Dialogue II

The next evening, being left rather early by some company who had spent the day with us, we drew our chairs toward the fire-side. After some light conversation, I took an opportunity, on the mention of something political, to introduce a few observations on the subject of the preceding evening, which produced nearly what follows.

Some things, said I, which all writers on political subjects speak very much of, were by us unnoticed yesterday evening: Such as, the state of nature, the rise of civil government, a compact, religion, etc., in all which things the liberty of mankind is thought to be very much concerned, and doubtless with abundant reason. May I demand some explanation concerning these things?

By all means, answered he, I shall be very glad to oblige you with any thing in my power.

After a short pause, he said: You well know how much has been said and written on these subjects by very able men, for which reason you will not expect me to say a great deal. And I shall esteem myself fortunate if, by pursuing the simplicity of my former reasoning, I may happily strike out something new in these matters; or render what in them has been made difficult and tedious more obvious and less tiresome.

I think then, continued he, a tolerable notion of the state of nature may be formed from what has already been said in our first conversation; for in that was contained a description of the state of nature in its earliest period. And you know that writers usually choose to distinguish the earliest period as that in which they conceive man to be in the state of nature.

As for those who are so very curious in their researches concerning the state of nature as to consider man as a being abstracted from society, and naturally unsociable, as an individual totally unconnected with his fellow creatures, we may leave them to the enjoyment of their own speculations; which, notwithstanding the discovery of a wild boy or two, are entirely vain and chimerical, because men never have, naturally, existed in such a state at any time whatever.

I nodded assent.

When, continued he, we discourse of men as being in the state of nature, to distinguish their manner of existence before entering into any formal government, it is a phrase which may serve very well for that purpose. But if we conceive (and it is generally so conceived) that as soon as men submit themselves to government they are no longer in their natural state, it is a very great mistake.

It is true, they have varied the state they were in before their submission to government, but that variation does not induce an annihilation of the laws of nature; or, in other words, it does not make void the state of nature, considered as a state in which men lived obedient to the true laws of nature, not enforced by political government. It is the injurious part of the state of nature, (which arises from the want of some certain and sufficient power to enforce an equal and due obedience to the laws of nature) that men mean to get rid of by submission to political government.

All the other parts of the state of nature they mean to preserve by that very submission.

So that when men enter into political government (if upon right principles) they are as much in the state of nature as they were before they entered, with this difference only: that by the force of a good government, the laws of their nature will be preserved in much greater purity than they could be in the state of nature for the want of that force. So much for the state of nature considered in this particular light.

But for my part, I cannot but think it a very unphilosophical distinction to suppose men to be out of a state of nature when they submit themselves to government; or indeed ever to suppose them to be out of their natural state at all, unless when they violate the true laws of their nature; and that we know they frequently do under government as well as before their submission to government.

Now if the violation of the true laws of nature do (as being an anti-natural thing) put men into an unnatural state, and if to correct and reform such violations be to reduce men to their natural state again, and if that can only be effectually done by the help of good government, must we not conclude that the true end of government is to keep men in their natural state? And that men under such government are really much more in a natural state then they were when under no government at all?

Your reasoning seems just, answered I.

It has ever appeared strange to me, continued he, to hear men talk of man as being in the state of nature, or not in the state of nature, in the sense usually affixed to these phrases. Much ambiguity would have been avoided if the words, “Man in his natural state, or not in his natural state,” had been employed. When any other species of animals is made a subject of inquiry, we always treat of it as being in its natural state. And we very justly determine that to be the natural state of any species of creatures which is found consonant to the true laws of its nature, and as far as the motives or actions of any creature be dissonant to the same laws (by whatever means such dissonance arise) so far must they be deemed unnatural, and the creature out of its natural state.

Now were we to make man a subject of inquiry on the same ground, I apprehend much perplexity would be avoided, and we should be much more likely to understand his true natural state.

But, interrogated I, would you have us treat of man as we do of other animals, whose nature and faculties are so widely different?

