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has three sides and three angles, though I do not examine
the exact nature of the angles and the relations and the
proportions of the sides ; or of an object which has the
shape and some property, for instance a bowsprit, of a
ship, though I do not stop to render my ideas more dis-
tinct, leaving the masts unexamined and indefinite ; or of a
man of whom I see an indistinct outline, but not suffi-
cient to enable me to say whether he is tall or short,
black or white, but merely that he has the human form.

To take another illustration. When the words ' House
of Commons ' are pronounced, some one idea is called
up first, and then perhaps another and another. It is
quite a matter of accident what the first idea may be.
It may be the Speaker, or the mace, or the Sergeant-
at-arms, or it may be Mr. Cobden making a certain
speech in the House of Commons, which I heard him


make, and in wliich, from liavinj^^ consumed much time
and labour in furnishing the materials of an important
portion of it, I took a particular interest. But I cannot
see that by any process of association of ideas the
words call up to me not only the ideas of all the
individual members of that House Avhom I have person-
ally known, but likewise all those who are known
to me by the history of the last five hundred years.
The word ' indistinctness ' serves to explain the difficulty
which puzzled the Realists and the Nominalists, the
former seeking the explanation in a very simple idea, the
latter in no idea at all. Neither does the general name
call up, as far as I can see, ' an indefmite number of ideas,' ^
as James Mill says, but merely one indistinct idea. And
this very indistinctness is the characteristic of that idea
which renders it fit to perform its business.

A comparison of James Mill's ' Essay on Government *
with Hobbes's political system suggests some curious
reflections. If, as has been asserted by a writer of
authority, Mr. J. S. Mill, history is of no use towards
political science without the principles of human nature
to explain it, how comes it, it may be asked, that Hobbes
and James Mill, who found their political systems on the
same system of morals, namely the selfish system,^ as it
is termed in contradistinction to the sentimental system,
of morals, should have come to such difierent conclusions ?
I can see no other explanation of this difierence but that
James Mill, though he professes to reason not from history

^ Analysis, ii. 207.

^ Hobbes says (Do Oorpore Politico, p. 104) ' every man's end being some
good to himself; ' and the objection made to James Mill's Essay on Goveni-
ment is that it is based on the proposition that the actions of men in power
are determined by their personal interest.


but from human nature, had a more extensive and more
accurate knowledge of history than Hobbes ; for the
principles of human nature assumed by both were not
different, but the same or nearly so. Moreover Hobbes's
moral system could not, according to the assertion of Sir
James Mackmtosh, have been established for the sake of
his pohtical ; since, as James Mil observes, ' there is no
peculiar fitness, in what is called the selfish system of
morals, to form the groundwork of the despotic system of
government. Tlie sentimental system of morals is far
better adapted to that end, and far more frequently
worked with a view of its accomplishment.' ^ We are
thus led to the conclusion that the difference between the
results obtained by James Mill in his speculations on
o-overnment and the results obtained by Hobbes arose
from the difference in their knowledge of historical truth.
Mill indeed says in his ' Essay on Government,' that the
evidence of history is inconclusive, and proceeds to draw
his conclusions from the selfish system of morals ; which
Mr. J. S. Mill objects to, as well as Sir James Mackintosh
and Lord Macaulay. It is a complicated problem ; and
if we cannot hope for a complete solution of it, some
of the considerations connected with it may tend to
show that James Mill was nearly as far as Hobbes had
been from setting the question of government at rest for

James Mill, in his 'Essay on Government,' after statmg
the argument in favour of monarchy, that the smaller the
number of hands to which the powers of government are
committed, the less are the members of the community

* Mill's Fragment on Mackintosh, p. 38.


liuble to plunder and oppression, and that an oligarcliy,
therefore, is better tlian an aristocracy, and a monarcliy
better than either, thus proceeds : —

' This view of the subject deserves to be more carefully
considered, because the conclusion to which it leads is
the same with that which has been adopted and promul-
gated by some of the most profound and most benevolent
investigators of human affairs. That government by one
man, altogether unlimited and uncontrolled, is better than
government by any modification of aristocracy, is the
celebrated opinion of Hobbes, and of the French Econo-
mists, supported on reasonings which it is not easy to
controvert. Government by the many they considered
an impossibility. They inferred, therefore, that, of all
the possible forms of government, absolute monarchy is
the best.

