Fatherly Authority
Note from the First Lecture On The Political Economy Of Art by J Ruskin

This statement could not, of course, be heard without displeasure by a certain class of politicians; and in one of the notices of these lectures given in the Manchester journals, at the time, endeavour was made to get quit of it by referring to the Divine authority, as the only Paternal power with respect to which men were truly styled " brethren ". Of course it is so, and, equally of course, all human government is nothing else than the executive expression of this Divine authority. The moment government ceases to be the practical enforcement of Divine law, it is tyranny; and the meaning which I attach to the words, " paternal government ", is, in more extended terms, simply this —

"The executive fulfillment, by formal human methods, of the will of the Father of mankind respecting His children".

I could not give such a definition of Government as this in a popular lecture; and even in written form, it will necessarily suggest many objections, of which I must notice and answer the most probable.

Only, in order to avoid the recurrence of such tiresome phrases as "it may be answered in the second place", and "it will be objected in the third place", etc., I will ask the reader's leave to arrange the discussion in the form of simple dialogue, letting O. stand for objector, and R. for response.

O. — You define your paternal government to be the executive fulfilment, by formal human methods, of the Divine will. But, assuredly, that will cannot stand in need of aid or expression from human laws. It cannot fail of its fulfilment.

R. — In the final sense it cannot; and in that sense, men who are committing murder and stealing are fulfilling the will of God as much as the best and kindest people in the world. But in the limited and present sense, the only sense with which we have anything to do, God's will concerning man is fulfilled by some men, and thwarted by others. And those men who either persuade or enforce the doing of it, stand towards those who are rebellious against it exactly in the position of faithful children in a family, who, when the father is out of sight, either compel or persuade the rest to do as their father would have them, were he present; and in so far as they are expressing and maintaining, for the time, the paternal authority, they exercise, in the exact sense in which I mean the phrase to be understood, paternal government over the rest.

O. — But, if Providence has left a liberty to man in many things in order to prove him, why should human law abridge that liberty, and take upon itself to compel what the great Lawgiver does not compel?

R. — It is confessed, in the enactment of any law whatsoever, that human lawgivers have a right to do this. For, if you have no right to abridge any of the liberty which Providence has left to man, you have no right to punish any one for committing murder or robbery. You ought to leave them to the punishment of God and Nature. But if you think yourself under obligation to punish, as far as human laws can, the violation of the will of God by those great sins, you are certainly under the same obligation to punish, with proportionately less punishment, the violation of His will in less sins.

O. — No; you must not attempt to punish less sins by law, because you cannot properly define nor ascertain them. Everybody can determine whether murder has been committed or not, but you cannot determine how far people have been unjust or cruel in minor matters, and therefore cannot make or execute laws concerning minor matters.

R. — If I propose to you to punish faults which cannot be defined, or to execute laws which cannot be male equitable, reject the laws I propose. But do not generally object to the principle of law.

O. — Yes; I generally object to the principle of law as applied to minor things; because, if you could succeed (which you cannot) in regulating the entire conduct of men by law in little things as well as great, you would take away from human life all its probationary character, and render many virtues and pleasures impossible. You would reduce virtue to the movement of a machine, instead of the act of a spirit.

R. — You have just said, parenthetically, and I fully and willingly admit it, that it is impossible to regulate all minor matters by law. Is it not probable, therefore, that the degree in which it is possible to regulate them by it, is also the degree in which it is right to regulate them by it? Or what other means of judgment will you employ, to separate the things which ought to be formally regulated from the things which ought not. You admit that great sins should be legally repressed; but you say that small sins should not be legally repressed. How do you distinguish between great and small sins; and how do you intend to determine, or do you in practice of daily life determine, on what occasions you should compel people to do right, and on what occasions you should leave them the option of doing wrong?

O. — I think you cannot make any accurate or logical distinction in such matters; but that common sense and instinct have; in all civilized nations, indicated certain crimes of great social harmfulness, such as murder, theft, adultery, slander, and such like, which it is proper to repress legally; and that common sense and instinct indicate also the kind of crimes which it is proper for laws to let alone, such as miserliness, ill-natured speaking, and many of those commercial dishonesties which I have a notion you want your paternal government to interfere with.

R. — Pray do not alarm yourself about what my paternal government is likely to interfere with, but keep to the matter in hand. You say that "common sense and instinct" have, in all civilized nations, distinguished between the sins that ought to be legally dealt with and that ought not. Do you mean that the laws of all civilized nations are perfect?

O. — No; certainly not.

R. — Or that they are perfect at least in their discrimination of what crimes they should deal with, and what crimes they should let alone?

O. — No; not exactly.

R. — What do you mean, then?

O. — I mean that the general tendency is right in the laws of civilized nations; and that, in due course of time, natural sense and instinct point out the matters they should be brought to bear upon. And each question of legislation must be made a separate subject of inquiry as it presents itself: you cannot fix any general principles about what should be dealt with legally, and what should not.

R. — Supposing it to be so, do you think there are any points in which our English legislation is capable of amendment, as it bears on commercial and economical matters, in this present time?

O. — Of course I do.

R. — Well, then, let us discuss these together quietly; and if the points that I want amended seem to you incapable of amendment, or not in need of amendment, say so: but don't object, at starting, to the mere proposition of applying law to things which have not had law applied to them before. You have admitted the fitness of my expression, "paternal government": it only has been, and remains, a question between us, how far such government should extend. Perhaps you would like it only to regulate, among the children, the length of their lessons; and perhaps I should like it also to regulate the hardness of their cricket-balls: but cannot you wait quietly till you know what I want it to do, before quarrelling with the thing itself?

O. — No; I cannot wait quietly: in fact I don't see any use in beginning such a discussion at all, because I am quite sure from the first, that you want to meddle with things that you have no business with, and to interfere with healthy liberty of action in all sorts of ways; and I know that you can't propose any laws that would be of real use.(1)

R. — If you indeed know that, you would be wrong to hear me any farther. But if you are only in painful doubt about me, which makes you unwilling to run the risk of wasting your time, I will tell you beforehand what I really do think about this same liberty of action, namely, that whenever we can make a perfectly equitable law about any matter, or even a law securing, on the whole, more just conduct than unjust, we ought to make that law; and that there will yet, on these conditions, always remain a number of matters respecting which legalism and formalism are impossible; enough, and more than enough, to exercise all human powers of individual judgment, and afford all kinds of scope to individual character. I think this; but of course it can only be proved by separate examination of the possibilities of formal restraint in each given field of action; and these two lectures are nothing more than a sketch of such a detailed examination in one field, namely, that of art. You will find, however, one or two other remarks on such possibilities in the next note.