James Burgh

All lawful authority, legislative, and executive, originates from the people. Power in the people is like light in the sun: native, original, inherent, and unlimited by anything human.

James Burgh (17141775) was a British Whig politician whose book Political Disquisitions set out an early case for free speech and universal suffrage.

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He who knows the world will not be too bashful. He who knows himself will not be impudent.
You need not tell all the truth, unless to those who have a right to know it all. But let all you tell be truth.
Do not think of knocking out another person's brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago.
You had better not bend your bow than miss your aim.

The Dignity of Human Nature (1754)Edit

The Dignity of Human Nature, Or, A Brief Account of the Certain and Established Means for Attaining the True End of Our Existence (1754) - 1794 edition at The Internet Archive - 1812 edition at Google

Sect. V : Miscellaneous Thoughts on Prudence in Conversation

  • He who knows the world will not be too bashful. He who knows himself will not be impudent.
  • Do not endeavour to shine in all companies. Leave room for your hearers to imagine something within you beyond all you have said. And remember, the more you are praised, the more you will be envied.
  • You need not tell all the truth, unless to those who have a right to know it all. But let all you tell be truth.
  • Insult not another for his want of a talent you possess: He may have others which you want.
  • Praise your friends, and let your friends praise you.
  • If you give a jest, take one.
    Let all your jokes be truly jokes. Jesting sometimes ends in sad earnest.
  • If a favour is asked of you, grant it if you can. If not, refuse it in such a manner as that one denial may be sufficient.
  • Wit without humanity degenerates into bitterness. Learning without prudence into pedantry.
  • In the midst of mirth, reflect that many of your fellow creatures round the world are expiring; and that your turn will come shortly. So will you keep your life uniform and free from excess.
  • Love your fellow creature, though vicious. Hate vice in the friend you love the most.
  • Reproof is a medicine like mercury or opium; if it be improperly administered it will do harm instead of good.
  • Nothing is more unmannerly than to reflect on any man's profession, sect, or natural infirmity. He who stirs up against himself another's self-love, provokes the strongest passion in human nature.
  • Be careful of your word, even in keeping the most trifling appointment. But do not blame another for a failure of that kind till you have heard his excuse.
  • Never offer advice but where there is some probability ef its being followed.
  • If a great person has omitted rewarding your services, do not talk of it; perhaps he may not yet have had an opportunity, for they have always on hand expectants innumerable, and the clamorous are too generally gratified before the deserving; besides, it is the way to draw his displeasure upon you, which can do you no good, but make bad worse. If the services you did were voluntary, you ought not to expect any return, because you made a present of them unasked; and a free gift is not to be turned into a loan, to draw the person you have served into debt. If you have served a great person merely with a view to self-interest, perhaps he is aware of that, and rewards you accordingly: nor can you justly complain: he owes you nothing; it was not him you meant to serve.
  • Fools pretend to foretell what will be the issue of things, and are laughed at for their awkward conjectures. Wise men being aware of the uncertainty of human aflairs, and having observed how small a matter often produces a great change, are modest in their conjectures.
  • Never fish for praise; it is not worth the bait.
  • Do well, but do not boast of it; for that will lessen the commendation you might otherwise have deserved.
  • To offer advice to an angry man, is like blowing against a tempest.
  • Make your company a rarity, and people will value it. Men despise what they can easily have.
  • Value truth, however you come by it. Who would not pick up a jewel that lay on a dunghill?
  • The beauty of behaviour consists in the manner more than the matter of your discourse.
  • There is no occasion to trample upon the meanest reptile, nor to sneak to the greatest prince. Insolence and baseness are equally unmanly.
  • Do not sit dumb in company; it will be ascribed either to pride, cunning, or stupidity: give your opinion modestly, but freely; hear that of others with candour; and ever endeavour to find out, and to communicate truth.
  • If you have seen a man misbehave once, do not from thence conclude him a fool; if you find he has been in a mistake in one particular, do not at once conclude him void of understanding : by that way of judging, you can entertain a favourable opinion of no man upon earth, nor even of yourself.
  • In mixed company, be readier to hear than to speak, and put people upon talking of what is in their own way; for then you will both oblige them, and be most likely to improve by their conversation.
  • Too much company is worse than none.
  • Learning is like bank-notes: prudence and good behaviour are like silver, useful upon all occasions.
  • Deep learning will make you acceptable to the learned; but it is only an obliging and easy behaviour, and entertaining conversation, that will make you agreeable to all companies.
  • Men repent speaking ten times, for once that they repent keeping silence.
    It is an advantage to have concealed one's opinion; for by that means you may change your judgment of things (which every wise man fmds reason to do) and not be accused of fickleness.
  • There is hardly any bodily blemish which a winning behaviour will not conceal, or make tolerable; and there is no external grace which ill-nature or affectation will not deform.
  • If you mean to make your side of the argument appear plausible, do not prejudice the people against what you think truth by your passionate manner of defending it.
  • There is an affected humility more unsufferable than downright pride, as hypocrisy is more abominable than libertimsm. Take care that your virtues be genuine and unsophisticated.
  • Do not think of knocking out another person's brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago.
    • Variant in other editions: Do not think of knocking out another person's brains, because he differs in opinion from you; it will be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from what you thought ten years ago.
  • If you want to gain any man's good opinion, take particular care how you behave the first time you are in company with him; the light you appear in at first, to one who is neither inclinable to think well nor ill of you, will strongly prejudice him either for or against you.
  • Good humour is the only shield to keep off the darts of the satirical railer: if you have a quiver well stored, and are sure of hitting him between the joints of the harness, do not spare him; but you had better not bend your bow than miss your aim.
  • The modest man is seldom the object of envy.
  • Be sure of the fact before you lose time in searching for a cause.
  • If you have a friend that will reprove your faults and foibles, consider you enjoy a blessing which the king upon the throne cannot have.
  • In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent: so you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.
  • What may be very entertaining in company with ignorant people may be tiresome to those who know more of the matter.
  • There is no method more likely to cure passion and rashness, than the frequent and attentive consideration of one's own weaknesses: this will work into the mind an habitual sense of the need one has of being pardoned, and will bring down the swelling pride and obstinacy of heart, which are the cause of hasty passion.
  • If you happen into company where the talk runs into party, obscemty, scandal, folly, or vice of any kind, you had better pass for morose or unsocial, among people whose good opinion is not worth having, than shock your own conscience by joining in conversation which you must disapprove of.
  • If you would have a right to account of things from illiterate people, let them tell their story in their own way; if you put them upon talking according to logical rules, you will confound them.

