From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia
THE INFLUENCE OF INDIVIDUALS UPON PUBLIC NOTIONS OF MORALITY.
THAT the influence of public opinion upon the practice of virtue is very great needs no proof. Of this influence the reader has seen some remarkable illustrations in the discussion of the efficacy of oaths in binding to veracity.1 There is indeed almost no action and no institution which public opinion does not affect. In moral affairs it makes men call one mode of human destruction murderous and one honourable; it makes the same action abominable in one individual and venial in another: in public institutions, from a village workhouse to the constitution of a state, at is powerful alike for evil or for good. If it be misdirected it will strengthen and perpetuate corruption and abuse; if it be directed aright, it will eventually remove corruptions and correct abuses, with a power which no power can withstand.
In proportion to the greatness of its power is the necessity of rectifying public opinion itself. To contribute to its rectitude is to exercise exalted philanthropy,—to contribute to its incorrectness is to spread wickedness and misery in the world. The purpose of the present chapter is to remark upon some of those subjects on which the public opinion appears to be inaccurate, and upon the consequent obligation upon individuals not to perpetuate that inaccuracy and its attendant evils by their conduct or their language. Of the positive part of the obligation, that which respects the active correction of common opinions,—little will be said. He who does not promote the evil can scarcely fail of promoting the good. A man often must deliver his sentiments respecting the principles and actions of others; and if he delivers them so as not to encourage what is wrong, he will practically encourage what is right.
It might have been presumed, of a people who assent to the authority of the moral law, that their notions of the merit or turpitude of actions would have been conformable with the doctrines which that law delivers. Far other is the fact. The estimates of the moral law and of public opinion are discordant to excess. Men have practised a sort of transposition with the moral precepts, and have assigned to them arbitrary and capricious, and therefore new and mischievous, stations on the moral scale. The order both of the vices and the virtues is greatly deranged.
Suppose, with respect to vices, the highest degree of reprobation in the moral law to be indicated by 20, and to descend by units as the reprobation became less severe, and suppose in the same manner we put 20 for the highest offence according to popular opinion, and diminish the number as it accounts less of the offence, we should probably be presented with some such graduation as this:—
Murder . . . . . . . . . . . 20 . . 20
Human destruction under other names 18 . . 18
Unchastity, if of Women . . . . . 18 . . 0
Unchastity, if of Men . . . . . . . 18 . . 2
Theft . . . . . . . . . . . 17 . . 17
Fraud and other modes of dishonesty 17 . . 6—4 or 1
Lying . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 . . 17
Lying for particular purposes, or to 17 . . 2—or 0
particular classes of persons
Resentment . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16 . . 6 and every inferior gradation.
Profaneness . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 . . 12 and every inferior gradation.
We might make a similar statement of the virtues. This indeed is inevitable in the case of those virtues which are the opposites of some of these vices. Respecting others we may say—
Forbearance . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16 . . 3 and lapsing into a vice.
Fortitude . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16 . . 10
Courage . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 . . 14
Bravery . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 . . 20
Patriotism . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 . . 20
Placability . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18 . . 4
How, it may reasonably be asked, do these strange incongruities arise? First, men practise a sort of voluntary deception on themselves: they persuade themselves to think that an offence which they desire to commit is not so vicious as the moral law indicates, or as others to which they have little temptation. They persuade themselves, again, that a virtue which is easily practised is of great worth, because they thus flatter themselves with complacent notions of their excellences at a cheap rate. Virtues which are difficult they for the same reason depreciate. This is the dictate of interest. It is manifestly good policy to think lightly of the value of a quality which we do not choose to be at the cost of possessing; and who would willingly think there was much evil in a vice which he practised every day?—That which a man thus persuades himself to think a trivial vice or an unimportant virtue, be of course speaks of as such among his neighbours. They perhaps are u much interested in propagating the delusion as he: they listen with willing ears, and cherish and proclaim the grateful falsehood. By these and by other means the public notions become influenced; a long continuance of the general chicanery at length actually confounds the public opinion; and when once an opinion has become a public opinion, there is no difficulty in accounting for the perpetuation of the fallacy.
If sometimes the mind of an individual recurs to the purer standard, a multitude of obstacles present themselves to its practical adoption. He hopes that under the present circumstances of society an exact obedience to the moral law is not required; be tries to think that the notions of a kingdom or a continent cannot be so erroneous: and at any rate trusts that as he deviates with millions, millions will hardly be held guilty at the bar of God.—The misdirection of public opinion is an obstacle to the virtue even of good men. He who looks beyond the notions of others, and founds his moral principles upon the moral law, yet feels that it is more difficult to conform to that law when he is discountenanced by the general notions, than if those notions supported and encouraged him. What then must the effect of such misdirection be upon those to whom acceptance in the world is the principal concern, and who, if others applaud or smile, seem to be indifferent whether their own hearts condemn them?
Now, with a participation in the evils which the misdirection of public opinion occasions every one is chargeable who speaks of moral actions according to a standard that varies from that which Christianity has exhibited. Here is the cause of the evil, and here must be its remedy. “It is an important maxim in morals, as well as in education, to call things by their right names.”2 “To bestow good names on bad things is to give them a passport in the world under a delusive disguise.”3 “The soft names and plausible colours under which deceit, sensuality, and revenge are presented to us in common discourse, weaken by degrees our natural sense of the distinction between good and evil.”4 Public notions of morality constitute a sort of line of demarkation which is regarded by most men in their practice as a boundary between right and wrong. He who contributes to fix this boundary in the wrong place, who places evil on the side of virtue, or goodness on the side of vice, offends more deeply against the morality and the welfare of the world than multitudes who are punished by the arm of law. If moral offences are to be estimated by their consequences, few will be found so deep as that of habitually giving good names to bad things.5 It is well indeed for the responsibility of individuals that their contribution to the aggregate mischief is commonly small. Yet every man should remember that it is by the contribution of individuals that the aggregate is formed; and that it can only be by the deductions of individuals that it will be done away.
