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In her book Hortense Geninet studies Henry Sidgwick's political thought by analysing his The Elements of Politics, published in 1891 and Principles of Political Economy of 1883 following the publication of The Methods of Ethics in 1874. After a brief biography, she explains the circumstances in which The Elements of Politics was written and shows how Henry Sidgwick was intellectually, morally and politically interested in English political life being a member of various political parties like the Liberal Unionist Party, the General Board of Studies and other political parties or associations all his life. In 1887 while his brother-in-law, Arthur Balfour, a conservative, was Chief Secretary of Ireland, there was a serious incident which induced Henry Sidgwick to write his book: The Elements of Politics in which he tried to create a modern government to fit in with the social evolution at the end of the 19th century. This incident took place at a trial in which an Irish nationalist, William O'Brian, was accused of having encouraged farmers not to pay rent to Lady Kingston for the land they farmed and resist eviction. On the day of the trial Liberal party agitators incited the crowd in favour of the Irish so much that they went out of control and Arthur Balfour ordered the police to shoot at them. As a result of this, he was nicknamed: "Bloody Balfour".  Henry Sidgwick was very saddened by this event, not only because of the attitude of his brother-in-law, but because he was revolted by the excessive attitude of both the Liberals and the Conservatives.

Hortense Geninet explains how politics and philosophy were equally important to Sidgwick and how he understood that the best thing he could do morally and politically to fight these excesses and violence, was to create a new governmental system adapted to the entire population, that is, the poor, the rich and the colonies. Henry Sidgwick is better known for his work on Ethics than his work on Politics, Economy or Psychology. The author shows that all these elements however, have to be taken into account to understand the aim of his philosophy and that he was a man of modern ideas because he followed the development of the society he lived in and understood that moral and religious, mainly theistic, elements of the social equilibrium were always universally present. Also because he foresaw that the late 19th century Society would evolve faster than its laws, governmental structures and administration.

Here, unlike what most people have thought Hortense Geninet presents a different hypothesis. On analysing Sidgwick's politics in The Elements of Politics, she shows that his ethics and moral concepts were made to fit his system of government and not vice-versa. Even if he did not agree with members of the assembly being representatives, in fact, if they had been, they could have been corrupted and blackmailed by those whom they had to represent, he considered the need for a legislation to be made by a representative assembly like the House of Commons in England. He also agreed that the representatives should be elected equally on a social and regional scale, according to the number of inhabitants, their wealth and their location. In the Representative Assembly, the balance between the poor and the rich must always be kept to avoid oppression by one class over the other. Sidgwick also showed the importance of political parties in order to maintain an opposition to the governing party, once again to avoid oppression.

The author explains how Sidgwick insisted on the fact that legislation alone was not enough to govern society and keep members of the government and the people from allowing their excessive and destructive passions to get out of control. Morals were needed for the lower classes where people's knowledge of law was founded on their common sense. In order to have a well-organised society, it is necessary to understand that no one ignores the law. If not, every one can be excused of any crime or offence he commits. Therefore, education became important as did the Church which would deliver a moral education that would not be very coercive as the government would not appear in this moral education. Moreover, the fact that this education would be generously given by people who devoted their lives to God and helping others, gave strength to this educative work. Sidgwick particularly insisted on the fact that Religion, in the case of England, the Anglican Church, should remain subordinate to the State and its action should be limited to have a good moral influence on the people and encourage them to respect the government and the democratic institutions. Henry Sidgwick would probably have preferred everyone to have a personal theistic, moral education rather than a religious, institutional education but in his times it seemed very difficult to accomplish, and the solution of a moral education by the Church appeared to be the only possible one.

Hortense Geninet shows that the concept of individualism was very important in The Elements of Politics. Henry Sidgwick believed that each human being was sufficiently self-conscious to know what is best for himself. Therefore, governmental interference in people's lives should be for protection of the individual and property, any other governmental intervention would be considered as paternalistic or socialistic. Sidgwick believed that if the government allowed everyone to make his own mistakes it would bring individual prudence and happiness. This individual happiness would lead to the happiness of the community and the nation. The aim of Sidgwick's politics in The Elements of Politics was to attain the happiness of society.

The author also shows that the central social and economic notions of Sidgwick's politics are the concept of property and contract, the former depending on the latter. Why did Sidgwick consider the notion of property to be so important? Because he was convinced that it would contribute in maintaining the sovereignty of the state over its citizens. In fact, there can be no sovereignty if there is no obedience, and to obtain obedience the state needs to make people's individual business depend on the individual obedience to the state. In fact, the only way for someone to keep his property is to respect the law which maintains peace within the state. Individual development can only happen and continue if the nation is peacefully governed. Sovereignty of the government is maintained by individualism and the promotion of property, encouraging people to obey the government and keep their property in peaceful coexistence.

The importance of maintaining peace is highly developed in The Elements of Politics both on a national scale in the form of the promotion of property and on an international scale as the need for free commercial trade and free circulation of people in Europe. To maintain these commercial exchanges, Europe should be at peace, therefore, he thought of creating a European Federation which would act as an arbiter between conflicting countries wanting to solve their disagreements through war. This aspect, too, highlights the accurate, analytic precision, the prophetic intuition, the great, moral sensitivity and the cosmic, theistic harmonisation of Sidgwick’s philosophy.

Sidgwick thinking HENRY SIDGWICK (english) Henry Sidgwick





















































First Book in French about SIDGWICK

Henry Sidgwick et la politique moderne dans les "Eléments Politiques"

Hortense GENINET

The book is available:
Librairie Vrin, Place de la Sorbonne, Paris Vè
Librairie DALLOZ, rue Soufflot, Paris V
Librairis Compagnie, rue des Ecoles, Paris V
Toute la Presse, Grande Rue,Château-thierry 02400
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©2008-2009 Hortense Geninet