The Portable Enlightenment Reader - Isaac Kramnick (1995)





The French mathematician and philosopher Descartes (1596-1650) was one of the great precursors of the Enlightenment-indeed, one of the founders of modern rationalism. This famous selection is from his Discourse on Method, published in Latin in 1637.

Like a man who walks alone and in darkness, I resolved to go so slowly, and to use so much circumspection in everything, that if I did not advance speedily, at least I should keep from falling. I would not even have desired to begin by entirely rejecting any of the opinions which had formerly been able to slip into my belief without being introduced there by reason, had I not first spent much time in projecting the work which I was to undertake, and in seeking the true method of arriving at a knowledge of everything of which my understanding should be capable.

When I was younger, I had devoted a little study to logic, among philosophical matters, and to geometrical analysis and to algebra, among mathematical matters—three arts or sciences which, it seemed, ought to be able to contribute something to my design. But on examining them I noticed that the syllogisms of logic and the greater part of the rest of its teachings serve rather for explaining to other people the things we already know, or even, like the art of Lully, for speaking without judgment of things we know not, than for instructing us of them. And although they indeed contain many very true and very good precepts, there are always so many others mingled therewith that it is almost as difficult to separate them as to extract a Diana or a Minerva from a block of marble not yet rough hewn. Then, as to the analysis of the ancients and the algebra of the moderns, besides that they extend only to extremely abstract matters and appear to have no other use, the first is always so restricted to the consideration of figures that it cannot exercise the understanding without greatly fatiguing the imagination, and in the other one is so bound down to certain rules and ciphers that it has been made a confused and obscure art which embarrasses the mind, instead of a science which cultivates it. This made me think that some other method must be sought, which, while combining the advantages of these three, should be free from their defects. And as a multitude of laws often furnishes excuses for vice, so that a state is much better governed when it has but few, and those few strictly observed, so in place of the great number of precepts of which logic is composed, I believed that I should find the following four sufficient, provided that I made a firm and constant resolve not once to omit to observe them.

The first was, never to accept anything as true when I did not recognize it clearly to be so, that is to say, to carefully avoid precipitation and prejudice, and to include in my opinions nothing beyond that which should present itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to doubt it.

The second was, to divide each of the difficulties which I should examine into as many portions as were possible, and as should be required for its better solution.

The third was, to conduct my thoughts in order, by beginning with the simplest objects, and those most easy to know, so as to mount little by little, as if by steps, to the most complex knowledge, and even assuming an order among those which do not naturally precede one another.

And the last was, to make everywhere enumerations so complete, and surveys so wide, that I should be sure of omitting nothing.

The long chains of perfectly simple and easy reasons, which geometers are accustomed to employ in order to arrive at their most difficult demonstrations, had given me reason to believe that all things which can fall under the knowledge of man succeed each other in the same way, and that provided only we abstain from receiving as true any opinions which are not true, and always observe the necessary order in deducing one from the other, there can be none so remote that they may not be reached, or so hidden that they may not be discovered. And I was not put to much trouble to find out which it was necessary to begin with, for I knew already that it was with the simplest and most easily known; and considering that of all those who have heretofore sought truth in the sciences it is the mathematicians alone who have been able to find demonstrations, that is to say, clear and certain reasons, I did not doubt that I must start with the same things that they have considered, although I hoped for no other profit from them than that they would accustom my mind to feed on truths and not to content itself with false reasons. But I did not therefore design to try to learn all those particular sciences which bear the general name of mathematics: and seeing that although their objects were different they nevertheless all agree, in that they consider only the various relations or proportions found therein, I thought it would be better worth while if I merely examined these proportions in general, supposing them only in subjects which would serve to render the knowledge of them more easy to me, and even, also, without in any wise restricting them thereto, in order to be the better able to apply them subsequently to every other subject to which they should be suitable. Then, having remarked that in order to know them I should sometimes need to consider each separately, I had to suppose them in lines, because I found nothing more simple, or which I could more distinctly represent to my imagination and to my senses; but to retain them, or to comprehend many of them together, it was necessary that I should express them by certain ciphers as short as possible, and in this way I should borrow all the best in geometrical analysis, and in algebra, and correct all the faults of the one by means of the other.

I do not know whether I ought to discuss with you the earlier of my meditations, for they are so metaphysical and so out of the common that perhaps they would not be to everyone’s taste; and yet, in order that it may be judged whether the bases I have taken are sufficiently firm, I am in some measure constrained to speak of them. I had remarked for long that, in conduct, it is sometimes necessary to follow opinions known to be very uncertain, just as if they were indubitable, as has been said above; but then, because I desired to devote myself only to the research of truth, I thought it necessary to do exactly the contrary, and reject as absolutely false all in which I could conceive the least doubt, in order to see if afterwards there did not remain in my belief something which was entirely indubitable. Thus, because our senses sometimes deceive us, I wanted to suppose that nothing is such as they make us imagine it; and because some men err in reasoning, even touching the simplest matters of geometry, and make paralogisms, and judging that I was as liable to fail as any other, I rejected as false all the reasons which I had formerly accepted as demonstrations; and finally, considering that all the thoughts which we have when awake can come to us also when we sleep, without any of them then being true, I resolved to feign that everything which had ever entered into my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately afterwards I observed that while I thus desired everything to be false, I, who thought, must of necessity be something; and remarking that this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were unable to shake it, I judged that I could unhesitatingly accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.

Then, examining attentively what I was, and seeing that I could feign that I had no body, and that there was no world or any place where I was, but that nevertheless I could not feign that I did not exist, and that, on the contrary, from the fact that I thought to doubt of the truth of other things, it followed very evidently that I was; while if I had only ceased to think, although all else which I had previously imagined had been true I had no reason to believe that I might have been, therefore I knew that I was a substance whose essence or nature is only to think, and which, in order to be, has no need of any place, and depends on no material thing; so that this I, that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, and even easier to know than the body, and although the body were not, the soul would not cease to be all that it is.

After that I considered generally what is requisite to make a proposition true and certain; for since I had just found one which I knew to be so, I thought that I ought also to know in what this certainly consisted. And having remarked that there is nothing at all in this, I think, therefore I am, which assures me that I speak the truth, except that I see very clearly that in order to think it is necessary to exist, I judged that I might take it as a general rule that the things which we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are all true, and that there is difficulty only in seeing plainly which things they are that we conceive distinctly.

After this, and reflecting upon the fact that I doubted, and that in consequence my being was not quite perfect (for I saw clearly that to know was a greater perfection than to doubt), I bethought myself to find out from whence I had learned to think of something more perfect than I; and I knew for certain that it must be from some nature which was in reality more perfect. For as regards the thoughts I had of many other things outside myself, as of the sky, the earth, light, heat, and a thousand more, I was not so much at a loss to know whence they came, because, remarking nothing in them which seemed to make them superior to me, I could believe that if they were true they were dependencies of my nature, inasmuch as it had some perfection, and if they were not true that I derived them from nothing—that is to say, that they were in me because I had some defect. But it could not be the same with the idea of a Being more perfect than my own, for to derive it from nothing was manifestly impossible; and since it is no less repugnant to me that the more perfect should follow and depend on the less perfect than that out of nothing should proceed something, I could not derive it from myself; so that it remained that it had been put in me by a nature truly more perfect than I, which had in itself all perfections of which I could have any idea; that is, to explain myself in one word, God.



In his 1690 Essay on Human Understanding, from which this selection comes, Locke set forth what would become the Enlightenment’s dominant conception of the mind: a blank slate on which the sensations provided by sensory experience produce ideas.

1. Idea is the object of thinking.—Every man being conscious to himself that he thinks, and that which his mind is applied about whilst thinking being the ideas that are there, it is past doubt that men have in their minds several ideas, such as are those expressed by the words, “whiteness, hardness, sweetness, thinking, motion, man, elephant, army, drunkenness,” and others. It is in the first place then to be enquired, How he comes by them? I know it is a received doctrine, that men have native ideas and original characters stamped upon their minds in their very first being. This opinion I have at large examined already; and, I suppose, what I have said in the foregoing Book will be much more easily admitted, when I have shown whence the understanding may get all the ideas it has, and by what ways and degrees they may come into the mind; for which I shall appeal to everyone’s own observation and experience.

2. All ideas come from sensation or reflection.—Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE; in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation, employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring.

3. The objects of sensation one source of ideas.—First, our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things, according to those various ways wherein those objects do affect them; and thus we come by those ideas we have of yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet, and all those which we call sensible qualities; which when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces there those perceptions. This great source of most of the ideas we have, depending wholly upon our senses, and derived by them to the understanding, I call, SENSATION.

4. The operations of our minds the other source of them.—Secondly, the other fountain, from which experience fumisheth the understanding with ideas, is the perception of the operations of our own minds within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got; which operations, when the soul comes to reflect on and consider, do furnish the understanding with another set of ideas which could not be had from things without: and such are perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing, and all the different actings of our own minds; which we being conscious of, and observing in ourselves, do from these receive into our understanding as distinct ideas, as we do from bodies affecting our senses. This source of ideas every man has wholly in himself: and though it be not sense, as having nothing to do with external objects, yet it is very like it, and might properly enough be called internal sense. But as I call the other Sensation, so I call this REFLECTION, the ideas it affords being such only as the mind gets by reflecting on its own operations within itself. By Reflection, then, in the following part of this discourse, I would be understood to mean that notice which the mind takes of its own operations, and the manner of them, by reason whereof there come to be ideas of these operations in the understanding. These two, I say, viz., external material things as the objects of Sensation, and the operations of our own minds within as the objects of Reflection, are, to me, the only originals from whence all our ideas take their beginnings. The term operations here, I use in a large sense, as comprehending not barely the actions of the mind about its ideas, but some sort of passions arising sometimes from them, such as is the satisfaction or uneasiness arising from any thought.

5. All our ideas are of the one or the other of these.—The understanding seems to me not to have the least glimmering of any ideas which it doth not receive from one of these two. External objects furnish the mind with the ideas of sensible qualities, which are all those different perceptions they produce in us; and the mind furnishes the understanding with ideas of its own operations. These, when we have taken a full survey of them, and their several modes, combinations, and relations, we shall find to contain all our whole stock of ideas; and that we have nothing in our minds which did not come in one of these two ways. Let anyone examine his own thoughts, and thoroughly search into his understanding, and then let him tell me, whether all the original ideas he has there, are any other than of the objects of his senses, or of the operations of his mind considered as objects of his reflection; and how great a mass of knowledge soever he imagines to be lodged there, he will, upon taking a strict view, see that he has not any idea in his mind but what one of these two have imprinted, though perhaps with infinite variety compounded and enlarged by the understanding, as we shall see hereafter.



Locke was answered in 1696 by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716). There were innate ideas, Leibnitz insisted, and our senses were not the sole source of knowledge.

I find so many marks of unusual penetration in what Mr. Locke has given us on the Human Understanding and on Education, and I consider the matter so important, that I have thought I should not employ the time to no purpose which I should give to such profitable reading; so much the more as I have myself meditated deeply upon the subject of the foundations of our knowledge. This is my reason for putting upon this sheet some of the reflections which have occurred to me while reading his Essay on the Understanding.

Of all researches, there is none of greater importance, since it is the key to all others. The first book considers chiefly the principles said to be born with us. Mr. Locke does not admit them, any more than he admits innate ideas. He has doubtless had good reasons for opposing himself on this point to ordinary prejudices, for the name of ideas and principles is greatly abused. Common philosophers manufacture for themselves principles according to their fancy; and the Cartesians, who profess greater accuracy, do not cease to intrench themselves behind so-called ideas of extension, of matter, and of the soul, desiring to avoid thereby the necessity of proving what they advance, on the pretext that those who will meditate on these ideas will discover in them the same thing as they; that is to say, that those who will accustom themselves to their jargon and mode of thought will have the same prepossessions, which is very true.

My view, then, is that nothing should be taken as first principles but experiences and the axiom of identity or (what is the same thing) contradiction, which is primitive, since otherwise there would be no difference between truth and falsehood; and all investigation would cease at once, if to say yes or no were a matter of indifference. We cannot, then, prevent ourselves from assuming this principle as soon as we wish to reason. All other truths are demonstrable, and I value very highly the method of Euclid, who, without stopping at what would be supposed to be sufficiently proved by the so-called ideas, has demonstrated (for instance) that in a triangle one side is always less than the sum of the other two. Yet Euclid was right in taking some axioms for granted, not as if they were truly primitive and indemonstrable, but because he would have come to a standstill if he had wished to reach his conclusions only after an exact discussion of principles. Thus he judged it proper to content himself with having pushed the proofs up to this small number of propositions, so that it may be said that if they are true, all that he says is also true. He has left to others the task of demonstrating further these principles themselves, which besides are already justified by experience; but with this we are not satisfied in these matters. This is why Apollonius, Proclus, and others have taken the pains to demonstrate some of Euclid’s axioms. Philosophers should imitate this method of procedure in order finally to attain some fixed principles, even though they be only provisional, after the way I have just mentioned.

As for ideas, I have given some explanation of them in a brief essay printed in the Actes des Sçavans of Leipzig for November, 1684, which is entitled “Meditationes de Cognitione, Veritate, et Ideis”; and I could have wished that Mr. Locke had seen and examined it; for I am one of the most docile of men, and nothing is better suited to advance our thought than the considerations and remarks of clever persons, when they are made with attention and sincerity. I shall only say here, that true or real ideas are those whose execution we are assured is possible; the others are doubtful, or (in case of proved impossibility) chimerical. Now the possibility of ideas is proved as much a priori by demonstrations, by making use of the possibility of other more simple ideas, as a posteriori by experience; for what exists cannot fail to be possible. But primitive ideas are those whose possibility is indemonstrable, and which are in truth nothing else than the attributes of God.

I do not find it absolutely essential for the beginning or for the practice of the art of thinking to decide the question whether there are ideas and truths born with us; whether they all come to us from without or from ourselves; we will reason correctly provided we observe what I have said above, and proceed in an orderly way and without prejudice.

The question of the origin of our ideas and of our maxims is not preliminary in Philosophy, and we must have made great progress in order to solve it successfully. I think, however, that I can say that our ideas, even those of sensible things, come from within our own soul, of which view you can the better judge by what I have published upon the nature and connection of substances and what is called the union of the soul with the body. For I have found that these things had not been well understood. I am nowise in favor of Aristotle’s tabula rasa; and there is something substantial in what Plato called reminiscence. There is even something more; for we not only have a reminiscence of all our past thoughts, but also a presentiment of all our future thoughts. It is true that this is confused, and fails to distinguish them, in much the same way as when I hear the noise of the sea I hear that of all the particular waves which make up the noise as a whole, though without discerning one wave from another. Thus it is true in a certain sense, as I have explained, that not only our ideas, but also our sensations, spring from within our own soul, and that the soul is more independent than is thought, although it is always true that nothing takes place in it which is not determined, and nothing is found in creatures that God does not continually create.



In this selection from his Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733), Voltaire pays homage to Locke’s seminal contribution to theories of the mind.

Perhaps no man ever had a more judicious or more methodical mind, or was a more acute logician than Mr. Locke, and yet he was not a great mathematician. He could never subject himself to the tedious fatigue of calculations, nor to the dry pursuit of mathematical truths, which do not at first present any tangible objects to the mind; and no one has ever given better proofs than he, that it is possible for a man to have a geometrical head without the assistance of geometry. Before his time, several great philosophers had declared, in the most positive terms, what the soul of man is; but as these knew absolutely nothing about it, they might very well be allowed to differ entirely in opinion from one another.

In Greece, the cradle of arts and of errors, where the grandeur as well as the folly of the human mind went to such prodigious lengths, the people used to reason about the soul in the very same manner as we do.

The divine Anaxagoras, in whose honor an altar was erected for his having taught mankind that the sun was greater than Peloponnesus, that snow was black, and that the heavens were of stone, affirmed that the soul was an aerial spirit, but at the same time immortal. Diogenes (not he who was a cynical philosopher after having coined base money) declared that the soul was a portion of the substance of God: an idea which we must confess was very sublime. Epicurus maintained that it was composed of parts in the same manner as the body.

Aristotle, who has been explained in a thousand ways because he was unintelligible, was of the opinion, according to some of his disciples, that the understanding in all men is one and the same substance. The divine Plato, master of the divine Aristotle—and the divine Socrates, master of the divine Plato—used to say that the soul was corporeal and eternal. No doubt but the demon of Socrates had instructed him in the nature of it. Some people, indeed, pretended that a man who boasted his being attended by a familiar genius must infallibly be either a knave or a madman, but this kind of people are just too hard to please.

As for our Church Fathers, several in the primitive ages believed that the soul was human, and the angels and God corporeal. Men naturally improve upon every system. St. Bernard, as Father Mabillon confesses, taught that the soul after death did not behold God in the celestial regions, but conversed with Christ’s human nature only. However, he was not believed this time on his bare word; the adventure of the crusade having a little discredited his oracles. Afterwards a thousand Schoolmen arose, such as the Irrefragable Doctor, the Subtile Doctor, the Angelic Doctor, the Seraphic Doctor, the Cherubic Doctor, who were all sure that they had a very clear and distinct idea of the soul, and yet wrote in such a manner that one would conclude they were resolved no one should understand a word in their writings. Our Descartes, born to discover the errors of antiquity, and at the same time to substitute his own, and carried away by that systematic spirit which throws a cloud over the minds of the greatest men, thought he had demonstrated that the soul is the same thing as thought, in the same manner that matter, in his opinion, is the same as extension. He asserted that man thinks eternally and that the soul, at its coming into the body, is informed with the whole series of metaphysical notions: knowing God, infinite space, possessing all abstract ideas—in a word, completely endued with the most sublime lights, which it unhappily forgets at its issuing from the womb.

Father Malebranche, the Oratorian, in his sublime illusions, not only admitted innate ideas, but did not doubt of our living wholly in God, and that God is, as it were, our soul.

Such a multitude of reasoners having written the romance of the soul, a sage at last arose, who gave very modestly its history. Mr. Locke has displayed the human soul in the same manner as an excellent anatomist explains the springs of the human body. He everywhere takes the light of physics for his guide. He sometimes presumes to speak affirmatively, but then he presumes also to doubt. Instead of concluding at once what we know not, he examines gradually what we want to know. He takes an infant at the instant of his birth; he traces step by step the progress of his understanding; examines what things he has in common with brutes, and what he possesses above them. Above all, he consults his own experience, the awareness of his own thought.

“I shall leave,” says he, “to those who know more of this matter than I, the examining whether the soul exists before or after the organization of our bodies. But I confess that it is my lot to be animated with one of those heavy souls which do not always think; and I am even so unhappy as not to conceive how it is more necessary that the soul should think perpetually than that bodies should be forever in motion.”

With regard to myself, I shall boast that I have the honor to be as stupid in this particular as Mr. Locke. No one shall ever make me believe that I always think: and I am as little inclined as he could be to fancy that some weeks after I was conceived I was a very learned soul; knowing at that time a thousand things which I forgot at my birth; and possessing when in the womb (though to no manner of purpose) knowledge which I lost the instant I had occasion for it; and which I have never since been able to recover perfectly.

Mr. Locke, after having destroyed innate ideas; after having fully renounced the vanity of believing that we always think; after having laid down, from the most solid principles, that ideas enter the mind through the senses; having examined our simple and complex ideas; having traced the human mind through its several operations; having shown that all the languages in the world are imperfect, and the great abuse that is made of words every moment, he at last comes to consider the extent or rather the narrow limits of human knowledge. It is in this chapter that he presumed to advance, but very modestly, the following words: “We shall perhaps never be capable of knowing whether a being, purely material, thinks or not.” This sage assertion was, by more divines than one, looked upon as a scandalous declaration that the soul is material and mortal. Some Englishmen, devout after their way, sounded the alarm. The superstitious are the same in society as cowards in the army; they themselves are seized with a panic fear and communicate it to others. It was loudly exclaimed that Mr. Locke intended to destroy religion; nevertheless, religion had nothing to do with the business, it being a question purely philosophical, altogether independent of faith and revelation. Mr. Locke’s opponents needed but to examine, calmly and impartially, whether the declaring that matter can think implies a contradiction; and whether God is able to communicate thought to matter. But divines are too apt to begin their declarations by saying that God is offended when people differ from them in opinion; in which they too much resemble the bad poets, who used to declare publicly that Boileau spoke irreverently of Louis XIV, because he ridiculed their stupid productions. Bishop Stillingfleet got the reputation of being a calm and unprejudiced divine because he did not expressly make use of injurious terms in his dispute with Mr. Locke. That divine entered the lists against him, but he was defeated; for he argued as a Schoolman, and Locke as a philosopher, who was perfectly acquainted with the strong as well as the weak side of the human mind and fought with weapons whose temper he knew.

If I might presume to give my opinion on so delicate a subject after Mr. Locke, I would say that men have long disputed on the nature and the immortality of the soul. With regard to its immortality, it is impossible to give a demonstration of it, since its nature is still the subject of controversy; which, however, must be thoroughly understood before a person can be able to determine whether it is immortal or not. Human reason is so little able by itself to demonstrate the immortality of the soul, that it was absolutely necessary for religion to reveal it to us. It is of advantage to society in general, that mankind should believe the soul to be immortal; faith commands us to do this; nothing more is required, and the matter is cleared up at once. But it is otherwise with respect to its nature; it is of little importance to religion, which only requires the soul to be virtuous, whatever substance it may be made of. It is a clock which is given us to regulate, but the artisan has not told us of what materials the spring of this clock is composed....

Besides, we must not be apprehensive that any philosophical opinion will ever harm the religion of a country. Though our demonstrations clash directly with our mysteries, that is nothing to the purpose, for the latter are not less revered upon that account by our Christian philosophers, who know very well that the objects of reason and those of faith are of a very different nature. Philosophers will never form a religious sect, the reason of which is, their writings are not calculated for the common people, and they themselves are free from enthusiasm. If we divide mankind into twenty parts, it will be found that nineteen of these consist of persons employed in manual labor, who will never know that such a man as Mr. Locke existed. In the remaining twentieth part how few are readers? And among such as are so, twenty amuse themselves with romances to one who studies philosophy. The thinking part of mankind is confined to a very small number, and these will never disturb the peace and tranquillity of the world.

Neither Montaigne, Locke, Bayle, Spinoza, Hobbes, Lord Shaftesbury, Collins, nor Toland, lighted up the firebrand of discord in their countries; this has generally been the work of divines, who being at first puffed up with the ambition of becoming chiefs of a sect, grew very desirous of being the head of a party. But what do I say? All the works of the modem philosophers put together will never raise so much commotion as did the dispute among the Franciscans, over the form of their sleeves and cowls.



In 1740 Hume published his magisterial Treatise of Human Nature, the bible of skepticism, which insists that it is impossible to explain ultimate principles on anything other than the authority of experience. This selection, with its famous discussion of cause and effect with billiard balls, is from Hume’s own summary of the argument of his Treatise in his Abstract of a Book Lately Published: Entitled a Treatise of Human Nature.

This book seems to be wrote upon the same plan with several other works that have had a great vogue of late years in England. The philosophical spirit, which has been so much improved all over Europe within these last four score years, has been carried to as great length in this kingdom as in any other. Our writers seem even to have started a new kind of philosophy, which promises more both to the entertainment and advantage of mankind, than any other with which the world has been yet acquainted. Most of the philosophers of antiquity, who treated of human nature, have shown more of a delicacy of sentiment, a just sense of morals, or a greatness of soul, than a depth of reasoning and reflection. They content themselves with representing the common sense of mankind in the strongest lights, and with the best turn of thought and expression, without following out steadily a chain of propositions, or forming the several truths into a regular science. But ‘tis at least worth while to try if the science of man will not admit of the same accuracy which several parts of natural philosophy are found susceptible of. There seems to be all the reason in the world to imagine that it may be carried to the greatest degree of exactness. If, in examining several phenomena, we find that they resolve themselves into one common principle, and can trace this principle into another, we shall at last arrive at those few simple principles, on which all the rest depend. And tho’ we can never arrive at the ultimate principles, ’tis a satisfaction to go as far as our faculties will allow us.

This seems to have been the aim of our late philosophers, and, among the rest, of this author. He proposes to anatomize human nature in a regular manner, and promises to draw no conclusions but where he is authorized by experience. He talks with contempt of hypotheses; and insinuates, that such of our countrymen as have banished them from moral philosophy, have done a more signal service to the world, than my Lord Bacon, whom he considers as the father of experimental physics. He mentions, on this occasion, Mr. Locke, my Lord Shaftesbury, Dr. Mandeville, Mr. Hutcheson, Dr. Butler, who, tho’ they differ in many points among themselves, seem all to agree in founding their accurate disquisitions of human nature entering upon experience.

Beside the satisfaction of being acquainted with what most nearly concerns us, it may be safely affirmed, that almost all the sciences are comprehended in the science of human nature, and are dependent on it. The sole end of logic is to explain the principles and operations of our reasoning faculty, and the nature of our ideas; morals and criticism regard our tastes and sentiments; and politics consider men as united in society, and dependent on each other. This treatise therefore of human nature seems intended for a each other.This treatise therefore of human nature seems intended for a system of the sciences. The author has finished what regards logic, and has laid the foundation of the other parts in his account of the passions....

As his (the author’s book) contains a great number of speculations very new and remarkable, it will be impossible to give the reader a just notion of the whole. We shall therefore chiefly confine ourselves to his explication of our reasoning from cause and effect. If we can make this intelligible to the reader, it may serve as a specimen of the whole.

Our author begins with some definitions. He calls a perception whatever can be present to the mind, whether we employ our senses, or are actuated with passion, or exercise our thought and reflection. He divides our perceptions into two kinds, viz. impressions and ideas. When we feel a passion or emotion of any kind, or have the images of external objects conveyed by our senses; the perception of the mind is what he calls an impression, which is a word that he employs in a new sense. When we reflect on a passion or an object which is not present, this perception is an idea. Impressions, therefore, are our lively and strong perceptions; ideas are the fainter and weaker. This distinction is evident; as evident as that betwixt feeling and thinking.

The first proposition he advances, is, that all our ideas, or weak perceptions, are derived from our impressions, or strong perceptions, and that we can never think of any thing which we have not seen without us, or felt in our own minds. This proposition seems to be equivalent to that which Mr. Locke has taken such pains to establish, viz. that no ideas are innate. Only it may be observed as an inaccuracy of that famous philosopher, that he comprehends all our perceptions under the term of idea, in which sense it is false, that we have no innate ideas. For it is evident our stronger perceptions or impressions are innate, and that natural affection, love of virtue, resentment, and all the other passions, arise immediately from nature....

Our author thinks, “that no discovery could have been made more happily for deciding all controversies concerning ideas than this, that impressions always take the precedency of them, and that every idea with which the imagination is furnished, first makes its appearance in a correspondent impression. These latter perceptions are all so clear and evident, that they admit of no controversy; tho’ many of our ideas are so obscure, that ‘tis almost impossible even for the mind, which forms them, to tell exactly their nature and composition.” Accordingly, wherever any idea is ambiguous, he has always recourse to the impression, which must render it clear and precise. And when he suspects that any philosophical term has no idea annexed to it (as is too common) he always asks from what impression that idea is derived? And if no impression can be produced, he concludes that the term is altogether insignificant. ’Tis after this manner he examines our idea of substance and essence; and it were to be wished, that this rigorous method were more practiced in all philosophical debates.

’Tis evident, that all reasonings concerning matter of fact are founded on the relation of cause and effect, and that we can never infer the existence of one object from another, unless they be connected together, either mediately or immediately. In order, therefore to understand these reasonings, we must be perfectly acquainted with the idea of a cause; and in order to that, must look about us to find something that is the cause of another.

Here is a billiard-ball lying on the table, and another ball moving towards it with rapidity. They strike; and the ball, which was formerly at rest, now acquires a motion. This is as perfect an instance of the relation of cause and effect as any which we know, either by sensation or reflection. Let us therefore examine it. ‘Tis evident, that the two balls touched one another before the motion was communicated, and that there was no interval betwixt the shock and the motion. Contiguity in time and place is therefore a requisite circumstance to the operation of all causes. ’Tis evident likewise, that the motion, which was the cause, is prior to the motion, which was the effect. Priority in time, is therefore another requisite circumstance in every cause. But this is not all. Let us try any other balls of the same kind in a like situation, and we shall always find, that the impulse of the one produces motion in the other. Here therefore is a third circumstance, viz. that of a constant conjunction between the cause and effect. Every object like the cause, produces always some object like the effect. Beyond these three circumstances of contiguity, priority, and constant conjunction, I can discover nothing in this cause. The first ball is in motion; touches the second; immediately the second is in motion; and when I try the experiment with the same or like balls, in the same or like circumstances, I find, that upon the motion and touch of the one ball, motion always follows in the other. In whatever shape I turn this matter, and however I examine it, I can find nothing farther.

This is the case when both the cause and effect are present to the senses. Let us now see upon what our inference is founded, when we conclude from the one that the other has existed or will exist. Suppose I see a ball moving in a straight line towards another, I immediately conclude, that they will shock, and that the second will be in motion. This is the inference from cause to effect; and of this nature are all our reasonings in the conduct of life: on this is founded all our belief in history and from hence is derived all philosophy, excepting only geometry and arithmetic. If we can explain the inference from the shock of two balls, we shall be able to account for this operation of the mind in all instances.

Were a man, such as Adam, created in the full vigor of understanding, without experience, he would never be able to infer motion in the second ball from the motion and impulse of the first. It is not anything that reason sees in the cause, which make us infer the effect. Such an inference, were it possible, would amount to a demonstration, as being founded merely on the comparison of ideas. But no inference from cause to effect amounts to a demonstration, as being founded merely on the comparison of ideas. But no inference from cause to effect amounts to a demonstration. Of which there is this evident proof The mind can always conceive any effect to follow from any cause, and indeed any event to follow upon another: whatever we conceive is possible, at least in a metaphysical sense: but wherever a demonstration takes place, the contrary is impossible, and implies a contradiction. There is no demonstration, therefore, for any conjunction of cause and effect. And this is a principle which is generally allowed by philosophers.

It would have been necessary, therefore, for Adam (if he was not inspired) to have had experience of the effect, which followed upon the impulse of these two balls. He must have seen, in several instances, that when the one ball struck upon the other, the second always acquired motion. If he had seen a sufficient number of instances of this kind, whenever he saw the one ball moving towards the other, he would always conclude without hesitation, that the second would acquire motion. His understanding would anticipate his sight, and form a conclusion suitable to his past experience.

It follows, then, that all reasonings concerning cause and effect, are founded on experience, and that all reasonings from experience are founded on the supposition, that the course of nature will continue uniformly the same. We conclude, that like causes, in like circumstances, will always produce like effects. It may now be worth while to consider, what determines us to form a conclusion of such infinite consequence.

‘Tis evident, that Adam with all his science, would never have been able to demonstrate, that the course of nature must continue uniformly the same, and that the future must be conformable to the past. What is possible can never be demonstrated to be false; and ’tis possible the course of nature may change, since we can conceive such a change. Nay, I will go further, and assert, that he could not so much as prove by any probable arguments, that the future must be conformable to the past. All probable arguments are built on the supposition, that there is this conformity betwix the future and the past, and therefore can never prove it. This conformity is a matter of fact, and if it must be proved, will admit of no proof but from experience. But our experience in the past can be a proof of nothing for the future, but upon a supposition, that there is a resemblance betwixt them. This therefore is a point, which can admit of no proof at all, and which we take for granted without any proof.

We are determined by custom alone to suppose the future conformable to the past. When I see a billiard-ball moving towards another, my mind is immediately carried by habit to the usual effect, and anticipates my sight by conceiving the second ball in motion. There is nothing in these objects, abstractly considered, and independent of experience, which leads me to form any such conclusion: and even after I have had experience of many repeated effects of this kind, there is no argument, which determines me to suppose that the effect will be conformable to past experience. The powers, by which bodies operate, are entirely unknown. We perceive only their sensible qualities: and what reason have we to think, that the same powers will always be conjoined with the same sensible qualities?

’Tis not, therefore, reason, which is the guide of life, but custom. That alone determines the mind, in all instances, to suppose the future conformable to the past. However easy this step may seem, reason would never, to all eternity, be able to make it.

This is a very curious discovery, but leads us to others, that are still more curious. When I see a billiard-ball moving towards another, my mind is immediately carried by habit to the usual effect, and anticipate my sight by

conceiving the second ball in motion. But is this all? Do I nothing but CONCEIVE the motion of the second ball? No surely. I also BELIEVE that it will move. What then is this belief? And how does it differ from the simple conception of any thing? Here is a new question unthought of by philosophers.

When a demonstration convinces me of any proposition, it not only makes me conceive the proposition, but also makes me sensible, that ’tis impossible to conceive any thing contrary. What is demonstratively false implies a contradiction; and what implies a contradiction cannot be conceived. But with regard to any matter of fact, however strong the proof may be from experience, I can always conceive the contrary, tho’ I cannot always believe it. The belief, therefore, makes some difference betwix the conception to which we assent, and that to which we do not assent.

To account for this, there are only two hypotheses. It may be said, that belief joins some new idea to those which we may conceive without assenting to them. But this hypothesis is false. For first no such idea can be produced. When we simply conceive an object, we conceive it in all its parts. We conceive it as it might exist, tho’ we do not believe it to exist. Our belief of it would discover no new qualities. We may paint out the entire object in imagination without believing it. We may set it, in a manner, before our eyes, with every circumstance of time and place. ’Tis the very object conceived as it might exist; and when we believe it, we can do no more.

Secondly, The mind has a faculty of joining all ideas together, which involve not a contradiction; and therefore if belief consisted in some idea, which we add to the simple conception, it would be in a man’s power, by adding this idea to it, to believe any thing, which he can conceive.

