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CHAPTER TWO: ON THE LIBERTY OF THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION - James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (LF ed.) 
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, ed. Stuart D. Warner (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1993).
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ON THE LIBERTY OF THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
Though, as I pointed out in my last chapter, Mr. Mill rather asserts than proves his doctrines about liberty, the second chapter of his essay on the Liberty of Thought and Discussion, and the third chapter on Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-being—may be regarded as arguments to prove certain parts or applications of the general principle asserted in his Introduction; and as such I will consider them. I object rather to Mr. Mill’s theory than to his practical conclusions. I hope to show hereafter how far the practical difference between us extends. The objection which I make to most of his statements on the subject is that in order to justify in practice what might be justified on narrow and special grounds, he lays down a theory incorrect in itself and tending to confirm views which might become practically mischievous.
The result of his chapter on Liberty of Thought and Discussion is summed up, with characteristic point and brevity, by himself in the following words:
We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion and freedom of the expression of opinion on four distinct grounds.
First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth, unless it is suffered to be and actually is vigorously and earnestly contested, it will by most of those who receive it be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.
Fourthly,1 the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct; the dogma becoming a mere formal profession inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience. [53–54/ 257–58 L]
The chapter in question is, I think, one of the most eloquent to be found in its author’s writings, and it contains, as is not unfrequently the case with him, illustrations which are even more valuable for what they suggest than for what they say.
These illustrations are no doubt the part of this chapter which made the deepest impression when it was first published, and which have been most vividly remembered by its readers. I think that for the sake of them most readers forget the logical framework in which they were set, and read the chapter as a plea for greater freedom of discussion on moral and theological subjects. If Mr. Mill had limited himself to the proposition that in our own time and country it is highly important that the great questions of morals and theology should be discussed openly and with complete freedom from all legal restraints, I should agree with him. But the impression which the whole chapter leaves upon me is that for the sake of establishing this limited practical consequence, Mr. Mill has stated a theory which is very far indeed from the truth, and which, if generally accepted, might hereafter become a serious embarrassment to rational legislation.
His first reason in favour of unlimited freedom of opinion on all subjects is this: ‘If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly tell, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.’ [53/258 L]
He states fairly and fully the obvious objection to this—that ‘there is no greater assumption of infallibility in forbidding the propagation of error, than in any other thing which is done by public authority on its own judgment and responsibility.’ [22/230 L] In other words, the assumption is not that the persecutor is infallible, but that in this particular case he is right. To this objection he replies as follows: ‘There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.’ [22–23/231 L]
This reply does not appear to me satisfactory. It is not very easy to disentangle the argument on which it rests, and to put it into a perfectly distinct shape, but I think it will be found on examination to involve the following propositions:
1. No one can have a rational assurance of the truth of any opinion whatever, unless he is infallible, or unless all persons are absolutely free to contradict it.
2. Whoever prevents the expression of any opinion asserts by that act that he has a rational assurance of the falsehood of that opinion.
3. At the same time he destroys one of the conditions of a rational assurance of the truth of the assertions which he makes, namely, the freedom of others to contradict him.
4. Therefore he claims infallibility, which is the only other ground on which such an assurance of the truth of those assertions can rest.
The first and second of these propositions appear to me to be incorrect.
As to the first, I think that there are innumerable propositions on which a man may have a rational assurance that he is right whether others are or are not at liberty to contradict him, and that although he does not claim infallibility. Every proposition of which we are assured by our own senses, or by evidence which for all practical purposes is as strong as that of our own senses, falls under this head. There are plenty of reasons for not forbidding people to deny the existence of London Bridge and the river Thames, but the fear that the proof of those propositions would be weakened or that the person making the law would claim infallibility is not among the number.*
A asserts the opinion that B is a thief. B sues A for libel. A justifies. The jury give a verdict for the plaintiff, with £1,000 damages. This is nearly equivalent to a law forbidding everyone, under the penalty of a heavy fine, to express the opinion that in respect of the matters discussed B is a thief. Does this weaken the belief of the world at large in the opinion that in respect of those matters B is not a thief? According to Mr. Mill, no one can have a rational assurance upon the subject unless everyone is absolutely free to contradict the orthodox opinion. Surely this cannot be so.
The solution seems to be this. The fact that people are forbidden to deny a proposition weakens the force of the inference in its favour to be drawn from their acquiescence in it; but the value of their acquiescence considered as evidence may be very small, and the weight of other evidence, independent of public opinion, may not only be overwhelming, but the circumstances of the case may be such as to be inconsistent with the supposition that any further evidence will ever be forthcoming.
Again, an opinion may be silenced without any assertion on the part of the person who silences it that it is false. It may be suppressed because it is true, or because it is doubtful whether it is true or false, and because it is not considered desirable that it should be discussed. In these cases there is obviously no assumption of infallibility in suppressing it. The old maxim, ‘the greater the truth the greater the libel,’ has a true side to it, and when it applies it is obvious that an opinion is silenced without any assumption of infallibility. The opinion that a respectable man of mature years led an immoral life in his youth may be perfectly true, and yet the expression of that opinion may be a crime, if it is not for the public good that it should be expressed.
In cases in which it is obvious that no conclusion at all can be established beyond the reach of doubt, and that men must be contented with probabilities, it may be foolish to prevent discussion and prohibit the expression of any opinion but one, but no assumption of infallibility is involved in so doing. When Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth silenced to a certain extent both Catholics and Puritans, and sought to confine religious controversy within limits fixed by law, they did not assume themselves to be infallible. What they thought—and it is by no means clear that they were wrong—was that unless religious controversy was kept within bounds there would be a civil war, and they muzzled the disputants accordingly.
There are, in short, two classes of cases to which, as it appears to me, Mr. Mill’s argument does not apply—cases in which moral certainty is attainable on the evidence, and cases in which it is not attainable on the evidence.
Where moral certainty is attainable on the evidence the suppression of opinion involves no claim to infallibility, but at most a claim to be right in the particular case.
Where moral certainty is not attainable on the evidence the suppression of opinion involves no claim to infallibility, because it does not assert the falsehood of the opinion suppressed.
The three remaining arguments in favour of unlimited liberty of thought and discussion are: 1. That the silenced opinion may be partially true and that this partial truth can be brought out by discussion only. 2. That a true opinion when established is not believed to be true unless it is vigorously and earnestly contested. 3. That it comes to be held in a dead conventional way unless it is discussed.
These arguments go to show not that the suppression of opinion can never be right, but that it may sometimes be wrong, which no one denies. None of them show—as the first argument would if it were well founded—that persecution in all cases proceeds on a theory involving distinct intellectual error. As to the first argument, it is obvious that if people are prepared to take the chance of persecuting a proposition which may be wholly true as if it were wholly false, they will be prepared to treat it in the same manner though it is only partially true. The second and third arguments, to which I shall have to return hereafter, apply exclusively to that small class of persons whose opinions depend principally upon the consciousness that they have reached them by intellectual processes correctly performed. The incalculable majority of mankind form their opinions in quite a different way, and are attached to them because they suit their temper and meet their wishes, and not because and in so far as they think themselves warranted by evidence in believing them to be true. The notorious result of unlimited freedom of thought and discussion is to produce general scepticism on many subjects in the vast majority of minds. If you want zealous belief, set people to fight. Few things give men such a keen perception of the importance of their own opinions and the vileness of the opinions of others as the fact that they have inflicted and suffered persecution for them. Unlimited freedom of opinion may be a very good thing, but it does not tend to zeal, or even to a distinct appreciation of the bearings of the opinions which are entertained. Nothing will give either but a deep interest in the subject to which those opinions relate, and this is so personal and deeply seated a matter that it is scarcely capable of being affected by external restraints, unless, indeed, it is irritated and so stimulated by them.
I pass over for the present the illustrations of this chapter, which, as I have already said, are by far the most important part of it; and I proceed to the chapter on Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-being.
The substance of the doctrine eloquently expounded in it is that freedom is essential to originality and individuality of character. It consists, however, almost entirely of eulogies upon individuality, to which Mr. Mill thinks the world is indifferent. He accordingly sets forth at length the advantage of having vigorous impulses and plenty of them, of trying experiments in life, of leaving every man of genius free, not indeed ‘to seize on the government of the world and make it do his bidding in spite of itself,’ but to ‘point out the way,’2 This individuality and energy of character, he thinks, is dying out under various depressing influences. ‘The Calvinistic theory’ regards ‘the crushing out the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, as ‘no evil,’ inasmuch as ‘man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them.’ [62/265 L] Apart, however, from this, ‘society has now fairly got the better of individuality.’ [61/264 L] All of us are enslaved to custom. ‘Energetic characters on any large scale are becoming merely traditional. There is now scarcely any outlet for energy in this country except business.’ ‘The only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is Liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals.’ [70/272 L] Individuality, however, is at a discount with us, and we are on the way to a Chinese uniformity.
Much of what I had to say on this subject has been anticipated by an article in ‘Fraser’s Magazine.’* It expands and illustrates with great vigour the following propositions, which appear to me to be unanswerable:
1. The growth of liberty in the sense of democracy tends to diminish, not to increase, originality and individuality. ‘Make all men equal so far as laws can make them equal, and what does that mean but that each unit is to be rendered hopelessly feeble in presence of an overwhelming majority?’ The existence of such a state of society reduces individuals to impotence, and to tell them to be powerful, original, and independent is to mock them. It is like plucking a bird’s feathers in order to put it on a level with beasts, and then telling it to fly.
2. ‘The hope that people are to be rendered more vigorous by simply removing restrictions seems to be as fallacious as the hope that a bush planted in an open field would naturally develope into a forest tree. It is the intrinsic force which requires strengthening, and it may even happen in some cases that force will produce all the more effect for not being allowed to scatter itself.’
3. Though goodness is various, variety is not in itself good. ‘A nation in which everybody was sober would be a happier, better, and more progressive, though a less diversified, nation than one of which half the members were sober and the other half habitual drunkards.’
I might borrow many other points from the excellent essay in question, but I prefer to deal with the matter in my own way, and I will therefore add some remarks in confirmation and illustration of the points for which I am indebted to the writer.
