Reflections on ‘Essay on Public Opinion’

Dr Emrys Jones, Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture, King’s College London


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It may be stating the obvious to point out that what was understood as constituting ‘public opinion’ in the eighteenth century bears little resemblance to the culture of opinion polls and click rates that often accompanies the term in today’s usage. It rarely offered the prospect of absolute excoriation or vindication that it does for us. Though with hindsight we may feel confident in identifying its shifts and its impact at particular moments in the century, for those living at the time it was an ill-defined thing, hovering at the edge of political relevance. Periodical essays and satirical cartoons could be taken as expressions of public opinion, of course. So could riots and revolutions. But it was generally simpler and safer to interpret events with reference to warring factions or individual interests. To do so was to sidestep the awkward questions of who the public actually was, how its opinion could be accurately gauged and what currency it would acquire if it ever were.

Rowlandson cartoon satirising public opinion, on the issue of the pay of a child actor. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

It is in relation to these questions and the general ambiguity of the concept that the ‘Essay on Public Opinion’ (GEO/ADD/32/1064-70) is particularly informative. If George III was the author of this piece, then it provides a valuable perspective on his attitude to his subjects, his apparent faith in a reasonable alignment between public opinion and the good of the nation. However, the work is intriguing regardless of our speculations on its authorship. It reflects both the uncertainty of its era concerning the practical implications of public opinion and a nagging sense that we should be able to account for what the public feels, tracing the logic behind who is revered and who is forgotten. For in the terms of this essay, public opinion is responsive in nature. Its principal business is not the alteration of policy, but the crafting of reputations and the custodianship of cultural memory.

The essay begins by defining public opinion, implicitly and loosely, in contrast to the agendas of individuals on one hand and ‘private Societys’ [sic] on the other. All three varieties of opinion are reassuringly guided by self-interest, but the nature of such self-interest naturally varies in each instance. The public, according to the author, occupies itself with matters of general concern – ‘Politics, War, Legislation, Arts & Sciences’ – though in doing so it is prone to celebrate mediocre and accessible talents over exceptional and remote ones.

This is a fairly convenient distinction but not necessarily a false one. It is startling how closely the language at this point in the essay anticipates current debates about the value of expertise in public life and the ease with which highly specialised knowledge can best be communicated to the public as a whole. We might assume based on the opening of the essay that its author is building towards a dismissal of the public’s good judgement and a condemnation of its influence on political life. The essay notes the distorting effects of public favour, the tendency to elevate ‘colossal Figure[s]’ that appear ‘monstrous’ when examined more closely. Later in the essay, the author highlights particular blind spots in the way that public opinion identifies its champions: the fact that it claims to care about virtues like honesty and heroism, but locates these less in actions themselves and more in relation to ‘the importance of the Action, & the advantage the Society receiv’d by it’. The essay is filled with examples of the public getting things wrong. However, the intention of the work in its entirety is not to rubbish the force of public opinion because of these lapses. On the contrary, it is to argue for the sound, self-interested basis of the public’s judgements, to insist on its fundamental rationality and to assert the proper value of public opinion when it is effectively balanced against other considerations. For the time, this seems an impressively sophisticated and enlightened view to adopt; not to claim that the public is always right, but to acknowledge that its opinions are at least derived, logically and inevitably, from its sense of its own interests rather than from thoughtless partiality.

Towards the end of the essay, the author considers why the public generally esteems architects more highly than builders and the ‘Art of Agriculture’ more highly than the ploughman who puts it in practice. The reason is not that the public is oblivious to its own needs, but that it considers some people replaceable whereas others are not. As modern readers, we may well be appalled by the blunt, mercenary logic of this argument, but at its heart is a surprisingly useful and progressive idea: that public opinion, however vaguely defined, might be appreciated for its discrimination and its insight without its dictating the entire structure of society.

Transcription

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As individuals generaly judge of persons & things from selfinterestd motives, so to private societys so do the public but the public judgements & that of particular Societys are different; the public have for objects, polities, War, legislation, Arts & Sciences; tho these concern every individual; yet they are but slightly esteemed, compard with those ideas that regard immediately the particular interest of each Society, such as its taste, liking, aversions, projects, pleasures, from hence it follows that a man who has acquir’d many ideas of this last kind, will be greatly esteemed by the Societys he frequents, but in the eyes of the public whether he exerts his talents in

a great Office or in writing, he will not meet with great admiration from the public.

But whoever on the contrary occupys himself in ideas that are more generaly interesting, he will be look’d on by the Public as a superior genius, but to the particular Society in which he lives, he will be rather dull & disagreable, the first is a minature picture you must look at near & at a distance not to be distinguished; the last a colossal figure that appears monstrous if you approach it.

