Of Property

William Godwin

[1793 / Chapter 9, and an Appendix / Part 6 of 7]


Objection to this System from the Principle of Population

An author who has speculated widely upon subjects of government(1*) has recommended equality, (or, which was rather his idea, a community of goods to be maintained by the vigilance of the state), as a complete remedy, for the usurpation and distress which are, at present, the most powerful enemies of human kind; for the vices which infect education in some instances, and the neglect it encounters in more; for all the turbulence of passion, and all the injustice of selfishness. But, after having exhibited this brilliant picture, he finds an argument that demolishes the whole, and restores him to indifference or despair, in "the excessive population that would ensue."

The question of population, as it relates to the science of politics and society, is considerably curious. Several writers upon these topics have treated it in a way calculated to produce a very gloomy impression, and have placed precautions to counteract the multiplication of the human species, among the most important objects of civil prudence. These precautions appear to have occupied much attention in several ancient nations, among whom there prevailed a great solicitude, that the number of citizens in the state should suffer no augmentations. In modern times a contrary opinion has frequently obtained, and the populousness of a country has been said to constitute its true wealth and prosperity.

Perhaps however express precautions in either kind, are superfluous and nugatory. There is a principle in the nature of human society, by means of which everything seems to tend to its level, and to proceed in the most auspicious way, when least interfered with by the mode of regulation. In a certain stage of the social progress population seems rapidly to increase; this seems to be the case in the United States of America. In a subsequent stage, it undergoes little change, either in the way of increase or diminution; this is the case in the more civilized countries of Europe. The number of inhabitants in a country will perhaps never be found, in the ordinary course of affairs, greatly to increase, beyond the facility of subsistence.

Nothing is more easy than to account for this circumstance. So long as there is a facility of subsistence, men will be encouraged to early marriages, and to a careful rearing of their children. In America, it is said, men congratulate themselves upon the increase of their families as upon a new accession of wealth. The labour of their children, even in the early stage, soon redeems and even repays with interest, the expense and effort of rearing them. In such countries the wages of the labourer are high, for the number of labourers bear no proportion to the general spirit of enterprise. In many European countries, on the other hand, a large family has become a proverbial expression for an uncommon degree of poverty and wretchedness. The price of labour in any state, so long as the spirit of accumulation shall prevail, is an infallible barometer of the state of its population. It is impossible where the price of labour is greatly reduced, and an added population threatens a still further reduction, that men should not be considerably under the influence of fear, respecting an early marriage, and a numerous family.

There are various methods by the practice of which population may be checked; by the exposing of children, as among the ancients, and, at this day, in China; by the art of procuring abortion, as it is said to subsist in the island of Ceylon; by a promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, which is found extremely hostile to the multiplication of the species; or, lastly, by a systematical abstinence, such as must be supposed, in some degree, to prevail in monasteries of either sex. But, without any express institution of this kind, the encouragement or discouragement that arises from the general state of a community, will probably be found to be all-powerful in its operation.

Supposing however that population were not thus adapted to find its own level, it is obvious to remark upon the objection of this chapter, that to reason thus, is to foresee difficulties at a great distance. Three fourths of the habitable globe, are now uncultivated. The improvements to be made in cultivation, and the augmentations the earth is capable of receiving in the article of productiveness, cannot, as yet, be reduced to any limits of calculation. Myriads of centuries of still increasing population may pass away, and the earth be yet found sufficient for the support of its inhabitants. It were idle therefore to conceive discouragement from so distant a contingency. The rational anticipation of human improvement are unlimited, not eternal. The very globe that we inhabit, and the solar system, may, for anything that we know, be subject to decay. Physical casualties of different denominations, may interfere with the progressive nature of intellect. But, putting these out of the question, it is certainly most reasonable, to commit so remote a danger to the chance of such remedies, (remedies, of which perhaps we may, at this time, not have the smallest idea) as shall suggest themselves at a period sufficiently early for their practical application.


  1. Wallace: Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature, and Providence, 1761.


Of Health, and the Prolongation of Human Life

The question respecting population is, in some degree, connected, with the subject of health and longevity. It may therefore be allowed us, to make use of this occasion, for indulging in certain speculations upon this article. What follows, must be considered, as eminently a deviation into the land of conjecture. If it be false, it leaves the system to which it is appended, in all sound reason, as impregnable as ever.

Let us then, in this place, return to the sublime conjecture of Franklin, a man habitually conversant with the system of the external universe, and by no means propense to extravagant speculations, that "mind will one day become omnipotent over matter."(1*) The sense which he annexed to this expression, seems to have related to the improvements of human invention, in relation to machines and the compendium of labour. But, if the power of intellect can be established over all other matter, are we not inevitably led to ask, why not over the matter of our own bodies? If over matter at however great a distance, why not over matter which, ignorant as we may be of the tie that connects it with the thinking principle, we seem always to carry about with us, and which is our medium of communication with the external universe?

