TWO winters have passed since a friend of a studious turn of mind, and fond of retirement, was prevailed on, reluctantly, to pass a few of the winter weeks with me in town.
As with a very good understanding he hath acquired a calmness of mind which enables him to judge of things with great accuracy and disinteredness, I was frequently delighted by hearing his opinions of those political disputes which take up so much of the time and thoughts of the good people of this great city.
He would say, “It is surprising to see so great a number of people as he met with everywhere, so warm and agitated about a subject of which if they were not entirely ignorant, they had certainly given themselves very little trouble to examine into the nature of.”
He meant the subject of Liberty.
I thought it but fair that he who laughed at the absurdity and ignorance of others should produce his own opinions on the same subject. I therefore drew him, one evening when we were left together without other company, insensibly to the point I intended, and urged him to give me his thoughts on the subject of Liberty, the nature of which, I said, I had never very nicely considered.
He hesitated a moment, and said he knew I was not one of those who inquire through an impertinent curiosity, or who argue to gain a victory; he would therefore freely give his opinion on the subject, provided I would not fail to interrogate him when he should not sufficiently explain himself; and would not let anything pass unexamined which I might think wrong or not sufficiently clear.
I promised, and he began as follows.
Liberty is a word, taken as it is vulgarly used, of a very indeterminate signification, and, like many others of the moral kind, very few people have even nearly the same ideas affixed to it.
But it does not from thence follow that it, as well as others of the same kind, is incapable of definition; but that more care is required to trace out and place it in its true point of view.
Here he stopped.
I begged he would proceed; for that I knew of none more likely than himself to place it in its true point of view.
The doubt of that, he said, was the thing which made him pause; for the research must be deep into the natural constitution of man. Yet he thought the subject much more simple than was commonly imagined; and that the intricacies and uncertainties which some should fancy themselves able to discover in such subjects arose more from prejudice and perversity than from the nature of the things.
He said it appeared to him that the liberty or freedom of man, in an abstracted sense, consisted in a power of doing, or of forbearing to do, any action at his pleasure.
If there were any impediment, either to his doing, or not doing any action, he was in such case not free; he was confined on one side or on the other.
It may seem trifling, continued he, to say that man hath not a freedom of choice in things superior to his nature; and that God hath set bounds to the powers of human nature which cannot be exceeded: yet it appears requisite to say so much, because, you know, there have not been wanting many instances of men whose memories have failed them in that particular.
True, said I, as Alexander when he fancied himself a God.
Aye, said he, and as every one who fancies himself endued with faculties or powers which are either above or below human nature; and they doubtless have been, and are, numerous.
But, he added, the all-wise Creator hath thought fit to circumscribe the powers of Man, and he can act only within a certain sphere: within that sphere the utmost freedom of human actions is necessarily confined: beyond it man can do nothing.
He looked at me.
True, said I. But may a man, then, do all he hath power to do within the circumscribed line? May every capricious fancy be indulged? Or are there reasons why Liberty so extensive should suffer restraint?
There are, answered he, very substantial reasons to be given why the Liberty of man should be restrained within narrower bounds.
But how narrow are those bounds? interrogated I, somewhat sharply; and what should move him to contain himself within them?
It was difficult, he said, to draw precisely the line which ought not to be passed in all cases, perhaps almost impossible: yet he thought he could do it well enough to satisfy the mind of any rational man.
I smiled, begged he would go on, and leave the minds of irrational men dissatisfied.
He proceeded thus.
All creatures, every one according to his kind or species, are created subject to laws proper and peculiar to their several natures, and suitable to the ends of the Supreme Being.
True, said I.
The creature man too, continued he, is created subject to laws equally proper and peculiar to his nature: and the Deity hath not only made him sensibly to feel them, but hath enabled him to understand their reasonableness, and to perceive their beauty and excellence: and in this understanding and perception consists the great difference between man and other creatures. They, while left to themselves, seem to be guided by an unerring instinct; but we are allowed a larger field, and are capable of a certain degree of resistance to the true and natural impulses or laws of our nature; which God appears to have allowed to man that he might not be incapable of merit, the merit of freely choosing to obey those true and natural impulses by which God doth point out his will in the soul of man.
