John Stuart Mill

Spoken at the Mutual Improvement Society in 1823

THE beneficial effects produced upon the human mind and upon the structure of society by the revival of science and by the cessation of feudal darkness have been so obvious that there is scarcely room for the smallest discussion. No one, I apprehend, would insult the understanding of this Society by reviving the ascetic sophistry of the fanatic Rousseau by maintaining that what are called the comforts and conveniences of life are in fact neither comforts nor conveniences, and add not the smallest particle to human happiness; that the progress of civilization is in fact the progress of barbarism, and that the Hurons and the Iroquois are the happiest and the most enlightened of mankind. Were such a reasoner to arise I should ask him by what authority he claims to know better than A, B, and C what constitutes the happiness of A, B, and C. I should maintain that what all men have uniformly considered as comforts and conveniences cannot be otherwise than comforts and conveniences, and I should require him who considers knowledge as standing in the way of happiness to go and legislate for those savages upon whose blissful state of ignorance he would have an opportunity of trying his skill without those obstacles which he finds in the knowledge of this comparatively enlightened country.

Such doctrines are scarcely worthy of a serious reply, but as the refutation may be made remarkably pointed and concise, it may be better to give it. In reasoning on these general questions a want of precision in the use of language is the principal engine of sophistry. Here the confusion lies in the word knowledge, a word so vague and indefinite as to be an easy instrument in the hands of mala fide arguers, being capable of signifying just as much or as little as they please. It is not this kind of knowledge which is of such extensive importance. The only useful knowledge is that which teaches us how to seek what is good and avoid what is evil ; in short, how to increase the sum of human happiness. This is the great end : it may be well or ill pursued, but to say that knowledge can be an enemy to happiness is to say that men will enjoy less happiness, when they know how to seek it, than when they do not. This reasoning is on a par with that of any one who should refuse when asked to point out the road to York, saying that his inquirer would have a much better chance of reaching York without direction than with it. It is impossible then to suppose that any one should get up in this Society and maintain that knowledge in the abstract is mischievous. Arguments may indeed be directed against much of what passes current under the name of knowledge to show that it is not really knowledge but prejudice, and is therefore not favourable but unfavourable to happiness. But this is one of those cases where the reason of the exception proves the truth of the general rule. It is precisely because knowledge is useful that prejudice is mischievous.

The question, simple in itself, is in some degree confused by the manner in which it is worded, and which, with deference to the worthy proposer, might, I conceive, have been made more clearly expressive of his meaning. If asked whether the revival of letters has tended to promote happiness I know what to say, and by what arguments to support it ; but if I am asked whether it tends to refine or to corrupt manners I confess myself at a stand. The three words, manners, corrupt, and refine, are to me in the sense here bestowed upon them equally enigmatical. If by refinement of manners is meant that ceremonious politeness in intercourse between the higher orders, and that assiduous gallantry towards the fair sex which were the distinguishing characteristics of the old feudal aristocracy, then I should say that manners had not gained but lost by the revival of letters : but far from lamenting I should rejoice in the change, as I do in everything which turns the attention of mankind from the frivolous details of a petty and ceremonious trifling to the concerns which interest their real and substantial welfare. But if the intention of the proposer was to inquire into the effect of increased civilization in promoting genuine morality, then although on a general view of the question all will probably agree with me that this effect has been highly beneficial, it will be no loss of time to examine in detail from how dreadful a state of misery the human race has been elevated by knowledge into a state where they have at least the hope, the speedy hope, of establishing a better state of things.

The revival of art and science has contributed to promote morality in two ways : by the increase of wealth and by the diffusion of information. The discoveries in chemical and mechanical philosophy - should I not rather say the creation of these branches of knowledge ? - has enabled the human race to provide themselves abundantly at little expense of labour with those necessaries and comforts which formerly they either could not procure at all, or if at all, only in a very small amount and with very great labour. This increase of wealth must have contributed greatly to the improvement of morality. I would not be understood as affirming that the rich are more moral than the poor. As far as general reasoning and my own particular experience can lead me I should rather adopt the contrary conclusion. But when the augmentation of wealth is not, by being confined in the hands of a few, reduced to be but one expedient more for the oppression of the many ; when, I say, instead of being exclusively devoted to the enjoyment of a few, the increase of wealth is generally and equally diffused throughout the whole community ; then by conferring upon the working classes the inestimable benefit of leisure, it forces them to seek society, it forces them to seek education. Each working man becomes himself better qualified to distinguish right from wrong, while each knows that he is under the constant surveillance of hundreds and thousands equally instructed with himself. Thus does the improvement of the physical sciences, by increasing and diffusing wealth, indirectly tend to promote morality.