The different cases in which thought modifies the structure and members of the human body, are obvious to all. First, they are modified by our voluntary thoughts or design. We desire to stretch out our hand, and it is stretched out. We perform a thousand operations of the same species every day, and their familiarity annihilates the wonder. They are not in themselves less wonderful, than any of those modifications we are least accustomed to conceive. Secondly, mind modifies body involuntarily. To omit, for the present, what has been offered upon this subject by way of hypothesis and inference,(2*) there are many instances in which this fact presents itself in the most unequivocal manner. Has not a sudden piece of good news been frequently found to dissipate a corporal indisposition? Is it not still more usual for mental impressions to produce indisposition, and even what is called a broken heart? And shall we believe that that which is so powerful in mischief, can be altogether impotent for happiness? How common is the remark, that those accidents, which are to the indolent a source of disease, are forgotten and extirpated in the busy and active? I walk twenty miles in an indolent and half determined temper, and am extremely fatigued. I walk twenty miles, full of ardour, and with a motive that engrosses my soul, and I arrive as fresh and alert as when I began my journey. Emotion, excited by some unexpected word, by a letter that is delivered to us, occasions the most extraordinary revolutions in our frame, accelerates the circulation, causes the heart to palpitate, the tongue to refuse its office, and has been known to occasion death by extreme anguish or extreme joy. There is nothing of which the physician is more frequently aware, than of the power of the mind in assisting or retarding convalescence.

Why is it that a mature man loses that elasticity of limb, which characterises the heedless gaiety of youth? The origin of this appears to be, that he desists from youthful habits. He assumes an air of dignity, incompatible with the lightness of childish sallies. He is visited and vexed with the cares that rise out of our mistaken institutions, and his heart is no longer satisfied and gay. His limbs become stiff, unwieldy and aukward. This is the forerunner of old age and of death.

A habit peculiarly favourable to corporeal vigour, is cheerfulness. Every time that our mind becomes morbid, vacant and melancholy, our external frame falls into disorder. Listlessness of thought is the brother of death. But cheerfulness gives new elasticity to our limbs, and circulation to our juices. Nothing can long be stagnant in the frame of him, whose heart is tranquil, and his imagination active.

A further requisite in the case of which we treat, is clear and distinct apprehension. Disease seems perhaps in all instances to be the concomitant of confusion. When reason resigns the helm, and our ideas fluctuate without order or direction, we sleep. Delirium and insanity are of the same nature. Fainting appears principally to consist in a relaxation of intellect, so that the ideas seem to mix in painful disorder, and nothing is distinguished. He that continues to act, or is led to a renewal of action with perspicuity and decision, is almost inevitably a man in health.

The surest source of cheerfulness is benevolence. To a youthful mind, while every thing strikes with its novelty, the individual situation must be peculiarly unfortunate, if gaiety of thought be not produced, or, when interrupted, do not speedily return with its healing virtue. But novelty is a fading charm, and perpetually decreases. Hence the approach of inanity and listlessness. After we have made a certain round, life delights no more. A deathlike apathy invades us. Thus the aged are generally cold and indifferent; nothing interests their attention, or rouses their sluggishness. How should it be otherwise? The objects of human pursuit are commonly frigid and contemptible, and the mistake comes at last to be detected. But virtue is a charm that never fades. The mind that overflows with kindness and sympathy, will always be cheerful. The man who is perpetually busied in contemplations of public good, can scarcely be inactive. Add to this, that a benevolent temper is peculiarly irreconcilable with those sentiments of anxiety, discontent, rage, revenge and despair, which so powerfully corrode the frame, and hourly consign their miserable victims to an untimely grave.

Thus far we have discoursed of a negative power which, if sufficiently exercised, would, it is to be presumed, eminently tend to the prolongation of human life. But there is a power of another description, which seems entitled to our attention in this respect. We have frequently had occasion to point out the distinction between our voluntary and involuntary motions.(3*) We have seen that they are continually running into each other; our involuntary motions gradually becoming subject to the power of volition, and our voluntary motions degenerating into involuntary. We concluded in an early part of this work,(4*) and that, as it should seem, with sufficient reason, that the true perfection of man was to attain, as nearly as possible, to the perfectly voluntary state; that we ought to be, upon all occasions, prepared to render a reason of our actions; and should remove ourselves to the furthest distance, from the state of mere inanimate machines, acted upon by causes of which they have no understanding.

Our involuntary motions are frequently found gradually to become subject to the power of volition. It seems impossible to set limits to this species of metamorphosis. Its reality cannot be questioned, when we consider that every motion of the human frame was originally involuntary.(5*) Is it not then highly probable, in the process of human improvement, that we may finally obtain an empire over every articulation of our frame? The circulation of the blood is a motion, in our present state, eminently involuntary. Yet nothing is more obvious than that certain thoughts, and states of the thinking faculty, are calculated to affect this process. Reasons have been adduced which seem to lead to an opinion, that thought and animal motion are, in all cases, to be considered as antecedent and consequent.(6*) We can now perhaps by an effort of the mind correct certain commencing irregularities of the system, and forbid, in circumstances where those phenomena would otherwise appear, the heart to palpitate, and the limbs to tremble. The voluntary power of some men over their animal frame, is found to extend to various articles, in which other men are impotent.

