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ART. XI. Three Dialogues concerning Liberty. 8vo. zs. Dodfley. 1776.
O many treatises having been written concerning Liberty,
many of our Readers will perhaps imagine that nothing new or important can be added on the subject. When, indeed, this great topic is treated in the loofe and declamatory manner of fome writers, little advantage will arife from the renewed confideration of it. But this is not the case with the prefent performance. It is a clofe, accurate, and philofophical difcuffion of the nature, objects, and extent of liberty; and is carried on, as the title imports, in the form of dialogues.
In the compofition of thefe Dialogues, the Author has adopted the fimplicity of feveral of the ancient models; the whole being conducted by two fpeakers, of whom ore only fuftains a principal and leading character.
Our ingenious Writer reprefents himself as having been vifited. by a friend from the country, of a, ftudious turn, and fond of retirement; who with a very good understanding, had acquired. a calmness of mind, which enabled him to judge of things with great accuracy and difintereftedne fs. As their converíation naturally turned upon thofe political difputes which take up fo much of the time and thoughts of the inhabitants of this. great city, the Country Gentleman would fay, that it was fur-. prifing to fee fuch a number of people as he met with every where, fo warm and fo agitated about a fubject (the fubject of. Liberty) of which, if they were not entirely ignorant, they had certainly given themfelves very little trouble to examine into the nature of. This obfervation gave rise to the first dialogue, as our Author thought it but fair, that he who laughed at the abfurdity and ignorance of others, fhould produce his own opinions on the same subject.
Liberty, it is remarked, is a word which, in vulgar ufe, is of a very indeterminate fignification, and, like many others of the moral kind, few people have, even, nearly, the fame ideas, affixed to it. But it doth not from thence follow, that it, as well as others of the fame kind, is incapable of definition; but, that more care is required to trace out and place it in, its true point of view. The liberty or freedom of man, in an abstracted. feefe, confifts in a power of doing, or forbearing to do, any ac-, tion at his pleafure. If there be any impediment, either to his. doing, or not doing any action, he is in such case not free; he is confined on one fide, or on the other. It may seem trifling to fay, that man hath not a freedom of choice in things fupe. rior to his nature; and that God hath fet bounds to the powers of human nature which cannot be exceeded: yet it appears re
quifité to fay fo much, because there have not been wanting many inftances of men, whofe memories have failed them in that particular. The all-wife Creator hath thought fit to circumfcribe the powers of man, and he can act only within a certain sphere. Within that fphere the utmost freedom of human actions is neceffarily confined: beyond it man can do nothing.
Here it is afked; but may a man, then, do all that he hath power to do, within the circumfcribed line? May every capricious fancy be indulged? Or are there reafons why liberty fo extenfive fhould fuffer reftraint? To this it is anfwered, that there are very fubstantial reasons to be given, why the liberty of man fhould be reftrained within narrower bounds. All creatures, évery one according to his kind or fpecies, are created subject to laws, proper and peculiar to their feveral natures, and fuitable to the ends of the Supreme Being. The creature man, too, is created fubject to laws equally proper and peculiar to his nature; and the Deity hath not only made him fenfibly to feel them, but hath enabled him to understand their reasonablenefs, and to perceive their beauty and excellence and because the true happiness, and the true good of all, and of every individual, require obedience to thofe laws; therefore the greatest liberty of man ought to be restrained within the bounds prefcribed by them.