Why not? answered he. Are not the nature and faculties of every species of creatures widely different? Yet we find an analogy in their natures, and treat of them all in nearly the same method. But what I have to say, continued he, will be short and general; nothing to the disadvantage of man, and perhaps something satisfactory to you.

Suppose, then, we lay it down as a maxim that man, like other animals, is always in his natural state when his motives and actions are consonant to the true laws of his nature, and vice versa.

I see no objection, said I.

If that be allowed, replied he, then whether we consider him in the most savage and uncultivated state, or in the most refined and polished, or in any state between the two, we shall always find him in his natural state, when his conduct is conformable to the true laws of his nature.

It seems so, said I.

And this conduct, I presume, said he, will be so found more generally under good government than in any other period of his progress.

It is probable, said I.

But we are so used, added he, to consider the rudest state of our existence as more truly our natural state, that, I fear, I shall with some difficulty find credit for a different opinion. But let us endeavor at a farther explanation, said he. Man in his rudest state bears a nearer resemblance to other animals; other animals, we allow, are kept in their natural state by laws which act instinctively upon them, and partake very little, if at all, of the rational faculty; so that we think ourselves certain that they are true to the laws of their nature. And thus making them a measure for man, we suppose him to be more truly in his natural state the nearer he approaches to the condition of other animals, and that may be true, as far as concerns his animal functions merely. But it ought to be considered that the peculiar and distinguishing faculties of the human mind, which seem to infer a power of judging of the propriety of human actions, and a power of choosing or refusing to obey the dictates of nature, make a very considerable difference between the nature of man and of other creatures, and prove him to be intended for another and much higher sphere of action. I see no cause therefore to conclude that the rudest and least cultivated is more properly the natural state of man on account of its approximation to the condition of brutes; but rather the contrary.

There is no doubt indeed, as I said before, that man in the animal or instinctive part of his nature hath a great similarity to other creatures. But to pass away a life in the exercise of the animal faculties only would hardly be deemed natural in the human creature: yet such nearly is the savage state. Now what other conclusion can be justly drawn from all this but that man in a savage or uncultivated state is in the lowest and least improved state of human nature; and in that which approaches the nearest to the brute creation?

No other, I think, answered I.

It is, no doubt, continued he, the proper place to commence at in the history of human nature; and that is the only use that ought to have been made of it. But to suppose men to be out of their natural state as soon as they begin to form plans of government, and to invent the useful and ornamental arts of life, is as irrational as to suppose ants out of their natural state when they store up their hoards against winter, or bees when they construct combs for their honey.

A creature formed as man is, with such faculties, senses, and mental powers, is by nature moved, according as particular circumstances arise, to form and to submit himself to political institutions; and to invent and cultivate arts useful and ornamental to life and necessary to his well-being. This indeed is done in a progressive way, from a state of barbarity to a state of refinement and elegancy. He seldom continues long in any certain state. Sometimes his progress in improvement is quick, sometimes very slow, because it much depends on favorable circumstances and on the auspicious situation of things. In the least cultivated, or savage period of his existence, he is a very necessitous creature, and his time and faculties must be almost entirely engrossed in providing for such wants as are too pressing to be neglected. In such a state he can have but little leisure for contemplation and reflection, and from the rudeness of things about him, his ideas must be few, and his views short and confined.

In his progress toward a more improved state, his urgent wants becoming more easily provided for, and finding more time for the exercise of his mind, he proceeds on, step by step, to the discovery of all the arts and sciences subservient either to the utility or ornament of life, until at length he arrive at the most refined and polished state, from which it has been the usual course of things to decline again into barbarity.

Now were we inclined to determine upon any one period of this progress as more properly the natural state of man than any other, where must we fix?

To say particularly seems difficult, answered I.

Must it not be just at that period, interrogated he, when his conduct is most conformable to the true laws of his nature?

It must, answered I.

Perhaps, continued he, that may not be in the most refined state, and I think we are sure it is not in the most rude; but at whatever intermediate period it may be judged to exist, in all stages above or below that period, man will be more or less in his natural state, according as he approaches to, or recedes from, this conformity to the laws of his nature.

