Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. III.: of the objection to this system from the admirable effects of luxury. - An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. II.
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAP. III.: of the objection to this system from the admirable effects of luxury. - William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. II. 
An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, vol. 2 (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1793).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
of the objection to this system from the admirable effects of luxury.
nature of the objection.—luxury not necessary—either to population—or to the improvement of the mind.—its true character.
book viii. chap. iii.These ideas of justice and improvement are as old as literature and reflexion themselves. They have suggested themselves in detached parts to the inquisitive in all ages, though they have perhaps never been brought together so as sufficiently to strike the mind with their consistency and beauty. But, after having furnished an agreeable dream, they have perpetually been laid aside as impracticable. We will proceed to examine the objections upon which this supposed impracticability has been founded; and the answer to these objections will gradually lead us to such a development of the proposed system, as by its completeness and the regular adjustment of its parts will be calculated to carry conviction to the most prejudiced mind.
Nature of the objection. There is one objection that has chiefly been cultivated on English ground, and to which we will give the priority of examination. It has been affirmed “that private vices are public benefits.”book viii. chap. iii. But this principle, thus coarsely stated by one of its original advocates* , was remodelled by his more elegant successors† . They observed, “that the true measure of virtue and vice was utility, and consequently that it was an unreasonable calumny to state luxury as a vice. Luxury,” they said, “whatever might be the prejudices that cynics and ascetics had excited against it, was the rich and generous soil that brought to perfection the true prosperity of mankind. Without luxury men must always have remained solitary savages. It is luxury by which palaces are built and cities peopled. How could there have been high population in any country, without the various arts in which the swarms of its inhabitants are busied? The true benefactor of mankind is not the scrupulous devotee who by his charities encourages insensibility and sloth; is not the surly philosopher who reads them lectures of barren morality; but the elegant voluptuary who employs thousands in sober and healthful industry to procure dainties for his table, who unites distant nations in commerce to supply him with furniture, and who encourages the fine arts and all the sublimities of invention to furnish decorations for his residence.”
Luxury not necessary, either to population: I have brought forward this objection, rather that nothing material book viii. chap. iii. might appear to be omitted, than because it requires a separate answer. The true answerhas been anticipated. It has been seen that the population of any country ismeasured by its cultivation. If therefore sufficient motives can be furnishedto excite men to agriculture, there is no doubt, that population may be carriedon to any extent that the land can be made to maintain. But agriculture, whenonce begun, is never found to stop in its career, but from positive discountenance. It is territorial monopoly that obliges men unwillingly to see vast tracts ofland lying waste, or negligently and imperfectly cultivated, while they are subjectedto the miseries of want. If land were perpetually open to him who was willingto cultivate it, it is not to be believed but that it would be cultivated inproportion to the wants of the community, nor by the same reason would therebe any effectual check to the increase of population.
or to the improvement of the mind. Undoubtedly the quantity of manual labour would be greatly inferior to that which is now performed by the inhabitants of any civilised country, since at present perhaps one twentieth part of the inhabitants performs the agriculture which supports the whole. But it is by no means to be admitted that this leisure would be found a real calamity.
Its true character. As to what sort of a benefactor the voluptuary is to mankind, this was sufficiently seen when we treated of the effects of dependence and injustice. To this species of benefit all the crimes and moral evils of mankind are indebted for their perpetuity. Ifbook viii. chap. iii. mind be to be preferred to mere animal existence, if it ought to be the wish of every reasonable enquirer, not merely that man, but that happiness should be propagated, then is the voluptuary the bane of the human species.
[*]Mandeville; Fable of the Bees.
[†]Coventry, in a treatise entitled, Philemon to Hydaspes: Hume; Essays, Part II, Essay II.