The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 1

Scope and Method of Politics

§1. On moral questions, in our age and country, most persons are accustomed from comparatively early years to pronounce confident decisions; sometimes arrived at intuitively, or at least without conscious processes of reasoning, sometimes the result of rational processes of more or less length. The citizens of a modern state---at least if it is under government in any degree popular---are similarly accustomed to decide unhesitatingly many, if not all, of the political questions which the course of their national life brings before them; but in this case, to a greater extent than in the former, the decisions are arrived at as the result of conscious reasoning from certain general principles or assumptions. Now, the primary aim of the Political Theory that is here to be expounded is not to supply any entirely new method of obtaining reasoned answers to political questions; but rather, by careful reflection, to introduce greater clearness and consistency into the kind of thought and reasoning with which we are all more or less familiar. In order to arrive at sound conclusions on practical questions---I do not mean infallible conclusions, but conclusions as free from error as human beings, in the present stage of their development, can hope to reach---much detailed knowledge is needed which the general theory of politics cannot profess to give: it can only point out the nature and sources of this further knowledge, and the manner in which it is to be applied. The general theory of politics ought to classify the considerations by which any given political question should be decided, and indicate their general bearing on the question: but the degree of weight to be attached to each species of consideration, is in any particular case, is usually difficult to estimate precisely without special experience: so that the main practical use of the theory is to show how experience is to be interrogated. Still, clearness and precision in our general political conceptions, definiteness and consistency in our fundamental assumptions and methods of reasoning, though they do not constitute anything like a complete protection against erroneous practical conclusions, are yet, I believe, of considerable practical value; and the systematic effort to acquire them deserves an important place in the intellectual training of a thoroughly educated man and citizen.

We may appropriately begin by trying to attain clearness and precision in our general conception of the subject investigated. In the first place, it seems to me convenient and in accordance with usage to draw a distinction, which is sometimes overlooked,---between ``Politics'' and the ``Social Science'', or, as it is now most commonly called, Sociology. I take the former study as having a narrower scope than the latter: Sociology, as I conceive it, deals with human societies generally; Politics with governed societies regarded as possessing government,---that is societies of which the members are accustomed to obey, at least in certain matters, the directions given by some person, or body of persons forming part of the society. The difference between the two subjects is not indeed great, if we merely consider the number of human beings included in either case; since the great majority of mankind are, and have been in historical times, members of political or governed societies. Still, we know of inferior races who only exhibit this characteristic doubtfully and imperfectly: as Mr. Spencer points out (Princ. of Soc. § 228), ``groups of Esquimaux. of Australians, of Bushmen, of Fuegians, are without even that primary contrast of parts implied by settled chieftainship. Their members are subject to no control but such as is temporarily acquired by the stronger, or more cunning, or more experienced.'' Such groups, therefore, lack what we now regard as an essential characteristic of political society, though they can hardly be excluded from the range of ``Sociology'' or the ``Social Science''.

But we are more concerned to note that the members even of societies that have settled governments have relations to each other of the greatest importance, which, though they could hardly be maintained without government, are still, in the main, not determined by it: and, accordingly, in those branches of social science which are primarily concerned with these other relations, the fact of government drops properly into the background. Consider, for instance, the industrial or professional system of modern communities, by which men are distinguished from, and related to each other as physicians, teachers, masons, carpenters, etc. This vast system of relations, with all the minutely subdivided organisation of labour which it involves, has been in the main constructed without the direct action of government: though, no doubt, it could not be maintained without the enforcement, through governmental agency, of rights of property, contracts, etc.; and though it has been importantly modified---to a varying extent in different ages and countries---by direct governmental interference. Accordingly, it has been possible for the followers of Adam Smith to separate almost entirely the study of the industrial organisation of society---under the name of ``Political Economy''---from the study of its political organisation: and this separation I hold to be in the main expedient, though it is liable to be carried too far. We have also to note---what is sometimes overlooked by writers who lay stress on the analogy between the organism of an individual man (or other animal) and the ``social organism''---that human beings, considered in respect of their industrial or economic relations, fall into groups differing widely, both in extent and in sharpness of definition, from the groups into which they are combined by their political relations. Thus most of the citizens of any European community have, through foreign trade, economic relations of more or less importance with the members of some other communities and not a few of them have a closer economic connection with some foreigners than they have with most of their fellow-citizens.

There are other relations of various kinds by which civilised men, in the present age, are socially connected into groups not coinciding with either of those just discussed. Some of those groups---religious societies being the most important example---have a kind of government, and may therefore be called quasi-political. But, as they exist in modern countries generally, they differ from political societies in the important characteristic that the government of such a quasi-political group cannot inflict on its members any (mundane) penalty more formidable than exclusion from religious ceremonials and from voluntary social relations; whereas the penalties inflicted by the government of a political society---at any rate if its political character is fully developed---extend to deprivation of liberty, property, and even life itself. Other groups again---for example, those constituted by the possession of a common language and literature---have, as such, no government at all. The influence exercised on the lives of individuals by both kinds of relations constitutes a very important part of the whole fact of social organisation; but I only refer to it here in order to make clear the distinction above drawn between ``Social Science'' or ``Sociology'', which treats of human society generally, and ``Politics'', which treats of political societies regarded in their political aspect:---i.e. as under government. Such a society, when it has attained a certain degree of civilised order, and is in settled occupation of a certain portion of the earth's surface over which its government exercises supreme control, we call a State.

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