Category Archives: Political Philosophy

Item of the Day: Polybius, translated by Edward Spelman (1743)

Full Title: A Fragment Out of the Sixth Book of Polybius, Containing a Dissertation upon Government in general, particularly applied to That of the Romans, together with a Description of the several Powers of Consuls, Senate, and People of Rome. Translated from the Greek with Notes. To which is prefixed a Preface, wherein the System of Polybius is applied to the Government of England: And, to the above-mentioned Fragment concerning the Powers of the Senate, is annexed a Dissertation upon the Constitution of it. By a Gentleman. London: Printed by J. Tettenham, and sold by W. Meyer . . . , M.DCC.XLIII. [1743].


Of the several FORMS of GOVERNMENT: Of the Origin, and natural Transition of those Governments to one another: That the best Constitution is That, which is compounded of all of them; and that the Constitution of the Romans is such a one.

Concerning those Greek Commonwealths, which have often encreased in Power, and often, to their Ruine, experienced a contrary Turn of Fortune, it is an easy Matter both to relate past Transactions, and foretel those to come; there being no great Difficulty, either in recounting what one knows, or in publishing Conjectures of future Events, from those that are past. But concerning the Roman commonwealth, it is not at all easy, either to give an account of the present State of their Affairs, by Reason of the Variety of their Institutions; or to foretel what may happen to them, through the Ignorance of the peculiar Frame of their government, both publick and private, upon which such Conjectures must be founded. For which Reason, an uncommon Attention and Enquiry seem requisite, to form a clear Idea of the Points, in which the Roman Commonwealth differs from Those of Greece.

It is, I find, customary with those, who professedly treat this Subject, to establish three Sorts of Government; kindly Government, Aristocracy, and Democracy: Upon which, one may, I think, very properly ask them, whether they lay these down as the only Forms of Government, or, as the best: For, in both Cases, they seem to be in an Error; since it is manifest that the best Form of Government is That which is compounded of all three. This we not only find to be founded in Reason, but also in Experience; Lycurgus having set the Example of this Form of Goverment in the Institution of the Lacedaemonian Commonwealth. Besides, these three are not to be received as the only Forms; since we may have observed some monarchical and tyrannical Governments, which, though widely different from kingly Government, seem still to bear some Resemblance to it. For which Reason, all Monarchs agree in using their utmost Endeavours, however falsely, or abusively, to be styled Kings. We may have also observed still more Oligarchies, which seemed, in some Degree, to resemble Artistocracies, though the Difference between them has been extremely great. The same Thing may be said also of Democracy.

What I have advanced, will become evident from the following Considerations; for, every Monarchy is not presently to be called a kingly Government, but only That, which is the Gift of a willing People, and is founded on their Consent, rather than on Fear and Violence. Neither, is every Oligarchy to be looked upon as Aristocracy, but only That, which is administered by a select Number of those, who are most eminent for their Justice and Prudence. In the same Manner, that Government ought not to be looked upon as a Democracy, where the Multitude have a Power of doing whatever they desire and propose; but That only, in which it is an established Law and Custom to worship the Gods, to honour their Parents, to respect their Elders, and obey the Laws; when, in Assemblies so formed, every Thing is decided by the Majority, such a Government deserves the Name of a Democracy.

So that, six Kinds of Government must be allowed; three, which are generally established, and have been already mentioned; and three, that are allied to them, namely, Monarchy, Oligarchy and the Government of the Multitude. The first of these is instituted by Nature, without the Assistance of Art: The next is kingly Government, which is derived from the other by Art, and Improvement; when this degenerates into the Evil, that is allied to it, I mean, Tyranny, the Destruction of the Tyrant gives Birth to Aristocracy; which, degenerating also, according to the Nature of Things, into Oligarchy, the People, inflamed with Anger, revenge the Injustice of their Magistrates, and form a Democracy; from the Insolence of which, and their Contempt of the Laws, arises, in Time, the Government of the Multitude.

Whoever examines, with Attention, the natural Principles, the Birth, and Revolution of each of these Forms of Government, will be convinced of the Truth of what I have advanced: For he alone, who knows in what Manner each of them is produced, can form a Judgment of the Encrease, the Perfection, the Revolution, and the End of each; and when, by what Means, and to which of the former States they will return. I thought this Detail, in a particular Manner, applicable to the Roman Government, because the Establishment and Encrease of That was, from the Beginning, founded on Nature. . . .


