Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed with Some Particulars Respecting the Author, by William Godwin

ESSAY XI.

OF SELF-LOVE AND BENEVOLENCE.

NO question has more memorably exercised the ingenuity of men who have speculated upon the structure of the human mind, than that of the motives by which we are actuated in our intercourse with our fellow-creatures. The dictates of a plain and unsophisticated understanding on the subject are manifest; and they have been asserted in the broadest way by the authors of religion, the reformers of mankind, and all persons who have been penetrated with zeal and enthusiasm for the true interests of the race to which they belong.

“The end of the commandment,” say the authors of the New Testament, “is love.” “This is the great commandment of the law, Thou shalt love thy maker with all thy heart; and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.” “For none of us liveth to himself; and no man dieth to himself.”

The sentiments of the ancient Greeks and Romans, for so many centuries as their institutions retained their original purity, were cast in a mould of a similar nature. A Spartan was seldom alone; they were always in society with each other. The love of their country and of the public good was their predominant passion, they did not imagine that they belonged to themselves, but to the state. After the battle of Leuctra, in which the Spartans were defeated by the Thebans, the mothers of those who were slain congratulated one another, and went to the temples to thank the Gods, that their children had done their duty; while the relations of those who survived the defeat were inconsolable.

The Romans were not less distinguished by their self-denying patriotism. It was in this spirit that Brutus put his two sons to death for conspiring against their country. It was in this spirit that the Fabii perished at their fort on the Cremera, and the Decii devoted themselves for the public. The rigour of self-denial in a true Roman approached to a temper which moderns are inclined to denominate savage.

In the times of the ancient republics the impulse of the citizens was to merge their own individuality in the interests of the state. They held it their duty to live but for their country. In this spirit they were educated; and the lessons of their early youth regulated the conduct of their riper years.

In a more recent period we have learned to model our characters by a different standard. We seldom recollect the society of which we are politically members, as a whole, but are broken into detached parties, thinking only for the most part of ourselves and our immediate connections and attachments.

This change in the sentiments and manners of modern times has among its other consequences given birth to a new species of philosophy. We have been taught to affirm, that we can have no express and pure regard for our fellow-creatures, but that all our benevolence and affection come to us through the strainers of a gross or a refined self-love. The coarser adherents of this doctrine maintain, that mankind are in all cases guided by views of the narrowest self-interest, and that those who advance the highest claims to philanthropy, patriotism, generosity and self-sacrifice, are all the time deceiving others, or deceiving themselves, and use a plausible and high-sounding language merely, that serves no other purpose than to veil from observation “that hideous sight, a naked human heart.”

The more delicate and fastidious supporters of the doctrine of universal self-love, take a different ground. They affirm that “such persons as talk to us of disinterestedness and pure benevolence, have not considered with sufficient accuracy the nature of mind, feeling and will. To understand,” they say, “is one thing, and to choose another. The clearest proposition that ever was stated, has, in itself, no tendency to produce voluntary action on the part of the percipient. It can be only something apprehended as agreeable or disagreeable to us, that can operate so as to determine the will. Such is the law of universal nature. We act from the impulse of our own desires and aversions; and we seek to effect or avert a thing, merely because it is viewed by us as an object of gratification or the contrary.

The virtuous man and the vicious are alike governed by the same principle; and it is therefore the proper business of a wise instructor of youth, and of a man who would bring his own sentiments and feelings into the most praise-worthy frame, to teach us to find our interest and gratification in that which shall be most beneficial to others.”

When we proceed to examine the truth of these statements, it certainly is not strictly an argument to say, that the advocate of self-love on either of these hypotheses cannot consistently be a believer in Christianity, or even a theist, as theism is ordinarily understood. The commandments of the author of the Christian religion are, as we have seen, purely disinterested: and, especially if we admit the latter of the two explanations of self-love, we shall be obliged to confess, on the hypothesis of this new philosophy, that the almighty author of the universe never acts in any of his designs either of creation or providence, but from a principle of self-love. In the mean time, if this is not strictly an argument, it is however but fair to warn the adherents of the doctrine I oppose, of the consequences to which their theory leads. It is my purpose to subvert that doctrine by means of the severest demonstration; but I am not unwilling, before I begin, to conciliate, as far as may be, the good-will of my readers to the propositions I proceed to establish.

I will therefore further venture to add, that, upon the hypothesis of self-love, there can be no such thing as virtue. There are two circumstances required, to entitle an action to be denominated virtuous. It must have a tendency to produce good rather than evil to the race of man, and it must have been generated by an intention to produce such good. The most beneficent action that ever was performed, if it did not spring from the intention of good to others, is not of the nature of virtue. Virtue, where it exists in any eminence, is a species of conduct, modelled upon a true estimate of the good intended to be produced. He that makes a false estimate, and prefers a trivial and partial good to an important and comprehensive one, is vicious20.