SINCE therefore belief implies a conception, and yet is something more; and since it adds no new idea to the conception; it follows, that it is a different MANNER of conceiving an object; something that is distinguishable to the feeling, and depends not upon our will, as all our ideas do. My mind runs by habit from the visible object of one ball moving towards another, to the usual effect of motion in the second ball. It not only conceives that motion, but feels something different in the conception of it from a mere reverie of the imagination. The presence of this visible object, and the constant conjunction of that particular effect, render the idea different to the feeling from those loose ideas, which come into the mind without any introduction. This conclusion seems a little surprising; but we are led into it by a chain of propositions which admit of no doubt. To ease the reader’s memory I shall briefly resume them. No matter of fact can be proved but from its cause or its effect. Nothing can be known to be the cause of another but by experience. We can give no reason for extending to the future our experience in the past; but are entirely determined by custom, when we conceive an effect to follow, from its usual cause. But we also believe an effect to follow as well as conceive it. This belief joins no new idea to the conception. It only varies the manner of conceiving, and makes a difference to the feeling or sentiment. Belief, therefore, in all matters of fact arises only from custom, and is an idea conceived in a peculiar manner.

Our author proceeds to explain the manner or feeling, which renders belief different from a loose conception. He seems sensible, that ’tis impossible by words to describe this feeling, which every one must be conscious of in his own breast. He calls it sometimes a stronger conception, sometimes a more lively, a more vivid, a firmer, or a more intense conception. And indeed, whatever name we may give to this feeling, which constitutes belief, our author thinks it evident, that it has a more forcible effect on the mind than fiction and mere conception. This he proves by its influence on the passions and on the imagination; which are only moved by truth or what is taken for such....

By all that has been said the reader will easily perceive, that the philosophy contained in this book is very skeptical, and tends to give us a notion of the imperfections and narrow limits of human understanding. Almost all reasoning is there reduced to experience; and the belief, which attends experience, is explained to be nothing but a peculiar sentiment, or lively conception produced by habit. Nor is this all, when we believe anything of externalexistence, or suppose an object to exist a moment after it is no longer perceived, this belief is nothing but a sentiment of the same kind. Our author insists upon several other skeptical topics; and upon the whole concludes, that we assent to our faculties, and employ our reason only because we cannot help it. Philosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not nature too strong for it.



The French physician and philosopher la Mettrie (1709-1751) developed a totally mechanistic and materialistic theory of the human mind and of the brain’s functioning. The book from which this selection is taken, Man a Machine (1747), shocked even some of the most irreligious of his fellow philosophes.

A wise man should do more than study nature and truth; he should dare state the truth for the benefit of the few who are willing and able to think. As for the rest, who are the willing slaves of prejudice, they can no more attain truth than frogs can fly.

I reduce to two the systems of philosophers on the subject of man’s soul. The first and older system is materialism; the second is spiritualism.

The metaphysicians who hinted that matter may well be endowed with the faculty of thought did not perhaps reason too badly. Why? Because they had the very real advantage in this case of not expressing their true meaning. For to ask whether matter can think, without considering it otherwise than in itself, is like asking whether matter can tell time. It may be foreseen that we shall avoid this reef on which Locke had the bad luck to founder.

The Leibnitzians with their monads set up an unintelligible hypothesis. They rather spiritualized matter than materialized the soul. How can we define a being whose nature is absolutely unknown to us?

Descartes and all the Cartesians, among whom the followers of Malebranche have long been numbered, made the same mistake. They recognized two distinct substances in man, as if they had seen them, and actually counted them....

Experience and observation should here be our only guides. They are to be found throughout the records of physicians who were philosophers, and not in the works of philosophers who were not physicians. The former have traveled through and illuminated the labyrinth of man; they alone have exposed for us those vital elements hidden beneath the skin, which hides from us so many wonderful things. They alone, tranquilly contemplating our soul, have surprised it, a thousand times, both in its wretchedness and its glory, and have no more despised it in the first state, than admired it in the second. Once again we see that only physicians have the right to speak on this subject. What could the others, especially the theologians, have to tell us? Is it not ridiculous to hear them shamelessly dogmatize on a subject which lies completely out of their province and from which on the contrary they have been completely turned aside by obscure studies that have led them to a thousand prejudiced opinions, in a word, to fanaticism, which only increases their ignorance of the mechanism of the body?

But even though we have chosen the best guides, we shall still find many thorns and obstructions in our path.

Man is such a complicated machine that it is impossible to form a clear idea of it beforehand, and hence impossible to define it. For this reason, all the investigations which the greatest philosophers have conducted a priori, that is to say, by attempting in a way to use the wings of the spirit, have been fruitless. Thus it is only a posteriori or by seeking to discover the soul through the organs of the body, so to speak, that we can reach the highest probability concerning man’s own nature, even though one can not discover with certainty what that nature is.

Let us lean then on the staff of experience and pay no attention to the history of all idle philosophical theories. To be blind and to think that we can do without this staff is the worst kind of blindness. How truly a modem writer has said that through vanity alone do we fail to draw from secondary causes the same conclusions as from primary causes! We even should admire all these fine geniuses in their most useless works, Descartes, Malebranche, Leibnitz, Wolff, and the rest, but what profit, I ask, has anyone gained from their profound meditations, and from all their works? Let us start afresh then and discover not what has been thought, but what must be thought for the sake of repose in life.

There are as many different minds, characters, and customs, as there are different temperaments. Even Galen knew this truth, which Descartes carried so far as to claim that medicine alone could change minds and morals, along with bodies. It is true that melancholy, bile, phlegm, blood, etc., and the nature, abundance and diverse combinations of these humors, make one man different from another.

In disease the soul is sometimes hidden, showing no sign of life; sometimes it is so inflamed by fury that it seems to be doubled; sometimes imbecility vanishes and convalescence turns a fool into a wit. Sometimes the greatest genius becomes imbecile and no longer recognizable. Farewell then to all that fine knowledge, acquired at so high a price, and with so much trouble! Here is a paralytic, who asks if his leg is in bed with him; there is a soldier, who thinks he still has the arm which has been cut off. The memory of his old sensations, and of the place to which they were referred by his soul, is the cause of his illusion and kind of delirium. The mere mention of the member which he has lost is enough to make him remember and feel all its motions; and this produces an indefinable and inexpressible kind of imaginary suffering.

This man cries like a child at death’s approach, while this other jests. What was needed to change the bravery of Caius Julius, Seneca or Petronius into faintheartedness or cowardice? An obstruction in the spleen, in the liver, an impediment in the portal vein. Why? Because the imagination is obstructed along with the viscera, and this gives rise to all those strange phenomena of hysteria and hypochondria.

What could I add to what has been told of those who imagine themselves transformed into wolf-men, cocks or vampires, or those who think that the dead suck their blood? Why should I stop to speak of those who imagine that their noses or some other members are made of glass and who must be advised to sleep on straw to keep from breaking them, so that they may recover the use of their flesh-and-blood organs by setting the straw afire and scaring them—a fright that has sometimes cured paralysis? I must not tarry over facts that are common knowledge.

Nor shall I dwell at length on the effects of sleep. Take this tired soldier. He snores in a trench, to the sound of a hundred cannon. His soul hears nothing; his sleep is perfect apoplexy. A bomb is about to wipe him out. He will feel the shock less perhaps than an insect under his foot.

On the other hand, this man who is devoured by jealousy, hatred, avarice, or ambition, can never find any rest. The most peaceful spot, the coolest and most calming drinks, all have no effect on a man whose heart is a prey to the torment of passion.

The soul and the body fall asleep together. As the pulse gradually slows down, a sweet feeling of peace and quiet spreads throughout the whole machine. The soul feels itself gently sinking along with the eyelids and relaxing along with the fibers of the brain; thus little by little it becomes as if paralyzed along with all the muscles of the body. These can no longer sustain the weight of the head, and the soul can no longer bear the burden of thought; in sleep it is as if it did not exist.

Is the pulse too quick? the soul cannot sleep. Is the soul too agitated? the pulse cannot be quieted: the blood gallops through the veins with an audible murmur. Such are the two interacting causes of insomnia. A simple fright in our dreams makes the heart beat twice as fast and snatches us from needed or delightful repose, as a sharp pain or dire necessity would do. Lastly, just as the cessation of the functions of the soul induces sleep, the mind, even when we are awake (or in this case half awake), takes very frequent short naps, or day dreams, which show that the soul does not always wait for the body to sleep. For if the soul is not fast asleep, it surely is almost so, since it cannot point out a single object to which it has paid attention, among the countless confused ideas which, like so many clouds, so to speak, fill the atmosphere of our brains....

The human body is a machine which winds itself up, the living image of perpetual motion. Food nourishes the movements which fever excites. Without food, the soul pines away, goes mad, and dies exhausted. It is a candle whose light flares up the moment before it goes out. But nourish the body, pour into its veins invigorating juices and strong liquors; then the soul, taking on their strength, arms itself with a proud courage, and the soldier whom water would have made flee, now made bold, runs joyously to death to the sound of drums. Thus a warming drink excites the blood which a cold drink would have calmed.

What power there is in a meal! Joy is born again in a sad heart; it infects the souls of table-companions, who burst into the friendly songs in which the French excel. The melancholy man alone is dejected, and the studious man is likewise out of place....

In general, the form and structure of the brains of quadrupeds are almost the same as in man; the same shape, the same arrangement everywhere, but with this essential difference, that of all the animals man has the largest brain, and, in proportion to its mass, the brain with the most convolutions. Then comes the monkey, the beaver, the elephant, the dog, the fox, the cat, etc., animals which are the most like man; for among them, too, the same progressive analogy can be seen in relation to the corpus callosum, in which Lancisi established the seat of the soul—anticipating the late M. de la Peyronie, who illustrated the theory with a great many experiments.

After all the quadrupeds, birds have the most brains. Fish have large heads, but these are void of sense, like the heads of many men. Fish have no corpus callosum, and very little brain, while insects entirely lack brain....

The imbecile may not lack brain, as commonly observed, but its consistency will be faulty, for instance, in being too soft. The same thing is true of the insane; the defects of their brains do not always escape our investigation; but if the causes of imbecility, insanity, etc., are not perceptible, how can we hope to discover the causes of the diversity of minds in general? They would escape the eyes of a lynx and an Argus. A mere nothing, a tiny fiber, something that the most delicate dissection cannot discover, would have made two idiots of Erasmus and Fontenelle, and Fontenelle himself makes this observation in one of his best dialogues....

From animals to man, the transition is not violent, as good philosophers will admit. What was man before the invention of words and the knowledge of tongues? An animal of his species, who, with much less native instinct than the others, whose king he then considered himself to be, could not be distinguished from the ape and from the rest, except as the ape itself differs from the other animals; which means, by a face giving promise of more intelligence. Reduced to the bare “intuitive knowledge” of the Leibnitzians he saw only shapes and colors, without being able to distinguish between them; the same, old as young, child at all ages, he stammers out his feelings and needs, like a dog who asks for food when he is hungry or, tired of sleeping, wants to be let out.

Words, languages, laws, sciences, and the fine arts, have come, and by them our rough diamond of a mind has been polished. Man has been trained in the same way as animals; he has become an author, as they become beasts of burden. A geometrician has learned to perform the most difficult demonstrations and calculations, as a monkey has learned to take off or put on his little hat to mount his tame dog. All this has been done through signs, every species has learned what it could understand, and in this way men have acquired “symbolic knowledge,” still so called by our German philosophers....

All this knowledge, which blows up the balloon-like brains of our proud pedants, is therefore but a huge mass of words and figures, which form in the brain all the marks by which we distinguish and recall objects. All our ideas are awakened in the same way that a gardener who knows plants recalls, at the sight of them, all the stages of their growth. These words and the objects designated by them are so connected in the brain that it is comparatively rare to imagine a thing without the name or sign that is attached to it.

I always use the word “imagine,” because I think that everything is imagined and that all the faculties of the soul can be correctly reduced to pure imagination, which gives form to them all. Thus judgment, reason and memory, are in no wise absolute parts of the soul, but real modifications of the kind of medullary screen upon which images of the objects painted in the eye are reflected as by a magic lantern.

But if such is the marvelous and incomprehensible result of the structure of the brain, if everything is perceived and explained by imagination, why should we divide the sensitive principle which thinks in man? Is not this clearly an inconsistency on the part of those who uphold the simplicity of the mind? For a thing that can be divided can no longer without absurdity be regarded as indivisible. This is where we come to through the abuse of language and those fine words “spirituality,” “immateriality,” etc., used haphazardly and not understood even by the most intelligent....

We were not originally made to be learned; we have become so perhaps by a sort of abuse of our organic faculties, and at the expense of the State, which nourishes a host of loafers whom vanity has adorned with the name of “philosophers.” Nature created us all solely to be happy—yes, all, from the crawling worm to the eagle that soars out of sight in the clouds. That is why she has given all animals some share of natural law, a share of greater or less delicacy according to the needs of each animal’s organs when in good condition.

Now how shall we define natural law? It is a feeling which teaches us what we should not do, because we would not wish it to be done to us. Would I dare add to this common idea, that this feeling seems to me but a kind of fear or dread, as salutary to the race as to the individual? For perhaps we respect the purses and lives of others only to save our own possessions, our honor, and our own lives; like those “Ixions of Christianity” who love God and embrace so many fantastic virtues, merely because of their fear of hell.

You see that natural law is nothing but an intimate feeling which belongs also to the imagination like all other feelings, thought included. Consequently it evidently does not presuppose education, revelation or legislator, unless we confuse it with civil laws, in the ridiculous fashion of the theologians.

The arms of fanaticism may destroy those who maintain these truths, but they will never destroy the truths themselves.

Not that I call in question the existence of a supreme being; on the contrary it seems to me that the greatest degree of probability is in favor of this belief But since the existence of this being does not prove that one form of worship is more necessary than any other, it is a theoretic truth with very little practical value. Therefore, since we may say, after such long experience, that religion does not imply exact honesty, we are authorized by the same reasons to think that atheism does not exclude it.

Furthermore, who knows whether the reason for man’s existence is not simply the fact that he exists? Perhaps he was thrown by chance on some spot of the earth’s surface, nobody knows how or why, but simply that he must live and die, like mushrooms that appear from one day to the next, or like the flowers which border ditches and cover walls....

Let us conclude boldly then that man is a machine, and that in the whole universe there is but a single substance with various modifications. This is no hypothesis set up by dint of proposals and assumptions. It is not the work of prejudice, nor even of my reason alone; I would have disdained a guide which I believe so untrustworthy, had not my senses held the torch, so to speak, and induced me to follow reason by lighting the way. Experience has thus spoken to me in behalf of reason; and in this way I have combined the two.

But it must have been noticed that I have not allowed myself even the most forceful and immediately deduced reasoning, except as it followed a multitude of observations which no scholar will contest; and furthermore, I recognize only scientists as judges of the conclusions which I draw, and I hereby challenge every prejudiced man who is not an anatomist, or acquainted with the only philosophy which is to the purpose, that of the human body. Against such a strong and solid oak, what could the weak reeds of theology, metaphysics and scholasticism, avail; childish weapons, like our foils, which may well afford the pleasure of fencing, but can never wound an adversary. Need I say that I refer to the hollow and trivial notions, to the trite and pitiable arguments that will be urged, as long as the shadow of prejudice or superstition remains on earth, for the supposed incompatibility of two substances which meet and interact unceasingly? Such is my system, or rather the truth, unless I am very much mistaken. It is short and simple. Dispute it now who will.



An English physician and theologian, Hartley (1705-1757) is associated with the doctrine of “associationism,” which sought to explain how the ideas that Locke had suggested originate in sensory sensations become associated in a certain necessary order in the brain. This passage is from his 1749 book, Observations on Man.

I took notice in the Introduction, that those Ideas which resemble Sensations were called Ideas of Sensation; and also that they might be called simple Ideas, in respect of the intellectual ones which are formed from them, and of whose very Essence it is to be complex. But the Ideas of Sensation are not entirely simple, since they must consist of Parts both coexistent and successive, as the generating Sensations themselves do.

Now, that the simple Ideas of Sensation are thus generated, agreeably to the Proposition, appears, because the most vivid of these Ideas are those where the corresponding Sensations are most vigorously impressed, or most frequently renewed; whereas,,if the Sensation be faint, or uncommon, the generated Idea is also faint in proportion, and, in extreme Cases, evanescent and imperceptible. The exact Observance of the Order of Place in visible Ideas, and of the Order of Time in audible ones, may likewise serve to show, that these Ideas are Copies and Off-springs of the Impressions made on the Eye and Ear, in which the same Orders were observed respectively. And though it happens, that Trains of visible and audible Ideas are presented in Sallies of the Fancy, and in Dreams, in which the Order of Time and Place is different from that of any former Impressions, yet the small component Parts of these Trains are Copies of former Impressions; and Reasons may be given for the Varieties of their Compositions.

It is also to be observed, that this Proposition bears a great Resemblance to the Third; and that, by this Resemblance, they somewhat confirm and illustrate one another. According to the Third Proposition, Sensations remain for a short time after the Impression is removed; and these remaining Sensations grow feebler and feebler, till they vanish. They are therefore, in some Part of their Declension, of about the same Strength with Ideas, and, in their first State, are intermediate between Sensations and Ideas. And it seems reasonable to expect, that, if a single Sensation can leave a perceptible Effect, Trace, or Vestige, for a short time, a sufficient Repetition of a Sensation may leave a perceptible Effect of the same kind, but of a more permanent Nature, i.e. an Idea, which shall recur occasionally, at long Distances of Time, from the Impression of the corresponding Sensation, & vice versa. As to the Occasions and Causes, which make Ideas recur, they will be considered in the next Proposition but one.

The Method of Reasoning used in the last Paragraph, is farther confirmed by the following Circumstance; viz. That both the diminutive declining Sensations, which remain for a short Space after the Impressions of the Objects cease, and the Ideas, which are the Copies of such Impressions, are far more distinct and vivid, in respect of visible and audible Impressions, than of any others. To which it may be added, that, after Traveling, hearing Music, & c. Trains of vivid Ideas are very apt to recur, which correspond very exactly to the late Impressions, and which are of an intermediate Nature between the remaining Sensations of the Third Proposition, in their greatest Vigor, and the Ideas mentioned in this.

The Sensations of Feeling, Taste, and Smell, can scarce be said to leave Ideas, unless very indistinct and obscure ones. However, as Analogy leads one to suppose, that these Sensations may leave Traces of the same kind, tho’ not in the same degree, as those of Sight and Hearing ; so the Readiness with which we reconnoiter Sensations of Feeling, Taste, and Smell, that have been often impressed, is an Evidence, that they do so; and these generated Traces or Dispositions of Mind may be called the Ideas of Feeling, Taste, and Smell. In Sleep, when all our Ideas are magnified, those of Feeling, Taste, and Smell, are often sufficiently vivid and distinct; and the same thing happens in some few Cases of Vigilance....

This Correspondence of the diminutive Vibrations to the original sensory ones, consists in this, that they agree in Kind, Place, and Line of Direction; and differ only in being more feeble, i.e. in Degree.

This Proposition follows from the foregoing. For since Sensations, by being often repeated, beget Ideas, it cannot but be that those Vibrations, which accompany Sensations, should beget something which may accompany Ideas in like manner; and this can be nothing but feebler Vibrations, agreeing with the sensory generating Vibrations in Kind, Place, and Line of Direction.

Or thus: By the First Proposition it appears, that some Motion must be excited in the medullary Substance, during each Sensation; by the Fourth, this Motion is determined to be a vibratory one: Since therefore some Motion must also, by the Second, be excited in the medullary Substance during the Presence of each Idea, this Motion cannot be any other than a vibratory one: Else how should it proceed from the original Vibration attending the Sensation, in the same manner as the Idea does from the Sensation itself? It must also agree in Kind, Place, and Line of Direction, with the generating Vibration. A vibratory Motion, which recurs t times in a Second, cannot beget a diminutive one that recurs ½ t, or 2 t times; nor one originally impressed on the Region of the Brain corresponding to the auditory Nerves, beget diminutive Vibrations in the Region corresponding to the optic Nerves; and so of the rest. The Line of Direction must likewise be the same in the original and derivative Vibrations. It remains therefore, that each simple Idea of Sensation be attended by diminutive Vibrations of the same Kind, Place, and Line of Direction, with the original Vibrations attending the Sensation itself: Or, in the Words of the Proposition, that sensory Vibrations, by being frequently repeated, beget a Disposition to diminutive Vibrations corresponding to themselves respectively. We may add, that the vibratory Nature of the Motion which attends Ideas, may be inferred from the Continuance of some Ideas, visible ones for instance, in the Fancy for a few Moments.

This Proof of the present Proposition from the foregoing, appears to be incontestable, admitting the Fourth: However, it will much establish and illustrate the Doctrines of Vibrations and Association, to deduce it directly, if we can, from the Nature of vibratory Motions, and of an animal Body; and not only from the Relation between Sensations and Ideas. Let us see, therefore, what Progress we can make in such an Attempt.

First then, If we admit Vibrations of the medullary Particles at all, we must conceive, that some take place in the Fœtus in Utero, both on account of the Warmth in which it lies, and of the Pulsation of those considerable Arteries, which pass through the medullary Substance, and which consequently must compress and agitate it upon every Contraction of the Heart. And these Vibrations are probably either uniform in Kind and Degree, if we consider short Spaces of Time; or, if long ones, increase in a flow uniform manner, and that in Degree only, as the Fœtus in Utero increases in Bulk and Strength. They are also probably the same in all the different Regions of the medullary Substance. Let these Vibrations be called the Natural Vibrations.

Secondly, As soon as the Child is born, external Objects act upon it violently, and excite Vibrations in the medullary Substance, which differ from the natural ones, and from each other, in Degree, Kind, Place, and Line of Direction. We may also conceive, that each Region of the medullary Substance has such a Texture as to receive, with the greatest Facility, the several specific Vibrations, which the Objects corresponding respectively to these Regions, i.e., to their Nerves, are most disposed to excite. Let these Vibrations be, for the present, called preternatural ones, in Contradistinction to those which we just now called natural ones.

Thirdly, Representing now the natural Vibrations by N, and the preternatural ones, from various Objects, by A, B, C, etc. let us suppose the first Object to impress the Vibrations A, and then to be removed. It is evident from the Nature of vibratory Motions, that the medullary Substance will not, immediately upon the Removal of this Object, return to its natural State N, but will remain, for a short Space of Time, in the preternatural State A, and pass gradually from A to N. Suppose the same Object to be impressed again and again, for a sufficient Number of Times, and it seems to follow, that the medullary Substance will be longer in passing from A to N, after the second Impression, than after the first, after the third Impression than second, & c. till, at last, it will not return to its natural original State of Vibrations N at all, but remain in the preternatural State A, after the Vibrations have fallen to a diminutive Pitch, their Kind and Place, or chief Seat, and their Line of Direction, continuing the same. This State may therefore be fitly denoted by a, and, being now in the Place of the natural State N, it will be kept up by the Heat of the medullary Substance, and the Pulsation of its Arteries. All this seems to follow from the above-mentioned Disposition of animal Bodies to accommodate themselves to, and continue in, almost any State that is often impressed; which is evident from innumerable both common and medical Observations, whatever be determined concerning the Manner of explaining and accounting for these Facts. For the Alterations which Habit, Custom, frequent Impression, & c. make in the small constituent Particles, can scarce be any thing besides Alterations of the Distances, and mutual Actions, of these Particles; and these last Alterations must alter the natural Tendency to vibrate. We must, however, here resume the Supposition made in the last Paragraph, viz. that the several Regions of the Brain have such a Texture as disposes them to those specific Vibrations, which are to be impressed by the proper Objects in the Events of Life. And this will much facilitate and accelerate the Transition of the State N into a; since we are to suppose a Predisposition to the State A, or a.



In the English-speaking world, the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710-1796) was the principal critic of Lockean sensationalist and Humean skeptical theories of the mind. He is the father of what has come to be called the “Scottish” or “Common Sense” school. This selection is taken from his Inquiry into the Human Mind (1764) and Essay on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785).

Dedication, to the Right Honorable James, Earl of Findlater and Sea-field....

I acknowledge, my Lord, that I never thought of calling in question the principles commonly received with regard to the human understanding, until the “Treatise of Human Nature” was published in the year 1739. The ingenious author of that treatise upon the principles of Locke—who was no skeptic-hath built a system of skepticism, which leaves no ground to believe any one thing rather than its contrary. His reasoning appeared to me to be just; there was, therefore, a necessity to call in question the principles upon which it was founded, or to admit the conclusion.

But can any ingenuous mind admit this skeptical system without reluctance? I truly could not, my Lord; for I am persuaded that absolute skepticism is not more destructive of the faith of a Christian than of the science of a philosopher, and of the prudence of a man of common understanding. I am persuaded, that the unjust live by faith as well as the just; that, if all belief could be laid aside, piety, patriotism, friendship, parental affection, and private virtue, would appear as ridiculous as knight-errantry; and that the pursuits of pleasure, of ambition, and of avarice, must be grounded upon belief, as well as those that are honorable or virtuous.

The day-laborer toils at his work, in the belief that he shall receive his wages at night; and, if he had not this belief, he would not toil. We may venture to say, that even the author of this skeptical system wrote it in the belief that it should be read and regarded. I hope he wrote it in the belief also that it would be useful to mankind; and, perhaps, it may prove so at last. For I conceive the skeptical writers to be a set of men whose business it is to pick holes in the fabric of knowledge wherever it is weak and faulty; and, when these places are properly repaired, the whole building becomes more firm and solid than it was formerly.

For my own satisfaction, I entered into a serious examination of the principles upon which this skeptical system is built; and was not a little surprised to find, that it leans with its whole weight upon a hypothesis, which is ancient indeed, and hath been very generally received by philosophers, but of which I could find no solid proof. The hypothesis I mean, is, That nothing is perceived but what is in the mind which perceives it: That we do not really perceive things that are external, but only certain images and pictures of them impressed upon the mind, which are called impressions and ideas.

If this be true, supposing certain impressions and ideas to exist in my mind, I cannot, from their existence, infer the existence of anything else: my impressions and ideas are the only existences of which I can have any knowledge or conception; and they are such fleeting and transitory beings, that they can have no existence at all, any longer than I am conscious of them. So that, upon this hypothesis, the whole universe about me, bodies and spirits, sun, moon, stars, and earth, friends and relations, all things without exception, which I imagined to have a permanent existence, whether I thought of them or not, vanish at once;

And, like the baseless fabric of a vision, 
Leave not a rack behind.

I thought it unreasonable, my Lord, upon the authority of philosophers to admit a hypothesis which, in my opinion, overturns all philosophy, all religion and virtue, and all common sense—and, finding that all the systems concerning the human understanding which I was acquainted with, were built upon this hypothesis, I resolved to inquire into this subject anew, without regard to any hypothesis....

Upon the whole, it appears that our philosophers have imposed upon themselves and upon us, in pretending to deduce from sensation the first origin of our notions of external existences, of space, motion, and extension, and all the primary qualities of body—that is, the qualities whereof we have the most clear and distinct conception. These qualities do not at all tally with any system of the human faculties that hath been advanced. They have no resemblance to any sensation, or to any operation of our minds; and, therefore, they cannot be ideas either of sensation or of reflection. The very conception of them is irreconcilable to the principles of our philosophic systems of the understanding. The belief of them is no less so....

It is beyond our power to say when, or in what order, we came by our notions of these qualities. When we trace the operations of our minds as far back as memory and reflection can carry us, we find them already in possession of our imagination and belief, and quite familiar to the mind: but how they came first into its acquaintance, or what has given them so strong a hold of our belief, and what regard they deserve, are, no doubt, very important questions in the philosophy of human nature....

The wisdom of philosophy is set in opposition to the common sense of mankind. The first pretends to demonstrate, a priori, that there can be no such thing as a material world; that sun, moon, stars, and earth, vegetable and animal bodies, are, and can be nothing else, but sensations in the mind, or images of those sensations in the memory and imagination; that, like pain and joy, they can have no existence when they are not thought of. The last can conceive no otherwise of this opinion, than of a kind of metaphysical lunacy, and concludes that too much learning is apt to make men mad; and that the man who seriously entertains this belief, though in other respects he may be a very good man, as a man may be who believes that he is made of glass; yet, surely he hath a soft place in his understanding, and hath been hurt by much thinking....

If this is wisdom, let me be deluded with the vulgar. I find something within me that recoils against it, and inspires more reverent sentiments of the human kind, and of the universal administration. Common Sense and Reason have both one author; that Almighty Author in all whose other works we observe a consistency, uniformity, and beauty which charm and delight the understanding: there must, therefore, be some order and consistency in the human faculties, as well as in other parts of his workmanship. A man that thinks reverently of his own kind, and esteems true wisdom and philosophy, will not be fond, nay, will be very suspicious, of such strange and paradoxical opinions. If they are false, they disgrace philosophy; and, if they are true, they degrade the human species, and make us justly ashamed of our frame.

To what purpose is it for philosophy to decide against common sense in this or any other matter? The belief of a material world is older, and of more authority, than any principles of philosophy. It declines the tribunal of reason, and laughs at all the artillery of the logician. It retains its sovereign authority in spite of all the edicts of philosophy, and reason itself must stoop to its orders. Even those philosophers who have disowned the authority of our notions of an external material world, confess that they find themselves under a necessity of submitting to their power....

In order, therefore, to reconcile Reason to Common Sense in this matter, I beg leave to offer to the consideration of philosophers these two observations. First, that, in all this debate about the existence of a material world, it hath been taken for granted on both sides, that this same material world, if any such there be, must be the express image of our sensations; that we can have no conception of any material thing which is not like some sensation in our minds; and particularly that the sensations of touch are images of extension, hardness, figure, and motion. Every argument brought against the existence of a material world, either by the Bishop of Cloyne, or by the author of the “Treatise of Human Nature,” supposeth this. If this is true, their arguments are conclusive and unanswerable; but, on the other hand, if it is not true, there is no shadow of argument left. Have those philosophers, then, given any solid proof of this hypothesis, upon which the whole weight of so strange a system rests? No. They have not so much as attempted to do it. But, because ancient and modern philosophers have agreed in this opinion, they have taken it for granted. But let us, as becomes philosophers, lay aside authority; we need not, surely, consult Aristotle or Locke, to know whether pain be like the point of a sword. I have as clear a conception of extension, hardness, and motion as I have of the point of a sword; and with some pains and practice, I can form as clear a notion of the other sensations of touch as I have of pain. When I do so, and compare them together, it appears to me clear as daylight, that the former are not of kin to the latter, nor resemble them in any one feature. They are as unlike, yea as certainly and manifestly unlike, as pain is to the point of a sword. It may be true, that those sensations first introduced the material world to our acquaintance; it may be true, that it seldom or never appears without their company; but, for all that, they are as unlike as the passion of anger is to those features of the countenance which attend it.

So that, in the sentence those philosophers have passed against the material world, there is an error personae. Their proof touches not matter, or any of its qualities; but strikes directly against an idol of their own imagination, à material world made of ideas and sensations, which never had, nor can have, an existence.

Secondly, The very existence of our conceptions of extension, figure and motion, since they are neither ideas of sensation nor reflection, overturns the whole ideal system by which the material world hath been tried and condemned; so that there hath been likewise in this sentence an error juris.

It is a very fine and a just observation of Locke, that as no human art can create a single particle of matter, and the whole extent of our power over the material world consists in compounding, combining, and disjoining the matter made to our hands; so, in the world of thought, the materials are all made by nature, and can only be variously combined and disjoined by us. So that it is impossible for reason or prejudice, true or false philosophy, to produce one simple notion or conception, which is not the work of nature, and the result of our constitution. The conception of extension, motion, and the other attributes of matter, cannot be the effect of error or prejudice; it must be the work of nature. And the power of faculty by which we acquire those conceptions, must be something different from any power of the human mind that hath been explained, since it is neither sensation or reflection.


When we see the sun or moon, we have no doubt that the very objects which we immediately see are very far distant from us, and from one another. We have not the least doubt that this is the sun and moon which God created some thousands of years ago, and which have continued to perform their revolutions in the heavens ever since. But how are we astonished when the philosopher informs us that we are mistaken in all this; that the sun and moon which we see are not, as we imagine, many miles distant from us, and from each other, but that they are in our own mind; that they had no existence before we saw them, and will have none when we cease to perceive and to think of them; because the objects we perceive are only ideas in our own minds, which can have no existence a moment longer than we think of them!

If a plain man, uninstructed in philosophy, has faith to receive these mysteries, how great must be his astonishment! He is brought into a new world, where everything he sees, tastes, or touches, is an idea—a fleeting kind of being which he can conjure into existence, or can annihilate in the twinkling of an eye.

After his mind is somewhat composed, it will be natural for him to ask his philosophical instructor: Pray, Sir, are there then no substantial and permanent beings called the sun and moon, which continue to exist whether we think of them or not? ...

Almost all our perceptions have corresponding sensations which constantly accompany them, and, on that account, are very apt to be confounded with them. Neither ought we to expect that the sensation, and its corresponding perception, should be distinguished in common language, because the purposes of common life do not require it. Language is made to serve the purposes of ordinary conversation, and we have no reason to expect that it should make distinctions that are not of common use. Hence it happens that a quality perceived, and the sensation corresponding to that perception, often go under the same name.

This makes the names of most of our sensations ambiguous, and this ambiguity hath very much perplexed philosophers. It will be necessary to give some instances to illustrate the distinction between our sensations and the objects of perception.

When I smell a rose, there is in this operation both sensation and perception. The agreeable odor I feel, considered by itself without relation to any external object, is merely a sensation. It affects the mind in a certain way; and this affection of the mind may be conceived without a thought of the rose, or any other object. This sensation can be nothing else than it is felt to be. Its very essence consists in being felt, and, when it is not felt, it is not. There is no difference between the sensation and the feeling of it—they are one and the same thing. It is for this reason that we before observed that, in sensation, there is no object distinct from that act of the mind by which it is felt—and this holds true with regard to all sensations.

Let us next attend to the perception which we have in smelling a rose. Perception has always an external object; and the object of my perception, in this case, is that quality in the rose which I discern by the sense of smell. Observing that the agreeable sensation is raised when the rose is near, and ceases when it is removed, I am led, by my nature, to conclude some quality to be in the rose which is the cause of this sensation. This quality in the rose is the object perceived; and that act of my mind by which I have the conviction and belief of this quality is what in this case I call perception.

But it is here to be observed that the sensation I feel, and the quality in the rose which I perceive, are both called by the same name. The smell of a rose is the name given to both: so that this name hath two meanings; and the distinguishing its different meanings removes all perplexity and enables us to give clear and distinct answers to questions about which philosophers have held much dispute.

