat equivocal. That civilization is a benefit may perhaps be conceded; but civilization, though in some degree preserved by the political constitution of every country in Europe, can scarcely be considered as the characteristic of a bad constitution, or as inseparably involved with the imperfections of any. A good member of society will, probably, be anxious to favour the cause of civilization; but his attachment to that cause may well excite his wishes to see it freed from the slough of corrupt and partial institutions.

(5) Secondly, gratitude, in the sense in which it is here spoken of, has already been proved not to be a virtue, but a vice. Every man and collection of men ought to be treated by us in a manner founded upon their intrinsic qualities and capacities, and not according to a rule, which has existence only in relation to ourselves.

(6) Add to this, thirdly, that no motive can be more equivocal than the gratitude here recommended. Gratitude to the constitution, an abstract idea, an imaginary existence, is altogether unintelligible. Affection to my countrymen will be much better proved by exertions to procure them a substantial benefit than by my supporting a system which I believe to be fraught with injurious consequences.

(7) A demand of the nature which is here controverted is similar to the demand upon me to be a Christian because I am an Englishman, or a Mahometan because I am a native of Turkey. Instead of being an expression of respect, it argues contempt of all religion and government, and everything sacred among men. If government be an institution conducive to the public welfare, it deserves my attention and investigation. I am bound, in proportion as I desire the happiness of others, to consider it with all the accuracy my circumstances will allow, and employ my talents, and every honest influence I am able to exert, to render it such as justice and reason may require.

(8) This general view of the duties of a citizen in relation to the government under which he lives being premised, we may now proceed with advantage to the particular points which are calculated to influence our judgement as to the conduct we ought to hold with respect to revolutions.

(9) There is one extensive view upon the subject of revolutions which will be of great consequence in determining the sentiments and conduct we ought to maintain respecting them. The wise man is satisfied with nothing. It is scarcely possible there should be any institution in which impartial disquisition will not find defects. The wise man is not satisfied with his own attainments, or even with his principles and opinions. He is continually detecting errors in them; he suspects more; there is no end to his revisals and enquiries. Government is in its nature an expedient, a recourse to something ill to prevent an impending mischief; it affords therefore no ground of complete satisfaction. Finite things must be perpetually capable of increase and advancement; it would argue therefore extreme folly to rest in any given state of improvement, and imagine we had attained our summit. The true politician confines neither his expectations nor desires within any specific limits; he has undertaken a labour without end. He does not say, "Let me attain thus much, and I will be contented; I will demand no more; I will no longer counteract the established order of things; I will set those who support them at rest from further importunity." On the contrary, the whole period of his existence is devoted to the promotion of innovation and reform.

(10) The direct inference from these sentiments seems to be unfavourable to revolutions. The politician who aims at a limited object, and has shut up his views within that object, may be forgiven if he manifest some impatience for its attainment. But this passion cannot be felt in an equal degree by him who aims at improvement, not upon a definite, but an indefinite scale. This man knows that, when he has carried any particular point, his task is far from complete. He knows that, when government has been advanced one degree higher in excellence, abuses will still be numerous. Many will be oppressed; many will be exposed to unjust condemnation; discontent will have its empire and its votaries; and the reign of inequality will be extensive. He can mark therefore the progress of melioration with calmness; though it will have all the wishes of his heart, and all the exertions of his understanding. That progress, which may be carried on through a longer time, and a greater variety of articles, than his foresight can delineate, he may be expected to desire should take place in a mild and gradual, though incessant advance, not by violent leaps, not by concussions which may expose millions to risk, and sweep generations of men from the stage of existence.

(11) And here let us briefly consider what is the nature of revolution. Revolution is engendered by an indignation against tyranny, yet is itself ever more pregnant with tyranny. The tyranny which excites its indignation can scarcely be without its partisans; and, the greater is the indignation excited, and the more sudden and vast the fall of the oppressors, the deeper will be the resentment which fills the minds of the losing party. What more unavoidable than that men should entertain some discontent at being violently stripped of their wealth and their privileges? What more venial than that they should feel some attachment to the sentiments in which they were educated, and which, it may be, but a little before, were the sentiments of almost every individual in the community? Are they obliged to change their creed, precisely at the time at which I see reason to alter mine? They have but remained at the point at which we both stood a few years ago. Yet this is the crime which a revolution watches with the greatest jealousy, and punishes with the utmost severity. The crime which is thus marked with the deepest reprobation is not the result of relaxation of principle, of profligate living, or of bitter and inexorable hatred. It is a fault not the least likely to occur in a man of untainted honour, of an upright disposition, and dignified and generous sentiments.