‡The great defect of Mr. Mill’s later writings seems to me to be that he has formed too favourable an estimate of human nature.* This displays itself in the chapter now under consideration by the tacit assumption which pervades every part of it that the removal of restraints usually tends to invigorate character. Surely the very opposite of this is the truth. Habitual exertion is the greatest of all invigorators of character, and restraint and coercion in one form or another is the great stimulus to exertion. If you wish to destroy originality and vigour of character, no way to do so is so sure as to put a high level of comfort easily within the reach of moderate and commonplace exertion. A life made up of danger, vicissitude, and exposure is the sort of life which produces originality and resource. A soldier or sailor on active service lives in an atmosphere of coercion by the elements, by enemies, by disease, by the discipline to which he is subjected. Is he usually a tamer and less original person than a comfortable London shopkeeper or a man with just such an income as enables him to do exactly as he likes? A young man who is educated and so kept under close and continuous discipline till he is twenty-two or twenty-three years of age will generally have a much more vigorous and more original character than one who is left entirely to his own devices at an age when his mind and his tastes are unformed. Almost every human being requires more or less coercion and restraint as astringents to give him the maximum of power which he is capable of attaining. The maximum attainable in particular cases depends upon something altogether independent of social arrangements—namely, the nature of the human being himself who is subjected to them; and what this is or how it is to be affected are questions which no one has yet answered.
This leads me to say a few words on Mr. Mill’s criticism on ‘the Calvinistic theory.’ He says: ‘According to that, the one great offence of man is self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable, is comprised in obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise.’ ‘Whatever is not a duty is a sin.’ ‘Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him.’ [62/265 L]
I do not profess to have a very deep acquaintance with Calvin’s works, but from what I do know of them I should say that Mr. Mill uses the word Calvinistic almost at random. Calvin’s general doctrine, as delivered in the first and second books of the ‘Institutes,’ is something like this. The one great offence of man lies in the fact that, having before him good and evil, his weaker and worse appetites lead him to choose evil. The best thing for him is to obey a divine call to choose good. Man has a fearful disease, but his original constitution is excellent. Redemption consists not in killing but in curing his nature. Calvin describes original sin as ‘the inheritably descending perverseness and corruption (Book 2, ch. 1, s. 8) of our nature poured abroad into all the parts of the soul,’ bringing forth ‘the works of the flesh,’4 or, in other words, vice in all its forms. The result is (ch. 2) that ‘man is now spoiled of the freedom of his will and made subject to miserable bondage’5 to his own vices. It is from this bondage, this preference of evil to good, that God rescues the elect. I think that if Calvin were translated into modern language it would be hard to deny this. Speak or fail to speak of God as you think right, but the fact that men are deeply moved by ideas about power, wisdom, and goodness, on a superhuman scale which they rather apprehend than comprehend, is certain. Speak of original sin or not as you please, but the fact that all men are in some respects and at some times both weak and wicked, that they do the ill they would not do, and shun the good they would pursue, is no less certain. To describe this state of things as a ‘miserable bondage’ is, to say the least, an intelligible way of speaking. Calvin’s theory was that in order to escape from this bondage men must be true to the better part of their nature, keep in proper subjection its baser elements, and look up to God as the source of the only valuable kind of freedom—freedom to be good and wise. To describe this doctrine as a depressing influence leading to the crushing out of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities is to show an incapacity to separate from theological and scholastic husks the grain on which some of the bravest, hardiest, and most vigorous men that ever trod the face of this earth were nourished. No theory can possibly be right which requires us to believe that such a man as John Knox was a poor heartbroken creature with no will of his own.
There is one more point in this curious chapter which I must notice in conclusion. Nothing can exceed Mr. Mill’s enthusiasm for individual greatness. The mass, he says, in all countries constitute collective mediocrity. They never think at all, and never rise above mediocrity, ‘except in so far as the sovereign many have let themselves be guided and influenced (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted or instructed one or few. The initiation of all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual.’ [66/269 L] The natural inference would be that these individuals are the born rulers of the world, and that the world should acknowledge and obey them as such. Mr. Mill will not admit this. All that the man of genius can claim is ‘freedom to point out the way. The power of compelling others into it, is not only inconsistent with the freedom and development of all the rest, but corrupting to the strong man himself.’ [67/269 L] This would be perfectly true if the compulsion consisted in a simple exertion of blind force, like striking a nail with a hammer; but who ever acted so on others to any extent worth mentioning? The way in which the man of genius rules is by persuading an efficient minority to coerce an indifferent and self-indulgent majority, which is quite a different process.
The odd manner in which Mr. Mill worships mere variety, and confounds the proposition that variety is good with the proposition that goodness is various, is well illustrated by the lines which follow this passage: ‘Exceptional individuals . . . should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass’—in order that there may be enough of them to ‘point out the way.’ [67/269 L] Eccentricity is much required in these days. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded, and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportioned to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric makes the chief danger of the time.
If this advice were followed, we should have as many little oddities in manner and behaviour as we have people who wish to pass for men of genius. Eccentricity is far more often a mark of weakness than a mark of strength. Weakness wishes, as a rule, to attract attention by trifling distinctions, and strength wishes to avoid it. Originality consists in thinking for yourself, not in thinking differently from other people.*
Thus much as to Mr. Mill’s view of this subject. I will now attempt to explain my own views on liberty in general, and in particular on liberty of thought.
To me this question whether liberty is a good or a bad thing appears as irrational as the question whether fire is a good or a bad thing. It is both good and bad according to time, place, and circumstance, and a complete answer to the question, In what cases is liberty good and in what cases is it bad? would involve not merely a universal history of mankind, but a complete solution of the problems which such a history would offer. I do not believe that the state of our knowledge is such as to enable us to enunciate any ‘very simple principle as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control.’ [13/223 L] We must proceed in a far more cautious way, and confine ourselves to such remarks as experience suggests about the advantages and disadvantages of compulsion and liberty respectively in particular cases.
The following way of stating the matter is not and does not pretend to be a solution of the question, In what cases is liberty good? but it will serve to show how the question ought to be discussed when it arises. I do not see how Mr. Mill could deny its correctness consistently with the general principles of the ethical theory which is to a certain extent common to us both.
Compulsion is bad:
1. When the object aimed at is bad.
2. When the object aimed at is good, but the compulsion employed is not calculated to obtain it.
3. When the object aimed at is good, and the compulsion employed is calculated to obtain it, but at too great an expense.
Thus to compel a man to commit murder is bad, because the object is bad.
To inflict a punishment sufficient to irritate but not sufficient to deter or to destroy for holding particular religious opinions is bad, because such compulsion is not calculated to effect its purpose, assuming it to be good.
To compel people not to trespass by shooting them with spring-guns is bad, because the harm done is out of all proportion to the harm avoided.
If, however, the object aimed at is good, if the compulsion employed such as to attain it, and if the good obtained overbalances the inconvenience of the compulsion itself I do not understand how, upon utilitarian principles, the compulsion can be bad. I may add that this way of stating the case shows that Mr. Mill’s ‘simple principle’ is really a paradox. It can be justified only by showing as a fact that, self-protection apart, compulsion must always be a greater evil in itself than the absence of any object which can possibly be obtained by it.
I will now proceed to apply the principles stated to the case of compulsion applied to thought and discussion. This Mr. Mill condemns in all cases. I should condemn it in those cases only in which the object itself is bad, or in which the means used are not suited to its attainment, or in which, though suited to its attainment, they involve too great an expense. Compare the results of these two ways of thinking. Few persons would be found, I suppose, in these days to deny the paramount expediency, the utility in the highest sense, of having true opinions; and by true I mean not merely honest, but correct, opinions. To believe true statements, to disbelieve false statements, to give to probable or improbable statements a degree of credit proportioned to their apparent probability or improbability, would be the greatest of intellectual blessings. Such a state of mind is the ideal state which a perfectly reasonable human being would regard as the one at which he ought to aim as we aim at all ideals—that is to say, with a consciousness that we can never fully attain them. The most active-minded, the most sagacious, and those who are most favourably situated for the purpose, are in practice altogether unable to make more than an approximation to such a result, in regard to some few of the innumerable subjects which interest them. I am, of course, aware that this view is not universally admitted, but I need not argue at present with those who deny it.
Assuming it to be true, it will follow that all coercion which has the effect of falsifying the opinions of those who are coerced is coercion for an object bad in itself; and this at once condemns all cases of direct coercion in favour of opinions which are not, to say the least, so probable that a reasonable man would act upon the supposition of their truth. The second condition—namely, that coercion must be effective—and the third condition, that it must not inflict greater evils than it avoids, condemn, when taken together, many other cases of coercion, even when the object aimed at is good. For instance, they condemn all coercion applied directly to thought and unexpressed opinion, and all coercion which must be carried to the point of extermination or general paralysis of the thinking powers in order to be effective. In the first case the end is not attained. In the second it is attained at too great an expense. These two considerations are sufficient to condemn all the coarser forms of persecution. I have nothing to add to the well-known commonplaces which bear upon this part of the subject.
This being allowed, let us turn to the consideration of the other side of the question, and enquire whether there are no cases in which a degree of coercion, affecting, though not directly applied to, thought and the expression of opinion, and not in itself involving an evil greater than the evil avoided, may attain desirable ends. I think that such cases exist and are highly important. In general terms I think that the legal establishment and disestablishment of various forms of opinion, religious, political, and moral, their encouragement and recognition by law and public opinion as being true and useful, or their discouragement by law and public opinion as being false and mischievous, fall within this principle. I think, that is, that they are cases of coercion of which the object is or may be good, and in which the coercion is likely to be effective, and is not an evil great enough to counterbalance the evil which is avoided or the good which is attained. I think, in short, that Governments ought to take the responsibility of acting upon such principles, religious, political, and moral, as they may from time to time regard as most likely to be true, and this they cannot do without exercising a very considerable degree of coercion. The difference between, I do not say keeping up an Established Church at the public expense, but between paying a single shilling of public money to a single school in which any opinion is taught of which any single taxpayer disapproves, and the maintenance of the Spanish Inquisition, is a question of degree. As the first cannot be justified without infringing the principle of liberty as stated by Mr. Mill, so the last can be condemned on my principles only by showing that the doctrines favoured by the Inquisition were not true, that the means used to promote them were ineffective, or that their employment was too high a price to pay for the object gained; issues which I should be quite ready to accept.