20 Political Justice, Book 11, Chap. IV.

It is admitted on all hands, that it is possible for a man to sacrifice his own existence to that of twenty others. But the advocates of the doctrine of self-love must say, that he does this that he may escape from uneasiness, and because he could not bear to encounter the inward upbraiding with which he would be visited, if he acted otherwise. This in reality would change his action from an act of virtue to an act of vice. So far as belongs to the real merits of the case, his own advantage or pleasure is a very insignificant consideration, and the benefit to be produced, suppose to a world, is inestimable. Yet he falsely and unjustly prefers the first, and views the latter as trivial; nay, separately taken, as not entitled to the smallest regard. If the dictates of impartial justice be taken into the account, then, according to the system of self-love, the best action that ever was performed, may, for any thing we know, have been the action, in the whole world, of the most exquisite and deliberate injustice. Nay, it could not have been otherwise, since it produced the greatest good, and therefore was the individual instance, in which the greatest good was most directly postponed to personal gratification21. Such is the spirit of the doctrine I undertake to refute.

21 Political Justice, Book IV, Chap. X.

But man is not in truth so poor and pusillanimous a creature as this system would represent.

It is time however to proceed to the real merits of the question, to examine what in fact is the motive which induces a good man to elect a generous mode of proceeding.

Locke is the philosopher, who, in writing on Human Understanding, has specially delivered the doctrine, that uneasiness is the cause which determines the will, and urges us to act. He says22, “The motive we have for continuing in the same state, is only the present satisfaction we feel in it; the motive to change is always some uneasiness: nothing setting us upon the change of state, or upon any new action, but some uneasiness. This is the great motive that works on the mind.”

22 Book II, Chap. XXI, Sect. 29.

It is not my concern to enquire, whether Locke by this statement meant to assert that self-love is the only principle of human action. It has at any rate been taken to express the doctrine which I here propose to refute.

And, in the first place, I say, that, if our business is to discover the consideration entertained by the mind which induces us to act, this tells us nothing. It is like the case of the Indian philosopher23, who, being asked what it was that kept the earth in its place, answered, that it was supported by an elephant, and that elephant again rested on a tortoise. He must be endowed with a slender portion of curiosity, who, being told that uneasiness is that which spurs on the mind to act, shall rest satisfied with this explanation, and does not proceed to enquire, what makes us uneasy?

23 Locke on Understanding, Book 11, Chap. XIII, Sect. 19.

An explanation like this is no more instructive, than it would be, if, when we saw a man walking, or grasping a sword or a bludgeon, and we enquired into the cause of this phenomenon, any one should inform us that he walks, because he has feet, and he grasps, because he has hands.

I could not commodiously give to my thoughts their present form, unless I had been previously furnished with pens and paper. But it would be absurd to say, that my being furnished with pens and paper, is the cause of my writing this Essay on Self-love and Benevolence.

The advocates of self-love have, very inartificially and unjustly, substituted the abstract definition of a voluntary agent, and made that stand for the motive by which he is prompted to act. It is true, that we cannot act without the impulse of desire or uneasiness; but we do not think of that desire and uneasiness; and it is the thing upon which the mind is fixed that constitutes our motive. In the boundless variety of the acts, passions and pursuits of human beings, it is absurd on the face of it to say that we are all governed by one motive, and that, however dissimilar are the ends we pursue, all this dissimilarity is the fruit of a single cause.

One man chooses travelling, another ambition, a third study, a fourth voluptuousness and a mistress. Why do these men take so different courses?

Because one is partial to new scenes, new buildings, new manners, and the study of character. Because a second is attracted by the contemplation of wealth and power. Because a third feels a decided preference for the works of Homer, or Shakespear, or Bacon, or Euclid. Because a fourth finds nothing calculated to stir his mind in comparison with female beauty, female allurements, or expensive living.

Each of these finds the qualities he likes, intrinsically in the thing he chooses. One man feels himself strongly moved, and raised to extacy, by the beauties of nature, or the magnificence of architecture. Another is ravished with the divine excellencies of Homer, or of some other of the heroes of literature. A third finds nothing delights him so much as the happiness of others, the beholding that happiness increased, and seeing pain and oppression and sorrow put to flight. The cause of these differences is, that each man has an individual internal structure, directing his partialities, one man to one thing, and another to another.