And this is what I think concerning the natural state of man.

Remove one difficulty for me, said I, and we perfectly agree. Government, you know, is esteemed a work of art: now can men be said to live in their natural state when their conduct is regulated by a work of art?

They may, answered he: for if we inquire into the just principles of that work of art, we shall find them to be the true laws of human nature, which ought to regulate not only the actions of men, but the construction and conduct of that work of art itself. But you will be pleased to observe, added he, that it would be but of little moment here to mark out precisely the line which separates the operations of instinctive nature from the works of human skill: because, in the case before us, the inquiry is concerning the natural state of man, which consisting, as we have agreed, in his obedience to the laws of his nature, it matters not whether this obedience be effectuated by instinctive nature simply (though we are pretty sure it is not) or by the force of that and art united.

And here I must beg leave to take notice, continued he, that when the word art is used to signify something not founded in the nature of man, or as something that is not the natural result of the nature, constitution, and faculties of man, it is certainly misused.

Do you mean, demanded I, to say that art is natural to man?

I do, answered he.

But it not that a contradiction in terms, interrogated I?

It may appear so according to the vulgar sense of those terms, replied he, but I believe it is no contradiction in the nature of things, for if it were, it certainly had never existed. It may be very proper on some occasions, continued he, to distinguish the operations of general or instinctive nature from the works of human skill; which, you know, has been done by Mr. Harris, as he does every thing, with admirable perspicuity in his Treatise on Art. But nevertheless it is impossible to consider the wants and desires of man, and the nature, extent, and capacity of the human mind, and not to perceive that the natural result must be art.

So indeed it seems, said I.

Art must therefore, in this sense, be natural to man, concluded he.

On this head I am satisfied, said I.

Well then, said he, I hope we shall not find so much difficulty in accounting for the origin of civil government. And he continued thus:

Opinions, you know, have been advanced concerning the first formation of political societies no less extravagant than unnatural and contrary to probability; as if the rise of government, in the course of things, were not as natural as the existence of the primary principles of human nature. Nay some would make us believe that such principles had no existence at all till human laws were invented to give them one. And they find it very difficult to conceive how men could associate and form political societies without a great deal of previous formality. But if the principles of human nature have existed at all times, and in all men (and to believe otherwise must surely be very unphilosophical) is it not easy to perceive that the passion which impels us to the propagation of our species, together with its consequent affections – that the necessitous state of men without reciprocal assistance; that the mutual strength and security which the union of numbers gives to a body of men; and the attracting pleasures of conversation and sociability – do all severally and unitedly draw men, necessarily, into society?

I looked assent.

Why may we not believe then, continued he, that a small number of men, in state of pure simplicity, might live amicably together under the sole influence of the laws of their nature, at least for some time, and that small irregularities might be corrected by shame, by fear, and by reproof?

I see no objection, said I.

Greater crimes, added he, from the dread all men would have of their extending to themselves, would naturally excite them to think of the means of prevention. They would doubtless congregate and consult for the general safety, and in their defense would form rules, institutes, or civil laws, by the energy of which they might hope to secure themselves from such enormities in the future. As crimes increased, so would civil institutes, and so a body politic would be as naturally produced as any other effect in nature. This I take to be a true, though but a short account of the rise of civil government.

Though short, said I, it comprehends much, and seems very probable. But is it not hard to conceive how, from so simple an origin, so great a diversity of governments could arise?

The difficulty of accounting for so great a diversity with precision may be very great, replied he. The impenetrable obscurity in which the origin and earlier times of nations are clouded are the causes of this difficulty. But were the histories of nations exact accounts of the progress of a people from their earliest state upward, and were they written in a circumstantial and philosophical manner, I think from what we know by our own experience, when we thoroughly understand the motives of men’s actions, there is but little reason to doubt that a chain of causes and events would be discovered which would sufficiently account for all the varieties which have appeared in political governments.