In order to show more distinctly what I mean by coercion in favour of religious opinions, it is necessary to point out that I include under the head of religious opinions all opinions about religion, and in particular the opinion that a given religious creed is false, and the opinion that no religious creed is absolutely true, as well as the opinions which collectively form any one of the many confessions of faith adopted by religious bodies.
There are many subjects of legislation which directly and vitally interest all the members of religious bodies as such. Of these marriage, education, and the laws relating to religious endowments are the most prominent. Suppose, now, that the rulers of a nation were opposed to all religion, and were prepared to and did consistently legislate upon the principle that all religions are false. Suppose that in harmony with this view they insisted in every case on a civil marriage, and regarded it as the only one legally binding, although the addition of religious ceremonies was not forbidden; suppose that they confiscated all endowments for religious purposes, making provision for the life interests of the actual incumbents. Suppose that they legislated in such a way as to forbid all such endowments for the future, so as to render the maintenance of religious services entirely dependent on the temper of the existing generation. Suppose that, in addition to this, they were to organize a system of national education, complete in all its parts, from universities and special colleges for particular professions down to village day schools. Suppose that in all of these the education was absolutely secular, and that not a single shilling was allowed to be appropriated out of the public purse to the teaching of religion in any form whatever, or to the education of persons intended to be its ministers. No one, I think, will deny either that this would be coercion, or that it would be coercion likely to effect its purpose to a greater or less extent by means not in themselves productive of any other evil than the suppression of religion, which the adoption of these means assumes to be a good. Here, then, is a case in which coercion, likely to be effective at a not inadequate expense, is directed towards an end the goodness or badness of which depends upon the question whether religion is true or false. Is this coercion good or bad? I say good if and in so far as religion is false; bad if and in so far as religion is true. Mr. Mill ought, I think, to say that in every case it is bad, irrespectively of the truth or falsehood of religion, for it is coercion, and it is not self-protective.
That this is not an impossible case is proved by the action of the British Empire in India, which governs, not indeed on the principle that no religion is true, but distinctly on the principle that no native religion is true. The English have done, and are doing, the following things in that country:
1. They have forced upon the people, utterly against the will of many of them, the principle that people of different religions are to live at peace with each other, that there is to be no fighting and no oppression as between Mahommedans and Hindoos, or between different sects of Mahommedans.
2. They have also forced upon the people the principle that change of religion is not to involve civil disabilities. The Act* by which this rule was laid down utterly changed the legal position of one of the oldest and most widespread religions in the world. It deprived Brahminism of its principal coercive sanction.
3. They have set up a system of education all over the country which assumes the falsehood of the creed of the Hindoos and—less pointedly, but not less effectually—of the Mahommedans.
4. Whenever religious practices violate European ideas of public morality up to a certain point, they have, as in the cases of Suttee and human sacrifices, been punished as crimes.
5. They compel the natives to permit the presence among them of missionaries whose one object it is to substitute their own for the native religions, and who do, in fact, greatly weaken the native religions.
In these and in some other ways the English Government keeps up a steady and powerful pressure upon their Indian subjects in the direction of those moral and religious changes which are incidental to, and form a part of what we understand by, civilisation. It is remarkable that this pressure is exerted, as it were, involuntarily. No act which can in the ordinary use of language be described as remotely resembling persecution can be laid to the charge of the Government of India. The most solemn pledges to maintain complete impartiality between different religious persuasions have been given on the most memorable occasions, and they have been observed with the most scrupulous fidelity. Every civilian, every person of influence and authority, is full of a sincere wish to treat the native religions with respect. It would be difficult to find a body of men less disposed on the whole to proselytize, or more keenly aware of the weak side of the proselytizing spirit. Whatever faults the English in India have committed, the fault of being too ecclesiastically minded, of being too much led by missionaries, is certainly not one of them. For many years the bare presence of missionaries in British India was not tolerated by the Indian Government. The force of circumstances, however, was too strong for them, and has put them, against their will, at the head of a revolution. Little by little they were forced to become the direct rulers of the whole country, and to provide it with a set of laws and institutions. They found, as everyone who has to do with legislation must find, that laws must be based upon principles, and that it is impossible to lay down any principles of legislation at all unless you are prepared to say, I am right, and you are wrong, and your view shall give way to mine, quietly, gradually, and peaceably; but one of us two must rule and the other must obey, and I mean to rule.
I might multiply to any conceivable extent illustrations of the propositions that all government has and must of necessity have a moral basis, and that the connection between morals and religion is so intimate that this implies a religious basis as well. I do not mean by a religious basis a complete agreement in religious opinion among either the governors or the persons governed, but such an amount of agreement as is sufficient to determine the attitude of legislation towards religion. I think if these illustrations were fully stated and properly studied they would establish some such general inference as this:
There are three relations and no more in which legislation can stand towards religion in general, and towards each particular religious opinion or form of religion:
1. It may proceed on the assumption that some one religion is true and all others false.
2. It may proceed on the assumption that more than one religion is, so to speak, respectable, and it may favour them in the same or different degrees.
3. It may proceed on the assumption that all religions or that some religions are false.
I believe it to be simply impossible that legislation should be really neutral as to any religion which is professed by any large number of the persons legislated for. He that is not for such a religion is against it. Real neutrality is possible only with regard to forms of religion which are not professed at all by the subjects of legislation, or which are professed by so few of them that their opinions can be regarded as unimportant by the rest. English legislation in England is neutral as to Mahommedanism and Brahminism. English legislation in India proceeds on the assumption that both are false. If it did not, it would have to be founded on the Koran or the Institutes of Menu. If this is so, it is practically certain that coercion will be exercised in favour of some religious opinions and against others, and the question whether such coercion is good or bad will depend upon the view of religion which is taken by different people.
The real opinion of most legislators in the present day, the opinion in favour of which they do, in fact, exercise coercion, is the opinion that no religion is absolutely true, but that all contain a mixture of truth and falsehood, and that the same is the case with ethical and political systems. One inference from this is that direct legislation against any religion as a whole is wrong, and this is one great objection to persecution. When you persecute a religion as a whole, you must generally persecute truth and goodness as well as falsehood. Coercion as to religion will therefore chiefly occur in the indirect form, in the shape of treating certain parts—vital parts, it may be—of particular systems as mischievous and possibly even as criminal falsehoods when they come in the legislator’s way. When priests, of whatever creed, claim to hold the keys of heaven and hell and to work invisible miracles, it will practically become necessary for many purposes to decide whether they really are the representatives of God upon earth, or whether consciously or not they are impostors, for there is no way of avoiding the question, and it admits of no other solutions.
Many, perhaps most, of the extravagant theories which have been and are maintained about liberty and in particular about the division between the temporal and spiritual powers, have been devised by persons who, holding this view and not choosing to avow it, wished to discover some means of leaving uncontested the claims of various religious systems to divine authority, and of showing that an admission of the truth of those claims would not involve the consequences which those who believed in them wished to draw from it. It is for immediate practical purposes highly convenient to say, Your creed is, no doubt, divine, and you are the agents of God for the purpose of teaching it, but liberty of opinion is also more or less divine, and the civil ruler has his own rights and duties as well as the successors of the Apostles. But, convenient as this is, it is a mere compromise. The theory is untrue, and no one really believes more than that half of it which suits him. If spiritual means that which relates to thought and feeling, every act of life is spiritual, for in every act there is a mental element which gives it its moral character. If temporal means outward and visible, then every act is temporal, for every thought and feeling tends towards and is embodied in action. In fact every human action is both temporal and spiritual. The attempt to distinguish between temporal and spiritual, between Church and State, is like the attempt to distinguish between substance and form. Formless matter or unsubstantial form are expressions which have no meaning, and in the same way things temporal and things spiritual presuppose and run into each other at every point. Human life is one and indivisible, and is or ought to be regulated by one set of principles and not by a multitude. This subject, however, is too large and important to be disposed of parenthetically. I propose to discuss it separately.* With these preliminary observations, I proceed to say a few words on each of the three relations in which legislation may stand to religion. It will be found that the consideration of them will throw a strong light upon many of the illustrations of this subject discussed by Mr. Mill and others.
First, legislation may proceed on the assumption that one religion is true and all others false. This is the assumption which pervades nearly all early Christian legislation. It is made so unconsciously by Mahommedans and Hindoos that their law and their religion are to a great extent one and the same thing. Our own minds have become so much sophisticated by commonplaces about liberty and toleration, and about the division between the temporal and spiritual power, that we have almost ceased to think of the attainment of truth in religion as desirable if it were possible. It appears to me that, if it were possible, the attainment of religious truth and its recognition as such by legislation would be of all conceivable blessings the greatest. If we were all of one mind, and that upon reasonable grounds, about the nature of men and their relation to the world or worlds in which they live, we should have in our hands an important instrument for the solution of all the great moral and political questions which at present distract and divide the world, and cause much waste of strength in unfruitful though inevitable contests.
Even when a religion is only partially true, the effect of a general and perfectly sincere belief in it is to give unity and vigour and a distinct and original turn to the life of those who really believe it. Such a belief is the root out of which grow laws, institutions, moral principles, tastes, and arts innumerable. The phrases about our common Christianity are vague enough, but it was in religious beliefs common to great masses of people that the foundations of much that we justly prize were laid. If from the fall of the Roman Empire to the revival of learning there had been no moral and spiritual unity in the world, we should still, in all probability, have been little better than barbarians. If the divided forces of mankind could now be based upon one foundation of moral and spiritual truth, and directed towards a set of ends forming one harmonious whole, our descendants would probably surpass us quite as decisively as we surpass the contemporaries of Alfred or Gregory the Great. Progress has its drawbacks, and they are great and serious; but whatever its value may be, unity in religious belief would further it in so far as the belief was true and was based upon reasonable grounds.*
The question how such a state of things is to be produced is one which it is impossible not to ask and equally impossible to answer, except by the words, ‘the wind bloweth where it listeth, and ye know not whence it cometh nor whither it goeth.’6 The sources of religion lie hid from us. All that we know is that now and again in the course of ages someone sets to music the tune which is haunting millions of ears. It is caught up here and there, and repeated till the chorus is thundered out by a body of singers able to drown all discords and to force the vast unmusical mass to listen to them. Such results as these come not by observation, but when they do come they carry away as with a flood and hurry in their own direction all the laws and customs of those whom they affect. To oppose Mr. Mill’s ‘simple principle’ about liberty to such powers as these is like blowing against a hurricane with a pair of bellows. To take any such principle as a rule by which such powers may be measured and may be declared to be good or bad is like valuing a painting by adding together the price of the colours, the canvas, and so much a day calculated on his average earnings for the value of the artist’s labour.