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Filed under 1740's, Constitution, Eighteenth century, Government, Greek/Roman Translations, Political Philosophy, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Roman Empire

Item of the Day: The Spirit of Despotism (1795)

Full Title: The Spirit of Despotism. London: Printed in the Year 1795; Philadelphia: Re-printed by Lang and Ustick, for selves and Mathew Carey, Nov. 28, MDCCXCV. [1795]


THE heart is deceitful above all things; who can know it? As far as I know my own, it feels an anxious desire to serve my fellow-creatures, during the short period of my continuance among them, by stopping the effusion of human blood, by diminishing or softening the miseries which man creates for himself, by promoting peace and by endeavoring to secure and extend civil liberty.

I attribute war, and most of the artificial evils of life, to the Spirit of Despotism, a rank poisonous weed, which grows and flourishes even in the soil of liberty, when over-run with corruption. I have attempted to eradicate it, that the salutary and pleasant plants may have room to strike root and expand their foliage.

There is one circumstance which induces me to think that, in this instance, my heart does not deceive me. I am certain, that in attempting to promote the general happiness of man, without serving any party, or paying court to any individual, I am not studying my own interest. On the contrary, I am well aware that my very subject must give offence [sic] to those who are possessed of power and patronage. I have no personal enmities, and therefore am truly concerned that I could not treat the Spirit of Despotism, without advancing opinions that must displease the nominal great. I certainly sacrifice all view of personal advance to what appears to me the public good, and flatter myself that this alone evinces the purity of my motive.

Men of feeling and good minds, whose hearts, as the phrase is, lie in the right place, will, I think, agree with me in most points; especially when a little time, and the events, now taking place, shall have dissipated the mist of passion and prejudice. Hard-hearted, proud wordlings, who love themselves only, and know no good but money and pageantry, will scarcely agree with me in any. They will be angry; but, consistently with their general haughtiness, affect contempt to hide their choler.

I pretend not to aspire at the honor of martyrdom; yet some inconveniences I am ready to bear patiently, in promoting a cause which deeply concerns the whole of the present race, and ages yet unborn. I am ready to bear patiently the proud man’s contumely, the insult of rude ignorance, the sarcasm of malice, the hired censure of the sycophantic critic, (whose preferment depends on the prostitution both of knowledge and conscience,) and the virulence of the venal newspaper. It would be a disgrace to an honest man not to incur the abuse of those who have sold their integrity and abilities to the enemies of their country and the human race. Strike, but bear, said a noble ancient. Truth will ultimately prevail, even though he who uttered it should be destroyed. Columbus was despised, rejected, persecuted; but America was discovered. Men very inconsiderable in the eye of pride, have had the honor to discover, divulge, and disseminate doctrines that have promoted the liberty and happiness of the human race. All that was rich and great, in the common acceptation of that epithet, combined against Luther; yet when pontiffs, kings, and lords had displayed an impotent rage, and sunk into that oblivion which their personal insignificance naturally led to, Luther prevailed, and his glory is immortal. He broke the chain of superstition, and weakened the bonds of despotism.

I have frequently, and from the first commencement of our present unfortunate and disgraceful hostilities, lifted up my voice–a feeble one indeed–against war, that great promoter of despotism; and while I have liberty to write, I will write for liberty. I plead weakly, indeed, but sincerely, the cause of mankind; and on them, under God, I rely for protection against that merciless SPIRIT which I attempt to explode.


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Filed under 1790's, Eighteenth century, Government, Liberty, Political Philosophy, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

Item of the Day: Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

Full Title: Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness. By William Godwin. First American from the Second London Edition Corrected. In Two Volumes. Vol. I. Philadelphia: Printed by Bioren and Madan. 1796.

 An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Book I. Of the Powers of Man Considered in his Social Capacity.

Chapter II. History of Political Society.

The extent of the influence of political systems will be forcibly illustrated to us in a concise recollection of the records of political society.