DUELLING. If two boys who disagreed about a game of marbles or a penny tart should therefore walk out by the river side, quietly take off their clothes, and when they had got into the water, each try to keep the other’s head down until one of them was drowned, we should doubtless think that these two boys were mad. If when the survivor returned to his schoolfellows, they patted him on the shoulder, told him he was a spirited fellow, and that if he had not tried the feat in the water, they would never have played at marbles or any other game with him again, we should doubtless think that these boys were infected with a most revolting and disgusting depravity and ferociousness. We should instantly exert ourselves to correct their principles, and should feel assured it.at nothing could ever induce us to tolerate, much less to encourage, such abandoned depravity.—And yet we do both tolerate and encourage such depravity every day. Change the penny tart for some other trifle; instead of boys put men, and instead of a river a pistol,—and we encourage it all. We virtually pat the survivor’s shoulder, tell him he is a man of honour, and that if he had not shot at his acquaintance, we would never have dined with him again. “Revolting and disgusting depravity” are at once excluded from our vocabulary. We substitute such phrases as “the course which a gentleman is obliged to pursue,”—“it was necessary to his honour,”—“one could not have associated with him if he had not fought.” We are the schoolboys, grown up; and by the absurdity, and more than absurdity, of our phrases and actions, shooting or drowning (it matters not which) becomes the practice of the national school.
It is not a trifling question that a man puts to himself when he asks, What is the amount of my contribution to this detestable practice? It is by individual contributions to the public notions respecting it that the practice is kept up. Men do not fire at one another because they are fond of risking their own lives or other men’s, but because public notions are such as they are. Nor do I think any deduction can be more manifestly just than that he who contributes to the misdirection of these notions is responsible for a share of the evil and the guilt,—When some offence has given probability to a duel, every man acts immorally who evinces any disposition to coolness with either party until he has resolved to fight; and if eventually one of them falls, he is a party to his destruction. Every word of unfriendliness, every look of indifference, is positive guilt; for it is such words and such looks that drive men to their pistols. It is the same after a victim has fallen. “I pity his family, but they have the consolation of knowing that he vindicated his honour,” is equivalent to urging another and another to fight. Every heedless gossip who asks, “Have you heard of this affair of honour?” and every reporter of news who relates it as a proper and necessary procedure, participates in the general crime.
If they who hear of an intended meeting among their friends hasten to manifest that they will continue their intercourse with the parties though they do not fight,-if none talks of vindicating honour by demanding satisfaction,—if he who speaks and he who writes of this atrocity, speaks and writes as reason and morals dictate, duelling will soon disappear from the world. To contribute to the suppression of the custom is therefore easy, and let no man, and let no woman, who does not, as occasion others, express reprobation of the custom, think that their hands are clear of blood.—They especially are responsible for its continuance whose station or general character gives peculiar influence to their opinions in its favour. What then are we to think of the conduct of a British judge who encourages it from the bench? A short time ago a person was tried on the Perth circuit for murder, having killed another in a duel. The evidence of the fact was undisputed. Before the verdict was pronounced the judge is said to have used these words in his address to the jury: “The character you have heard testified by so many respectable and intelligent gentlemen this day is as high as is possible for man to receive, and I consider that throughout this affair the panel has acted up to it.” So that it is laid down from the bench that the man who shoots another through the heart for striking him with an umbrella acts up to the highest possible character of man! The prisoner, although every one knew he had killed the deceased, was acquitted; and the judge is reported to have addressed him thus: “You must be aware that the only duty I have to perform is to dismiss you from that bar with a character unsullied.”6 If the judge’s language be true, Christianity is an idle fiction. Who will wonder at the continuance of duelling—who will wonder that upon this subject the moral law is disregarded—if we are to be told that “unsullied character,”—nay, that “the highest possible character of man,” is compatible with trampling Christianity under our feet?
How happy would it be for our country and for the world, how truly glorious for himself, if the king would act towards the duellist as his mother acted towards women who bad lost their reputation. She rigidly excluded them from her presence. If the British monarch refused to allow the man who bad fought a duel to approach him, it is probable that ere long duelling would be abolished, not merely in this country but in the Christian world. Nor will true Christian respect be violated by the addition, that in proportion to the power of doing good is the responsibility for omitting it.
GLORY: MILITARY VIRTUES. To prove that war is an evil were much the same as to prove that the light of the sun is a good. And yet, though no one will dispute the truth, there are few who consider and few who know how great the evil is. The practice is encircled with so many glittering fictions, that most men are content with but a vague and inadequate idea of the calamities, moral, physical, and political, which it inflicts upon our species. But if few men consider how prodigious its mischiefs are, they see enough to agree in the conclusion that the leas frequently it happens the better for the common interests of man. Supposing then that some wars are lawful and unavoidable, it is nevertheless manifest that whatever tends to make them more frequent than necessity requires must be very pernicious to mankind. Now in consequence of a misdirection of public notions, this needless frequency exists. Public opinion is favourable, not so much to war in the abstract or in practice, as to the profession of arms; and the inevitable consequence is this, that war itself is greatly promoted without reference to the causes for which it may be undertaken, By attaching notions of honour to the military profession, and of glory to military achievements, three wars probably have been occasioned where there otherwise would have been but one. To talk of the “splendours of conquest,” and the “glories of victory,” to extol those who “fall covered with honour in their country’s cause,” is to occasion the recurrence of wars, not because they are necessary, but because they are desired. It is in fact contributing, according to the speaker’s power, to desolate provinces and set villages in flames, to ruin thousands and destroy thousands,—to inflict, in brief, all the evils and the miseries which war inflicts. “Splendours,”—“Glories,”—“Honours!”—The listening soldier wants to signalize himself like the heroes who are departed; he wants to thrust his sickle into the fields of fame and reap undying laurels:—How shall he signalize himself without a war, and on what field can he reap glory but in the field of battle? The consequence is inevitable: Multitudes desire war;—they are fond of war,—and it requires no sagacity to discover, that to desire and to love it is to make it likely to happen. Thus a perpetual motive to human destruction is created, of which the tendency is as inevitable as the tendency of a stone to fall to the earth. The present state of public opinion manifestly promotes the recurrence of wars of all kinds, necessary (if such there are) and unnecessary. It promotes wars of pure aggression,—of the most unmingled wickedness: it promoted the wars of the departed Louises and Napoleons. It awards “glory” to the soldier, wherever be his achievements and in whatever cause.