When the hearts of men are deeply stirred by what they regard as a gospel or new revelation, they do as a fact not only believe it themselves, but compel others to accept it, and this compulsion for ages to come determines the belief and practice of enormous multitudes of people who care very little about the matter. Earth resembles heaven in one respect at least. Its kingdom suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. That such violence is or under circumstances may be highly beneficial to the world, is, I think, abundantly proved by history. The evil and good done by it must in all cases be measured by the principles laid down above. Was the object good? Did the means conduce to it? Did they conduce to it at an excessive price? Apply this to the case of the establishment of Christianity as a State religion first in the Roman Empire and afterwards in modern Europe. It is obvious that we have before us the most intricate of all conceivable problems, a problem which no single and simple principle can possibly solve. Its solution would require answers to the following, amongst other questions: 1. What is Christianity? 2. How far is it true and useful? 3. How far was it and how far was each part of it promoted by coercion? 4. What kinds of coercion promoted the different parts of it? 5. What was the comparative importance of the coercion applied and the results obtained? Most of these questions are obviously insoluble.
The second case is that in which the Legislature regards various creeds as respectable, and favours them more or less according to circumstances, and either equally or unequally. This is the present state of things throughout the greater part of the civilised world. It is carried out to its fullest development in this country and in the United States, though in this country two State Churches are especially favored, while in America all Churches stand upon the same footing as lawful associations based upon voluntary contracts. The way in which this arrangement is accepted as a final result which is to last indefinitely has always seemed to me to afford a strong illustration of the manner in which people are disposed to accept as final the temporary solutions of great questions which are in fashion in their own days. The fatal defect in the arrangement, which must sooner or later break it up, is that it tends to emasculate both Church and State. It cuts human life in two. It cuts off religion from active life, and it reduces the State to a matter of police. Moreover, it is but a temporary and not a very honest device. To turn Churches into mere voluntary associations, and to sever the connection between them and the State, is on the part of the State an act not of neutrality but of covert unbelief. On the part of the Churches which accept it, it is a tacit admission of failure, a tacit admission that they have no distinct authoritative message from God to man, and that they do not venture to expect to be recognised as institutions to which such a message has been confided. But if this is not their character, there is no other character for them to hold than that of human institutions, like the old schools of philosophy, based upon various theories as to the nature, the destiny, and the duties of men.
If this is the light in which Churches are to be regarded, the division between Church and State, the maxim of a free Church in a free State, will mean that men in their political capacity are to have no opinions upon the topics which interest them most deeply; and, on the other hand, that men of a speculative turn are never to try to reduce their speculations to practice on a large scale, by making or attempting to make them the basis of legislation. If this principle is adopted and adhered to, one of two results must sooner or later inevitably follow. In so far as the principle is accepted and acted upon with real good faith, the State will be degraded, and reduced to mere police functions. Associations of various kinds will take its place and push it on one side, and completely new forms of society may be the result. Mormonism is one illustration of this, but the strong tendency which has shown itself on many occasions both in France and America on the part of enthusiastic persons to ‘try experiments in living,’7 by erecting some entirely new form of society, has supplied many minor illustrations of the same principle. St. Simonianism, families of love by whatever name they are called, are straws showing the set of a wind which some day or other might take rank among the fiercest of storms. Such experiments as these have nothing whatever to do with liberty. They are embryo governments, little States which in course of time may well come to be dangerous antagonists of the old one.
Another possible result is that the State, finding itself confronted by Churches at all sorts of points, may at last renounce the notion that it is de-barred from forming an opinion upon moral and religious problems, and from legislating in accordance with the opinions so formed. If and in so far as the State—that is to say, a number of influential people sufficient to dispose of the public force—arrives at distinct views upon these points, it must of necessity revert from the provisional and neutral attitude to a belligerent attitude. It must assume the truth of some religious opinions, and as a necessary consequence the falsehood of others, and as to these last it will take up a position of hostility. Cases may occur, as the state of our own time shows, in which it is extremely difficult to say what is true, but comparatively easy to say what is false, and I do not see why conscious ignorance upon some points should interfere with or excuse people from acting upon a distinct negative conviction upon others.
Such a course necessarily encounters the most virulent and passionate resistance. Unwelcome, however, and thorny as this path is, I believe that it ought, when necessary, to be taken; that it is desirable that legislators and their advisers should not legislate on the supposition that all sorts of conflicting creeds have an equal chance of being true, but should consider the question of the truth and falsehood of religious opinions; that legislation should when necessary proceed on distinct principles in this matter, and that such a degree of coercion as is necessary to obtain its end should be applied. What I have already said shows that in fact this is always done, though people are not always aware of it.*
As I have observed more than once, Mr. Mill’s illustrations of his principles are in some respects the most attractive and effective parts of his book. By far the most important passage of his ‘Essay on Liberty’ is the well-known one in which he argues that people should be at perfect liberty to express any opinions whatever about the existence of God and a future state, and that for doing so they should neither be punished by law nor censured by public opinion. In the practical result I agree nearly, though not quite; but in order to set in as clear a light as possible the difference between his way of treating the subject and my own, I will deal with it in my own way, noticing his arguments in what I take to be their proper places.
The object of forbidding men to deny the existence of God and a future life would be to cause those doctrines to be universally believed, and upon my principles this raises three questions: 1. Is the object good? 2. Are the means proposed likely to be effective? 3. What is the comparative importance of the object secured and of the means by which it is secured? That the object is good if the doctrines are true admits, in my opinion, of no doubt whatever. I entirely agree with the commonplaces about the importance of these doctrines. If these beliefs are mere dreams, life is a very much poorer and pettier thing; men are beings of much less importance; trouble, danger, and physical pain are much greater evils, and the prudence of virtue is much more questionable than has hitherto been supposed to be the case. If men follow the advice so often pressed upon them, to cease to think of these subjects otherwise than as insoluble riddles, all the existing conceptions of morality will have to be changed, all social tendencies will be weakened. Merely personal inclinations will be greatly strengthened. Men who say ‘tomorrow we die,’ will add ‘let us eat and drink.’ It would be not merely difficult but impossible in such a state of society to address any argument save that of criminal law (which Mr. Mill’s doctrine about liberty would reduce to a minimum) to a man who had avowed to himself that he was consistently bad. A few people love virtue for its own sake. Many have no particular objection to a mild but useful form of it if they are trained to believe that it will answer in the long run; but probably a majority of these persons would like it dashed with a liberal allowance of vice if they thought that no risk would be run by making the mixture. A strong minority, again, are so viciously disposed that all the considerations which can be drawn from any world, present or future, certain or possible, do not avail to hold them in. Many a man too stupid for speculative doubt or for thought of any kind says, ‘I’ve no doubt at all I shall be damned for it, but I must, and I will.’ In short, all experience shows that almost all men require at times both the spur of hope and the bridle of fear, and that religious hope and fear are an effective spur and bridle, though some people are too hard-mouthed and thick-skinned to care much for either, and though others will now and then take the bit in their teeth and rush where passion carries them, notwithstanding both. If, then, virtue is good, it seems to me clear that to promote the belief of the fundamental doctrines of religion is good also, for I am convinced that in Europe at least the two must stand or fall together.
It is sometimes argued that these beliefs are rather unimportant than either good or bad. It is said that great masses of the human race have done without any or with negative beliefs on these subjects. Interesting sketches are given of the creeds or no creeds of savage tribes, of educated men in classical times, of Buddhists, and others. Here, it is said, are cases of people living without reference to a God or a future state. Why cannot you do the same? A strong social impulse, a religion of humanity will fill your sails as well as the old wind which is dying away; and you will then think of these questions which now seem to you all-important as of insoluble riddles, mere exercises of ingenuity with which you have nothing to do.
This argument falls wide of the mark at which it seems to be aimed. Its object is to prove that the fundamental problems of religion may and ought to be laid aside as insoluble riddles on which it is a waste of time to think. The evidence to prove this is that solutions of these problems, widely differing from those which are established in this part of the world, have been accepted in other countries and by other races of men. No doubt this is true, but what does it prove? Taken in connection with other facts equally notorious, it proves that as a man’s religion is, so will his morals be. The Buddhists have a religion and a morality which closely correspond. How does this show that European morality is not founded on Christianity, and that you can destroy the one without affecting the other? It proves the reverse. If Buddhists became Christians or Christians became Buddhists, a corresponding moral change would soon make itself felt. The difference between Hindoo and Mahommedan morals closely follows the difference between their creeds. Whether Christianity is true or false, and whether European morality is good or bad, European morality is in fact founded upon religion, and the destruction of the one must of necessity involve the reconstruction of the other. Many persons in these days wish to retain the morality which they like, after getting rid of the religion which they disbelieve. Whether they are right or wrong in disturbing the foundation, they are inconsistent in wishing to save the superstructure. If we are to think as Cæsar thought of God and a future state, we cannot avoid considering the question whether Cæsar’s morals and principles of action were not superior to the common moral standards. Jesus Christ believed in God and a future state, and preached the Sermon on the Mount. Julius Cæsar believed the questions about God and a future state to be mere idle curiosities. He also preached impressive sermons by example and otherwise. Many persons in these days appear to me to think that they can reconcile the morals of Jesus Christ with the theology of Julius Cæsar by masquerading in the Pope’s old clothes and asking the world at large to take their word of honour that all is well.
