Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION II.: OF SINCERITY - An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. I.
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SECTION II.: OF SINCERITY - William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. I. 
An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, vol. 1 (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1793).
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nature of this virtue.—its effects—upon our own actions—upon our neighbours.—its tendency to produce fortitude.—effects of insincerity.—character which sincerity would acquire to him whopractiseditx2014objectionsctions.—the fear of giving unnecessary pain.—answer.—the desire of preserving my life.—this objection proves too much.—answer.—secrecy considered.—the secrets of others.—state secrets.—secrets of philanthropy.
Section II. Nature of this virtueIT is evident in the last place, thata strict adherence to truth will have the best effectupon our minds in the ordinary commerce of life. Thisis the virtue which has commonly been known by thedenomination of sincerity; and, whatever certain accommodatingmoralists may teach us, the value of sincerityBOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. willbe in the highest degree obscured, when it is not complete.Real sincerity deposes me from all authority over thestatement of facts. Similar to the duty which Tullyimposes upon the historian, it compels me not to dare “toutter what is false, or conceal what is true.” Itannihilates the bastard prudence, which would instructme to give language to no sentiment that may be prejudicialto my interests. It extirpates the low and selfishprinciple, which would induce me to utter nothing “tothe disadvantage of him from whom I have received noinjury.” It compels, me to regard the concernsof my species as my own concerns. What I know of truth,of morals, of religion, of government, it compels meto communicate. All the praise which a virtuous manand an honest action can merit, I am obliged to payto the uttermost mite. I am obliged to give languageto all the blame to which profligacy, venality, hypocrisyand circumvention are so justly entitled. I am notempowered to conceal any thing I know of myself, whetherit tend to my honour or to my disgrace. I am obligedto treat every other man with equal frankness, withoutdreading the imputation of flattery on the one hand,without dreading his resentment and enmity on the other.
Did every man impose this law upon himself, he would beIts effects upon our own actions: obliged to consider before he decided upon the commission of an equivocal action, whether he chose to be his own historian, to BOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. be the future narrator of the scene in which he was engaging. It has been justly observed that the popish practice of auricular confession has been attended with some salutary effects. How much better would it be, if, instead of a practice thus ambiguous, and which may be converted into so dangerous an engine of ecclesiastical despotism, every man would make the world his confessional, and the human species the keeper of his conscience?
upon our neighbours How extensive an effect would be produced, if every man were sure of meeting in his neighbour the ingenuous censor, who would tell to himself, and publish to the world, his virtues, his good deeds, his meannesses and his follies? I have no right to reject any duty, because it is equally incumbent upon my neighbours, and they do not practise it. When I have discharged the whole of my duty, it is weakness and vice to make myself unhappy about the omissions of others. Nor is it possible to say how much good one man sufficiently rigid in his adherence to truth would effect. One such man, with genius, information and energy, might redeem a nation from vice.
Its tendency to produce fortitude The consequence to myself of telling every man the truth, regardless of personal danger or of injury to my interests in the world, would be uncommonly favourable. I should acquire a fortitude that would render me equal to the most trying situations, that would maintain my presence of mind entire in spite of unexpected occurrences, that would furnish me with extemporaryBOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. arguments and wisdom, and endue my tongue with irresistible eloquence. Animated by the love of truth, my understanding would always be vigorous and alert, not as before frequently subject to listlessness, timidity and insipidity. Animated by the love of truth, and by a passion inseparable from its nature, and which is almost the same thing under another name, the love of my species, I should carefully seek for such topics as might most conduce to the benefit of my neighbours, anxiously watch the progress of mind, and incessantly labour for the extirpation of prejudice.
What is it that at this day enables a thousand errors to keepEffects of insincerity their station in the world, priestcraft, tests, bribery, war, cabal, and whatever else is the contempt and abhorrence of the enlightened and honest mind? Cowardice. Because, while vice walks erect with an unabashed countenance, men less vicious dare not paint her with that truth of colouring, which should at once confirm the innocent and reform the guilty. Because the majority of those who are not involved in the busy scene, and who, possessing some discernment, see that things are not altogether right, yet see in so frigid a way, and with so imperfect a view. Many, who detect the imposture, are yet absurd enough to imagine that imposture is necessary to keep the world in awe, and that truth being too weak to curb the turbulent passions of mankind, it is exceedingly proper to call in knavery and artifice as the abettors of her power. If every man to-day BOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. would tell all the truth he knows, three years hence there would be scarcely a falshood of any magnitude remaining in the civilised world.