Now, waiving the after-consideration as to the nature of glory itself, the individual may judge of his duties with respect to public opinion by its effects. To minister to the popular notions of glory is to encourage needless wars: it is therefore his duty not to minister to those notions. Common talk by a man’s fireside contributes its little to the universal evil, and shares in the universal offence. Of the writers of some books it is not too much to suppose, that they have occasioned more murders than all the clubs and pistols of assassins for ages have effected. Is there no responsibility for this?
But perhaps it will afford to some men new ideas if we inquire what the real nature of the military virtues is. They receive more of applause than virtues of any other kind. How does this happen? We must seek a solution in the seeming paradox that their pretensions to the characters of virtues are few and small. They receive much applause because they merit little. They could not subsist without it; and if men resolve to practise war, and consequently to require the conduct which gives success to war, they must decorate that conduct with glittering fictions, and extol the military virtues though they be neither good nor great. Of every species of real excellence it is the general characteristic that it is not anxious for applause. The more elevated the virtue the less the desire, and the less is the public voice a motive to action, What should we say of that man’s benevolence who would not relieve a neighbour ill distress unless the donation would be praised in a newspaper? Why should we say of that man’s piety who prayed only when he was “seen of men?” But the military virtues live upon applause; it is their vital element and their food, their great pervading motive and reward. Are there then among the respective virtues such discordances of character,—such total contrariety of nature and essence? No, no. But how then do you account for the fact, that while all other great virtues are independent of public praise and stand aloof from it, the military virtues can scarcely exist without it.
It is again a characteristic of exalted virtue that it tends to produce exalted virtues of other kinds. He that is distinguished by diffusive benevolence is rarely chargeable with profaneness or debauchery. The man of piety is not seen drunk. The man of candour and humility is not vindictive or unchaste. Can the same things be predicated of the tendency of military virtues? Do they tend powerfully to the production of all other virtues? Is the brave man peculiarly pious? Is the military patriot peculiarly chaste? Is he who pants for glory and acquires it distinguished by unusual placability and temperance? No, no. How then do you account for the fact, that while other virtues thus strongly tend to produce and to foster one another,7 the military virtues have little of such tendency or none?
The simple truth, however veiled and however unwelcome, is this; that the military virtues will not endure examination. They are called what they are not, or what they are in a very inferior degree to that which popular notions imply. It would not serve the purposes of war to represent these qualities as being what they are: we therefore dress them with factitious and alluring ornaments; and they have been dressed so long that we admire the show, and forget to inquire what is underneath. Our applauses of military virtues do not adorn them like the natural bloom of loveliness; it is the paint of that which, if seen, would not attract, if it did not repel us.
They are not like the verdure which adorns the meadow, but the greenness that conceals a bog. If the reader says that we indulge in declamation, we invite, we solicit him to investigate the truth. And yet, without inquiring further, there is conclusive evidence in the fact, that glory, that praise, is the vital principle of military virtue. Let us take sound rules for our guides of judgment, and it is not possible that we should regard any quality as possessing much virtue which lives only or chiefly upon praise. And who will pretend that the ranks of armies would be filled if no tongue talked of bravery and glory, and no newspaper published the achievements of a regiment?8
“Truth is a naked and open daylight that doth not show the masks and mummeries and triumphs of the world half so stately and daintily as candle-lights.”9 Let us dismiss then that candle-light examination which men are wont to adopt when they contemplate military virtues, and see what appearance they exhibit in the daylight of truth. Military talent, and active courage, and patriotism, or some other motive, appear to be the foundations and the subjects of our applause.
With respect to talent little needs to be said, since few have an opportunity of displaying it. An able general may exhibit his capacity for military affairs; but of the mass of those who join in battles and participate in their” glories, “little more is expected than that they should be obedient and brave. And as to the few who have the opportunity of displaying talent and who do display it, it is manifest that their claim to merit, independently of the purpose to which their talent is devoted, is little or none. A man deserves no applause for the possession or for the exercise of talent as such. One man may possess and exercise as much ability in corrupting the principles of his readers as another who corrects and purifies them. One man may exhibit as much ability in swindling as another in effectually legislating against swindlers. To applaud the possession of talent is absurd, and, like many other absurd actions, is greatly pernicious. Our approbation should depend on the objects upon which the talent is employed. Military talents, like all others, are only so far proper subjects of approbation as they are employed aright. Yet the popular notion appears to be, that the display of talent in a military leader is, per se, entitled to praise. You might as well applaud the dexterity of a corrupt minister of state. The truth is, that talent, as such, is not a proper subject of moral approbation, any more than strength or beauty. But if we thus take away from the “glories” of military leaders all but that which is founded upon the causes in which their talents were engaged, what will remain to the Alexanders, and the Cæsars, and the Jenghizes, and the Louises, and the Charleses, and the Napoleons, with whose “glories” the idle voice of fame is filled? “Tout ce qui peut-être commun aux bons et aux mechans, ne le rend point veritablement estimable.” Cannot military talents be exhibited indifferently by the good and the bad? Are they not in fact as often exhibited by vicious men as by virtuous? They are, and therefore they are not really deserving of praise. But if any man should say that the circumstance of a leader’s exerting his talents “for his king and country” is of itself a good cause, and, therefore entitles him to praise, I answer that such a man is deluding himself with idle fictions. I hope presently to show due. Meanwhile it is to be remarked, that if this be a valid claim to approbation, “king and country” must always be in the right. Who will affirm this? And yet if it is not shown, you may as well applaud the brigand chief with his thirty followers as the greater marauder with his thirty thousand.
