A Fragment of Government, Ch. 2
Bill Long 10/2/05
Subjecting Blackstone to Withering Scorn
Perhaps nowhere else in the entire Fragment does Bentham attack B with such blistering and scathing ridicule as in ch. 2. The purpose of this essay is to show how Bentham does this in three ways: (1) in attacking B's "theological" approach to the subject of sovereignty (par. 1-6): (2) in discussing the conjectural nature of the B's soothing words about the origin of states (par. 7-15); and (3) in ridiculing B's attempt to draw a correspondence between various types of government and their purported ruling characteristics (par. 23-35).
1. The "Theology" of Blackstone ("B")
After having disposed of B's treatment of the manner in which governments were formed (i.e., the social contract--ch. 1), Bentham turns to B's treatments of the various species of government (par. 1). We know immediately we are in for a treat when Bentham says: "The first object that strikes us in this division of our subject is the theological flourish it sets out with" (par. 2). Since B is obviously writing a work of law and not theology, what might Bentham mean?
A clue can be found already in par. 2. Bentham says, "In theology he has found a not unfrequent source, of ornament to divert us of authority to overawe us, from sounding into the shallowness of his doctrines." Thus, he is going to accuse B of "pulling rank" by naked appeals to authority in his work, appeals which will cause Bentham, naturally, to oppose him with every weapon at his disposal. The reason he says B's system is "theological" is that he seems to derive the nature of human government from three divine attributes (wisdom, goodness, and power--par. 4). Since God is preeminently characterized by these attributes, it is only right and good that human leaders and human societies should evince these same attributes. That is B.
But note how Bentham greets this approach: "Every thing in its place. Theology in a sermon, or a catechism. But in this place, the flourish we have seen, might, for every purpose of instruction, have much better, it should seem be spared" (par. 5). That is, B is using otherworldy categories as terms to describe what human government and society actually is like. That is why Bentham can say that this kind of endowment makes governors "shew the brighter, and to keep them, as much as possible, from being soiled by the rough hands of impertinent speculators, he has chosen should be of aethereal texture, and has fetched them from the clouds" (par. 3).
But, what is this method of B, fundamentally? It is "explaining ignotum per ignotius" (i.e., the unknown explained by the still more unknown). It begins at the wrong end, trying to posit human traits from supposed divine traits. In this connection, Bentham makes an interesting theological point himself:
"It is not from the attributes of the Deity, that an idea is to be had of any qualities in men: on the contrary, it is from what we see of the qualities of men, that we obtain the feeble idea we can frame to ourselves, of the attributes of the Deity."
Again, this is a remarkably "modern" notion, where God is the product of human creation, rather than the other way around. Thus, he accused B of beginning in the clouds rather than starting on the earth, where societies actually originate.
2. Political Power and the Origin of States
Bentham is too interested in the growth of political power to be satisfied with B's "theological" view of the matter. But B also goes on to talk about the way in which states are formed. He says:
"However they began, or by what right soever they subsist, there is and must be in all of them a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summi imperii, or the rights of sovereignty, reside. And this authority is placed in those hands, wherein (according to the OPINON of the FOUNDERS of such respective states, either expressly given or collected from their tacit APPROBATION) the qualities requisite for supremacy, wisdom, goodness, and power, are the most likely to be found" (par. 12, quoting B, p. 48).
As we might say in 2005, this is "so Blackstone." Bentham goes ballistic over this passage. Bentham argues that this is all just a myth, a mental construction of B in order to give the impression that governments are set up and enjoy full support from their people, dole out unlimited portions of felicity and help to make the world such a pleasant place in which to live. As Bentham says:
"The sentence is such as brings to one's view a system of government utterly different from the generality of those we have before our eyes; a system in which one would think that neither caprice, nor violence, nor accident, nor prejudice, nor passion, had any share: a system uniform, comprehensive, and simultaneous; planned with phlegmatic deliberation; established by full and general assent..." (par. 14).
In other words, B's words are "but conjecture," and conjecture that is certainly not borne out by historical experience. Par. 15 is an example of Bentham's tearing sarcasm. He says in effect, 'oh, I suppose, then, that it was the Spaniards' establishing the their legitimate claim to the Mexican throne that we witnessed in the 16th century.' Or, 'of course it was the wisdom and goodness of Charlemange that was greeted with open arms by the German Saxons in the 8th century.' Example afer example follows in which Bentham shows that power politics, violence and human ruthlessness has more to do with the establishment of political power than any myth of the realization of "the rights of sovereignty." Can't you see why Bentham absolutely detests the language of fiction and the rolling cadences of legal phraseology? Again, Bentham sounds very "21st century" here.
3. Blackstone's "Correspondence" Theory
The final point Bentham makes in the chapter might be a bit obscure, but is quite telling. All classical political philosophers, beginning with Plato (Republic Books VIII and IX) talked about three basic forms of government--monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, all of which had their corresponding corruptions. For example, the corruption of monarchy is tyranny. But each of the forms of government was supposed to be blessed with one trait above all others, so that monarchy was accompanied with power, aristocracy with wisdom, and democracy with goodness. We can see the origin of this kind of thinking in Plato's tripartite soul discussion in Republic II-IV. Therefore, things correspond to other things for B. Bentham, being a rather hard-nosed political realist, looks at the notion of one endowment per form of government as quite ridiculous (par. 27).
"Hence we may infer, that all the governments that ever were, or will be...are upon a par: that of ATHENS with that of PERSIA; that of GENEVA with that of MOROCCO: since they are all of them, he tells us, 'corruptions of, or reducible to,' one of these."
He bursts out in scorn:
"This is happy. A legislator cannot do amiss. He may save himself the experience of thinking" (par. 27).
Enough has been said to show that Bentham and B thought about government in two diametrically opposed fashions. And, most would agree, Bentham's view triumphed.
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