Henry Sidgwick’s politics in

The Elements of Politics


         Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) was a moral philosopher, a politician and mostly an utilitarianist who took the origins of his thought in John Stuart Mill’s and Bentham’s utilitarianism. The difference between those two and Sidgwick lies in the socialistic tendency of J.S. Mill and Bentham which Sidgwick refuses. In fact, he desires the same things for the society: that every one, the government as well as the citizens, act in order to create a greater happiness for the individuals and for the all community; but he considers the socialistic principle of realising the equality of happiness impossible and, politically as well as economically, wrong.

         This work of the Elements of Politics shows that Sidgwick’s utilitarianism is clearly, as Utilitarianism is in general: liberal. John Stuart Mill is considered to be the one who introduced liberalism, with his work On Liberty first published in 1859, which advocates the moral and economical freedom of individuals from the state. This liberalism is an answer to the Victorian’s very strict moral. The Victorian period witnesses a diminution of the Christian faith in religion and in God in the intellectual class, such as Sidgwick, but also from the population including all social levels. There are two movements going on under the reign of Queen Victoria: the Church association tries to fight immorality by building more churches, and the other movement, such as the Utilitarianists, asks for more freedom in general as the demands of moral freedom seem to go along with the ones of economical freedom.

         Henry Sidgwick is a utilitarianist but he is not a socialist, he represents the split which happened with utilitarianism, characterized by the separation of liberalism as the classical liberalism on one hand and the social liberalism on the other hand. He is more like a classical liberalist who believes that a modern government has to be a representative government in which every class of the society can be represented. But this democracy, in the modern sense of the term, doesn’t completely satisfy the Philosopher who believes that persons of the poor class, who are not well educated, cannot be qualified whatsoever to work in the government.

         This moralist knows that the end of the 19th century is a turning point in the world’s political system of government. European countries will be forced, one way or the other, to let go the remainings of feudality to introduce real democracy and give the people the freedom they need to accomplish the necessary step toward a real representative government. The technical progress of the Enlighten brought an entire new population with different mentalities. The technical progress brings the possibility, for persons who are not wealthy to make more money and eventually, have a business of their own, climbing as so the social scale. There are in fact a more numerous and richer middle class, which gives the poorest more chances to have a better life as the social and economical level of the society is rising.

This social and economical rise was taken in consideration by Sidgwick with the creation and development, at the Cambridge University, of evening classes for people who worked all day and distance learning courses for those who couldn’t follow physically the classes. He was considered as a reformist, at least in Trinity College where he did a lot to help the knowledge to progress as fast as the British society of the Victorian period was. But Sidgwick has a certain ambiguity in his philosophy which reflects the same ambiguity of his personality: he is a reformist and a modernist, while he still remains a traditionalist.


         The points that we will develop here concern the dual personality of Henry Sidgwick which appears in The Elements of Politics (1891), the complexity of having a qualified representative government, and finally the comparison of such a political government with Aristotle’s different types of government.


         Henry Sidgwick born in 1838 at Skipton in Yorkshire and died in 1900; he lived all his life under the reign of Queen Victoria, and was therefore very influenced by the moral restrictions of this period. As many people of the second half of the 19th century, he was concerned and troubled by the social evolutions, the change of mentalities, the welfare of the 19th century was falling apart and he was part of the general movement of people and intellectuals who were becoming more and more concerned with ethics and altruism. The comfort of life is increasing because of the technology which helps people to fight less for their own life and get more concerned with the life of others. Also, the industrial 19th century period shows a very important difference between the rich and the poor, middle class are getting wealthier and the richest are richer, while the workers are more miserable than before and don’t seem to be very much considered by the rich industrials.

         The 18th century saw the birth of the economical laisser faire which became the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill. Then, the utilitarianism of Sidgwick, in The Elements of Politics, seems to ask for more economical freedom concerning the people who can afford to contribute the economical progress of Britain. He is concerned, on one hand, with the need of a proper representative government which would avoid the excess of brutality on both political sides: the Conservatives and the Liberals, and on the other side he doesn’t want to leave the colonies and wants the British Empire to remain as it was: wide, powerful and wealthy.

