Of Property

William Godwin

[1793 / Chapters 4, 5 and 6 / Part 4 of 7]


Objection to this System from the Frailty of the Human Mind

Having proceeded thus far in our investigation, it may be proper to recapitulate the principles already established. The discussion, under each of its branches, as it relates to the equality of men,(1*) and the inequalities of property,(2*) may be considered as a discussion either of right or duty; and, in that respect, runs parallel to the two great heads of which we treated in our original development of the principles of society.(3*) I have a right to the assistance of my neighbour; he has a right that it should not be extorted from him by force. It is his duty to afford me the supply of which I stand in need; it is my duty not to violate his province in determining, first, whether he is to supply me, and, secondly, in what degree.

Equality of conditions, or, in other words, an equal admission to the means of improvement and pleasure, is a law rigorously enjoined upon mankind by the voice of justice. All other changes in society are good, only as they are fragments of this, or steps to its attainment. All other existing abuses are to be deprecated, only as they serve to increase and perpetuate the inequality of conditions.

We have however arrived at another truth not less evident than this. Equality of conditions cannot be produced by individual compulsion, and ought not to be produced by compulsion in the name of the whole. There remains therefore but one mode of arriving at this great end of justice and most essential improvement of society, and that consists in rendering the cession by him that has to him that wants an unrestrained and voluntary action. There remain but two instruments for producing this volition, the illumination of the understanding and the love of distinction.

These instruments have commonly been supposed wholly inadequate to their object. It has usually been treated as 'the most visionary of all systems, to expect the rich to "sell all that they have, and give to the poor".(4*) It is one thing to convince men that a given conduct, on their part, would be most conducive to the general interest, and another to persuade them actively to postpone, to considerations of general interest, every idea of personal ambition or pleasure. The sober calculator will often doubt whether it be reasonable, in consistence with the nature of a human being, to expect from him such a sacrifice: and the man of a lively and impetuous temper, even when satisfied that it is his duty, will be in hourly danger of deserting it, at the invitation of some allurement, too powerful for mortal frailty to resist.'

There is certainly considerable force in this statement; and there is good reason to believe, though the human mind be unquestionably accessible to disinterested motives,(5*) that virtue would be in most instances an impracticable refinement; were it not that self-love and social, however different in themselves, are found upon strict examination to prescribe the same system of conduct.

But this observation by no means removes the difficulty intended to be suggested in the objection. 'Though frugality, moderation and plainness may be the joint dictate of these two authorities, yet it is the property of the human mind to be swayed by things present more than by things absent. In affairs of religion, we often find men indulging themselves in offences of small gratification, in spite of all the threats that can be held out to them of eternal damnation. It is in vain that, for the most part, you would preach the pleasures of abstinence amidst the profusion of a feast; or the unsubstantialness of fame and power to him who is tortured with the goadings of ambition. The case is similar to that of the exacerbations of grief, the attempt to cure which by the consolations of philosophy has been a source of inexhaustible ridicule.'

The answer to these remarks has been anticipated.(6*) The ridicule lies in supposing the endeavour to cure a man of his weakness to consist in one phlegmatic and solitary expostulation, instead of conceiving it to be accompanied with the vigour of conscious truth, and the progressive regularity of a course of instruction.

Let us take up the subject in a view, in some degree varying from that in which it was formerly considered. We have endeavoured to establish, in the commencement of the present book, the principles of justice, relative to the distribution of the goods of fortune. Let us enquire Whether the principles there delivered can be made productive of conviction to the rich; whether they can be made productive of conviction, in cases not immediately connected with personal interest; and whether they can be made productive of conviction to the poor?

Is it possible for a rich man to see that the costly gratifications in which he indulges are comparatively of little value, and that he may arrive at everything that is most essential in happiness or pleasure, by means of the three other sources formerly enumerated,(7*) subsistence, unexpensive gratifications, and the means of intellectual and moral improvement? Is it possible for him to understand the calculation, 'in every glass that he drinks, and every ornament that he annexes to his person', of 'how many individuals have been condemned to slavery and sweat, incessant drudgery, unwholesome food, continual hardships, deplorable ignorance and brutal insensibility, that he may be supplied with these luxuries'?(8*) Is it possible for a man to have these ideas so repeatedly suggested to his mind, so strongly impressed, and so perpetually haunting him, as finally to induce a rich man to desire, with respect to personal gratifications, to live as if he were a poor one? It is not conceivable but that every one of these questions must be answered in the affirmative.