Thus, if it is asked whether the smell be in the rose, or in the mind that feels it, the answer is obvious: That there are two different things signified by the smell of a rose; one of which is in the mind, and can be in nothing but in a sentient being; the other is truly and properly in the rose. The sensation which I feel is in my mind. The mind is the sentient being; and, as the rose is insentient, there can be no sensation, nor anything resembling sensation, in it. But this sensation in my mind is occasioned by a certain quality in the rose, which is called by the same name with the sensation, not on account of any similitude, but because of their constant concomitancy.

All the names we have for smells, tastes, sounds, and for the various degrees of heat and cold, have a like ambiguity; and what has been said of the smell of a rose may be applied to them. They signify both a sensation and a quality perceived by means of that sensation. The first is the sign, the last the thing signified. As both are conjoined by nature, and as the purposes of common life do not require them to be disjoined in our thoughts, they are both expressed by the same name: and this ambiguity is to be found in all languages, because the reason of it extends to all.



One of Locke’s principal disciples was Condillac (1714-1780), a free-thinking French abbe, who popularized Locke’s conviction that all processes of the mind could be broken down into original units of sensation. This extract is the conclusion of his 1784 book, Treatise on Sensations, in which Condillac depicts a lifeless statue gradually acquiring the human “senses” of smell, taste, et cetera, one by one.

It is impossible for me to apply all the suppositions I have made; but those I have instanced prove at least that all our cognitions come from the senses, and particularly from touch, because touch is the sense which instructs all the others. If in allowing my statue sensations alone it has acquired from them particular and general ideas, and has rendered itself capable of all the operations of the understanding; if it has formed desires and passions which it obeys or resists; finally, if pleasure and pain are the unique principle of the development of its faculties, it is reasonable to conclude that we too at first had only sensations, and that our cognitions and our passions are the effect of the pleasures and the pains which accompany the impressions of the senses.

In fact the more I reflect on it, the more convinced I am that this is the sole source of our enlightenment and of our feelings. Consider enlightenment, as soon as we receive it we enjoy a new life, quite different from that which our brute sensations procured for us, if I may so express it. Consider feeling, observe it especially when it is increased by all the judgments we confuse with sense impressions, these sensations, then, which at first only gave us few and coarse pleasures, cause in us the most delicate pleasures, and these follow one another with astonishing variety. So the farther we get from the original sensations the more our life expands and is varied. It will extend to so many things, that we shall with difficulty understand how all our faculties can have one common principle in sensation.

When we have regard only to sensations devoid of judgments the life of one man is hardly different from that of another. The difference will be only in the degree of the liveliness of their feeling. Experience and reflexion will be for them what the chisel is in the hands of the sculptor who discovers a perfect statue in the formless stone, for according to the way in which experience and reflexion are used new enlightenment and new pleasures will emerge from sensations. In some cases the material will remain rough and unpolished, in others it will become the finished work. Considering the difference between one man and another, we are surprised to see how with the same duration some men enjoy more life than others. For to live is to enjoy, and life is much longer for him who knows how to multiply the objects of his enjoyment.

We have seen that enjoyment may begin with the first pleasurable sensation. For example, the first time we endowed our statue with sight, it had enjoyment in the fact that its eyes were no longer sealed in darkness. We must not, however, judge its pleasures by our own. Many sensations may be indifferent or even disagreeable to us if we are tired of them or desire livelier ones. Quite different is the statue’s situation. It may be enraptured with feelings which we do not deign to notice, or notice only with disgust.

Consider the sensation of light when touch first teaches the eyes to spread colors over the whole of nature. There are as many new feelings, and consequently as many new pleasures, as there are new enjoyments. We must reason in the same way with regard to all the other senses, and all the operations of the soul. For we not only enjoy by means of sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, but also by means of memory, imagination, reflexion, passions, and hope; in a word by all our faculties. But these sources of our enjoyment are not equally active in all men.

We compare pleasures and pains, that is to say, needs which call forth our faculties. Consequently it is to pleasures and pains that we owe the happiness we enjoy. As many as are our needs so many are our different enjoyments, and as many as are the degrees in our needs, so many are the degrees in our enjoyment. In this lies the germ of all we are, the source of our happiness and of our unhappiness. In the observation of this principle we have therefore our sole means of studying ourselves.

The history of our statue’s faculties make the progress of all these things clear. When it was limited to fundamental feeling, one uniform sensation comprised its whole existence, its whole knowledge, its whole pleasure. In giving it successively new modes of being, and new senses, we saw it form desires, learn from experience to regulate and satisfy them, and pass from needs to needs, from cognitions to cognitions, from pleasures to pleasures. The statue is therefore nothing but the sum of all it has acquired. May not this be the same with man?




While less well knowntoday, Locke’s essay on education, published in 1693, was widely read and deeply influential in the eighteenth century. Nowhere was this more the case than in Protestant America, where it became a principal guide on “how to breed” children.

I myself have been consulted of late by so many who profess themselves at a loss how to breed their children, and the early corruption of youth is now become so general a complaint that he cannot be thought wholly impertinent who brings the consideration of this matter on the stage, and offers something, if it be but to excite others, or afford matter of correction: for errors in education should be less indulged than any.

These, like faults in the first concoction, that are never mended in the second or third, carry their afterwards incorrigible taint with them through all the parts and stations of life....

I have spoken so much of carrying a strict hand over children, that perhaps I shall be suspected of not considering enough what is due to their tender age and constitutions. But that opinion will vanish, when you have heard me a little farther. For I am very apt to think, that great severity of punishment does but very little good; nay, great harm in education: and I believe it will be found, that, cæteris paribus, those children who have been most chastised, seldom make the best men. All that I have hitherto contended for, is, that whatsoever rigor is necessary, it is more to be used, the younger children are; and, having by a due application wrought its effect, it is to be relaxed, and changed into a milder sort of government.

A compliance, and suppleness of their wills, being by a steady hand introduced by parents, before children have memories to retain the beginnings of it, will seem natural to them, and work afterwards in them, as if it were so; preventing all occasions of struggling, or repining. The only care is, that it be begun early, and inflexibly kept to, till awe and respect be grown familiar, and there appears not the least reluctancy in the submission and ready obedience of their minds. When this reverence is once thus established, (which it must be early, or else it will cost pains and blows to recover it, and the more, the longer it is deferred) it is by it, mixed still with as much indulgence as they made not an ill use of, and not by beating, chiding, or other servile punishments, they are for the future to be governed, as they grow up to more understanding.

That this is so, will be easily allowed, when it is but considered what is to be aimed at, in an ingenuous education; and upon what it turns.

1. He that has not a mastery over his inclinations, he that knows not how to resist the importunity of present pleasure or pain, for the sake of what reason tells him is fit to be done, wants the true principle of virtue and industry; and is in danger of never being good for any thing. This temper, therefore, so contrary to unguided nature, is to be got betimes; and this habit, as the true foundation of future ability and happiness, is to be wrought into the mind, as early as may be, even from the first dawnings of my knowledge or apprehension in children; and so to be confirmed in them, by all the care and ways imaginable, by those who have the oversight of their education.

2. On the other side, if the mind be curbed, and humbled too much in children; if their spirits be abased and broken much, by too strict an hand over them; they lose all their vigor and industry, and are in a worse state than the former. For extravagant young fellows, that have liveliness and spirit, come sometimes to be set right, and so make able and great men: but dejected minds, timorous and tame, and low spirits, are hardly ever to be raised, and very seldom attain to any thing. To avoid the danger that is on either hand is the great art: and he that has found a way how to keep up a child’s spirit, easy, active, and free; and yet, at the same time, to restrain him from many things he has a mind to, and to draw him to things that are uneasy to him; he, I say, that knows how to reconcile these seeming contradictions, has, in my opinion, got the true secret of education.

The usual lazy and short way by chastisement, and the rod, which is the only instrument of government that tutors generally know, or ever think of, is the most unfit of any to be used in education; because it tends to both those mischiefs; which, as we have shown, are the Scylla and Charybdis, which, on the one hand or the other, ruin all that miscarry.

1. This kind of punishment contributes not at all to the mastery of our natural propensity to indulge corporal and present pleasure, and to avoid pain at any rate; but rather encourages it; and thereby strengthens that in us, which is the root, from whence spring all vicious actions and the irregularities of life. From what other motive, but of sensual pleasure, and pain, does a child act, who drudges at his book against his inclination, or abstains from eating unwholesome fruit, that he takes pleasure in, only out of fear of whipping? He in this only prefers the greater corporal pleasure, or avoids the greater corporal pain. And what is it to govern his actions, and direct his conduct, by such motives as these? what is it, I say, but to cherish that principle in him, which it is our business to root out and destroy? And therefore I cannot think any correction useful to a child, where the shame of suffering for having done amiss does not work more upon him than the pain.

2. This sort of correction naturally breeds an aversion to that which it is the tutor’s business to create a liking to. How obvious is it to observe, that children come to hate things which were at first acceptable to them, when they find themselves whipped, and chid, and teased about them? And it is not to be wondered at in them; when grown men would not be able to be reconciled to any thing by such ways. Who is there that would not be disgusted with any innocent recreation, in itself indifferent to him, if he should with blows, or ill language, be hauled to it, when he had no mind? or be constantly so treated, for some circumstances in his application to it? This is natural to be so. Offensive circumstances ordinarily infect innocent things, which they are joined with: and the very sight of a cup, wherein any one uses to take nauseous physic, turns his stomach; so that nothing will relish well out of it, though the cup be ever so clean, and well-shaped, and of the richest materials.

3. Such a sort of slavish discipline makes a slavish temper. The child submits, and dissembles obedience, whilst the fear of the rod hangs over him; but when that is removed, and, by being out of sight, he can promise himself impunity, he gives the greater scope to his natural inclination; which by this way is not at all altered, but on the contrary heightened and increased in him; and after such restraint, breaks out usually with the more violence. Or,

4. If severity carried to the highest pitch does prevail, and works a cure upon the present unruly distemper, it is often bringing in the room of it worse and more dangerous disease, by breaking the mind; and then, in the place of a disorderly young fellow, you have a low-spirited moped creature: who, however with his unnatural sobriety he may please silly people, who commend tame inactive children, because they make no noise, nor give them any trouble; yet, at last, will probably prove as uncomfortable a thing to his friends, as he will be, all his life, an useless thing to himself and others.

Beating then, and all other sorts of slavish and corporal punishments, are not the discipline fit to be used in the education of those who would have wise, good, and ingenuous men; and therefore very rarely to be applied, and that only on great occasions, and cases of extremity. On the other side, to flatter children by rewards of things that are pleasant to them, is as carefully to be avoided. He that will give to his son apples, or sugar-plums, or what else of this kind he is most delighted with, to make him learn his book, does but authorize his love of pleasure, and cocker up that dangerous propensity, which he ought by all means to subdue and stifle in him. You can never hope to teach him to master it, whilst you compound for the check you give his inclination in one place, by the satisfaction you propose to it in another. To make a good, a wise, and a virtuous man, it is fit he should learn to cross his appetite, and deny his inclination to riches, finery, or pleasing his palate, &c. whenever his reason advises the contrary, and his duty requires it. But when you draw him to do any thing that is fit, by the offer of money; or reward the pains of learning his book, by the pleasure of a luscious morsel; when you promise him a lace-cravat, or a fine new suit, upon performance of some of his little tasks; what do you, by proposing these as rewards, but allow them to be the good things he should aim at, and thereby encourage his longing for them, and accustom him to place his happiness in them? Thus people, to prevail with children to be industrious about their grammar, dancing, or some other such matter, of no great moment to the happiness or usefulness of their lives, by misapplied rewards and punishments, sacrifice their virtue, invert the order of their education, and teach them luxury, pride, or covetousness, &c. For in this way, flattering those wrong inclinations, which they should restrain and suppress, they lay the foundations of those future vices, which cannot be avoided, but by curbing our desires, and accustoming them early to submit to reason....

But if you take away the rod on one hand, and these little encouragements, which they are taken with, on the other; how then (will you say) shall children be governed? Remove hope and fear, and there is an end of all discipline. I grant, that good and evil, reward and punishment, are the only motives to a rational creature; these are the spur and reins, whereby all mankind are set on work and guided, and therefore they are to be made use of to children too. For I advise their parents and governors always to carry this in their minds, that children are to be treated as rational creatures.

The rewards and punishments then whereby we should keep children in order are quite of another kind; and of that force, that when we can get them once to work, the business, I think, is done, and the difficulty is over. Esteem and disgrace are, of all others, the most powerful incentives to the mind, when once it is brought to relish them. If you can once get into children a love of credit, and an apprehension of shame and disgrace, you have put into them the true principle, which will constantly work, and incline them to the right....

When he can write well, and quick, I think it may be convenient, not only to continue the exercise of his hand in writing, but also to improve the use of it farther in drawing, a thing very useful to a gentleman on several occasions, but especially if he travel, as that which helps a man often to express, in a few lines well put together, what a whole sheet of paper in writing would not be able to represent and make intelligible. How many buildings may a min see, how many machines and habits meet with, the ideas whereof would be easily retained and communicated by a little skill in drawing; which, being committed to words, are in danger to be lost, or at best but il. retained in the most exact descriptions? I do not mean that I would have your son a perfect painter; to be that to any tolerable degree, will require more time than a young gentleman can spare from his other improvements of greater moment; but so much insight into perspective, and skill in drawing, as will enable him to represent tolerably on paper any thing he sees, except faces, may, I think, be got in a little time, especially if he have a genius to it: but where that is wanting, unless it be in the things absolutely necessary, it is better to let him pass them by quietly, than to vex him about them to no purpose: and therefore in this, as in all other things not absolutely necessary, the rule holds, “Nihil invita Minerva.”

As soon as he can speak English, it is time for him to learn some other language: this nobody doubts of, when French is proposed. And the reason is, because people are accustomed to the right way of teaching that language, which is by talking it into children in constant conversation, and not by grammatical rules. The Latin tongue would easily be taught the same way, if his tutor, being constantly with him, would talk nothing else to him, and make him answer still in the same language. But because French is a living language, and to be used more in speaking, that should be first learned, that the yet pliant organs of speech might be accustomed to a due formation of those sounds, and he get the habit of pronouncing French well, which is the harder to be done the longer it is delayed.

When he can speak and read French well, which in this method is usually in a year or two, he should proceed to Latin, which it is a wonder parents, when they have had the experiment in French, should not think ought to be learned the same way, by talking and reading. Only care is to be taken, whilst he is learning these foreign languages, by speaking and reading nothing else with his tutor, that he do not forget to read English, which may be preserved by his mother, or somebody else, hearing him read some chosen parts of the scripture or other English book, every day.

Latin I look upon as absolutely necessary to a gentleman; and indeed custom, which prevails over every thing, has made it so much a part of education, that even those children are whipped to it, and made spend many hours of their precious time uneasily in Latin, who, after they are once gone from school, are never to have more to do with it, as long as they live. Can there be any thing more ridiculous, than that a father should waste his own money, and his son’s time, in setting him to learn the Roman language, when, at the same time, he designs him for a trade, wherein he, having no use of Latin, fails not to forget that little which he brought from schcol, and which it is ten to one he abhors for the ill usage it procured him? Could it be believed, unless we had every where amongst us examples of it, that a child should be forced to learn the rudiments of a language, which he is never to use in the course of life that he is designed to, and neglect all the while the writing a good hand, and casting accounts, which are of great advantage in all conditions of life, and to most trades indispensably necessary? But though these qualifications, requisite to trade and commerce, and the business of the world, are seldom or never to be had at grammar-schools; yet thither not only gentlemen send their younger sons intended for trades, but even tradesmen and farmers fail not to send their children, though they have neither intention nor ability to make them scholars. If you ask them, why they do this? they think it as strange a question, as if you should ask them why they go to church? Custom serves for reason, and has, to those that take it for reason, so consecrated this method, that it is almost religiously observed by them; and they stick to it, as if their children had scarce an orthodox education, unless they learned Lilly’s grammar.

But how necessary soever Latin be to some, and is thought to be to others, to whom it is of no manner of use or service, yet the ordinary way of learning it in a grammar-school, is that, which having had thoughts about, I cannot be forward to encourage. The reasons against it are so evident and cogent, that they have prevailed with some intelligent persons to quit the ordinary road, not without success, though the method made use of was not exactly that which I imagine the easiest, and in short is this: to trouble the child with no grammar at all, but to have Latin, as English has been, without the perplexity of rules, talked into him; for, if you will consider it, Latin is no more unknown to a child, when he comes into the world, than English: and yet he learns English without master, rule, or grammar: and so might he Latin too, as Tully did, if he had somebody always to talk to him in this language. And when we so often see a Frenchwoman teach an English girl to speak and read French perfectly, in a year or two, without any rule of grammar, or any thing else, but prattling to her; I cannot but wonder, how gentlemen have overseen this way for their sons, and thought them more dull or incapable than their daughters.



Probably the most important text the Enlightenment produced on the education of children, Rousseau’s Emile (1762) is a landmark in the discovery of childhood as a special stage of life with its “own methods of seeing, thinking, and feeling.” Rousseau was also one of the earliest advocates of state-sponsored public education. In the second selection, from his Discourse on Political Economy (1758), he insists that only when education is a civic responsibility will citizens be turned from love of self to public spirit.

Reasoning should not begin too soon—Locke’s great maxim was that we ought to reason with children, and just now this maxim is much in fashion. I think, however, that its success does not warrant its reputation, and I find nothing more stupid than children who have been so much reasoned with. Reason, apparently a compound of all other faculties, the one latest developed, and with most difficulty, is the one proposed as agent in unfolding the faculties earliest used! The noblest work of education is to make a reasoning man, and we expect to train a young child by making him reason! This is beginning at the end; this is making an instrument of a result. If children understood how to reason they would not need to be educated. But by addressing them from their tenderest years in a language they cannot understand, you accustom them to be satisfied with words, to find fault with whatever is said to them, to think themselves as wise as their teachers, to wrangle and rebel. And what we mean they shall do from reasonable motives we are forced to obtain from them by adding the motive of avarice, or of fear, or of vanity.

Nature intends that children shall be children before they are men. If we insist on reversing this order we shall have fruit early indeed, but unripe and tasteless, and liable to early decay; we shall have young savants and old children. Childhood has its own methods of seeing, thinking, and feeling. Nothing shows less sense than to try to substitute our own methods for these. I would rather require a child ten years old to be five feet tall than to be judicious. Indeed, what use would he have at that age for the power to reason? It is a check upon physical strength, and the child needs none.

In attempting to persuade your pupils to obedience you add to this alleged persuasion force and threats, or worse still, flattery and promises. Bought over in this way by interest, or constrained by force, they pretend to be convinced by reason. They see plainly that as soon as you discover obedience or disobedience in their conduct, the former is an advantage and the latter a disadvantage to them. But you ask of them only what is distasteful to them; it is always irksome to carry out the wishes of another, so by stealth they carry out their own. They are sure that if their disobedience is not known they are doing well; but they are ready, for fear of greater evils, to acknowledge, if found out, that they are doing wrong. As the reason for the duty required is beyond their capacity, no one can make them really understand it. But the fear of punishment, the hope of forgiveness, your importunity, their difficulty in answering you, extort from them the confession required of them. You think you have convinced them, when you have only wearied them out or intimidated them.

What results from this? First of all that, by imposing upon them a duty they do not feel as such, you set them against your tyranny, and dissuade them from loving you; you teach them to be dissemblers, deceitful, willfully untrue, for the sake of extorting rewards or of escaping punishments. Finally, by habituating them to cover a secret motive by an apparent motive, you give them the means of constantly misleading you, of concealing their true character from you, and of satisfying yourself and others with empty words when their occasion demands. You may say that the law, although binding on the conscience, uses constraint in dealing with grown men. I grant it; but what are these men but children spoiled by their education? This is precisely what ought to be prevented. With children use force, with men reason; such is the natural order of things. The wise man requires no laws....

Nothing is more uncertain than the life span of individual man; very few men reach old age. The greatest risks are incurred at the beginning of life: the less we have lived the less we may expect to live. Of the children that are born half at most grow to adolescence; thus it is probable that your pupil will not attain the age of manhood.

What must we think then of the barbarous education which sacrifices the present for an uncertain future, which surrounds a child with all sorts of fetters and begins by making him wretched in order to prepare him for a hypothetical future happiness that he will probably never live to enjoy? Even if I supposed this educational objective to be reasonable, how could I behold without indignation poor unfortunates bowed beneath an insupportable yoke and condemned like galley-slaves to perpetual labor, with no assurance that all this attention will ever be of service to them? The age of gaiety is passed over amid tears, chastisement, threats and slavery. We torment the poor child for his own good and do not see that we are summoning death, which will seize him in the midst of this sad business. Who knows how many children perish the victims of a father’s or tutor’s extravagant wisdom? Happy to escape their cruelty, the only advantage children derive from the ills they have been made to suffer is to die without regretting life, of which they have tasted only the sorrows.

Men, be humane, that is your first duty: be so for all conditions, all ages, all that is germane to man. What does wisdom avail you except as it concerns humanity? Cherish childhood, look with favor on its games, its pleasures, its friendly instincts. Who of you has not at times longed for that age when laughter is always bursting forth and the soul is ever at peace? Why do you want to rob these young innocents of the pleasures of such brief and fleeting hours and of such precious gifts, which they are too young to misuse? Why wish to fill with bitterness and grief these early years that pass so quickly and will not return for them any more than for us? Fathers, do you know the moment that death awaits your child? Do not prepare for yourselves a life of sorrow by robbing them of the brief moment that nature gives them: as soon as they are able to sense the pleasure of existing, see to it that they enjoy themselves, see to it that at whatever hour God calls them, they do not die without having tasted of life....

Let us not forget our human condition and pursue idle fancies. Humanity has its place in the general order; childhood, too, in the span of human life; we must look upon man in manhood and the child in childhood. To assign to each one his place and establish him in it, to order the human passions in accordance with man’s constitution, that is all we can do for his well being. The rest depends on extraneous circumstances that are beyond our power to control....

May I venture to state here that the greatest, most important, and most useful rule of all education is not to save time, but to lose it? Gentle reader, pardon my paradoxes: they follow necessarily upon reflection; and whatever you may say, I would rather be paradoxical than prejudiced. The most dangerous period of human life extends from birth to the age of twelve. That is the time when error and vice take root before there is any counteracting faculty; and when that faculty develops, the roots are so deep that it is too late to pull them up. If children jumped suddenly from the breast to the age of reason, the education that they now receive would suffice; but in the natural process of growth, they need an entirely different one. Their minds should be left uncultivated until all their faculties have developed; for until then it is impossible for them to see the light that you offer as a guide or to follow, in the immense realm of ideas, a path that reason traces ever so faintly even for the trained eye.

Early education should therefore be purely negative. It consists, not in teaching virtue or truth, but in protecting the heart from vice and the mind from error. If you could let your pupil alone and see that he is left alone; if you could bring him up sane and sound to the age of twelve, without his being able to tell his right hand from his left, then from his very first lessons, the eyes of his understanding would be open to reason; free from all prejudices and preconceptions, his mind would present no obstacle to the full effect of your teaching; and from a purely negative beginning, you would achieve an educational prodigy.

Proceed counter to customary practice and you will almost always be right. By trying to make a learned man out of a child, fathers and tutors begin all too soon tormenting, correcting, reprimanding, flattering, threatening, bribing, instructing, and reasoning. Rather than that, be reasonable and never reason with your pupil, especially when you want to make him change his dislikes; for by dragging reason into unpleasant matters you make it distasteful to him and discredit it early in a mind that is not ready to understand it....

You put your trust in the present order of society without thinking that this order is subject to inevitable revolutions and that you cannot possibly foresee or provide against the society with which your children may have to deal. The great become small, the rich become poor, the monarch a subject; are these strokes of fortune so rare that you can count on immunity? We are approaching a crisis and the age of revolutions. Who can guarantee what will become of you then? Everything men have made, men can destroy: nature’s characters alone are ineffaceable; and nature forms no princes, no rich men, or men of high degree.


There can be no patriotism without liberty, no liberty without virtue, no virtue without citizens; create citizens, and you have everything you need; without them, you will have nothing but debased slaves, from the rulers of the State downwards. To form citizens is not the work of a day; and in order to have men it is necessary to educate them when they are children. It will be said, perhaps, that whoever has men to govern, ought not to seek, beyond their nature, a perfection of which they are incapable; that he ought not to desire to destroy their passions; and that the execution of such an attempt is no more desirable than it is possible. I will agree, further, that a man without passions would certainly be a bad citizen; but it must be agreed also that, if men are not taught not to love some things, it is impossible to teach them to love one object more than another—to prefer that which is truly beautiful to that which is deformed. If, for example, they were early accustomed to regard their individuality only in its relation to the body of the State, and to be aware, so to speak, of their own existence merely as a part of that of the State, they might at length come to identify themselves in some degree with this greater whole, to feel themselves members of their country, and to love it with that exquisite feeling which no isolated person has save for himself; to lift up their spirits perpetually to this great object, and thus to transform into a sublime virtue that dangerous disposition which gives rise to all our vices. Not only does philosophy demonstrate the possibility of giving feeling these new directions; history furnishes us with a thousand striking examples. If they are so rare among us modems, it is because nobody troubles himself whether citizens exist or not, and still less does anybody think of attending to the matter soon enough to make them. It is too late to change our natural inclinations, when they have taken their course, and egoism is confirmed by habit: it is too late to lead us out of ourselves when once the human Ego, concentrated in our hearts, has acquired that contemptible activity which absorbs all virtue and constitutes the life and being of little minds. How can patriotism germinate in the midst of so many other passions which smother it? And what can remain, for fellow-citizens, of a heart already divided between avarice, a mistress, and vanity?

From the first moment of life, men ought to begin learning to deserve to live; and, as at the instant of birth we partake of the rights of citizenship, that instant ought to be the beginning of the exercise of our duty. If there are laws for the age of maturity, there ought to be laws for infancy, teaching obedience to others: and as the reason of each man is not left to be the sole arbiter of his duties, government ought the less indiscriminately to abandon to the intelligence and prejudices of fathers the education of their children, as that education is of still greater importance to the State than to the fathers: for, according to the course of nature, the death of the father often deprives him of the final fruits of education; but his country sooner or later perceives its effects. Families dissolve, but the State remains.

Should the public authority, by taking the place of the father, and charging itself with that important function, acquire his rights by discharging his duties, he would have the less cause to complain, as he would only be changing his title, and would have in common, under the name of citizen, the same authority over his children, as he was exercising separately under the name of father, and would not be less obeyed when speaking in the name of the law, than when he spoke in that of nature. Public education, therefore, under regulations prescribed by the government, and under magistrates established by the Sovereign, is one of the fundamental rules of popular or legitimate government. If children are brought up in common in the bosom of equality; if they are imbued with the laws of the State and the precepts of the general will; if they are taught to respect these above all things; if they are surrounded by examples and objects which constantly remind them of the tender mother who nourishes them, of the love she bears them, of the inestimable benefits they receive from her, and of the return they owe her, we cannot doubt that they will learn to cherish one another mutually as brothers, to will nothing contrary to the will of society, to substitute the actions of men and citizens for the futile and vain babbling of sophists, and to become in time defenders and fathers of the country of which they will have been so long the children.

I shall say. nothing of the Magistrates destined to preside over such an education, which is certainly the most important business of the State. It is easy to see that if such marks of public confidence were conferred on slight grounds, if this sublime function were not, for those who have worthily discharged all other offices, the reward of labor, the pleasant and honorable repose of old age, and the crown of all honors, the whole enterprise would be useless and the education void of success. For wherever the lesson is not supported by authority, and the precept by example, all instruction is fruitless; and virtue itself loses its credit in the mouth of one who does not practice it. But let illustrious warriors, bent under the weight of their laurels, preach courage: let upright Magistrates, grown white in the purple and on the bench, teach justice. Such teachers as these would thus get themselves virtuous successors, and transmit from age to age, to generations to come, the experience and talents of rulers, the courage and virtue of citizens, and common emulation in all to live and die for their country.



A schoolmaster at a Protestant Dissenting academy, Priestley was an educational innovator who introduced science, math, and commerce into the curriculum to better train students for an “active life” of business and citizenship. Ancient languages and the maxims of revered antiquity, he believed, would “not suit the world as it is at present. This selection is from Priestley’s 1765 Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life.

It seems to be a defect in our present system of public education that a proper course of studies is not provided for gentlemen who are designed to fill the principal stations of active life, distinct from those which are adapted to the learned professions. We have hardly any medium between an education for the counting-house, consisting of writing, arithmetic and merchants’ accounts and a method of institution in the abstract sciences: so that we have nothing liberal that is worth the attention of gentlemen, whose views neither of these two opposite plans may suit.

Formerly, none but the clergy were thought to have any occasion for learning. It was natural therefore that the whole plan of education from the grammar school to the finishing at the university, should be calculated for their use. If a few other persons who were not designed for holy orders, offered themselves for education, it could not be expected that a course of studies should be provided for them only. And indeed, as all those persons who superintended the business of education were of the clerical order and had themselves been taught nothing but the rhetoric, logic and school-divinity, or civil law, which comprised the whole compass of human learning for several centuries, it could not be expected that they should entertain larger or more liberal views of education; and still less that they should strike out a course of study for the use of men who were universally thought to have no need of study; and of whom few were so sensible of their own wants as to desire any such advantage....

That the parents and friends of young gentlemen destined to act in any of these important spheres may not think a liberal education unnecessary to them and that the young gentlemen themselves may enter with spirit into the enlarged views of their friends and tutors, I would humbly propose some new articles of academical instruction, such as have a nearer and more evident connection with the business of active life, and which may therefore bid fairer to engage the attention and rouse the thinking powers of young gentlemen of an active genius. The subjects I would recommend are civil history and more especially the important objects of civil policy; such as the theory of laws, government, manufactures, commerce, naval force etc., with whatever may be demonstrated from history to have contributed to the flourishing state of nations, to rendering a people happy and populous at home, and formidable abroad; together with those articles of previous information without which it is impossible to understand the nature, connections, and mutual influences of those great objects.

To give a clearer idea of the subjects I would propose to the study of youth at places of public and liberal education, I have subjoined plans of three distinct courses of lectures, which, I apprehend, may be subservient to this design, divided into such portions as experience has taught me, may be conveniently discussed in familiar lectures of an hour each.

The first course is on the study of history in general and in its most extensive sense. It will be seen to consist of such articles as tend to enable a young gentleman to read history with understanding, and to reap the most valuable fruits of that engaging study. I shall not go over the particulars of the course in this place: let the syllabus speak for itself. Let it only be observed that my view was not merely to make history intelligible to persons who may choose to read it for their amusement, but principally to facilitate its subserviency to the highest uses to which it can be applied; to contribute to its forming the able statesman, and the intelligent and useful citizen. It is true that this is comprising a great deal more than the title of the course will suggest. But under the head of Objects of attention to a reader of history, it was found convenient to discuss the principle of those subjects which every gentleman of a liberal education is expected to understand, though they do not generally fall under any division of the sciences in a course of academical education: and yet, without a competent knowledge of these subjects, no person can be qualified to serve his country except in the lowest capacities.

This course of lectures, it is also presumed, will be found to contain a comprehensive system of that kind of knowledge which is peculiarly requisite to gentlemen who intend to travel. For, since the great objects of attention to a reader of history and to a gentleman upon his travels are evidently the same, it must be of equal service to them both, to have their importance and mutual influences pointed out to them.

It will likewise be evident to any person who inspects this syllabus, that the subject of commerce has by no means been overlooked. And it is hoped that when those gentlemen who are intended to serve themselves and their country in the respectable character of merchants have heard the great maxims of commerce discussed in a scientifical and connected manner, as they deserve, they will not easily be influenced by notions adopted in a random and hasty manner, and from superficial views of things, whereby they might otherwise be induced to enter into measures seemingly gainful at present but in the end prejudicial to their country, and to themselves and their posterity, as members of it.

The next course of lectures, the plan of which is briefly delineated, is upon the history of England, and is designed to be an exemplification of the manner of studying history recommended in the former course, in which the great uses of it are shown, and the actual progress of every important object of attention distinctly marked, from the earliest accounts of the island to the present time.

To make young gentlemen still more thoroughly acquainted with their own country, a third course of lectures (in connection with the two others) is subjoined, viz. on its present constitution and laws. But the particular uses of these two courses of lectures need not be pointed out here, as they are sufficiently explained in the introductory addresses prefixed to each of them.

That an acquaintance with the subjects of these lectures is calculated to form the statesman, the military commander, the lawyer, the merchant and the accomplished country gentleman, cannot be disputed. The principal objection that may be made to this scheme is the introduction of these subjects into academies, and submitting them to the examination of youth, of the age at which they are usually sent to such places of education. It will be said by some that these subjects are too deep and too intricate for their tender age and weak intellects; and that, after all, it can be no more than an outline of these great branches of knowledge that can be communicated to youth....

I am aware of a different kind of objection from another quarter which it behooves me not to overlook. The advocates for the old plan of education and who dislike innovations in the number or the distribution of the sciences in which lectures are given, may object to the admission of these studies, as in danger of attracting the attention of those students who are designed for the learned professions and thereby interfering too much with that which has been found by the experience of generations, to be the best for scholars, the proper subjects of which are sufficient to fill up all their time, without these supernumerary articles. I answer that the subjects of these lectures are by no means necessary articles of a mere scholastic education, but that they are such as scholars ought to have some acquaintance with, and that without some acquaintance with them, they must on many occasions appear to great disadvantage in the present state of knowledge.

Time was when scholars might with a good grace disclaim all pretensions to any branch of knowledge, but what was taught in the universities. Perhaps they would be the more revered by the vulgar on account of such ignorance, as an argument of their being more abstracted from the world. Few books were written but by critics and antiquaries for the use of men like themselves. The literati of those days had comparatively little free intercourse but among themselves; the learned world and the common world being much more distinct from one another than they are now. Scholars by profession read, wrote, and conversed in no language but the Roman. They would have been ashamed to have expressed themselves in bad Latin, but not in the least of being guilty of any impropriety in the use of their mother tongue, which they considered as belonging only to the vulgar.