A further probability will be reflected upon these conjectures, if we recollect the picture which was formerly exhibited,(7*) of the rapidity of the succession of ideas. If we can have a series of three hundred and twenty ideas in a second of time, why should it be supposed that we may not hereafter arrive at the skill of carrying number of contemporaneous processes without disorder?

Nothing can be more irreconcilable to analogy, than to conclude, because a certain species of power is beyond the train of our present observations, that it is beyond the limits of the human mind.(8*) We talk familiarly indeed of the extent of our faculties; and our vanity prompts us to suppose that we have reached the goal of human capacity. But there is little plausibility in so arrogant an assumption. If it could have been told to the savage inhabitants of Europe in the times of Theseus and Achilles that man was capable of predicting eclipses and weighing the air, of reducing to settled rules the phenomena of nature so that no prodigies should remain, and of measuring the distance and size of the heavenly bodies, this would not have appeared to them less incredible than if we had told them of the possibility of maintaining the human body in perpetual youth and vigour. But we have not only this analogy, showing that the discovery in question forms, as it were, a regular branch of the acquisitions that belong to an intellectual nature; but, in addition to this, we seem to have a glimpse of the manner in which the acquisition will be secured.

One remark may be proper in this place. If the remedies here proposed tend to a total extirpation of the infirmities of our nature, then, though we should not be able to promise them an early or complete success, we may probably find them of some utility. They may contribute to prolong our vigour, if not to immortalize it, and, which is of more consequence, to make us live while we live. Every time the mind is invaded with anguish and gloom, the frame becomes disordered. Every time langour and indifference creep upon us, our functions fall into decay. In proportion as we cultivate fortitude and equanimity, our circulations will be cheerful. In proportion as we cultivate a kind and benevolent propensity, we may be secure of finding something to interest and engage us.

Medicine may reasonably be stated to consist of two branches, animal and intellectual. The latter of these has been infinitely too much neglected. It cannot be employed to the purposes of a profession; or, where it has been incidentally so employed, it has been artificially and indirectly, not in an open and avowed manner. "Herein the patient must minister to himself."(9*) It would no doubt be of extreme moment to us to be thoroughly acquainted with the power of motives, perseverance, and what is called resolution, in this respect.

The sum of the arguments which have been here offered, amounts to a species of presumption, that the term of human life may be prolonged, and that by the immediate operation of intellect, beyond any limits which we are able to assign. It would be idle to talk of the absolute immortality of man. Eternity and immortality are phrases to which it is impossible for us to annex any distinct ideas, and the more we attempt to explain them, the more we shall find ourselves involved in contradiction.

To apply these remarks to the subject of population. One tendency of a cultivated and virtuous mind is to diminish our eagerness for the gratifications of the senses. They please at present by their novelty, that is, because we know not how to estimate them. They decay in the decline of life, indirectly because the system refuses them, but directly and principally because they no longer excite the ardent of the mind. The gratifications of sense please at present by their imposture. We soon learn to despise the mere animal function, which, apart from the delusions of intellect, would be nearly the same in all cases; and to value it only as it happens to be relieved by personal charms or mental excellence.

The men therefore whom we are supposing to exist, when the earth shall refuse itself to a more extended population, will probably cease to propagate. The whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation, nor truth have, in a certain degree, to recommence her career every thirty years. Other improvements may be expected to keep pace with those of health and longevity. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Beside this, there will be neither disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all. Mind will be active and eager, yet never disappointed. Men will see the progressive advancement of virtue and good, and feel that, if things occasionally happen contrary to their hopes, the miscarriage itself was a necessary part of that progress. They will know that they are members of the chain, that each has his several utility, and they will not feel indifferent to that utility. They will be eager to enquire into the good that already exists, the means by which it was produced, and the greater good that is yet in store. They will never want motives for exertion; for that benefit which a man thoroughly understands and earnestly loves, he cannot refrain from endeavouring to promote.

Before we dismiss this subject it is proper once again to remind the reader, that the substance of this appendix is given only as matter of probable conjecture, and that the leading argument of this division of the work is altogether independent of its truth or falsehood.


  1. Book VIII, Chap. VIII, Appendix. The authors who have published their conjectures respecting the possibility of extending the term of human life are many. The most illustrious of these is probably lord Bacon; the most recent is Condorcet, in his Outlines of a History of the Progress of the Human Mind, published the first appearance of this work. These authors however are inclined to rest their hopes rather upon the growing perfection of art, than, as it is here done, upon the immediate and operation of an improved intellect.
  2. Book IV, Chap. IX
  3. Book I, Chap. V; Book IV, Chap. VII, X.
  4. Book IV, Chap. IX.
  5. Book IV, Chap. IX.
  6. Book IV, Chap. IX.
  7. Book I, Chap. VIII.
  8. Book I, Chap. V, §2.
  9. Shakespeare: Macbeth, Act V.

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