To return to Mr. Mill. One of his arguments tends to show that the object of promoting these beliefs is bad. He considers that rulers ought not to decide religious questions for others without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. I am not, I own, much moved by this argument. It is what everyone does and must of necessity be continually doing in nearly every department of life. What is all education except a strenuous and systematic effort to give the whole character a certain turn and bias which appears on the whole desirable to the person who gives it?* A man who did not, as far as he could, ‘undertake to decide’ for his children the questions whether they should be truthful, industrious, sober, respectful, and chaste, and that ‘without allowing them to hear what was to be said on the contrary side,’ would be a contemptible pedant. Legislators and the founders of great institutions must to a very considerable extent perform precisely the same task for the world at large. Surely it is an idle dream to say that one man in a thousand really exercises much individual choice as to his religious or moral principles, and I doubt whether it is not an exaggeration to say that one man in a million is capable of making any very material addition to what is already known or plausibly conjectured on these matters. I repeat, then, that the object of causing these doctrines to be believed appears to me to be clearly good if and in so far as the doctrines themselves are true.
It may perhaps be suggested, on the other hand, that the object is good whether the doctrines are true or false, and no doubt the necessity for compulsion is greater if they are false; but the suggestion itself may be disposed of very shortly. It is a suggestion which it is childish to discuss in public, because no one could avow it without contradicting himself, and so defeating his own object. No one can publicly and avowedly ask people to believe a lie on the ground of its being good for them. Such a request is like asking a man to lift himself off the ground by pulling at his knees with his hands. The harder he tries to lift his feet from the ground, the harder he has to press his feet on the ground to get a purchase. The more you try to believe a lie because it will do you good, the more you impress on your mind the fact that it is a lie and that you cannot believe it. A man who wishes to persuade his neighbours to believe a lie must lie to them—he must say that the lie is true; and practically he must lie to himself in the first instance, or he will not have the heart to go on with his lie. There are ways of doing this so very far below the surface that an ingenious person may manage it with little or, perhaps, no consciousness of the fact that he is lying. The favourite way of doing it is by weaving metaphysical webs by which it may be made to appear that the common tests of truth, falsehood, and probability do not apply to matters of this sort. But I need not pursue this subject. We are brought back, then, to the question, Are these doctrines true?
This is the vital question of all. It is the true centre, not only of Mr. Mill’s book upon liberty, but of all the great discussions of our generation. Upon this hang all religion, all morals, all politics, all legislation—everything which interests men as men. Is there or not a God and a future state? Is this world all?
I do not pretend to have anything to add to this tremendous controversy. It is a matter on which very few human beings have a right to be heard.
I confine myself to asserting that the attitude of the law and of public authority generally towards the discussion of this question will and ought to depend upon the nature of the view which happens to be dominant for the time being on the question itself, modified in its practical application by considerations drawn from the other two points above stated—namely, the adaptation of the means employed to the object in view, and the comparative importance of the measure of success which can be reasonably expected, and of the expense of the means necessary to its attainment. This, I say, is the only principle which can either serve as a guide in reference to any practical question, or enable us to do anything like justice to the historical problems of which Mr. Mill refers to one or two, and to which I propose to return immediately; and so much for the goodness of the object.
The next questions are as to the effectiveness and expense of the means, and these I will consider together. It is needless to discuss the question of legal prosecution in reference to these opinions.* Everyone must admit that it is quite out of the question. In the first place, it is impossible; and in the next place, to be effective, it would have to be absolutely destructive and paralysing, and it would produce at last no result for which anyone really wishes. I need not insist upon this point.
The real question is as to social intolerance. Has a man who believes in God and a future state a moral right to disapprove of those who do not, and to try by the expression of that disapproval to deter them from publishing, and to deter others from adopting, their views? I think that he has if and in so far as his opinions are true. Mr. Mill thinks otherwise. He draws a picture of social intolerance and of its effects which nothing but considerations of space prevent me from extracting in full. It is one of the most eloquent and powerful passages he ever wrote. The following is its key-note:
Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion. With us heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain or even lose ground in each decade or generation; they never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or a deceptive light. And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind. [34–35/241–42 L]
The heretics, says Mr. Mill, are grievously injured by this, and are much to be pitied, but ‘the greatest harm is done to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?’ [35/242 L]
On this point I am utterly unable to agree with Mr. Mill. It seems to me that to publish opinions upon morals, politics, and religion is an act as important as any which any man can possibly do; that to attack opinions on which the framework of society rests is a proceeding which both is and ought to be dangerous. I do not say that it ought not to be done in many cases, but it should be done sword in hand, and a man who does it has no more right to be surprised at being fiercely resisted than a soldier who attacks a breach. Mr. Mill’s whole charge against social intolerance is that it makes timid people afraid to express unpopular opinions. An old ballad tells how a man, losing his way on a hillside, strayed into a chamber full of enchanted knights, each lying motionless in complete armour, with his war-horse standing motionless beside him. On a rock lay a sword and a horn, and the intruder was told that if he wanted to lead the army, he must choose between them. He chose the horn and blew a loud blast, upon which the knights and their horses vanished in a whirlwind and their visitor was blown back into common life, these words sounding after him on the wind:
No man has a right to give the signal for such a battle by blowing the horn, unless he has first drawn the sword and knows how to make his hands guard his head with it. Then let him blow as loud and long as he likes, and if his tune is worth hearing he will not want followers. Till a man has carefully formed his opinions on these subjects, thought them out, assured himself of their value, and decided to take the risk of proclaiming them, the strong probability is that they are not much worth having. Speculation on government, morals, and religion is a matter of vital practical importance, and not mere food for curiosity. Curiosity, no doubt, is generally the motive which leads a man to study them; but, till he has formed opinions on them for which he is prepared to fight, there is no hardship in his being compelled by social intolerance to keep them to himself and to those who sympathise with him. It should never be forgotten that opinions have a moral side to them. The opinions of a bad and a good man, the opinions of an honest and a dishonest man, upon these subjects are very unlikely to be the same.
It is the secret consciousness of this which gives its strange bitterness to controversies which might at first sight appear as unlikely to interest the passions as questions of mathematics or philology. What question can appear to be more purely scientific than the question whether people have or have not innate ideas? Yet it is constantly debated with a persistent consciousness on the part of the disputants that their argument is like a trumpery dispute made the pretext for a deadly duel, the real grounds of which are too delicate to be stated. The advocate of innate ideas often thinks or says more or less distinctly that his antagonist’s real object is to get all the mysteries of religion submitted to the common processes of the understanding. The advocate of experience often thinks or says of his antagonist, ‘You are a liar; and the object of your lie is to protect from exposure what you ought to know to be nonsense.’ As opinions become better marked and more distinctly connected with action, the truth that decided dissent from them implies more or less of a reproach upon those who hold them decidedly becomes so obvious that everyone perceives it. The fact is that we all more or less condemn and blame each other, and this truth is so unpleasant that oceans of sophistry have been poured out for the purpose of evading or concealing it. It is true, nevertheless. I cannot understand how a man who is not a Roman Catholic can regard a real Roman Catholic with absolute neutrality. A man who really thinks that a wafer is God Almighty, and who really believes that rational men owe any sort of allegiance to any kind of priest, is either right—in which case the man who differs from him ought to repent in sackcloth and ashes—or else he is wrong, in which case he is the partizan of a monstrous imposture. How the question of whether he is right or wrong can be regarded as one indifferent to his general character and to the moral estimate which persons of a different way of thinking must form of him is to me quite inconceivable. The converse is equally true. I do not see how a man who deliberately rejects the Roman Catholic religion can, in the eyes of those who earnestly believe it, be other than a rebel against God. Plaster them over as thick as you will, controversies of this sort go to the very core and root of life, and as long as they express the deepest convictions of men, those who really differ are and must be enemies to a certain extent, though they may keep their enmity within bounds. When religious differences come to be and are regarded as mere differences of opinion, it is because the controversy is really decided in the sceptical sense, though people may not like to acknowledge it formally.
Let anyone who doubts this try to frame an argument which could have been addressed with any chance of success to Philip II against the persecution of the Protestants, or to Danton and his associates against the persecution of Catholicism and the French aristocracy and Monarchy. Concede the first principle that unfeigned belief in the Roman Catholic creed is indispensably necessary to salvation, or the first principle that the whole Roman Catholic system is a pernicious falsehood and fraud, and it will be found impossible to stop short in theory of the practical inferences of the Inquisition and the Reign of Terror, though of course circumstances may render their application to any given state of facts inexpedient. Every conclusive* argument against these practical inferences is an argument to show either that we cannot be sure as to the conditions of salvation, or that the Roman Catholic religion is not a pernicious falsehood and fraud. A man who cannot be brought to see this will persecute, and ought to persecute (unless the balance of special expediencies is the other way) in the same sense of the word ‘ought’ in which we say that a man who believes that twice two make five ought to believe that two and three make six. The attainment or approximate attainment of truth, and particularly the attainment of a true conception of the amount and nature of our own ignorance on religious subjects, is indispensable to the settlement of religious disputes. You can no more evade in politics the question, What is true in religion? than you can do sums right without prejudice to a difference of opinion upon the multiplication table. The only road to peace leads through truth, and when a powerful and energetic minority, sufficiently vigorous to impose their will on their neighbours, have made up their minds as to what is true, they will no more tolerate error for the sake of abstract principles about freedom than any one of us tolerates a nest of wasps in his garden.
Upon the question of the expense of persecution Mr. Mill argues at great length that perfect freedom of discussion is essential to give a person a living interest in an opinion and a full appreciation of its various bearings. This, I think, is an excellent illustration of the manner in which the most acute intellect may be deceived by generalising upon its own peculiar experience. That Mr. Mill should have felt what he described is not, perhaps, unnatural, but his intellect was enormously developed in proportion to his other faculties.8 I should say that doctrines come home to people in general, not if and in so far as they are free to discuss all their applications, but if and in so far as they happen to interest them and appear to illustrate and interpret their own experience. One remarkable proof of this is taken from the whole history of religious controversy, and can hardly be better exemplified than by Mr. Mill’s own words. He remarks that ‘all ethical doctrines and religious creeds . . . are full of meaning to those who originate them and to the direct disciples of their originators; their meaning continues to be felt in undiminished strength, and is perhaps brought out with even fuller consciousness so long as the struggle lasts to give the doctrine or creed an ascendency over other creeds.’ [41/247 L] When the struggle is over the doctrine takes its place as a received opinion; ‘from this time may usually be dated the decline in its living power.’ [41/247 L]
I do not agree with this. A doctrine which really goes to the hearts of men never loses its power if true, and never even if it is false until it is suspected or known to be false. There are in this day innumerable persons to whom the worship of the Virgin Mary and all the doctrines connected with it have as much life and freshness as they ever had to anyone—a life and freshness from which the freest and fullest discussion would rub off all the gloss, even if it left the doctrine unimpaired. Millions of men hold with the most living perception of their truth the doctrine that Honesty is the best policy, and the doctrine, Speak truth, and shame the devil. Experience and not discussion enforces maxims like these. Every racy popular proverb is a proof of it. If a dear friend, a man whom you have loved and honoured, and who is a well-wisher and benefactor to a large section of mankind, is stabbed to the heart by an assassin, it will give a very keen edge and profound truth to the maxim that murder is one of the most detestable of crimes, though I do not know that it admits of much discussion.