(12) Revolution is instigated by a horror against tyranny, yet its own tyranny is not without peculiar aggravations. There is no period more at war with the existence of liberty. The unrestrained communication of opinions has always been subjected to mischievous counteraction, but upon such occasions it is trebly fettered. At other times men are not so much alarmed for its effects. But in a moment of revolution, when everything is in crisis, the influence even of a word is dreaded, and the consequent slavery is complete. Where was there a revolution in which a strong vindication of what it was intended to abolish was permitted, or indeed almost any species of writing or argument, that was not, for the most part, in harmony with the opinions which happened to prevail? An attempt to scrutinize men's thoughts, and punish their opinions, is of all kinds of despotism the most odious; yet this attempt is peculiarly characteristic of a period of revolution.

(13) The advocates of revolution usually remark "that there is no way to rid ourselves of our oppressors, and prevent new ones from starting up in their room, but by inflicting on them some severe and memorable retribution." Upon this statement it is particularly to be observed that there will be oppressors as long as there are individuals inclined, either from perverseness, or rooted and obstinate prejudice, to take party with the oppressor. We have therefore to terrify not only the man of crooked ambition but all those who would support him, either from a corrupt motive, or a well-intended error. Thus, we propose to make men free; and the method we adopt is to influence them, more rigorously than ever, by the fear of punishment. We say that government has usurped too much, and we organize a government tenfold more encroaching in its principles and terrible in its proceedings. Is slavery the best project that can be devised for making men free? Is a display of terror the readiest mode for rendering them fearless, independent and enterprising?

(14) During a period of revolution, enquiry, and all those patient speculations to which mankind are indebted for their greatest improvements, are suspended. Such speculations demand a period of security and permanence; they can scarcely be pursued when men cannot foresee what shall happen tomorrow, and the most astonishing vicissitudes are affairs of perpetual recurrence. Such speculations demand leisure, and a tranquil and dispassionate temper; they can scarcely be pursued when all the passions of man are afloat, and we are hourly under the strongest impressions of fear and hope, apprehension and desire, dejection and triumph. Add to this, what has been already stated, respecting the tendency of revolution, to restrain the declaration of our thoughts, and put fetters upon the licence of investigation.

(15) Another circumstance proper to be mentioned is the inevitable duration of the revolutionary spirit. This may be illustrated from the change of government in England in 1688. If we look at the revolution strictly so called, we are apt to congratulate ourselves that the advantages it procured, to whatever they may amount, were purchased by a cheap and bloodless victory. But, if we would make a solid estimate, we must recollect it as the procuring cause of two general wars, of nine years under king William, and twelve under queen Anne; and two intestine rebellions (events worthy of execration, if we call to mind the gallant spirit and generous fidelity of the Jacobites, and their miserable end) in 1715 and 1745. Yet this was, upon the whole, a mild and auspicious revolution. Revolutions are a struggle between two parties, each persuaded of the justice of its cause, a struggle not decided by compromise or patient expostulation, but by force only. Such a decision can scarcely be expected to put an end to the mutual animosity and variance.

(16) Perhaps no important revolution was ever bloodless. It may be useful in this place to recollect in what the mischief of shedding blood consists. The abuses which at present exist in political society are so enormous, the oppressions which are exercised so intolerable, the ignorance and vice they entail so dreadful, that possibly a dispassionate enquirer might decide that, if their annihilation could be purchased by an instant sweeping of every human being now arrived at years of maturity from the face of the earth, the purchase would not be too dear. It is not because human life is of so considerable value that we ought to recoil from the shedding of blood. Alas! the men that now exist are for the most part poor and scanty in their portion of enjoyment, and their dignity is no more than a name. Death is in itself among the slightest of human evils. An earthquake, which should swallow up a hundred thousand individuals at once, would chiefly be to be regretted for the anguish it entailed upon survivors; in a fair estimate of those it destroyed, it would often be comparatively a trivial event. The laws of nature which produce it are a fit subject of investigation; but their effects, contrasted with many other events, are scarcely a topic of regret. The case is altogether different when man falls by the hand of his neighbour. Here a thousand ill passions are generated. The perpetrators, and the witnesses of murders, become obdurate, unrelenting and inhuman. Those who sustain the loss of relations or friends by a catastrophe of this sort are filled with indignation and revenge. Distrust is propagated from man to man, and the dearest ties of human society are dissolved. It is impossible to devise a temper more inauspicious to the cultivation of justice and the diffusion of benevolence.

