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

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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First Pub. Date
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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INTERESTS, Moral and Material. Man can not do without bread, and the expression of this daily need forms part of the short prayer which Jesus himself taught his first followers; but it is equally true that man does not live by bread alone. He is composed of two elements, soul and body, intellect and matter; and this duality of his nature involves a duality of desires and appetites, one belonging to his soul, the other to his body; hence also that duality of interests which are qualified as moral and material, the former tending to the more and more complete satisfaction of certain spiritual wants, and the latter to the acquisition of the greatest possible amount of physical well-being.


—Moral interests are to-day understood to mean the practical advantages which result from the progress of sound public education and advancement in the philosophical and moral sciences; and by material interests are meant the developments made by human industry and the conquests which the progress of the natural and physical sciences necessarily secures for it. These two kinds of interests are then, in their final analysis, the two terms of the great synthesis expressed by the word civilization. Hence, it is in this same sense that it has been said that "the two great means of advancing civilization are to propagate morality and industry, in order to render customs more benevolent and competency more general;" and moral civilization has been defined "the sum of the faith, laws, manners and virtues of a people, that is to say, the very end of the existence of nations;" and material civilization "the progressive development of trades and arts purely manual, or of industry."


—Bossuet says, in speaking of the Egyptians, whom we may style civilization's firstborn, "they knew from the first the true end of politics, which is to render life comfortable, and the people happy."


—No one says to-day, with J. J. Rousseau, that "everything is good when it leaves the hands of the Creator, but everything degenerates in the hands of man;" no one any longer maintains, with him, that man necessarily recedes, in a moral point of view, every time that he makes a step forward in the way of material civilization. No one now refers us back to savage life as an ideal of happiness, from which we are to be every day farther and farther removed; and the golden age which the poets showed us in the past, at the beginning of the existence of our race, is henceforth to be seen only in the future, as the end and recompense of man's efforts through the ages. Indeed, moral and material interests are not contrary one to the other, nor even essentially distinct. It is not true that the easy life, as Bossuet says, or the prosperity and morality of a people, are exclusive of one another, and that material well-being is developed only at the expense of public morality. It can not be truthfully said that men become morally corrupt in proportion as their condition improves materially, and that their civilization, so brilliant on the surface, is at bottom nothing but rottenness. This has been already absolutely demonstrated by the distinguished economist, de Molinari.—"In the first place," says this illustrious writer, "the history of civilization proves that those branches of human knowledge which contribute to the moral improvement of mankind, develop no less rapidly than those which tend to increase his material prosperity. Religion, for example, has, through the course of ages, improved and refined itself, and thereby exerted a more efficacious influence over man's morals. In this respect how far superior is Christianity to paganism! And can we not easily perceive a progress even in Christianity? Is not the Christian religion of to-day a more perfect instrument of moral development than it was at the time of St. Dominic and Torquemada? Do not the philosophical sciences, and especially political economy, succeed every day more effectually in rendering men more moral by showing them more and more clearly that the observance of the laws of morality is an essential condition of their happiness? In the second place, ought not material progress, far from being an obstacle to the moral development of the human species, contribute, on the contrary, to hasten it? Should it not, by rendering labor more fruitful, diminish the intensity and the frequency of the temptations which urge him to violate the laws of morality in order to satisfy his material appetites? Besides, these inductions, drawn from the observation of our nature, are confirmed by experience. The records of crime prove that the poor, other things being equal, are guilty of a greater number of crimes than the rich; they prove also that base criminality and crimes diminish in proportion as comfortable circumstances become more general in the lower walks of life. The objection of a pretended demoralization of the nation occasioned by the development of material well-being, is therefore at variance with observation and experience."


—In fact, we can not see how the improvement of the conditions of our terrestrial existence, the invention of gunpowder, the discovery of printing, the innumerable applications of steam and electricity—we are at a loss to imagine how all these marvels of material progress, which have renewed the face of the earth, can be of themselves and virtually causes of corruption and moral decline. Is it not rather whatever binds man to the earth, whatever renders him dependent upon man, that is to say, slavery, that renders him brutal and degraded? Is it not whatever frees him from the fetters of matter, whatever emancipates him, that is to say, liberty, that elevates him and renders him capable of perfection? Does not the philosophy of history show that every revolution accomplished in the domain of industry is followed sooner or later by a corresponding moral progress? We say sooner or later, and it is in these words we must seek an explanation of the apparent contradictions which the gradual development of material and moral interests sometimes presents. This development is not always simultaneous and immediate on both sides. Moral progress, rendered possible by material progress, does not always go hand in hand with it; it delays sometimes, and it has its periods of interruption, but it infallibly follows material progress. To cite only one example, does any one believe that railroads, those powerful agents of equality and sociability among men, have already borne all the fruit that their establishment and actual extent render it possible for them to bear? Certainly not; but these are merely temporary inequalities, which will, when the time comes, be changed into brilliant harmonies.