Few things can exceed the characters of human beings in variety. There must be something abstractedly in the nature of mind, which renders it accessible to these varieties. For the present we will call it taste. One man feels his spirits regaled with the sight of those things which constitute wealth, another in meditating the triumphs of Alexander or Caesar, and a third in viewing the galleries of the Louvre. Not one of these thinks in the outset of appropriating these objects to himself; not one of them begins with aspiring to be the possessor of vast opulence, or emulating the triumphs of Caesar, or obtaining in property the pictures and statues the sight of which affords him so exquisite delight. Even the admirer of female beauty, does not at first think of converting this attractive object into a mistress, but on the contrary desires, like Pygmalion, that the figure he beholds might become his solace and companion, because he had previously admired it for itself.

Just so the benevolent man is an individual who finds a peculiar delight in contemplating the contentment, the peace and heart’s ease of other men, and sympathises in no ordinary degree with their sufferings. He rejoices in the existence and diffusion of human happiness, though he should not have had the smallest share in giving birth to the thing he loves. It is because such are his tastes, and what above all things he prefers, that he afterwards becomes distinguished by the benevolence of his conduct.

The reflex act of the mind, which these new philosophers put forward as the solution of all human pursuits, rarely presents itself but to the speculative enquirer in his closet. The savage never dreams of it. The active man, engaged in the busy scenes of life, thinks little, and on rare occasions of himself, but much, and in a manner for ever, of the objects of his pursuit.

Some men are uniform in their character, and from the cradle to the grave prefer the same objects that first awakened their partialities. Other men are inconsistent and given to change, are “every thing by starts, and nothing long.” Still it is probable that, in most cases, he who performs an act of benevolence, feels for the time that he has a peculiar delight in contemplating the good of his fellow-man.

The doctrine of the modern philosophers on this point, is in many ways imbecil and unsound. It is inauspicious to their creed, that the reflex act of the mind is purely the affair of experience. Why did the liberal-minded man perform his first act of benevolence? The answer of these persons ought to be, because the recollection of a generous deed is a source of the truest delight. But there is an absurdity on the face of this solution.

We do not experimentally know the delight which attends the recollection of a generous deed, till a generous deed has been performed by us. We do not learn these things from books. And least of all is this solution to the purpose, when the business is to find a solution that suits the human mind universally, the unlearned as well as the learned, the savage as well as the sage.

And surely it is inconsistent with all sound reasoning, to represent that as the sole spring of our benevolent actions, which by the very terms will not fit the first benevolent act in which any man engaged.

The advocates of the doctrine of “self-love the source of all our actions,” are still more puzzled, when the case set before them is that of the man, who flies, at an instant’s warning, to save the life of the child who has fallen into the river, or the unfortunate whom he beholds in the upper story of a house in flames. This man, as might be illustrated in a thousand instances, treats his own existence as unworthy of notice, and exposes it to multiplied risks to effect the object to which he devotes himself.

They are obliged to say, that this man anticipates the joy he will feel in the recollection of a noble act, and the cutting and intolerable pain he will experience in the consciousness that a human being has perished, whom it was in his power to save. It is in vain that we tell them that, without a moment’s consideration, he tore off his clothes, or plunged into the stream with his clothes on, or rushed up a flaming stair-case. Still they tell us, that he recollected what compunctious visitings would be his lot if he remained supine — he felt the sharpest uneasiness at sight of the accident before him, and it was to get rid of that uneasiness, and not for the smallest regard to the unhappy being he has been the means to save, that he entered on the hazardous undertaking.

Uneasiness, the knowledge of what inwardly passes in the mind, is a thing not in the slightest degree adverted to but in an interval of leisure. No; the man here spoken of thinks of nothing but the object immediately before his eyes; he adverts not at all to himself; he acts only with an undeveloped, confused and hurried consciousness that he may be of some use, and may avert the instantly impending calamity. He has scarcely even so much reflection as amounts to this.

The history of man, whether national or individual, and consequently the acts of human creatures which it describes, are cast in another mould than that which the philosophy of self-love sets before us. A topic that from the earliest accounts perpetually presents itself in the records of mankind, is self-sacrifice, parents sacrificing themselves for their children, and children for their parents. Cimon, the Athenian, yet in the flower of his youth, voluntarily became the inmate of a prison, that the body of his father might receive the honours of sepulture. Various and unquestionable are the examples of persons who have exposed themselves to destruction, and even petitioned to die, that so they might save the lives of those, whose lives they held dearer than their own. Life is indeed a thing, that is notoriously set at nothing by generous souls, who have fervently devoted themselves to an overwhelming purpose. There have been instances of persons, exposed to all the horrors of famine, where one has determined to perish by that slowest and most humiliating of all the modes of animal destruction, that another, dearer to him than life itself, might, if possible, be preserved.