But whatever may be thought of the truth of Mr. Mill’s statement, its logic is defective. The facts that whilst a doctrine is struggling for ascendency it is full of meaning, and that when it has become a received opinion its living power begins to decline, surely prove that coercion and not liberty is favourable to its appreciation. A ‘struggle for ascendency’ does not mean mere argument. It means reiterated and varied assertion persisted in, in the face of the wheel, the stake, and the gallows, as well as in the face of contradiction. If the Protestants and Catholics or the Christians and the Pagans had confined themselves to argument, they might have argued forever, and the world at large would not have cared. It was when it came to preaching and fighting, to ‘Believe, and be saved,’ ‘Disbelieve, and be damned,’ ‘Be silent, or be burned alive,’ ‘I would rather be burned than be silent,’ that the world at large listened, sympathized, and took one side or the other. The discussion became free just in proportion as the subjects discussed lost their interest.
Upon the whole, it appears to me quite certain that if our notions of moral good and evil are substantially true, and if the doctrines of God and a future state are true, the object of causing people to believe in them is good, and that social intolerance on the behalf of those who do towards those who do not believe in them cannot be regarded as involving evils of any great importance in comparison with the results at which it aims. I am quite aware that this is not a pleasant doctrine, and that it is liable to great abuse. The only way of guarding against its abuse is by pointing out that people should not talk about what they do not understand. No one has a right to be morally intolerant of doctrines which he has not carefully studied. It is one thing to say, as I do, that after careful consideration and mature study a man has a right to say such and such opinions are dishonest, cowardly, feeble, ferocious, or absurd, and that the person who holds them deserves censure for having shown dishonesty or cowardice in adopting them, and quite another thing to say that everyone has a right to throw stones at everybody who differs from himself on religious questions. The true ground of moral tolerance in the common sense of the words appears to me to lie in this—that most people have no right to any opinions whatever upon these questions, except in so far as they are necessary for the regulation of their own affairs. When some ignorant preacher calls his betters atheists and the like, his fault is not intolerance, but impudence and rudeness. If this principle were properly carried out, it would leave little room for moral intolerance in most cases; but I think it highly important that men who really study these matters should feel themselves at liberty not merely to dissent from but to disapprove of opinions which appear to them to require it, and should express that disapprobation.*
I will now proceed to compare Mr. Mill’s principles and my own by contrasting the ways in which our respective methods apply to the appreciation of the celebrated passages of history. He, as I understand him, condemns absolutely all interference with the expression of opinion. The judges of Socrates, Pontius Pilate, Marcus Aurelius, Philip II, and the rest are, when tried by his standard, simple wrong-doers. Allowances may be made for them in consideration of the temper of the times, but the verdict is guilty, with or without, and generally without, a recommendation to mercy. Their guilt and shame is necessary in order to condemn the principle on which they acted. They interfered with liberty otherwise than for purposes of self-protection, and they thus incurred such penalties as can be inflicted on the memory of the dead, however honest they may have been, and whatever may have been the plausibility of their opinions at the time. The law must be vindicated, and the law—Mr. Mill’s law—is that nothing but self-protection can ever justify coercion. Once give up this, and where will you stop?
Mr. Mill says, ‘Aware of the impossibility of defending the use of punishment for restraining irreligious opinions by any arguments which will not justify Marcus [Aurelius] Antoninus, the enemies of religious freedom when hard pressed occasionally accept this consequence, and say with Dr. Johnson that the persecutors of Christianity were in the right; that persecution is an ordeal through which truth ought to pass, and always passes successfully.’ [30/ 237 L] This argument, says Mr. Mill, is ungenerous, but it also involves distinct error. That ‘truth always triumphs over persecution’ is a ‘pleasant falsehood.’ [30/238 L] Truth does not triumph; on the contrary, a very little very gentle persecution is often quite enough to put it out. Choose, says Mr. Mill in substance, between a principle which will condemn Aurelius and a principle which will justify Pontius Pilate. I will try to meet this challenge.
Was Pilate right in crucifying Christ? I reply, Pilate’s paramount duty was to preserve the peace in Palestine, to form the best judgment he could as to the means required for that purpose, and to act upon it when it was formed. Therefore, if and in so far as he believed, in good faith and on reasonable grounds, that what he did was necessary for the preservation of the peace of Palestine, he was right. It was his duty to run the risk of being mistaken, notwithstanding Mr. Mill’s principle as to liberty, and particularly as to liberty in the expression of opinion. He was in the position of a judge whose duty it is to try persons duly brought before him for trial at the risk of error.
In order to justify this view I must first consider the question, In what sense can such words as ‘right’ and ‘ought’ be applied to questions of politics and government? If in criticising human history we are to proceed on the assumption that every act and every course of policy was wrong which would not have been chosen by an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly benevolent man, if such a being is conceivable, I suppose no course of policy and no action of importance and on a large scale can be said to have been right; but, in order to take a step towards the application of this method, it is necessary to know what the history of mankind ought to have been from the earliest ages to the present time. Even this is not enough. We ought to know what it ought to have been after each successive deviation from the highest possible standard. We ought to know not only what would have happened if Eve had not eaten the apple, but what would have happened if, Eve having eaten the apple, Adam had refused to eat, or had eaten of the tree of life; how it would have been if, when Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, Cain had not killed Abel, and so on. To take such a standard of right and wrong is obviously absurd.
The words ‘ought’ and ‘right’ must then be applied on a far more limited scale, and must in all cases be interpreted with reference to the fact that men inevitably are and always will be weak and ignorant, and that their apparent and possibly their real interests clash. If ‘ought’ and ‘right’ are construed with reference to this consideration, it will follow that duty will frequently bring individuals, nations, and creeds into conflict with each other. There is no absurdity in the conclusion that it may be my duty to kill you if I can and your duty to kill me if you can, that the persecutors and the Christians, Luther and Charles V, Philip II and William of Orange, may each have been right, or may each have been partly right and partly wrong. When Hobbes taught that the state of nature is a state of war, he threw an unpopular truth into a shape liable to be misunderstood; but can anyone seriously doubt that war and conflict are inevitable so long as men are what they are, except at the price of evils which are even worse than war and conflict?9 that is to say, at the price of absolute submission to all existing institutions, good or bad, or absolute want of resistance to all proposed changes, wise or foolish. Struggles there must and always will be, unless men stick like limpets or spin like weathercocks.
I proceed to consider the case of the Romans and the Christians, and more particularly the case of Pilate.
It is for obvious reasons unnecessary to develope the Christian side of the question. No one in these days will deny that, taking the only view which it is fitting to take here, the purely human view of the subject, Christ and his disciples were right in preaching their religion at all risks. Apart from its supernatural claims, its history is their justification; the great majority of rational men now agree* that Christianity, taken as a whole and speaking broadly, has been a blessing to men. From it not all, but most of, the things which we value most highly have been derived.
Upon this it is needless to dwell. The Roman view of the subject from the time of Pontius Pilate to that of Diocletian requires more illustration. The substance of what the Romans did was to treat Christianity by fits and starts as a crime. As to the brutality of the punishments inflicted—crucifixion, burning, and judicial tortures—all that need be said is that it was the habit of the day. There does not seem to have been any particular difference made between the treatment of the three persons who were crucified on Calvary. What, then, was the position of the Roman authorities when they had to consider whether Christianity should be treated as a crime?
It has been often and truly pointed out that, humanly speaking, the establishment of the Roman Empire rendered Christianity possible, and brought about the ‘fulness of time’ at which it occurred. The Pax Romana gave to all the nations which surrounded the Mediterranean and to those which are bounded by the Rhine and the Danube benefits closely resembling those which British rule has conferred upon the enormous quadrangle which lies between the mountains on the northeast and northwest, and the Indian Ocean on the southeast and southwest. Peace reigned in the days of Pilate from York to Jerusalem, which are about as far from each other as Peshawur and Point de Galle, and from Alexandria to Antwerp, which are about the same distance as Kurrachee and the extreme east of Assam. This peace actually was, and the more highly educated Romans must have seen that it was about to become, the mother of laws, arts, institutions of all kinds, under which our own characters have been moulded. The Roman law, at that period as clumsy as English law is at present, but nearly as rich, sagacious, and vigorous, was taking root in all parts of the world under the protection of Roman armed force, and all the arts of life, literature, philosophy, and art were growing by its side. An Englishman must have a cold heart and a dull imagination who cannot understand how the consciousness of this must have affected a Roman governor. I do not envy the Englishman whose heart does not beat high as he looks at the scarred and shattered walls of Delhi or at the union jack flying from the fort at Lahore. Such sights irresistibly recall lines which no familiarity can vulgarize:
Think how such words, when as new and fresh as the best of Mr. Tennyson’s poems to us, must have come home to a Roman as he saw his sentries keeping guard on the Temple. The position of Pilate was not very unlike that of an English Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab. The resemblance would be still closer if for a lieutenant-governor we substitute a Resident with a strong armed force under his orders and Runjeet Singh by his side. At all events Pilate, more or less closely associated with a native ruler, was answerable for the peace probably of the most dangerous and important province of the empire. The history of the Jews shows what a nation they were. ‘A people terrible from the beginning,’ and most terrible of all in matters of religion. It would not be difficult, nor would it be altogether fanciful, to trace a resemblance between the manner in which they would strike Pilate and the manner in which the Afghans or the Sikhs strike us; and it may help us to appreciate Pilate’s position if we remember that, as we now look back upon the Indian mutiny, he, if he was observant and well informed, must have looked forward to that awful episode in Roman history which closed with the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the last vestiges of Jewish national independence. We may be very sure that the predictions that not one stone of the Temple should be left upon another, that the eagles should be gathered together, that there should be fire and blood and vapour of smoke, were not isolated. Pilate and his successors must have known that they sat on a volcano long before the explosion came. *
It was in such a state of things that Pilate learned that a prophet who for some years had been preaching in various parts of the province had entered Jerusalem with some of the circumstances which denote a powerful popular movement. Further he received from the priests, from the head of the established religion, complaints against the new religious reformer curiously like those which orthodox Mahommedans make against Wahabee preachers, or orthodox Sikhs against Kookas. As to the detail of the conduct which he pursued under these circumstances, we have not, I think, the materials for criticism. We know only one side of the story, and that side is told by men whose view of their position obviously is that they ought to submit with patient resignation to the deepest of all conceivable wrongs. Pilate’s reports to his superiors and copies of the information on which he acted, with descriptions by impartial observers of the state of feeling in Palestine at the time, would be absolutely essential to anything like a real judgment on what he did.