To please the World a superficial knowledge of many things in all that is necessary without being master of any, but to procure the public esteem, a person must have made himself thoroly master of the object he turns

his mind to;

Besides in the first case a person is oblig’d to mix extrem’ly in the world, to adopt all its little interests & prejudices, while the last passes his time in silence & solitude; we would not be understood by this to propose a Hermits life, no a Scipio, a Hanibal, a Marlborough all liv’d in the World but without mixing in what we call its occupations.

Thus much of public & private judgement in general; let us now examine it with regard to particular Virtues or accomplishments.

I. Of Probity

Probity with regard to a particular society consists in nothing more than in actions useful to that society in all its judgements such a society is determined solely by its own interests

the public in the same interested manner never bestows the names of honest, great heroick, proportionally to the force of mind courage or generosity with which the Action was attended; but to the importance of the action, & the advantage the society receiv’d from it; let one man fight against three ’tis an action thousands of our soldiers are capable of performing & would never be thought worth recording in History; but let the fate of an Empire depend on the combat, the Victor becomes like Horace immortal; Sapho & Cartius both leap’d into a Gulph, the first from disapointed love, the latter to save Rome, Philosphers may brand these actions with the common name of folly, but the public judging in another manner & whilst Sapho is a fool Cartius is a Hero.

As with probity so it fares with

sense & understanding, the public will ever estimate according to its interest. it will not proportion its esteem to the number & suttlety of ideas necessary to succeed in this or that business, but to the advantages it acquires by it;

The most able Lawyer or most excellent painter will never be regarded like an able Politician, or a Succesful tho ignorant general,the reason is plain, the public has more occasion for Politicians than Lawyers & Painters & let a man of very middling tallents, favour’d by circumstances, do great things in a high office, he will ever posses superior to one; who tho possesing ten times his parts, is in a lower Office presented by unforeseen events from executing any thing considerable.

In time of great calamity but small degree of merit opens the way to the highest praises, how immensely was Terentius Varo extoll’ed for no other reason that that he did not despair of the public; had Camillus defeated the Gauls at the Battle of Allia instead of doing it at the foot of the Capitol, he never would have been call’d the second founder of Rome.

After what we have said it should follow that the memory of these great men, Generals, Politicians, & c. should far out live that of their cotemporarys, who exercis’d their tallents in Arts & Sciences the public drew no utility from; ’tis however far otherwise & the reason is plain; if we except a few great Men who have invented & perfection’d the Military Arts; or

others who have by their negociations at a fortunate crisis sav’d a falling Country, all the next ceasing at their death to be useful to the Public, share no longer its graditude or esteem; Authors on the contrary never cease to live, their Works demand esteem as long as they continue useful. how much more [deletion] respectable is the name of Confusius [deletion] than of any Chinese Emperor, why are so many Kings deefy’d when living forgot then dead; why is Hordie & Virgil join’d to the name of Augustus, for the self same reason of being useful, while those in oblivion are no more so.

What we have said with regard to time, will also hold with regard to distance of place; Newton is reverenc’d where the name of Cecil is unknown, & Descartes is equaly famous

amongst those who never heard of a Sully nothing is more just the Works of Newton & Descartes are useful to all Europe.  Cecil & Sully were only serviceable to their respective Countrys.

It may be urg’d that as the Public in their judgements only consults interest, the labourer & Ploughman ought to go before the Historian, Poet, Mathematician; to this we must observe that Public esteem is an imaginary treasure demanding a very wise & cautious distribution to make it of real Value, it must not therefore be lavish’d on work every man is capable of, grown common it would lose its imaginary Virtue, would no longer animate men to great & glorious undertakings; the public therefore wisely esteems the Art of Agriculture & not the

Artist, besides is things otherwise equal as to utility, ^ public esteem is ever proportion’d to the difficulty attending them; a Stone Cutter furnishes the materials for building & without him an Architect would be useless, but every man is capable of quarrying Stone, few have a genius for fine Architecture, as it fares with Authors, one Single original problemn of Newton, a play of Home’s gains more applause than a Compilation of many Volumes in Folio like Gronovius’s Antiquitys, Historical Dictionarys & c.

Any contradictions therefore that may seem to arise between the Public’s interests & judgements are only in appearance they in reality ever go together

As Individuals generaly judge of Persons & things from selfinterested motives, so do private Societys, so do the Public; but the Public judgements & that of particular Societys are different; the Public have for objects Politics, War, Legislation, Arts, & Sciences; tho these concern every individual, yet they are but slightly esteem’d, compar’d with those ideas that regard immediately the particular interest of each Society, such as its Taste, Likings, Aversions, Projects, pleasures, from hence it follows that a Man who has acquir’d many ideas of this last kind will be greatly esteem’d by the Societys he frequents, but the eyes of the Public whether he exerts his talents in a great Office or in writing, he will
not meet with great admiration from the Public;

but whoever on the contrary occupys himself in ideas that are more generaly interesting, will be look’d on by the Public as a Superior genious, but to the particular Society in which he lives, he will be rather dull & disagreable; the first is a minature Picture that must be look’d at near, & at a distance not to be distinguish’d; the last a Colossal figure that appears monstrous if You approach it.