Valour and bravery however may be exhibited by the many,-not by generals and admirals alone, but by ensigns and midshipmen, by seamen and by privates. What then is valour, and what is bravery? “There is nothing great but what is virtuous, nor indeed truly great but what is composed and quiet.”10 There is much of truth in this. Yet where then is the greatness of bravery, for where is the composure and quietude of the quality? “Valour or active courage is for the most part constitutional, and therefore can have no more claim to moral merit than wit, beauty, or health.”11 Accordingly, the question which we have just asked respecting military talent may be especially asked respecting bravery. Cannot bravery be exhibited in common by the good and the bad? Yet further. “It is a great weakness for a man to value himself upon any thing wherein he shall be outdone by fools and brutes.” Is not the bravery of the bravest outdone even by brutes? When the soldier has rigorously assaulted the enemy, when though repulsed he returns to the conflict, when being wounded he still brandishes his sword till it drops from his grasp by faintness or death, he surely is brave. What then is the moral rank to which he has attained? He has attained to the rank of a bull-dog. The dog, too, vigorously assails his enemy; when tossed into the air he returns to the conflict; when gored he still continues to bite, and yields not his hold until he is stunned or killed. Contemplating bravery as such, there is not a man in Britain or in Europe whose bravery entitles him to praise which he must not share with the combatants of a cockpit. Of the moral qualities that are combatants of bravery, the reader may form some conception from this language of a man who is said to be a large landed proprietor, a magistrate, and a member of parliament. “I am one of those who think that evil alone does not result from poaching. The risk poachers run from the dangers that beset them, added to their occupation being carried on in cold dark nights, begets a hardihood of frame and contempt of danger that is not without its va1ue. I never heard or knew of a poacher being a coward. They all make good soldiers; and military men are well aware that two or three men in each troop or company, of bold and enterprising spirits, are not without their effect on their comrades.” The same may of course be said of smugglers and highwaymen. If these are the characters in whom we are peculiarly to seek for bravery, what are the moral qualities of bravery itself? All just all rational, and, I will venture to affirm, all permanent reputation refers to the mind or to virtue; and what connexion has animal power or animal hardihood with intellect or goodness? I do not decry courage: He who was better acquainted than we are with the nature and worth of human actions attached much value to courage, but be attached none to bravery.12 Courage he recommended by his precepts and enforced by his example: bravery he never recommended at all. The wisdom of this distinction and its accordancy with the principles of his religion are plain. Bravery requires the existence of many of those dispositions which he disallowed. Animosity, the desire of retaliation, the disposition to injure and destroy, all this is necessary to the existence of bravery, but all this is incompatible with Christianity. The courage which Christianity requires is to bravery what fortitude is to daring,—an effort of the mental principles rather than of the spirits. It is a calm, steady determinateness of purpose, that will not be diverted by solicitation or awed by fear. “Behold I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things, that shall befall me there; save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying, that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself.”13 What resemblance has bravery to courage like this? This courage is a virtue, and a virtue which it is difficult to acquire or to practise; and we have heedlessly or ingeniously transferred its praise to another quality which is inferior in its nature and easier to acquire, in order that we may obtain the reputation of virtue at a cheap rate.
Of those who thus extol the lower qualities of our nature, few perhaps are conscious to what a degree they are deluded. In exhibiting this delusion let us not forget the purpose for which it is done. The popular notion respecting bravery does not terminate in an innoxious mistake. The consequences are practically and greatly evil. He that has placed his hopes upon the praises of valour desires of course an opportunity of acquiring them, and this opportunity he cannot find but in the destruction of men. That such powerful motives will lead to this destruction when even ambition can scarcely find a pretext, we need not the testimony of experience to assure us. It is enough that we consider the principles which actuate mankind.
And if we turn from actions to motives; from bravery to patriotism, we are presented with similar delusions, and with similar mischiefs as their consequence. To “fight nobly for our country,” to “fall covered with glory in our country’s cause,” to “sacrifice our lives for the liberties and laws and religion of our country,” are phrases in the mouth of multitudes. What do they mean, and to whom do they apply!—We contend that to say generally of those who perish in war that “they have died for their country,” is simply untrue; and for this simple reason, that they did not fight for it. It is not true that patriotism is their motive. Why is a boy destined from school for the army? Is it that his father is more patriotic than his neighbour who destines his son for the bar? Or if the boy himself begs his father to buy an ensigncy, is it because he loves his country, or is it because he dreams of glory, and admires scarlet and plumes and swords? The officer enters the service in order that he may obtain an income, not in order to benefit his fellow-citizens. The private enters it because he prefers a soldiers life to another, or because he has no wish but the wish for change. And having entered the army, what is the motive that induces the private or his superiors to fight? It is that fighting is part of their business; that it is one of the conditions upon which they were hired. Patriotism is not the motive. Of those who fall in battle, is there one in a hundred who even thinks of his country’s good? He thinks perhaps of glory and of the fame of his regiment—he hopes perhaps that “Salamanca” or “Austerlitz” will henceforth be inscribed on its colours, but rational views of his country’s welfare are foreign to his mind. He has scarcely a thought about the matter. He fights in battle as a horse draws in a carriage, because he is compelled to do it, or because he has done it before; but be probably thinks no more of his country’s good than the same horse if he were carrying corn to a granary would think he was providing for the comforts of his master. The truth therefore is, that we give to the soldier that of which we are wont to be sufficiently sparing,—a gratuitous concession of merit. If he but “fights bravely” he is a patriot, and secure of his praise.
To sacrifice our lives for the liberties and laws and religion of our native land are, undoubtedly, high-sounding words;—but who are they that will do it? Who is it that will sacrifice his life for his country? Will the senator who supports a war? Will the writer who declaims upon patriotism? Will the minister of religion who recommends the sacrifice? Take away war and its fictions, and there is not a man of them who will do it. Will he sacrifice his life at home? If the loss of his life in London or at York would procure just so much benefit to his country as the loss of one soldier’s in the field, would he be willing to lay his head upon the block? Is he willing, for such a contribution to his country’s good, to resign himself without notice and without remembrance to the executioner? Alas for the fictions of war! where is such a man!—Men will not sacrifice their lives at all unless it be in war; and they do not sacrifice them in war from motives of patriotism. In no rational use of language, therefore, can it be said that the soldier “dies for his country.”
Not that there may not be, or that there have not been, persons who fight from motives of patriotism. But the occurrence is comparatively rare. There may be physicians who qualify themselves for practice from motives of benevolence to the sick; or lawyers who assume the gown in order to plead for the injured and oppressed;—but it is an unusual motive, and so is patriotism to the soldier.
