The four following essays were published eighteen months ago in the Cornhill Magazine, and were reprobated in a violent manner, as far as I could hear, by most of the readers they met with.
Not a whit the less, I believe them to be the best, that is to say, the truest, rightest-worded, and most serviceable things I have ever written; and the last of them, having had especial pains spent on it, is probably the best I shall ever write.
"This," the reader may reply, "it be, yet — not therefore well written." Which, in no mock humility, admitting, I yet rest satisfied the work, though with nothing else that I have done: and purposing shortly to follow out the subjects opened in these papers, as I may find leisure, I wish the introductory statements to be within the reach of any one who may care to refer to them. So I republish the essays as they appeared. One word only is changed, correcting the estimate of a weight; and no word is added.
Although, however, I find nothing to modify in these papers, it is a matter of regret to me that the most startling of all the statements in them—that respecting the necessity of the organization of labour, with fixed wages—should have found its way into the first essay; it being quite one of the least important, though by no means the least certain, of the positions to be defended. The real gist of these papers, their central meaning and aim, is to give, as I believe for the first time in plain English—it has often been incidentally given in good Greek by Plato and Xenophon, and good Latin by Cicero and Horace, — a logical definition Of WEALTH: such definition being absolutely needed for a basis of economical science. The most reputed essay on that subject which has appeared in modern times, after opening with the statement that
"writers on political economy profess to teach, or to investigate, the nature of wealth,"
thus follows up the declaration of its thesis —
" Every one has a Potion, sufficiently correct for common purposes, of what is meant by wealth." . . . "It is no part of the design of this treatise to aim at metaphysical nicety of definition." (1)
Metaphysical nicety, we assuredly do not need; but physical nicety, and logical accuracy, with respect to a physical subject, we as assuredly do.
Suppose the subject of inquiry, instead of being House-law (Oikonomia), had been Star-law (Astronomia), and that, ignoring distinction between stars fixed and wandering, as here between wealth radiant and wealth reflective, the writer had begun thus:
"Every one has a notion, sufficiently correct for common purposes, of what is meant by stars. Metaphysical nicety in the definition of a star is not the object of this treatise;"
—the essay so opened might yet have been far more true in its final statements, and a thousand-fold more serviceable to the navigator, than any treatise on wealth, which founds its conclusions on the popular conception of wealth, can ever become to the economist.
The Necessity Of Honesty
It was, therefore, the first object of these following papers to give an accurate and stable definition of wealth. Their second object was to show that the acquisition Of Wealth was finally possible only under certain moral conditions of society, of which quite the first was a belief in the existence and then, for practical purposes, in the attainability of honesty.
Without venturing to pronounce — since on such a matter human judgment is by no means conclusive — what is, or is not, the noblest of God's works, we may yet admit so much of Pope's assertion as that an honest man is among His best works presently visible, and, as things stand, a somewhat rare one; but not an incredible or miraculous work; still less an abnormal one. Honesty is not a disturbing force, which deranges the orbits of economy; but a consistent and commanding force, by obedience to which — and by no other obedience — those orbits can continue clear of chaos.
It is true, I have sometimes heard Pope condemned for the lowness, instead of the height, of his standard:
" Honesty is indeed a respectable virtue; but how much higher may men attain! Shall nothing more be asked of us than that we be honest?"
For the present, good friends, nothing. It seems that in our aspirations to be more than that, we have to some extent lost sight of the propriety of being so much as that. What else we may have lost faith in, there shall be here no question; but assuredly we have lost faith in common honesty, and in the working power of it. And this faith, with the facts on which it may rest, it is quite our first business to recover and keep: not only believing, but even by experience assuring ourselves, that there are yet in the world men who can be restrained from fraud otherwise than by the fear of losing employment; nay that it is even accurately in proportion to the number of such men in any State, that the said State does or can prolong its existence.
To these two points, then, the following essays are mainly directed. The subject of the organisation of labour is only casually touched upon; because, if we once can get a sufficient quantity of honesty in our captains, the organization of labour is easy, and will develop itself without quarrel or difficulty; but if we cannot get honesty in our captains, the organization of labour is for evermore impossible.
The several conditions of its possibility I purpose to examine at length in the sequel. Yet, lest the reader should be alarmed by the hints thrown out during the following investigation of first principles, as if they were leading him into unexpectedly dangerous ground, I will, for his better assurance, state at once the worst of the political creed at which I wish him to arrive.
"a labourer serves his country with his spade, just as a man in the middle ranks of life serves it with sword, pen, or lancet: if the service is less, and, therefore the wages during health less, then the reward, when health is broken, may be less, but not, therefore, less honourable; and it ought to be quite as natural and straightforward a matter for a labourer to take his pension from his parish, because he has deserved well of his parish, as for a man in higher rank to take his pension from his country, because he has deserved well of his country."
To which statement, I will only add, for conclusion, respecting the discipline and pay of life and death, that, for both high and low, Livy's last words touching Valerius Publicola, "de publico est elatus," ought not to be a dishonourable close of epitaph.
These things, then, I believe, and am about, as I find power, to explain and illustrate in their various bearings; following out also what belongs to them of collateral inquiry. Here I state them only in brief, to prevent the reader casting about in alarm for my ultimate meaning; yet requesting him, for the present to remember, that in a science dealing with so subtle elements as those of human nature, it is only possible to answer for the final truth of principles, not for the direct success of plans: and that in the best of these last, what can be immediately accomplished is always questionable, and what can be finally accomplished, inconceivable.
Denmark Hill, 10th May, 1862.