Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 23.: The Nature of the State - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 23.: The Nature of the State - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 2.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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The Nature of the State
345. The study of evolution at large makes familiar the truth that the nature of a thing is far from being fixed. Without change of identity, it may at one time have one nature and at a subsequent time quite a different nature. The contrast between a nebulous spheroid and the solid planet into which it eventually concentrates, is scarcely greater than the contrasts which everywhere present themselves.
Throughout the organic world this change of nature is practically universal. Here is a Polyp which, after a period of sedentary life, splits up into segments which severally detach themselves as free-swimming Medusae. There is a small larva of Annulose type which, moving about actively in the water for a time, fixes itself on a fish, loses its motor organs, and, feeding parasitically. grows into little more than stomach and egg bags; and there is another which ends the wanderings of its early life by settling down on a rock and, developing into what is popularly known as an acorn shell, gets its livelihood by sweeping into its gullet minute creatures from the surrounding water. Now the case is that of a wormlike form which, living and feeding for a long time in the water, finally, after a period of rest, bursts its pupa shell and files away as a gnat; and again it is that of the maggot and flesh fly, or grub and moth, which everyday experience makes so familiar. Strangest and most extreme of all, however, are those metamorphoses presented by some of the low aquatic Algae which, moving about actively for a brief period and displaying the characters of animals, presently fix themselves, sprout out, and become plants.
Contemplation of such facts, abundant beyond enumeration and wonderfully various, warns us against the error likely to arise everywhere from the tacit assumption that the nature of a thing has been, is, and always will be, the same. We shall be led by it, contrariwise, to expect change of nature–very possibly fundamental change.
346. It is tacitly assumed by nearly all that there is but one right conception of the state; whereas if, recognizing the truth that societies evolve, we learn the lessons which evolution at large teaches, we shall infer that probably the state has, in different places and times, essentially different natures. The agreement between inference and fact will soon become manifest.
Not to dwell on the earliest types, mostly characterized by descent in the female line, we may consider first the kind of group intermediate in character between the family and the society–the patriarchal group. This, as illustrated in the nomadic horde, forms a society in which the relationships of the individuals to one another and to their common head, as well as to the common property, give to the structure and functions of the incorporated whole a nature quite unlike the natures of bodies politic such as we now know. Even when such a group develops into a village community. which, as shown in India, may have “a complete staff of functionaries, for internal government,” the generality (though not universality) of relationships among the associated persons gives to it a corporate nature markedly different from that of a society in which ties of blood have ceased to be dominant factors.
When, ascending to a higher stage of composition, we look at communities like those of Greece, in which many clusters of relations are united, so that members of various families, gentes and phratries, are interfused without losing their identities, and in which the respective clusters have corporate interests independent of, and often antagonistic to, one another; it is undeniable that the nature of the community as a whole differs greatly from that of a modern community, in which complete amalgamation of component clusters has destroyed the primitive lines of division; and in which, at the same time, individuals, and not family clusters, have become the political units.
Once more, on remembering the contrast between the system of status and the system of contract, we cannot fail to see an essential unlikeness of nature between the two kinds of body politic formed. In sundry ancient societies “the religious and political sanction, sometimes combined and sometimes separate, determined for every one his mode of life, his creed, his duties, and his place in society. without leaving any scope for the will or reason of the individual himself.” But among ourselves neither religious nor political sanction has any such power; nor has any individual his position or his career in life prescribed for him.
In presence of these facts we cannot rationally assume unity of nature in all bodies politic. So far from supposing that the general conception of the state framed by Aristotle, and derived from societies known to him, holds now and serves for present guidance, we may conclude that, in all likelihood, it is inapplicable now and would misguide us if accepted.
347. Still more shall we be impressed with this truth if, instead of contrasting societies in their natures, we contrast them in their actions. Let us observe the several kinds of life they carry on.
As evolution implies gradual transition, it follows that extremely unlike as incorporated bodies of men may become, sharp divisions are impracticable. But bearing in mind this qualification, we may say that there are three distinct purposes for which men, originally dispersed as wandering families, may associate themselves more closely. The desire for companionship is one prompter: though not universal, sociality is a general trait of human beings which leads to aggregation. A second prompter is the need for combined action against enemies, animal or human, or both– cooperation, now to resist external aggression and now to carry on external aggression. The third end to be achieved is that of facilitating sustentation by mutual aid–cooperation for the better satisfying of bodily wants and eventually of mental wants. In most cases all three ends are subserved. Not only. however, are they theoretically distinguishable, but each one of them is separately exemplified.