—If we but cast a glance at the comparative state of nations during the different phases through which they pass during even a single century, we shall readily appreciate, as in a tableau, this unequal but parallel and sure march of the progress of the human mind, this general equilibrium, which never fails to show itself, sooner or later, between the material and the moral interests of each country and of different nations considered in their entirety. We often hear our age reproached with its "worship of material interests," as if material interests were not worshiped in all ages, or as if our times alone were guilty of selfishness, thirst for gain and love of pleasure. We find these reproaches even in writers who, some pages further on, undertake to demonstrate that man is everywhere and always the same, that his surroundings change, but not his passions; and they support their doctrine by other analogous truths, which are the best refutation of our pretended exceptional perversity. For, as every one knows, the "worship" of material interests necessarily goes hand in hand with corruption. Now, we ask any one that has ever opened a volume of history, whether material interests and corruption are more prevalent in the nineteenth century than they were in the time of Louis XV., or of the regent, or of Louis XIV., or of the league, or of Louis XI., or when priests did not know how to read, or, finally, than among the Romans and Greeks. While writing these lines, facts crowd into our memory which demonstrate that men's passions have remained the same, that their expression alone is modified, and, thanks to the progress of education, improved.


—In fact, the only difference there is between the past and the present is, that we have one additional means of restraining men's passions, or of moderating them, or of forcing them to conceal themselves. And it must be remarked that, in default of a higher motive, it is better that men should conceal their vices out of human respect, or for any similar reason, than flaunt them boldly before the eyes of all. The community is thus spared corruption by bad example at least; and besides, restraint is thus put upon one's self, and the number of one's defects lessened. This means is public opinion. There has existed a public opinion at all times, but its action was very restricted. There were at first very few educated men, and between the opinions of the learned and the ignorant there was an abyss. The invention of printing, the creation of a daily press, the diffusion of education, have increased a hundred-fold the force of public opinion. Public opinion has become a check upon evil, a stimulant to good, and as the average of education has been raised, which means that education is enjoyed by millions of individuals who were formerly left groping in superstition, and in the fanaticism which springs therefrom; as the average of education has been increased, we say, men know better how to distinguish good from evil, and this knowledge is frequently all that is needed to determine their choice.


—This century is reproached with the worship of material interests! But this worship has never existed in a less degree than now. Material interests can never be suppressed. So long as we have material wants, we shall have material interests, and if the progress of the sciences renders it possible to more than satisfy these interests; if physics, chemistry and mechanics multiply wealth, so much the better, for wealth increases education, and education strengthens morality. Our opponents think they have closed the discussion when they have spoken of stock-speculations and luxury; but did not our forefathers dabble in stock-speculations? It is true that they did not speculate in railroad stock in the time of Cicero. As to luxury, you will find it in the stone age, for what else but luxury are those rude designs that embellish the ancient relies of this period? Luxury and art go hand in hand, and just as poetry preceded prose, so also has art preceded science. Who knows but that our most important inventions are due to the need we feel of embellishing what surrounds us.


—To sum up, if vice unfortunately abounds in our day, it is certainly less wide-spread than formerly. No matter what may be said to the contrary, our age is more disposed to sacrifice material to moral interests than any that has preceded it, for formerly the very name of virtue was unknown to the uneducated masses; in the middle ages, the idea of fatherland was but very little diffused; the political passions that play so important a part in our time were scarcely known; in fine, the very idea of moral interests is modern. An epoch should not be judged by certain prominent and exceptional facts; we must examine it in its entirety, deliberately and impartially. We allow ourselves to be too much impressed by certain kinds of opposition, and take certain sayings too literally; it is not possible that we are worse than our fathers; sound reason and facts concur in refuting such assertions; but everything imposes upon us the duty of using every effort to make our children better than we are ourselves.


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