But great and striking actions and events alone are generally the subject of history, and all the intermediate links which should chain those great events together are slightly passed over or entirely unnoticed. Nay, even the motives and causes which produced the great events themselves are generally far from being thoroughly understood. And indeed it happens, unfortunately for history, that a nation is so complex a body, and every public action is the product of so many and various motives, views, and interests, that the historian must be very happy in his conjectures who does not frequently err in his endeavors to explain them. And for this cause it is that we find but few histories worth the reading, except those in which the writers themselves have been considerable actors.

I believe your observations are just, said I, and thus far I am satisfied. But what do you say to an original compact, so much talked of by political writers?

I say, answered he, after a short pause, by continuing our inquiries on the same principles on which we have hitherto proceeded we shall probably find that subject much less difficult, and more clear than it is generally found in the usual way of treating it.

I begged he would proceed in his own way, and he began thus:

Granting the existence of a formal or an implied compact (for the existence of both have been denied) in every state, what may one naturally suppose to be the foundation and object of such a compact?

I cannot readily say, answered I.

I should think, said he, the object must be general good or happiness, and, if so, the foundation must be on justice.

It seems so, said I.

It cannot otherwise, replied he, be a fair compact: for if the interest and advantage of one, or a few only, be aimed at and obtained to the oppression of the rest, it is nothing less than deceiving and over-reaching the oppressed part; and therefore such a compact must be, in its nature, void.

True, said I.

There can then, continued he, be no just political compact made contrary to the true principles of human nature, because if the foundation of such compact must be on justice, the determinations of justice must be regulated by these principles, as was shown in our first conversation. Men, from a sense of the excellence of these principles, being moved with a desire of preserving them as pure as possible, first formed civil polities, not to thwart and contradict, but to confirm and strengthen them. No compact can, therefore, be supposed of any force or validity which would oblige men in any manner not consistent with these principles. And thus we find the just measure of every formal or implied political compact to be the true principles or laws of human nature.

It must be so, said I.

To assert then, said he, the validity of any political compact, either formal or implied, to oblige men to submit to laws enacted by any authority whatsoever, any longer than such laws be conformable to, or corroborative of, the true principles of human nature, must be a false assertion, and inimical to the just liberties of mankind.

Your conclusion seems just, said I. Yet in common life, we do not think a contract void and of no force on account of its being, on one side, a foolish or even an injurious bargain.

The generality do not, replied he, yet that they do not think so does not arise from any conviction that such a contract can possibly be just, but because it is found necessary to prevent eternal litigations and endless uncertainty, to draw a line somewhere that there may be some rule, some standing measure in these matters. Nevertheless, when cases of extraordinary folly or iniquity occur, the obligation of a contract is frequently made void. But the case of a political compact, which comprehends the interests of whole nations, and in which the natural enjoyments and prosperity of a people and their posterity are concerned, must be understood in the most liberal sense, utterly devoid of all those mean artifices which are usually employed in what is called making a good bargain. For there is a wide difference between private contracts and this great public one.

But it has been usual, continued he, to view this matter in another light, in which it is presumed that a people can stipulate away the rights and privileges of their nature in favor of their prince, or rulers. In this view of an original compact the wisdom of the prince, or of the rulers, will be thought great in proportion as the compact shall be explained in favor of the establishment of their own power and authority, as a kind of rightful property which they hold independent of the people.

It is frequently so understood, said I.

So that by having usurped an authority, continued he, or acquired it by any other more artful means, the use they would make of a compact seems to be only that of confirming, augmenting, or peradventure of regulating that authority so acquired, but which the people are never supposed to have any right to abolish, even if it should be judged absolutely necessary for the general welfare of the community.

Such doctrines have been advanced, said I.

But surely, said he, to talk of a compact on such a foundation as this must be esteemed an impudent mockery of the common sense of mankind. We will therefore endeavor farther to explain the nature of this political compact, and to fix it in its true point of view.

I begged he would, and he proceeded thus.