(17) To the remark that revolutions can scarcely be unaccompanied with the shedding of blood, it may be added that they are necessarily crude and premature. Politics is a science. The general features of the nature of man are capable of being understood, and a mode may be delineated which, in itself considered, is best adapted to the condition of man in society. If this mode ought not, everywhere, and instantly, to be fought to be reduced into practice, the modifications that are to be given it in conformity to the variation of circumstances, and the degrees in which it is to be realized, are also a topic of scientifical disquisition. Now it is clearly the nature of science to be progressive in its advances. How various were the stages of astronomy before it received the degree of perfection which was given it by Newton? How imperfect were the lispings of intellectual science before it attained the precision of the present century? Political knowledge is, no doubt, in its infancy; and, as it is an affair of life and action, will, in proportion as it gathers vigour, manifest a more uniform and less precarious influence upon the concerns of human society. It is the history of all science to be known first to a few, before it descends through the various descriptions and classes of the community. Thus, for twenty years, the Principia of Newton had scarcely any readers, and his system continued unknown; the next twenty perhaps sufficed to make the outlines of that system familiar to almost every person in the slightest degree tinctured with science.

(18) The only method according to which social improvements can be carried on, with sufficient prospect of an auspicious event, is when the improvement of our institutions advances in a just proportion to the illumination of the public understanding. There is a condition of political society best adapted to every different stage of individual improvement. The more nearly this condition is successively realized, the more advantageously will the general interest be consulted. There is a sort of provision in the nature of the human mind for this species of progress. Imperfect institutions, as has already been shown, cannot long support themselves when they are generally disapproved of, and their effects truly understood. There is a period at which they may be expected to decline and expire, almost without an effort. Reform, under this meaning of the term, can scarcely be considered as of the nature of action. Men feel their situation; and the restraints that shackled them before vanish like a deception. When such a crisis has arrived, not a sword will need to be drawn, not a finger to be lifted up in purposes of violence. The adversaries will be too few and too feeble to be able to entertain a serious thought of resistance against the universal sense of mankind.

(19) Under this view of the subject then it appears that revolutions, instead of being truly beneficial to mankind, answer no other purpose than that of marring the salutary and uninterrupted progress which might be expected to attend upon political truth and social improvement. They disturb the harmony of intellectual nature. They propose to give us something for which we are not prepared, and which we cannot effectually use. They suspend the wholesome advancement of science, and confound the process of nature and reason.

(20) We have hitherto argued upon the supposition that the attempt which shall be made to effect a revolution shall be crowned with success. But this supposition must by no means be suffered to pass without notice. Every attempt of this sort, even if menaced only, and not carried into act, tends to excite a resistance which otherwise would never be consolidated. The enemies of innovation become alarmed by the intemperance of its friends. The storm gradually thickens, and each party arms itself in silence with the weapons of violence and stratagem. Let us observe the consequence of this. So long as the contest is merely between truth and sophistry, we may look with tolerable assurance to the progress and result. But, when we lay aside arguments, and have recourse to the sword, the case is altered. Amidst the barbarous rage of war, and the clamorous din of civil contention, who shall tell whether the event will be prosperous or adverse? The consequence may be the riveting on us anew the chains of despotism, and ensuring, through a considerable period, the triumph of oppression, even if it should fail to carry us back to a state of torpor, and obliterate the memory of all our improvements.

(21) If such are the genuine features of revolution, it will be fortunate if it can be made appear that revolution is wholly unnecessary, and the conviction of the understanding a means fully adequate to the demolishing political abuse. But this point has already been established in a former part of our enquiry. It is common to affirm "that men may sufficiently know the error of their conduct, and yet be in no degree inclined to forsake it." This assertion however is no otherwise rendered plausible than by the vague manner in which we are accustomed to understand the term knowledge. The voluntary actions of men originate in their opinions. Whatever we believe to have the strongest inducements in its behalf, that we infallibly choose and pursue. It is impossible that we should choose anything as evil. It is impossible that a man should perpetrate a crime in the moment that he sees it in all its enormity. In every example of this sort, there is a struggle between knowledge on one side, and error or habit on the other. While the knowledge continues in all its vigour, the ill action cannot be perpetrated. In proportion as the knowledge escapes from the mind, and is no longer recollected, the error or habit may prevail. But it is reasonable to suppose that the permanence, as well as vigour, of our perceptions is capable of being increased to an indefinite extent. Knowledge in this sense, understanding by it a clear and undoubting apprehension, such as no delusion can resist, is a thing totally different from what is ordinarily called by that name, from a sentiment seldom recollected, and, when it is recollected, scarcely felt or understood.