And after all, even if all soldiers fought out of zeal for their country, what is the merit of patriotism itself? I do not say that it possesses no virtue, but I affirm, and hope hereafter to show, that its virtue is extravagantly overrated,14 and that if every one who fought did fight for his country, he would often be actuated only by a mode of selfishness,—of selfishness which sacrifices the general interests of the species to the interests of a part.
Such and so low are the qualities which have obtained from deluded and deluding millions, fame, honours, glories. A prodigious structure, and almost without a base: a structure so vast, so brilliant, so attractive, that the greater portion of mankind are content to gaze in admiration, without any inquiry into its basis, or any solicitude for its durability. If, however, it should be that the gorgeous temple will be able to stand only till Christian truth and light become predominant, it surely will be wise of those who seek a niche in its apartments as their paramount and final good to pause ere they proceed. If they desire a reputation that shall outlive guilt and fiction, let them look to the basis of military fame. If this fame should one day sink into oblivion and contempt, it will not be the first instance in which wide-spread glory has been found to be a glittering bubble that has burst and been forgotten. Look at the days of chivalry. Of the ten thousand Quixotes of the middle ages, where is now the honour or the name? Yet poets once sang their praises, and the chronicler of their achievements believed he was recording an everlasting fame. Where are now the glories of the tournament? Glories
Where is the champion whom princesses caressed and nobles envied? Where are the triumphs of Scotus and Aquinas, and where are the folios that perpetuated their fame? The glories of war have, indeed, outlived these: human passions are less mutable than human follies; but I am willing to avow the conviction that these glories are alike destined to sink into forgetfulness, and that the time is approaching when the applauses of heroism and the splendours of conquest will be remembered only as follies and iniquities that are past. Let him who seeks for fame other than that which an era of Christian purity will allow make haste, for every hour that he delays its acquisition will shorten its duration. This is certain, if there be certainty in the promises of Heaven.
But we must not forget the purpose for which these illustrations of the military virtues are offered to the reader;—to remind him, not merely that they are fictions, but fictions which are the occasion of excess of misery to mankind;—to remind him that it is his business, from considerations of humanity and of religion, to refuse to give currency to the popular delusions,—and to remind him that if he does promote them, he promotes, by the act, misery in all its forms and guilt in all its excesses. Upon such subjects, men are not left to exercise their own inclinations. Morality interposes its commands; and they are commands which, if we would be moral, we must obey.
UNCHASTITY. No portion of these pages is devoted to the enforcement of moral obligations upon this subject, partly because these obligations are commonly acknowledged how little soever they may be regarded, and partly because, as the reader will have seen, the object of these essays is to recommend those applications of the moral law which are frequently neglected in the practice even of respectable men.—But in reference to the influence of public opinion on offences connected with the sexual constitution, it will readily be perceived that something should be said, when it is considered that some of the popular notions respecting them are extravagantly inconsistent with the moral law. The want of chastity in a woman is visited, by public opinion, with the severest reprobation,—in men, with very little, or with none. Now, morality makes no such distinction. The offence is frequently adverted to in the Christian Scriptures, but I believe there is no one precept which intimates that in the estimation of its writer there was any difference in the turpitude of the offence respectively in men and women. If it be in this volume that we are to seek for the principles of the moral law, how shall we defend the state of popular opinion? “If unchastity in a woman, whom St. Paul terms the glory of man, be such a scandal and dishonour, then certainly in a man, who is both the image and glory of God, it must, though commonly not so thought, be much more deflowering and dishonourable.”15 But this departure from the moral law, like all other departures, produces its legitimate, that is, pernicious effects. The sex in whom popular opinion reprobates the offences comparatively seldom commits them: the sex in whom it tolerates the offences commits them to an enormous extent. It is obvious, therefore, that to promote the present state of popular opinion is to promote and to encourage the want of chastity in men.
That some very beneficial consequences result from the strong direction of its current against the offence in a woman, is certain. The consciousness that upon the retention of her reputation depends so tremendous a stake, is probably a more efficacious motive to its preservation than any other. The abandonment to which the loss of personal integrity generally consigns a woman is a perpetual and fearful warning to the sex. Almost every human being deprecates and dreads the general disfavour of mankind; and thus, notwithstanding temptations of all kinds, the number of women who do incur it is comparatively small. But the fact that public opinion is thus powerful in restraining one sex is a sufficient evidence that it would also be powerful in restraining the other. Waiving for the present the question whether the popular disapprobation of the crime in a woman is not too severe,—if the man who was guilty was forthwith and immediately consigned to infamy if he was expelled from virtuous society, and condemned, for the remainder of life, to the lowest degradation, how quickly would the frequency of the crime be diminished! The reformation among men would effect a reformation among women too; and the reciprocal temptations which each addresses to the other would, in a great degree, be withdrawn. If there were few seducers few would be seduced; and few therefore would, in turn, become the seducers of men.
But instead of this direction of public opinion, what is the ordinary language respecting the man who thus violates the moral law! We are told that “he is rather unsteady;” that “there is a little of the young man about him;” that “he is not free from indiscretions.” And what is he likely to think of all this? Why, that for a young man to have a little of the young man about him is perfectly natural; that to be rather unsteady and a little indiscreet is not, to be sure, what one would wish, but that it is no great harm, and will soon wear off.—To employ such language is, we say, to encourage and promote the crime, a crime which brings more wretchedness and vice into the world than almost any other; and for which, if Christianity is to be believed, the Universal Judge will call to a severe account. If the immediate agent be obnoxious to punishment, can he who encouraged him expect to escape? I am persuaded that the frequency of this gross offence is attributable much more to the levity of public notions as founded upon levity of language, than to passion; and perhaps, therefore, some of those who promote this levity may be in every respect as criminal as if they committed the crime itself.
