Nothing would be more easy than to inspire some interest in all generous souls, by commencing this chapter with a kind of hymn to this first of all the goods of sensible nature, Liberty. But these explosions of sentiment, have no object but to electrize one's self, or to excite the feelings of those whom we address. Now a man who sincerely devotes himself to the search of truth, is sufficiently animated by the end he proposes, and counts on the same disposition in all those by whom he wishes to be read. The love of what is good and true is a real passion. This passion is I believe sufficiently novel, at least it seems to me that it could not exist in all its force, but since it has been proved by reasonings, and by facts, that the happiness of man, is proportionate to the mass of his intelligence, and that the one and the other does and can increase indefinitely. But since these two truths have been demonstrated, this new passion which characterizes the epoch in which we live is not rare, whatever may be said of it, and it is as energetic and more constant than any other. Let us not then seek to excite but to satisfy it, and let us speak of liberty as coolly, as if this word itself did not put in motion all the powers of the soul.
I say that the idea of liberty arises from the faculty of willing; for, with Locke, I understand by liberty, the power of executing our will, of acting conformably with our desire. And I maintain, that it is impossible to attach any clear idea to this word when we give it another signification. Thus there would be no liberty were there no will; and liberty cannot exist before the birth of will. It is then real nonsense, to pretend that the will is free to exist or not.∗ And such were almost all the famous decisions, which subjugated the mind before the birth of the true study of the human understanding. Accordingly the consequences which were drawn from these pretended principles, and especially from this one, were for the most part completely absurd. But this is not the time to occupy ourselves with them.
Without doubt, we cannot too often repeat it, a sensible being cannot will without a motive, he cannot will but in virtue of the manner in which he is affected. Thus his will follows from his anterior impressions, quite as necessarily as every effect follows the cause which has the properties necessary for producing it. This necessity is neither a good nor an evil for a sensible being. It is the consequence of his nature; it is the condition of his existence; it is the datum which he cannot change, and from which he should always set out in all his speculations.
But when a will is produced in an animated being, when he has conceived any determination whatsoever, this sentiment of willing, which is always a suffering, as long as it is not satisfied, has in recompense the admirable property of reacting on the organs, of regulating the greater part of their movements, of directing the employment of almost all the faculties, and thereby of creating all the means of enjoyment and power of the sensible being, when no extraneous force restrains him, that is to say when the willing being is free.
Liberty, taken in this its most general sense, (and the only reasonable one) signifying the power of executing our will, is then the remedy of all our ills, the accomplishment of all our desires, the satisfaction of all our wants, and consequently the first of all our goods, that which produces and comprehends them all. It is the same thing as our happiness. It has the same limits, or rather our happiness cannot have either more or less extension than our liberty; that is to say than our power of satisfying our desires. Constraint on the contrary, whatsoever it be, is the opposite of liberty; it is the cause of all our sufferings, the source of all our ills. It is even rigorously our only evil, for every ill is always the contrariety of a desire. We should assuredly have none, if we were free to deliver ourselves from it whenever we should wish; it is truly the Oromazis and Orismanes, the good and the evil principle.
The constraint from which we suffer, or rather which we suffer, since it is itself which constitutes all suffering, may be of different natures, and is susceptible of different degrees. It is direct and immediate, or only mediate and indirect. It comes to us from animate or from inanimate beings, it is invincible or may be surmounted. That which is the effect of physical forces, which enchains the action of our faculties, is immediate, while that which is the result of different combinations of our understanding, or of certain moral considerations, is but indirect and mediate, although very real likewise. The one and the other, according to circumstances, may be insurmountable, or may be susceptible of yielding to our efforts.
In all of these different cases, we have different methods of conducting ourselves, to escape from the suffering of constraint, to effect the accomplishment of our desires, in a word to arrive at satisfaction, at happiness. For once again I say these three things are one and the same Of these different methods of arriving at the only end of all our efforts as of all our desires, of all our wants, as of all our means, we should always take those which are most capable of conducting us to it. This is likewise our only duty, that which comprehends all others. The mean of fulfilling this only duty, is in the first place, if our desires are susceptible of satisfaction, to study the nature of the obstacles opposed, and to do all that depends on us to surmount them; secondly, if our desires cannot be accomplished, but by submitting to other evils, that is to say by renouncing other things, which we desire, to balance the inconveniences, and decide for the least; thirdly, if the success of our desires is entirely impossible, we must renounce them, and withdraw without murmuring within the limits of our power. Thus all is reduced to the employment of our intellectual faculties: First, in properly estimating our wants, then in extending our means, as far as possible; finally in submitting to the necessity of our nature, to the invincible condition of our existence.
But I perceive that I have mentioned the word duty. The idea which this word expresses well merits a separate chapter. It is sufficient in this to have terminated the examination of all our goods, by showing that since all our means of happiness consist in the voluntary employment of our faculties,Liberty, the power of acting according to our will, includes all our goods, is our only good, and that our only duty is to increase this power, and to use it well, that is to say so to use it as not ultimately to cramp and restrain it.
Would it be desired, before quitting this subject, to apply to this first of all goods, Liberty, the idea of value, which we have seen arise necessarily from the idea of good? And would it be asked, what is the value of liberty? It is evident that the sum of the liberty of a being feeling and willing, being the power of using his faculties according to his will, the entire value of this liberty is equal to the entire value of the employment of the faculties of this being: that if from this sum of liberty a portion only be detracted, the value of the portion detracted is equal to the value of the faculties, from the exercise of which he is debarred, and that the value of that which remains to him is the same with that of the faculties, the use of which he still preserves; and, finally, it is also manifest that, however feeble the faculties of an animated being, the absolute loss of his liberty is for him a loss truly infinite, and one to which he cannot set any price, since it is absolutely every thing for him, it is the extinction of every possibility of happiness; it is the loss of the sum total of his being; it can admit of no compensation, and deprives him of the disposal of what he might receive in return.
These general notions suffice for the moment. I will add but one reflection. It is commonly said that man, entering a state of society, sacrifices a portion of his liberty to secure the remainder. After what we have just said, this expression is not exact. It does not give a just idea either of the cause or of the effect, nor even of the origin of human societies. In the first place, man never lives completely insulated; he cannot exist thus, at least in his first infancy. Thus the state of society does not commence for him on a fixed day, or from premeditated design; it is established insensibly, and by degrees. Secondly, man in associating himself more and more, with his fellow beings, and in daily connecting himself more closely with them, by tacit or express conventions, does not calculate on diminishing his anterior liberty, or on weakening the total power of executing his will, which he previously had. He has always in view its increase. If he renounces certain modes of employing it, it is that he may be assisted, or at least not opposed, in other uses which he may wish to make of it, and which he judges more important to him. He consents that his will should be a little restrained, in certain cases, by that of his fellow beings: but it is that it may be much more powerful over all other beings, and even on these themselves on other occasions, so that the total mass of power, or of liberty, which he possesses should be thereby augmented. This I think is the idea which should be formed of the effect and the end of the gradual establishment of the social state. Whenever it does not produce this result, it does not attain its destination: but it attains it always in a greater or less degree, notwithstanding its universal and enormous imperfections. We will elsewhere develop the consequences of these observations. Now let us go on to the examination of the idea of duty.