(22) The beauty of the conception here delineated, of the political improvement of mankind, must be palpable to every observer. Still it may be urged "that, even granting this, truth may be too tardy in its operation. Ages will elapse," we shall be told, "before speculative views of the evils of privilege and monopoly shall have spread so wide, and been felt so deeply, as to banish these evils without commotion or struggle. It is easy for a reasoner to sit down in his closet, and amuse himself with the beauty of the conception, but in the meantime mankind are suffering, injustice is hourly perpetrated, and generations of men may languish, in the midst of fair promises and hopes, and leave the stage without participating in the benefit. Cheat us not then," it will be said, "with remote and uncertain prospects; but let us embrace a method which shall secure us speedy deliverance from evils too hateful to be endured."

(23) In answer to this representation, it is to be observed, first, that every attempt suddenly to rescue a whole community from an usurpation the evils of which few understand has already been shown to be attended, always with calamity, frequently with miscarriage.

(24) Secondly, it is a mistake to suppose that, because we have no popular commotions and violence, the generation in which we live will have no benefit from the improvement of our political principles. Every change of sentiment, from moral delusion to truth, every addition we make to the clearness of our apprehension on this subject, and the recollectedness and independence of our mind, is itself abstracted from the absolute change of our institutions, an unquestionable acquisition. Freedom of institution is desirable chiefly because it is connected with independence of mind; if we gain the end, we may reasonably consent to be less solicitous about the means. In reality however, wherever the political opinions of a community, or any considerable portion of a community, are changed, the institutions are affected also. They relax their hold upon the mind; they are viewed with a different spirit; they gradually, and almost without notice, sink into oblivion. The advantage gained in every stage of the progress without commotion is nearly the precise advantage it is most for the interest of the public to secure.

(25) In the meantime it is impossible not to remark a striking futility in the objection we are endeavouring to answer. The objectors complain "that the system which trusts to reason alone is calculated to deprive the present generation of the practical benefit of political improvements." Yet we have just shown that it secures to them great practical benefit; while, on the other hand, nothing is more common, than to hear the advocates of force themselves confess that a grand revolution includes in it the sacrifice of one generation. Its conductors encounter the calamities attendant on fundamental innovation, that their posterity may reap the fruits in tranquillity.

(26) Thirdly, it is a mistake to suppose that the system of trusting to reason alone is calculated to place fundamental reform at an immeasurable distance. It is the nature of all science and improvement to be slow, and in a manner imperceptible, in its first advances. Its commencement is as it were by accident. Few advert to it; few have any perception of its existence. It attains its growth in obscurity; and its result, though long in the preparation, is to a considerable degree sudden and unexpected. Thus it is perhaps that we ought to regard the introduction of printing as having given its full security to the emancipation of mankind. But this progressive consequence was long unsuspected; and it was reserved for the penetrating mind of Wolfey to predict almost three centuries ago, speaking in the name of the Romish clergy, "We must destroy the press; or the press will destroy us." At present, it requires no extraordinary sagacity to perceive that the most enormous abuses of political institution are hastening to their end. There is no enemy to this auspicious crisis more to be feared than the well meaning, but intemperate, champion of the general good.

(27) There is a passage in a work of Helvetius written to be published after his death, which happened in 1771, so much in the tone of the dissatisfied and despairing advocates of public liberty at present, as to deserve to be cited in this place. "In the history of every people," says he, "there are moments in which, uncertain of the side they shall choose, and balanced between political good and evil, they feel a desire to be instructed; in which the soil, so to express myself, is in some manner prepared, and may easily be penetrated by the dew of truth. At such a moment, the publication of a valuable book may give birth to the most auspicious reforms: but, when that moment is no more, the nation, become insensible to the best motives, is, by the nature of its government, irrecoverably plunged in ignorance and stupidity. The soil of intellect is then hard and impenetrable; the rains may fall, may spread their moisture upon the surface, but the prospect of fertility is gone. Such is the condition of France. Her people are become the contempt of Europe. No salutary crisis shall ever restore them to liberty."