Women themselves contribute greatly to the common levity and to its attendant mischiefs. Many a female who talks in the language of abhorrence of an offending sister, and averts her eye in contumely if she meets her in the street, is perfectly willing to be the friend and intimate of the equally offending man. That such women are themselves duped by the vulgar distinction is not to be doubted,—but then, we are not to imagine that she who practises this inconsistency abhors the crime so much as the criminal. Her abhorrence is directed not so much to the violation of the moral law as to the party by whom it is violated. “To little respect has that woman a claim on the score of modesty, though her reputation may be white as the driven snow, who smiles on the libertine while she spurns the victims of his lawless appetites.” No, no.—If such women would convince us that it is the impurity which they reprobate, let them reprobate it wherever it is found: if they would convince us that morals or philanthropy is their motive when they spurn the sinning sister, let them give proof by spurning him who has occasioned her to sin.
The common style of narrating occurrences and trials of seduction, &c. in the public prints is very mischievous. These flagitious actions are, it seems, a legitimate subject of merriment; one of the many droll things which a newspaper contains. It is humiliating to see respectable men sacrifice the interests of society to such small temptation. They pander to the appetite of the gross and idle of the public:—they want to sell their newspapers.—Much of this ill-timed merriment is found in the addresses of counsel, and this is ono mode among the many in which the legal profession appears to think itself licensed to sacrifice virtue to the usages which it has, for its own advantage, adopted. There is cruelty, as well as other vices, in these things. When we take into account the intense suffering which prostitution produces upon its victim& and upon their friends, he who contributes, even thus indirectly, to its extension does not exhibit even a tolerable sensibility to human misery. Even infidelity acknowledges the claims of humanity; and, therefore, if religion and religious morals were rejected, this heartless levity of language would still be indefensible. We call the man benevolent who relieves or diminishes wretchedness: what should we call him who extends and increases it?
In connexion with this subject an observation suggests itself respecting the power of character in affecting the whole moral principles of the mind. If loss of character does not follow a breach of morality, that breach may be single and alone. The agent’s virtue is so far deteriorated, but the breach does not open wide the door to other modes of crime. If loss of character does follow one offence, one of the great barriers which exclude the flood of evil is thrown down; and though the offence which produced loss of character be really no greater than the offence with which it is retained, yet its consequences upon the moral condition are incomparably greater. The reason is, that if you take away a person’s reputation you take away one of the principal motives to propriety of conduct. The labourer who, being tempted to steal a piece of bacon from the farmer, finds that no one will take him into his house or give him employment, and that wherever he goe1 he is pointed at as a thief, is almost as much driven as tempted to repeat the crime. His fellow labourer who has much more heinously violated the moral law by a flagitious intrigue with a servant-girl, receives from the farmer a few reproaches and a few jests, retains his place, never perhaps repeats the offence, and subsequently maintains a decent morality.
It has been said, “As a woman collects all her virtue into this point, the loss of her chastity is generally the destruction of her moral principle.” What is to be understood by collecting virtue into one point it is not easy to discover. The truth is, that as popular notions have agreed that she who loses her chastity shall retain no reputation, a principal motive to the practice of other virtues is taken away:—she therefore disregards them; and thus, by degrees, her moral principle is utterly depraved.—If public opinion was so modified that the world did not abandon a woman who has been robbed of chastity, it is probable that a much larger number of these unhappy persons would return to virtue. The case of men offers illustration and proof. The unchaste man retains his character, or at any rate he retains so much that it is of great importance to him to preserve the remainder. Public opinion accordingly holds its strong rein upon other parts of his conduct, and by this rein he is restrained from deviating into other walks of vice. If the direction of public opinion were exchanged, if the woman’s offence were held venial and the man’s infamous, the world might stand in wonder at the altered scene. We should have worthy and respectable prostitutes, while the men whom we now invite to our tables and marry to our daughters, would be repulsed as the most abandoned of mankind. Of this I have met with a curious illustration.—Among the North American Indians “seduction is regarded as a despicable crime, and more blame is attached to the man than to the woman: hence the offence on the part of the female is more readily forgotten and forgiven, and she finds little or no difficulty in forming a subsequent matrimonial alliance when deserted by her betrayer, who is generally regarded with distrust, and avoided in social intercourse.”16
It becomes a serious question how we shall fix upon the degree in which diminution of character ought to be consequent upon offences against morality. It is not, I think, too much to say that no single crime, once committed, under the influence perhaps of strong temptation, ought to occasion such a loss of character as to make the individual regard himself as abandoned. I make no exceptions, not even for murder, I am persuaded that some murders are committed with less of personal guilt than is sometimes involved in much smaller crimes: but however that may be, there is no reason why, even to the murderer, the motives and the avenues to amendment should be closed. Still less ought they to be closed against the female who is perhaps the victim—strictly the victim—of seduction. Yet, if the public do not express, and strongly express, their disapprobation, we have seen that they practically encourage offences. In this difficulty I know of no better and no other guide than that system which the tenor of Christianity prescribes, Abhorrence of the evil and commiseration of him who commits it. The union of these dispositions will be likely to produce, with respect to offences of all kinds, that conduct which most effectually tends to discountenance them, while it as effectually tends to reform the offenders. These, however, are not the dispositions which actuate the public in measuring their reprobation of unchastity in women. Something probably might rightly be deducted from the severity with which their offence is visited: much may be rightly altered in the motives which induce this severity. And as to men, much should be added to the quantum of reprobation, and much correction should be applied to the principles by which it is regulated.
Another illustration of the power of character, as such, to corrupt the principles or to preserve them, is furnished in the general respectability of the legal profession. We have seen that this profession, habitually, and as a matter of course, violates many and great points of morality, and yet I know not that their character as men is considerably inferior to that of others in similar walks of life. Abating the privileges under which the profession is presumed to act, many of their legal procedures are as flagitious as some of those which send unprivileged professions to the bar of justice. How then does it happen that the moral offenders whom we imprison, and try, and punish are commonly in their general conduct depraved, while the equal offenders whom we do not punish are not thus depraved? The prisoner has usually lost much of his reputation before he becomes a thief, and at any rate he loses it with the act. But a man may enter the customary legal course with a fair name: public opinion has not so reprobated that course as to make it necessary to its pursuit that a man should already have become depraved. While engaged in the ordinary legal practice he may be unjust at his desk or at the bar, he may there commit actions essentially and greatly wicked, and yet when he steps into his parlour his character is not reproached. A jest or two upon his adroitness is probably all the intimation that he receives that other men do not regard it with perfect complacency. Such a man will not pick your pocket the more readily because he has picked a hundred pockets at the bar. This were to sacrifice his character; the other does not: and accordingly all those motives to rectitude which the desire of preserving reputation supplies operate to restrain him from other offences. If public opinion were rectified, if character were lost by actual violations of the moral law, some of the ordinary processes of legal men would be practised only by those who had little character to lose.—Not indeed that public opinion is silent respecting the habitual conduct of the profession. A secret disapprobation manifestly exists, of which sufficient evidence may be found even in the lampoons, and satires, and proverbs which pass currently in the world. Unhappily, the disapprobation is too slight, and especially it is too slightly expressed. When it is thus expressed, the lawyer sometimes unites, with at least apparent good-humour, in the jest,—feeling, perhaps, that conduct which cannot be shown to be virtuous, it is politic to keep without the pale of the vices by a joke.