Of social groups which satisfy the desire for companionship only, those formed by the Esquimaux may be named. The men composing one of them are severally independent. Having no need to combine for external offense or defense, they need no leaders in war and have no political rule: the only control exercised over each being the display of opinion by his fellows. Nor is there any division of labor. Industrial cooperation is limited to that between man and wife in each family. The society has no further incorporation than that which results from the juxtaposition of its parts: there is no mutual dependence.
The second class is multitudinous. Instances of its pure form are furnished by hunting tribes at large, the activities of which alternate between chasing animals and going to war with one another; and instances are furnished by piratical tribes and tribes which subsist by raids on their neighbors, like the Masai. In such communities division of labor, if present at all, is but rudimentary. Cooperation is for carrying on external defense and offense, and is to scarcely any extent for carrying on internal sustentation. Though when, by conquest, there are formed larger societies, some industrial cooperation begins, and increases as the societies increase, yet this, carried on by slaves and serfs, superintended by their owners, suffices in but small measure to qualify the essential character. This character is that of a body adapted for carrying on joint action against other such bodies. The lives of the units are subordinated to the extent needful for preserving (and in some cases extending) the life of the whole. Tribes and nations in which such subordination is not maintained must, other things equal, disappear before tribes and nations in which it is maintained; and hence such subordination must, by survival of the fittest, become an established trait. Along with the unquestioned assumption appropriate to this type, that war is the business of life, there goes the belief that each individual is a vassal of the community–that, as the Greeks held, the citizen does not belong to himself, or to his family, but to his city. And naturally, along with this merging of the individual's claims in the claims of the aggregate, there goes such coercion of him by the aggregate as makes him fit for its purposes. He is subject to such teaching and discipline and control as are deemed requisite for making him a good warrior or good servant of the state.
To exemplify societies of the third class in a satisfactory way, is impracticable; because fully developed forms of them do not yet exist. Such few perfectly peaceful tribes as are found in some Papuan islands, or occupying parts of India so malarious that the warlike races around cannot live in them, are prevented by their unfit environments from developing into large industrial societies. The Bodo, the Dhimál, the Kocch and other aboriginal peoples who, living by agriculture, cluster in villages of from ten to forty houses, and shift to new tracts when they exhaust the old, show us, beyond the division of labor between the sexes, no further cooperation than rendering mutual assistance in building their houses and clearing their plots. Speaking generally, it is only after conquest has consolidated small communities into larger ones, that there arise opportunities for the growth of mutual dependence among men who have devoted themselves to different industries. Hence throughout long periods the industrial organization, merely subservient to the militant organization, has had its essential nature disguised. Now, however, it has become manifest that the most developed modern nations are organized on a principle fundamentally unlike that on which the great mass of past nations have been organized. If, ignoring recent retrograde changes throughout Europe, we compare societies of ancient times and of the middle ages, with societies of our own times, and especially with those of England and America, we see fundamental differences. In the one case, speaking broadly, all free men are warriors and industry is left to slaves and serfs; in the other case but few free men are warriors, while the vast mass of them are occupied in production and distribution. In the one case the numerous warriors become such under compulsion; while in the other case the relatively few warriors become such under agreement. Evidently. then, the essential contrast is that in the one case the aggregate exercises great coercion over its units; while in the other case it exercises coercion which is small and tends to become less as militancy declines.
What is the meaning of this contrast reduced to its lowest terms? In either case the end to be achieved by the society in its corporate capacity that is, by the state, is the welfare of its units; for the society having as an aggregate no sentiency, its preservation is a desideratum only as subserving individual sentiencies. How does it subserve individual sentiencies? Primarily by preventing interferences with the carrying on of individual lives. In the first stage, death and injury of its members by external foes is that which the incorporated society has chiefly, though not wholly, to prevent; and it is ethically warranted in coercing its members to the extent required for this. In the last stage, death and injury of its members by internal trespasses is that which it has chiefly if not wholly to prevent; and the ethical warrant for coercion does not manifestly go beyond what is needful for preventing them.
348. This is not the place to consider whether with this last function any further function may be joined. Limited as our subject matter is to the nature of the state, it concerns us only to observe the radical difference between these two social types. The truth to be emphasized is that a body politic which has to operate on other such bodies, and to that end must wield the combined forces of its component units, is fundamentally unlike a body politic which has to operate only on its component units. Whence it follows that political speculation which sets out with the assumption that the state has in all cases the same nature, must end in profoundly erroneous conclusions.
A further implication must be pointed out. During long past periods, as well as in our own day, and for an indefinite time to come, there have been, are, and will be, changes, progressive and retrograde, approximating societies now to one type and now to the other: these types must be both mixed and unsettled. Indefinite and variable beliefs respecting the nature of the state must therefore be expected to prevail.