But those times of revived antiquity have had their use, and are now no more. We are obliged to the learned labors of our forefathers for searching into all the remains of antiquity, and illustrating valuable ancient authors; but their maxims of life will not suit the world as it is at present. The politeness of the times has brought the learned and the unlearned into more familiar intercourse than they had before. They find themselves obliged to converse upon the same topics. The subjects of modem history, policy, arts, manufactures, commerce etc. are the general topics of all sensible conversation. Everything is said in our own tongue, little is even written in a foreign or dead language; and every British author is studious of writing with propriety in his native English. Criticism, which was formerly the great business of a scholar’s life, is now become the amusement of a leisure hour, and this but to a few; so that a hundredth part of the time which was formerly given to criticism and antiquities is enough in this age to gain a man the character of a profound scholar. The topics of sensible conversation are likewise the favorite subjects of all the capital writings of the present age which are read with equal avidity by gentlemen, merchants, lawyers, physicians, and divines.

Now, when the course of reading, thinking and conversation, even among scholars, is become so very different from what it was, is it not reasonable that the plan of even scholastic education should in some measure vary with it? The necessity of the thing has already in many instances forced a change, and the same increasing necessity will either force a greater and more general change, or we must not be surprised to find our schools, academies, and universities deserted as wholly unfit to qualify men to appear with advantage in the present age.

In many private schools and academies, we find several things taught now which were never made the subjects of systematical instruction in former times; and in those of our universities in which it is the interest of the tutors to make their lectures of real use to their pupils, and where lectures are not mere matters of form, the professors find the necessity of delivering themselves in English. And the evident propriety of the thing must necessarily make this practice more general, notwithstanding the most superstitious regard to established customs.

But let the professors conduct themselves by what maxims they please, the students will of course be influenced by the taste of the company they keep in the world at large, to which young gentlemen in this age have an earlier admission than they had formerly. How can it be expected that the present set of students for divinity should apply to the study of the dead languages with the assiduity of their fathers and grand-fathers when they find so many of the uses of those languages no longer subsisting? What can they think it will avail them to make the purity of the Latin style their principal study for several years of the most improvable part of their life, when they are sensible that they shall have little more occasion for it than other gentlemen, or than persons in common life when they have left the university? And how can it be otherwise but that their private reading and studies should sometimes be different from the course of their public instructions, when the favorite authors of the public, the merits of whom they hear discussed in every company, even by their tutors themselves, write upon quite different subjects?

In such a state of things, the advantage of a regular systematical instruction in those subjects which are treated of in books that in fact engage the attention of all the world, the learned least of all excepted, and which enter into all conversations where it is worth a man’s while to bear a part, or to make a figure, cannot be doubted. And I am of opinion that these studies may be conducted in such a manner as will interfere very little with a sufficiently close application to others. Students in medicine and divinity may be admitted to these studies later than those for whose real use in life they are principally intended; not till they be sufficiently grounded in the classics, have studied logic, oratory, and criticism, or anything else that may be deemed useful, previous to those studies which are peculiar to their respective professions; and even then these new studies may be made a matter of amusement, rather than an article of business....

Some may object to the encouragement I would give the students to propose objections at the time of lecturing. This custom, they may say, will tend to interrupt the course of the lecture, and promote a spirit of impertinence and conceit in young persons. I answer that every inconvenience of this kind may be obviated by the manner in which a tutor delivers himself in lecturing. A proper mixture of dignity and freedom (which are so far from being incompatible that they mutually set off one another) will prevent, or repress, all impertinent and unseasonable remarks, at the same time that it will encourage those which are modest and pertinent.

But suppose a lecturer should not be able immediately to give a satisfactory answer to an objection that might be started by a sensible student. He must be conscious of his having made very ridiculous pretensions and having given himself improper airs, if it give him any pain to tell his class that he will reconsider a subject, or even to acknowledge himself mistaken. It depends wholly upon a tutor’s general disposition, and his usual manner of address, whether he lose or gain ground in the esteem of his pupils by such a declaration. Every tutor ought to have considered the subjects on which he gives lectures with attention, but no man can be expected to be infallible. For my own part, I would not forgo the pleasure and advantage which accrue both to my pupils and to myself from this method, together with the opportunity it gives me of improving my lectures, by means of the many useful hints which are often started in this familiar way of discoursing upon a subject, for any inconvenience I have yet found to attend it or that I can imagine may possibly attend it....

Some may perhaps object to these studies as giving too much encouragement to that turn for politics which they may think is already immoderate in the lower and middle ranks of men among us. But must not political knowledge be communicated to those to whom it may be of real use, because a fondness for the study may extend beyond its proper bounds and be caught by some persons who had better remain ignorant of it? Besides, it ought to be considered that how ridiculous soever some may make themselves by pretensions to politics, a true friend of liberty will be cautious how he discourages a fondness for that kind of knowledge which has ever been the favorite subject of writing and conversation in all free states. Only tyrants and the friends of arbitrary power have ever taken umbrage at a turn for political knowledge and political discourses among even the lowest of the people. Men will study and converse about what they are interested in especially if they have any influence; and though the ass in the fable was in no concern who was his master, since he could but carry his usual load, and though the subjects of a despotic monarch need not trouble themselves about political disputes and intrigues which never terminate in a change of measures, but only of men—yet, in a free country where even private persons have much at stake, every man is nearly interested in the conduct of his superiors, and cannot be an unconcerned spectator of what is transacted by them. With respect to influence, the sentiments of the lowest vulgar in England are not wholly insignificant, and a wise minister will ever pay some attention to them.

It is our wisdom, therefore, to provide that all persons who have any influence in political measures be well instructed in the great and leading principles of wise policy. This is certainly an object of the greatest importance. Inconveniences ever attend a general application to any kind of knowledge and no doubt will attend this. But they are inconveniences which a friend to liberty need be under no apprehensions about.

I may possibly promise myself too much from the general introduction of the studies I have recommended in this Essay into places of liberal education, but a little enthusiasm is always excusable in persons who propose and recommend useful innovations. I have endeavored to represent the state of education in this view as clearly and as fully as I have been able, and I desire my proposals for emendations to have no more weight than the fairest representation will give them in the minds of the cool and the unbiased.




A Dutchman who spent most of his life practicing medicine in England, Mandeville (1670-1733) wrote this poem, titled “The Grumbling Hives or Knaves Turn’d Honest,” in 1705. Its shocking defense of the moral legitimacy of self-interest was reinforced in 1714 when he added an accompanying prose text and the new title, The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Public Benefits.

A Spacious Hive well stock’d with Bees, 
That lived in Luxury and Ease; 
And yet as fam’d for Laws and Arms, 
As yielding large and early Swarms; 
Was counted the great Nursery 
Of Sciences and Industry.

No Bees had better Government, 
More Fickleness, or less Content. 
They were not Slaves to Tyranny, 
Nor ruled by wild Democracy; 
But Kings, that could not wrong, because 
Their Power was circumscrib’d by Laws.

These Insects lived like Men, and all 
Our Actions they perform’d in small: 
They did whatever’s done in Town, 
And what belongs to Sword, or Gown: 
Tho’ th’ Artful Works, by nimble Slight 
Of minute Limbs, ‘scaped Human Sight; 
Yet we’ve no Engines, Laborers, 
Ships, Castles, Arms, Artificers, 
Craft, Science, Shop, or Instrument; 
But they had an Equivalent: 
Which, since their Language is unknown, 
Must be call’d, as we do our own. 
As grant, that among other Things 
They wanted Dice, yet they had Kings; 
And those had Guards; from whence we may 
Justly conclude, they had some Play; 
Unless a Regiment be shewn 
Of Soldiers, that make use of none.

Vast Numbers thronged the fruitful Hive; 
Yet those vast Numbers made ‘em thrive; 
Millions endeavoring to supply 
Each other’s Lust and Vanity; 
Whilst other Millions were employ’d, 
To see their Handy-works destroy’d; 
They furnish’d half the Universe; 
Yet had more Work than Laborers. 
Some with vast Stocks, and little Pains 
Jump’d into Business of great Gains; 
And some were damn’d to Sythes and Spades, 
And all those hard laborious Trades; 
Where willing Wretches daily sweat,

And wear out Strength and Limbs to eat: 
Whilst others follow’d Mysteries, 
To which few Folks bind ’Prentices; 
That want no Stock, but that of Brass, 
And may set up without a Cross; 
As Sharpers, Parasites, Pimps, Players, 
Pick-Pockets, Coiners, Quacks, Sooth-Sayers, 
And all those, that, in Enmity 
With down-right Working, cunningly 
Convert to their own Use the Labor 
Of their good-natur’d heedless Neighbor. 
These were called Knaves; but, bar the Name, 
The grave Industrious were the Same. 
All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, 
No Calling was without Deceit.

The Lawyers, of whose Art the Basis 
Was raising Feuds and splitting Cases, 
Opposed all Registers, that Cheats. 
Might make more Work with dipt Estates; 
As were’t unlawful, that one’s own, 
Without a Law-Suit, should be known. 
They kept off Hearings willfully, 
To finger the refreshing Fee; 
And to defend a wicked Cause, 
Examin’d and survey’d the Laws; 
As Burglars Shops and Houses do; 
To find out where they’d best break through.

Physicians valued Fame and Wealth 
Above the drooping Patient’s Health, 
Or their own Skill: The greatest Part 
Study‘d, instead of Rules of Art, 
Grave pensive Looks, and dull Behavior; 
To gain th’ Apothecary’s Favor, 
The Praise of Mid-wives, Priests and all, 
That served at Birth, or Funeral; 
To bear with th’ ever-talking Tribe, 
And hear my Lady’s Aunt prescribe; 
With formal Smile, and kind How d’ye, 
To fawn on all the Family; 
And, which of all the greatest Curse is, 
T‘endure th’Impertinence of Nurses.

Among the many Priests of Jove, 
Hir’d to draw Blessings from Above, 
Some few were learn’d and eloquent, 
But Thousands hot and ignorant: 
Yet all past Muster, that could hide 
Their Sloth, Lust, Avarice and Pride; 
For which they were as famed, as Taylors 
For Cabbage; or for Brandy, Sailors: 
Some meager look‘d, and meanly clad 
Would mystically pray for Bread, 
Meaning by that an ample Store, 
Yet lit’rally receiv’d no more; 
And, whilst these holy Drudges starv‘d, 
The lazy Ones, for which they serv’d, 
Indulg’d their Ease, with all the Graces 
Of Health and Plenty in their Faces.

The Soldiers, that were forced to fight, 
If they survived, got Honor by’t; 
Tho’ some, that shunn’d the bloody Fray, 
Had Limbs shot off, that ran away: 
Some valiant Gen‘rals fought the Foe; 
Others took Bribes to let them go: 
Some ventur’d always, where ’twas warm; 
Lost now a Leg, and then an Arm; 
Till quite disabled, and put by, 
They lived on half their Salary; 
Whilst others never came in Play, 
And staid at Home for Double Pay.

Their Kings were serv’d; but Knavishly 
Cheated by their own Ministry; 
Many, that for their Welfare slaved, 
Robbing the very Crown they saved: 
Pensions were small, and they lived high, 
Yet boasted of their Honesty. 
Calling, whene‘er they strain’d their Right, 
The slipp’ry Trick a Perquisite; 
And, when Folks understood their Cant, 
They chang’d that for Emolument; 
Unwilling to be short, or plain, 
In any thing concerning Gain: 
For there was not a Bee, but would 
Get more, I won’t say, than he should; 
But than he dared to let them know, 
That pay’d for’t; as your Gamesters do, 
That, tho’ at fair Play, ne’er will own 
Before the Losers what they’ve won.

But who can all their Frauds repeat! 
The very Stuff, which in the Street 
They sold for Dirt t’enrich the Ground, 
Was often by the Buyers found 
Sophisticated with a Quarter 
Of Good-for-nothing, Stones and Mortar; 
Tho’ Flail had little Cause to mutter, 
Who sold the other Salt for Butter.

Justice her self, famed for fair Dealing, 
By Blindness had not lost her Feeling; 
Her Left Hand, which the Scales should hold, 
Had often dropt ‘em, bribed with Gold; 
And, tho’ she seem’d impartial, 
Where Punishment was corporal, 
Pretended to a reg’lar Course, 
In Murther, and all Crimes of Force; 
Tho’ some, first Pillory’d for Cheating, 
Were hang’d in Hemp of their own beating; 
Yet, it was thought, the Sword she bore 
Check’d but the Desp’rate and the Poor; 
That, urged by mere Necessity, 
Were tied up to the wretched Tree 
For Crimes, which not deserv’d that Fate, 
But to secure the Rich, and Great.

Thus every Part was full of Vice, 
Yet the whole Mass a Paradise; 
Flatter’d in Peace, and fear’d in Wars 
They were th’ Esteem of Foreigners, 
And lavish of their Wealth and Lives, 
The Balance of all other Hives. 
Such were the Blessings of that State; 
Their Crimes conspired to make ’em Great; 
And Virtue, who from Politicks 
Had learn’d a Thousand cunning Tricks, 
Was, by their happy Influence, 
Made Friends with Vice: And ever since 
The Worst of all the Multitude 
Did something for the common Good.

This was the State’s Craft, that maintain’d 
The Whole, of which each Part complain’d: 
This, as in Musick Harmony, 
Made Jarrings in the Main agree; 
Parties directly opposite 
Assist each oth’r, as ’twere for Spite; 
And Temp’rance with Sobriety 
Serve Drunkenness and Gluttony.

The Root of evil Avarice, 
That damn’d ill-natur’d baneful Vice, 
Was Slave to Prodigality, 
That Noble Sin; whilst Luxury 
Employ’d a Million of the Poor, 
And odious Pride a Million more. 
Envy it self, and Vanity 
Were Ministers of Industry; 
Their darling Folly, Fickleness 
In Diet, Furniture, and Dress, 
That strange ridic’lous Vice, was made 
The very Wheel, that turn’d the Trade. 
Their Laws and Clothes were equally 
Objects of Mutability; 
For, what was well done for a Time, 
In half a Year became a Crime; 
Yet whilst they alter’d thus their Laws, 
Still finding and correcting Flaws, 
They mended by Inconstancy 
Faults, which no Prudence could foresee.

Thus Vice nursed Ingenuity, 
Which join’d with Time, and Industry 
Had carry’d Life’s Conveniencies, 
It’s real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease, 
To such a Height, the very Poor 
Lived better than the Rich before; 
And nothing could be added more:

How vain is Mortal Happiness! 
Had they but known the Bounds of Bliss; 
And, that Perfection here below 
Is more, than Gods can well bestow, 
The grumbling Brutes had been content 
With Ministers and Government. 
But they, at every ill Success, 
Like Creatures lost without Redress, 
Cursed Politicians, Armies, Fleets, 
Whilst every one cry‘d, Damn the Cheats, 
And would, tho’ Conscious of his own, 
In Others barb’rously bear none.

One, that had got a Princely Store, 
By cheating Master, King, and Poor, 
Dared cry aloud; The Land must sink 
For all it’s Fraud; And whom d’ye think 
The Sermonizing Rascal chid? 
A Glover that sold Lamb for Kid.

The least Thing was not done amiss, 
Or cross’d the Public Business; 
But all the Rogues cry’d brazenly, 
Good Gods, had we but Honesty! 
Merc‘ry smiled at th’ Impudence; 
And Others call’d it want of Sence, 
Always to rail at what they loved: 
But Jove, with Indignation moved, 
At last in Anger swore, he’d rid 
The bawling Hive of Fraud, and did. 
The very Moment it departs, 
And Honesty fills all their Hearts; 
There shews ’em, like th’ Instructive Tree, 
Those Crimes, which they’re ashamed to see; 
Which now in Silence they confess, 
By Blushing at their Uglyness; 
Like Children, that would hide their Faults, 
And by their Color own their Thoughts; 
Imag’ning, when they’re look’d upon, 
That Others see, what they have done.

But, Oh ye Gods! What Consternation, 
How vast and sudden was th’ Alteration! 
In half an Hour, the Nation round, 
Meat fell a Penny in the Pound. 
The Mask Hypocrisie’s flung down, 
From the great Statesman to the Clown; 
And some, in borrow’d Looks well known, 
Appear’d like Strangers in their own. 
The Bar was silent from that Day; 
For now the willing Debtors pay, 
Ev’n what’s by Creditors forgot; 
Who quitted them, that had it not. 
Those, that were in the Wrong, stood mute, 
And dropped the patch’d vexatious Suit. 
On which, since nothing less can thrive, 
Than Lawyers in an honest Hive, 
All, except those, that got enough, 
With Ink-horns by their Sides troop’d off.

Justice hang’d some, set others free; 
And, after Goal delivery, 
Her Presence be‘ng no more requir’d, 
With all her Train, and Pomp retir’d. 
First march’d some Smiths, with Locks and Grates, 
Fetters, and Doors with Iron-Plates; 
Next Goalers, Turnkeys, and Assistants: 
Before the Goddess, at some distance, 
Her chief and faithful Minister 
Squire Catch, the Laws great Finisher, 
Bore not th’ imaginary Sword, 
But his own Tools, an Ax and Cord: 
Then on a Cloud the Hood-wink’d fair 
Justice her self was push’d by Air: 
About her Chariot, and behind, 
Were Sergeants, Bums of every kind, 
Tip-staffs, and all those Officers, 
That squeeze a Living out of Tears.

Tho’ Physick lived, whilst Folks were ill, 
None would prescribe, but Bees of Skill; 
Which, through the Hive dispers’d so wide, 
That none of ’em had need to ride, 
Waved vain Disputes; and strove to free 
The Patients of their Misery; 
Left Drugs in cheating Countries grown, 
And used the Product of their own, 
Knowing the Gods sent no Disease 
To Nations without Remedies.

Their Clergy rouz’d from Laziness, 
Laid not their Charge on Journey-Bees, 
But serv’d themselves, exempt from Vice, 
The Gods with Pray‘r and Sacrifice; 
All those, that were unfit, or knew, 
Their Service might be spared, withdrew: 
Nor was there Business for so many, 
(If th’ Honest stand in need of any.) 
Few only with the High-Priest staid, 
To whom the rest Obedience paid: 
Himself, employ’d in holy Cares, 
Resign’d to others State-Affairs: 
He chased no Starv’ling from his Door, 
Nor pinch’d the Wages of the Poor; 
But at his House the Hungry’s fed, 
The Hireling finds unmeasur’d Bread, 
The needy Trav’ler Board and Bed.

Among the King’s great Ministers, 
And all th’ inferior Officers 
The Change was great; for frugally 
They now lived on their Salary. 
That a poor Bee should Ten times come, 
To ask his Due, a trifling Sum, 
And by some well-hir’d Clerk be made, 
To give a Crown, or ne’er be paid; 
Would now be call’d a down-right Cheat, 
Tho’ formerly a Perquisite. 
All Places; managed first by Three, 
Who watch’d each other’s Knavery, 
And often for a Fellow-feeling, 
Promoted one another’s Stealing; 
Are happily supply’d by one; 
By which some Thousands more are gone.

No Honor now could be content, 
To live, and owe for what was spent. 
Liv’ries in Brokers Shops are hung, 
They part with Coaches for a Song; 
Sell stately Horses by whole Sets; 
And Country-Houses to pay Debts.

Vain Cost is shunn’d as much as Fraud; 
They have no Forces kept Abroad; 
Laugh at th’ Esteem of Foreigners, 
And empty Glory got by Wars; 
They fight but for their Country’s Sake, 
When Right or Liberty’s at Stake.

Now mind the glorious Hive, and see, 
How Honesty and Trade agree: 
The Shew is gone, it thins apace; 
And looks with quite another Face, 
For ‘twas not only that they went, 
By whom vast Sums were Yearly spent; 
But Multitudes, that lived on them, 
Were daily forc’d to do the Same. 
In vain to other Trades they’d fly; 
All were o’er-stock’d accordingly.

The Price of Land, and Houses falls; 
Mirac‘lous Palaces, whose Walls, 
Like those of Thebes, were raised by Play, 
Are to be let; whilst the once gay, 
Well-seated Household Gods would be 
More pleased t’expire in Flames, than see 
The mean Inscription on the Door 
Smile at the lofty Ones they bore. 
The Building Trade is quite destroy’d, 
Artificers are not employ’d; 
No Limner for his Art is famed; 
Stone-cutters, Carvers are not named.

Those, that remain‘d, grown temp’rate, strive, 
Not how to spend; but how to live; 
And, when they paid their Tavern Score, 
Resolv’d to enter it no more: 
No Vintners Jilt in all the Hive 
Could wear now Cloth of Gold and thrive; 
Nor Torcol such vast Sums advance, 
For Burgundy and Ortelans; 
The Courtier’s gone, that with his Miss 
Supp’d at his House on Christmass Peas; 
Spending as much in Two Hours stay, 
As keeps a Troop of Horse a Day.

The haughty Chloe, to live Great, 
Had made her Husband rob the State: 
But now she sells her Furniture, 
Which th’ Indies had been ransack’d for; 
Contracts th’ expensive Bill of Fare, 
And wears her strong Suit a whole Year: 
The slight and fickle Age is past; 
And Clothes, as well as Fashions last. 
Weavers that join’d rich Silk with Plate, 
And all the Trades subordinate, 
Are gone. Still Peace and Plenty reign, 
And every Thing is cheap, tho’ plain: 
Kind Nature, free from Gard‘ners Force, 
Allows all Fruits in her own Course; 
But Rarities cannot be had, 
Where Pains to get ’em are not paid.

As Pride and Luxury decrease, 
So by degrees they leave the Seas. 
Not Merchants now; but Companies 
Remove whole Manufacturies. 
All Arts and Crafts neglected lie; 
Content the Bane of Industry, 
Makes ’em admire their homely Store, 
And neither seek, nor covet more.

So few in the vast Hive remain; 
The Hundredth part they can’t maintain 
Against th’ Insults of numerous Foes; 
Whom yet they valiantly oppose: 
Till some well-fenced Retreat is found; 
And here they die, or stand their Ground. 
No Hireling in their Armies known; 
But bravely fighting for their own, 
Their Courage and Integrity 
At last were crown’d with Victory. 
They triumph’d not without their Cost; 
For many Thousand Bees were lost. 
Hard’ned with Toils, and Exercise 
They counted Ease it self a Vice; 
Which so improved their Temperance; 
That, to avoid Extravagance, 
They flew into a hollow Tree, 
Blest with Content and Honesty.


Then leave Complaints: Fools only strive 
To make a Great an honest Hive. 
T’ enjoy the World’s Conveniencies, 
Be famed in War, yet live in Ease 
Without great Vices, is a vain 
Eutopia seated in the Brain. 
Fraud, Luxury, and Pride must live 
Whilst we the Benefits receive. 
Hunger’s a dreadful Plague, no doubt, 
Yet who digests or thrives without? 
Do we not owe the Growth of Wine 
To the dry shabby crooked Vine? 
Which, whilst its Shutes neglected stood, 
Choak’d other Plants, and ran to Wood; 
But blest us with its Noble Fruit; 
As soon as it was tied, and cut: 
So Vice is beneficial found, 
When it’s by Justice lqpt, and bound; 
Nay, where the People would be great, 
As necessary to the State 
As Hunger is to make ’em eat. 
Bare Virtue can’t make Nations live 
In Splendor; they, that would revive 
A Golden Age, must be as free, 
For Acorns, as for Honesty.




One of the great poets of eighteenth-century England, Pope (1688- 1744) offers in his poem “An Essay on Man,” written in 1733, a characteristic Enlightenment vision of human nature. The following is an excerpt from Epistle II.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, 
The proper study of mankind is Man. 
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, 
A being darkly wise and rudely great: 
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side, 
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride, 
He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest; 
In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast; 
In doubt his mind or body to prefer; 
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err; 
Alike in ignorance, his reason such, 
Whether he thinks too little or too much; 
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused; 
Still by himself abused or disabused; 
Created half to rise, and half to fall; 
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; 
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d; 
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides; 
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides; 
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run, 
Correct old Time, and regulate the sun; 
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere, 
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair; 
Or tread the mazy round his followers trod, 
And quitting sense call imitating God; 
As eastern priests in giddy circles run, 
And turn their heads to imitate the sun. 
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

Superior beings, when of late they saw 
A mortal man unfold all Nature’s law, 
Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape, 
And show’d a NEWTON as we show an ape. 
Could he, whose rules the rapid comet bind, 
Describe or fix one movement of his mind? 
Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend, 
Explain his own beginning or his end? 
Alas! what wonder! Man’s superior part 
Uncheck’d may rise, and climb from art to art; 
But when his own great work is but begun, 
What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.

Trace Science then, with modesty thy guide; 
First strip off all her equipage of pride; 
Deduct what is but vanity or dress, 
Or learning’s luxury, or idleness, 
Or tricks to show the stretch of human brain, 
Mere curious pleasure, or ingenious pain; 
Expunge the whole, or lop th’ excrescent parts 
Of all, our vices have created arts; 
Then see how little the remaining sum, 
Which serv’d the past, and must the times to come!



Businessman, journalist, and writer, John Cleland (1710-1789) has the distinction of writing one of the enduring classics of erotic fiction. When his Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, was published in 1749, the bishop of London called it “an open insult upon religion and good manners.” This excerpt from the novel is a vivid reminder of the Enlightenment’s concern with the pursuit of pleasure.

Mr. H—had clapped a livery upon him; and his chief employ was, after being shown my lodgings, to bring and carry letters or messages between his master and me; and as the situation of all kept ladies is not the fittest to inspire respect even to the meanest of mankind, and perhaps less of it from the most ignorant, I could not help observing that this lad, who was, I suppose, acquainted with my relation to his master by his fellow servants, used to eye me in that bashful confused way, more expressive, more moving, and readier caught at by our sex than any other declarations whatever: my figure had, it seems, struck him, and modest and innocent as he was, he did not himself know that the pleasure he took in looking at me was love, or desire; but his eyes, naturally wanton, and now inflamed by passion, spoke a great deal more than he durst have imagined they did. Hitherto, indeed, I had only taken notice of the comeliness of the youth, but without the least design. My pride alone would have guarded me from a thought that way, had not Mr. H——’s condescension with my maid, where there was not half the temptation in point of person, set me a dangerous example; but now I began to look on this stripling as every way a delicious instrument of my designed retaliation upon Mr. H——, of an obligation for which I should have made a conscience to die in his debt.

In order then to pave the way for the accomplishment of my scheme, for two or three times that the young fellow came to me with messages, I managed so as without affectation to have him admitted to my bedside, or brought to me at my toilet, where I was dressing; and by carelessly showing or letting him see as if without meaning or design, sometimes my bosom rather more bare than it should be; sometimes my hair, of which I had a very fine head, in the natural flow of it while combing; sometimes a neat leg, that had unfortunately slipped its garter, which I made no scruple of tying before him, easily gave him the impressions favorable to my purpose, which I could perceive to sparkle in his eyes and glow in his cheeks. Then certain slight squeezes by the hand, as I took letters from him, did his business completely.

When I saw him thus moved and fired for my purpose, I inflamed him yet more by asking him several leading questions: such as had he a mistress?—was she prettier than me?—could he love such a one as I was?—and the like; to all which the blushing simpleton answered to my wish, in a strain of perfect nature, perfect undebauched innocence, but with all the awkwardness and simplicity of country breeding.

When I thought I had sufficiently ripened him for the laudable point I had in view, one day that I expected him at a particular hour, I took care to have the coast clear for the reception I designed him. And, as I had laid it, he came to the dining room door, tapped at it, and, on my bidding him come in, he did so and shut the door after him. I desired him then to bolt it on the inside, pretending it would not otherwise keep shut.

I was then lying at length on that very couch, the scene of Mr. H——’s polite joys, in an undress which was with all the art of negligence flowing loose, and in a most tempting disorder: no stays, no hoop—no encumbrance whatever; on the other hand, he stood at a little distance that gave me a full view of a fine featured, shapely, healthy, country lad, breathing the sweets of fresh blooming youth: his hair, which was of a perfect shining black, played to his face in natural side-curls and was set out with a smart tuck-up behind; new buckskin breeches that, clipping close, showed the shape of a plump well made thigh, white stockings, garter-laced livery, shoulder-knot, altogether composed a figure in which the beauties of pure flesh and blood appeared under no disgrace from the lowness of a dress, to which a certain spruce neatness seems peculiarly fitted.

I bid him come towards me and give me his letter, at the same time throwing down carelessly a book I had in my hands. He colored, and came within reach of delivering me the letter, which he held out awkwardly enough for me to take, with his eyes riveted on my bosom, which was, through the designed disorder of my handkerchief, sufficiently bare and rather shaded than hidden.

I, smiling in his face, took the letter, and immediately catching gently hold of his shirt-sleeve, drew him towards me, blushing and almost trembling; for surely his extreme bashfulness and utter inexperience called for at least all these advances to encourage him. His body was now conveniently inclined towards me, and just softly chucking his smooth beardless chin, I asked him, if he was afraid of a lady?—and with that taking and carrying his hand to my breasts, I pressed it tenderly to them. They were now finely furnished and raised in flesh, so that, panting with desire, they rose and fell, in quick heaves, under his touch: at this, the boy’s eyes began to lighten with all the fires of inflamed nature, and his cheeks flushed with a deep scarlet; tongue-tied with joy, rapture, and bashfulness, he could not speak, but then his looks, his emotion, sufficiently satisfied me that my train had taken, and that I had no disappointment to fear.

My lips, which I threw in his way, so as that he could not escape kissing them, fixed, fired and emboldened him, and now, glancing my eyes towards that part of his dress which covered the essential object of enjoyment, I plainly discovered the swell and commotion there, and as I was now too far advanced to stop in so fair a way, and was indeed no longer able to contain myself or wait the slower progress of his maiden bashfulness (for such it seemed, and really was), I stole my hand upon his thighs, down one of which I could both see and feel a stiff hard body, confined by his breeches, that my fingers could discover no end to. Curious then, and eager to unfold so alarming a mystery, playing, as it were, with his buttons, which were bursting ripe from the active force within, those of his waistband and foreflap flew open at a touch, when out it started; and now, disengaged from the shirt, I saw with wonder and surprise, what? not the plaything of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard that, had proportions been observed, it must have belonged to a young giant; its prodigious size made me shrink again. Yet I could not, without pleasure, behold and even ventured to feel such a length! such a breadth of animated ivory, perfectly well turned and fashioned, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish and velvet softness might vie with that of the most delicate of our sex, and whose exquisite whiteness was not a little set off by a sprout of black curling hair round the root, through the jetty sprigs of which the fair skin showed as, in a fine evening, you may have remarked the clear light ether, through the branch-work of distant trees, overtopping the summit of a hill. Then the broad and bluish-casted incarnate of the head and blue serpentines of its veins altogether composed the most striking assemblage of figure and colors in nature; in short, it stood an object of terror and delight.

But what was yet more surprising, the owner of this natural curiosity (through the want of occasions in the strictness of his home breeding, and the little time he had been in town not having afforded him one) was hitherto an absolute stranger, in practice at least, to the use of all that manhood he was so nobly stocked with; and it now fell to my lot to stand his first trial of it, if I could resolve to run the risks of its disproportion to that tender part of me which such an over-sized machine was very fit to lay in ruins.

But it was now of the latest to deliberate; for by this time, the young fellow, overheated with the present objects, and too high-mettled to be longer curbed in by that modesty and awe which had hitherto restrained him, ventured, under the stronger impulse and instructive promptership of nature alone, to slip his hands, trembling with eager impetuous desires, under my petticoats, and seeing, I suppose, nothing extremely severe in my looks to stop, or dash him, he feels out and seizes gently the center-spot of his ardors. Oh then! the fiery touch of his fingers determines me, and my fears melting away before the growing intolerable heat, my thighs disclose of themselves and yield all liberty to his hand; and now, a favorable movement giving my petticoats a toss, the avenue lay too fair, too open to be missed; he is now upon me. I had placed myself with a jet under him, as commodious and open as possible to his attempts, which were untoward enough, for his machine, meeting with no inlet, bore and battered stiffly against me in random pushes, now above, now below, now beside its point, till, burning with impatience from its irritating touches, I guided gently with my hand this furious fescue to where my young novice was now to be taught his first lesson of pleasure. Thus he nicked at length the warm and insufficient orifice; but he was made to find no breach practicable, and mine, though so often entered, was still far from wide enough to take him easily in.

By my direction, however, the head of his unwieldy machine was so critically pointed that, feeling him foreright against the tender opening, a favorable motion from me met his timely thrust, by which the lips of it, strenuously dilated, gave way to his thus assisted impetuosity, so that we might both feel that he had gained a lodgment; pursuing then his point, he soon, by violent and, to me, most painful piercing thrusts, wedges himself at least so far in as to be now tolerably secure of his entrance: here he stuck; and I now felt such a mixture of pleasure and pain as there is no giving a definition of. I dreaded, alike, his splitting me farther up or his withdrawing: I could not bear either to keep or part with him; the sense of pain, however, prevailing, from his prodigious size and stiffness, acting upon me in those continued rapid thrusts with which he furiously pursued his penetration, made me cry out gently: “Oh, my dear, you hurt me!” This was enough to check the tender respectful boy, even in his mid-career; and he immediately drew out the sweet cause of my complaint, whilst his eyes eloquently expressed at once his grief for hurting me and his reluctance at dislodging from quarters of which the warmth and closeness had given him a gust of pleasure that he was now desire-mad to satisfy, and yet too much a novice not to be afraid of my withholding his relief, on account of the pain he had put me to.

But I was myself far from being pleased with his having too much regarded my tender exclaims, for now more and more fired with the object before me, as it still stood with the fiercest erection, unbonneted and displaying its broad vermillion head, I first gave the youth a reencouraging kiss, which he repaid me with a fervor that seemed at once to thank me and bribe my farther compliance, and I soon replaced myself in a posture to receive, at all risks, the renewed invasion, which he did not delay an instant; for, being presently remounted, I once more felt the smooth hard gristle forcing an entrance, which he achieved rather easier than before. Pained, however, as I was, with his efforts of gaining a complete admission, which he was so regardful as to manage by gentle degrees, I took care not to complain. In the meantime, the soft strait passage gradually loosens, yields, and, stretched to its utmost bearing by the stiff, thick, in-driven engine, sensible at once to the ravishing pleasure of the feel and the pain of the distension, let him in about half way, when all the most nervous activity he now exerted to further his penetration gained him not an inch of his purpose; for, whilst he hesitated there, the crisis of pleasure overtook him, and the close compressure of the warm surrounding fold drew from him the ecstatic gush, even before mine was ready to meet it, kept up by the pain I had endured in the course of the engagement, from the unsufferable size of his weapon, though it was not as yet in above half its length.

