The passport

The etymology of the word ‘passport’, a combination of the words ‘pass’ and ‘port’, gives the idea of ​​the original role of the passport, an authorization for the entry of a ship into a port. Although the passport or ‘passe-porte’ appeared around 1500, that does not mean that before that ships could dock wherever they wanted. The ancient civilizations of the Middle East had records of vessel control since the invention of writing, some three thousand years ago.

In Europe, the passport has evolved through three phases. In its first phase, it evolved from a ship-to-port authorization to an authorization for the transit of cargo. In the second phase, it became a document of introduction, protection and facilitation of persons, although with a very restricted use. Only in the last and third phase, which began at the end of the seventeenth century, the passport became a document accessible to ordinary people, which served not only to identify the bearer as a citizen of a particular country, but also to ensure a safe exit and re-entry into a country. As this took place, various governments created civilian and military authorities specifically to check travellers’ passports.

The safe-passes

The historical record shows that specific authorizations for persons have also existed for more than three thousand years. In Europe, the passport was preceded by the safe-conduct, sauf-conduit or laissez-passer, used to ensure that an emissary from a particular country entered another country for a specific purpose. An example was that of the ambassadors, who did not reside in the foreign country, but who were sent there to carry out some diplomatic mission. Another example was that of the messengers of an enemy country, who were given a safe-conduct in order to negotiate the cessation of hostilities. The feudal system employed the system of safe-conduct for the serfs, who needed it in order to leave their master’s property. Religious pilgrims travelling to a particular place were also required to carry a safe-conduct document. An evidence of the requirement of safe-conduct for religious pilgrims is the clandestine voyage of a group of English Puritans from Grimsby and Hull to Holland in 1608 on a Dutch ship. Such a group made history when it returned to England in 1620 in order to embark on the Mayflower, which was waiting for them in Plymouth, from which it sailed to New England in the beginning of September and arrived in Cape Cod on November 9th.

In Britain, there are several other records that Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was accustomed to receiving passport applications. A Spanish ambassador about to leave Britain asked Elizabeth I to grant, as a farewell gift, passports to Flanders for all Catholic monks, priests and nuns who had lost their positions after Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church. In 1559, when the Englishman James Hamilton arrived in England after escaping from a French prison, the French requested his extradition, but Elizabeth I issued him a false passport and sent him to Scotland on a mission to insufflate riots. Elizabeth I used her power to give or deny passports at her pleasure. She refused to issue a passport to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was in France on the occasion of the death of her mother, Mary of Guise, who ruled Scotland as regent. Upon receiving the refusal, Mary decided to travel to Scotland directly, thus beginning the chain of clashes with Elizabeth I that culminated with her execution in the Tower of London.

As shown above, since the Tudor era, Britain already had a passport system for people. However, in this system, passports were still rare documents that required the authorization of the sovereign or a high court dignitary. Similar situations occurred throughout Europe, where the evolution of the passport was finally completed at the end of the seventeenth century. However, each country had a different system of passport issuance and control. The application for a passport to travel from one country to another also required a visa from the country of destination, another bureaucracy that also varied from country to country.

In England, the passport issuing system was highly bureaucratic, but the system of passport control was quite liberal. In order to receive an English passport, the applicant needed to know the Foreign Secretary in person, or someone who knew him, or to have a recommendation from a reputable bank. However, foreign visitors could travel within the country without having to present their passports in every city they visited.

The system in France was the opposite of England. The issuance of passports was liberal, but passport control was highly bureaucratic. When a traveller disembarked in any port of France, he would present his passport which was sent to Paris and the traveller received a substitute. Upon arriving at the capital, the visitor was then required to attend a police station (préfecture de police) so that his original passport received visas for the next cities to be visited. In each city, the hotel management was required to present their guests’ passports to the local police station to be checked and annotated.