Be it observed by the way that the motives for a rich man to live as if he were a poor one are very inferior now to what they would be when a general sympathy upon this subject had taken place, and a general illumination had diffused itself.

If then it be possible for a rich man, from the mere apprehensions of justice, voluntarily to desire to live as if he were a poor one, we shall have still less hesitation in affirming that a sentiment of justice in this matter may be made productive of conviction, in cases not immediately connected with personal interest, and of conviction to the poor.

Undoubtedly an apprehension of the demands of justice in this respect has some tendency to the instigation of violence and tumult, were we not to suppose the gradual development of this impression to be accompanied with a proportionable improvement of the mind in other respects, and a slow, but incessant, melioration of the institutions and practices of society. With this supposition, it could not however fail to happen that, in proportion as the prejudices and ignorance of the great mass of society declined, the credit of wealth, and the reverent admiration with which it is now contemplated, must also decline. But, in proportion as it lost credit with the great mass of society, it would relax its hold upon the minds of those who possess it, or have the means of acquiring it. We have already seen(9*) that the great incitement to the acquisition of wealth is the love of distinction. Suppose then that, instead of the false glare which wealth, through the present puerility of the human mind, reflects on its possessor, his conduct in amassing and monopolizing it were seen in its true light. We should not then demand his punishment, but we should look on him as a man uninitiated in the plainest sentiments of reason. He would not be pointed at with the finger, or hooted as he passed along through the resorts of men, but he would incited to the same assiduity in hiding his acquisitions then as he employs in displaying them now. He would be regarded with no terror, for his conduct would appear too absurd to excite imitation. Add to which, his acquisitions would be small, as the independent spirit and sound discretion of mankind would allow but little chance of his being able to retain them in his service, as now, by generously rewarding them with a part of the fruit of their own labours. Thus it appears, with irresistible probability, when the subject of wealth shall be understood, and correct ideas respecting it familiarized to the human mind, that the present disparity of conditions will subside, by a gradual and incessant progress, into its true level.


  1. Chap. I, III.
  2. Chap. II.
  3. Book II, Chap. IV, V.
  4. Mark, ch. X, ver. 21
  5. Book IV, Chap. X.
  6. Book I Chap, V. § 3.
  7. Chap. I.
  8. Chap. II.
  9. Chap. I.


Objection to This System from the Question of Permanence

The change we are here contemplating consists in the disposition of every member of the community voluntarily to resign that which would be productive of a much higher degree of benefit and pleasure when possessed by his neighbour than when occupied by himself. Undoubtedly, this state of society is remote from the modes of thinking and acting which at present prevail. A long period of time must probably elapse before it can be brought entirely into practice. All we have been attempting to establish is that such a state of society is agreeable to reason, and prescribed by justice; and that, of consequence, the progress of science and political truth among mankind is closely connected with its introduction. The inherent tendency of intellect is to improvement. If therefore this inherent tendency be suffered to operate, and no concussion of nature or inundation of barbarism arrest its course, the state of society we have been describing must, at some time, arrive.

But it has frequently been said 'that if an equality of conditions could be introduced today, it would be destroyed tomorrow . It is impossible to reduce the varieties of the human mind to such a uniformity as this system demands. One man will be more industrious than another; one man will be provident and avaricious, and another dissipated and thoughtless. Misery and confusion would be the result of an attempt to equalize, in the first instance, and the old vices and monopolies would succeed, in the second. All that the rich could purchase by the most generous sacrifice would be a period of barbarism, from which the ideas and regulations of civil society must recommence, as from a new infancy.'

Upon this statement, it is first to be remarked that, if true, it presents to us a picture in the highest degree melancholy and discouraging. It discovers a disease to which it is probable there is no remedy. Human knowledge must proceed. What we see and admire we shall at some time or other seek to attain : Such is the inevitable law of our nature. It is impossible not to see the beauty of equality, and not to be charmed with the benefits it appears to promise. It is impossible not to regret the unbounded mischiefs and distress that grow out of the opposite system. The consequence is sure. Man, according to these reasoners, is prompted, for some time, to advance with success : but after that, in the very act of pursuing further improvement, he necessarily plunges beyond the compass of his powers, and has his petty career to begin afresh : always pursuing what is beautiful, always frustrated in his object, always involved in calamities by the very means he employs to escape them.