I expected then, but without wishing it, that he would draw, but was pleasingly disappointed; for he was not to be let off so. The well-breathed youth, hot-mettled, and flush with genial juices, was now fairly in for making me know my driver. As soon, then, as he had made a short pause, waking, as it were, out of the trance of pleasure (in which every sense seemed lost for a while, whilst, with his eyes shut and short quick breathings, he had yielded down his maiden tribute), he still kept his post, yet unsated with enjoyment, and solacing in these so new delights, till his stiffness, which had scarce perceptibly remitted, being thoroughly recovered to him, who had not once unsheathed, he proceeded afresh to cleave and open to himself an entire entry into me, which was not a little made easy to him by the balsamic injection with which he had just plentifully moistened the whole internals of the passage. Redoubling, then, the active energy of his thrusts, favored by the fervid appetency of my motions, the soft oiled wards can no longer stand so effectual a picklock, but yield and open him an entrance: and now, with conspiring nature and my industry, strong to aid him, he pierces, penetrates, and at length, winning his way inch by inch, gets entirely in, and finally, a home-made thrust, sheathes it up to the guard; on the information of which, from the close jointure of our bodies (insomuch that the hair on both sides perfectly interweaved and encurled together), the eyes of the transported youth sparkled with more joyous fires, and all his looks and motions acknowledged excess of pleasure, which I now began to share, for I felt him in my very vitals! I was quite sick with delight! stirred beyond bearing with its furious agitations within me, and gorged and crammed even to a surfeit: thus I lay gasping, panting, under him, till his broken breathings, faltering accents, eyes twinkling with humid fires, lunges more furious, and an increased stiffness gave me to hail the approaches of the second period:—it came—and the sweet youth, overpowered with ecstasy, died away in my arms, melting in a flood that shot in genial warmth into the innermost recesses of my body, every conduit of which, dedicated to that pleasure, was on flow to mix with it. Thus we continued for some instants, lost, breathless, senseless of everything and in every part but those favorite ones of nature, in which all that we enjoyed of life and sensation was now totally con-centered.

When our mutual trance was a little over, and the young fellow had withdrawn that delicious stretcher with which he had most plentifully drowned all thoughts of revenge in the sense of actual pleasure, the widened wounded passage refunded a stream of pearly liquids, which flowed down my thighs, mixed with streaks of blood, the marks of the ravage of that monstrous machine of his, which had now triumphed over a kind of second maidenhead. I stole, however, my handkerchief to those parts and wiped them as dry as I could, whilst he was readjusting, and buttoning up.

I made him now sit down by me, and as he had gathered courage from such extreme intimacy, he gave me an aftercourse of pleasure, in a natural burst of tender gratitude and joy, at the new scenes of bliss I had opened to him; scenes positively so new that he had never before had the least acquaintance with that mysterious mark, the cloven stamp of female distinction, though nobody better qualified than he to penetrate into its deepest recesses or do it nobler jusrice. But when, by certain motions, certain unquietnesses of his hands, that wandered not without design, I found he languished for satisfying a curiosity natural enough, to view and handle those parts which attract and concenter the warmest force of imagination, charmed as I was to have any occasion of obliging and humoring his young desires, I suffered him to proceed as he pleased, without check or control, to the satisfaction of them.

Easily, then, reading in my eyes the full permission of myself to all his wishes, he scarce pleased himself more than me, when, having insinuated his hands under my petticoat and shift, he presently removed those bars to the sight by slily lifting them upwards, under favor of a thousand kisses, which he thought, perhaps, necessary to divert my attention to what he was about. All my drapery being now rolled up to my waist, I threw myself into such a posture upon the couch as gave up to him, in full view, the whole region of delight, and all the luxurious landscape round it. The transported youth devoured everything with his eyes and tried with his fingers to lay more open to his sight the secrets of that dark and delicious deep: he opens the folding lips, the softness of which, yielding entry to anything of a hard body, close round it, and oppose the sight; and feeling further, meets with, and wonders at, a soft fleshy excrescence, which, limber and relaxed after the late enjoyment, now grew, under the touch and examination of his fiery fingers, more and more stiff and considerable, till the titillating ardors of that so sensible part made me sigh as if he had hurt me. On which he withdrew his curious probing fingers, asking me pardon, as it were, in a kiss that rather increased the flame there.

Novelty ever makes the strongest impressions, and in pleasures especially: no wonder then that he was swallowed up in raptures of admiration of things so interesting by their nature, and now seen and handled for the first time. On my part, I was richly overpaid for the pleasure I gave him, in that of examining the power of those objects thus abandoned to him, naked and free to his loosest wish, over the artless, natural stripling: his eyes streaming fire, his cheeks glowing with a florid red, his fervid frequent sighs, whilst his hands convulsively squeezed, opened, pressed together again the lips and sides of that deep flesh-wound or gently twitched the over-growing moss; and all proclaimed the excess, the riot of joys, in having his wantonness thus humored. But he did not long abuse my patience, for the objects before him had now put him by all his, and coming out with that formidable machine of his, he lets the fury loose, and pointing it directly to the pouting-lipped mouth that bid him sweet defiance in dumb-show, squeezes in the head, and driving with refreshed rage, breaks in and plugs up the whole passage of that soft pleasure-conduit, where he makes all shake again, and put once more all within me into such an uproar as nothing could still but a fresh inundation from the very engine of those flames, as well as from all the springs with which nature floats that reservoir of joy, when risen to its floodmark.

I was now so bruised, so battered, so spent with this over-match that I could hardly stir or raise myself, but lay palpitating, till the ferment of my senses subsiding by degrees, and the hour striking at which I was obliged to dispatch my young man, I tenderly advised him of the necessity there was for parting, which I felt as much displeasure at as he could do, who seemed eagerly disposed to keep the field, and to enter on a fresh action; but the danger was too great, and after some hearty kisses of leave and recommendations of secrecy and discretion, I forced myself to force him away, not without assurances of seeing him again, to the same purpose, as soon as possible, and thrust a guinea into his hands: not more, lest, being too flush of money, a suspicion or discovery might arise from thence, having everything to fear from the dangerous indiscretion of that age in which young fellows would be too irresistible, too charming, if we had not that terrible fault to guard against.



In his Encylopédie entry for “enjoyment” (jouissance), Diderot unabashedly praises the naturalness of sexual pleasure. This was a recurring theme in his writings, as we see in the second selection below, from his Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville (1772).

ENJOYMENT, f. n. (Gram. and Moral.). To enjoy means to know, to experience, to feel the advantages of possession. One often possesses without enjoyment. Who owns these magnificent palaces? Who has planted these immense gardens? The sovereign. But who enjoys them? I do.

Let us leave these magnificent palaces that the sovereign has constructed for other people than himself, these enchanting gardens in which he never walks, and stop to contemplate pleasure that perpetuates the chain of living beings and to which we have consecrated the word enjoyment.

Among the objects that nature everywhere offers to our desires, you who have a soul, tell me if there is anything more worthy of your pursuit, anything that can make us happier than the possession and enjoyment of a being who thinks and feels as you do, who has the same ideas, who experiences the same sensations, the same ecstasies, who brings her affectionate and sensitive arms toward yours, who embraces you, whose caresses will be followed with the existence of a new being who will resemble one of you, who will look for you in the first movements of life to hug you, whom you will bring up by your side and love together, who will protect you in old age, who will respect you at all times, and whose happy birth has already strengthened the tie that bound you together?

Crude, insensitive, and unmoved beings who are deprived of life’s vital force and who surround us can be useful for our happiness, but without knowing or sharing it; and our sterile and destructive enjoyment, which affects all of these people, does not produce any real enjoyment in its turn.

If there is a perverse man who could take offense at the praise that I give to the most noble and universal of passions, I would evoke Nature before him, I would make it speak, and Nature would say to him: why do you blush to hear the word pleasure pronounced, when you do not blush to indulge in its temptations under the cover of night? Are you ignorant of its purpose and of what you owe it? Do you believe that your mother would have imperiled her life to give you yours if I had not attached an inexpressible charm to the embraces of her husband? Be quiet, unhappy man, and consider that pleasure pulled you out of nothingness.

The propagation of beings is the greatest object of nature. It imperiously solicits both sexes as soon as they have been granted their share of strength and beauty. A vague and brooding restlessness warns them of the moment; their condition is mixed with pain and pleasure. At that time they listen to their senses and turn their considered attention to themselves. But if an individual should be presented to another individual of the same species and of a different sex, then the feeling of all other needs is suspended: the heart palpitates; the limbs tremble; voluptuous images wander through the mind; a flood of spirits runs through the nerves, excites them, and proceeds to the seat of a new sense that reveals itself and torments the body. Sight is troubled, delirium is born; reason, the slave of instinct, limits itself to serving the latter, and nature is satisfied.

This is the way things took place at the beginning of the world, and the way they still take place in the back of the savage adult’s cave.

But when woman began to discriminate, when she appeared to take care in choosing between several men upon whom passion cast her glances, there was one who stopped them, who could flatter himself that he was preferred, who believed that he brought to the heart he esteemed the very esteem that he had for himself, and who considered pleasure as the recompense for some merit; then, when the veils that modesty cast over the charms of a woman allowed an inflamed imagination the power to dispose of them at will, the most delicate illusions competed with the most exquisite of senses to exaggerate the happiness of the moment; the soul was possessed with an almost divine enthusiasm; two young hearts lost in love vowed themselves to each other forever, and heaven heard the first indiscreet oaths.

Yet how many happy moments existed before the one in which the entire soul sought to spring forth and lose itself in the soul of the person loved! Enjoyment began the moment that hope was born.

Nevertheless confidence, time, nature, and the freedom of caresses led to the forgetfulness of self; one swore after experiencing the final ecstasy that there was no other person who could be compared to her (or to him); and this was true in these circumstances each time people had sensitive and young organs, a tender heart and an innocent soul unacquainted with either mistrust or remorse.


In the sharing of Bougainville’s crew among the Tahitians, the almoner was allotted to Orou; they were about the same age, thirty-five to thirty-six. Orou had then only his wife and three daughters, called Asto, Palli, and Thia. They undressed the almoner, bathed his face, hands, and feet, and served him a wholesome and frugal meal. When he was about to go to bed, Orou, who had been absent with his family, reappeared, and presenting to him his wife and three daughters, all naked, said: “You have eaten, you are young and in good health; if you sleep alone you will sleep badly, for man needs a companion beside him at night. There is my wife, there are my daughters; choose the one who pleases you best. But if you wish to oblige me you will give preference to the youngest of my daughters, who has not yet had any children.” The mother added: “Alas! But it’s no good complaining about it; poor Thia! it is not her fault.”

The almoner answered that his religion, his office, good morals and decency would not allow him to accept these offers.

Orou replied: “I do not know what this thing is that you call ‘religion’; but I can only think ill of it, since it prevents you from tasting an innocent pleasure to which nature, the sovereign mistress, invites us all; prevents you from giving existence to one of your own kind, from doing a service which a father, mother and children all ask of you, from doing something for a host who has received you well, and from enriching a nation, by giving it one more citizen. I do not know what this thing is which you call your ‘office,’ but your first duty is to be a man and to be grateful. I do not suggest that you should introduce into your country the ways of Orou, but Orou, your host and friend, begs you to lend yourself to the ways of Tahiti. Whether the ways of Tahiti are better or worse than yours is an easy question to decide. Has the land of your birth more people than it can feed? If so, your ways are neither worse nor better than ours. But can it feed more than it has? Our ways are better than yours. As to the sense of decency which you offer as objection, I understand you; I agree that I was wrong, and I ask your pardon. I do not want you to injure your health; if you are tired, you must have rest; but I hope that you will not continue to sadden us. See the care you have made appear on all these faces; they fear lest you should have found blemishes on them which merit your disdain. But when it is only the pleasure of doing honor to one of my daughters, amidst her companions and sisters, and of doing a good action, won’t that suffice you? Be generous!”

The Almoner: It’s not that: they are all equally beautiful; but my religion! my office!

Orou: They are mine and I offer them to you; they are their own and they give themselves to you. Whatever may be the purity of conscience which the thing “religion” and the thing “office” prescribe, you can accept them without scruple. I am not abusing my authority at all; be sure that I know and respect the rights of the individual.

Here the truthful almoner agrees that Providence had never exposed him to such violent temptation. He was young, he became agitated and tormented; he turned his eyes away from the lovely suppliants, and then regarded them again; he raised his hands and eyes to the sky. Thia, the youngest, clasped his knees and said: “Stranger, do not distress my father and mother, do not afflict me. Honor me in the hut, among my own people; raise me to the rank of my sisters, who mock me. Asto, the eldest, already has three children; the second, Palli, has two; but Thia has none at all. Stranger, honest stranger, do not repulse me; make me a mother, make me a child that I can one day lead by the hand, by my side, here in Tahiti; who may be seen held at my breast in nine months’ time; one of whom I shall be so proud and who will be part of my dowry when I go from my parents’ hut to another’s. I shall perhaps be more lucky with you than with our young Tahitians. If you will grant me this favor I shall never forget you; I shall bless you all my life. I shall write your name on my arm and on your son’s; we shall pronounce it always with joy. And when you leave these shores, my good wishes will go with you on the seas till you reach your own land.”

The candid almoner said that she clasped his knees, and gazed into his eyes so expressively and so touchingly; that she wept; that her father, mother and sisters withdrew; that he remained alone with her, and that, still saying “my religion, my office,” he found himself the next morning lying beside the young girl, who overwhelmed him with caresses, and who invited her parents and sisters, when they came to their bed in the morning, to join their gratitude to hers. Asto and Palli, who had withdrawn, returned bringing food, fruits and drink. They kissed their sister and made vows over her: They all ate together.

Then Orou, left alone with the almoner, said to him: “I see that my daughter is well satisfied with you and I thank you. But would you teach me what is meant by this word ‘religion’ which you have repeated so many times and so sorrowfully?”

The almoner, after having mused a moment, answered: “Who made your hut and the things which furnish it?”









A debate raged among Enlightenment thinkers on whether human beings were motivated principally by self-interest or by some feelings of empathy or benevolence to others. If Mandeville was firmly in the former camp, the Scottish minister and professor of moral philosophy Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) was a leader of the latter. In this selection from his System of Moral Philosophy (1755), he provides his school its name, “moral sense. ”

There is therefore, as each one by close attention and reflection may convince himself, a natural and immediate determination to approve certain affections, and actions consequent upon them; or a natural sense of immediate excellence in them, not referred to any other quality perceivable by our other senses or by reasoning. When we call this determination a sense or instinct, we are not supposing it of that low kind dependent on bodily organs, such as even the brutes have. It may be a constant settled determination in the soul itself, as much as our powers of judging and reasoning. And ’tis pretty plain that reason is only a subservient power to our ultimate determinations either of perception or will. The ultimate end is settled by some sense, and some determination of will: by some sense we enjoy happiness, and self-love determines to it without reasoning. Reason can only direct to the means; or compare two ends previously constituted by some other immediate powers.

In other animal-kinds each one has instincts toward its proper action, and has the highest enjoyment in following them, even with toil and some pain. Can we suppose mankind void of such principles? as brutes seem not to reflect on their own temper and actions, or that of others, they may feel no more than present delight in following their impulses. But in men, who can make their own tempers and conduct the objects of reflection, the analogy of nature would make one expect a sense, a relish about them, as well as about other objects. To each of our powers we seem to have a corresponding taste or sense, recommending the proper use of it to the agent, and making him relish or value the like exercise of it by another. This we see as to the powers of voice, of imitation, designing, or machinery, motion, reasoning; there is a sense discerning and recommending the proper exercise of them. It would be anomalous in our structure if we had no relish or taste for powers and actions of yet greater importance; if a species of which each one is naturally capable of very contrary affections toward its fellows, and of consequent actions, each one also requiring a constant intercourse of actions with them, and dependent on them for his subsistence, had not an immediate relish for such affections and actions as the interest of the system requires. Shall an immediate sense recommend the proper use of the inferior powers, and yet shall we allow no natural relish for that of the superior?

As some others of our immediate perceptive powers are capable of culture and improvement, so is this moral sense, without presupposing any reference to a superior power of reason to which their perceptions are to be referred. We once had pleasure in the simple artless tunes of the vulgar. We indulge ourselves in music; we meet with finer and more complex compositions. In these we find a pleasure much higher, and begin to despise what formerly pleased us. A judge, from the motions of pity, gets many criminals acquitted: we approve this sweet tenderness of heart. But we find that violence and outrages abound; the sober, just, and industrious are plagued, and have no security. A more extensive view of a public interest shows some sorts of pity to occasion more extensive misery, than arises from a strict execution of justice. Pity of itself never appears deformed; but a more extensive affection, a love to society, a zeal to promote general happiness, is a more lovely principle, and the want of this renders a character deformed. This only shows, what we shall presently confirm, that among the several affections approved there are many degrees: some much more lovely than others. ’Tis thus alone we correct any apparent disorders in this moral faculty, even as we correct our reason itself. As we improve and correct a low taste for harmony by enuring the ear to finer compositions; a low taste for beauty, by presenting the finer works, which yield an higher pleasure; so we improve our moral taste by presenting larger systems to our mind, and more extensive affections toward them; and thus finer objects are exhibited to the moral faculty, which it will approve, even when these affections oppose the effect of some narrower affections, which considered by themselves would be truly lovely. No need here of reference to an higher power of perception, or to reason.

Is not our reason itself also often wrong, when we rashly conclude from imperfect or partial evidence? must there be an higher power too to correct our reason? no; presenting more fully all the evidence on both sides, by serious attention, or the best exercise of the reasoning power, corrects the hasty judgment. Just so in the moral perceptions.

This moral sense from its very nature appears to be designed for regulating and controlling all our powers. This dignity and commanding nature we are immediately conscious of, as we are conscious of the power itself. Nor can such matters of immediate feeling be otherways proved but by appeals to our hearts. It does not estimate the good it recommends as merely differing in degree, tho’ of the same kind with other advantages recommended by other senses, so as to allow us to practice smaller moral evils acknowledged to remain such, in order to obtain some great advantages of other sorts; or to omit what we judge in the present case to be our duty or morally good, that we may decline great evils of another sort. But as we immediately perceive the difference in kind, and that the dignity of enjoyment from fine poetry, painting, or from knowledge is superior to the pleasures of the palate, were they never so delicate; so we immediately discern moral good to be superior in kind and dignity to all others which are perceived by the other perceptive powers.

In all other grateful perceptions, the less we shall relish our taste, the greater sacrifice we have made of inferior enjoyments to the superior; and our sense of the superior, after the first flutter of joy in our success is over, is not a whit increased by any sacrifice we have made to it: nay in the judgment of spectators, the superior enjoyment, or our state at least, is generally counted the worse on this account, and our conduct the less relished. Thus in sacrificing ease, or health, or pleasure, to wealth, power, or even to the ingenious arts; their pleasures gain no dignity by that means; and the conduct is not more alluring to others. But in moral good, the greater the necessary sacrifice was which was made to it, the moral excellence increases the more, and is the more approved by the agent, more admired by spectators, and the more they are roused to imitation. By this sense the heart can not only approve itself in sacrificing every other gratification to moral goodness, but have the highest self-enjoyment, and approbation of its own disposition in doing so: which plainly shows this moral sense to be naturally destined to command all the other powers.

To acknowledge the several generous ultimate affections of a limited kind to be natural, and yet maintain that we have no general controlling principle but self-love, which indulges or checks the generous affections as they conduce to, or oppose, our own noblest interest; sometimes allowing these kind affections their full exercise, because of that high enjoyment we expect to ourselves in gratifying them; at other times checking them, when their gratification does not over-balance the loss we may sustain by it; is a scheme which brings indeed all the powers of the mind into one direction by means of the reference made of them all to the calm desire of our own happiness, in our previous deliberations about our conduct: and it may be justly alleged that the Author of Nature has made a connection in the event at last between our gratifying our generous affections, and our own highest interest. But the feelings of our heart, reasons, and history, revolt against this account: which seems however to have been maintained by excellent authors and strenuous defenders of the cause of virtue.

This connection of our own highest interests with the gratifying our generous affections, in many cases is imperceptible to the mind; and the kind heart acts from its generous impulse, not thinking of its own interest. Nay all its own interests have sometimes appeared to it as opposite to, and inconsistent with the generous part, in which it persisted. Now were there no other calm original determination of soul but that toward one’s own interest, that man must be approved entirely who steadily pursues his own happiness, in opposition to all kind affections and all public interest. That which is the sole calm determination, must justify every action in consequence of it, however opposite to particular kind affections. If it be said that “’tis a mistake to imagine our interest opposite to them while there is a good providence”: grant it to be a mistake; this is only a defect of reasoning; but that disposition of mind must upon this scheme be approved which coolly sacrifices the interest of the universe to its own interest. This is plainly contrary to the feelings of our hearts.

Can that be deemed the sole ultimate determination, the sole ultimate end, which the mind in the exercise of its noblest powers can calmly resolve, with inward approbation, deliberately to counteract? are there not instances of men who have voluntarily sacrificed their lives, without thinking of any other state of existence, for the sake of their friends or their country? does not every heart approve this temper and conduct, and admire it the more, the less presumption there is of the love of glory and posthumous fame, or of any sublimer private interest mixing itself with the generous affection? does not the admiration rise higher, the more deliberately such resolutions are formed and executed? all this is unquestionably true, and yet would be absurd and impossible if self-interest of any kind is the sole ultimate termination of all calm desire. There is therefore another ultimate determination which our souls are capable of, destined to be also an original spring of the calmest and most deliberate purposes of action; a desire of communicating happiness, an ultimate good-will, not referred to any private interest, and often operating without such reference.

In those cases where some inconsistency appears between these two determinations, the moral faculty at once points out and recommends the glorious, the amiable part; not by suggesting prospects of future interests of a sublime sort by pleasures of self-approbation, or of praise. It recommends the generous part by an immediate undefinable perception; it approves the kind ardor of the heart in the sacrificing even of life itself, and that even in those who have no hopes of surviving, or no attention to a future life in another world. And thus, where the moral sense is in its full vigor, it makes the generous determination to public happiness the supreme one in the soul, with that commanding power which it is naturally destined to exercise.

It must be obvious we are not speaking here of the ordinary condition of mankind, as if these calm determinations were generally exercised, and habitually controlled the particular passions; but of the condition our nature can be raised to by due culture; and of the principles which may and ought to operate, when by attention we present to our minds the objects or representations fit to excite them. Doubtless some good men have exercised in life only the particular kind affections, and found a constant approbation of them, without either the most extensive views of the whole system, or the most universal benevolence. Scarce any of the vicious have ever considered wherein it is that their highest private happiness consists, and in consequence of it exerted the calm rational self-love; but merely follow inconsiderately the selfish appetites and affections. Much less have all good men made actual references of all private or generous affections to the extensive benevolence, tho’ the mind can make them; or bad men made references of all their affections to calm self-love.

But as the selfish principles are very strong, and by custom, by early and frequent indulgences, and other causes, are raised in the greatest part of men above their due proportion, while the generous principles are little cultivated, and the moral sense often asleep; our powers of reasoning and comparing the several enjoyments which our nature is capable of, that we may discover which of them are of greatest consequence to our happiness; our capacity, by reasoning, of arriving to the knowledge of a Governing Mind presiding in this world, and of a moral administration, are of the highest consequence and necessity to preserve our affections in a just order, and to corroborate our moral faculty: as by such reasoning and reflection we may discover a perfect consistency of all the generous motions of the soul with private interest, and find out a certain tenor of life and action the most effectually subservient to both these determinations.



Known today primarily as an economic theorist, Adam Smith (1723-1790) was also an important Enlightenment writer on ethics. Professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow, he published in 1759 The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which offers a very different picture of the place of self-interest than that found in his economic writings. His theory of sympathy and of the “impartial spectator” in these excerpts place him firmly in the Scottish “moral sense” school.

The principle by which we naturally either approve or disapprove of our own conduct seems to be altogether the same with that by which we exercise the like judgments concerning the conduct of other people. We either approve or disapprove of the conduct of another man according as we feel that when we bring his case home to ourselves we either can or cannot entirely sympathize with the sentiments and motives which directed it. And in the same manner we either approve or disapprove of our own conduct according as we feel that when we place ourselves in the situation of another man and view it, as it were, with his eyes and from his station, we either can or cannot entirely enter into and sympathize with the sentiments and motives which influenced it. We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form any judgment concerning them unless we remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station and endeavor to view them as at a certain distance from us. But we can do this in no other way than by endeavoring to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them. Whatever judgment we can form concerning them, accordingly, must always bear some secret reference either to what are or to what upon a certain condition would be, or to what, we imagine, ought to be the judgment of others. We endeavor to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation and condemn it.

Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see, which naturally he does not look at and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before. It is placed in the countenance and behavior of those he lives with which always mark when they enter into and when they disapprove of his sentiments; and it is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind. To a man who from his birth was a stranger to society, the objects of his passions, the external bodies which either pleased or hurt him, would occupy his whole attention. The passions themselves, the desires or aversions, the joys or sorrows, which those objects excited, though of all things the most immediately present to him, could scarce ever be the objects of his thoughts. The idea of them could never interest him so much as to call upon his attentive consideration. The consideration of his joy could in him excite no new joy, nor that of his sorrow any new sorrow, though the consideration of the causes of those passions might often excite both. Bring him into society and all his own passions will immediately become the causes of new passions. He will observe that mankind approve of some of them and are disgusted by others. He will be elevated in the one case and cast down in the other; his desires and aversions, his joys and sorrows, will now often become the causes of new desires and new aversions, new joys, and new sorrows: they will now, therefore, interest him deeply and often call upon his most attentive consideration.

Our first ideas of personal beauty and deformity are drawn from the shape and appearance of others, not from our own. We soon become sensible, however, that others exercise the same criticism upon us. We are pleased when they approve of our figure and are disobliged when they seem to be disgusted. We become anxious to know how far our appearance deserves either their blame or approbation. We examine our persons limb by limb, and by placing ourselves before a looking-glass, or by some such expedient, endeavor, as much as possible, to view ourselves at the distance and with the eyes of other people. If after this examination we are satisfied with our own appearance, we can more easily support the most disadvantageous judgments of others. If, on the contrary, we are sensible that we are the natural objects of distaste, every appearance of their disapprobation mortifies us beyond all measure. A man who is tolerably handsome will allow you to laugh at any little irregularity in his person; but all such jokes are commonly unsupportable to one who is really deformed. It is evident, however, that we are anxious about our own beauty and deformity only upon account of its effect upon others. If we had no connection with society, we should be altogether indifferent about either.

In the same manner our first moral criticisms are exercised upon the characters and conduct of other people, and we are all very forward to observe how each of these affects us. But we soon learn that other people are equally frank with regard to our own. We become anxious to know how far we deserve their censure or applause, and whether to them we must necessarily appear those agreeable or disagreeable creatures which they represent us. We become anxious to know how far we deserve their censure or applause, and whether to them we must necessarily appear those agreeable or disagreeable creatures which they represent us. We begin, upon this account, to examine our own passions and conduct and to consider how these must appear to them by considering how they would appear to us if in their situation. We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behavior and endeavor to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us. This is the only looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct. If in this view it pleases us, we are tolerably satisfied. We can be more indifferent about the applause, and, in some measure, despise the censure of the world; secure that, however misunderstood or misrepresented, we are the natural and proper objects of approbation. On the contrary, if we are doubtful about it, we are often, upon that very account, more anxious to gain their approbation and provided we have not already, as they say, shaken hands with infamy, we are altogether distracted at the thought of their censure which then strikes us with double severity.

When I endeavor to examine my own conduct, when I endeavor to pass sentence upon it, and either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that in all such cases I divide myself, as it were, into two persons, and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other 1, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose’ sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavor to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavoring to form some opinion. The first is the judge; the second the person judged of But that the judge should, in every respect, be the same with the person judged of is as impossible as that the cause should, in every respect, be the same with the effect.

To be amiable and to be meritorious, that is, to deserve love and to deserve reward, are the great characters of virtue; and to be odious and punishable, of vice. But all these characters have an immediate reference to the sentiments of others. Virtue is not said to be amiable, or to be meritorious because it is the object of its own love, or of its own gratitude, but because it excites those sentiments in other men. The consciousness that it is the object of such favorable regards is the source of that inward tranquility and self-satisfaction with which it is naturally attended, as the suspicion of the contrary gives occasion to the torments of vice. What so great happiness as to be beloved and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated and to know that we deserve to be hated? ...

As the love and admiration which we naturally conceive for some characters dispose us to wish to become ourselves the proper objects of such agreeable sentiments; so the hatred and contempt which we as naturally conceive for others dispose us, perhaps still more strongly, to dread the very thought of resembling them in any respect. Neither is it, in this case too, so much the thought of being hated and despised that we are afraid of as that of being hateful and despicable. We dread the thought of doing any thing which can render us the just and proper objects of the hatred and contempt of our fellow creatures; even though we had the most perfect security that those sentiments were never actually to be exerted against us. The man who has broken through all those measures of conduct which can alone render him agreeable to mankind, though he should have the most perfect assurance that what he had done was for ever to be concealed from every human eye, it is all to no purpose. When he looks back upon it and views it in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it, he finds that he can enter into none of the motives which influenced it. He is abashed and confounded at the thought of it and necessarily feels a very high degree of that shame which he would be exposed to, if his actions should ever come to be generally known. His imagination, in this case, too, anticipates the contempt and derision from which nothing saves him but the ignorance of those he lives with. He still feels that he is the natural object of these sentiments and still trembles at the thought of what he would suffer if they were ever actually exerted against him. But if what he had been guilty of was not merely one of those improprieties which are the objects of simple disapprobation, but one of those enormous crimes which excite detestation and resentment, he could never think of it as long as he had any sensibility left without feeling all the agony of horror and remorse; and though he could be assured that no man was ever to know it, and could even bring himself to believe that there was no God to revenge it, he would still feel enough of both these sentiments to embitter the whole of his life: he would still regard himself as the natural object of the hatred and indignation of all his fellow creatures; and if his heart was not grown callous by the habit of crimes, he could not think without terror and astonishment even of the manner in which mankind would look upon him, of what would be the expression of their countenance and of their eyes, if the dreadful truth should ever come to be known. These natural pangs of an affrighted conscience are the demons, the avenging furies, which, in this life, haunt the guilty, which allow them neither quiet nor repose, which often drive them to despair and distraction, from which no assurance of secrecy can protect them, from which no principle of irreligion can entirely deliver them, and from which nothing can free them but the vilest and most abject of all states, a complete insensibility to honor and infamy, to vice and virtue. Men of the most detestable characters, who in the execution of the most dreadful crimes had taken their measures so coolly as to avoid even the suspicion of guilt have sometimes been driven by the horror of their situation to discover of their own accord what no human sagacity could ever have investigated. By acknowledging their guilt, by submitting themselves to the resentment of their offended fellow citizens, and by thus satiating that vengeance of which they were sensible that they had become the proper objects they hoped by their death to reconcile themselves, at least in their own imagination, to the natural sentiments of mankind; to be able to consider themselves as less worthy of hatred and resentment; to atone in some measure for their crimes and by thus becoming the objects, rather of compassion than of horror, if possible to die in peace, and with the forgiveness of all their fellow creatures. Compared to what they felt before the discovery, even the thought of this, it seems, was happiness.

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precarious-ness of human life and the vanity of all the labors of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would, too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he were to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves than by whatever concerns other men, what is it which prompts the generous upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which nature has lighted up in the human heart that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge, and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others calls to us with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions that we are but one of the multitude in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice, the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves. It is not the love of our neighbor, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honorable and noble, of the grandeur and dignity and superiority of our own characters.

In solitude, we are apt to feel too strongly whatever relates to ourselves: we are apt to overrate the good offices we may have done and the injuries we may have suffered; we are apt to be too much elated by our own good and too much dejected by our own bad fortune. The conversation of a friend brings us to a better, that of a stranger to a still better temper. The man within the breast, the abstract and ideal spectator of our sentiments and conduct, requires often to be awakened and put in mind of his duty, by the presence of the real spectator; and it is always from that spectator, from whom we can expect the least sympathy and indulgence, that we are likely to learn the most complete lesson of self-command.



Very much a proponent of the self-interest school was Helvétius (1715-1771), one of the most outspoken of the French philosophes. His discussion of the centrality of pleasure and pain in his A Treatise on Man: His Intellectual Faculties and His Education, published the year after he died, would greatly influence Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarian school in general.

What is here said will be sufficient to convince the discerning reader, that every idea and every judgment may be reduced to a sensation. It would be therefore unnecessary, in order to explain the different operations of the mind, to admit a faculty of judging and comparing distinct from the faculty of sensation. But what, it may be asked, is the principle or motive that makes us compare objects with each other, and gives us the necessary attention to observe their relations? Interest, which is in like manner, as I am going to show, an effect of corporeal sensibility....

All comparison of objects with each other supposes attention, all attention a trouble, and all trouble a motive for exerting it. If there could exist a man without desire, he would not compare any objects, or pronounce any judgment; but he might still judge of the immediate impressions of objects on himself, supposing their impressions to be strong. Their strength becoming a motive to attention, would carry with it a judgment. It would not be the same if the sensation were weak; he would then have no knowledge or remembrance of the judgment it had occasioned. A man surrounded by an infinity of objects, must necessarily be affected by an infinity of sensations, and consequently form an infinity of judgments; but he forms them unknown to himself. Why? Because these judgments are of the same nature with the sensations. If they make an impression that is effaced as soon as made, the judgments formed on these impressions are of the same sort; they leave no remembrance. There is in fact no man who does not, without perceiving it, make every day an infinity of reasonings, of which he is not conscious. I will take, for example, those that attend almost all the rapid motions of our bodies....