I think, said I, I perfectly agree with you; only I do not well understand what you mean when you say “we are capable of a certain degree of resistance to the true and natural impulses or laws of our nature.”
I mean, answered he, that we can resist and act contrary to those impulses which would move us to conduct ourselves agreeably to our own true happiness, and to the general good of our kind: but that we can only resist to a certain degree; sufficient indeed to torment ourselves and others, and one would think, therefore, sufficient to convince us of our errors; yet the utmost force of human disobedience and perversity is, doubtless, too weak and too much circumscribed to be able to bring about a general destruction of our kind; and surely much too insignificant to disturb the general order and harmony of the universal system.
It would seem then, replied I, (since our power of resistance extends only to the tormenting of ourselves and others) agreeable to the true happiness of individuals, and to the good of all, not to resist, but to obey, those true and natural impulses or laws you speak of.
Doubtless, rejoined he; and because the true happiness and the true good of all, and of every individual, require obedience to those laws, therefore the greatest liberty of man ought to be restrained within narrower bounds: within bounds which those laws would prescribe.
I am convinced, said I, that our greatest liberty, or freedom of action, ought not to be exercised in its fullest extent; and it must be acknowledged that restraints are necessary: but what those restraints out to be, and how far they ought to extend, are points about which mankind seem to be very far from entertaining the same sentiments.
‘Tis true, answered he, men do seem to differ widely about those things; but their differences do not arise so much from any natural difficulty of the subject as from the prepossession of established prejudices: such as false religions, unnatural customs, misguided passions, and mercenary contentions. Surrounded by such dark clouds, ignes fatui for their guides, leading various and contrary ways; it is not very surprising that the minds of men do not agree concerning a matter which can only be understood by looking closely into themselves and observing there those laws which God hath impressed on the soul of man. –– But to the truth of a proposition, of the existence of a thing, the universal consent of man is not always necessary. –– However, I do not find that men differ much in material points when they can so far conquer their prejudices as to compare notes with a moderate share of patience: nor, indeed, is it possible they should, since God hath given the same laws to all human nature.
It seems, replied I, you think those prejudices you speak of (and which doubtless do very strongly influence the minds of many) have cast obscurities around Nature through which she is not easily discerned; but could we divest ourselves of those prejudices we should discover much more simplicity in the laws imposed on human nature than is commonly imagined?
It is just what I think, answered he.
I believe you were going to explain some of those laws when I interrupted you? said I.
I was endeavoring to collect my thoughts for that purpose, answered he: and I think we had agreed that our greatest liberty ought to be restrained within bounds which the true laws of nature would prescribe, because the true happiness and good of all required such restraint?
I answered, we had: and now I want to know what those laws are which may be deemed just restraints on our more extensive liberty; and which it is the true happiness of all to submit to.
I will endeavor to satisfy you, said he, as well as I can: to do which it will be necessary to take the matter somewhat deeply, as I said before, and to carry our researches into the fundamental principles of human nature: yet I do not mean to enter into all the minute distinctions of some refined moral writers, not only because they would be unnecessary to our present purpose, but because I know you are not unacquainted with them.
I looked consent, and he went on as follows:
It having been ordained by the Great Creator that the continuation of the human kind should be preserved by generation, and that we should ascend from the lowest degrees of weakness and ignorance, by a very slow and gradual progression, to corporeal strength and a reasonable mind, he hath accordingly endued us with affections and passions (or laws) suitable and subservient to these ends.
The passion between the sexes, and the consequent affection toward the offspring, and all the other affections which take their rise from family, have their foundations in human nature, and are evidently intended to continue the being of the kind, and to secure the nurture and support of those who would be unable to nourish and support themselves.
True, said I.
And do not these laws, interrogated he, act upon us with an almost invincible force; as, indeed, the importance of their end and the great difficulties in progress to that end require they should?
They do indeed, answered I; for nothing seems so much to agitate the human frame as the sense we have of these laws: nothing throws us into so great irregularities as the violation of them. They are the great sources from whence we derive all that is pathetic, all that is most affecting and most interesting to human nature.
Then, said he, I may infer that you will not dispute the authority which all those tender affinities of husband and wife, of parent and child, of brother and sister, and other more distant relatives ought to have over our conduct?
