We Live In Public Essay

Transcription provided is the raw transcription, initial product of student transcribers. Download full raw transcription: RA GEO/ADD/32/1064_1070_Raw Transcription (pdf).

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

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.

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.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.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.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.Thus much of public & private judgement in general; let us now examine it with regard to particular Virtues or accomplishments. 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 intereststhe 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 withsense & understanding, the public will ever estimate according to its interest.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.


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