It results from the contents of this chapter, that all judgments formed by comparing objects with each other, suppose an interest in us to compare them. Now that interest, necessarily founded on our love of happiness, cannot be anything else than the effect of bodily sensibility; because there all our pleasures, and all our pains have their source. This question being discussed, I conclude that corporeal pains and pleasures are the unknown principles of all human actions.


It is to clothe himself and adorn his mistress, or his wife, to procure them amusements, to support himself and his family, in a word to enjoy the pleasures attached to the gratification of bodily desires that the artisan and the peasant thinks, contrives, and labors. Corporeal sensibility is therefore the sole mover of man, he is consequently susceptible, as I am going to prove, but of two sorts of pleasures and pains, the one are present bodily pains and pleasures, the other are the pains and pleasures of foresight or memory.


I know but two sorts of pain, that which we feel, and that which we foresee. I die of hunger; I feel a present pain. I foresee that I shall soon die of hunger. I feel a pain by foresight, the strength of whose impression is in proportion to the proximity and severity of the pain. The criminal who is going to the scaffold, feels yet no torment, but the foresight that constitutes his present punishment, is begun.


Remorse is nothing more than a foresight of bodily pain, to which some crime has exposed us: and is consequently the effect of bodily sensibility. We tremble at the description of the flames, the wheels, the fiery scourges, which the heated imagination of the painter or the poet represents. Is a man without fear, and above the law? He feels no remorse from the commission of a wicked action; provided, however, that he have not previously contracted a virtuous habit; for then he will not pursue a contrary conduct, without feeling an uneasiness, a secret inquietude, to which is also given the name of remorse. Experience tells us, that every action which does not expose us to legal punishment, or to dishonor, is an action, performed in general without remorse. Solon and Plato loved women and even boys, and avowed it. Theft was not punished in Sparta: and the Lacedaemonians robbed without remorse. The princes of the East can, with impunity, load their subjects with taxes, and they do it effectually. The inquisitor can with impunity burn any person who does not think as he does, on certain metaphysical points, and it is without remorse that he gluts his vengeance by hideous torments, for the slight offense that is given to his vanity by the contradiction of a Jew or an Infidel. Remorse, therefore, owes its existence to the fear of punishment or of shame, which is always reducible, as I have already said to a bodily sensation.


From bodily sensibility flow in like manner, the tears that bathe the urn of my friend. I lament the loss of the man whose conversation relieved me from disquietude, from that disagreeable sensation of the soul, which actually produces bodily pain: I deplore him who exposed his life and fortune to save me from sorrow and destruction; who was incessantly employed in promoting my felicity, and increasing it by every sort of pleasure. When a man enters into himself, when he examines the bottom of his soul, he perceives nothing in all these sentiments but the development of bodily pain and pleasure. What cannot this pain produce? It is by this medium that the magistrate enchains vice, and disarms the assassin.


There are two sorts of pleasures, as there are two sorts of pains: the one is the present bodily pleasure, the other is that of foresight. Does a man love fine slaves and beautiful paintings? If he discovers a treasure he is transported. He does not, however, yet feel any bodily pleasure, you will say. It is true; but he gains at that moment, the means of procuring the objects of his desires. Now this foresight of an approaching pleasure, is in fact an actual pleasure: for without the love of fine slaves and paintings, he would have been entirely unconcerned at the discovery of the treasure.

The pleasures of foresight, therefore, constantly suppose the existence of the pleasures of the senses. It is the hopes of enjoying my mistress to-morrow that makes me happy to-day. Foresight or memory converts into an actual enjoyment the acquisition of every means proper to procure pleasure. From what motive in fact, do I feel an agreeable sensation every time I obtain a new degree of esteem, of importance, riches, and above all, of power? It is because I esteem power as the most sure means of increasing my happiness.


Men love themselves: they all desire to be happy, and think their happiness would be complete, if they were invested with a degree of power sufficient to procure them every sort of pleasure. The love of power therefore takes its source from the love of pleasure.

Suppose a man absolutely insensible. But, it will be said, he must then be without ideas, and consequently a mere statue. Be it so: but allow that he may exist, and even think. Of what consequence would the scepter of a monarch be to him? None. In fact, what could the most immense power add to the felicity of a man without feeling.

If power be so coveted by the ambitious, it is as the means of acquiring pleasure. Power is like gold, a money. The effect of power, and of a bill of exchange is the same. If I be in possession of such a bill, I receive at London or Paris a hundred thousand crowns, and consequently all the pleasures that sum can procure. Am I in possession of a letter of authority or command? I draw in like manner from my fellow-citizens, a like quantity of provisions or pleasures. The effects of riches and power are in a manner the same: for riches are power....

The general conclusion of this chapter, is, that in man all is sensation: a truth of which I shall give a fresh proof, by showing that his sociability is nothing more than a consequence of the same sensations.


Man is by nature a devourer of fruits and of flesh; but he is weak, unarmed, and consequently exposed to the voracity of animals stronger than himself. Man, therefore, to avoid the fury of the tiger and the lion, was forced to unite with man. The object of this union was to attack and kill other animals, either to feed on them, or to prevent their consuming the fruits and herbs that served him for nourishment. In the meantime mankind multiplied, and to support themselves, they were obliged to cultivate the earth; but to induce them to this, it became necessary to stipulate, that the harvest should belong to the husbandman. For this purpose the inhabitants made agreements or laws among themselves. These laws strengthened the bonds of a union, that, founded on their wants, was the immediate effect of corporeal sensibility. But cannot this sociability be regarded as an innate quality, a species of amiable morality? All that we learn from experience on this head, is, that in man, as in other animals, sociability is the effect of want. If the desire of defending themselves makes the grazing animals as horses, bulls, &c. assemble in herds; that of chasing, attacking, and conquering their prey, forms in like manner a society of carnivorous animals, such as foxes and wolves.

Interest and want are the principles of all sociability. It is, therefore, these principles alone (of which few writers have given clear ideas) that unite men among themselves: and the force of their union is always in proportion to that of habit and want. From the moment the young savage, or the young bear, is able to provide for his nourishment and his defense, the one quits the hut, and the other the den of his parents. The eagle, in like manner, drives away her young ones from the nest, the moment they have sufficient strength to dart upon their prey, and live without her aid.

The bond that attaches children to their parents, and parents to their children, is less strong than is commonly imagined. A too great strength in this bond would be even fatal to societies. The first regard of a citizen should be for the laws, and the public prosperity; I speak it with regret, filial affection should be in man subordinate to the love of patriotism. If this last affection do not take place of all others, where shall we find a measure of virtue and vice? It would then be no more, and all morality would be abolished.

For what reason, in fact, has justice and the love of God been recommended to men, above all things? On account of the danger to which a too great love of their parents would expose them. If the excess of this passion were sanctioned; if it were declared the principal attachment, a son would then have a right to rob his neighbor, or plunder the public treasury, to supply the wants, and promote the comforts of his father. Every family would form a little nation, and these nations having opposite interests, would be continually at war with each other.

Every writer, who to give us a good opinion of his own heart, founds the sociability of man on any other principle, than that of bodily and habitual wants, deceives weak minds, and gives them a false idea of morality.

Nature, no doubt, designed that gratitude and habit should form in man a sort of gravitation, by which they should be impelled to a love of their parents: but it has also designed that man should have, in the natural desire of independence, a repulsive power, which should diminish the too great force of that gravitation. Thus the daughter joyfully leaves the house of her mother to go to that of her husband; and the son quits with pleasure his native spot, for an employment in India, an office in a distant country, or merely for the pleasure of traveling.

Notwithstanding the pretended force of sentiment, friendship, and habit, mankind change at Paris, every day, the part of the town, their acquaintance and their friends. Do men seek to make dupes? They exaggerate the force of sentiment and friendship, they represent sociability as an innate affection or principle. Can they, in reality, forget that there is but one principle of this kind, which is corporeal sensibility? It is to this principle alone, that we owe our self-love, and the powerful love of independence: if men were, as it is said, drawn toward each other by a strong and mutual attraction, would the heavenly Legislator have commanded them to love each other, and to honor their parents? Would he not have left this point to nature, which, without the aid of any law, obliges men to eat and drink when they are hungry and thirsty, to open their eyes to the light, and keep their hands out of the fire.

Travelers do not inform us that the love which mankind bear to their fellows, is so common as pretended. The sailor, escaped from a wreck, and cast on an unknown coast, does not run with open arms to embrace the first man he meets. On the contrary, he hides himself in a thicket, where he observes the manners of the inhabitants, and then presents himself trembling before them.

But if a European vessel chance to approach an unknown island, do not the savages, it is said, run in crowds towards the ship? They are, without doubt, amazed at the sight, they are struck with the novelty of our dress, our arms and implements. The appearance excites their curiosity. But what desire succeeds to this first sensation? That of possessing the objects of their admiration. They become less gay and more thought-fill; are busied in contriving means to obtain, by force or fraud, the objects of their desires: for that purpose they watch the favorable opportunity to rob, plunder, and massacre the Europeans, who, in their conquests of Mexico and Peru, gave them early examples of similar injustice and cruelty.

The conclusion of this chapter is, that the principles of morality and politics, like those of all other sciences, ought to be established on a great number of facts and observations. Now, what is the result of the observations hitherto made on morality? That the love of men for their brethren is the effect of the necessity of mutual assistance, and of an affinity of wants, dependent on that corporeal sensibility, which I regard as the principle of our actions, our virtues, and our vices....


I love you, O my fellow citizens! and my chief desire is to be useful to you. I doubtless desire your approbation; but shall I owe your esteem and applause to a lie? A thousand others will deceive you; I shall not be their accomplice. Some will say you are good, and flatter the desire you have to think yourselves so: believe them not. Others will say you are wicked, and in like manner will say false. You are neither the one nor the other.

No individual is born good or bad. Men are the one or the other, according as a similar or opposite interest unites or divides them. Philosophers suppose men to be born in a state of war. A common desire to possess the same things arms them from the cradle, say they, against each other.

The state of war, without doubt, closely follows the instant of their birth. The peace between them is of short duration. They are not however both enemies. Goodness or badness is an incident to them; it is the consequence of their good or bad laws. What we call in man his goodness or moral sense, is his benevolence to others; and that benevolence is always proportionate to the utility they are of to him. I prefer my countrymen to strangers, and my friends to my countrymen. The prosperity of my friend is reflected on me. If he becomes more rich and powerful, I participate in his riches and power. Benevolence to others is therefore the effect of love for ourselves. Now if self-love, as I have proved in the fourth section, be the necessary effect of the faculty of sensation our love for others, whatever the Shaftesburians may say, is in like manner the effect of the same faculty.

What in fact is that original goodness or moral sense, so much boasted of by the English? What clear idea can we form of such a sense and on what fact do we found its existence? On the goodness of men? But there are also persons who are envious and liars, omnis homo mendax. Will they say in consequence, that those men have in them an immoral sense of envy, and a lying sense. Nothing is more absurd than this theological philosophy of Shaftesbury; and yet the greatest part of the English are as fond of it as the French were formerly of their music. It is not the same with other nations. No stranger can understand the one or bear the other. It is a web on the eye of the English. It must be taken away before they can see clearly.

According to their philosophy, the man indifferent and seated at his ease, desires the happiness of others: but as being indifferent, he does not, and cannot desire any thing. The states of desire and indifference are contradictory. Perhaps the state of perfect indifference is even impossible. Experience teaches us that man is born neither good nor bad: that his happiness is not necessarily connected with the misery of others: that on the contrary, from a good education, the idea of my own happiness will be always more or less closely connected in my memory with that of my fellow-citizens; and that the desire of the one will produce in me the desire of the other: whence it follows, that the love of his neighbor is in every individual the effect of the love of himself. The most clamorous declaimers for original goodness have not moreover been always the greatest benefactors to humanity.

When the welfare of England was at stake, the idle Shaftesbury, that ardent apostle of the beauty of morality, would not, we are told, even go to the parliament-house to save it. It was not the sense of the beauty of morality, but the love of glory and of their country that formed Horatius Cocles, Brutus, and Scaevola. The English philosophers will in vain tell me that beauty of morality is a sense that is developed with the human fetus, and in a certain time, renders man compassionate to the misfortune of his brethren. I can form an idea of my five senses, and of the organs by which they are produced; but I confess I have no more idea of a moral sense, than of a moral castle and elephant.

How long will men continue to use words that are void of meaning, and that not conveying any clear and determinate idea, ought to be forever banished to the schools of theology. Do they mean by this moral sense that sentiment of compassion felt at the sight of an unhappy object? But to compassionate another man’s miseries, we must first know what he suffers, and for that purpose must have felt pain. A compassion on report supposes also a knowledge of misery. Which are the evils moreover that in general we are most sensible of? Those which we suffer with the most impatience, and the remembrance of which is consequently the most habitually present to us. Compassion therefore is not an innate sentiment.

What do I feel at the presence of an unhappy person? A strong emotion. What produces it? The remembrance of pains to which men are subject, and to which I myself am exposed: such an idea troubles me, makes me uneasy, and as long as the unfortunate person is present I am afflicted. When I have assisted him, and see him no more, a calm takes place insensibly in my mind; for in proportion as he is distant from me, the remembrance of the miseries that his presence recalled, insensibly vanishes: when therefore I was afflicted at his presence, it was for myself I was afflicted. Which in fact are the evils I commiserate most. They are, as I have already said, not only those I have felt, but those I may still feel: those evils being most present to my memory, strike me most forcibly. My affliction for the miseries of an unhappy person, is always in proportion to the fear I have of being afflicted with the same miseries. I would, if it were possible, destroy in him the very root of his misfortune, and thereby free myself at the same time from the fear of suffering in the same manner. The love of others is therefore never anything else in man than an effect of the love of himself, and consequently of his corporeal sensibility. In vain does M. Rousseau repeat incessantly that all men are good, and all the first movements of nature right. The necessity of laws proves the contrary. What does this necessity imply? That the different interests of men render them good or bad; and that the only method to form virtuous citizens, is to unite the interest of the individual with that of the public....

A proof that humanity is nothing more in man than the effect of the misfortunes he has known either by himself or by others is, that of all the ways to render him humane and compassionate, the most efficacious is to habituate him from his most tender age to put himself in the place of the miserable. Some have in consequence treated compassion as a weakness: let him call it so if they please; this weakness will always be in my eyes the first of virtues, because it always contributes the most to the happiness of humanity.

I have proved that compassion is not either a moral sense, or an innate sentiment, but the pure effect of self-love. What follows? That it is this same love, differently modified, according to the different education we receive, and the circumstances, and situations in which chance has placed us, which renders us humane or obdurate: that man is not born compassionate, but that all may and will become so when the laws, the form of government, and their education lead them to it.

O! you, to whom heaven has entrusted the legislative power, let your administration be gentle, your laws sagacious, and you will have subjects humane, valiant, and virtuous! But if you alter either those laws, or that wise administration, those virtuous citizens will expire without posterity, and you will be surrounded by wicked men only; for the laws will make them such. Man, by nature indifferent to evil, will not give himself up to it without a motive: the happy man is humane; he is the couching lion.

Unhappy is the prince who confides in the original goodness of characters; M. Rousseau supposes its existence; experience denies it: whoever consults that, will learn that the child kills flies, beats his dog, and strangles his sparrow; that the child, born without any humanity, has all the vices of the man.

The man in power is often unjust; the sturdy child is the same: when he is not restrained by the presence of his master, he appropriates by force, like the man in power, the sweetmeat or plaything of his companion. He does that for a coral or a doll which he would do at a mature age for a title or a scepter. The uniformity in the manner of acting at those two ages made M. de la Mothe say, It is because the child is already a man, that the man is still a child.

The original goodness of characters cannot be maintained by any argument. I will even add, that in man, goodness and humanity cannot be the work of nature, but of education only.



Kant, who lived most of his life in Königsberg, where he lectured at the university, wrote in 1785 what has endured as the grandest Enlightenment effort at setting a rational foundation for morality.

For as reason is not competent to guide the will with certainty in regard to its objects and the satisfaction of all our wants (which it to some extent even multiplies), this being an end to which an implanted instinct would have led with much greater certainty; and since, nevertheless, reason is imparted to us as a practical faculty, that is, as one which is to have influence on the will, therefore, admitting that nature generally in the distribution of her capacities has adapted the means to the end, its true destination must be to produce a will, not merely good as a means to something else, but good in itself, for which reason was absolutely necessary. This will then, though not indeed the sole and complete good, must be the supreme good and the condition of every other, even of the desire of happiness. Under these circumstances, there is nothing inconsistent with the wisdom of nature in the fact that the cultivation of the reason, which is requisite for the first and unconditional purpose, does in many ways interfere, at least in this life, with the attainment of the second, which is always conditional—namely, happiness. Nay, it may even reduce it to nothing, without nature thereby failing of her purpose. For reason recognizes the establishment of a good will as its highest practical destination, and in attaining this purpose is capable only of a satisfaction of its own proper kind, namely, that from the attainment of an end, which end again is determined by reason only, notwithstanding that this may involve many a disappointment to the ends of inclination.

We have then to develop the notion of a will which deserves to be highly esteemed for itself, and is good without a view to anything further, a notion which exists already in the sound natural understanding, requiring rather to be cleared up than to be taught, and which in estimating the value of our actions always takes the first place and constitutes the condition of all the rest. In order to do this, we will take the notion of duty, which includes that of a good will, although implying certain subjective restrictions and hindrances. These, however, far from concealing it or rendering it unrecognizable, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth so much the brighter.

I omit here all actions which are already recognized as inconsistent with duty, although they may be useful for this or that purpose, for with these the question whether they are done from duty cannot arise at all, since they even conflict with it. I also set aside those actions which really conform to duty, but to which men have no direct inclination, performing them because they are impelled thereto by some other inclination. For in this case we can readily distinguish whether the action which agrees with duty is done from duty or from a selfish view. It is much harder to make this distinction when the action accords with duty, and the subject has besides a direct inclination to it. For example, it is always a matter of duty that a dealer should not overcharge an inexperienced purchaser; and wherever there is much commerce the prudent tradesman does not overcharge, but keeps a fixed price for everyone, so that a child buys of him as well as any other. Men are thus honestly served; but this is not enough to make us believe that the tradesman has so acted from duty and from principles of honesty; his own advantage required it; it is out of the question in this case to suppose that he might besides have a direct inclination in favor of the buyers, so that, as it were, from love he should give no advantage to one over another. Accordingly the action was done neither from duty nor from direct inclination, but merely with a selfish view.

On the other hand, it is a duty to maintain one’s life; and, in addition, everyone has also a direct inclination to do so. But on this account the often anxious care which most men take for it has no intrinsic worth, and their maxim has no moral import. They preserve their life as duty requires, no doubt, but not because duty requires. On the other hand, if adversity and hopeless sorrow have completely taken away the relish for life, if the unfortunate one, strong in mind, indignant at his fate rather than desponding or dejected, wishes for death, and yet preserves his life without loving it—not from inclination or fear, but from dury-then his maxim has a moral worth.

The second proposition is: That an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition by which the action has taken place, without regard to any object of desire. It is clear from what precedes that the purposes which we may have in view in our actions, or their effects regarded as ends and springs of the will, cannot give to actions any unconditional or moral worth. In what, then, can their worth lie if it is not to consist in the will and in reference to its expected effect? It cannot lie anywhere but in the principle of the will without regard to the ends which can be attained by the action. For the will stands between its a priori principle, which is formal, and its a posteriori spring, which is material, as between two roads, and as it must be determined by something, it follows that it must be determined by the formal principle of volition when an action is done from duty, in which case every material principle has been withdrawn from it.

The third proposition, which is a consequence of the two preceding, I would express thus: Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for ithe law.

The pre-eminent good which we call moral can therefore consist in nothing else than the conception of law in itself, which certainly is only possible in a rational being, in so far as this conception, and not the expected effect, determines the will. This is a good which is already present in the person who acts accordingly, and we have not to wait for it to appear first in the result.

But what sort of law can that be the conception of which must determine the will, even without paying any regard to the effect expected from it, in order that this will may be called good absolutely and without qualification? As I have deprived the will of every impulse which could arise to it from obedience to any law, there remains nothing but the universal conformity of its actions to law in general, which alone is to serve the will as a principle, that is, I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.

Without being an enemy of virtue, a cool observer, one that does not mistake the wish for good, however lively, for its reality, may sometimes doubt whether true virtue is actually found anywhere in the world, and this especially as years increase and the judgment is partly made wiser by experience, and partly also more acute in observation. This being so, nothing can secure us from falling away altogether from our ideas of duty, or maintain in the soul a well-grounded respect for its law, but the clear conviction that although there should never have been actions which really sprang from such pure sources, yet whether this or that takes place is not at all the question; but that reason of itself, independent on all experience, ordains what ought to take place, that accordingly actions of which perhaps the world has hitherto never given an example, the feasibility even of which might be very much doubted by one who founds everything on experience, are nevertheless inflexibly commanded by reason; that, for example, even though there might never yet have been a sincere friend, yet not a whit the less is pure sincerity in friendship required of every man, because, prior to all experience, this duty is involved as duty in the idea of a reason determining the will by a priori principles.

When we add further that, unless we deny that the notion of morality has any truth or reference to any possible object, we must admit that its law must be valid, not merely for men, but for all rational creatures generally, not merely under certain contingent conditions or with exceptions, but with absolute necessity, then it is clear that no experience could enable us to infer even the possibility of such apodictic laws.

Everything in nature works according to laws. Rational beings alone have the faculty of acting according to the conception of laws—that is, according to principles, that is, have a will. Since the deduction of actions from principles requires reason, the will is nothing but practical reason. If reason infallibly determines the will, then the actions of such a being which are recognized as objectively necessary are subjectively necessary also, that is, the will is a faculty to choose that only which reason independent on inclination recognizes as practically necessary, that is, as good. But if reason of itself does not sufficiently determine the will, if the latter is subject also to subjective conditions (particular impulses) which do not always coincide with the objective conditions, in a word, if the will does not in itself completely accord with reason (which is actually the case with men), then the actions which objectively are recognized as necessary are subjectively contingent, and the determination of such a will according to objective laws is obligation, that is to say, the relation of the objective laws to a will that is not thoroughly good is conceived as the determination of the will of a rational being by principles of reason, but which the will from its nature does not of necessity follow.

The conception of an objective principle, in so far as it is obligatory for a will, is called a command (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an Imperative.

There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

1. A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels wearied of life, but is still so far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take his own life. Now he inquires whether the maxim of his action could become a universal law of nature. His maxim is: From self-love I adopt it as a principle to shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to bring more evil than satisfaction. It is asked then simply whether this principle founded on self-love can become a universal law of nature. Now we see at once that a system of nature of which it should be a law to destroy life by means of the very feeling whose special nature it is to impel to the improvement of life would contradict itself, and therefore could not exist as a system of nature; hence that maxim cannot possibly exist as a universal law of nature, and consequently would be wholly inconsistent with the supreme principle of all duty.

2. Another finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money. He knows that he will not be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing will be lent to him unless he promises stoutly to repay it in a definite time. He desires to make this promise, but he has still so much conscience as to ask himself: Is it not unlawful and inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in this way? Suppose, however, that he resolves to do so, then the maxim of his action would be expressed thus: When I think myself in want of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I never can do so. Now this principle of self-love or of one’s own advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare; but the question now is, Is it right? I change then the suggestion of self-love into a universal law, and state the question thus: How would it be if my maxim were a universal law? Then I see at once that it could never hold as a universal law of nature, but would necessarily contradict itself. For supposing it to be a universal law that everyone when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be able to promise whatever he pleases, with the purpose of not keeping his promise, the promise itself would become impossible, as well as the end that one might have in view in it, since no one would consider that anything was promised to him, but would ridicule all such statements as vain pretenses.

3. A third finds in himself a talent which with the help of some culture might make him a useful man in many respects. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to indulge in pleasure rather than to take pains in enlarging and improving his happy natural capacities. He asks, however, whether his maxim of neglect of his natural gifts, besides agreeing with his inclination to indulgence, agrees also with what is called duty. He sees then that a system of nature could indeed subsist with such a universal law, although men (like the South Sea islanders) should let their talents rest and resolve to devote their lives merely to idleness, amusement, and propagation of their species—in a word, to enjoyment; but he cannot possibly will that this should be a universal law of nature, or be implanted in us as such by a natural instinct. For, as a rational being, he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they serve him, and have been given him, for all sorts of possible purposes.

4. A fourth, who is in prosperity, while he sees that others have to contend with great wretchedness and that he could help them, thinks: What concern is it of mine? Let everyone be as happy as Heaven pleases, or as he can make himself; I will take nothing from him nor even envy him, only I do not wish to contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance in distress! Now no doubt, if such a mode of thinking were a universal law, the human race might very well subsist, and doubtless even better than in a state in which everyone talks of sympathy and good-will, or even takes care occasionally to put it into practice, but, on the other side, also cheats when he can, betrays the rights of men, or otherwise violates them. But although it is possible that a universal law of nature might exist in accordance with that maxim, it is impossible to will that such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which, by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires.

These are a few of the many actual duties, or at least what we regard as such, which obviously fall into two classes on the one principle that we have laid down. We must be able to will that a maxim of our action should be a universal law. This is the canon of the moral appreciation of the action generally. Some actions are of such a character that their maxim cannot without contradiction be even conceived as a universal law of nature, far from it being possible that we should will that it should be so. In others, this intrinsic impossibility is not found, but still it is impossible to will that their maxim should be raised to the universality of a law of nature, since such a will would contradict itself. It is easily seen that the former violate strict or rigorous (inflexible) duty; the latter only laxer (meritorious) duty. Thus it has been completely shown by these examples how all duties depend as regards the nature of the obligation (not the object of the action) on the same principle.

If then there is a supreme practical principle or, in respect of the human will, a categorical imperative, it must be one which, being drawn from the conception of that which is necessarily an end for everyone because it is an end in itself, constitutes an objective principle of will, and can therefore serve as a universal practical law. The foundation of this principle is: rational nature exists as an end in itself. Man necessarily conceives his own existence as being so; so far then this is a subjective principle of human actions. But every other rational being regards its existence similarly, just on the same rational principle that holds for me; so that it is at the same time an objective principle from which as a supreme practical law all laws of the will must be capable of being deduced. Accordingly the practical imperative will be as follows: So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as in end withal, never as means only.

This principle that humanity and generally every rational nature is an end in itself (which is the supreme limiting condition of every man’s freedom of action), is not borrowed from experience, first, because it is universal, applying as it does to all rational beings whatever, and experience is not capable of determining anything about them; secondly, because it does not present humanity as an end to men (subjectively), that is, as an object which men do of themselves actually adopt as an end; but as an objective end which must as a law constitute the supreme limiting condition of all our subjective ends, let them be what we will; it must therefore spring from pure reason. In fact the objective principle of all practical legislation lies (according to the first principle) in the rule and its form of universality which makes it capable of being a law (say, for example, a law of nature); but the subjective principle is in the end; now by the second principle, the subject of all ends is each rational being inasmuch as it is an end in itself Hence follows the third practical principle of the will, which is the ultimate condition of its harmony with the universal practical reason, viz., the idea of the will of every rational being as a universally legislative will.

On this principle all maxims are rejected which are inconsistent with the will being itself universal legislator. Thus the will is not subject to the law, but so subject that it must be regarded as itself giving the law, and on this ground only subject to the law (of which it can regard itself as the author).

Thus morality, and humanity as capable of it, is that which alone has dignity. Skill and diligence in labor have a market value; wit, lively imagination, and humor have fancy value; on the other hand, fidelity to promises, benevolence from principle (not from instinct), have an intrinsic worth. Neither nature nor art contains anything which in default of these it could put in their place, for their worth consists not in the effects which spring from them, not in the use and advantage which they secure, but in the disposition of mind, that is, the maxims of the will which are ready to manifest themselves in such actions, even though they should not have the desired effect. These actions also need no recommendation from any subjective taste or sentiment, that they may be looked on with immediate favor and satisfaction; they need no immediate propension or feeling for them; they exhibit the will that performs them as an object of an immediate respect, and nothing but reason is required to impose them on the will; not to flatter it into them, which, in the case of duties, would be a contradiction. This estimation therefore shows that the worth of such a disposition is dignity, and places it infinitely above all value, with which it cannot for a moment be brought into comparison or competition without as it were violating its sanctity.

What then is it which justifies virtue or the morally good disposition, in making such lofty claims? It is nothing less than the privilege it secures to the rational being of participating in the giving of universal laws, by which it qualifies him to be a member of a possible kingdom of ends, a privilege to which he was already destined by his own nature as being an end in himself, and on that account legislating in the kingdom of ends; free as regards all laws of physical nature, and obeying those only which he himself gives, and by which his maxims can belong to a system of universal law to which at the same time he submits himself... Autonomy then is the basis of the dignity of human and of every rational nature.

The three modes of presenting the principle of morality that have been adduced are at bottom only so many formulae of the very same law, and each of itself involves the other two. There is, however, a difference in them, but it is rather subjectively than objectively practical, intended, namely, to bring an idea of the reason nearer to intuition (by means of a certain analogy), and thereby nearer to feeling. All maxims, in fact, have—

1. A form, consisting in universality; and in this view the formula of the moral imperative is expressed thus, that the maxims must be so chosen as if they were to serve as universal laws of nature.

2. A matter, namely, an end, and here the formula says that the rational being, as it is an end by its own nature and therefore an end in itself, must in every maxim serve as the condition limiting all merely relative and arbitrary ends.

3. A complete characterization of all maxims by means of that formula, namely, that all maxims ought, by their own legislation, to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends as with a kingdom of nature. There is a progress here in the order of the categories of unity of the form of the will (its universality), plurality of the matter (the objects, that is, the ends), and totality of the system of these. In forming our moral judgment of actions it is better to proceed always on the strict method, and start from the general formula of the categorical imperative: Act according to a maxim which can at the same time make itself a universal law.



Standing alongside Kant’s writings as the great double legacy of Enlightenment ethics, and very much its foil, is Bentham’s (1748-1833) Utilitarianism. The English philosopher, jurist, and reformer first published his speculations on pleasure and pain in his 1789 book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, from which this selection is excerpted.


I. Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.

But enough of metaphor and declamation: it is not by such means that moral science is to be improved.

II. The principle of utility is the foundation of the present work: it will be proper therefore at the outset to give an explicit and determinate account of what is meant by it. By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.

III. By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.

IV. The interest of the community is one of the most general expressions that can occur in the phraseology of morals: no wonder that the meaning of it is often lost. When it has a meaning, it is this. The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members. The interest of the community then is, what?—the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.

V. It is in vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual. A thing is said to promote the interest, or to be for the interest, of an individual, when it tends to add to the sum total of his pleasures: or, what comes to the same thing, to diminish the sum total of his pains.

VI. An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility, or, for shortness sake, to utility, (meaning with respect to the community at large) when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.

VII. A measure of government (which is but a particular kind of action, performed by a particular person or persons) may be said to be conformable to or dictated by the principle of utility, when in like manner the tendency which it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any which it has to diminish it.

VIII. When an action, or in particular a measure of government, is supposed by a man to be conformable to the principle of utility, it may be convenient, for the purposes of discourse, to imagine a kind of law or dictate, called a law or dictate of utility: and to speak of the action in question, as being conformable to such law or dictate.

IX. A man may be said to be a partizan of the principle of utility, when the approbation or disapprobation he annexes to any action, or to any measure, is determined by and proportioned to the tendency which he conceives it to have to augment or to diminish the happiness of the community: or in other words, to its conformity or unconformity to the laws or dictates of utility.

X. Of an action that is conformable to the principle of utility one may always say either that it is one that ought to be done, or at least that it is not one that ought not to be done. One may say also, that it is right it should be done; at least that it is not wrong it should be done: that it is a right action; at least that it is not a wrong action. When thus interpreted, the words ought, and right and wrong, and others of that stamp, have a meaning: when otherwise, they have none.

XI. Has the rectitude of this principle been ever formally contested? It should seem that it had, by those who have not known what they have been meaning. Is it susceptible of any direct proof? it should seem not: for that which is used to prove every thing else, cannot itself be proved: a chain of proofs must have their commencement somewhere. To give such proof is as impossible as it is needless.

XII. Not that there is or ever has been that human creature breathing, however stupid or perverse, who has not on many, perhaps on most occasions of his life, deferred to it. By the natural constitution of the human frame, on most occasions of their lives men in general embrace this principle, without thinking of it: if not for the ordering of their own actions, yet for the trying of their own actions, as well as of those of other men. There have been, at the same time, not many, perhaps, even of the most intelligent, who have been disposed to embrace it purely and without reserve. There are even few who have not taken some occasion or other to quarrel with it, either on account of their not understanding always how to apply it, or on account of some prejudice or other which they were afraid to examine into, or could not bear to part with. For such is the stuff that man is made of: in principle and in practice, in a right track and in a wrong one, the rarest of all human qualities is consistency.

XIII. When a man attempts to combat the principle of utility, it is with reasons drawn, without his being aware of it, from that very principle itself. His arguments, if they prove any thing, prove not that the principle is wrong, but that, according to the applications he supposes to be made of it, it is misapplied. Is it possible for a man to move the earth? Yes; but he must first find out another earth to stand upon.

XIV. To disprove the propriety of it by arguments is impossible; but, from the causes that have been mentioned, or from some confused or partial view of it, a man may happen to be disposed not to relish it. Where this is the case, if he thinks the settling of his opinions on such a subject worth the trouble, let him take the following steps, and at length, perhaps, he may come to reconcile himself to it.

1. Let him settle with himself, whether he would wish to discard this principle altogether; if so, let him consider what it is that all his reasonings (in matters of politics especially) can amount to?

2. If he would, let him settle with himself, whether he would judge and act without any principle, or whether there is any other he would judge and act by?

3. If there be, let him examine and satisfy himself whether the principle he thinks he has found is really any separate intelligible principle; or whether it be not a mere principle in words, a kind of phrase, which at bottom expresses neither more nor less than the mere averment of his own unfounded sentiments; that is, what in another person he might be apt to call caprice?

