Source of "On Art" is

The Internet Wiretap online edition of


Harvard Classics Volume 25
Copyright 1909 P.F. Collier & Son

Prepared by

About the online edition.

This was scanned from the 1909 edition and mechanically
checked against a commercial copy of the text from CDROM.
Differences were corrected against the paper edition. The
text itself is thus a highly accurate rendition. The
footnotes were entered manually.

This text is in the PUBLIC DOMAIN, released September 1993.

most intolerant of churches, the Roman Catholic Church,
even at the canonization of a saint, admits, and listens
patiently to, a "devil's advocate." The holiest of men, it
appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honors, until all
that the devil could say against him is known and weighed.
If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be
questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance
of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have
most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a stand-
ing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.
If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the at-
tempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we
have done the best that the existing state of human reason
admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the
truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we
may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found
when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in
the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach
to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount
of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the
sole way of attaining it.

it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine
(be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infalli-
bility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for
others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on
the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pre-
tension not the less, if put forth on the side of my most
solemn convictions. However positive any one's persuasion
may be, not only of the falsity, but of the pernicious conse-
quences--not only of the pernicious consequences, but (to
adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the im-
morality and impiety of an opinion; yet if, in pursuance of
that private judgment, though backed by the public judg-
ment of his country or his contemporaries, he prevents the
opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infalli-
bility. And so far from the assumption being less objec-
tionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called
immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which
it is most fatal. These are exactly the occasions on which
the men of one generation commit those dreadful mistakes
which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity. It
is among such that we find the instances memorable in his-
tory, when the arm of the law has been employed to root
out the best men and the noblest doctrines; with deplorable
success as to the men, though some of the doctrines have
survived to be (as if in mockery) invoked, in defence of
similar conduct towards those who dissent from them, or
from their received interpretation.

To abate the force of these considerations, an enemy
of free discussion may be supposed to say, that there is no
necessity for mankind in general to know and understand
all that can be said against or for their opinions by philos-
ophers and theologians. That it is not needful for common
men to be able to expose all the misstatements or fallacies
of an ingenious opponent. That it is enough if there is
always somebody capable of answering them, so that nothing
likely to mislead uninstructed persons remains unrefuted.
That simple minds, having been taught the obvious grounds
of the truths inculcated on them, may trust to authority for
the rest, and being aware that they have neither knowledge
nor talent to resolve every difficulty which can be raised,
may repose in the assurance that all those which have been
raised have been or can be answered, by those who are
specially trained to the task.

We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well-
being of mankind (on which all their other well-being de-
pends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expres-
sion of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will
now briefly recapitulate.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion
may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this
is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may,
and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and
since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is
rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision
of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any
chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true,
but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually
is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of
those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice,
with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.
And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine
itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and
deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct:
the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious
for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the
growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or
personal experience.

It will not be denied
by anybody, that originality is a valuable element in human
affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover
new truths, and point out when what were once truths
are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and
set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better
taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be gainsaid
by anybody who does not believe that the world has already
attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true
that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by every-
body alike: there are but few persons, in comparison with
the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by
others, would be likely to be any improvement on established
practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without
them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is
it they who introduce good things which did not before
exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already
existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would
human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason
why those who do the old things should forget why they
are done, and do them like cattle, not like human beings?
There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and
practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there
were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring origi-
nality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices
from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would
not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and
there would be no reason why civilization should not die
out, as in the Byzantine Empire. Persons of genius, it is
true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority;
but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the
soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely
in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex
vi termini, more individual than any other people--less
capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurt-
ful compression, into any of the small number of moulds
which society provides in order to save its members the
trouble of forming their own character. If from timidity
they consent to be forced into one of these moulds, and to
let all that part of themselves which cannot expand under
the pressure remain unexpanded, society will be little the
better for their genius. If they are of a strong character,
and break their fetters they become a mark for the society
which has not succeeded in reducing them to common-place,
to point at with solemn warning as "wild," "erratic," and
the like; much as if one should complain of the Niagara
river for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a
Dutch canal.

I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius,
and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both
in thought and in practice, being well aware that no one
will deny the position in theory, but knowing also that almost
every one, in reality, is totally indifferent to it. People
think genius a fine thing if it enables a man to write an
exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense,
that of originality in thought and action, though no one
says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at
heart, think they can do very well without it. Unhappily
this is too natural to be wondered at. Originality is the
one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of.
They cannot see what it is to do for them: how should they?
If they could see what it would do for them, it would not
be originality. The first service which originality has to
render them, is that of opening their eyes: which being
once fully done, they would have a chance of being them-
selves original. Meanwhile, recollecting that nothing was
ever yet done which some one was not the first to do, and
that all good things which exist are the fruits of originality,
let them be modest enough to believe that there is something
still left for it to accomplish, and assure themselves that
they are more in need of originality, the less they are
conscious of the want.