(28) It is scarcely necessary to add that the French revolution was at this time preparing by an incessant chain of events; and that the train may particularly be considered as taking its date from the circumstance, the destruction of the parliaments by Louis XV, which inspired Helvétius with so melancholy a presage.

(29) An additional support to the objection we are here attempting to remove may be derived from the idea, not only "that truth is slow in its progress," but "that it is not always progressive, but subject, like other human things, to the vicissitudes of flux and reflux." This opinion has hitherto been of great influence in public affairs, and it has been considered as "the part of a wise statesman to embrace the opportunity, when the people are inclined to any measure in which he wishes to engage them, and not to wait till their fervour has subsided, and the moment of willing co-operation is past."

(30) Undoubtedly there is the appearance of flux and reflux in human affairs. In subordinate articles, there will be a fashion, rendering one truth more popular, and more an object of attention, at one time, than at another. But the mass of truth seems too large a consideration to be susceptible of these vicissitudes. It has proceeded, from the revival of letters to the present hour, with an irresistible advance; and the apparent deviousnesses of literature seem to resolve themselves into a grand collective consistency. Not one step has been made in retrogression. Mathematics, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, philology and politics, have reached, by regular improvements, to their present degree of perfection.

(31) "But, whatever may be said of the history of the human mind since the revival of letters, its history from the earliest records of man displays a picture of a different sort. Here certainly it has not been all progression. Greece and Rome present themselves like two favoured spots in the immense desert of intellect; and their glory in this respect was exceedingly transient. Athens arrived at an excellence so great, in poetry, in eloquence, in the acuteness and vigour of its philosophers, and in skill in the fine arts, as all the ages of the world are not able to parallel. But this skill was attained, only to be afterwards forgotten; it was succeeded by a night of barbarism; and we are at this moment, in some of these points, exerting ourselves to arrive at the ground which they formerly occupied. The same remarks which apply to individual improvement equally apply to the subject of politics; we have not yet realized the political advantages, to which they were indebted for their greatness."

(32) There is but one consideration that can be opposed to this statement: the discovery of printing. By this art we seem to be secured against the future perishing of human improvement. Knowledge is communicated to too many individuals to afford its adversaries a chance of suppressing it. The monopoly of science, though, from the love of distinction, which so extensively characterizes the human race, it has been endeavoured to be prolonged, is substantially at an end. By the easy multiplication of copies, and the cheapness of books, everyone has access to them. The extreme inequality of information among different members of the same community, which existed in ancient times is diminished. A class of men is become numerous which was then comparatively unknown, and we see vast multitudes who, though condemned to labour for the perpetual acquisition of the means of subsistence, have yet a superficial knowledge of most of the discoveries and topics which are investigated by the learned. The consequence is that the possessors of knowledge being more, its influence is more certain. Under different circumstances, it was occasionally only that men were wrought upon to extraordinary exertions; but with us the whole is regular and systematical.

(33) There is one general observation which ought to be made before the subject is dismissed. It has perhaps sufficiently appeared, from the preceding discussion, that revolutions are necessarily attended with many circumstances worthy of our disapprobation, and that they are by no means essential to the political improvement of mankind. Yet, after all, it ought not to be forgotten that, though the connection be not essential or requisite, revolutions and violence have too often been coeval with important changes of the social system. What has so often happened in time past is not unlikely occasionally to happen in future. The duty therefore of the true politician is to postpone revolution if he cannot entirely prevent it. It is reasonable to believe that the later it occurs, and the more generally ideas of political good and evil are previously understood, the shorter, and the less deplorable, will be the mischiefs attendant on revolution. The friend of human happiness will endeavour to prevent violence; but it would be the mark of a weak and valetudinarian temper to turn away our eyes from human affairs in disgust, and refuse to contribute our labours and attention to the general weal, because perhaps, at last, violence may forcibly intrude itself. It is our duty to make a proper advantage of circumstances as they arise, and not to withdraw ourselves because everything is not conducted according to our ideas of propriety. The men who grow angry with corruption, and impatient at injustice, and through those sentiments favour the abettors of revolution, have an obvious apology to palliate their errors; theirs is the excess of a virtuous feeling. At the same time, however amiable may be the source of their error, the error itself is probably fraught with consequences pernicious to mankind.