BLTC Press Titles


available for Kindle at Amazon.com


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll


The Worm Ouroboros

E. R. Eddison


The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. DuBois


Mortal Coils

Aldous Huxley


First principles

by Herbert Spencer

Excerpt:

More especially may we safely assume this, in the case of beliefs that have long existed and are widely diffused; and most of all so, in the case of beliefs that are perennial and nearly or quite universal. The presumption that any current opinion is not wholly false, gains in strength according to the number of its adherents. Admitting, as we must, that life is impossible unless through a certain agreement between internal convictions and external circumstances; admitting therefore that the probabilities are always in favour of the truth, or at least the partial truth, of a conviction; we must admit that the convictions entertained by many minds in common are the most likely to have some foundation. The elimination of individual errors of thought, must give to the resulting judgment a certain additional value. It may indeed be urged that many widely-spread beliefs are received on authority; that those entertaining them make no attempts at verification; and hence it may be inferred that the multitude of adherents adds but little to the probability of a belief. But this is not true. For a belief which gains extensive reception without critical examination, is thereby proved to have a general congruity with the various other beliefs of those who receive it; and in so far as these various other beliefs are based upon personal observation and judgment, they give an indirect warrant to one with which they harmonize. It may be that this warrant is of small value; but still it is of some value.

Could we reach definite views on this matter, they would be extremely useful to us. It is important that we should, if possible, form something like a general theory of current opinions; so that we may neither over-estimate nor underestimate their worth. Arriving at correct judgments on disputed questions, much depends on the attitude of mind we preserve while listening to, or taking part in, the controversy; and for the preservation of a right attitude, it is needful that we should learn how true, and yet how untrue, are average human beliefs. On the one hand, we must keep free from that bias in favour of received ideas which expresses itself in such dogmas as "What every one says must be true," or" The voice of the people is the voice of God." On the other hand, the fact disclosed by a survey of the past, that majorities have usually been wrong, must not blind us to the complementary fact, that majorities have usually not been entirely wrong. And the avoidance of these extremes being a prerequisite to catholic thinking, we shall do well to provide ourselves with a safe-guard against them, by making a valuation of opinions in the abstract. To this end we must contemplate the kind of relation that ordinarily subsists between opinions and facts. Let us do so with one of those beliefs which under various forms has prevailed among all nations in all times.

§ 2. The earliest traditions represent rulers as gods or demigods. By their subjects, primitive kings were regarded as superhuman in origin, and superhuman in power. They possessed divine titles; received obeisances like those made before the altars of deities; and were in some cases actually worshipped. If there needs proof that the divine and halfdivine characters originally ascribed to monarchs were ascribed literally, we have it in the fact that there are still existing savage races, among whom it is held that the chiefs and their kindred are of celestial origin, or, as elsewhere, that only the chiefs have souls. And of course along with beHefs of this kind, there existed a belief in the unlimited power of the ruler over his subjects—an absolute possession of them, extending even to the taking of their lives at will: as even still in Fiji, where a victim stands unbound to be killed at the word of his chief; himself declaring, "whatever the king says must be done."

In times and among races somewhat less barbarous, we find these beliefs a little modified. The monarch, instead of being literally thought god or demigod, is conceived to be a man having divine authority, with perhaps more or less of divine nature. He retains however, as> in the East to the present day, titles expressing his heavenly descent or relationships; and is still saluted in forms and words as humble as those addressed to the Deity. While the lives and properties of his people, if not practically so completely at his mercy, are still in theory supposed to be his.

Later in the progress of civilization, as during the middle ages in Europe, the current opinions respecting the relationship of rulers and ruled are. further changed. For the theory of divine origin, there is substituted that of divine right. No longer god or demigod, or even god-descended, the king is now regarded as simply God's vice-gerent. The obeisances made to him are not so extreme in their humility; and his sacred titles lose much of their meaning. Moreover his authority ceases to be unlimited. Subjects deny his right to dispose at will of their lives and properties; and yield allegiance only in the shape of obedience to his commands.

With advancing political opinion has come still greater restriction of imperial power. Belief in the supernatural character of the ruler, long ago repudiated by ourselves for example, has left behind it nothing more than the popular tendency to ascribe unusual goodness, wisdom, and beauty to the monarch. Loyalty, which originally meant implicit submission to the king's will, now means a merely nominal profession of subordination, and the fulfilment of certain forms of respect. Our political practice, and our political theory, alike utterly reject those regal prerogatives which once passed unquestioned. By deposing some, and putting others in their places, we have not only denied the divine rights of certain men to rule; but we have denied that they have any rights beyond those originating in the assent of the nation. Though our forms of speech and our state-documents still assert the subjection of the citizens to the ruler, our actual beliefs and our daily proceedings implicitly assert the contrary. We obey no laws save those of our own making. We have entirely divested the monarch of legislative power; and should immediately rebel against his or her exercise of such power, even in matters of the'smallest concern. In brief, the aboriginal doctrine is all but extinct among us.

Nor has the rejection of primitive political beliefs, resulted only in transferring the authority of an autocrat to a representative body. The views entertained respecting governments in general, of whatever form, are now widely different from those once entertained. Whether popular or despotic, governments were in ancient times supposed to have unlimited authority over their subjects. Individuals existed for the benefit of the State; not the State for the benefit of individuals. In our days, however, not only has the national will been in many cases substituted for the will of the king; but the exercise of this national will has been restricted to a much smaller sphere. In England, for instance, though there has been established no definite theory setting bounds to governmental authority; yet, in practice, sundry bounds have been set to it which are tacitly recognized by all. There is no organic law formally declaring that the legislature may not freely dispose of the citizen's lives, as early kings did when they sacrificed hecatombs of victims; but were it possible for our legislature to attempt such a thing, its own destruction would be the consequence, rather than the destruction of citizens. How entirely we have established the personal liberties of the subject against the invasions of State-power, would be quickly demonstrated, were it proposed by Act of Parliament forcibly to take possession of the nation, or of any class, and turn its services to public ends; as the services of the people were turned by primitive rulers. And should any statesman suggest a re-distribution of property such as was sometimes made in ancient democratic communities, he would be met by a thousand-tongued denial of imperial power over individual possessions. Not only in our day have these fundamental claims of the citizen been thus made good against the State, but sundry minor claims likewise. Ages ago, laws regulating dress and mode of living fell into disuse; and any attempt to revive them would prove the current opinion to be, that such matters lie beyond the sphere of legal control. For some centuries we have been asserting in practice, and have now established in theory, the right of every man to choose his own religious beliefs, instead of receiving such beliefs on State-authority. Within the last few generations we have inaugurated complete liberty of speech, in spite of all legislative attempts to suppress or limit it. And still more recently we have claimed and finally obtained under a few exceptional restrictions, freedom to trade with whomsoever we please. Thus our political beliefs are widely different from ancient ones, not only as to the proper depositary of power to be exercised over a nation, but also as to the extent of that power.


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