It is an old observation, that the history of mankind is little else than a record of crimes. Society comes recommended to us by its tendency to supply our wants and promote our well being. If we consider that human species, as they were found previously to the existence of political society, it is difficult not to be impressed with emotions of melancholy. But, though the chief purpose of society is to defend us from want and inconvenience, it effects this purpose in a very imperfect degree. We are still liable to casualties, disease, infirmity and death. Famine destroys its thousands, pestilence its myriads. Anguish visits us under every variety of form, and day after day is spent in languor and dissatisfaction. Exquisite pleasure is a guest of very rare approach and not less than short continuance.

But, though the evils that arise to us from the structure of the material universe are neither trivial nor few, yet the history of political society sufficiently shows that man is of all other beings the most formidable enemy to man. Among the various schemes that he has formed to destroy and plague his kind, war is the most terrible. Satiated with petty mischief and the nauseous details of crimes, he rises in this instance to a project that lays nations waste, and thins the population of the world. Man directs the murderous engine against the life of his brother; he invents with indefatigable care refinements in destruction; he proceeds in the midst of gaiety and pomp to the execution of his horrid purpose: whole ranks of sensitive beings endowed with the most admirable faculties are mowed down in an instant; they perish by inches in the midst of agony and neglect, lacerated with every variety of method that can give torture to the frame.

This is indeed a tremendous scene! Are we permitted to console ourselves under the spectacle of its evils, by the rareness with which it occurs, and the forcible reasons that compel men to have recourse to this last appeal of human society? Let us consider it under each of these heads.

War has hitherto been considered as the inseparable ally of political institution. The earliest records of time are the annals of conquerors and heroes, a Bachus, a Sesostris, a Semiramis, and a Cyrus.  These princes led millions of men under their standard, and ravaged innumerable provinces. A small number only of their forces ever returned to their native homes, the rest having perished of diseases, hardships and misery. The evils they inflicted, and the mortality introduced in the countries against which their expeditions were directed, were certainly not less severe than those which their countrymen suffered.

No sooner does history become more precise, than we are presented with the four great monarchies, that is, with four successful projects, by means of bloodshed, violence, and murder, of enslaving mankind. The expeditions of Cambyses against Egypt, of Darius against the Scythians, and of Xerxes against the Greeks, seem almost to set credibility at defiance by the fatal consequences with which they were attended. The conquests of Alexander cost innumerable lives, and the immortality of Caesar is computed to have been purchased by the death of one million two hundred thousand men.

Indeed the Romans, by the long duration of their wars, and their inflexible adherence to their purpose, are to be ranked among the foremost destroyers of the human species. Their wars in Italy continued for more than four hundred years, and their contest for supremacy with the Carthaginians, two hundred. The Mithridatic war began with a massacre of one hundred and fifty thousand Romans, and in three single actions five hundred thousand men were lost by the Eastern monarch. Sylla, his ferocious conqueror, next turned his arms against his country, and the struggle between him and Marius was attended with proscriptions, butcheries, and murders that that knew no restraint from humanity or shame. The Romans, at length suffered the penalty of their iniquitous deeds; and the world was vexed for three hundred years by the irruptions of Goths, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Huns, and innumerable hordes of barbarians.

I forbear to detail the victorious progress of Mahomet and the pious expeditions of Charlemagne. I will not enumerate the crusades against the infidels, the exploits of Aurungzebe, Gengiskan and Tamerlane, or the extensive murders of the Spaniards in the new world. Let us examine Europe, the most civilized and favoured quarter of the world, or even those countries of Europe which are thought most enlightened.

France was wasted by successive battles during a whole century, for the question of salic law, and the claim of the Plantagenets. Scarcely was this contest terminated, before the religious wars broke out, some idea of which we may form from the siege of Rochelle, where of fifteen thousand persons shut up eleven thousand perished of hunger and misery; and from the malice of Saint Bartholomew, in which the numbers assassinated were forty thousand. This quarrel was appeased by Henry the fourth, and succeeded by the thirty years war in Germany for superiority with the house of Austria, and afterwards by the military transactions of Louis the fourteenth.

In England…

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Filed under 1790's, Government, History, Liberty, Political Philosophy, Posted by Matthew Williams

Item of the Day: The Works of Algernon Sydney (1772)

Full Title: The Works of Algernon Sydney. A New Edition. London, Printed by W. Strahan IUN. For T. Becket and Co. and T. Cadell, in the Strand; T. Davies, in Russel Street; and T. Evans, in King Street.  MDCCLXXII. 