         The duality of his personality lies in this ambiguity: he knows that governments will have to change. According to these considerations he wants to contribute to this evolution for the best of the community, but on the other side he thinks that a country cannot go on without any morality or any limits, which is also true. The author of The Elements of Politics thinks that the confrontation between the two different British political parties, liberal and conservative, is too violent, especially about the Home Rule conflict; one is too rigid and conservative while the other seems too unorganised and ready to stimulates a revolution to counter his opponent party, the violence is present in both those political tendencies which drives Sidgwick away from the political action.

         The Elements of Politics were published in 1891, after the political deceit of the author related to the political events of the 1880-1890 periods with the conflict of the Home Rule, and the disputes of the two political parties who couldn’t find any agreement to solve the problem of Ireland. Henry Sidgwick was an active politician before the events in Ireland in the 1880’s, where the moralist found himself very disappointed by the violence of the British who wanted to free Ireland as well as the insane and incredible repression of the Conservatives who wanted to keep this country as one of the United Kingdom's dependencies. There was too much blood spilled in this debate and the philosopher didn’t feel anymore that he belonged to this kind of brutal politics. He threw himself in the writing of The Elements of Politics to discuss about a modern political society better than the one he was living in. The way this treaty is written could approach the Republic of Plato, where different ways of creating the ideal government are discussed by several philosophers, but this treaty was admitted, by the participants to the discussion, to remain a fiction. Sidgwick doesn’t think that his political treaty is fiction, he seems convinced that the arguments he developed in The Elements of Politics could be applied to the modern societies and particularly to the British society. As he was politically desperate when he wrote this discussion we might think that he had to believe his political treaty to be applicable to the real society. But that’s to the reader to judge…

         In order to control this extra political enthusiasm on both sides of the political tendencies (of the United Kingdom), it is needed to create a representative system where moral law will have an important place. The first part of The Elements of Politics concerns the political organisation of a modern society governed with a representative system: it shows the rules and regulations according to which the country could settle in order to be better governed.

         The Elements of Politics are a general and quiet a complete treaty which concerns the general problems noticed in a modern political society with a representative government. It shows the ambiguity of the second half of the 19th century: the need of modernising the government and the fear of civil war which could be initiated by the two opposite parties. The rules and the concept of law are always thought by Sidgwick in order to avoid mischief as much as possible and keep the country from being paralysed with political dead-end conflicts. And when there is no possible law to stop the birth of corruption or nonsense conflicts, he turns to the moral law which can help avoiding certain kind of trouble within the social community.

         The moral law works with the positive law as they complete each other allowing the government to have a better control over the people. It is unavoidable to declare that every citizen is not suppose to ignore the law, or else any one could bring this excuse in front of a Court of Law to get away without sentence for his mischief. Every one is aware of the law and is supposed to know what is forbidden and what is permitted to be done. As the author admits: it is impossible that people who don’t have the opportunity to be educated know all the rules and laws. Great knowledge of law needs special education like the one that lawyers receive, but even with a high level of practice there is no lawyer who knows perfectly the law. The role of moral law consists, among other functions of maintaining certain moral standards, in educating the simplest people to have a basic knowledge of law.

         The notion of moral law consists in the rules created by popular opinion: people judge the acts of a person according to moral principles based on the general opinion that the community can have about different situations in life. The moral law follows the evolution of society and can be different according to the social class, the geographical location, the history of the community and so on… The moral law is the natural consciousness of the people, and as they live together, they need to settle some rules to be able to live together as peacefully as possible. The role of morality lies also in the education of others, as the community permits with moral law that the most uneducated person is aware that such acts as killing, stilling or lying are wrong and cannot be done or else the society will morally blame him as the positive law will punish him. So the most uneducated doesn’t ignore basic laws.

There we reach the difference between positive law and moral law. The former consists in the rules of the country one lives in: they are clearly (hopefully!) written, officially recorded and are applicable in any Law Court of the country. The latter is constituted of rules that are neither official nor written, that change quite fast, as when someone changes from one region to the other, he has to get use to the mentality and the moral law of the new region he is visiting. The main difference between the two forms of law resides in the punishment: the moral punishment cannot be more severe than the exclusion and the banishment of the community, the worst punishment of the positive law is the death sentence (in the 19th century).