When men first began to disregard the impulses or laws of their nature, and their irregularities and vices pointed out the necessity of political institutions, at the commencement of those institutions the first probable appearances of a compact are discovered. But here we do not perceive any appearance of a compact between parties whose rights, interests, or views are distinct or opposite: it is rather a general union or agreement of a society of men in defense of the rights of human nature. It is an agreement to submit to such institutes, laws, and regulations as may be deemed adequate to the purposes of reducing men to, and of retaining them in, a proper subjection to the laws of their nature: and the obligations of this agreement, to be just, must be equal on every member of society. Will the advocates for unjust authority, interrogated he, be able to derive much advantage from a compact of this sort?

Not much, answered I.

But, continued he, it has been affirmed that when men enter into a political society they make a formal, or a tacit, surrender of their natural rights to that society; and as it were, compact or agree so to do. The drift and tendency of this affirmation is to establish the authority of all ruling powers, just or unjust, and to debase and enslave mankind. But no maxim was ever more false, or less founded in nature. Men neither do, nor can mean, by entering into government, to give up any of their essential natural rights: they mean, by the aid of government, to maintain and ensure them. They do not mean to subjugate themselves to the will of tyrannical masters, nor even to political laws, when dissonant and repugnant to the principles of their nature. Their intention, as well as the true end of government, is quite the contrary. For if men had paid a punctual obedience to the laws of their nature, the instituting of civil laws, and consequently of civil magistrates, would have been quite unnecessary. Civil laws were instituted to enforce obedience to the true laws of human nature. Therefore civil laws which contradict or are repugnant to the true laws of human nature are not in conscience binding. And all civil laws, all civil magistracies, ought to be formed, altered, corrected, confirmed, or abolished according as they agree with, or are repugnant to, the true laws of human nature.

But were we to grant that under government (through the defectiveness of human policy) some of our natural rights must necessarily be waived, in compliance with a general opinion of its being advantageous to the community at large, it must also be allowed, at the same time, that, in justice, no part of the rights of nature should be given up by any one which ought not to be given up by every member of the same community. The just equality of man demands so much. But what are the principal natural rights supposed to be given up in civil society? Are they not the rights of judging in our own cause, and of avenging our own injuries?

They are, said I.

And these, continued he, we surrender to the state, to be placed in the hands of proper magistrates. But if we consider the tendencies of these rights, as they are called, they will be found so very injurious and unjust, and so inimical to humanity, that it will be hard to allow them the appellation of natural rights at all. They are powers necessarily assumed and exercised when the condition of mankind proves so miserable as to have no better way of administering justice. But they are so evidently wrong, so clearly subversive of justice, that no man in his senses would attempt to justify the use of them, as rights, but in cases of irresistible necessity.

Here he paused.

I assented.

Well then, he said, should it be still insisted on that men, on entering into government, do agree to surrender up part (or the whole, as some blindly contend) of their natural rights, let it never be forgotten that such agreement cannot be obligatory on any one, unless it extend to every one, under the same government. But let us, said he, digress no farther, but pursue our subject a little more closely.

I think we had found the first appearance of a compact to be at the commencement of civil society, and that the compact then was not between parties whose interests were opposite or essentially different, but were one and the same, and united and centered in one point, which was the defense of their natural rights.

We had, said I.

To proceed then, said he.

When such civil laws as may be judged adequate to such defense are agreed on, the manner of putting them into execution becomes the next object of consideration, and produces another sort of compact, which is entirely relative to the execution. And hence originate all the various powers and authorities of the magistracy. Let us examine the true nature of the compact in this place, which does indeed not only contain what has generally been understood by a political compact, but it comprehends all that is most important in civil liberty.

I desired him to go on.

The laws then, continued he, being agreed on, a mode of executing them must necessarily be determined on; and the various powers of magistracy are found requisite for that purpose. We will therefore suppose them to be ordained and established, and their several powers exercised and enforced.

Very well, said I.

Now what, demanded he, must we understand the compact to have been between the people and the magistrates in this case? Could it be that the people surrendered themselves to be governed at the discretion of the magistrates, or were the magistrates chosen simply to execute the determinations of the people?

Undoubtedly the latter, answered I.