Discourses Concerning Government

Section II

The Common Notions of Liberty are not From School Divines, but from Nature.

In the first lines of his book [Filmer’s Patriarcha] he seems to denounce war against mankind, endeavoring to overthrow the principle in which God created us, and which includes the chief advantages of the life we enjoy, as well as the greatest helps towards the felicity, that is the end of our hopes in the other. To this end he absurdly imputes to the school divines that which was taken up by them as a common notion, written in the heart of every man, denied by none, but such as were degenerated into beats, from whence they might prove such points as of themselves were less evident. Thus did Euclid lay down certain axioms, which none could deny that did not renounce common sense, from whence he drew the proofs of such propositions as were less obvious to the understanding. And they may with as much reason be accused of paganism, who say that the whole is greater that a part, that two halves make the whole, or that a straight line is the shortest way from point to point, as to say, that they who in politics lay such foundations, as have been taken up by schoolmen as undeniable truths, do therefore follow them, or have any regard for their authority. Though the schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: they could not but see that which all men saw, not lay more approved foundations, than, that man is naturally free; that he cannot justly be deprived of that liberty without cause; and that he doth not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself. But if he doth unjustly impute the invention of this to school divinesm he in some measure repairs his fault in saying, “this hath been fostered by all succeeding papists for good divinity; the divines of the reformed churches have entertained it, and the common people every where tenderly embrace it.” That is to say, all christian divines, whether reformed or unreformed do approve it, and the people every where magnify it, as the height of human felicity. But Filmer, and such as are like to him, being neither reformed nor unreformed christians, nor of the people, can have no title to christianity; and, inasmuch as they set themselves against that which is the height of human felicity, they declare themselves enemies to all that are concerned in it, that is, to all mankind.  

But, says he, “they do not remember, that the desire of liberty was the first cause of the fall of man.” And I desire it may not be forgotten, that the liberty asserted is not a licentiousness of doing what is pleasing to everyone against the command of God, but an exemption from all human laws, to which they have not given their assent. If he would make us believe there was any thing of this in Adam’s sin, he ought to have proved, that the law which he transgressed was imposed upon him by man, and, consequently, that there was a man to impose it; for it will easily appear that neither the reformed nor the unreformed divines, nor the people following them, do place the felicity of man in the exemption from the laws of God, but in the most perfect conformity to them. Our Saviour taught us “not to fear such as could kill the body, but him that could kill, and cast us into hell;” and the apostle tells us, that “we should obey God rather than man.” It has beeen ever hereupon observed, that they, who most preciously adhere to the lwas of God, are least solicitous concerning the commands of men, unless they are well grounded; and those, who most delight in the glorious liberty of the sons of God, do not only subject themselves to him, but are most regular observers of the just ordinances of man, made by the consent of such as are concerned, according to the will of God. 

The error of not observing this may perhaps deserve to be pardoned in a man that had read no books, as proceeding from ignorance; if such as are grossly ignorant can be excusedm when they take upon them to write of such matters as require the highest knowledge: but in Sir Robert it is prevarication and fraud to impute to schoolmen and purtitans that which in his first page he acknowledged to be the doctrine of all reformed and unreformed christian churches, and that he knows to have been the principle in which the Grecians, Italians, Spaniards, Gauls, Germans, and Britons, and all other generous nations ever lived, before the name of Christ was known in the world; insomuch that the base effeminate Asiatics and Africans, for being careless of their liberty, or unable to govern themselves, were by Aristotle and other wise men called “slaves by nature,” and looked upon as little different from beasts.

This which hath its root in common sense, not being overthrown by reason, he spares his pains of seeking any; but thinks it enough to render his doctrine plausible to his own party, by joining the Jesuits to Geneva, and coupling Buchanan to Doleman as both maintaining the same doctrine; though he might as well have joined the puritans with the Turks, because they all think that one and one makes two.  But whoever marks the proceedings of Filmer and his masters, as well as his disciples, will rather believe, that they have learned from Rome and the Jesuits to hate Geneva, than that Geneva and Rome can agree in any thing farther, than as they are obliged to submit to the evidence of truth; or that Geneva and Rome can concur in any design or interest that is not common to mankind.