Character which sincerity would acquire to him who practised it There is no fear that the character here described should degenerate into ruggedness and brutality* . The motive by which it is animated affords a sufficient security against such consequences. “I tell an unpleasant truth to my neighbour from a conviction that it is my duty. I am convinced it is my duty, because I perceive the communication is calculated for his benefit.” His benefit therefore is the motive of my proceeding, and with such a motive it is impossible I should not seek to communicate it in the most efficacious form, not rousing his resentment, but awakening his moral feelings and his energy. Meanwhile the happiest of all qualifications in order to render truth palatable, is that which rises spontaneously in the situation we have been considering. Truth according to the terms of the supposition is to be spoken from the love of truth. But the face, the voice, the gesture are so many indexes to the mind. It is scarcely possible therefore that the person with whom I am conversing should not perceive, that I am influenced by no malignity, acrimony and envy. In proportion as my motive is pure, at least after a few experiments, my manner will become unembarrassed. There will be frankness in my voice, fervour in my gesture, and kindness in my heart. That man's mind must be of a very perverse texture, that can convert a beneficent potionBOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. administered with no ungenerous retrospect, no selfish triumph, into rancour and aversion. There is an energy in the sincerity of a virtuous mind that nothing human can resist.
I stop not to consider the objections of the man who is immersedObjections in worldly prospects and pursuits. He that does not know that virtue is better than riches or title must be convinced by arguments foreign to this place.
But it will be asked, “What then, are painful truths to be disclosedThe fear of giving unnecessary pain to persons who are already in the most pitiable circumstances? Ought a woman that is dying of a fever to be informed of the fate of her husband whose skull has been fractured by a fall from his horse?”
The most that could possibly be conceded to a case like this,Answer is, that this perhaps is not the moment to begin to treat like a rational being a person who has through the course of a long life been treated like an infant. But in reality there is a mode in which under such circumstances truth may safely be communicated; and, if it be not thus done, there is perpetual danger that it may be done in a blunter way by the heedless loquaciousness of a chambermaid, or the yet undebauched sincerity of an infant. How many arts of hypocrisy, stratagem and falshood must be employed to cover this pitiful secret? Truth was calculated in BOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. the nature of things to discipline the mind to fortitude, humanity and virtue. Who are we, that we should subvert the nature of things and the system of the universe, that we should breed up a set of summer insects, upon which the breeze of sincerity may never blow, and the tempest of misfortune never beat?
The desire of preserving my life “But truth may sometimes be fatal to him that speaks it. A man, who fought for the Pretender in the year 1745, when the event happened that dispersed his companions, betook himself to solitary flight. He fell in with a party of loyalists who were seeking to apprehend him; but not knowing his person, they enquired of him for intelligence to guide them in their pursuit. He returned an answer calculated to cherish them in their mistake, and saved his life.”
This objection proves too much This like the former is an extreme case; but the true answer will probably be found to be the same. If any one should question this, let him consider how far his approbation of the conduct of the person above cited would lead him. The rebels, as they were called, were treated in the period from which the example is drawn with the most illiberal injustice. This man, guided perhaps by the most magnanimous motives in what he had done, would have been put to an ignominious death. But, if he had a right to extricate himself by falshood, why not the wretch who has been guilty of forgery, who has deserved punishment, but who may now be conscious that he has in him materials and inclination to make a valuable member of society?BOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. Nor is the inclination an essential part of the supposition. Where-ever the materials exist, it will perhaps be found to be flagrantly unjust on the part of society to destroy them, instead of discovering the means by which they might be rendered innocent and useful. At this rate, a man has nothing to do but to commit one crime, in order to give him a right to commit a second which shall secure impunity to the first.
But why, when so many hundred individuals have been contentedAnswer to become martyrs to the unintelligible principles of a pitiful sect, should not the one innocent man I have been describing be contented to offer himself up a victim at the shrine of veracity? Why should he purchase a few poor years of exile and misery by the commission of falshood? Had he surrendered himself to his pursuers, had he declared in the presence of his judges and his country, “I, whom you think too wicked and degenerate to deserve even to live, have chosen rather to encounter your injustice than be guilty of an untruth: I would have escaped from your iniquity and tyranny if I had been able; but, hedged in on all sides, having no means of deliverance but in falshood, I chearfully submit to all that your malice can inflict rather than violate the majesty of truth:” would he not have done an honour to himself, and afforded an example to the world, that would have fully compensated the calamity of his untimely death? It is in all cases incumbent upon us to dis BOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. charge our own duty, without being influenced by the enquiry whether other men will discharge or neglect theirs.