It must be so, replied he, for the power of the magistracy in itself is nothing; that force which arises from the general concurrence and consent of the people is absolutely necessary to give it stability. The people, therefore, compact or agree to exert that force (which is always ultimately supreme) in support of the power of their magistrates: And the magistrates agree to exercise their power in the modes prescribed and for the ends proposed by the people. And this seems to me to be the only just and natural purpose of such a compact.

So it appears to me, said I.

But, continued he, (humanum est errare) magistrates long habituated to power not sufficiently controlled are apt to claim such power as their right: And a people long habituated to obedience, without frequent exertions of their supremacy by new delegations of power are apt to forget their own rights. These bad habits, however, cannot annihilate the just rights of mankind. They only discover to us that frequent assertions of them are very necessary, and that the memories of both magistrates and people want perpetual refreshing on those important points.

The compact then, as explained above, does not give the magistrates any power independent of the people, or independent of the ends proposed by the people to be accomplished by that power. It does not fix them as lords and masters of the people; it only constitutes them executors of the laws or determinations of the people, to which they, with the whole community, are equally subject. Peculiar privileges often claimed by, and sometimes thought necessary to magistracy, are hardly ever justifiable, and never at all but temporarily.

The people, therefore, always retain in themselves as an inherent and unalienable property the right of delegating power to their magistrates, and consequently the right of prescribing the particular modes of exercising such power, and also of recalling that power whenever it may be found necessary so to do; that is, whenever it shall be exercised contrary to the ends proposed, or even when it shall have been exercised strictly according to the ends proposed, and proves not adequate or not satisfactory. For every political institution ought to be considered only as making an experiment, and its permanency ought to depend entire on its efficiency or non-efficiency for the purposes intended, and not at all on the meritorious conduct of the executive instrument, the magistrate. So that in this view of a compact we do not see the least appearance of a surrender of their natural rights by the people, nor any just foundation for a retention of their authority by the magistrates against the consent of the people. The compact, strictly speaking, on the part of the people extends only to the instructing of the magistrates with certain portions of power, which are to be exercised in certain modes with a view to attain ends which may be deemed beneficial to the community at large, and to support the magistrates in the execution: and the magistrates, on their part, are bound to observe the modes, and to pursue the ends, truly and faithfully.

But, interrogated I, suppose they do not observe the modes and pursue the ends truly?

If they do not, answered he, they break the compact, and consequently forfeit their authority; may be justly displaced by the people, and their power so disposed of as may be thought most advantageous to the community.

But what if they do observe the compact strictly, demanded I?

If they do, replied he, although they will then do no more than was agreed on, nor than they ought as a duty; yet strict integrity being a very estimable quality, they will deserve all the rewards and all the honors due to so meritorious a conduct.

Perhaps, said I, smiling, you may think it enough to have deserved well of the republic. But I hope you will acknowledge that, as long as the magistrates shall strictly observe the compact, they will have some right to retain and exercise the powers delegated to them, especially if the powers be such as are deemed permanent in the state?

By no means, replied he. As long as they observe the compact (although the powers they exercise be deemed permanent in the state) the only just conclusion we can draw is that they exercise their power legally, and according to the intent for which it was delegated to them: but that cannot give them the least claim to a right to a perpetual exercise of that power independent of the people from whom it was received, and from whom alone all just power is derived.

In short, continued he, somewhat enthusiastically, the just rights of human nature, founded on the divine principles which the all-wise Creator hath originally impressed on the human species, are utterly unalienable by any means whatsoever! No rights of princes, no powers of magistracy, no force of laws, no delusive compacts, grants, or charters, can ever entitle any part of mankind to deprive their fellow-creatures of these natural rights! All the nations upon earth (those in the most slavish, as well as those in the most free state) possess an innate, inherent, and indisputable right, to assert their liberty at all times! Nor can anything be more glorious than the attempt, founded on just principles, even if it fail: for then we shall feel the sublime satisfaction of being actuated by those divine principles which, from their native truth and beauty, as well as from our inward sense of them, we know to be the laws of God!

Thus ended our second dialogue.

Dialogue Three