By all means, replied I.
So that the moral obligations, continued he, which must naturally arise from those tender affinities, we may justly call laws; which the being of our kind, and the concord and stability of families, require that men should submit to?
I think so, answered I.
May we not conclude then, demanded he, that the liberty of man ought to suffer such restraints as these laws would put on it; and that he can have no just pretense to exercise any liberty contrary to these laws?
Doubtless, answered I.
Here then, said he, we see arise many restraints on liberty, which moralists have particularized, and which are so easy to understand that few can be ignorant of them. But these are not all; there are many more, which, in a general way, I will endeavor to point out.
I desired him to go on.
All those kind propensities, continued he, which are commonly understood by the words humanity, generosity, benevolence, etc.; why may we not call them true and natural laws of our nature?
I see no objection, said I.
In contradistinction, continued he, to inhumanity, selfishness, and malevolence, which are rightly called unnatural, as having tendencies contrary and inimical to human nature?
The Deity has so strongly impressed them on the soul of man, and so clearly distinguished them as the true guides of human actions by the pleasure they yield to the practicer, the love and admiration they draw from men, and the great utility of such virtues to the world, that the man’s mind must be strangely perverted from its natural bent who is not sensible of such laws in his soul. For though bad customs, bad education, and unnatural manners may very much deface the original impressions which God hath stamped on the human soul, yet those impressions can never be entirely destroyed as long as man continues subject to the present state of humanity.
Indeed I think so, said I.
We can indeed, continued he, render ourselves insensible of a thousand more refined and pleasing emotions of the soul, but not without exchanging them for painful ones. For nature seems constant in this precept; Obey my laws, they lead to pleasure, or suffer the pains of disobedience. It is impossible to extirpate them; it is impossible to oppose them without pain; it is impossible to be indifferent. They are a principal part of our nature, and nothing can destroy their force but death.
I cannot dissent from you, said I.
It will then, said he, be unnecessary to our present purpose to moralize more particularly. And we may be permitted to make this inference – That, as obedience to these laws conduces to the good and felicity of every individual and of mankind in general; and as disobedience has a contrary effect; it is but just and reasonable that the liberty of man should suffer such restraints as may be necessary to prevent him from offending against them.
I am of the same opinion, said I.
Thus then, said he, we have, in a general way, drawn the outlines of those laws of human nature which it has pleased the Creator to impose on it, for ends which, we have agreed, are entirely for the advantage and felicity of the creature. Nor do we deem it unjust to restrain the liberty of man when he would transgress these laws.
True, said I. But who shall restrain his liberty? Who shall enforce obedience? Why may he not trample on the laws of his nature and suffer the pains of disobedience without being compelled to obey, since nature, it seems, only points out the felicity in obedience, and misery in disobedience, but leaves man to choose?
Your question, replied he, would be unanswerable if there were but one man on earth at a time; or if men were so situated that they had not the least necessary connection or commerce with each other. But the fact being quite contrary, as we have seen in the preceding part of our discourse, and men being, by the very nature of their existence, necessarily interested in and connected with one another, they thereby acquire a just right to control the actions of each other, so far, at least, as to prevent injury to themselves. But the principal foundation of right in men to enforce obedience on each other, to the true laws of their nature, is derived from their natural equality.
“How,” interrogated I, “do you then maintain that leveling principle, that men are naturally equal, when there are natural inequalities among them so very manifest?”
I do, answered he: but I fancy the ideas which you and I have affixed to the word equality, in this instance, are very different. What mine are, with your permission, I will endeavor to explain in as few words as possible.
I begged he would, and he proceeded thus:
All creatures of the same kind are created under laws peculiar to their kind. All men are of the same kind, and are doubtless created under laws peculiar to their kind: and in this respect it is that all men are certainly equal.
So it appears to me, said I. But are the great differences in the faculties and abilities of men no objection against this equality?
Not at all, answered he. The possession of great bodily strength, for instance, gives a man no just title to use that strength mischievously and against the laws of humanity: he may possess some of, or all, the faculties of the body in greater perfection than other men: but these faculties are given him subjected to the same natural laws which are common to all men: nor can he by superior force transgress the laws common to his kind by nature, without injustice. He may bear greater burdens, run swifter, show more agility in action, etc., and all the superior advantages resulting from these faculties justly used, he hath a right to, but no other.