4. If he is inclined to think that his own approbation or disapprobation, annexed to the idea of an act, without any regard to its consequences, is a sufficient foundation for him to judge and act upon, let him ask himself whether his sentiment is to be a standard of right and wrong, with respect to every other man, or whether every man’s sentiment has the same privilege of being a standard to itself?

5. In the first case, let him ask himself whether his principle is not despotical, and hostile to all the rest of human race?

6. In the second case, whether it is not anarchial, and whether at this rate there are not as many different standards of right and wrong as there are men? and whether even to the same man, the same thing, which is right today, may not (without the least change in its nature) be wrong tomorrow? and whether the same thing is not right and wrong in the same place at the same time? and in either case, whether all argument is not at an end? and whether, when two men have said, “I like this,” and “I don’t like it,” they can (upon such a principle) have any thing more to say?

7. If he should have said to himself, No: for that the sentiment which he proposes as a standard must be grounded on reflection, let him say on what particulars the reflection is to turn? if on particulars having relation to the utility of the act, then let him say whether this is not deserting his own principle, and borrowing assistance from that very one in opposition to which he sets it up: or if not on those particulars, on what other particulars?

8. If he should be for compounding the matter, and adopting his own principle in part, and the principle of utility in part, let him say how far he will adopt it?

9. When he has settled with himself where he will stop, then let him ask himself how he justifies to himself the adopting it so far? and why he will not adopt it any farther?

10. Admitting any other principle than the principle of utility to be a right principle, a principle that it is right for a man to pursue; admitting (what is not true) that the word right can have a meaning without reference to utility, let him say whether there is any such thing as a motive that a man can have to pursue the dictates of it: if there is, let him say what that motive is, and how it is to be distinguished from those which enforce the dictates of utility: if not, then lastly let him say what it is this other principle can be good for?


I. If the principle of utility be a right principle to be governed by, and that in all cases, it follows from what has been just observed, that whatever principle differs from it in any case must necessarily be a wrong one. To prove any other principle, therefore, to be a wrong one, there needs no more than just to show it to be what it is, a principle of which the dictates are in some point or other different from those of the principle of utility: to state it is to confute it.

II. A principle may be different from that of utility in two ways:

1. By being constantly opposed to it: this is the case with a principle which may be termed the principle of asceticism. 2. By being sometimes opposed to it, and sometimes not, as it may happen: this is the case with another, which may be termed the principle of sympathy and antipathy.

III. By the principle of asceticism I mean that principle, which, like the principle of utility, approves or disapproves of any action, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question; but in an inverse manner: approving of actions in as far as they tend to diminish his happiness; disapproving of them in as far as they tend to augment it.

IV. It is evident that any one who reprobates any the least particle of pleasure, as such, from whatever source derived, is pro tanto a partizan of the principle of asceticism. It is only upon that principle, and not from the principle of utility, that the most abominable pleasure which the vilest of malefactors ever reaped from his crime would be to be reprobated, if it stood alone. The case is, that it never does stand alone; but is necessarily followed by such a quantity of pain (or, what comes to the same thing, such a chance for a certain quantity of pain) that the pleasure in comparison of it, is as nothing: and this is the true and sole, but perfectly sufficient, reason for making it a ground for punishment.

V. There are two classes of men of very different complexions, by whom the principle of asceticism appears to have been embraced; the one a set of moralists, the other a set of religionists. Different accordingly have been the motives which appear to have recommended it to the notice of these different parties. Hope, that is the prospect of pleasure, seems to have animated the former: hope, the aliment of philosophic pride: the hope of honor and reputation at the hands of men. Fear, that is the prospect of pain, the latter: fear, the offspring of superstitious fancy: the fear of future punishment at the hands of a splenetic and revengeful Deity. I say in this case fear: for of the invisible future, fear is more powerful than hope. These circumstances characterize the two different parties among the partizans of the principle of asceticism; the parties and their motives different, the principle the same.

VI. The religious party, however, appear to have carried it farther than the philosophical: they have acted more consistently and less wisely. The philosophical party have scarcely gone farther than to reprobate pleasure: the religious party have frequently gone so far as to make it a matter of merit and of duty to court pain. The philosophical party have hardly gone farther than the making pain a matter of indifference. It is no evil, they have said: they have not said, it is a good. They have not so much as reprobated all pleasure in the lump. They have discarded only what they have called the gross; that is, such as are organical, or of which the origin is easily traced up to such as are organical: they have even cherished and magnified the refined. Yet this, however, not under the name of pleasure: to cleanse itself from the sordes of its impure original, it was necessary it should change its name: the honorable, the glorious, the reputable, the becoming, the honestum, the decorum, it was to be called: in short, any thing but pleasure.

VII. From these two sources have flowed the doctrines from which the sentiments of the bulk of mankind have all along received a tincture of this principle; some from the philosophical, some from the religious, some from both. Men of education more frequently from the philosophical, as more suited to the elevation of their sentiments: the vulgar more frequently from the superstitious, as more suited to the narrowness of their intellect, undilated by knowledge: and to the abjectness of their condition, continually open to the attacks of fear. The tinctures, however, derived from the two sources, would naturally intermingle, insomuch that a man would not always know by which of them he was most influenced: and they would often serve to corroborate and enliven one another. It was this conformity that made a kind of alliance between parties of a complexion otherwise so dissimilar: and disposed them to unite upon various occasions against the common enemy, the partizan of the principle of utility, whom they joined in branding with the odious name of Epicurean.

VIII. The principle of asceticism, however, with whatever warmth it may have been embraced by its partizans as a rule of private conduct, seems not to have been carried to any considerable length, when applied to the business of government. In a few instances it has been carried a little way by the philosophical party: witness the Spartan regimen. Though then, perhaps, it may be considered as having been a measure of security: and an application, though a precipitate and perverse application, of the principle of utility. Scarcely in any instances, to any considerable length, by the religious: for the various monastic orders, and the societies of the Quakers, Dumplers, Moravians, and other religionists, have been free societies, whose regimen no man has been astricted to without the intervention of his own consent. Whatever merit a man may have thought there would be in making himself miserable, no such notion seems ever to have occurred to any of them, that it may be a merit, much less a duty, to make others miserable: although it should seem, that if a certain quantity of misery were a thing so desirable, it would not matter much whether it were brought by each man upon himself, or by one man upon another. It is true, that from the same source from whence, among the religionists, the attachment to the principle of asceticism took its rise, flowed other doctrines and practices, from which misery in abundance was produced in one man by the instrumentality of another: witness the holy wars, and the persecutions for religion. But the passion for producing misery in these cases proceeded upon some special ground: the exercise of it was confined to persons of particular descriptions: they were tormented, not as men, but as heretics and infidels. To have inflicted the same miseries on their fellow-believers and fellow-sectaries, would have been as blameable in the eyes even of these religionists, as in those of a partizan of the principle of utility. For a man to give himself a certain number of stripes was indeed meritorious: but to give the same number of stripes to another man, not consenting, would have been a sin. We read of saints, who for the good of their souls, and the mortification of their bodies, have voluntarily yielded themselves a prey to vermin: but though many persons of this class have wielded the reins of empire, we read of none who have set themselves to work, and made laws on purpose, with a view of stocking the body politic with the breed of highwaymen, housebreakers, or incendiaries. If at any time they have suffered the nation to be preyed upon by swarms of idle pensioners, or useless placemen, it has rather been from negligence and imbecility, than from any settled plan for oppressing and plundering of the people. If at any time they have sapped the sources of national wealth, by cramping commerce, and driving the inhabitants into emigration, it has been with other views, and in pursuit of other ends. If they have declaimed against the pursuit of pleasure, and the use of wealth, they have commonly stopped at declamation: they have not, like Lycurgus, made express ordinances for the purpose of banishing the precious metals. If they have established idleness by a law, it has been not because idleness, the mother of vice and misery, is itself a virtue, but because idleness (say they) is the road to holiness. If under the notion of fasting, they have joined in the plan of confining their subjects to a diet, thought by some to be of the most nourishing and prolific nature, it has been not for the sake of making them tributaries to the nations by whom that diet was to be supplied, but for the sake of manifesting their own power, and exercising the obedience of the people. If they have established, or suffered to be established, punishments for the breach of celibacy, they have done no more than comply with the petitions of those deluded rigorists, who, dupes to the ambitious and deep-laid policy of their rulers, first laid themselves under that idle obligation by a vow.

IX. The principle of asceticism seems originally to have been the reverie of certain hasty speculators, who having perceived, or fancied, that certain pleasures, when reaped in certain circumstances, have, at the long run, been attended with pains more than equivalent to them, took occasion to quarrel with every thing that offered itself under the name of pleasure. Having then got thus far, and having forgot the point which they set out from, they pushed on, and went so much further as to think it meritorious to fall in love with pain. Even this, we see, is at bottom but the principle of utility misapplied.

X. The principle of utility is capable of being consistently pursued; and it is but tautology to say, that the more consistently it is pursued, the better it must ever be for human kind. The principle of asceticism never was, nor ever can be, consistently pursued by any living creature. Let but one tenth part of the inhabitants of this earth pursue it consistently, and in a day’s time they will have turned it into a hell.




English essayist and Whig man of letters Joseph Addison (1672- 1719) was editor of the widely read Spectator. This philosophical discussion of wit is from Number 62 of the Spectator, which appeared on May 11, 1711.

Mr. Locke has an admirable reflection upon the difference of wit and judgment, whereby he endeavors to show the reason why they are not always the talents of the same person. His words are as follow: “And hence, perhaps, may be given some reason of that common observation, that men who have a great deal of wit, and prompt memories, have not always the clearest judgment or deepest reason. For wit lying most in the assemblage of ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures, and agreeable visions in the fancy; judgment, on the contrary, lies quite on the other side, in separating carefully one from another ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by similitude, and by affinity to take one thing for another. This is a way of proceeding quite contrary to metaphor and allusion, wherein, for the most part, lies that entertainment and pleasantry of wit, which strikes so lively on the fancy, and is therefore so acceptable to all people.”

This is, I think, the best and most philosophical account that I have ever met with of wit, which generally, though not always, consists in such a resemblance and congruity of ideas as this author mentions. I shall only add to it, by way of explanation, that every resemblance of ideas is not that which we call wit, unless it be such a one that gives delight and surprise to the reader. These two properties seem essential to wit, more particularly the last of them. In order, therefore, that the resemblance in the ideas be wit, it is necessary that the ideas should not lie too near one another in the nature of things; for where the likeness is obvious, it gives no surprise. To compare one man’s singing to that of another, or to represent the whiteness of any object by that of milk and snow, or the variety of its colors by those of the rainbow, cannot be called wit, unless, besides this obvious resemblance, there be some further congruity discovered in the two ideas, that is capable of giving the reader some surprise. Thus when a poet tells us the bosom of his mistress is as white as snow, there is no wit in the comparison; but when he adds, with a sigh, it is as cold too, it then grows into wit: Every reader’s memory may supply him with innumerable instances of the same nature. For this reason the similitudes in heroic poets, who endeavor rather to fill the mind with great conceptions than to divert it with such as are new and surprising, have seldom anything in them that can be called wit. Mr. Locke’s account of wit, with this short explanation, comprehends most of the species of wit—as metaphors, similitudes, allegories, enigmas, mottos, parables, fables, dreams, visions, dramatic writings, burlesque, and all the methods of allusion. There are many other species of wit, how remote soever they may appear at first sight from the foregoing description, which upon examination will be found to agree with it.

As true wit generally consists in this resemblance and congruity of ideas, false wit chiefly consists in the resemblance and congruity, sometimes of single letters, as in anagrams, chronograms, lipograms, and acrostics; sometimes of syllables, as in echoes and doggerel rhymes; and sometimes of whole sentences or poems, cast into the figures of eggs, axes, or altars. Nay, some carry the notion of wit so far as to ascribe it even to external mimicry, and to look upon a man as an ingenious person that can resemble the tone, posture, or face of another.

As true wit consists in the resemblance of ideas, and false wit in the resemblance of words, according to the foregoing instances, there is another kind of wit which consists partly in the resemblance of ideas, and partly in the resemblance of words, which for distinction sake I shall call mixed wit. This kind of wit is that which abounds in Cowley, more than in any other author that ever wrote. Mr. Waller has likewise a great deal of it. Mr. Dryden is very sparing in it. Milton had a genius much above it. Spenser is in the same class with Milton. The Italians, even in their epic poetry, are full of it. Monsieur Boileau, who formed himself upon the ancient poets, has everywhere rejected it with scorn....

Out of the innumerable branches of mixed wit, I shall choose one instance which may be met with in all the writers of this class. The passion of love in its nature has been thought to resemble fire, for which reason the words fire and flame are made use of to signify love. The witty poets therefore have taken an advantage from the double meaning of the word fire, to make an infinite number of witticisms. Cowley, observing the cold regard of his mistress’s eyes, and at the same time their power of producing love in him, considers them as burning-glasses made of ice; and, finding himself able to live in the greatest extremities of love, concludes the torrid zone to be habitable. When his mistress has read his letter written in juice of lemon, by holding it to the fire, he desires her to read it over a second time by love’s flame. When she weeps, he wishes it were inward heat that distilled those drops from the limbeck. When she is absent, he is beyond eighty—that is, thirty degrees nearer the Pole than when she is with him. His ambitious love is a fire that naturally mounts upwards; his happy love is the beams of heaven, and his unhappy love flames of hell. When it does not let him sleep, it is a flame that sends up no smoke; when it is opposed by counsel and advice, it is a fire that rages the more by the winds blowing upon it. Upon the dying of a tree in which he had cut his loves, he observed that his written flames had burnt up and withered the tree. When he resolves to give over his passion, he tells us that one burnt like him forever dreads the fire. His heart is an Ætna, that, instead of Vulcan’s shop, encloses Cupid’s forge in it. His endeavoring to drown his love in wine is throwing oil upon the fire. He would insinuate to his mistress that the fire of love, like that of the sun (which produces so many living creatures), should not only warm, but beget. Love, in another place, cooks pleasure at his fire. Sometimes the poet’s heart is frozen in every breast, and sometimes scorched in every eye. Sometimes he is drowned in tears and burnt in love, like a ship set on fire in the middle of the sea.

The reader may observe in every one of these instances, that the poet mixes the qualities of fire with those of love; and, in the same sentence, speaking of it both as a passion and as real fire, surprises the reader with those seeming resemblances or contradictions that make up all the wit in this kind of writing. Mixed wit is therefore a composition of pun and true wit, and is more or less perfect as the resemblance lies in the ideas or in the words. Its foundations are laid partly in falsehood and partly in truth; reason puts in her claim for one half of it, and extravagance for the other. The only province, therefore, for this kind of wit is epigram, or those little occasional poems that in their own nature are nothing else but a tissue of‘epigrams. I cannot conclude this head of mixed wit without owning that the admirable poet out of whom I have taken the examples of it, had as much true wit as any author that ever writ, and indeed all other talents of an extraordinary genius....

Bouhours, whom I look upon to be the most penetrating of all the French critics, has taken pains to show that it is impossible for any thought to be beautiful which is not just, and has not its foundation in the nature of things; that the basis of all wit is truth; and that no thought can be valuable of which good sense is not the ground work. Boileau has endeavored to inculcate the same notion in several parts of his writings, both in prose and verse. This is that natural way of writing, that beautiful simplicity, which we so much admire in the compositions of the ancients, and which nobody deviates from but those who want strength of genius to make a thought shine in its own natural beauties. Poets who want this strength of genius to give that majestic simplicity to nature which we so much admire in the works of the ancients, are forced to hunt after foreign ornaments, and not to let any piece of wit of what kind soever escape them. I look upon these writers as Goths in poetry, who, like those in architecture, not being able to come up to the simplicity of the old Greeks and Romans, have endeavored to supply its place with all the extravagancies of an irregular fancy.... Were I not supported by so great an authority as that of Mr. Dryden, I should not venture to observe that the taste of most of our English poets, as well as readers, is extremely Gothic.



Much like his claim that there is an innate moral sense, so Hutcheson here insists that our sense of beauty resides within us, stronger in some than in others. This selection is from his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1726).

Let it be observed, that in the following papers, the word beauty is taken for the idea raised in us, and a sense of beauty for our power of receiving this idea. Harmony also denotes our pleasant ideas arising from composition of sounds, and a good ear (as it is generally taken) a power of perceiving this pleasure....

It is of no consequence whether we call these ideas of beauty and harmony perceptions of the external senses of seeing and hearing, or not. I should rather choose to call our power of perceiving these ideas, an internal sense, were it only for the convenience of distinguishing them from other sensations of seeing and hearing, which men may have without perception of beauty and harmony. It is plain from experience, that many men have in the common meaning, the senses of seeing, and hearing perfect enough; they perceive all the simple ideas separately, and have their pleasures; they distinguish them from each other, such as one color from another, either quite different, or the stronger or fainter of the same color, when they are placed beside each other, although they may often confound their names, when they occur apart from each other; as some do the names of green and blue: they can tell in separate notes, the higher, lower, sharper or flatter, when separately sounded; in figures they discern the length, breadth, wideness of each line, surface, angle; and may be as capable of hearing and seeing at great distances as any men whatsoever; and yet perhaps they shall find no pleasure in musical compositions, in painting, architecture, natural landscape; or but a very weak one in comparison of what others enjoy from the same objects. This greater capacity of receiving such pleasant ideas we commonly call a fine genius or taste: in music we seem universally to acknowledge something like a distinct sense from the external one of hearing, and call it a good ear; and the like distinction we should probably acknowledge in other objects, had we also got distinct names to denote these powers of perception by.

There will appear another reason perhaps afterwards, for calling this power of perceiving the ideas of beauty, an internal sense, from this, that in some other affairs, where our external senses are not much concerned, we discern a sort of beauty, very like, in many respects to that observed in sensible objects, and accompanied with like pleasure: such is that beauty perceived in theorems, or universal truths, in general causes, and in some extensive principles of action.



In this selection from his 1753 essay, Discourse on Style, Buffon offers a strikingly classical view of style.

Style is nothing but the order and movement according to which a man arranges his thoughts. If he ties them closely together, if he tightens them up, the style becomes firm, lively, and concise; if he lets them pile themselves loosely one upon another, and unites them only by means of words, however elegant these may be, the style will be diffuse, loose, dragging....

And yet, every subject is a whole; and, however great it may be, it can be covered in a single discourse. Breaks, rests, internal divisions, should be employed only in the treatment of diverse subjects or when, since it has to deal with vast, thorny, and disparate subjects, the march of the mind is interrupted by a multiplicity of obstacles and constrained by force of circumstances; otherwise, multiple divisions, far from making a work more solid, destroy it as a structural whole; the book may seem clear at a glance, but the author’s plan remains obscure; he cannot make an impression on the mind of the reader, he cannot even make himself felt, save by the continuity of the thread of the work, by the harmonic interdependence of its ideas, by a successive development, a sustained gradation, a uniform movement which any interruption destroys or weakens.

Why are the works of nature so perfect? It is because each one of her works is a whole, and because she labors according to an immutable plan from which she never departs; she prepares in silence the seeds of her productions; she sketches by a unique act the original form of each living thing; she develops it, perfects it in a continuous movement within a prescribed time. The finished work astounds: but it is the divine imprint whose mark it carries that should impress us. The human mind can create nothing; it will produce only after having been made fecund by experience and reflection; the information it has amassed furnishes but the seeds of its end-products; but if the human mind will imitate nature in its movement and in its labor, if it will rise to the contemplation of the most sublime truths; if it will gather them together’ in due order, if it will make a whole of them, a system, by reflection, it will establish on unshakeable foundations immortal monuments.

It is for lack of a plan, for not having reflected sufficiently on his purpose, that an intelligent man finds himself embarrassed and unable to decide where to begin to write. He entertains a great number of ideas; and since he has neither compared them, nor subordinated them one to another, nothing determines him to prefer one over another; he remains in perplexity. But once he has made a plan, once he has assembled and put in order all the thoughts essential to his subject, he will be readily aware of the exact moment to take up his pen, he will recognize the point at which the mind is ready to produce, he will be anxious to hasten its work, he will indeed have no other pleasure than that of writing; ideas will follow one another easily and the style will be natural and unconstrained; warmth will be born of this pleasure, will spread throughout and give life to each expression; everything will grow livelier; the tone will be raised, objects will take on color; and emotion thus joined to penetration, will increase it, carry it further, make it pass from what is said to what is going to be said, and the style becomes interesting and luminous.

Nothing is more opposed to this warmth of style than the desire to put striking traits everywhere; nothing is more contrary to the penetrating light that ought to embody itself and spread itself evenly throughout a work than those sparks which are made only by force in the mutual shock of words, and which dazzle us for an instant only to leave us afterwards in the dark. These are the thoughts that shine only by artificial opposition; one aspect only of the object is shown, the others left in the shadow; and ordinarily the aspect chosen is a point, an angle, over which the mind may play with the more facility in that the great aspects on which good sense customarily dwells are pushed into the background....

To write well, a man must, then, possess his subject fully; he must reflect upon it sufficiently to see clearly the order of his thoughts, and to make of them a sequence, a continuous chain, of which each point represents an idea; and when he has taken up his pen, he must guide it with due sequence along this chain, without letting it wander, or bear too heavily anywhere, or make any movement save that which will be determined by the ground it has to cover. It is in this that severity of style consists, and it is this also that will make unity of style, and regulate its flow; and this alone also will suffice to make the style precise and simple, even and clear, lively and consecutive. If to the observance of this first rule, dictated by the very nature of things, there is added delicacy of taste, scrupulous attention to the choice of words, care to name things only by the most general term possible, then the style will have nobility. If there is added further a distrust of first impulses, a scorn for what is no more than brilliant, and a steady repugnance for the equivocal and the jesting, the style will have graveness, even, indeed, majesty. Finally, if a man write as he thinks, if he believe what he seeks to get believed, this good faith with himself, which insures propriety in the eyes of others, and makes for the truth of a style, will give style all its effect, provided that this interior conviction is not marked by a too violent enthusiasm, and that everywhere there is displayed more candor than assurance, more reason than heat.



There are few areas of human speculation that did not elicit an essay from Hume. Here in an essay of 1757, Hume discusses whether “a certain degree of diversity in judgment is unavoidable” in matters of taste.

The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under everyone’s observation. Men of the most confined knowledge are able to remark a difference of taste in the narrow circle of their acquaintance, even where the persons have been educated under the same government, and have early imbibed the same prejudices. But those, who can enlarge their view to contemplate distant nations and remote ages, are still more surprised at the great inconsistence and contrariety. We are apt to call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension: But soon find the epithet of reproach retorted on us. And the highest arrogance and self-conceit is at last startled, on observing an equal assurance on all sides, and scruples, amidst such a contest of sentiment, to pronounce positively in its own favor.

As this variety of taste is obvious to the most careless enquirer; so will it be found, on examination, to be still greater in reality than in appearance. The sentiments of men often differ with regard to beauty and deformity of all kinds, even while their general discourse is the same. There are certain terms in every language, which import blame, and others praise; and all men, who use the same tongue, must agree in their application of them. Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing; and in blaming fustian, affectation, coldness, and a false brilliancy: But when critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes; and it is found, that they had affixed a very different meaning to their expressions. In all matters of opinion and science, the case is opposite: The difference among men is there oftener found to lie in generals than in particulars; and to be less in reality than in appearance. An explanation of the terms commonly ends the controversy; and the disputants are surprised to find, that they had been quarreling, while at bottom they agreed in their judgment....

It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another....

It appears then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ. A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavors; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colors. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in daylight, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real color, even while color is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses....

One obvious cause, why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. This delicacy every one pretends to: Every one talks of it; and would reduce every kind of taste or sentiment to its standard....

But though there be naturally a wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to increase and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty. When objects of any kind are first presented to the eye or imagination, the sentiment, which attends them, is obscure and confused; and the mind is, in a great measure, incapable of pronouncing concerning their merits or defects. The taste cannot perceive the several excellences of the performance; much less distinguish the particular character of each excellency, and ascertain its quality and degree. If it pronounce the whole in general to be beautiful or deformed, it is the utmost that can be expected; and even this judgment, a person, so unpracticed, will be apt to deliver with great hesitation and reserve. But allow him to acquire experience in those objects, his feeling becomes more exact and nice: He not only perceives the beauties and defects of each part, but marks the distinguishing species of each quality, and assigns it suitable praise or blame. A clear and distinct sentiment attends him through the whole survey of the objects; and he discerns that very degree and kind of approbation or displeasure, which each part is naturally fitted to produce. The mist dissipates, which seemed formerly to hang over the object: The organ acquires greater perfection in its operations; and can pronounce, without danger of mistake, concerning the merits of every performance. In a word, the same address and dexterity, which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means, in the judging of it.

So advantageous is practice to the discernment of beauty, that, before we can give judgment on any work of importance, it will even be requisite, that that very individual performance be more than once perused by us, and be surveyed in different lights with attention and deliberation. There is a flutter or hurry of thought which attends the first perusal of any piece, and which confounds the genuine sentiment of beauty. The relation of the parts is not discerned: The true characters of style are little distinguished: The several perfections and defects seem wrapped up in a species of confusion, and present themselves indistinctly to the imagination. Not to mention, that there is a species of beauty, which, as it is florid and superficial, pleases at first; but being found incompatible with a just expression either of reason or passion, soon palls upon the taste, and is then rejected with disdain, at least rated at a much lower value.

It is impossible to continue in the practice of contemplating any order of beauty, without being frequently obliged to form comparisons between the several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other. A man, who has had no opportunity of comparing the different kinds of beauty, is indeed totally unqualified to pronounce an opinion with regard to any object presented to him. By comparison alone we fix the epithets of praise or blame, and learn how to assign the due degree of each. The coarsest daubing contains a certain luster of colors and exactness of imitation, which are so far beauties, and would affect the mind of a peasant or Indian with the highest admiration. The most vulgar ballads are not entirely destitute of harmony or nature; and none but a person, familiarized to superior beauties, would pronounce their numbers harsh, or narration uninteresting. A great inferiority of beauty gives pain to a person conversant in the highest excellence of the kind, and is for that reason pronounced a deformity: As the most finished object, with which we are acquainted, is naturally supposed to have reached the pinnacle of perfection, and to be entitled to the highest applause. One accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations, can only rate the merits of a work exhibited to his view, and assign its proper rank among the productions of genius.

But to enable a critic the more fully to execute this undertaking, he must preserve his mind free from all prejudice, and allow nothing to enter into his consideration, but the very object which is submitted to his examination. We may observe, that every work of art, in order to produce its due effect on the mind, must be surveyed in a certain point of view, and cannot be fully relished by persons, whose situation, real or imaginary, is not conformable to that which is required by the performance. An orator addresses himself to a particular audience, and must have a regard to their particular genius, interests, opinions, passions, and prejudices; otherwise he hopes in vain to govern their resolutions, and inflame their affections. Should they even have entertained some prepossessions against him, however unreasonable, he must not overlook this disadvantage; but, before he enters upon the subject, must endeavor to conciliate their affection, and acquire their good graces. A critic of a different age or nation, who should peruse this discourse, must have all these circumstances in his eye, and must place himself in the same situation as the audience, in order to form a true judgment of the oration. In like manner, when any work is addressed to the public, though I should have a friendship or enmity with the author, I must depart from this situation; and considering myself as a man in general, forget, if possible, my individual being and my peculiar circumstances. A person influenced by prejudice, complies not with this condition; but obstinately maintains his natural position, without placing himself in that point of view, which the performance supposes. If the work be addressed to persons of a different age or nation, he makes no allowance for their peculiar views and prejudices; but, full of the manners of his own age and country, rashly condemns what seemed admirable in the eyes of those for whom alone the discourse was calculated. If the work be executed for the public, he never sufficiently enlarges his comprehension, or forgets his interest as a friend or enemy, as a rival or commentator. By this means, his sentiments are perverted; nor have the same beauties and blemishes the same influence upon him, as if he had imposed a proper violence on his imagination, and had forgotten himself for a moment. So far his taste evidently departs from the true standard; and of consequence loses all credit and authority.

It is well known, that in all questions, submitted to the understanding, prejudice is destructive of sound judgment, and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties: It is no less contrary to good taste; nor has it less influence to corrupt our sentiment of beauty. It belongs to good sense to check its influence in both cases; and in this respect, as well as in many others, reason, if not an essential part of taste, is at least requisite to the operations of this latter faculty. In all the nobler productions of genius, there is a mutual relation and correspondence of parts; nor can either the beauties or blemishes be perceived by him, whose thought is not capacious enough to comprehend all those parts, and compare them with each other, in order to perceive the consistence and uniformity of the whole. Every work of art has also a certain end or purpose, for which it is calculated; and is to be deemed more or less perfect, as it is more or less fitted to attain this end....

The same excellence of faculties which contributes to the improvement of reason, the same clearness of conception, the same exactness of distinction, the same vivacity of apprehension, are essential to the operations of true taste, and are its infallible concomitants. It seldom, or never happens, that a man of sense, who has experience in any art, cannot judge of its beauty; and it is no less rare to meet with a man who has a just taste without a sound understanding.

Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly, if not entirely, the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty. The organs of internal sensation are seldom so perfect as to allow the general principles their full play, and produce a feeling correspondent to those principles. They either labor under some defect, or are vitiated by some disorder; and by that means, excite a sentiment, which may be pronounced erroneous. When the critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object: The finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded. Where he is not aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitation. Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects, are the object of his admiration. Where he lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted. Where good sense is wanting, he is not qualified to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent. Under some or other of these imperfections, the generality of men labor; and hence a true judge in the finer arts is observed, even during the most polished ages, to be so rare a character: Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.

But where are such critics to be found? By what marks are they to be known? How distinguish them from pretenders? These questions are embarrassing; and seem to throw us back into the same uncertainty, from which, during the course of this essay, we have endeavored to extricate ourselves.

But if we consider the matter aright, these are questions of fact, not of sentiment. Whether any particular person be endowed with good sense and a delicate imagination, free from prejudice, may often be the subject of dispute, and be liable to great discussion and enquiry: But that such a character is valuable and estimable will be agreed in by all mankind. Where these doubts occur, men can do no more than in other disputable questions, which are submitted to the understanding: They must produce the best arguments, that their invention suggests to them; they must acknowledge a true and decisive standard to exist somewhere, to wit, real existence and matter of fact; and they must have indulgence to such as differ from them in their appeals to this standard. It is sufficient for our present purpose, if we have proved, that the taste of all individuals is not upon an equal footing, and that some men in general, however difficult to be particularly pitched upon, will be acknowledged by universal sentiment to have a preference above others.

But in reality the difficulty of finding, even in particulars, the standard of taste, is not so great as it is represented. Though in speculation, we may readily avow a certain criterion in science and deny it in sentiment, the matter is found in practice to be much more hard to ascertain in the former case than in the latter. Theories of abstract philosophy, systems of profound theology, have prevailed during one age: In a successive period, these have been universally exploded: Their absurdity has been detected: Other theories and systems have supplied their place, which again gave place to their successors: And nothing has been experienced more liable to the revolutions of chance and fashion than these pretended decisions of science. The case is not the same with the beauties of eloquence and poetry. Just expressions of passion and nature are sure, after a little time, to gain public applause, which they maintain forever. Aristotle, and Plato, and Epicurus, and Descartes, may successively yield to each other: But Terence and Virgil maintain an universal, undisputed empire over the minds of men. The abstract philosophy of Cicero has lost its credit: The vehemence of his oratory is still the object of our admiration.

Though men of delicate taste be rare, they are easily to be distinguished in society, by the soundness of their understanding and the superiority of their faculties above the rest of mankind. The ascendant, which they acquire, gives a prevalence to that lively approbation, with which they receive any productions of genius, and renders it generally predominant. Many men, when left to themselves, have but a faint and dubious perception of beauty, who yet are capable of relishing any fine stroke, which is pointed out to them. Every convert to the admiration of the real poet or orator is the cause of some new conversion. And though prejudices may prevail for a time, they never unite in celebrating any rival to the true genius, but yield at last to the force of nature and just sentiment. Thus, though a civilized nation may easily be mistaken in the choice of their admired philosopher, they never have been found long to err, in their affection for a favorite epic or tragic author.

But notwithstanding all our endeavors to fix a standard of taste, and reconcile the discordant apprehensions of men, there still remain two sources of variation, which are not sufficient indeed to confound all the boundaries of beauty and deformity, but will often serve to produce a difference in the degrees of our approbation or blame. The one is the different humors of particular men; the other, the particular manners and opinions of our age and country. The general principles of taste are uniform in human nature: Where men vary in their judgments, some defect or perversion in the faculties may commonly be remarked; proceeding either from prejudice, from want of practice, or want of delicacy; and there is just reason for approving one taste, and condemning another. But where there is such a diversity in the internal frame or external situation as is entirely blameless on both sides, and leaves no room to give one the preference above the other; in that case a certain degree of diversity in judgment is unavoidable, and we seek in vain for a standard, by which we can reconcile the contrary sentiments.

A young man, whose passions are warm, will be more sensibly touched with amorous and tender images, than a man more advanced in years, who takes pleasure in wise, philosophical reflections concerning the conduct of life and moderation of the passions. At twenty, Ovid may be the favorite author; Horace at forty; and perhaps Tacitus at fifty. Vainly would we, in such cases, endeavor to enter into the sentiments of others, and divest ourselves of those propensities, which are natural to us. We choose our favorite author as we do our friend, from a conformity of humor and disposition. Mirth or passion, sentiment or reflection; whichever of these most predominates in our temper, it gives us a peculiar sympathy with the writer who resembles us.



Before he entered on his political career and his writings on politicsin which he would prove to be the towering enemy of much that the Enlightenment stood forEdmund Burke (1729-1797) wrote A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). This selection is from that influential essay, which argues that crucial to our sense of the sublime is fear, even terror.

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on anything as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous. There are many animals, who, though far from being large, are yet capable of raising ideas of the sublime, because they are considered as objects of terror. As serpents and poisonous animals of almost all kinds. And to things of great dimensions, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater. A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean; but can it ever fill the mind with anything so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes; but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime. Several languages bear a strong testimony to the affinity of these ideas. They frequently use the same word to signify indifferently the modes of astonishment or admiration and those of terror....