FAME. The observations which were offered respecting contributing to the passion for glory involve kindred doctrines respecting contributions generally to individual fame. If the pretensions of those with whose applauses the popular voice is filled, were examined by the only proper test, the test which Christianity allows, it would be found that multitudes whom the world thus honours must be shorn of their beams. Before Bacon’s daylight of truth, poets and statesmen and philosophers without number, would hide their diminished heads. The mighty indeed would be fallen. Yet it is for the acquisition of this fame that multitudes toil. It is their motive to action; and they pursue that conduct which will procure fame, whether it ought to procure it or not. The inference as to the duties of individuals in contributing to fame is obvious.
“The profligacy of a man of fashion is looked upon with much less contempt and aversion than that of a man of meaner condition.”17 It ought to be looked upon with much more.—But men of fashion are not our concern, Our business is with men of talent and genius, with the eminent and the great. The profligacy of these, too, is regarded with much less of aversion than that of less gifted men. To be great, whether intellectually or otherwise, is often like a passport to impunity; and men talk as if we ought to speak leniently of the faults of a man who delights us by his genius or his talent. This precisely is the man whose faults we should be most prompt to mark, because he is the man whose faults are most seducing to the world. Intellectual superiority brings, no doubt, its congenial temptations. Let these affect our judgments of the man, but let them not diminish our reprobation of his offences. So to extenuate the individual as to apologize for his faults is to injure the cause of virtue in one of its most vulnerable parts. “Oh! that I could see in men who oppose tyranny in the state, a disdain of the tyranny of low passions in themselves. I cannot reconcile myself to the idea of an immoral patriot, or to that separation of private from public virtue which some men think to be possible.”18 Probably it is possible; probably there may be such a thing as an immoral patriot: for public opinion applauds the patriotism without condemning the immorality. If men constantly made a fit deduction from their praises of public virtue on account of its association with private vice, the union would frequently be severed; and he who hoped for celebrity from the public would find it needful to be good as well as great. He who applauds human excellence and really admires it, should endeavour to make its examples as pure and perfect as he can. He should hold out a motive to consistency of excellence, by evincing that nothing else can obtain praise unmingled with censure. This endeavour should be constant and uniform. The hearer should never be allowed to suppose that in appreciating a person’s merits, we are indifferent to his faults. It has been complained of one of our principal works of periodical literature, that among its many and ardent praises of Shakspeare, it has almost never alluded to his indecencies. The silence is reprehensible: for what is a reader to conclude but that indecency is a very venial offence? Under such circumstances, not to be with morality is to be against it. Silence is positive mischief. People talk to us of liberality, and of allowances for the aberrations of genius, and for the temptations of greatness. It is well. Let the allowances be made.—But this is frequently only affectation of candour. It is not that we are lenient to failings, but that we are indifferent to vice. It is not even enlightened benevolence to genius or greatness itself. The faults and vices with which talented men are chargeable deduct greatly from their own happiness, and it cannot be doubted that their misdeeds have been the more willingly committed from the consciousness that apologists would be found among the admiring world. It is sufficient to make that world knit its brow in anger, to insist upon the moral demerits of a Robert Burns. Pathetic and voluble extenuations are instantly urged. There are extenuations of such a man’s vices, and they ought to be regarded: but no extenuations can remove the charge of voluntary and intentional violations of morality. Let us not hear of the enthusiasm of poetry, Men do not write poetry as they chatter with their neighbours: they sit down to a deliberate act; and he who in his verses offends against morals intentionally and deliberately offends.
After all, posterity exercises some justice in its award. When the first glitter and the first applauses are past,—when death and a few years of sobriety have given opportunity to the public mind to attend to truth, it makes a deduction, though not a due deduction, for the shaded portions of the great man’s character. It is not forgotten that Marlborough was avaricious, that Bacon was mean; and there are great names of the present day of whom it will not be forgotten that they had deep and dark shades in their reputation. It is perhaps wonderful that those who seek for fame are so indifferent to these deductions from its amount. Supposing the intellectual pretensions of Newton and Voltaire were equal, how different is their fame! How many and how great qualifications are employed in praising the one! How few and how small in praising the other! Editions of the works of some of our first writers are advertised, “in which the exceptionable passages are expunged.” How foolish, how uncalculating even as to celebrity, to have inserted these passages! To write, in the hope of fame, works which posterity will mutilate before they place them in their libraries!—Charles James Fox said, that if during his administration they could effect the abolition of the slave-trade, it “would entail more true glory upon them, and more honour upon their country, than any other transaction in which they could be engaged.”19 If this be true, (and who will dispute it?) ministers usually provide very ill for their reputation with posterity. How anxiously devoted to measures comparatively insignificant! How phlegmatic respecting those calls of humanity and public principle, a regard of which will alone secure the permanent honours of the world! It may safely be relied upon that “much more unperishable is the greatness of goodness than the greatness of power”20 or the greatness of talent. And the difference will progressively increase. If, as there is reason to believe, the moral condition of mankind will improve, their estimate of the good portion of a great man’s character will be enhanced, and their reprobation of the bad will become more intense,—until at length it will perhaps be found, respecting some of those who now receive the applauses of the world, that the balance of public opinion is against them, and that in the universal estimate of merit and demerit, they will be ranked on the side of the latter. These motives to virtue in great men are not addressed to the Christian: he has higher motives and better: but since it is more desirable that a man should act well from imperfect motives than that he should act ill, we urge him to regard the integrity of his fame.