Secondly, it is to be observed that there is a wide difference between the equality here spoken of, and the equality which has frequently constituted a subject of discussion among mankind. This is not an equality introduced by force, or maintained by the laws and regulations of a positive institution. It is not the result of accident, of the authority of a chief magistrate, or the over-earnest persuasion of a few enlightened thinkers; but is produced by the serious and deliberate conviction of the public at large. It is one thing for men to be held to a certain system by the force of laws, and the vigilance of those who administer them; and a thing entirely different to be held by the firm and habitual persuasion of their own minds. We can readily conceive their finding means to elude the former; but it is not so easy to comprehend a disobedience to the latter. If the force of truth shall be strong enough gradually to wean men from the most rooted habits, and to introduce a mode of society so remote from that which at present exists, it will also probably be strong enough to hold them in the course they have commenced, and to prevent the return of vices which have once been extirpated. This probability will be increased if we recollect the two principles which must have led men into such a system of action; a stricter sense of justice, and a purer theory of happiness.

Equality of conditions cannot begin to assume a fixed appearance in human society till the sentiment becomes deeply impressed, as well as widely diffused, that the genuine wants of any man constitute his only just claim to the ultimate appropriation, and the consumption, of any species of commodity. It must previously be seen that the claims of one man are originally of the same extent as the claims of another; and that the only difference which can arise must relate to extraordinary infirmity, or the particular object of utility which any individual is engaged in promoting. It must be felt that the most fundamental and noxious of all kinds of injustice is for one man actively to withhold from his neighbours the most indispensable benefits, for the sake of some trivial accommodation to himself. Men who are habituated to these views can scarcely be tempted to monopolize; and the sense of the community respecting him who yields to the temptation will be so decisive in its tenor, and unequivocal in its manifestation, as to afford small encouragement to perseverance or imitation.

A spontaneous equality of conditions also implies a purer theory of happiness than has hitherto obtained. Men will cease to regard with complacence the happiness that consists in splendour and ostentation, of which the true object, however disguised, is to insult our neighbours, and to feed our own vanity, with the recollection of the goods that we possess, and from which, though endowed with an equal claim, they are debarred. They will cease to derive pleasure from the empire to be possessed over others, or the base servility and terror with which they may address us. They will be contented, for the most part, with the means of healthful existence, and of unexpensive pleasure. They will find the highest gratification in promoting and contemplating the general happiness. They will regard superfluities, absolutely considered, with no impatience of desire; and will abhor the idea of obtaining them through the medium of oppression and injustice. This conduct they would be induced to observe, even were their own gratification only in view; and, instead of repining at the want of exorbitant indulgencies, they will stand astonished that men could ever have found gratification in that which was visibly stamped and contaminated with the badge of extortion.


Objection to this System from the Allurements of Sloth

Another objection which has been urged against the system which counteracts the accumulation of property, is, "that it would put an end to industry. We behold, in commercial countries, the miracles that are operated by the love of gain. Their inhabitants cover the sea with their fleets, astonish mankind by the refinements of their ingenuity, hold vast continents in subjection, in distant parts of the world, by their arms, are able to defy the most powerful confederacies, and, oppressed with taxes and debts, seem to acquire fresh prosperity under their accumulated burthens. Shall we lightly part with a motive which appears so great and stupendous in its influence? Once establish it as a principle in society, that no man apply to his personal use more than his necessities require; and every man will become indifferent to the exertions which now call forth the energy of his facilities. Once establish it as a principle, that each man, without being compelled to exert his own powers, is entitled to partake of the superfluity of his neighbour; and indolence will speedily become universal. Such a society must either starve, or be obliged, in its own defence, to return to that system of monopoly and sordid interest, which theoretical reasoners will for ever arraign to no purpose."