Your reasoning seems just, said I. But what say you to superior mental powers? Have they no better claim than those of the body?
In this case, answered he, they appear to me to have less. Superior understanding, far from allowing a man to dispense with the laws of human nature, more strictly binds him to a nice observance of them. He is unpardonable if he do no more than common men in practicing and promoting a due obedience to them. Great genius enables him to be more thoroughly convinced of the truth and justice of these laws. He perceives more, understands more, than inferior minds. Can we, from thence, infer he hath a right to transgress these laws which the inferior have not? Or, if the inferior transgress, is he not more pardonable than the superior genius for that very reason, because he is inferior?
I cannot but confess it, said I.
No man then, continued he, possessing any quality or property of the human nature in a superior degree can from thence, with the least show of reason, suppose himself not justly bound by the same laws of his nature by which all men are bound: for all degrees of human qualities or properties, from the least to the greatest without exception, are incontestably given by God under the very same natural laws which are common to the human kind. And until a man demonstrate that he is created under laws peculiar to himself, and not those known and felt by other men (which, by the way, would be to prove himself not a man, but some other creature) there cannot be the least reason to suppose him exempted from subjection to those laws which are common to the human nature.
By no means, said I.
We have, then, said he, not only discovered that the liberty of man ought to be restrained by the laws peculiar to his nature, but that all men are by nature equally subjected to these laws.
So it seems, returned I.
I will, continued he, with your leave, say somewhat more of the nature and effects of this equality.
I am all attention, said I.
He proceeded thus. If a man offend in such a manner against the laws of human nature that the ill effects be absolutely confined to his own person, (which is, strictly speaking, hardly possible) and be no way detrimental to others; he does not seem to be accountable to any but to God and himself. But for the least transgression which injures, or tends to injure, his equals and fellow-creatures, he is accountable to them, as well as to his Maker. Men, being injured, or having just cause to fear injury, and being equal, have therefore an indisputable right to use all reasonable means of prevention and correction, regulating their conduct by the laws of their nature, since, otherwise, that just equality of the human kind could never be, in any tolerable degree, preserved.
Nor can it be conceived by what right any man, or number of men, could correct the wrong or unjust accusations of another, if this natural equality had no existence. Everyone would have reason to think he might do anything he could do, without regard to others; as containing in himself specific qualities which made the law of his nature peculiar to himself, and not the same as those which are common to all men. But as no man is a species of himself, but only a part of a species, he cannot have laws peculiar to himself, but must be subjected to those which are common to all of his species.
It will not be understood, continued he, that equality in point of property is intended, for that is not only impossible in the natural course of things, but neither reasonable or just. The laws of our nature are not at all infringed by a just use of the advantages which superior wisdom, or superior industry, gives one man over another. On the contrary, it would be great injustice and great discouragement to all merit to take from them those advantages and emoluments which they many naturally acquire without breach of the laws of human nature.
Here he paused, seeming to expect some reply.
I am glad, said I, to find myself by your last observations relieved from the dread I had of the leveling principles which at first I thought would have been the consequence of this natural equality. But now I think I clearly understand you, nor do I know any rational objection to equality thus explained. Yet I do not quite comprehend how the right which men exercise over each other of punishing and correcting transgressions against the laws of their nature is derived from their natural equality. I thought justice gave them that right?
Tis true, answered he, justice does give them that right. But be pleased to observe that from equality, understood as we have explained it, the notion of justice takes its rise among men; and the laws of their nature, which equally bind all men, are the principles by which the administration of it should be regulated. An appeal to justice is nothing but an appeal to those natural laws by which the just equality of mankind is to be preserved; and the self-partiality of parties concerned requires that the determination should be left to uninterested judges.
The notion of justice hath no existence where an equality in nature is not understood.
Take away that equality in nature (as among creatures of different species) justice is no more seen, nor the claim of justice heard. The superior species (if capable of reason) may exhibit benevolence, but justice is quite out of the question. Nor can a creature of one species administer justice to creatures of a different species, because he cannot be sufficiently sensible of the laws of a different species by which his judgments should be regulated. So that every species of creatures, acting conformably to the laws of its nature, although it may be injurious to other species, is not deemed unjust on that account.