To please the World a superficial knowledge of many things is all that is necessary without being Master of any; but to procure the public esteem, a person must have made himself thoroughly master of the object he turns his mind to; besides in the first case a person is oblig’d to mix extrem’ly in the World to adopt all its little interests, & prejudices, while the last passes his time in silence & solitude; we would not be understood by

this to propose a Hermit’s life, no a Scipio, a Hanibal, a Marlborough, all liv’d in the World but without mixing in what we call its occupations.

Thus much of a Public & Private judgement in general; let us now examine it with regard to particular Virtues or accomplishments.

I. Of Probity

Probity with regard to a particular Society consists in nothing more than in actions useful to that Society; in all its judgements such a Society is determin’d solely by its own interests.

The Public in the same interested manner never bestows the names of honest, great, heroick, proportionably to the force of mind, courage or generosity with which the Action was attended, but to the importance of the Action, & the advantage the Society

receiv’d from it; let one Man fight against three ’tis an action thousands of our Soldiers are capable of performing, & would never be thought worth recording in History, but let the fate of an Empire depend on the combat, the Victor becomes like Horace immortal; Sapho & Curtius both leap’d into a Gulph, the first from disapointed love; the latter to save Rome, Philosophers may brand these actions with the common name of folly, but the Public judging in another manner, & whilst Sapho is a fool, Curtius is a Hero.

As with Probity so it fares with Sense & Understanding, the Public will ever estimate according to its interest, it will not porportion its esteem to the number & subtlety of ideas necessary to succeed in this or that business, but such to the advantages it acquires by its this the most able Lawyer or most excellent Painter will never be regarded like an able Politician, or a successful tho ignorant General,

the reason is plain the Public has more occasion for Politicians than Lawyers & Painters & let a man of middling tallents favour’d by circumstances do great things in a high Office, he will ever pass as Superior to one, who tho possessing ten times his parts is in a lower Office prevented from unforseen events from executing any thing considerable; in time of great calamity but small degree of merit opens the way to the highest praises, how immensely was Terentius Varo extoll’d for no other reason than that he did not despair of the Public; had Camillus defeated the Gauls at the Battle of Allia instead of doing it at the foot of the Capitol, he never would have been call’d the second founder of Rome.

After what we have said it should follow that the memory of these great Men, Generals, Politicians & c. should far out live that of their contemporarys

who exercis’d their tallents in Arts & Sciences the Public drew no utility from; ’tis however far otherwise & the reason is plain; if we except a few Great Men who have invented & perfection’d the Military Art, or others who have by their negociations at a fortunate Crisis sav’d a falling Country, all the rest ceasing at their death to be useful to the Public, share no longer its gratitude or esteem; Authors on the contrary never cease to live, their Works demand esteem as long as they continue useful; how much more respectable is the name of Confusius than of any Chinese Emperor; why are so many Kings Deefy’d when living, forgot when dead; why are Horace & Virgil join’d to the name of Augustus; for the reason of being useful, while those in oblivion are no more so.

What we have said with regard to time will

also hold with regard to distance of place; Newton is reverenc’d where the name of Cecil is known, & Descartes is equaly famous amongst those who never heard of a Sully; nothing is more just the Works of Newton & Descartes are useful to all Europe, Cecil & Sully were only serviecable to their respective Countrys.

It may be urg’d that as the Public in their Judgements only consult interest, the labourer & Ploughman ought to go before the Historian, Poet, Mathematician; to this we must observe that Public esteem is an imaginary treasure demanding a very wise & cautious distribution to make it of real Value, it must not therefore be lavish’d on work every man is capable of, grown common it would lose its imaginary Virtue, would no longer animate Men to great & glorious undertakings; the Public therefore

wisely esteems the Art of Agriculture & not the Artist, besides in things otherwise equal as to utility, Public esteem is ever proportion’d to the difficulty attending them; a Stone Cutter furnishes the materials for building, & without him an Architect would be useless, but every man is capable of quarrying Stone, few have a genius for fine Architecture; so it fare with Authors, one single original problemn of Newton, a play of Home’s, gains more applause than a compilation of many Vollumes in Folio, like Gronovius’s Antiquities, Historical Dictionary’s & c. therefore any contradictions that may seem to arise between the Public’s interests & judgements, are only in appearance they in reality ever go together.

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