Though with hindsight we may feel confident in identifying its shifts and its impact at particular moments in the century, for those living at the time it was an ill-defined thing, hovering at the edge of political relevance.Periodical essays and satirical cartoons could be taken as expressions of public opinion, of course. But it was generally simpler and safer to interpret events with reference to warring factions or individual interests.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.
Though with hindsight we may feel confident in identifying its shifts and its impact at particular moments in the century, for those living at the time it was an ill-defined thing, hovering at the edge of political relevance.Periodical essays and satirical cartoons could be taken as expressions of public opinion, of course. But it was generally simpler and safer to interpret events with reference to warring factions or individual interests.
how much more [deletion] respectable is the name of Confusius [deletion] than of any Chinese Emperor, why are so many Kings deefy’d when living forgot then dead; why is Hordie & Virgil join’d to the name of Augustus, for the self same reason of being useful, while those in oblivion are no more so.
What we have said with regard to time, will also hold with regard to distance of place; Newton is reverenc’d where the name of Cecil is unknown, & Descartes is equaly famousamongst those who never heard of a Sully nothing is more just the Works of Newton & Descartes are useful to all Europe.
To do so was to sidestep the awkward questions of who the public actually was, how its opinion could be accurately gauged and what currency it would acquire if it ever were.
It is in relation to these questions and the general ambiguity of the concept that the ‘Essay on Public Opinion’ (GEO/ADD/32/1064-70) is particularly informative.
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.However, the intention of the work in its entirety is not to rubbish the force of public opinion because of these lapses.On the contrary, it is to argue for the sound, self-interested basis of the public’s judgements, to insist on its fundamental rationality and to assert the proper value of public opinion when it is effectively balanced against other considerations.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.Its principal business is not the alteration of policy, but the crafting of reputations and the custodianship of cultural memory.The essay begins by defining public opinion, implicitly and loosely, in contrast to the agendas of individuals on one hand and ‘private Societys’ [sic] on the other.After what we have said it should follow that the memory of these great men, Generals, Politicians, & c.should far out live that of their cotemporarys, who exercis’d their tallents in Arts & Sciences the public drew no utility from; ’tis however far otherwise & the reason is plain; if we except a few great Men who have invented & perfection’d the Military Arts; orothers who have by their negociations at a fortunate crisis sav’d a falling Country, all the next ceasing at their death to be useful to the Public, share no longer its graditude or esteem; Authors on the contrary never cease to live, their Works demand esteem as long as they continue useful.This is a fairly convenient distinction but not necessarily a false one.It is startling how closely the language at this point in the essay anticipates current debates about the value of expertise in public life and the ease with which highly specialised knowledge can best be communicated to the public as a whole.