' Experience, if we look only at the outside of the facts,

appears to be divided on this subject As the

surface of history aflbrds, therefore, no certain principle
of decision, we must go beyond the surface, and penetrate
to the springs within.

' When it is said that one man, or a limited number of
men, will soon be satiated with the objects of desire, and,
when they have taken from the community what suffices
to satiate them, will protect its members in the enjoy-
ment of the remainder, an important element of tlie
calculation is left out. Human beings are not a passive
substance. If human beings, in respect to their rulers, were
the same as sheep in respect to their shepherd ; and if the
king, or the aristocracy, were as totally exempt from all fear
of resistance from the people, and all chance of obtaining
more obedience from severity, as the shepherd in the case of


the sheep, it does appear that there would be a limit to
the motive for taking to one's self the objects of desire.
The case will be found to be very much altered when tbe
idea is taken into the account, first, of the resistance to
his will which one human being may expect from
another ; and secondly, of that perfection in obedience
which fear alone can produce.

' That one human being will desire to render the
person and property of another subservient to his
pleasures, notwithstanding the pain or loss of pleasure
which it may occasion to that other individual, is the
foundation of government. The desire of the object im-
plies the desire of the powers necessary to accomplish the
object. The desire, therefore, of that power which is
necessary to render the persons and properties of human
beings subservient to our pleasures, is a grand governing
law of human nature.

' What is implied in that desire of power, and what
is the extent to which it carries the actions of men, are
the questions which it is necessary to resolve, in order to
discover the limit which nature has set to the desire, on
the part of a king or an aristocracy, to inflict evil upon
the community for their own advantage.'

Mill then goes through an analysis which tends to the
conclusion that it is not true that there is, in the mind
of a king, or in the minds of an aristocracy, any point of
saturation with the objects of desire. 'We have seen,'
he says, ' that the very principle of human nature upon
which the necessity of government is founded, the pro-
pensity of one man to possess himself of the objects of
desire at the cost of another, leads on, by infallible
sequence, where power over a community is attained,


and nothing checks, not only to that degree of plunder
which leaves the members (excepting always the re-
cipients and instruments of the plunder) the bare means
of subsistence, but to that degree of cruelty which is
necessary to keep in existence the most intense terror.'

Mill then comes to the further conclusion that the
only remedy is in the doctrine of checks ; that the repre-
sentative system, ' the grand discovery of modern times,'
he calls it truly, alone furnishes efficient checks against
bad, and efficient securities for good government. In
another of his works James Mill says tliat ' Plato, seeing
clearly the necessity of identifying the interests of the
guardians [or governors] with the interests of the guarded
[or governed], bent the whole force of his penetrating
mind to discover the means of effi^cting such identifica-
tion ; but being ignorant, as all the ancients were, of the
divine principle of representation, found himself obliged
to have recourse to extraordinary methods.' ^

Hobbes's 'Leviathan' was attacked chiefly by republi-
can and sacerdotal opponents. ' Every young churchman-
miUtant,' says Warburton, ' would try his arms in thun-
dering on Hobbes's steel cap.''"^ James Mill's 'Essay on
Government' has been assailed by opponents quite as
formidable as any of those who tried their arms in thun-
dering on Hobbes's steel cap. One of these was Sir
James Mackintosh ; another was Mr. T. B. Macaulay,
afterwards Lord Macaulay.