These men allowed to “the people a liberty of deposing their princes.” This is a “desparate” opinion. “Bellarmine and Calvin look asquint at it.” But why is this a desparate opinion? If disagreements happen between king and people, why is it a more desparate opinion to think the king should be subject to the censures of the people, than the people subject to the will of the king? Did the people make the king, or the king make the people? Is the king for the people, or the people for the king? Did God create Hebrews, that Saul might reign over them? or did they, from an opinion of procuring their own good, ask a king that might judge them, and fight their battles?

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Filed under Government, Liberty, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Politics, Posted by Matthew Williams, Religion

Item of the Day: Bolingbroke’s Dissertation on Parties (1754)

Full Title: The Works of the Right Honorable Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke. Vol. II. London: Printed in the Year MDCCLIV.

A Dissertation on Parties.  Letter I.

Sir, To corrupt and to divide are the trite and wicked expedients, by which some ministers in all ages have affected to govern; but especially such as have been least capable of exerting the true arts of government.  There is however a difference to be made between these two expedients, to the advantage of the latter, and by consequence between the characters of those who put them in practice.

Every busy, ambitious child of fortune, who hath himself a corrupt heart, and becomes master of a larger purse, hath all that is necessary to employ the expedient of corruption with success.  A bribe, in the hand of the most blundering coxcomb that ever disgraced honor and wealth and power, will prevail as much as in the hand of a man of sense, and go farther too, if it weigh more.  An intriguing chamber-maid may flip a bank-note into a griping paw, as well as the most subtle daemon of hell.  H**E may govern as triumphantly by this expedient as the great knight his brother, and the great knight as BURLEIGH himself.

But every character cannot attempt the other expedient of dividing, or keeping up divisions, with equal success.  There is, indeed, no occasion for any extraordinary genius to divide; and true wisdom despises the infamous task.  But there is need of that left-handed wisdom, called cunning, and of those habits in business, called experience.  He that is corrupted, co-operates with him that corrupts.  He runs into his arms at the first beckon; or, in order sometimes to raise the price, he meets him but half way.  On the other hand, to divide, or to maintain and renew the divisions of parties in a state, a system of seduction and fraud is necessary to be carried on.  The divided are so far from being accessory to the guilt, that they would not be divided, if they were not first deceived.

From these differences, which I have observed between the two expedients, and the characters and means proper to put them in practice with success, it may be discovered perhaps why, upon former occasions, as I shall hereafter shew, the expedient of dividing prospered so much better than that of corrupting; and why, upon some later occasions, the expedient of corrupting succeeds so well in those hands, which are not, and I trust, will not be so lucky in maintaining or renewing our party divisions.   

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Filed under 1750's, Government, Political Philosophy, Politics, Posted by Matthew Williams

Item of the Day: Harrington’s Works (1700)

Full Title: The Oceana of James Harrington, and His Other Works; som wherof are now first publish’d from his own Manuscripts. The whole Collected, Methodiz’d, and Review’d, with An Exact Account of his Life prefix’d, By John Toland. London, Printed, and are to be sold by the Booksellers of London and Westminster. M.DCC.

The Grounds and Reasons of Monarchy.  The First Part.

I have often thought it strange, that among all the Governments, either past or present, the Monarchical should so far in Extent and Number excede the Popular, as that they could never yet com [sic] into comparison.  I could never be persuaded but it was more happy for a People to be dispos’d of by a number of Persons jointly interested and concern’d with them, than to be number’d as the Herd and Inheritance of One, to whose Lust and Madness they were absolutely subject; and that any Man of the weakest Reason and Generosity would not rather chuse for his Habitation that spot of Earth where there was access to Honor by Virtue, and no Worth could be excluded, rather than that where all Advancement should procede from the Will of one scarcely hearing and seeing with his own Organs, and gain’d for the most part by means leud and indirect: and all this in the end to amount to nothing else but a more spendid and dangerous Slavery.  To clear this Point, I consider’d how inscrutably Providence carrys on the turns and stops of all Governments, so that most People rather found than made them.  The Contributions of Men, som not fit to be Masters of their Liberty, som not capable, som not willing; the Ambition of settled Tyrants, who breaking their own Bonds have brought in violent Alterations; and lastly, civil Discord, have either corrupted or alter’d better Settlements.