What is the true explanation of these determinations of the human will? Is it, that the person, thus consigning himself to death, loved nothing but himself, regarded only the pleasure he might reap, or the uneasiness he was eager to avoid? Or, is it, that he had arrived at the exalted point of self-oblivion, and that his whole soul was penetrated and ingrossed with the love of those for whom he conceived so exalted a partiality?

This sentiment so truly forms a part of our nature, that a multitude of absurd practices, and a multitude of heart-rending fables, have been founded upon the consciousness of man in different ages and nations, that these modes of thinking form a constituent part of our common existence. In India there was found a woman, whose love to the deceased partner of her soul was so overwhelming, that she resolved voluntarily to perish on his funeral pile. And this example became so fascinating and admirable, that, by insensible degrees, it grew into a national custom with the Hindoos, that, by a sort of voluntary constraint, the widows of all men of a certain caste, should consign themselves to the flames with the dead bodies of their husbands. The story of Zopyrus cutting off his nose and ears, and of Curtius leaping into the gulph, may be fictitious: but it was the consciousness of those by whom these narratives were written that they drew their materials from the mighty store-house of the heart of man, that prompted them to record them. The institutions of clientship and clans, so extensively diffused in different ages of the world, rests upon this characteristic of our nature, that multitudes of men may be trained and educated so, as to hold their existence at no price, when the life of the individual they were taught unlimitedly to reverence might be preserved, or might be defended at the risk of their destruction.

The principal circumstance that divides our feelings for others from our feelings for ourselves, and that gives, to satirical observers, and superficial thinkers, an air of exclusive selfishness to the human mind, lies in this, that we can fly from others, but cannot fly from ourselves. While I am sitting by the bed-side of the sufferer, while I am listening to the tale of his woes, there is comparatively but a slight line of demarcation, whether they are his sorrows or my own. My sympathy is vehemently excited towards him, and I feel his twinges and anguish in a most painful degree. But I can quit his apartment and the house in which he dwells, can go out in the fields, and feel the fresh air of heaven fanning my hair, and playing upon my cheeks. This is at first but a very imperfect relief. His image follows me; I cannot forget what I have heard and seen; I even reproach myself for the mitigation I involuntarily experience. But man is the creature of his senses. I am every moment further removed, both in time and place, from the object that distressed me. There he still lies upon the bed of agony: but the sound of his complaint, and the sight of all that expresses his suffering, are no longer before me. A short experience of human life convinces us that we have this remedy always at hand [“I am unhappy, only while I please”24; and we soon come therefore to anticipate the cure, and so, even while we are in the presence of the sufferer, to feel that he and ourselves are not perfectly one.

24 Douglas.

But with our own distempers and adversities it is altogether different. It is this that barbs the arrow. We may change the place of our local existence; but we cannot go away from ourselves. With chariots, and embarking ourselves on board of ships, we may seek to escape from the enemy. But grief and apprehension enter the vessel along with us; and, when we mount on horseback, the discontent that specially annoyed us, gets up behind, and clings to our sides with a hold never to be loosened25.

25 Horace.

Is it then indeed a proof of selfishness, that we are in a greater or less degree relieved from the anguish we endured for our friend, when other objects occupy us, and we are no longer the witnesses of his sufferings? If this were true, the same argument would irresistibly prove, that we are the most generous of imaginable beings, the most disregardful of whatever relates to ourselves. Is it not the first ejaculation of the miserable, “Oh, that I could fly from myself? Oh, for a thick, substantial sleep!” What the desperate man hates is his own identity. But he knows that, if for a few moments he loses himself in forgetfulness, he will presently awake to all that distracted him. He knows that he must act his part to the end, and drink the bitter cup to the dregs. He can do none of these things by proxy. It is the consciousness of the indubitable future, from which we can never be divorced, that gives to our present calamity its most fearful empire. Were it not for this great line of distinction, there are many that would feel not less for their friend than for themselves. But they are aware, that his ruin will not make them beggars, his mortal disease will not bring them to the tomb, and that, when he is dead, they may yet be reserved for many years of health, of consciousness and vigour.

The language of the hypothesis of self-love was well adapted to the courtiers of the reign of Louis the Fourteenth. The language of disinterestedness was adapted to the ancient republicans in the purest times of Sparta and Rome.

But these ancients were not always disinterested; and the moderns are not always narrow, self-centred and cold. The ancients paid, though with comparative infrequency, the tax imposed upon mortals, and thought of their own gratification and ease; and the moderns are not utterly disqualified for acts of heroic affection.