But the evils which man is doomed to suffer from the hands of nature are nothing when compared to those which man frequently suffers from man. Communities have been known to flourish in spots which Nature seems to have selected for the sepulchre of the universe ; but there is no country, however favoured by nature, which superstition and misgovernment do not suffice to ruin. Let us therefore take a general view of the situation of our ancestors with respect to these two main points, religion and government.

And first as to their government : he must be an adept in the art of rendering mankind miserable who could devise anything more destructive of all happiness. It was not here the common vice of a rude government, where each man has not yet learned to trust his neighbour, and where no one will as yet renounce the privilege of protecting himself. These are imperfect governments, for they afford imperfect securities for happiness, but they are not in every sense as execrable as the feudal system. Imagine a tribe with a government such as that to which I have alluded spreading itself by conquest over a large portion of the globe, and reducing the native population to the state of domestic cattle ! Each chief absolute master of thousands of human beings, and himself acknowledging no regular government, but striving to retain his pristine independency ! Not only is no one secure from the arbitrary will of a master ; even that master cannot afford him protection against other despots and slaves ! It has frequently been made a question whether despotism or anarchy is worst ; but this is not the question here, for the feudal system united the evils of both. The laws were openly and flagrantly violated, and the violations remained unpunished. Judge of the security which the administration of justice could afford when the trial by battle was the best expedient which could be devised to ensure the purity of judicature, and where it was usual for the party who was cast in a lawsuit to challenge his judge to mortal combat.

The religion of our ancestors is next to be considered, and here I shall begin by laying down a principle of which the ordinary reasoners on these subjects have usually lost sight. It is not indeed extremely recondite, for it is no other than this, that priests are men. They are usually considered as partaking of that perfect goodness and wisdom which they verbally attribute to the Great Master whom they profess to serve, although the actions and precepts which they ascribe to Him partake but too often of a contrary character.

From the principle that priests are men I draw the inference that in those cases which very frequently occur, and in which their individual interest is opposed to the interest of mankind, they will act as other men would act in similar circumstances ; they would pursue their own interest to the detriment of mankind. Now if all men agree to believe whatever they say, they have a decided interest in making them believe everything which is likely to make them venerate and worship their spiritual guides ; and if true opinions on the subject of religion are not of a nature calculated to inspire the requisite degree of veneration, it would be unfair to expect that these irresponsible directors of the public mind should confine themselves strictly to what is true ; and we might indeed predict with tolerable certainty that they would not fail to intermingle much of what is utterly false, the more so as they may do this without the slightest insincerity. There is no fact better ascertained than the facility with which men are persuaded to believe what they wish. It is only necessary that there should be some one, who may be either a knave or a madman, to start a falsehood ; if it is unfavourable to the clergy he will be hunted down as a heretic, but if it is favourable to them it will not be long before he finds many sincere disciples among the clergy themselves, who of course propagate it among the laity. It is in this way that the Catholic priesthood added to their religion the profitable doctrine of purgatory and masses for the dead, the crime-promoting doctrine of indulgences, and above all the terrific engines of auricular confession and absolution, the concentration of which, and particularly of the former, in the hands of the clergy, make it astonishing that mankind should ever have emancipated themselves from the terrific sway of priests and their coadjutors, aristocracies and kings. If at this day we rarely hear of murders perpetrated in the name of religion, still more rarely of those terrible persecutions which once disgraced every nation in Europe, we owe this to the revival of letters and the consequent diffusion of knowledge.

Such a government and such a religion as our ancestors had the happiness to enjoy afford us in some degree the means of appreciating that ancestorial wisdom which is even now held up to us as a model for imitation. In the nineteenth century we are not infrequently called upon to pursue the course which was followed by those sages, our ancestors, in the eleventh and twelfth. But this appeal from the age of civilization to the age of barbarism is made, we may observe, by those and by those alone who now, as then, would wish to see the great mass of mankind subject to the despotic sway of nobles, priests, and kings. But although it is in one respect true that the aristocracy of wealth and rank has given place to the democracy of intellect, I would not insinuate that the evils of feudal despotism and superstition are altogether eradicated even from this enlightened country. Knowledge has done much, but it has not yet done all. We are still subject to a constitution which is at best a shattered fragment of the feudal system ; we are still subject to a priesthood who do whatever is yet in their power to excite a spirit of religious intolerance and to support the domination of a despotic aristocracy. We cannot therefore be surprised that those who are interested in misgovernment should raise a cry against the diffusion of knowledge on the ground that it renders the people dissatisfied with their institutions. When despotism and superstition were in their greatest vigour the same cry was raised, and for the same reason. Knowledge has triumphed. It has worked the downfall of much that is mischievous. It is in vain to suppose that it will pass by and spare any institution the existence of which is pernicious to mankind.