Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CENSURE OF MORALS. Beginning with the sixteenth century, the noble name of censure was given to that ill-starred guardianship of the press, which for a length of time interfered with the progress of political education, but did not keep back the dreaded revolution in Europe, and was at length abolished by general consent. The word censure was borrowed from the Romans, who had thus modestly named one of the grandest and worthiest institutions of their state.


—We find kindred institutions among other ancient nations. Thus the Areopagus and the Archons among the Athenians, and the Ephors among the Spartans, exercised the functions of moral judges. The remarkable Chinese institution of Tu-tschea-Yuen, is also essentially a court of moral censure. Its members are considered commissioners of heaven, as the "visible conscience of the state," and give expression to praise or blame, even concerning the highest officials. The emperor himself is not spared by them when he deviates from the sacred customs. But the Romans distinguished more clearly between morality and law, and could not allow the magistrate who presided in a law suit, nor the judge who decided on the right and the wrong, to watch over morals and punish immorality, without surrendering the legal security they had won. So far, therefore, as the Roman state used its authority for the preservation of good morals and to take decisive steps against immorality, a special magistracy seemed to be needed; and the censorship was created for that purpose.


—During the middle ages the Christian church showed a decided tendency to assume the entire moral direction and education of nations. Ecclesiastical now took the place of civil censure. The state itself needed the moral care of the church. The ancient Roman-Byzantine empire was, in a moral sense, weak: it was in decay. It needed a physician, and the still uncivilized Germanic peoples, although morally healthier and stronger, submitted willingly to the divine authority and felt the ideal elevation of the Christian religion, which in the Roman priesthood found its first devoted advocates and representatives This continued even after the reformation, though under changed conditions, and the reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were especially distinguished for their church discipline. When the temporal power assisted here with its external repressive measures, it did so with the moral authority of ecclesiastical censure, not as an independent temporal-moral power. Church and state divided the work of ruling nations. The one took the moral, the other the legal province. It is evident that at this time the idea of a political censure of morals could not easily arise.


—Still in the modern state the want of filling up the void thus left is felt, and not simply because ecclesiastical censure has lost its principal power, and a restoration of it, in the spirit of the middle ages, is an impossibility. Even if we recognize that the life task of the church lies essentially in the province of morality, and that that of the state, on the other hand, is the control of legal relations, it only results therefrom, that as a rule, the state should leave purely moral questions either to the church or to private persons, and should guard against untimely and officious interference in this sphere. Since the state itself is a moral being and must in its own interest take morality into consideration, it must, when and in so far as its very life is concerned, issue general moral regulations, and also, if exceptionally, take a position against peculiar moral dangers.


—As a rule, the state should not be allowed to interfere at all in private morals. This is the affair of individuals, not of the state. If the state exercises authority here, the distinction between morals and law is confounded, and the moral powers of the citizen, which become manifest and are developed by free self-determination, are fatally injured, not strengthened. But the power of the state may here be called forth exceptionally, when the open immorality of individuals threatens the moral foundations, both of the social life of men and the public welfare; that is when their harmful action on public morals is evident. Thus, for example, as a rule the state concerns itself with the relations of the sexes only in so far as the law is violated or scandal calls upon it to defend good morals. In like manner, money matters are left to private persons and free contract. But when a rich man misuses his property mercilessly and openly to oppress and exhaust the poor, even in a form which can not be reached by the law, or when a sensual profligate outrages the feelings of decency and good morals among the people through his display of senseless luxury, the state has good ground to practice censure after the manner of the Romans.


—If the intervention of the state in cases of private immorality is justifiable only in rare cases and under exceptional circumstances, it may interfere more readily where public (political) morality appears immediately concerned; but in such a case only to supplement the law, and only when the political immorality is undoubted, and the moral health of the state appears seriously affected. The Roman censors denounced the breach of a political oath; immoral projects of laws; breach of political decorum; and cowardly conduct in time of Janger, which is the more blameworthy in proportion to the greatness of the confidence demanded by the public character of the position. An excess of haughty harshness toward subordinates, and indecent stockjobbing on the part of high and influential officials and similar persons, may be considered as further reasons which, in clear cases of public scandal, may rouse political censure to activity.


—The police regulations of the present are utterly insufficient in all these cases. The Romans had the fine tact not to intrust the exercise of high political censure to subordinate servants of authority. Only the most honorable and most distinguished statesmen were chosen censors. There was no dignity in the Roman republic more highly respected than that of censor. "Majesty" was ascribed to the office. In this lies the surest and greatest guarantee of the whole institution. Nothing would be more destructive than to give it to ordinary officials, or, through court favor allow it to be exercised in bureaucratic fashion The opponents of all political censure are perfectly right so long as there is any danger of its being administered in this manner. Better no censure than a bureaucratic one. Only he whose person has moral authority should exercise such a power in the state. Political offices of honor well organized in this spirit might furnish the state with the same guarantees, and render it services similar to, and even better than the Roman magistracy rendered the Roman republic.


—With regard also to the course of procedure and means of correction the censure of the Romans is worth considering. The censors lodged official accusation, but they gave the accused whom they summoned before them full opportunity to defend themselves. They pronounced their sentences in public, and assigned reasons for them. A check was imposed on the partiality or passion of a single censor by the intervention of other censors; and if the censors of one lustrum acted too severely, their successors in office in the following lustrum might remedy the evil.


—The corrective measures of the censors answered to the fundamental character of the censorship as a moral institution. They did not affect, as does punishment proper which belongs to the law, the person, the property, or the freedom of the accused, particularly not his private rights, but exclusively his political honor and political rights. Their action was, therefore, limited to the field of moral appreciation and political life. The unworthy senator might be struck from the list of senators. The immoral knight might be deprived of his horse; other citizens less highly placed might be excluded from their class and reduced to a lower voting class, or deprived of suffrage altogether. Exclusion from honors and office was a regular effect of censorial blame, and the dishonor inseparable from the same was sensibly felt in social intercourse.


—Modern censure would have nothing new to discover in all these respects, but merely to transfer Roman thought to modern life. Exclusion from rights of association and from those of honor, from suffrage and eligibility to places of public trust, would be in our day a very effective and at the same time a thoroughly justifiable means of seriously punishing open immorality and enforcing political morals.


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