It is of great consequence that men should come to think correctly on this subject. The most snail-blooded man that exists, is not so selfish as he pretends to be. In spite of all the indifference he professes towards the good of others, he will sometimes be detected in a very heretical state of sensibility towards his wife, his child or his friend; he will shed tears at a tale of distress, and make considerable sacrifices of his own gratification for the relief of others.

But his creed is a pernicious one. He who for ever thinks, that his “charity must begin at home,” is in great danger of becoming an indifferent citizen, and of withering those feelings of philanthropy, which in all sound estimation constitute the crowning glory of man. He will perhaps have a reasonable affection towards what he calls his own flesh and blood, and may assist even a stranger in a case of urgent distress. — But it is dangerous to trifle with the first principles and sentiments of morality. And this man will scarcely in any case have his mind prepared to hail the first dawnings of human improvement, and to regard all that belongs to the welfare of his kind as parcel of his own particular estate.

The creed of self-love will always have a tendency to make us Frenchmen in the frivolous part of that character, and Dutchmen in the plodding and shopkeeping spirit of barter and sale. There is no need that we should beat down the impulse of heroism in the human character, and be upon our guard against the effervescences and excess of a generous sentiment. One of the instructors of my youth was accustomed to say to his pupils, “Do not be afraid to commit your thoughts to paper in all the fervour and glow of your first conception: when you come to look at them the next day, you will find this gone off to a surprising degree.” As this was no ill precept for literary composition, even so in our actions and moral conduct we shall be in small danger of being too warm-hearted and too generous.

Modern improvements in education are earnest in recommending to us the study of facts, and that we should not waste the time of young persons upon the flights of imagination. But it is to imagination that we are indebted for our highest enjoyments; it tames the ruggedness of uncivilised nature, and is the never-failing associate of all the considerable advances of social man, whether in throwing down the strong fences of intellectual slavery, or in giving firmness and duration to the edifice of political freedom.

And who does not feel that every thing depends upon the creed we embrace, and the discipline we exercise over our own souls?

The disciple of the theory of self-love, if of a liberal disposition, will perpetually whip himself forward “with loose reins,” upon a spiritless Pegasus, and say, “I will do generous things; I will not bring into contempt the master I serve — though I am conscious all the while that this is but a delusion, and that, however I brag of generosity, I do not set a step forward, but singly for my own ends, and my own gratification.” Meanwhile, this is all a forced condition of thought; and the man who cherishes it, will be perpetually falling back into the cold, heartless convictions he inwardly retains. Self-love is the unwholesome, infectious atmosphere in which he dwells; and, however he may seek to rise, the wings of his soul will eternally be drawn downwards, and he cannot be pervaded, as he might have been, with the free spirit of genuine philanthropy. To be consistent, he ought continually to grow colder and colder; and the romance, which fired his youth, and made him forget the venomous potion he had swallowed, will fade away in age, rendering him careless of all but himself, and indifferent to the adversity and sufferings of all of whom he hears, and all with whom he is connected.

On the other hand, the man who has embraced the creed of disinterested benevolence, will know that it is not his fitting element to “live for himself, or to die for himself.” Whether he is under the dominion of family-affection, friendship, patriotism, or a zeal for his brethren of mankind, he will feel that he is at home. The generous man therefore looks forward to the time when the chilling and wretched philosophy of the reign of Louis the Fourteenth shall be forgotten, and a fervent desire for the happiness and improvement of the human species shall reign in all hearts.

I am not especially desirous of sheltering my opinions under the authority of great names: but, in a question of such vital importance to the true welfare of men in society, no fair advantage should be neglected. The author of the system of “self-love the source of all our actions” was La Rochefoucault; and the whole herd of the French philosophers have not been ashamed to follow in the train of their vaunted master. I am grieved to say, that, as I think, the majority of my refining and subtilising countrymen of the present day have enlisted under his banner. But the more noble and generous view of the subject has been powerfully supported by Shaftesbury, Butler, Hutcheson and Hume. On the last of these I particularly pique myself; inasmuch as, though he became naturalised as a Frenchman in a vast variety of topics, the greatness of his intellectual powers exempted him from degradation in this.

That however which I would chiefly urge in the way of authority, is the thing mentioned in the beginning of this Essay, I mean, the sentiments that have animated the authors of religion, that characterise the best ages of Greece and Rome, and that in all cases display themselves when the loftiest and most generous sentiments of the heart are called into action. The opposite creed could only have been engendered in the dregs of a corrupt and emasculated court; and human nature will never shew itself what it is capable of being, till the last remains of a doctrine, invented in the latter part of the seventeenth century, shall have been consigned to the execration they deserve.

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