It may be true that he sacrificed one whom he believed to be an innocent man to pacify the priests. It may be that he was perfectly convinced that the step taken was necessary to the peace of the country, and he may have formed that opinion more or less rashly. On these points we are and shall forever continue to be as much in the dark as on the merits of the quarrel which he is said to have made up with Herod. We know nothing whatever about it, nor is it material to the present subject.
The point to which I wish to direct attention is that Pilate’s duty was to maintain peace and order in Judea and to uphold the Roman power. It is surely impossible to contend seriously that it was his duty, or that it could be the duty of anyone in his position, to recognise in the person brought to his judgment seat, I do not say God Incarnate, but the teacher and preacher of a higher form of morals and a more enduring form of social order than that of which he was himself the representative. To a man in Pilate’s position the morals and the social order which he represents are for all practical purposes final and absolute standards. If, in order to evade the obvious inference from this, it is said that Pilate ought to have respected the principle of religious liberty as propounded by Mr. Mill, the answer is that if he had done so he would have run the risk of setting the whole province in a blaze.* It is only in very modern times, and under the influence of modern sophisms, that belief and action have come to be so much separated in these parts of the world that the distinction between the temporal and spiritual department of affairs even appears to be tenable; but this is a point for future discussion.
If this should appear harsh, I would appeal again to Indian experience. Suppose that some great religious reformer—say, for instance, someone claiming to be the Guru of the Sikhs, or the Imam in whose advent many Mahommedans devoutly believe—were to make his appearance in the Punjab or the North-West Provinces. Suppose that there was good reason to believe—and nothing is more probable—that whatever might be the preacher’s own personal intentions, his preaching was calculated to disturb the public peace and produce mutiny and rebellion: and suppose further (though the supposition is one which it is hardly possible to make even in imagination), that a British officer, instead of doing whatever might be necessary, or executing whatever orders he might receive, for the maintenance of British authority, were to consider whether he ought not to become a disciple of the Guru or Imam. What course would be taken towards him? He would be instantly dismissed with ignominy from the service which he would disgrace, and if he acted up to his convictions, and preferred his religion to his Queen and country, he would be hanged as a rebel and a traitor.
But let us pass from Pilate to his successors, the various persecutors who at intervals opposed the progress of Christianity during the first three centuries of its history. The charge against them is that they interfered with liberty, that they exercised coercion otherwise than for the purpose of self-protection, that they ought to have acted with absolute indifference and complete toleration. That is certainly not the lesson which I should be inclined to draw from the history in question. It is, I think, altogether unjust to blame them for maintaining and defending their own view. The true charge is that they acted as if they had no such view to maintain; that, instead of offering an intelligent opposition to Christianity in so far as they deliberately thought it wrong, they inflicted on it occasional brutalities, proceeding from a blind instinct of fear and hatred, and unaccompanied by any sort of appreciation of the existence of the problems which Christianity was trying to solve. I should say that they were to blame quite as much for what they left undone as for what they did.
Neither Marcus Aurelius nor his successors were wrong in seeing that the Christian and the Roman ideas of life differed widely, that there was not room for both, and that the two systems must of necessity struggle. Their faults were these among others. In the first place, their treatment of Christianity was, as far as we can now judge, brutal and clumsy. They persecuted just enough to irritate their antagonists, to give them a series of moral victories, and not enough to crush and exterminate. Atrocious as an exterminating policy would have been, it would probably have succeeded, in the same miserable sense in which the Spanish Inquisition succeeded, but it would at all events have been intelligible. The guilt incurred would not have been incurred for nothing. It would not have defeated itself.
In the second place, they are to blame for not having recognised the patent fact that Christianity had an intensely strong hold on men, and for being debarred by their pride and other evil tempers from trying to discover its source. I do not say that the Roman emperors and governors ought all to have become Christians, but men worthy to be regarded as rulers of men ought to have studied Christianity with deep attention. If it appeared to them to be false, or to be true in part only, they ought to have treated it as false, or partially true, and to have made public and put on record the grounds on which they regarded other parts of it as false. It may sometimes be necessary for Governments to legislate directly against religions. It may often be necessary for them to adopt a policy indirectly unfavourable to them, but it never can be right or wise to trust in such matters to sheer brute force producing bodily fear. Governments ought not only to threaten, but to persuade and to instruct. The Romans ought to have had a great deal more faith in themselves and in their own principles of conduct than they ever showed. They ought not to have left the whole management of the human heart and soul in the hands of devotional passion. They should have stood forward as competitors with Christianity in the task of improving the world which they had conquered. They should have admitted fully and at once the truth of one most important side of the Christian religion, a side which has been far too much forgotten—I mean its negative side. They should have owned that idolatry had had its day, that the Gods of their Pantheon, whatever they might once have represented, were mere dead idols, lies in marble and gold. They should have dethroned Jupiter and his fellows, and stood forward frankly and honourably to meet the new creed upon its merits, resolved to learn, and no less resolved to teach, for they had much to teach. If they had met as enemies in this spirit, would they not have been generous enemies? If there had been strife, would it not have been a noble strife? Would the Christian priests and bishops, full of religious emotions, and ready, as the event showed, to degrade the human race by wild asceticism and to bewilder it with metaphysical dreams, have had nothing to learn from the greatest masters of every form of organised human effort, of law, of government, of war, and of morals that the world has ever seen? In point of fact we know that the Church did learn much from ancient Rome. It might have learned much more, it might have unlearned much, if the two great powers of the world had stood to each other in the attitude of generous opponents, each working its way to the truth from a different side, and not in the attitudes of a touching though slightly hysterical victim mauled from time to time by a sleepy tyrant in his intervals of fury. In short, the indifference of the Empire to the whole subject of religion, which had grown out of its plethora of wealth and power, was its real reproach.
This illustration of the way in which I look at the history of religious struggles is enough for my purpose. If it were thrown, as it easily might be, into a logical shape, it would show that the merits of the attitude of the Empire towards Christianity depend upon our estimate of the object in view, and the efficiency and expense of the means adopted to obtain it; but this is of little importance. The main fact to bear in mind is that there are and there must be struggles between creeds and political systems, just as there are struggles between different nations and classes if and in so far as their interests do not coincide. If Roman and Christian, Trinitarian and Arian, Catholic and Protestant, Church and State, both want the allegiance of mankind, they must fight for it. No peace is possible for men except upon one of two conditions. You may purchase absolute freedom by the destruction of all power, or you may measure the relative powers of the opposing forces by which men act and are acted upon, and conduct yourself accordingly. The first of these courses is death. The second is harmonious and well-regulated life; but the essence of life is force, the exertion of force implies a conflict of forces, and the conflict of forces is the negation of liberty in so far as either force restrains the other.*
It may very naturally be asked upon this, Do you then oppose yourself to the whole current of civilised opinion for three hundred years at least? Do you wish to go back to the Inquisition and the war which desolated the Netherlands and Germany for about eighty years? Is the whole theory and practice of English Liberalism a complete mistake, and are writers like de Maistre11 and his modern disciples and imitators our true guides?
To this I should answer most emphatically, No. I do not object to the practice of modern Liberals. Under great difficulties they have contrived to bring about highly creditable results, but their theories have presented those defects which are inseparable from the theories of a weak and unpopular party making its way towards power. They could persuade those whom they had to persuade only by discovering arguments to show how toleration could be reconciled with the admission of the absolute truth of religious dogmas. They had to disconnect religious liberty from scepticism, and it is pretty clear that they were not aware of the degree in which they really are connected. At all events, they avoided the admission of the fact by resting their case principally on the three following points, each of which would have its due weight upon the theory which I have stated:
The first point was that, though persecution silences, it does not convince, and that what is wanted is conviction and not acquiescence. This is an argument to show that persecution does not effect its purpose, and is answered, or at least greatly diminished in weight, by the consideration that, though by silencing A you do not convince A, you make it very much easier to convince B, and you protect B’s existing convictions against A’s influence.
The second point was that people will not be damned for bona-fide errors of opinion. This is an argument to show that a severe and bloody persecution is too high a price to pay for the absence of religious error.
The third point, which I am inclined to think was in practice the most powerful of all with the class who feel more than they think, was that to support religion by persecution is alien to the sentiment of most religions, and especially to that of the Christian religion, which is regarded as peculiarly humane. In so far as Christianity recognises and is founded on hell, this has always appeared to me to be an inconsistency, not in all cases unamiable when genuine, but weak and often hypocritical. Whatever its value may be, it falls under the same head as the second point. It is an argument to show that persecution is an excessive price to pay for religious uniformity.
The true inference from the commonplaces about the doubtfulness of religious theories, and the inefficacy of persecution as a means of obtaining the object desired except at a ruinous price, is to moderate the passions of the combatants, not to put an end to the fight. Make people understand that there are other objects in life than the attainment of religious truth; that they are so ignorant and so likely to be mistaken in their religious opinions that if they persecute at all they are as likely to persecute truth as falsehood; that in order to be effectual a persecution must be so powerful, so systematic, and so vigorously sustained as to crush, paralyse, and destroy; and that the result when obtained will probably be of exceedingly small importance, and perhaps mischievous as far as it goes, and you teach people not to live at peace, but to strive with moderation, and with a better appreciation of the character and importance of the contest, its intricacy, its uncertainty, and the difficulty of distinguishing friends from enemies, than is possible in simple times. Sceptical arguments in favour of moderation about religion are the only conclusive ones.