In reply to this objection, the reader must again be reminded that the equality for which we are pleading, is an equality which would succeed to a state of great intellectual improvement. So bold a revolution cannot take place in human affairs, till the general mind has been highly cultivated. Hasty and undigested tumults, may be produced by a superficial idea of equalization; but it is only a clear and calm conviction of justice, of justice mutually to be rendered and received, of happiness to be produced by the desertion of our most rooted habits, that can introduce an invariable system of this sort. Attempts, without this preparation, will be productive only of confusion. Their effect will be momentary, and a new and more barbarous inequality will succeed. Each man, with unaltered appetite, will watch the opportunity, to gratify his love of power or of distinction, by usurping on his inattentive neighbours.

Is it to be believed then that a state of so great intellectual improvement, can be the forerunner of universal ignorance and brutality? Savages, it is true, are subject to the weakness of indolence. But civilized and refined states are the theatre of a peculiar activity. It is thought, acuteness of disquisition, and ardour of pursuit, that set the corporeal faculties at work. Thought begets thought. Nothing perhaps can put a stop to the advances of mind but oppression. But here, so far from being oppressed, every man is equal, every man independent and at his case. It has been observed, that the introduction of a republican government, is attended with public enthusiasm and irresistible enterprise. Is it to be believed that equality, the true republicanism, will be less effectual? It is true, that in republics this spirit, sooner or later, is found to languish. Republicanism is not a remedy that strikes at the root of the evil. Injustice, oppression and misery can find an abode in those seeming happy seats. But what shall stop the progress of ardour and improvement where the monopoly of property is unknown?

This argument will be strengthened, if we reflect on the amount of labour that a state of equality will require. What is this quantity of exertion, from which the objection supposes many individuals to shrink? It is so light, as rather to assume the guise of agreeable relaxation and gentle exercise, than of labour. In such a community, scarcely anyone can be expected, in consequence of his situation or avocations, to consider himself as exempted from the obligation to manual industry. There will be no rich man to recline in indolence, and fatten upon the labour of his fellows. The mathematician, the poet and the philosopher will derive a new stock of cheerfulness and energy from the recurring labour that makes them feel they are men. There will be no persons devoted to the manufacture of trinkets and luxuries; and none whose office it should be to keep in motion the complicated machine of government, tax-gatherers, beadles, excise-men, tide-waiters, clerks and secretaries. There will be neither fleets nor armies, neither courtiers nor lacqueys. It is the unnecessary employments that, at present, occupy the great mass of every civilized nation, while the peasant labours incessantly to maintain them in a state more pernicious than idleness.

It may be computed that not more than one twentieth of the inhabitants of England, is substantially employed in the labours of agriculture. Add to this, that the nature of agriculture is such, as to give full occupation in some parts of the year, and to leave other parts comparatively vacant. We may consider the latter as equivalent to a labour, which, under the direction of sufficient skill, might suffice, in a simple state of society, for the fabrication of tools, for weaving, and the occupation of taylors, bakers and butchers. The object, in the present state of society, is to multiply labour; in another state, it will be to simplify it. A vast disproportion of the wealth of the community, has been thrown into the hands of a few; and ingenuity has been continually upon the stretch, to find ways in which it may be expended. In the feudal times, the great lord invited the poor to come and eat of the produce of his estate, upon condition of wearing his livery, and forming themselves in rank and file to do honour to his well born guests. Now that exchanges are more facilitated, he has quitted this is inartificial mode, and obliges the men who are maintained from his income to exert their ingenuity and industry in return. Thus, in the instance just mentioned, he pays the taylor to cut his clothes to pieces that he may sew them together again, and to decorate them with stitching and various ornaments, without which they would be, in no respect, less convenient and useful. We are imagining, in the present case, a state of the most rigid simplicity.

From the sketch which has been given, it seems by no means impossible, that the labour of every twentieth man in the community, would be sufficient to supply to the rest all the absolute necessaries of life. If then this labour, instead of performed by so small a number, were amicably divided among the whole, it would occupy the twentieth part of every man's time. Let us compute that the industry of a labouring man, engrosses ten hours in every day, which, when we have deducted his hours of rest, recreation and meals, seems an ample allowance. It follows that half an hour a day employed in manual labour by every member of the community would sufficiently supply the whole with necessaries. Who is there that would shrink from this degree of industry? Who is there, that sees the incessant industry exerted in this city and island, and would believe, that, with half an hour's industry per diem, the sum of happiness to the community at large might be much greater than at present? Is it possible to contemplate this fair and generous picture of independence and virtue, where every man would have ample leisure for the noblest energies of mind, without feeling our very souls refreshed with admiration and hope?