Sir James Mackintosh says : — ' Mr. Mill derives the
whole theory of government from the single fact that
every man pursues his own interest, when he knows it ;

* Fragment on Mackintosh, p. 280.
' Divine Legation, vol. ii. p. 9, preface.


ivhicli lie assumes to be a sort of self-evident practical
principle, if such a phrase be not contradictory. That a
man's pursuing the interest of another, or indeed any-
other object in nature, is just as conceivable as that he
should pursue his own interest, is a proposition v^hich
seems never to have occurred to this acute and ingenious
writer. Nothing, however can be more certain than its
truth, if the term interest be employed in its proper sense
of general well-being, which is the only acceptation in
which it can serve the purpose of his arguments. If in-
deed the term be employed to denote the gratification of
a predominant desire, his proposition is self-evident, but
wholly unserviceable in his argument ; for it is clear that
individuals and multitudes often desire what they know
to be most inconsistent with their general welfare. A
nation, as much as an individual, and sometimes more,
may not only mistake its interest, but, perceiving it
clearly, may prefer the gratification of a strong passion to
it. The whole fabric of his political reasoning seems to
be overthrown by this single observation ; and instead of
attempting to explain the immense variety of political
facts, by the simple principle of a contest of interest, we
are reduced to the necessity of once more referring them
to that variety of passions, habits, opinions, and pre-
judices, which we discover only by experience.

In a note Sir James Mackintosh says : ' The same mode
of reasoning has been adopted by the writer of a late
criticism on Mr. Mill's Essay. See Edinburgh Eeview,
No. XCVII., March 1829.'

The criticism referred to is by Mr., afterwards Lord
Macaulay ; and though it was not republished by the
author himself, he says in the preface to the essays pub-


lished by himself, that he is ' not disposed to retract a
single doctrinQ which that criticism contains.'

Lord Macaiilay has thus announced his views as to the
proper method of philosophising on tliis subject : —

' How, then, are we to arrive at just conclusions on a
subject so important to the happiness of mankind?
Surely by that method which, in every experimental
science to which it has been applied, has signally in-
creased the power and knowledge of our species, — by that
method for which our new philosophers would substitute
quibbles scarcely worthy of the barbarous respondents and
opponents of the middle ages, — by the method of Induc-
tion ; — by observing the present state of the world, — by
assiduously studying the history of past ages, — by sifting
the evidence of facts, — by carefully coml)ining and con-
trasting those which are authentic, — by generalizing with
judgment and diffidence, — by perpetually bringing the
theory which we have constructed to the test of new facts,

by correcting, or altogether abandoning it, according as

those new facts prove it to be partially or fundamentally
unsound. Preceding thus, — patiently, — diligently, — can-
didly, we may hope to form a system as far inferior in

pretension to that which we have been examining, and as
far superior to it in real utility, as the prescriptions of a
great physician, varying with every stage of every malady,
and with the constitution of every patient, to the pill of
the advertising quack, which is to cure all human beings,
in all climates, of all diseases.'

And again : —

' The latent principle of good government ought to be
trucked, as it appears to us, in tlie same manner in \\\\\c\\
Lord Bacon proposed to track the principle of heat.


Make as large a list as possible, said that great man, of
those bodies in which, however widely they differ from
each other in appearance, we perceive heat ; and as large
a list as possible of those which, while they bear a general
resemblance to hot bodies, are nevertheless not hot.
Observe the different degrees of heat,' &c.

But, as General Perronet Thompson has said, in the
Westminster Eeview, No. XXIII., January 1830, ' there
is no need for going through all that has been said by
the great man. The latent principle had been tracked by
]\Ir. Mill long ago, and uttered in one word, ' check.' It
consists in the possession of the virtual power of inter-
ference on the part of the governed.'

There is also the less need, inasmuch as the great man
was by no means eminently successful in the application
of his own precepts in the matter of Induction. We have
been told by Lord Macaulay about the utility of the pre-
scriptions of a great physician ; and that reminds us of the
opinion of a great physician and philosopher, of whom
Hobbes said ' he is the only man, perhaps, that ever lived
to see his own doctrine established in his lifetime,' ^ which
does not quite agree with that of Lord Macaulay res-
pecting the great man, his brother peer. Dr. William
Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, 'had
been physician to the Lord Chancellor Bacon, whom he
esteemed much for his wit and style, but would not allow
him to be a great philosopher. Said he to me, "He