But these are Observations rather than Arguments, and relate to Fact rather than Reason.  That which astonish’d me most was to see those of this Heroic and Learn’d Age, not only not rising to Thoughts of Liberty, but instead therof [sic] foolishly turning their Wits and Swords against themselves in the maintenance of them whose Slaves they are: and indeed they can be no weak Causes that produce so long and settled a Distemper; tho som of those I mention’d, if not most of them, are the true ones.

He knows nothing that knows not how superstitiously the generality of Mankind is given to retain Traditions, and how pertinacious they are in the maintenance of their first Prejudices, insomuch that a Discovery of more refin’d Reason is as insupportable to them, as the Sun is to an Ey newly brought out of Darkness.  Hence Opiniativeness (which is commonly proportion’d to their Ignorance) and a generous Obstinacy sometimes to Death and Ruin.  So that it tis no wonder if we see Gentlemen, whose Education inabled them only to use their senses and first Thoughts, so dazled with the Splendor of a Court, prepossest with the Affection of a Prince, or bewitch’d with som subdolous Favor, that they chuse rather any hazard the Inchantment should be dissolv’d.  Others, perhaps a degree above these, yet in respect to som Title stuck upon the Family (which has bin as fortunat a Mystery of Kingcraft as any other) or in reverence to som glorious former Atchievments (minding not that in all these cases the People are the only effective means, and the King only imaginary) think they should degenerate from Bravery in bringing on a Change.  Others are witheld by Sloth and Timorousness, either not daring, or unwilling to be happy; some looking no further than their privat Welfare, indifferent at the multiplication of public Evils; others (and these the worst of all) out of a pravity of Nature sacrificing to their Ambition and Avarice, and in order to that, following any Power, concurring with any Machinations, and supporting their Authors: while Princes themselves (train’d up in these Arts or receiving them by Tradition) know how to wind all their humors to their own advantage, now foisting the Divinity of their Titles into Pulpits, now amuzing the People with Pomp and Shews, now diverting their hot Spirits to som unprofitable foren War (making way to their accurs’d ends of Revenge or Glory, with the effusion of that Blood which should be as dear to them as their own) now stroking the People with som feeble but enforc’d Law, for which notwithstanding they will be paid (and ’tis observ’d, the most notorious Tyrants have taken this Course) now giving up the eminentest of their Ministers (which they part with as indifferently as thier Robes) to the Rage and Fury of the People; so that they are commanded and condemn’d by the same Mouth, and the credulous and ignorant, believing their King divinely set over them, sit still, and by degrees grow into Quiet and Admiration, especially if lul’d asleep with som small continuance of Peace (be it never so injust, unsound, or dangerous) as if the Body Politic could not languish of an internal Disease, tho its Complexion be fresh and chearful. 

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Filed under 1700's, Government, Political Philosophy, Posted by Matthew Williams

Item of the Day: The Enquirer (1797)

Full Title:  THE ENQUIRER.  Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature, In a Series of Essays by William Godwin.  Philadelphia:  Printed for Robert Campbell & Co. by John Bioren. 1797.


Of Politeness.


It has been no unfrequent profession among men of a bold temper, and who are smitten with a love for the sublimer virtues, that they are enemies to politeness.

One of the greatest misfortunes incident to morality, as well as to a majority of sciences, flows from the ambiguity of words.

By politeness many persons understand artificial manners, the very purpose of which is to stand between the feelings of the heart and the external behaviour.  The word immediately conjures up to their mind a corrupt and vicious mode of society, and they conceive it to mean a set of rules, founded in no just reason, and ostentatiously practiced by those who, are familiar with them, for no purpose more expressly, than to confound and keep at a distance those who, by the accident of their birth or fortune, are ignorant of them.

In this sense no doubt politeness is worthy of our decisive disapprobation, and in this sense it is to be regretted that there is vastly too much politeness in the world.

Urbanity is a term that has met with a better fortune among our contemporaries, than politeness.  Yet, if we have recourse to their etymology, politeness is certainly not less appropriate and laudable.  As it descends to us from the Greek, its nature is precisely coincident; as it comes to us through the medium of the Latin word, which signifies to polish, to make smooth, agreeable to the eye, and pleasant to the touch, it is sufficiently adapted to that circumstance in morals which may admit of a substantial vindication.