The Romans used the verb stupeo, a term which strongly marks the state of an astonished mind, to express the effect either of simple fear, or of astonishment; the word attonitus (thunderstruck) is equally expressive of the alliance of these ideas; and do not the French etonnement, and the English astonishment and amazement, point out as clearly the kindred emotions which attend fear and wonder? They who have a more general knowledge of languages, could produce, I make no doubt, many other and equally striking examples.

To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion. Almost all the heathen temples were dark. Even in the barbarous temples of the Americans at this day, they keep their idol in a dark part of the hut, which is consecrated to his worship. For this purpose too the Druids performed all their ceremonies in the bosom of the darkest woods, and in the shade of the oldest and most spreading oaks. No person seems better to have understood the secret of heightening, or of setting terrible things, if I may use the expression, in their strongest light, by the force of a judicious obscurity than Milton. His description of death in the second book is admirably studied; it is astonishing with what a gloomy pomp, with what a significant and expressive uncertainty of strokes and coloring, he has finished the portrait of the king of terrors:

The other shape, 
If shape it might be called that shape had none 
Distinguishable, in member, joint, or limb; 
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed; 
For each seemed either; black he stood as night; 
Fierce as ten furies; terrible as hell; 
And shook a deadly dart. What seemed his head 
The likeness of a kingly crown had on. 
Paradise Lost, II, 666-73.

In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree.

It is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination. If I make a drawing of a palace, or a temple, or a landscape, I present a very clear idea of those objects; but then (allowing for the effect of imitation which is something) my picture can at most affect only as the palace, temple, or landscape, would have affected in the reality. On the other hand, the most lively and spirited verbal description I can give raises a very obscure and imperfect idea of such objects; but then it is in my power to raise a stronger emotion by the description than I could do by the best painting. This experience constantly evinces. The proper manner of conveying the affections of the mind from one to another is by words; there is a great insufficiency in all other methods of communication; and so far is a clearness of imagery from being absolutely necessary to an influence upon the passions, that they may be considerably operated upon, without presenting any image at all, by certain sounds adapted to that purpose; of which we have a sufficient proof in the acknowledged and powerful effects of instrumental music. In reality, a great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions, as it is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever....

I know several who admire and love painting, and yet who regard the objects of their admiration in that art with coolness enough in comparison of that warmth with which they are animated by affecting pieces of poetry or rhetoric. Among the common sort of people, I never could perceive that painting had much influence on their passions. It is true that the best sorts of painting, as well as the best sorts of poetry, are not much understood in that sphere. But it is most certain that their passions are very strongly roused by a fanatic preacher, or by the ballads of Chevy Chase, or the Children in the Wood, and by other little popular poems and tales that are current in that rank of life. I do not know of any paintings, bad or good, that produce the same effect. So that poetry, with all its obscurity, has a more general, as well as a more powerful dominion over the passions, than the other art. And I think there are reasons in nature, why the obscure idea, when properly conveyed, should be more affecting than the clear. It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little. It is thus with the vulgar; and all men are as the vulgar in what they do not understand....

Besides those things which directly suggest the idea of danger, and those which produce a similar effect from a mechanical cause, I know of nothing sublime, which is not some modification of power. And this branch rises, as naturally as the other two branches, from terror, the common stock of everything that is sublime. The idea of power, at first view, seems of the class of those indifferent ones, which may equally belong to pain or to pleasure. But in reality, the affection arising from the idea of vast power is extremely remote from that neutral character. For first, we must remember that the idea of pain, in its highest degree, is much stronger than the highest degree of pleasure; and that it preserves the same superiority through all the subordinate gradations. From hence it is, that where the chances for equal degrees of suffering or enjoyment are in any sort equal, the idea of the suffering must always be prevalent. And indeed the ideas of pain, and, above all, of death, are so very affecting, that whilst we remain in the presence of whatever is supposed to have the power of inflicting either, it is impossible to be perfectly free from terror. Again, we know by experience, that, for the enjoyment of pleasure, no great efforts of power are at all necessary; nay, we know that such efforts would go a great way towards destroying our sadsfaction: for pleasure must be stolen, and not forced upon us; pleasure follows the will; and therefore we are generally affected with it by many things of a force greatly inferior to our own. But pain is always inflicted by a power in some way superior, because we never submit to pain willingly. So that strength, violence, pain, and terror, are ideas that rush in upon the mind together. Look at a man, or any other animal of prodigious strength, and what is your idea before reflection? Is it that this strength will be subservient to you, to your ease, to your pleasure, to your interest in any sense? No; the emotion you feel is, lest this enormous strength should be employed to the purposes of rapine and destruction. That power derives all its sublimity from the terror with which it is generally accompanied, will appear evidently from its effect in the very few cases, in which it may be possible to strip a considerable degree of strength of its ability to hurt. When you do this, you spoil it of everything sublime, and it immediately becomes contemptible.



D‘Alembert wrote the entry for “Geneva” in the Encylopédie, in which he criticized its prohibition of theater. Rousseau replied in 1758 in his Epistle to Mr. d’Alembert, arguing not only that theater encouraged idleness and inactivity but that it left people alone with only themselves. A republic required truly public entertainment, he concluded, which would promote civic spirit.

The state of man hath its pleasures, which are derived from his nature, and arise from his occupations, his connections and his necessities; and as these pleasures are most agreeable to uncorrupted, innocent minds, they render all others in a manner useless. A father, a son, a husband, a citizen, lie under obligations of so pleasing and interesting a nature, that they can want no amusement more agreeable than the discharge of them. The proper employment of our time increases its value; while the better it is employed, the less have we still to spare. Thus we find that the habit of labor renders idleness tiresome, and that a good conscience deprives us of all taste for frivolous pleasures. But it is the being dissatisfied with ourselves; it is the weight of indolence; it is the loss of taste for simple and natural pleasures, that give occasion to the expediency of artificial entertainments. I do not like to see the heart set upon theatrical amusements, as if it was uneasy or unhappy within itself. The answer of the barbarian to a person who had been extolling the magnificence of the circus, and the games instituted at Rome, was dictated by nature itself Have the Romans, said that honest creature, no wives nor children? The barbarian was in the right. People imagine themselves to be in company at the theater, but it is there that everybody is alone. We repair thither to forget our relations, our friends, our neighbors; to interest ourselves in fabulous representations, to mourn over the imaginary misfortunes of the dead, or to laugh at the expense of the living. But I should have perceived that this is not the language of the present age. Let us endeavor, therefore, to assume one that will be better understood.

To enquire whether public amusements are good or bad in themselves is a question too vague and indeterminate: it would be to examine into a relation before we had fixed the terms of it. They are made for the people, and it is only from their effects on the people, that we are to determine their real good or bad qualities. There may be an almost infinite variety of such entertainments; and there is a like variety in the manners, constitutions and characters of different people. I allow that man is every where the same; but when he is variously modified by religion, government, laws, customs, prepossessions, and climates, he becomes so different from himself that the question no longer is what is proper for mankind in general, but what is proper for him in such a particular age and country. Hence it is that the dramatic pieces of Menander, calculated for the Athenian stage, were ill-suited for that of Rome. Hence the combats of the gladiators, which, under the republican government, animated the people with courage, and a love of glory, only served, under the emperors, to render the populace brutal, blood-thirsty, and cruel. The very same objects, exhibited under different circumstances, taught the people at one time to despise their own lives, and at another to sport with the lives of others.

Let us not ascribe to the theater ... the power of changing sentiments and manners, when it can only pursue and embellish them. A dramatic writer who should oppose the general taste of the public, would soon be left to write only for himself. When Molière corrected the comic drama, he attacked only ridiculous modes and characters; but in doing this, he indulged the public taste, as did also Corneille. It was the old French stage that began to displease this taste: because, while the nation improved in politeness, the stage still retained its primitive barbarism.

It is for the same reason that, as the general taste is so greatly altered since their times, the very best pieces of these two authors, if now first brought on the stage, would infallibly be damned. The connoisseurs may admire them as much as they please; the public admire them rather because they are ashamed to do otherwise, than from any real beauties they discover in them. It is said, indeed, that a good piece can never miscarry; truly I believe it; but this is because a really good piece is never disgusting to the manners of the times. There cannot be the least doubt that the very best tragedy of Sophocles would be totally damned in our theaters. It is impossible for us to put ourselves in the place of people, to whom we bear no sort of resemblance....

What! Ought there to be no entertainments in a republic? On the contrary, there ought to be many. It is in republics that they were born, it is in their bosom that they are seen to flourish with a truly festive air. To what peoples is it more fitting to assemble often and form among themselves sweet bonds of pleasure and joy than to those who have so many reasons to like one another and remain forever united? We already have many of these public festivals; let us have even more; I will be only the more charmed for it. But let us not adopt these exclusive entertainments which close up a small number of people in melancholy fashion in a gloomy cavern, which keep them fearful and immobile in silence and inaction, which give them only prisons, lances, soldiers, and afflicting images of servitude and inequality to see. No, happy peoples, these are not your festivals. It is in the open air, under the sky, that you ought to gather and give yourselves to the sweet sentiment of your happiness. Let your pleasures not be effeminate or mercenary; let nothing that has an odor of constraint and selfishness poison them; let them be free and generous like you are, let the sun illuminate your innocent entertainments; you will constitute one yourselves, the worthiest it can illuminate.

But what then will be the objects of these entertainments? What will be shown in them? Nothing, if you please. With liberty, wherever abundance reigns, well-being also reigns. Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of a square; gather the people together there, and you will have a festival. Do better yet; let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them actors themselves; do it so that each sees and loves himself in the others so that all will be better united. I need not have recourse to the games of the ancient Greeks; there are modern ones which are still in existence, and I find them precisely in our city. Every year we have reviews, public prizes, kings of the harquebus, the cannon, and sailing. Institutions so useful and so agreeable cannot be too much multiplied; of such kings there cannot be too many. Why should we not do to make ourselves active and robust what we do to become skilled in the use of arms? Has the republic less need of workers than of soldiers? Why should we not found, on the model of the military prizes, other prizes for gymnastics, wrestling, runnings, discus, and the various bodily exercises? Why should we not animate our boatmen by contests on the lake? Could there be an entertainment in the world more brilliant than seeing, on this vast and superb body of water, hundreds of boats, elegantly equipped, starting together at the given signal to go and capture a flag planted at the finish, then serving as a cortege for the victor returning in triumph to receive his well-earned prize? All festivals of this sort are expensive only insofar as one wishes them to be, and the gathering alone renders them quite magnificent. Nevertheless, one must have been there with the Genevans to understand with what ardor they devote themselves to them. They are unrecognizable; they are no longer that steady people which never deviates from its economic rules; they are no longer those slow reasoners who weigh everything, including joking, in the scale of judgment. The people are lively, gay, and tender; their hearts are then in their eyes as they are always on their lips; they seek to communicate their joy and their pleasures. They invite, importune, and coerce the new arrivals and dispute over them. All the societies constitute but one, all become common to all. It is almost a matter of indifference at which table one seats oneself. It would be the image of Lacedaemon if a certain lavishness did not prevail here; but this very lavishness is at this time in its place, and the sight of the abundance makes that of the liberty which produces it more moving.



In his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Smith has some fascinating observations on the tyranny of fashion.

Dress and furniture are allowed by all the world to be entirely under the dominion of custom and fashion. The influence of those principles, however, is by no means confined to so narrow a sphere, but extends itself to whatever is in any respect the object of taste, to music, to poetry, to architecture. The modes of dress and furniture are continually changing; and that fashion appearing ridiculous today which was admired five years ago, we are experimentally convinced that it owed its vogue chiefly or entirely to custom and fashion. Clothes and furniture are not made of very durable materials. A well-fancied coat is done in a twelve-month, and cannot continue longer to propagate, as the fashion, that form according to which it was made. The modes of furniture change less rapidly than those of dress; because furniture is commonly more durable. In five or six years, however, it generally undergoes an entire revolution, and every man in his own time sees the fashion in this respect change many different ways. The productions of the other arts are much more lasting, and, when happily imagined, may continue to propagate the fashion of their make for a much longer time. A well-contrived building may endure many centuries: a beautiful air may be delivered down, by a sort of tradition, through many successive generations: a well-written poem may last as long as the world: and all of them continue for ages together, to give the vogue to that particular style, to that particular taste or manner, according to which each of them was composed. Few men have an opportunity of seeing in their own times the fashion in any of these arts change very considerably. Few men have so much experience and acquaintance with the different modes which have obtained in remote ages and nations, as to be thoroughly reconciled to them, or to judge with impartiality between them, and what takes place in their own age and country. Few men therefore are willing to allow, that custom or fashion have much influence upon their judgments concerning what is beautiful, or otherwise, in the productions of any of those arts: but imagine, that all the rules, which they think ought to be observed in each of them, are founded upon reason and nature, not upon habit or prejudice. A very little attention, however, may convince them of the contrary, and satisfy them, that the influence of custom and fashion over dress and furniture is not more absolute than over architecture, poetry, and music.

Can any reason, for example, be assigned why the Doric capital should be appropriated to a pillar, whose height is equal to eight diameters; the Ionic volute to one of nine; and the Corinthian foliage to one of ten? The propriety of each of those appropriations can be founded upon nothing but habit and custom. The eye having been used to see a particular proportion, connected with a particular ornament, would be offended if they were not joined together. Each of the five orders has its peculiar ornament, which cannot be changed for any other, without giving offense to all those who know anything of the rules of architecture. According to some architects, indeed, such is the exquisite judgment with which the ancients have assigned to each order its proper ornaments, that no others can be found which are equally suitable. It seems, however, a little difficult to be conceived that these forms, though, no doubt, extremely agreeable, should be the only forms which can suit those proportions, or that there should not be five hundred others, which, antecedent to established custom, would have fitted them equally well. When custom, however, has established particular rules of building, provided they are not absolutely unreasonable, it is absurd to think of altering them for others which are only equally good, or even for others which, in point of elegance and beauty, have naturally some little advantage over them. A man would be ridiculous who should appear in public with a suit of clothes quite different from those which are commonly worn, though the new dress should in itself be ever so graceful or convenient. And there seems to be an absurdity of the same kind in ornamenting a house after a quite different manner from that which custom and fashion have prescribed; though the new ornaments should in themselves be somewhat superior to the common ones.

According to the ancient rhetoricians, a certain measure or verse was by nature appropriated to each particular species of writing, as being naturally expressive of that character, sentiment, or passion which ought to predominate in it. One verse, they said was fit for grave, and another for gay works, which could not, they thought, be interchanged without the greatest impropriety. The experience of modern times, however, seems to contradict this principle, though in itself it would appear to be extremely probable. What is the burlesque verse in English, is the heroic verse in French. The tragedies of Racine and the Henriad of Voltaire, are nearly in the same verse with,

Let me have your advice in a weighty affair.

The burlesque verse in French, on the contrary, is pretty much the same with the heroic verse of ten syllables in English. Custom has made the one nation associate the ideas of gravity, sublimity, and seriousness, to that measure which the other has connected with whatever is gay, flippant, and ludicrous. Nothing would appear more absurd in English, than a tragedy written in the alexandrine verses of the French; or in French, than a work of the same kind in verses of ten syllables.



Kant speculated on aesthetic theory in his 1764 work, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. His views are strikingly similar to Burke’s.

Finer feeling, which we now wish to consider, is chiefly of two kinds: the feeling of the sublime and that of the beautiful. The stirring of each is pleasant, but in different ways. The sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peak rises above the clouds, the description of a raging storm, or Milton’s portrayal of the infernal kingdom, arouse enjoyment but with horror; on the other hand, the sight of flower-strewn meadows, valleys with winding brooks and covered with grazing flocks, the description of Elysium, or Homer’s portrayal of the girdle of Venus, also occasion a pleasant sensation but one that is joyous and smiling. In order that the former impression could occur to us in due strength, we must have a feeling of the sublime, and, in order to enjoy the latter well, a feeling of the beautiful. Tall oaks and lonely shadows in a sacred grove are sublime; flower beds, low hedges and trees trimmed in figures are beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful. Temperaments that possess a feeling for the sublime are drawn gradually, by the quiet stillness of a summer evening as the shimmering light of the stars breaks through the brown shadows of night and the lonely moon rises into view, into high feelings of friendship, of disdain for the world, of eternity. The shining day stimulates busy fervor and a feeling of gaiety. The sublime moves, the beautiful charms. The mien of a man who is undergoing the full feeling of the sublime is earnest, sometimes rigid and astonished. On the other hand the lively sensation of the beautiful proclaims itself through shining cheerfulness in the eyes, through smiling features, and often through audible mirth. The sublime is in turn of different kinds. Its feeling is sometimes accompanied with a certain dread, or melancholy; in some cases merely with quiet wonder; and in still others with a beauty completely pervading a sublime plan. The first I shall call the terrifying sublime, the second the noble, and the third the splendid. Deep loneliness is sublime, but in a way that stirs terror. Hence great far-reaching solitudes, like the colossal Komul Desert in Tartary, have always given us occasion for peopling them with fearsome spirits, goblins, and ghouls.

The sublime must always be great; the beautiful can also be small. The sublime must be simple; the beautiful can be adorned and ornamented. A great height is just as sublime as a great depth, except that the latter is accompanied with the sensation of shuddering, the former with one of wonder. Hence the latter feeling can be the terrifying sublime, and the former the noble. The sight of an Egyptian pyramid, as Hasselquist reports, moves one far more than one can imagine from all the descriptions; but its design is simple and noble. St. Peter’s in Rome is splendid; because on its frame, which is large and simple, beauty is so distributed, for example, gold, mosaic work, and so on, that the feeling of the sublime still strikes through with the greatest effect; hence the object is called splendid. An arsenal must be noble and simple, a residence castle splendid, and a pleasure palace beautiful and ornamented.

A long duration is sublime. If it is of time past, then it is noble. If it is projected into an incalculable future, then it has something of the fearsome in it. A building of the remotest antiquity is venerable. Haller’s description of the coming eternity stimulates a mild horror, and of the past, transfixed wonder....

In human nature, praiseworthy qualities never are found without concurrent variations that must run through endless shadings to the utmost imperfection. The quality of the terrifying sublime, if it is quite unnatural, is adventurous. Unnatural things, so far as the sublime is supposed in them, although little or none at all may actually be found, are grotesque. Whoever loves and believes the fantastic is a visionary; the inclination toward whims makes the crank.On the other side, if the noble is completely lacking the feeling of the beautiful degenerates, and one calls it trifling. A male person of this quality, if he is young, is named a fop; if he is of middle age, he is a dandy. Since the sublime is most necessary to the elderly, an old dandy is the most contemptible creature in nature, just as a young crank is the most offensive and intolerable. Jests and liveliness pertain to the feeling of the beautiful. Nevertheless, much understanding can fittingly shine through, and to that extent they can be more or less related to the sublime. He in whose sprightliness this admixture is not detectable chatters. He who perpetually chatters is silly. One easily notices that even clever persons occasionally chatter, and that not a little intellect is needed to call the understanding away from its post for a short time without anything going wrong thereby. He whose words or deeds neither entertain nor move one is boring. The bore, if he is nevertheless zealous to do both, is insipid. The insipid one, if he is conceited, is a fool.

I shall make this curious sketch of human frailties somewhat more understandable by examples; for he to whom Hogarth’s engraving stylus is wanting must compensate by description for what the drawing lacks in expression. Bold acceptance of danger for our own, our country’s, or our friends’ rights is sublime. The crusades and ancient knighthood were adventurous; duels, a wretched remnant of the latter arising from a perverted concept of chivalry, are grotesque. Melancholy separation from the bustle of the world due to a legitimate weariness is noble. Solitary devotion by the ancient hermits was adventurous. Monasteries and such tombs, to confine the living saints, are grotesque. Subduing one’s passions through principles is sublime. Castigation, vows, and other such monks’ virtues are grotesque. Holy bones, holy wood, and all similar rubbish, the holy stool of the High Lama of Tibet not excluded, are grotesque. Of the works of wit and fine feeling, the epic poems of Virgil and Klopstock fall into the noble, of Homer and Milton into the adventurous. The Metamorphoses of Ovid are grotesque; the fairy tales of French foolishness are the most miserable grotesqueries ever hatched. Anacreontic poems are generally very close to the trifling.

Works of understanding and ingenuity, so far as their objects also contain something for feeling, likewise take some part in the differences now being considered. Mathematical representation of the infinite magnitude of the universe, the meditations of metaphysics upon eternity, Providence, and the immortality of our souls contain a certain sublimity and dignity. On the other hand, philosophy is distorted by many empty subtleties, and the superficial appearance of profundity cannot prevent our regarding the four syllogistic figures as scholastic trifling.



One of eighteenth-century England’s most famous painters, Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was the first president of the Royal Academy when it was established in 1768. Each year thereafter he delivered what became popular discourses on art, which were ultimately published. In this selection—from his seventh discourse, delivered in December 1776—Reynolds concludes that “taste is fixed and established in the nature of things. ”


Let me then, without further introduction, enter upon an examination, whether taste be so far beyond our reach, as to be unattainable by care; or be so very vague and capricious, that no care ought to be employed about it.

It has been the fate of arts to be enveloped in mysterious and incomprehensible language, as if it was thought necessary that even the terms should correspond to the idea entertained of the instability and uncertainty of the rules which they expressed.

To speak of genius and taste, as in any way connected with reason or common sense, would be, in the opinion of some towering talkers, to speak like a man who possessed neither; who had never felt that enthusiasm, or, to use their own inflated language, was never warmed by that Promethean fire, which animates the canvas and vivifies the marble.

If, in order to be intelligible, I appear to degrade art by bringing her down from the visionary situation in the clouds, it is only to give her a more solid mansion upon the earth. It is necessary that at some time or other we should see things as they really are, and not impose on ourselves by that false magnitude with which objects appear when viewed indistinctly as through a mist.

We will allow a poet to express his meaning, when his meaning is not well known to himself, with a certain degree of obscurity, as it is one sort of the sublime. But when, in plain prose, we gravely talk of courting the Muse in shady bowers; waiting the call and inspiration of Genius, finding out where he inhabits, and where he is to be invoked with the greatest success; of attending to times and seasons when the imagination shoots with the greatest vigor, whether at the summer solstice or the vernal equinox; sagaciously observing how much the wild freedom and liberty of imagination is cramped by attention to established rules; and how this same imagination begins to grow dim in advanced age, smothered and deadened by too much judgment; when we talk such language, or entertain such sentiments as these, we generally rest contented with mere words, or at best entertain notions not only groundless but pernicious.

If all this means, what it is very possible was originally intended only to be meant, that in order to cultivate an art, a man secludes himself from the commerce of the world, and retires into the country at particular seasons; or that at one time of the year his body is in better health, and consequently his mind fitter for the business of hard thinking than at another time; or that the mind may be fatigued and grow confused by long and unremitted application; this I can understand. I can likewise believe, that a man eminent when young for possessing poetical imagination, may, from having taken another road, so neglect its cultivation, as to show less of its powers in his latter life. But I am persuaded, that scarce a poet is to be found, from Homer down to Dryden, who preserved a sound mind in a sound body, and continued practicing his profession to the very last, whose latter works are not as replete with the fire of imagination, as those which were produced in his more youthful days.

To understand literally these metaphors, or ideas expressed in poetical language, seems to be equally absurd as to conclude, that because painters sometimes represent poets writing from the dictates of a little winged boy or genius, that this same genius did really inform him in a whisper what he was to write; and that he is himself but a mere machine, unconscious of the operations of his own mind....

Genius and taste, in their common acceptation, appear to be very nearly related; the difference lies only in this, that genius has super-added to it a habit or power of execution; or we may say, that taste, when this power is added, changes its name, and is called genius. They both, in the popular opinion, pretend to an entire exemption from the restraint of rules. It is supposed that their powers are intuitive; that under the name of genius great works are produced, and under the name of taste an exact judgment is given, without our knowing why, and without our being under the least obligation to reason, precept, or experience.

One can scarce state these opinions without exposing their absurdity; yet they are constantly in the mouths of men, and particularly of artists. They who have thought seriously on this subject, do not carry the point so far; yet I am persuaded, that even among those few who may be called thinkers, the prevalent opinion allows less than it ought to the powers of reason; and considers the principles of taste, which give all their authority to the rules of art, as more fluctuating, and as having less solid foundations, than we shall find, upon examination, they really have.

The common saying, that tastes are not to be disputed, owes its influence, and its general reception, to the same error which leads us to imagine this faculty of too high an original to submit to the authority of an earthly tribunal. It likewise corresponds with the notions of those who consider it as a mere phantom of the imagination, so devoid of substance as to elude all criticism....

We apply the term TASTE to that act of the mind by which we like or dislike, whatever be the subject. Our judgment upon an airy nothing, a fancy which has no foundation, is called by the same name which we give to our determination concerning those truths which refer to the most general and most unalterable principles of human nature; to the works which are only to be produced by the greatest efforts of the human understanding. However inconvenient this may be, we are obliged to take words as we find them; all we can do is to distinguish the THINGS to which they are applied.

We may let pass those things which are at once subjects of taste and sense, and which, having as much certainty as the senses themselves, give no occasion to inquiry or dispute. The natural appetite or taste of the human mind is for TRUTH; whether that truth results from the real agreement or equality of original ideas among themselves; from the agreement of the representation of any object with the thing represented; or from the correspondence of the several parts of any arrangement with each other. It is the very same taste which relishes a demonstration in geometry, that is pleased with the resemblance of a picture to an original and touched with the harmony of music.

All these have unalterable and fixed foundations in nature, and are therefore equally investigated by reason, and known by study; some with more, some with less clearness, but all exactly in the same way. A picture that is unlike, is false. Disproportionate ordonnance of parts is not right; because it cannot be true, until it ceases to be a contradiction to assert, that the parts have no relation to the whole. Coloring is true, when it is naturally adapted to the eye, from brightness, from softness, from harmony, from resemblance; because these agree with their object, NATURE, and therefore are true; as true as mathematical demonstration; but known to be true only to those who study these things.

But besides real, there is also apparent truth, or opinion, or prejudice. With regard to real truth, when it is known, the taste which conforms to it is, and must be, uniform. With regard to the second sort of truth, which may be called truth upon sufferance, or truth by courtesy, it is not fixed, but variable. However, whilst these opinions and prejudices, on which it is founded, continue, they operate as truth; and the art, whose office it is to please the mind, as well as instruct it, must direct itself according to opinion, or it will not attain its end.

In proportion as these prejudices are known to be generally diffused, or long received, the taste which conforms to them approaches nearer to certainty, and to a sort of resemblance to real science, even where opinions are found to be no better than prejudices. And since they deserve, on account of their duration and extent, to be considered as really true, they become capable of no small degree of stability and determination, by their permanent and uniform nature.

As these prejudices become more narrow, more local, more transitory, this secondary taste becomes more and more fantastical; recedes from real science; is less to be approved by reason, and less followed by practice: though in no case perhaps to be wholly neglected, where it does not stand, as it sometimes does, in direct defiance of the most respectable opinions received amongst mankind.

Having laid down these positions, I shall proceed with less method, because less will serve to explain and apply them.

We will take it for granted, that reason is something invariable, and fixed in the nature of things; and without endeavoring to go back to an account of first principles, which forever will elude our search, we will conclude, that whatever goes under the name of taste, which we can fairly bring under the dominion of reason, must be considered as equally exempt from change. If, therefore, in the course of this enquiry, we can show that there are rules for the conduct of the artist which are fixed and invariable, it follows of course, that the art of the connoisseur, or, in other words, taste, has likewise invariable principles.

Of the judgment which we make on the works of art, and the preference that we give to one class of art over another, if a reason be demanded, the question is perhaps evaded by answering, I judge from my taste; but it does not follow that a better answer cannot be given, though, for common gazers, this may be sufficient. Every man is not obliged to investigate the cause of his approbation or dislike.

The arts would lie open for ever to caprice and casualty, if those who are to judge of their excellencies had no settled principles by which they are to regulate their decisions, and the merit or defect of performances were to be determined by unguided fancy. And indeed we may venture to assert, that whatever speculative knowledge is necessary to the artist, is equally and indispensably necessary to the connoisseur.

The first idea that occurs in the consideration of what is fixed in art, or in taste, is that presiding principle of which I have so frequently spoken in former discourses,—the general idea of nature. The beginning, the middle, and the end of every thing that is valuable in taste, is comprised in the knowledge of what is truly nature; for whatever notions are not conformable to those of nature, or universal opinion, must be considered as more or less capricious.

My notion of nature comprehends not only the forms which nature produces, but also the nature and internal fabric and organization, as I may call it, of the human mind and imagination. The terms beauty, or nature, which are general ideas, are but different modes of expressing the same thing, whether we apply these terms to statues, poetry, or pictures. Deformity is not nature, but an accidental deviation from her accustomed practice. This general idea therefore ought to be called Nature; and nothing else, correctly speaking, has a right to that name. But we are sure so far from speaking, in common conversation, with any such accuracy, that, on the contrary, when we criticize Rembrandt and other Dutch painters, who introduced into their historical pictures exact representations of individual objects with all their imperfections, we say,—though it is not in a good taste, yet it is nature.

This misapplication of terms must be very often perplexing to the young student. Is not art, he may say, an imitation of nature? Must he not therefore who imitates her with the greatest fidelity be the best artist? By this mode of reasoning Rembrandt has a higher place than Raffaelle. But a very little reflection will serve to show us that these particularities cannot be nature; for how can that be the nature of man, in which no two individuals are the same?

It plainly appears, that as a work is conducted under the influence of general ideas, or partial, it is principally to be considered as the effect of a good or a bad taste.

As beauty therefore does not consist in taking what lies immediately before you, so neither, in our pursuit of taste, are those opinions which we first received and adopted, the best choice, or the most natural to the mind and imagination. In the infancy of our knowledge we seize with greediness the good that is within our reach; it is by after-consideration, and in consequence of discipline, that we refuse the present for a greater good at a distance. The nobility or elevation of all arts, like the excellency of virtue itself, consists in adopting this enlarged and comprehensive idea; and all criticism built upon the more confined view of what is natural, may properly be called shallowcriticism, rather than false: its defect is, that the truth is not sufficiently extensive....

I shall now say something on that part of taste, which as I have hinted to you before, does not belong so much to the external form of things, but is addressed to the mind, and depends on its original frame, or, to use the expression, the organization of the soul; I mean the imagination and the passions. The principles of these are as invariable as the former, and are to be known and reasoned upon in the same manner, by an appeal to common sense deciding upon the common feelings of mankind. This sense, and these feelings appear to me of equal authority, and equally conclusive. Now this appeal implies a general uniformity and agreement in the minds of men. It would be else an idle and vain endeavor to establish rules of art; it would be pursuing a phantom, to attempt to move affections with which we were entirely unacquainted. We have no reason to suspect there is a greater difference between our minds than between our forms; of which, though there are no two alike, yet there is a general similitude that goes through the whole race of mankind; and those who have cultivated their taste, can distinguish what is beautiful or deformed, or, in other words, what agrees with or deviates from the general idea of nature, in one case, as well as in the other.

The internal fabric of our minds, as well as the external form of our bodies, being nearly uniform; it seems then to follow of course, that as the imagination is incapable of producing anything originally of itself, and can only vary and combine those ideas with which it is furnished by means of the senses, there will be necessarily an agreement in the imaginations, as in the senses of men. There being this agreement, it follows, that in all cases, in our lightest amusements, as well as in our most serious actions and engagements of life, we must regulate our affections of every kind by that of others. The well-disciplined mind acknowledges this authority, and submits its own opinion to the public voice. It is from knowing what are the general feelings and passions of mankind, that we acquire a true idea of what imagination is; though it appears as if we had nothing to do but to consult our own particular sensations, and these were sufficient to ensure us from all error and mistake.

A knowledge of the disposition and character of the human mind can be acquired only by experience; a great deal will be learned, I admit, by a habit of examining what passes in our bosoms, what are our own motives of action, and of what kind of sentiments we are conscious on any occasion. We may suppose an uniformity, and conclude that the same effect will be produced by the same cause in the mind of others. This examination will contribute to suggest to us matters of inquiry; but we can never be sure that our own sentiments are true and right, till they are confirmed by more extensive observation. One man opposing another determines nothing; but a general union of minds, like a general combination of the forces of all mankind, makes a strength that is irresistible. In fact, as he who does not know himself, does not know others, so it may be said with equal truth, that he who does not know others, knows himself but very imperfectly.

A man who thinks he is guarding himself against prejudices by resisting the authority of others, leaves open every avenue to singularity, vanity, self-conceit, obstinacy, and many other vices, all tending to warp the judgment, and prevent the natural operation of his faculties. This submission to others is a deference which we owe, and indeed are forced involuntarily to pay. In fact, we never are satisfied with our opinions, whatever we may pretend, till they are ratified and confirmed by the suffrages of the rest of mankind. We dispute and wrangle forever; we endeavor to get men to come to us, when we do not go to them.

He therefore who is acquainted with the works which have pleased different ages and different countries, and has formed his opinion on them, has more materials, and more means of knowing what is analogous to the mind of man, than he who is conversant only with the works of his own age or country. What has pleased, and continues to please, is likely to please again: hence are derived the rules of art, and on this immovable foundation they must ever stand.

This search and study of the history of the mind, ought not to be confined to one art only. It is by the analogy that one art bears to another, that many things are ascertained, which either were but faintly seen, or, perhaps, would not have been discovered at all, if the inventor had not received the first hints from the practices of a sister art on a similar occasion. The frequent allusions which every man who treats of any art is obliged to make to others, in order to illustrate and confirm his principles, sufficiently show their near connection and inseparable relation.

All arts having the same general end, which is to please; and addressing themselves to the same faculties through the medium of the senses; it follows that their rules and principles must have as great affinity, as the different materials and the different organs or vehicles by which they pass to the mind, will permit them to retain.

We may therefore conclude, that the real substance, as it may be called, of what goes under the name of taste, is fixed and established in the nature of things; that there are certain and regular causes by which the imagination and passions of men are affected; and that the knowledge of these causes is acquired by a laborious and diligent investigation of nature, and by the same slow progress as wisdom or knowledge of every kind, however instantaneous its operations may appear when thus acquired.