The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 2

Fundamental Conceptions of Politics

§1. An eminent writer, who treats of the ``Logic of Politics'', distinguishes a ``preliminary branch'' of the science of Politics, which he regards as an essential preparation for a practical no less than for a purely theoretical study of the subject, though it does not itself include an answer to any practical questions. This preliminary study, he explains, deals with the structure and functions of government not as they ought to be, but as they must be; that is, it teaches what is essentially involved in the idea of political government, and explains the necessary instruments and methods of government-laws and their sanctions, executive commands and judicial decisions, the establishment of rights and obligations, etc. Its aim is to make clear by discussion and definition these and other general notions that enter into our complex conception of political society; but it does not inquire into the operation and tendency of any particular kinds of laws or executive commands, or of any particular organisation of the judicature or other governmental institutions; nor does it urge the preference of any one law or institution to any other. ``It explains the meaning of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, but does not teach which is the best form. It shows what is the nature of punishment, but does not say which punishments are the most efficacious. It explains the nature of a dependency, without arguing the question----should colonies have a separate government?''. [Source]

I agree with Mr. Bain in recognising the value of the study thus marked off as preliminary. To obtain clear and precise definitions of leading terms is an important, and not altogether easy, achievement in all departments of scientific inquiry: but it is specially important in our present subject. But in most cases it seems to me most convenient, in such a treatise as the present, not to separate our discussion of the meaning of essential terms from our discussion of the practical questions in which the terms are used. I therefore propose, generally, to defer examining the definitions of such terms as ``property'' and ``contract'' till we come to consider what rights of property and of contract should be maintained in a well-ordered society: and similarly I shall not attempt to deal with the difficulties of determining precisely the separation between ``legislative'' and ``executive'' functions, until we are about to inquire how the organs exercising these functions should be constituted. But some preliminary discussion of the fundamental conceptions ``Government'', ``Law'', ``Right'', ``Obligation'' is almost indispensable, before we begin to consider the general principles on which government ought to act in establishing and maintaining legal rights among the governed, and compelling the performance of their legal obligations: and in the course of this discussion a provisional view of the characteristics and relations of the leading internal functions of government will naturally be given.

[Back to:] [Forward to:] [Up to:]