1 Aubrey's Lives, vol. ii. p. 383. Aubrey's words are ' as Mr. Hobbes
says in bis book De Corpore.' There is an allusion to Harvey in Hobbes's
work De Corpore (not bis work De Corpore Politico) Latin- Works, vol. i.
p. 201 ; but Hobbes says nothing there like the words which Aubrey here
imputes to him. Aubrey probably had heard Hobbes say this in conver-


writes philosophy like a Lord Chancellor," speaking in

Harvey did not need Bacon's precepts to teach him to
philosophise any more than Hobbes and Newton needed
them to teach them to philosophise; and as he saw that
Bacon's own attempts ' to track the piinciple of heat '
were very far from being so successful as his own attempts
to track the principle of the circulation of the blood, he
probably underrated the value of Bacon's precepts. But
he did not in this evince a greater misapprehension of the
true value of Bacon's precepts than Sir James Mackintosh
and Lord Macaulay, to whose appeals to the authority
of Bacon the following observations are strikingly appli-

' The laws of the phenomena of society are, and can
be, nothing but the laws of the actions and passions of
human beings united together in the social state. Men,
however, in a state of society, are still men ; their ac-
tions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual
human nature. Men are not, when broufi-ht tosether,
converted into another kind of substance, with different
properties ; as hydrogen and oxygen are different from

' Aubrey's Lives, vcl, ii. p. 381. It is observable that Hobbes quotes
Galileo and Harvey ; but I have never met, to the best of my recollection,
with any reference to Bacon in the writings of Hobbes, who had sometimes
acted as Bacon's amanuensis. ' The Lord Chancellor Bacon,' says Aubrev,
* loved to converse with him [Hobbes]. He assisted his lordship in trans-
lating several of his essays into Latin ; one I well remember is that, Of the
Greatness of Cities : the rest I have forgot. His lordship was a very con-
templative person, and was wont to contemplate in his delicious walks at
Gorambery, and dictate to Mr. Bushell, or some other of his gentlemen, that
attended him with ink and paper ready to set down presently his thoughts.
His lordship would often say that he better liked Mr. Hobbes's taking his
thoughts than any of the others, because he understood what he wrote,
which the others not understanding, my lord would many times have a hard
task to make sense of what they writ.' — Auhrcy^s Lives, vol. ii. pp. 602, 00^.

126 ESSAYS o:y historical truth.

water, or as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and azote, are
different from nerves, muscles, and tendons. Human
beinf^s in society have no properties but those which are
derived from, and may be resolved into, the laws of the
nature of individual man. In social phenomena the Com-
position of Causes is the universal law.

' Now, the method of philosophising which may be
termed chemical overlooks this fact, and proceeds as if
the nature of man as an individual were not concerned at
all, or concerned in a very inferior degree, in the opera-
tions of man in society. All reasoning in politics or social
affairs, grounded upon principles of human nature, is ob-
jected to by reasoners of this sort, under such names as
" abstract theory." For governing their opinions and con-
duct, they profess to demand, in all cases without excep-
tion, specific experience.

' This mode of thinking is not only general with
practitioners in politics, and with that very numerous
class who (on a subject which no one, however ignorant,
thinks himself incompetent to discuss ^) profess to guide
themselves by common sense rather than by science, but
is often countenanced by persons with greater pretensions
to instruction, persons who having sufficient acquaintance
with books and with the current ideas to have heard that
Bacon taught men to follow experience, and to ground
their conclusions upon facts instead of metaphysical

1 i '

The lawyer, with great gravity, delivered himself as follows : — " If the
case bo put of a partridge, there can be no doubt but an action would lie :
for though that be ferte naturfp,, yet being reclaimed, property vests j but
this being the case of a singing-bird, though reclaimed, as it is a thing of a
base nature, it must be considered as nullius in bonis." " Well," says the
squire, "if it be nullum bonus, let us drink about, and talk a little of the
state of the nation, or some such discourse that we all understand." ' —
Fielding's Tom Jones.


dogmas, think tliat by troatiiif^ political facts in as
directly experimental a method as chemical facts, they
are showing themselves true Baconians, and proving
their adversaries to be mere syllogisers and schoolmen.'
[This is precisely what Lord Macaulay charges upon
James Mill in the passage quoted above.] ' As, however,
the notion of the applicability of experimental mothods
to political philosophy cannot coexist witli any just
conception of these methods tliemselves, the kind of
arguments from experience which the chemical theory
brings forth as its fruits (and which form the staple, in
this country especially, of parliamentary and hustings
oratory), are such as, at no time since Bacon, would have
been admitted to be valid in chemistry itself, or in any
other branch of experimental science.'