THE PRESS. It is manifest that if the obligations which have been urged apply to those who speak, they apply with tenfold responsibility to those who write. The man who in talking to half a dozen of his acquaintance contributes to confuse or pervert their moral notions, is accountable for the mischief which he may do to six persons. He who writes a book containing similar language is answerable for a so much greater amount of mischief as the number of his readers exceeds six, and as the influence of books exceeds that of conversation by the evidence of greater deliberation in their contents, and by the greater attention which is paid by the reader. It is not a light matter, even in this view, to write a book for the public. We very insufficiently consider the amount of the obligations, and the extent of the responsibility which we entail upon ourselves. Every one knows the power of the press in influencing the public mind. He that publishes five hundred copies of a book of which any part is likely to derange the moral judgment of a reader, contributes materially to the propagation of evil. If each of his books is read by four persons, he endangers the infliction of this evil, whatever be its amount, upon two thousand minds. Who shall tell the sum of the mischief? In this country the periodical press is a powerful engine for evil or for good. The influence of the contents of one number of a newspaper may be small, but it is perpetually recurring, The editor of a journal of which no more than a thousand copies are circulated in a week and each of which is read by half a dozen persons undertakes in a year a part of the moral guidance of thirty thousand individuals. Of some daily papers the number of readers is so great, that in the course of twelve months they may influence the opinions and the conduct of six or eight millions of men. To say nothing, therefore, of editors who intentionally mislead and vitiate the public, and remembering with what carelessness respecting the moral tendency of articles a newspaper is filled, it may safely be concluded that some creditable editors do harm in the world to an extent in comparison with which robberies and treasons are as nothing.
It is not easy to imagine the sum of advantages which would result if the periodical press not only excluded that which does harm, but preferred that which does good. Not that grave moralities, not, especially, that religious disquisitions, are to be desired; but that every reader should see and feel that the editor maintained an allegiance to virtue and to truth. There is hardly any class of topics in which this allegiance may not be Manifested, and manifested without any incongruous associations. You may relate the common occurrences of the day in such a manner as to do either good or evil. The trial of a thief, the particulars of a conflagration, the death of a statesman, the criticism of a debate, and a hundred other matters, may be recorded so as to exercise a moral influence over the reader for the better or the worse. That the influence is frequently for the worse needs no proof; and it is so much the less defensible because it may be changed to the contrary without a word, directly, respecting morals or religion.
However, newspapers do much more good than harm, especially in politics. They are in this country one of the most vigorous and beneficial instruments of political advantage. They effect incalculable benefit both in checking the statesman who would abuse power, and in so influencing the public opinion as to prepare it for, and therefore to render necessary, an amelioration of political and civil institutions. The great desideratum is enlargement of views and purity of principle. We want in editorial labours less of partisanship, less of petty squabbles about the worthless discussions of the day: we want more of the philosophy of politics, more of that grasping intelligence which can send a reader’s reflections from facts to principles. Our journals are, to what they ought to be, what a chronicle of the middle ages is to a philosophical history. The disjointed fragments of political intelligence ought to be connected by a sort of enlightened running commentary. There is talent enough embarked in some of these; but the talent too commonly expends itself upon subjects and in speculations which are of little interest beyond the present week.
And here we are reminded of that miserable direction to public opinion which is given in historical works.21 I do not speak of party bias, though that is sufficiently mischievous; but of the irrational selection by historians of comparatively unimportant things to fill the greater portion of their pages. People exclaim that the history of Europe is little more than a history of human violence and wickedness. But they confound history with that portion of history which historians record. That portion is doubtless written almost in blood,—but it is a very small, and in truth a very subordinate portion. The intrigues of cabinets; the rise and fall of ministers; wan, and battles, and victories, and defeats; the plunder of provinces; the dismemberment of empires;—these are the things which fill the pages of the historian, but these are not the things which compose the history of man. He that would acquaint himself with the history of his species must apply to other and to calmer scenes. “It is a cruel mortification in searching for what is instructive in the history of past times, to find that the exploits of conquerors who have desolated the earth and the freaks of tyrants who have rendered nations unhappy are recorded with minute and often disgusting accuracy, while the discovery of useful arts and the progress of the most beneficial branches of commerce are passed over in silence, and suffered to sink into oblivion.”22 Even a more cruel mortification than this is to find recorded almost nothing respecting the intellectual and moral history of man. You are presented with five or six weighty volumes which profess to be a history of England; and after reading them to the end you have hardly found any thing to satisfy that interesting question,—How has my country been enabled to advance from barbarism to civilization; to come forth from darkness into light? Yes, by applying philosophy to facts yourself, you may attain some, though it be but an imperfect, reply. But the historian himself should have done this. The facts of history, simply u such, are of comparatively little concern. He is the true historian of man who regards mere facts rather as the illustrations of history than as its subject-matter. As to the history of cabinets and courts of intrigue and oppression, of campaigns and generals, we can almost spare it all. It is of wonderfully little consequence whether they are remembered or not, except as lessons of instruction,—except as proofs of the evils of bad principles and bad institutions. For any other purpose, Blenheim! we can spare thee. And Louis, even Louis “le grand!” we can spare thee. And thy successor and his Pompadour! we can spare ye all.
Much power is in the hands of the historian if he will exert it: if he will make the occurrences of the past subservient to the elucidations of the principles of human nature,—of the principles of political truth,—of the rules of political rectitude: if he will refuse to make men ambitious of power by filling his pages with the feats or freaks of men in power;—if he will give no currency to the vulgar delusions about glory:—if he will do these things, and such as these, he will deserve well of his country and of man; for he will contribute to that rectification of public opinion which, when it is complete and determinate, will be the most powerful of all earthly agents in ameliorating the social condition of the world.
See Footnotes here.
All Sub-Works of Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).:
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- Preface to the American Edition.
- Introductory Notices.
- Moral Obligations.
- Standard of Right and Wrong.
- Subordinate Standards of Right and Wrong.
- Standard of Right and Wrong Footnotes.
- Collateral Observations.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God Footnotes.