When we talk of men's sinking into idleness, if they be not excited by the stimulus of gain, we seem to have little considered the motives that, at present, govern the human mind. We are deceived by the apparent mercenariness of mankind, and imagine that the accumulation of wealth is their great object. But it has sufficiently appeared that the present ruling passion of man is the love of distinction.(1*) There is, no doubt, a class in society that is perpetually urged by hunger and need, and has no leisure for motives less gross and material. But is the class next above them less industrious than they? Will any man affirm that the mind of the peasant is as far removed from inaction and sloth, as the mind of the general or statesman, of the natural philosopher who macerates himself with perpetual study, or the poet, the bard of Mantua for example, who can never believe that he has sufficiently revised, reconsidered and polished his compositions?

In reality, those by whom this reasoning has been urged, have mistaken the nature of their own objection. They did not suppose, that men could be roused into action only by the love of gain; but they conceived that, in a state of equality, men would have nothing to occupy their attention. What degree of truth there is in this idea we shall presently have occasion to estimate.(2*)

Meanwhile, it is sufficiently obvious, that the motives which arise from the love of distinction, are by no means cut off, by a state of society incompatible with the accumulation of property. Men, no longer able to acquire the esteem, or avoid the contempt, of their neighbours, by circumstances of dress and furniture, will divert the passion for distinction into another channel. They will avoid the reproach of indolence, as carefully as they now avoid the reproach of poverty. The only persons who, at present, neglect the effect which their appearance and manners may produce are those whose faces are ground with famine and distress. But, in a state of equal society, no man will be oppressed, and, of consequence, the more delicate affections will have time to expand themselves. The general mind having, as we have already shown, arrived at a high degree of improvement, the impulse that carries it into action, will be stronger. The fervour of public spirit will be great. Leisure will be multiplied; and the leisure of a cultivated understanding, is the precise period in which great designs, designs the tendency of which is to secure applause and esteem, are conceived. In tranquil leisure, it is impossible for any but the sublimest mind, to exist, without the passion for distinction. This passion, no longer permitted to lose itself in indirect channels and useless wanderings, will seek the noblest course, and perpetually fructify the seeds of public good. Mind, though it will perhaps at no time arrive at the termination of its possible discoveries and improvements, will nevertheless advance with a rapidity and firmness of progression of which we are, at present, unable to conceive the idea.

The love of fame is no doubt a delusion. This, like every other delusion, will take its turn to be detected and abjured. It is an airy phantom, which will indeed afford us an imperfect pleasure so long as we worship it, but will always, in a considerable degree, disappoint us, and will not stand the test of examination. We ought to love nothing but a substantial happiness, that happiness which will bear the test of recollection, and which no clearness of perception, and improvement of understanding, will tend to undermine. If there be any principle more substantial than the rest, it is justice, a principle that rests upon this single postulatum, that man and man are beings of the same nature, and susceptible, under certain limitations, of the same advantages. Whether the benefit which is added to the common flock, proceed from you or me, is a pitiful distinction. Fame therefore is an unsubstantial and delusive pursuit. If it signify an opinion entertained of me greater than I deserve, to desire it is vicious. If it be the precise mirror of my character, it is valuable only as a means, in as much as I shall be able most essentially to benefit those, who best know the extent of my capacity, and the rectitude of my intentions.

The love of fame, when it perishes in minds formed under the present system, often gives place to a principle still more reprehensible. Selfishness is the habit that grows out of monopoly. When therefore selfishness ceases to seek its gratification in public exertion, it too often narrows into some frigid conception of personal pleasure, perhaps sensual, perhaps intellectual. But this cannot be the process where monopoly is banished. Selfishness has there no kindly circumstances to foster it. Truth, the overpowering truth of general good, then seizes its irresistibly. It is impossible we should want motives, so long as we see clearly how multitudes and ages may be benefited by our exertions, how causes and effects are connected in an endless chain, so that no honest effort can be lost, but will operate to good, centuries after its author is consigned to the grave.(3*) This will be the general passion, and all will be animated by the example of all.


  1. Book VIII, Chap. I.
  2. Book VIII, Chap. VII, VIII.
  3. Book IV, Chap. X.

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