         The role of the moral law is to educate the people as to make them understand the value of shame and the weight of exclusion if one doesn’t act properly; the main action of the positive law is to rule the country in setting examples with the ones who break the law in order to prevent others, by frightening them, to try the same things. The moral law educates and prevent mischievous acts, using the fear of being ashamed and excluded; and the positive law is the second and most severe punishment for those who broke the moral and the positive law. We could debate about the worse punishment whether it is the exclusion of the community or death sentence; is it worth to live banished from the community or is dying worse? But this doesn’t concern the present discussion.


         Sidgwick wants the law to be modern as every one of the society is to be represented, but on the other hand he wants the moral law to keep its role in the society. It could be said that the philosopher wants the institutions and the law to evolve toward a new area while he wants to retain these reformes with the moral traditions… This is the ambiguity : the need of modernization and the conservation of tradition by fear of disorder involved by the act of renewal.


         We reach here the second part of this discussion which concerns another worry of the author in a representative system: the qualification and the intellectual abilities required for working in the government. This is a very difficult fact: reaching a compleete representative system with the equality of representation in all classes of the society and having a minimum of qualification for governing a country or making laws. Sidgwick thinks that the functions of government cannot be correctly fulfilled without certain qualifications and intellectual abilities; these abilities are most commonly found in the upper classes which can afford to pay higher education; the poorer classes show a low level of education.

         The dilemma lies in the problem of having in the same time qualified persons in the government and an equality of representation in all classes of the society. Sidgwick is conscious that a modern society cannot be politically constituted if all the citizens are no represented and on the other hand he believes that the country cannot be correctly led if the members of the parliament are not sufficiently qualified. And as the wealthy minority is always the best educated; it seems that the rich people would be the best one who could work in the government, but if this happens, the poor majority will be dominated by the rich minority. It also seems obvious that the majority of the citizens are not qualified enough to know if a campaigner can govern the country properly or not.

There are few solutions discussed in The Elements of Politics, both in the first and second part of the treaty, as this problem concerns the legal administration and organisation of the country as well as the practical function of a government.


         First the author thinks that the more parliamentary representatives there are the less the lack of qualification is a drawback as it is diluted in the number; and the more numerous they are the more chances we get to have more qualified ones than unqualified. The next argument consists in asking a minimum of education to be authorized as a campaigner for parliamentary elections : a minimum of two years of study in higher education. The third argument consists in the lack of remuneration for the parliamentary and the members of the government. The combination of those three arguments is considered by the author of The Elements of Politics the best solution to solve the qualification problem as well as the risks of corruption.

         The lack of remuneration involves the fact that the members of government should be wealthy enough for being a member of parliament as they won’t need a salary. Therefore only the rich minority can afford having campaigners for parliamentary elections. But as Sidgwick considers that a modern society has to be ruled by a representative government he allows special treatment for the lower classes to have parliamentary representatives. In fact, the Member of Parliament elected in the lower classes will be paid by the people of the district he represents; they will collect enough money to compensate the loss of salary caused by the time he spends at the Parliament.

         This practice is not democratic: in a modern democracy, members of parliament should be elected on equal bases; there shouldn’t be any exception, if there is, then it is not a real democracy. The author wants a democracy according to the needs shown by modern 19th century societies on the necessity of a representative government which is the only system capable of preventing the oppression of one class on another.


         Could Sidgwick’s Elements of Politics describe an ideal form of democracy? At the end of this treaty, the author discusses a comparison between the system he explained all along the book and Aristotle’s definition of different political system and how Sidgwick's system of government could resides within the concepts of the Ancients.


         According to Aristotle, there are six types of government: three good ones and three bad ones. The bad ones are Democracy, Oligarchy and Tyranny; and the good ones are Constitutional Government, Aristocracy and Monarchy. The point that will be developed here concerns the differences between the concepts of the ancient Greek governmental systems and the ones of a modern society, in the second half of the 19th century specially the democracy, the aristocracy and the oligarchy. Sidgwick claims, at the 30th chapter of The Elements of Politics that the system of government he presented is the closest to the best compromise proposed by Aristotle, which consists in a mixture of democracy and oligarchy.