This leads to an inquiry into the restraints that are neceffary: in order to which our Author finds himself obliged to carry his researches to the fundamental principles of human nature. It having been ordained by the great Creator, that the continuation of the human kind fhould be preferved by generation; and that we fhould afcend from the loweft degrees of weakness and ignorance, by a very flow and gradual progreffion, to corporeal' ftrength and a reasonable mind; he hath accordingly endued us with affections and paffions (or laws) fuitable and fubfervient to these ends. This point is properly illuftrated by the Writer, and then he obferves, that here we fee arife many restraints on liberty, which moralifts have particularifed, and which are fo easy to understand, that few can be ignorant of them. But thefe are not all; there are many more. -All those kind propenfities which are commonly understood by the words humanity, generofity, benevolence, &c. may be called true and natural laws of our nature. They may be called true and natural laws, in contradiftinction to inhumanity, felfishness, and malevolence, which are rightly termed unnatural, as having tendencies contrary and inimical to human nature. The Deity hath fo ftrongly impreffed them on the foul of man, and fo clearly diftinguished them as the true guides of human actions, by the pleafure they yield to the practifer, the love and admiration they draw from men, and the great utility of fuch virtues to the
world, that the man's mind must be ftrangely perverted from its natural bent, who is not fenfible of fuch laws in his foul.Nature feems conftant in this precept; Obey my laws, they lead to pleasure, or juffer the pains of difobedience. It is impoffible to extirpate them; it is impoffible to oppose them without pain; it is impoffible to be indifferent. They are a principal part of our nature, and nothing can deftroy their force, but death.Hence our Author infers, that, as obedience to these laws conduces to the good and felicity of every individual, and of mankind in general; and as difobedience has a contrary effect, it is but just and reasonable, that the liberty of man should suffer such restraints as may be neceffary to prevent him from offending against them.
But here a queftion arises, Who fhall reftrain his liberty? Who fhall enforce obedience? Why may he not trample on the laws of his nature, and fuffer the pains of difobedience, without being compelled to obey; fince nature, it seems, only points out felicity in obedience, and mifery in difobedience, but leaves man to choose? The queftion, it is replied, would be unanswerable, if there were but one man on the earth at a time; or if men were fo fituated, that they had not the least neceffary connection or commerce with each other. But the fact being quite contrary, and men being, by the very nature of their exiftence, neceffarily interested in, and connected with one another, they thereby acquire a just right to controul the actions of each other; fo far, at least, as to prevent injury to themfelves. But the principal foundation of right in men to enforce obedience on each other, to the true laws of their nature, is derived from their natural equality.
As the natural equality of mankind is often spoken of, with very little precifion, in our political difputes, and especially by thofe who are hoftile to American liberty, we shall tranfcribe our Dialogift's very fenfible and philofophical discussion of the fubject.
All creatures of the fame kind are created under laws peculiar to their kind. All men are of the fame kind, and are doubtless created under laws peculiar to their kind: and in this respect it is that all men are certainly equal.So it appears to me, faid I. But are the great differences in the faculties and abilities of men no objection against this equality Not at all, answered he. poffeffion of great bodily ftrength, for inftance, gives a man no juft title to use that ftrength mischievously, and against the laws of humanity he may poffefs fome of, or all, the faculties of the body in greater perfection than other men; but these faculties are given him fubjected to the fame natural laws which are common to all men: nor can he by fuperior force tranfgrefs the laws common to his kind by nature, without injuftice. He may bear greater burdens, run fwifter, fhew more agility in action, &c. and all the fuperior advan.
tages refulting from thefe faculties juffly used, he hath a right to, but no other. Your reasoning feems juft, faid I: But what fay you to fuperior mental powers? Have they no better claim than thofe of the body?In this cafe, anfwered he, they appear to me to have lefs. Superior understanding, far from allowing a man to dif penfe with the laws of human nature, more ftri&tly binds him to a nice obfervance of them. He is unpardonable, if he do no more than common men in practifing and promoting a due obedience to them. Great genius enables him to be more thoroughly convinced of the truth and juftice of these laws. He perceives more, underftands more, than inferior minds: Can we, from thence, infer, he hath a right to tranfgrefs thefe laws, which the inferior hath not? or, if the inferior tranfgrefs, is he not more pardonable than the fuperior genius, for that very reafon, because he is inferior?—I cannot but confefs it, faid I?—No man then, continued he, poffeffing any quality or property of the human nature in a fuperior degree, can from thence, with the leaft fhew of reason, fuppofe himself not justly bound by the fame laws of his nature, by which all men are bound for all degrees of human qualities or properties, from the leaft to the greatest without exception, are incontestably given by God, under the very fame natural laws, which are common to the human kind. And until a man demonftrate, that he is created under laws peculiar to himself, and not thofe known and felt by other men (which, by the way, would be to prove himself not a man, but fome other creature) there cannot be the leaft reafon to fuppofe him exempted from fubjection to thofe laws, which are common to the human nature. By no means, faid I.. We have, then, faid he, not only discovered, that the liberty of man ought to be reftrained by the laws peculiar to his nature; but that all men are by nature equally fubjected to these laws. So it seems, returned I.