If it should be supposed that moderation would render controversy uninteresting or ineffective, it should be remembered that there is a confusion in common thought and language between brutality and efficiency. There is a notion that the severest, the most effectual contest is that in which the greatest amount of bodily injury is done by the side which wins to the side which loses; but this is not the case. When you want a fair and full trial of strength, elaborate precautions are taken to make the test real and to let the best man win. If prize-fighters were allowed to give foul blows and hit or kick a man when he is down, they would hurt each other more than they do, but their relative strength and endurance would be less effectually tested. So with religions; what is wanted is not peace, but fair play.
De Maistre somewhere says that the persecution which the Church had suffered from the syllogism was infinitely worse than all that racks and crosses could inflict; and the remark, though odd, is perfectly true. Modern religious struggles—conducted by discussion, by legislation, by social intolerance—are to the religious persecutions of earlier times what modern war is to ancient war. Ancient war meant to the defeated at best death, at worst slavery, exile, and personal degradation. Modern war is more effective, though the procedure is less brutal and degrading. Either the German or the French army in 1870–71 would have crushed the hordes which fought at Châlons or Tours as a steam-engine cracks a nut. The French armies were just as effectually defeated and disabled by the Germans as if the prisoners had been sold for slaves.
It is the same with controversy. Civil war, legal persecution, the Inquisition, with all their train of horrors, form a less searching and effective conflict than that intellectual warfare from which no institution, no family, no individual man is free when discussion is free from legal punishment. Argument, ridicule, the expression of contempt for cherished feelings, the exposure of cherished fallacies, chilled or wounded affection, injury to prospects public or private, have their terrors as well as more material weapons and more definite wounds. The result of such a warfare is that the weaker opinion—the less robust and deeply seated feeling—is rooted out to the last fibre, the place where it grew being seared as with a hot iron; whereas the prison, the stake, and the sword only strike it down, and leave it to grow again in better circumstances. A blow bruises, and discolours for a time. Nitrate of silver does not bruise, but it changes the colour of the whole body for its whole life. It is impossible to draw any definite line at which the sensation of pressure becomes painful. It may be a touch just sufficient to attract attention. It may inflict the most agonising pain in many different ways. It is the same with respect to the pain occasioned by treating a man’s opinions as false. The disagreement may be pleasant, it may be of trifling importance, it may cause intense pain, and this may be of many different kinds, the immediate causes of which are very various. Every mode of differing from a man which causes him pain infringes his liberty of thought to some extent. It makes it artificially painful for him to think in a certain way, and so violates Mr. Mill’s canon about liberty, unless it is done for self-protection, which is seldom the case. Mr. Mill’s doctrines about liberty of opinion and discussion appear to me to be a kind of Quakerism. They are like teaching that all revenge whatever, even in its mildest form, is wrong, because revenge carried to an extreme is destructive of society.
[1.]In On Liberty, this paragraph actually begins with: “And not only this, but, fourthly,. . .”
[*]Mr. Morley says: ‘Were not men assured by their own senses that the earth is a plain, and that the sun revolves around the earth?’
[2.]This is a paraphrase of 67/269 L.
[4.]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols, ed. J. T. McNeil and trans. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1: 251.
[5.]Ibid., p. 255.
[*]Upon this Mr. Morley observes: ‘Mr. Mill deliberately held that variety is good on the ground that it is the essential condition of the appearance and growth of those new ideas, new practices, new sentiments, some of which must contain the germs of all future improvements in the arts of existence. It shows an incapacity to understand the essence of the doctrine to deal with it by such statements as that it involves “a worship of mere variety.” It plainly does no such thing. Mr. Mill prizes variety, not at all as mere variety, but because it furnishes most chances of new forms of good presenting themselves and acquiring a permanent place. He prized that eccentricity which Mr. Stephen so heartily dislikes because he perceived that all new truth and new ways of living must from the nature of things always appear eccentric to persons accustomed to old opinions and old ways of living; because he saw that most of the personages to whom mankind owes its chief steps in moral and spiritual advance were looked upon by contemporaries as eccentrics, and very often cruelly ill treated by them (on Mr. Stephen’s principles) for eccentricity, which was in truth the very deliverance of humanity from error or imperfection. Not all novelties are improvements, but all improvements are novel, and you can only, therefore, be sure of improvements by giving eccentricity a fair hearing, and free room for as much active manifestation as does no near, positive, recognisable, harm to other people.’
[*]Act xxi. of 1850. Commonly, though not very correctly, called the ‘Lex Loci Act.’
[*]See Chap. III, p. 70.
[*]I have added the concluding words of this paragraph, and altered an inaccurate expression on the preceding page, because Mr. Morley appears to have thought that I meant to say that mere unity of belief was good apart from the truth of the matter believed. Mr. Morley adds: ‘It is no doubt true that unity in religious belief as in other things will slowly draw nearer as the results of the gradual acceptance by an increasing number of men of common methods of observing and interpreting experience. . . . but all the consequences of this quasi-unity may not prove to be beneficial or favourable to progress, nor is it at all clear . . . that unity of religious belief would further progress unless you replaced the discussion to which such unity would put an end by some other equally dividing subject of equal interest to an equal number of people.’
[7.]This important expression, one of which Stephen makes some use, is never found neat in Mill. See, however, 57/260–61 L and 81/281 L.
[*]It is perhaps necessary to observe that I am speaking in this place with no reference to the actual state of affairs in this country. The questions which I have in my mind will not arise at all until the great change in religious belief, of which we now witness the beginning, has gone much further and assumed a much more decided character than can be expected, say for a generation to come. It seems probable that in this country, and in most others, the next step will be the adoption of the principle of free churches, as they are called. It is a petty expedient, and will not, I think, last as long as the older ones.
[*]Mr. Mill’s account of the education which he received from his father shows that Mr. James Mill, at all events, did not shrink from the responsibility of deciding religious questions for his son. It leaves open, however, the question whether the son thanked his father for it. [John Stuart Mill, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. Robson, 33 vols (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–1991), vol. 1, Autobiography (1981), pp. 41, 43, 47, 49.]
[*]There is a statute, 9 Will. III. c. 35, which inflicts severe penalties on persons ‘who assert, or maintain, that there are more Gods than one, or deny the Christian religion to be true, or the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be of divine authority’; and blasphemy is an offence at common law. I believe the statute has never been enforced in modern times, and it ought to be repealed. The common law upon blasphemy has a curious history, which this is not the place to relate. It is singular that the statute does not punish the profession of Atheism.
[*]In the first edition I employed the word ‘real,’ but Mr. Morley objected to it on the ground that ‘arguments resting on a balance of expediencies, as shown through the experience of mankind, are real.’ The word ‘conclusive,’ no doubt, expresses my meaning better than ‘real.’ I did not use it in the first edition simply because I used the word ‘conclusions’ in the preceding and following lines.
[8.]John Stuart Mill, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. Robson, 33 vols (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–1991), vol. 1, Autobiography (1981), p. 147.
[*]This is one of the points on which I think that there was not really much difference between Mr. Mill and myself. I ground this opinion on a striking passage in Mr. Mill’s Autobiography, in which he describes his father’s feelings towards those with whom he disagreed. I have italicised the passages in which he does his best to distinguish his father’s sentiments from intolerance, and I would appeal to everyone’s experience of life on the question whether they are a more substantial barrier against it than a sheet of silver paper held before a blazing fire.
[9.]For Stephen’s relation to Hobbes, see editor’s foreword, pp. x–xi.
[*]In the first edition this sentence ran: ‘no rational man can doubt.’ I have made the alteration to satisfy the following characteristic criticism of Mr. Morley’s.
[10.]“Remember thou, O Roman, to rule nations with thy sway—these shall be thine arts—to crown Peace with Law, to spare the humbled, and to tame in war the proud.” Virgil, Aeneid, trans. H. R. Fairclough, 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), vol. 1, bk. 6, lines 851–53.
[*]Upon this passage Mr. Harrison founds this remark—‘Its rulers’ (i.e., the rulers of the Indian Empire) ‘feel, as Mr. Stephen complacently says, that they sit on a volcano,’—and on being remonstrated with, he justified his statement as being substantially, or, at all events, constructively true.
[*]Mr. Morley says upon this that I do not understand Mr. Mill. ‘Mr. Mill expressly lays down the limitation proper to the matter in a passage to which Mr. Stephen appears not to have paid attention. “Even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute a positive investigation to the mischievous act.”’ I think it is Mr. Morley, in this case, who misunderstands my argument, or rather does not think it worth while to understand it. The passage quoted from Mr. Mill is in substance only a way of saying that you may throw the abetment of a crime into the form of the expression of an opinion. No doubt you may do so. You may also throw it into the form of the statement of a fact, as was done by the courtier of Ahasuerus, who, when Haman got into disgrace, casually observed, ‘Behold, also, the gallows which Haman has set up.’ My argument upon Pilate’s case is that the mere preaching of a religion which relates principally to matters of belief and self-regarding acts may, under circumstances, tend to disturb the existing social order. If in that case the representatives of the existing social order persecute the religion it appears to me that the question whether they are right or wrong depends on the comparative merits of the religion which is persecuted and the social order which persecutes. Whether Pilate was right in thinking that what took place in Judea threatened social order directly or indirectly we cannot tell, but it was his business by all means to protect social order. This is directly opposed to the whole of Mr. Mill’s chapter about the liberty of discussion.
[*]In the first edition this was expressed obscurely, and in terms which were rather too wide. I have to thank a critic in the Spectator for pointing this out, though I do not think his criticisms were just.
[11.]Stephen had an interest in modern French political thought generally and in Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) in particular. See Stephen’s reviews of several of de Maistre’s works in Horae Sabbaticae, vol. 3, pp. 250–324.
L. S. refers to Leslie Stephen, the younger brother of Fitzjames Stephen.