Morality, or the exercise of beneficence, consists of two principal parts, which may be denominated the greater morality, and the less.  Those actions of a man’s life, adapted to purposes of beneficence, which are fraught with energy, and cannot be practiced but in an exalted temper of mind, belong to the greater morality, such as saving a fellow being from death, raising him from deep distress, conferring on him a memorable advantage, or exerting one’s self for the service of multitudes.  There are other actions, in which a man may consult the transitory feelings of his neighbours, and to which we can seldom be prompted by a lofty spirit of ambition; actions which the heart can record, but which the tongue is rarely competent to relate.  These belong to the lesser morality.

It should seem as if our temper and the permanent character of our minds, should be derived from the greater morality; but that the ordinary and established career of our conduct, should have reference to the less.

No doubt a man of eminent endowments and fortunate situation may do no more good by the practice of the greater morality, than he can do mischief by the neglect of the less.  But, even in him, the lesser moralities, as they are practiced or neglected, will produce important effects.  The neglect of them, however illustrious may be the tenour of his life, and however eminent his public services, will reflect a shade of ambiguity upon his character.  Thus authors, whose writings have been fraught with the seeds of general happiness, but whose conduct towards their relatives or acquaintance has been attended with any glaring defect, have seldom obtained much credit for purity of principle.  With the ordinary rate of mankind it is worse:  when they have parted with the lesser moralities they have nearly parted with every thing.

The great line of distinction between these two branches of morality, is that the less is of incomparably more frequent demand.  We may rise up and lie down for weeks and months together, without being once called upon for the practice of any grand and emphatical duty.  But it will be strange if a day pass over our heads, without affording scope for the lesser moralities.  They furnish therefore the most obvious test  as to the habitual temper of our lives.

Another important remark which flows from this consideration, is that the lesser moralities, however minute in their constituent particles, and however they may be passed over by the supercilious as unworthy regard, are of great importance in the estimate of human happiness.  It is rarely that the opportunity occurs for a man to confer on me a striking benefit.  But, ever time that I meet him, he may demonstrate his kindness, his sympathy, and, by attentions almost too minute for calculation, add new vigour to the stream of complacence and philanthropy that circulates in my veins.

Hence it appears that the lesser moralities are of most importance, where politeness is commonly least thought of, in the bosom of family intercourse, and where people have occasion most constantly to associate together.  If I see the father of a family perpetually exerting himself for what he deems to be their welfare, if he give the most unequivocal proofs of his attachment, if he cannot hear of any mischance happening to them without agony, at the same time that he is their despot and their terror, bursting out into all the fury of passion, or preserving a sour and painful moroseness that checks all the kindly effusions of their soul, I shall regard this man as an abortion, and I may reasonably doubt whether, by his mode of proceeding, he does not traverse their welfare in more respects than he promotes it. . . .

Politeness is not precisely that scheme and system of behaviour which can be learned in the fashionable world.  There are many things in the system of the fashionable world, that are practiced, not to encourage but depress, not to produce happiness but mortification.  These, by whatever name they are called, are the reserve of genuine politeness; and are accordingly commonly known by the denomination of rudeness, a word of exactly opposite application.  Much true politeness may often be found in a cottage.  It cannot however conspicuously exists, but in a mind itself unembarrassed, and at liberty to attend to the feelings of others; and it is distinguished by an open ingenuousness of countenance, and an easy and flowing manner.  It is therefore necessarily graceful.  It may undoubtedly best be learned in the society of the unembarrassed, the easy and the graceful.  It is most likely to exist among those persons who, delivered from the importunate pressure of the first wants of our nature, have leisure to attend to the delicate and evanescent touches of the soul.

Politeness has been said to be the growth of courts, and a manner frank, abrupt and austere, to be congenial to a republic.  If this assertion be true, it is a matter worthy of regret, and it will behove us to put it in the scale as a defect, to be weighed against the advantages that will result from a more equal and independent condition of mankind.  It is however probably founded in mistake.  It does not seem reasonable to suppose the the abolition of servility should be the diminution of kindness; and it has already been observed that, where the powers of intellect are strenuously cultivated, sensibility will be their attendant.  But, in proportion to the acuteness of any man’s feelings, will be, in a majority of cases, his attention and deference to the feelings of others.




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Filed under 1790's, England, Manners, Political Philosophy, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Uncategorized