'I will, continued he, with your leave, fay fomewhat more of the nature and effects of this equality.I am all attention, faid I. -He proceeded thus. If a man offend, in fuch a manner, against the laws of human nature, that the ill effects be abfolutely confined to his own perfon, (which is, ftrictly speaking, hardly pofiible) and be no way detrimental to others; he does not feem to be accountable to any, but to God and himself. But, for the leaft tranfgreffion, which injures, or tends to injure, his equals and fellow creatores, he is accountable to them, as well as to his Maker. Men, being injured, or having just caufe to fear injury, and being equal, have therefore an indifputable right to ufe all reafonable means of prevention and correction; regulating their conduct by the laws of their nature; fince, otherwife, that just equality of the human kind could never be, in any tolerable degree, preferved.
'Nor can it be conceived, by what right, any man, or number of men, could correct the wrong or unjust actions of another, if this natural equality had no existence: every one would have reafon to think he might do any thing he could do, without regard to others; as containing in himfelf fpecific qualities, which made the laws of his nature peculiar to himself, and not the fame as those which are common to all men. But as no man is a fpecies of himself, but only a part of a species, he cannot have laws peculiar to himself;
but must be fubjected to thofe which are common to all of his fpecies. It will not be underflood, continued he, that equality in point of pro. perty is intended; for that is not only impoffible in the natural courfe of things, but neither reasonable or juft. The laws of our nature are not at all infringed, by a just use of the advantages, which fuperior wisdom, or fuperior industry, gives one man over another: on the contrary, it would be great injustice, and great difcouragement to all merit, to take from them thofe advantages and emoluments, which they may naturally acquire without breach of the laws of the human nature.'
If any do not quite comprehend how the right which men exercise over each other, of punishing and correcting tranf greffions against the laws of their nature, is derived from their natural equality, and fhould think that juftice gives them that right; it is anfwered, that' juftice does give them that right. But then it is to be obferved, that, from equality, understood as above explained, the notion of juslice takes its rife among men; and the laws of their nature, which equally bind all men, are the principles by which the adminiftration of it should be regulated. An appeal to juftice is nothing but an appeal to thofe natural laws, by which the juft equality of mankind is to be preferved; and the felf-partiality of parties concerned requires that the determination fhould be left to uninterested judges.
Our Author maintains that the notion of juftice hath no exiftence where an equality of nature is not understood; but, in this respect, we do not agree with him, though we acknowledge that he hath fupported his pofition with ingenuity. Perhaps, upon a ftrict inquiry, the difference would be found to be more in words than in fentiment.
From the whole of what has been faid, we may be able to draw, fays the chief Speaker, with fome degree of precision, the line by which the liberty of human actions ought to be circumfcribed.
Firft, No man can justly violate or tranfgrefs those laws, which are neceffary to the propagation, continuation, and support of our fpecies, with the greatest advantage poffible.
Secondly, No man can juftly violate the laws of humanity, or all thofe propenfities, which would prompt us to a benevolent, hamane, and reafonable treatment of each other.
Thirdly, No man can july tranfgrefs those bounds, which juftice, regulated by the laws of human nature, doth determine to be the true measures of the rights of mankind, to the poffeffion of pro perty of any fort whatsoever.
Fourthly, and lafly, That the nearer men approach to a perfect obedience of all, to all thofe laws, the nearer they will approach to that just natural equality, and that juft liberty, which would refult from the equal fubjection of all men to the fame natural laws: and that the idea of perfect human liberty is a perfect and exact obedience of all, to all thofe laws. So it appears to me, faid I.— And so, replied he (rifing to go to reit) we find nature is no lefs an