The political system developed in the present treaty is a representative government in which members do not receive a salary for their work in the affairs of government. This is a compromise of democracy, system in which people are represented at large governing through their representatives and in the same time these representative have to be wealthy if they want to survive as deputy and not die of hunger… When Sidgwick speaks of members of government he mostly means the members of Parliament, because in the English Constitutional Monarchy, the members of the Executive Cabinet are also Members of Parliament. So, in order to obtain satisfaction regarding the intellectual abilities of the executive and the legislative, the members can only be elected among the elite of the country.

         The concept of Democracy described by Aristotle consists in a legislation oppressing the rich and scarifying the interests of the community as a whole to the interests of the poor majority. While in the Oligarchy the country is ruled exclusively by a rich majority and the Aristocracy consists in the management of government affairs by the best and the brightest, which is, in a way the result of oligarchy whose members’ children were educated to govern. The Democracy described by Aristotle is a different concept than the democracy of the late 19th century. The democracy was, back then (and eventually still is), a representative government in which every citizen, regardless the social backgrounds, has an equal chance of participating, through his vote, to the governmental organisation of his country.

The democracy is not, in the 19th century, an extreme situation of totalitarianism, as it was seen in the communist government system, and it is, as Sidgwick thinks, a political ideal that the modern civilised countries try to reach. This democratic ideal is a form of government which is totally different from the feudal forms of government: it involves a constitution which is very precise as it defines the roles of the different powers constituting a representative government as well as it allows the freedom of speech. Those two elements are some of the most important bases of a democracy; and as Sidgwick thinks: a democracy is the concept of a modern government in a modern civilised society. This means that the notion of democracy doesn’t describe a form of government anymore but it is the governmental system that has to be applied to any form of government weather it is a Presidential form, like in France, a Constitutional Monarchy like in England or Spain, or a Federation like the United States. Democracy is the form of modern sovereignty of the government on the people, it is the best and the only way (according to Sidgwick) to govern a modern civilised country.

         Democracy seems to be therefore the governmental system of modern societies and the unavoidable consequence of industrialisation. How did this fact change the society to make Henry Sidgwick say that democracy is the governmental system of modern society? Well, industry brought a new type of work; it created a global society of people working in factories and mines that was much more important than ever because of the increase of competition in the market following the industrial needs of charcoal and hand-workers. The more workers there are the more it is needed to give them a way to speak up for avoiding oppression of the industrial management on the workers. In the same time, it is important to constitute a governmental dialogue between the workmen and the employers to avoid the revolt of the poor that could then oppress the rich. Any way all these social troubles that are pretty much felt at the end of the 19th century have to be avoided as much as possible if the modern societies want to remain as powerful.


                   It seems that the important political task of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century is to organise the society in a way that the social conflicts can be avoided best. In fact, this period of time sees the birth of a great tiredness of the factory workers who are exhausted by the working conditions and the decline of the powerful Western European countries which try to keep up with their industrial and colonial standards. On one hand there are the employers who want to stay as competitive and as strong on the market as they were during the 19th century and on the other hand the workers who became more numerous start to form a large majority of persons indispensable to the economical wealth of the country. Therefore it is possible to say that the workmen became, as a political entity and as a group in fact, as powerful as the employers; this fact involves much more important conflicts between the rich and the poor than before. To keep the peace and secure the sovereignty of government, democracy is the only way to have the people deciding who will govern them and how; because it is their decision, there are many more chances that they respect government than if it was the government imposing the rulers.

         The democracy of Henry Sidgwick in these Elements of Politics, with the representatives unpaid except for the poorest classes, is a democracy and an oligarchy : the representatives are elected by the people at large but they can only vote for wealthy people. The election by the people at large is a democratic principle and the selection of the campaigners according to the wealth criteria is an oligarchic principle. Thereby the author justifies his political theories by the best way, according to Aristotle, to resolve the eternal conflicts between the rich and poor, is a mixture of democracy and oligarchy adapted by Henry Sidgwick to a modern society.



Introduction à la lecture des Eléments Politiques

Sidgwick thinking HENRY SIDGWICK (english) Henry Sidgwick


































































































































































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