The writer then proceeds to show that in the Social
Science experiments are impossible ; that tlie Method of
Difference is inapplicable ; that the Methods of Agree-
ment and of Concomitant Variations are inconclusive ;
that the Method of Eesidues is also inconclusive ; and
thus concludes : —

' Since the generality of those who reason on political
subjects, satisfactorily to themselves and to a more or
less numerous body of admirers, know nothing whatever
of the methods of physical investigation beyond a few
precepts, which they continue to parrot after Bacon, being
entirely unaware that Bacon's conception of scientific
inquiry has done its work, and that science has now ad-
vanced into a higher stage, there are probably many to
whom such remarks as the foregoing may still be useful.
In an age in which chemistry itself when attempting to
deal with the more complex chemical sequences, those of


the animal or even the vegetable organism, has found it
necessary to become, and has succeeded in becoming,
a Deductive Science, it is not to be apprehended that any
person of scientific habits who has kept pace with the
general progress of the knowledge of nature, can be in
danger of applying the methods of elementary chemistry
to explore the sequences of the most complex order of
phenomena in existence.' ^

But objections have been taken to James Mill's 'Essay
on Government' by a much abler man than either Sir
James Mackintosh or Lord Macaulay. Mr. John Stuart
Mill, who has, in the chapter of his ' Logic ' from which the
preceding extract is taken, so conclusively demonstrated
the futility of applying the methods of elementary
chemistry to the investigation of the science of govern-
ment, has devoted the next chapter of his great work to
what he has styled the geometrical method of philoso-
phising in the social science. This chapter thus com-
mences : —

' The misconception discussed in the preceding
chapter is, as we said, chiefly committed by persons not
much accustomed to scientific investigation ; practitioners
in politics, who rather employ the commonplaces of
philosophy to justify their practice, than seek to guide
their practice by philosopliic principles ; or imperfectly
educated persons, who, in ignorance of the careful
selection and elaborate comparison of instances required
for the formation of a sound theory, attempt to found
one upon a few coincidences which they have casually

1 J. S. Mill's Logic, vol. ii. pp. 537, 538, and 548, 1st edition, London,
1843 ; vol. ii. pp. 4(36, 467, 474, 475, 7th edition, London, 1868.


* Tlie erroneous method of which we are now to treat
is, on the contrary, peculiar to thinking and studious
minds. It never could have suggested itself but to
persons of some familiarity with the nature of scientific
research, who, being aware of the impossibility of estab-
lishing, by casual observation or direct experimentation,
a true theory of sequences so complex as are those of the
social phenomena, have recourse to the simpler laws
which are immediately operative in those phenomena,
and which are no other than the laws of the nature of
the human beings therein concerned. These thinkers
perceive (what the partisans of the chemical or expe-
rimental theory do not) that the science of society must
necessarily be deductive. But, from an insufficient con-
sideration of the specific nature of the subject-matter, and
often because (their own scientific education having stopped
short in too early a stage) geometry stands in their
minds as the type of all deductive science, it is to
geometry, rather than to astronomy and natural philo-
sophy, that they unconsciously assimilate the deductive
science of society.' ^

Mr. J. S. Mill then, after shortly noticing those
reasoners (including Ilobbes) who had treated social facts
according to geometrical methods, proceeds to what he
terms ' the most remarkable example afforded by our
own times of the geometrical methods in politics, the
interest-philosophy of the Bentham school.' These
philosophers he thus describes : — ' The profound and
original thinkers who are commonly known under this
description founded their general theory of government
upon one comprehensive premise, namely, tliat men's

' Mill's Logic, vol. ii. p. 470, 7th edition.


Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 10 of 40)