No man, for instance, complains of injustice on account of any injurious actions done against himself by beings which he does not believe to be subject to those natural laws which men are subjected to. If a lion devour a man, he is not understood to be unjust; we suppose the creature to act only in conformity to the laws of his nature. If inundations destroy, the sun burn, the frost chill, or the winds carry away, no injustice is attributed to these elements; nor could be, supposing them to be intelligent beings, actuated by the true laws of their natures, any more than to the lion who was actuated by the laws of his nature. Nor do we conceive that, in the uses which we make of other creatures, so far at least as our nature seems to require, we do them any injustice. Justice or injustice, then, do not appear to be concerned in the actions of superior natures acting according to their true laws on inferior natures, or vice versa.
I think I am convinced, said I, only I fear the attribute of justice which we give to the Deity may be called in question by what you say of the incapacity of a superior species to exercise justice over an inferior. May it not?
Not at all, answered he, for the Deity bears no similitude to created beings in that respect. He is the Creator of all beings, and of the laws of all beings, and must therefore be, without controversy, a most perfect judge of the laws, and of the nature, of all the creatures in the universe, which cannot be said of any created beings.
Your answer, said I, seems satisfactory, yet now another doubt arises. You have said “The notion of justice hath no existence where an equality of nature is not understood.” Now what equality in nature is there between God and man? Or doth not the notion of justice exist between them?
This difficulty, answered he, is not so great as first it may appear. The equality which is the foundation of justice between God and man is not to be sought for in the nature of God and the nature of man, for there the difference is infinite and beyond all comprehension. But it is to be sought for, and will be found, in the laws which God has given to human nature and the powers and faculties of man, which he has so nicely and justly proportioned to each other that perhaps there cannot in nature be found a more exact equality. Nor will it, I think, be disputed that the Deity is so just in the laws he has given to every species of creatures as to proportion the faculties of the creatures to their laws, and that more is not expected than is adequate to the faculties any creature may possess. Thus we see that the laws of human nature, which are equally binding on all men, are not only the rule or measure of justice between man and man, but these same laws are also the rule which the God of all wisdom hath been pleased to ordain between man and Himself.
Your reasoning seems just, said I. But what do you say to a state of future retribution?
I say, answered he (in few words) that if it shall be found that men be not sufficiently rewarded by the pleasures of obedience, nor enough punished by the pains of disobedience, in this life, there can be no doubt but that in some future existence perfect justice will take place, for the Supreme Judge is almighty and of unerring wisdom and infinite goodness.
You must be right, said I.
We will therefore conclude, if you please, continued he, that from the equality of mankind, that is, from the equal subjection of all men to the same laws of their nature, they derive a right equally to exact obedience of one another: and that in the practice of a perfectly equal obedience, the idea of perfect justice consists; and in the enforcing of equal obedience the exercise of justice consists. I will only add one observation more on this head, which is that had the human species, like other animals, been governed by an instinct which would have kept them true to their natural laws, justice had never been heard of among men.
Well then, said I, supposing us to be agreed on this point?
Why then, answered he, we have agreed in all points thus far.
And, I think, from what has been said, we may be able to draw, with some degree of precision, the line by which the liberty of human actions ought to be circumscribed:
First: No man can justly violate or transgress those laws which are necessary to the propagation, continuation, and support of our species, with the greatest advantage possible.
Secondly: No man can justly violate the laws of humanity, or all those propensities which would prompt us to a benevolent, humane, and reasonable treatment of each other.
Thirdly: No man can justly transgress those bounds which justice, regulated by the laws of human nature, doth determine to be the true measures of the rights of mankind to the possession of property of any sort whatsoever.
Fourthly, and lastly: That the nearer men approach to a perfect obedience of all to those laws, the nearer they will approach to that just natural equality, and that just liberty, which would result from the equal subjection of all men to the same natural laws: and that the idea of perfect human liberty is a perfect and exact obedience of all to those laws.
So it appears to me, said I.
And so, replied he, (rising to go to rest) we find nature is no less an enemy to licentiousness than she is to tyranny.
And thus ended our first conversation.