It must be remembered however that this is not the true jet of the argument. The stress does not lie upon the good he would have done: that is precarious. This heroic action, as it is to be feared has been the case with many others, might be consigned to oblivion. The object of true wisdom under the circumstances we are considering, is to weigh, not so much what is to be done, as what is to be avoided. We must not be guilty of insincerity. We must not seek to obtain a desirable object by vile means. We must prefer a general principle to the meretricious attractions of a particular deviation. We must perceive in the preservation of that general principle a balance of universal good, outweighing the benefit to arise in any instance from superseding it. It is by general principles that the business of the universe is carried on. If the laws of gravity and impulse did not make us know the consequences of our actions, we should be incapable of judgment and inference. Nor is this less true in morals. He that, having laid down to himself a plan of sincerity, is guilty of a single deviation, infects the whole, contaminates the frankness and magnanimity of his temper (for fortitude in the intrepidity of lying is baseness), and is less virtuous than the foe against whom he defends himself; for it is more virtuous in my neighbour to confide in my apparent honesty, than in me to abuse his confidence. In the case of mar tyrdom there are two things to be considered. It is an evil notBOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. wantonly to be incurred, for we know not what good yet remains for us to do. It is an evil not to be avoided at the expence of principle, for we should be upon our guard against setting an inordinate value upon our own efforts, and imagining that truth would die, if we were to be destroyed.
“But what becomes of the great duty of secrecy, which theSecrecy considered incomparable Fenelonhas made a capital branch in the education of his Telemachus?” It is annihilated.It becomes a truly virtuous man not to engage in any action of which he wouldbe ashamed though all the world were spectator. Indeed Fenelon with all his abilityhas fallen into the most palpable inconsistency upon this subject. In Ithacaa considerable part of the merit of Telemachus consists in keeping his mother'ssecrets* .When he arrives in Tyre, he will not be persuaded to commit or suffer a deception,though his life was apparently at stake† .
What is it of which an honest man is commonly ashamed? Of virtuous poverty, of doing menial offices for himself, of having raised himself by merit from a humble situation, and of a thousand particulars which in reality constitute his glory. With respect to actions of beneficence we cannot be too much upon our guard against a spirit of ostentation and the character that imperiously exacts the gratitude of its beneficiaries; but it is certainly an extreme weakness to desire to hide our deserts. So BOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. far from desiring to withhold from the world the knowledge of our good deeds, we ought to be forward to exhibit an attractive and illustrious example. We cannot determine to keep any thing secret without risking at the same time to commit a hundred artifices, quibbles, equivocations and falshoods.
The secrets of others. But the secrets of others, “have I a power over them?” Probably not: but you have a duty respecting them. The facts with which you are acquainted are a part of your possessions, and you are as much obliged respecting them as in any other case, to employ them for the public good. Have I no right to indulge in myself the caprice of concealing any of my affairs, and can another man have a right by his caprice to hedge up and restrainState secrets the path of my duty?—“But state secrets?” This perhaps is a subject that ought not to be anticipated. We shall have occasion to enquire how ministers of the concerns of a nation came by their right to equivocate, to juggle and over-reach, while private men are obliged to be ingenuous, direct and sincere.
Secrets of philanthropy There is one case of a singular nature that seems to deserve a separate examination; the case of secrets that are to be kept for the sake of mankind. Full justice is done to the affirmative side of this argument by Mr. Condorcet in his Life of Voltaire, where he is justifying this illustrious friend of mankind, for his gentleness and forbearance in asserting the liberties of the species. He first enumerates the incessant attacks of Voltaire upon superstition,BOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. hypocritical austerities and war; and then proceeds: “It is true, the more men are enlightened, the more they will be free; but let us not put despots on their guard, and incite them to form a league against the progress of reason. Let us conceal from them the strict and eternal union that subsists between knowledge and liberty. Voltaire thought proper to paint superstition as the enemy of monarchy, to put kings and princes upon their guard against the gloomy ferocity and ambition of the priesthood, and to demonstrate that, were it not for the freedom of thought and investigation, there would be no security against the return of papal insolence, of proscriptions, assassinations and religious war. Had he taken the other side of the question, had he maintained, which is equally true, that superstition and ignorance are the support of despotism, he would only have anticipated truths for which the public were not ripe, and have seen a speedy end to his career. Truth taught by moderate degrees gradually enlarges the intellectual capacity, and insensibly prepares the equality and happiness of mankind; but taught without prudential restraint would either be nipped in the bud, or occasion national concussions in the world, that would be found premature and therefore abortive* .”
BOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. What a cowardly distrust do reasonings like these exhibit of the omnipotence of truth! With respect to personal safety, it will be found upon an accurate examination that Voltaire with all his ingenuity and stratagem was for sixty years together the object of perpetual, almost daily persecution from courts and ministers* . He was obliged to retire from country to country, and at last to take advantage of a residence upon the borders of two states with a habitation in each. His attempts to secure the patronage of princes led only to vicissitude and disgrace. If his plan had been more firm and direct, he would not have been less safe. Timidity, and an anxious endeavour to secure to ourselves a protector, invite persecution. With the advantages of Voltaire, with his talents and independence, he might have held the tyrants of the world in awe.
As to the progress of truth, it is not so precarious as its fearfulBOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. friends may imagine. Mr. Condorcet has justly insinuated in the course of his argument, that “in the invention of printing is contained the embryo, which in its maturity and vigour is destined to annihilate the slavery of the human race* .” Books, if proper precautions be employed, cannot be destroyed. Knowledge cannot be extirpated. Its progress is silent, but infallible; and he is the most useful soldier in this war, who accumulates in an unperishable form the greatest mass of truth.
As truth has nothing to fear from her enemies, she needs not have any thing to fear from her friends. The man, who publishes the sublimest discoveries, is not of all others the most likely to inflame the vulgar, and hurry the great question of human happiness to a premature crisis. The object to be pursued undoubtedly is, the gradual improvement of mind. But this end will be better answered by exhibiting as much truth as possible, enlightening a few, and suffering knowledge to expand in the proportion which the laws of nature and necessity prescribe, than by any artificial plan of piecemeal communication that we can invent. There is in the nature of things a gradation in discovery and a progress in improvement, which do not need to be assisted by the stratagems of their votaries. In a word, there cannot be a more unworthy idea, than that truth and virtue should be BOOK IV. CHAP. IV. Section II. under the necessity of seeking alliance with concealment. The man, who would artfully draw me into a little, that by so doing he may unawares surprise me into much, I infallibly regard as an impostor. Will truth, contracted into some petty sphere and shorn of its beams, acquire additional evidence? Rather let me trust to its omnipotence, to its congeniality with the nature of intellect, to its direct and irresistible tendency to produce liberty, and happiness, and virtue. Let me fear that I have not enough of it, that my views are too narrow to produce impression, and anxiously endeavour to add to my stock; not apprehend that, exhibited in its noon-day brightness, its lustre and genial nature should not be universally confessed* .
[*]See a particular case of this sincerity discussed in Appendix, No. II.
[*]Telémaque. Liv. XVI.
[*]“Plus les hommes seront éclairés, plus ils seront libres. - Mais n'avertissons point les oppresseurs de former une ligue contre la raison, cachons leur l'étroite et nécessoire unions des lumières et de la liberté. - Quel sera donc le devoir d'un philosophe? - Il éclairera les gouvernemens sur tout ce qu'ils ont à craindre des prêtres. - Ils sera voir que sans la liberté de penser le même esprit dans la clergé ramènerait les mêmes assassinats, les mêmes supplices, les mêmes proscriptions, les mêmes guerres civiles. - Au lieu de montrer que la superstition est l'appui du despotisme, avant que la raison ait rassemblé assez de force, il prouvera qu'elle est l'ennemie des rois. - Tel est l'esprit de tous les ouvrages de Voltaire. - Que des hommes, inferieurs à lui, ne voyent pas que si Voltaire eῦt fait autrement, ni Montesquieu ni Rousseau n'auraient pu écrire leurs ourvrages, que l'Europe serait encore superstitieuses, et resterait long-tems esclave. - En attaquant les oppresseurs avant d'avoir éclairé les citoyens, on risque de perdre la liberté et d'étouffer la raison. L'histoire offre la preuve de cette vérité. Combien de fois, malgré les généreux efforts des amis de la liberté, une seule bataille n'a-t-elle pas réduit des nations à une servitude de plusieurs siècles! - Pourquoi ne pas profiter de cette expérience funeste, et savoir attendre des progrès des lumières une liberté plus réelle, plus durable et plus paisible?”
[*]Vie de Voltaire, par M***, throughout.
[*]“Peut-être avant l'invention de l'imprimerie était-il impossible à se soustraire au joug.”
[*]See this subject farther pursued in Appendix, No. III.