Political Disquisitions (1774)Edit

Political Disquisitions : or, An Enquiry into Public Errors, Defects, and Abuses (1774) - Full text online at Internet Archive Online text
That government only can be pronounced consistent with the design of all government, which allows to the governed the liberty of doing what, consistently with the general good, they may desire to do, and which only forbids their doing the contrary.

Book I : Of Government, briefly

  • If there be, in any region of the universe, an order of moral agents living in society, whose reason is strong, whose passions and inclinations are moderate, and whose dispositions are turned to virtue, to such an order of happy beings, legislation, administration, and police, with the endlessly various and complicated apparatus of politics, must be in a great measure superfluous. Did reason govern mankind, there would be little occasion for any other government, either monarchical, aristocratical, democratical, or mixed. But man, whom we dignify with the honourable title of Rational, being much more frequently influenced, in his proceedings, by supposed interest, by passion, by sensual appetite, by caprice, by any thing, by nothing, than by reason; it has, in all civilized ages and countries, been found proper to frame laws and statutes fortified by sanctions, and to establish orders of men invested with authority to execute those laws, and inflict the deserved punishments upon the violators of them. By such means only has it been found possible to preserve the general peace and tranquillity. But, such is the perverse disposition of man, the most unruly of all animals, that this most useful institution has been generally debauched into an engine of oppression and tyranny over those, whom it was expresly and solely established to defend. And to such a degree has this evil prevailed, that in almost every age and country, the government has been the principal grievance of the people, as appears too dreadfully manifest, from the bloody and deformed page of history. For what is general history, but a view of the abuses of power committed by those, who have got it into their hands, to the subjugation, and destruction of the human species, to the ruin of the general peace and happiness, and turning the Almighty's fair and good world into a butchery of its inhabitants, for the gratification of the unbounded ambition of a few, who, in overthrowing the felicity of their fellow-creatures, have confounded their own?
    • Ch I : Government by Laws and Sanctions, why necessary
  • That government only can be pronounced consistent with the design of all government, which allows to the governed the liberty of doing what, consistently with the general good, they may desire to do, and which only forbids their doing the contrary. Liberty does not exclude restraint; it only excludes unreasonable restraint. To determine precisely how far personal liberty is compatible with the general good, and of the propriety of social conduct in all cases, is a matter of great extent, and demands the united wisdom of a whole people. And the consent of the whole people, as far as it can be obtained, is indispensably necessary to every law, by which the whole people are to be bound; else the whole people are enslaved to the one, or the few, who frame the laws for them.
  • All lawful authority, legislative, and executive, originates from the people. Power in the people is like light in the sun: native, original, inherent, and unlimited by anything human. In governors it may be compared to the reflected light of the moon, for it is only borrowed, delegated, and limited by the intention of the people; whose it is, and to whom governors are to consider themselves aa responsible, while the people are answerable only to God; — themselves being the losers, if they pursue a false scheme of politics.

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Last modified on 4 May 2009, at 20:42