The first passports

The first passports consisted of a statement on a single sheet of paper, with no description of the bearer’s appearance. The passport applicant was not required to be a citizen of the country issuing the passport. It was a common practice for French and Belgian consulates to issue passports to British citizens. The latter opted for French and Belgian passports because they were cheaper and easier to obtain than English passports. For example, when in 1846 the English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning fled to get married, they probably left the country using a French passport (Lloyd 2003). The first English passports intended for the ordinary public did not even have the bearer’s name, stating merely that the bearer was an English citizen.

In Britain, the huge increase in the demand for passports led the government to increase the list of people who could give recommendations to passport applicants; this went on to include mayors, district judges and the justices of the peace. At the time, the price of a British passport was six shillings (30 cents), regardless of how many people were on the passport.

In the seventeenth century, each one of the 13 British colonies of New England issued their own passports, which served only for internal travel. A Virginia-based individual who wanted to visit another colony needed a passport of that type, and one of the requirements to get it was to put banns of the intended trip on the local church door for two weeks to prove that the individual had no debt. This system remained in place until the American War of Independence. In the New England colonies, anyone wishing to travel outside the country needed an ordinary passport issued in England and sent to America by means of instructions from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, who were members of the High Command of the Royal British Navy.

At the end of its War of Independence, the United States of America began to issue its own passports. Benjamin Franklin (1730-90), who was the representative of the United States in France, based on the French passport system in order to create the American system. Franklin, who was also a professional printer, printed some of the first American passports in a printing shop in his own home. Although the United States was already a federation, its various states continued to issue their own ‘departmental passports’. In 1856, the American congress passed a law appointing the State Department as the sole authority to issue passports in the country. The American passports, which until then were issued for free, started to be charged. The issuance rate of a passport was one dollar ($1).

The modern passport

The end of the custom of countries issuing passports to citizens of other countries gave rise to the modern passport. It took an international incident to make that happen. Such an incident was a bombing in Paris, in 1858, when an Italian terrorist, who had entered France with an English passport, obtained in the name of another person, attempted to assassinate the Emperor Napoleon III. As a result of this incident, France announced that it would no longer provide passports to British citizens. England, for its part, was obliged to improve its mechanism for the issue of passports.

The age of travel

The social pressure in the eighteenth century that forced the countries of Europe to put in place a system of passports issuing was the Industrial Revolution. Although the Industrial Revolution occurred simultaneously in several countries of Europe, it was in England that the transformation of the means of production occurred with greater vigour and expediency. In England, industrialization spawned two new classes, that of industrial workers (working class) and that of industry owners (middle class). The emergence of a middle class with aspiration to travel, and with purchasing power for such, created a new industry: tourism.

The invention of steam locomotives in 1804 eventually led to the creation of railways, which accelerated the industrial process and the new tourism industry. The first railroad in England, established in 1825, linked the coal mines of Durham to the coast. The railroads soon began to be used as public transport. Rail transport for people and cargo has spread throughout Europe, the United States and the rest of the world. Shipping has also been transformed with the invention of steamships.

One of the difficulties travellers had to face was the fulfilment of the different requirements of the hundreds of principalities and the dozens of free European city-states, each with different degrees of liberality.

The passport: suggestion or prescription?

The number of people traveling from one country to another within Europe grew dramatically with the development of rail and inland waterway transport. Traveling became something ordinary and such ordinariness caused several countries to relax the control of entries and exits. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) wrote in 1941 that he did not need passports when he travelled to India and the United States in 1915, and that he had never seen a passport before then.

The more liberal countries began to treat the passport as an informal prescription, allowing people with good aspect to cross their borders without being bothered. In other countries, however, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Turkey, the passport continued to be taken quite seriously.

The relaxed control of entries and exits ceased after the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, when passports or other ‘temporary’ travel documents were routinely employed. In Europe, border control increased in waterways, railways and roads.

The writer Elias Canetti recounts the difficulties he and his mother had when crossing borders during a trip they made from Vienna to their native Bulgaria in the summer of 1915, especially in the Balkan countries. His mother, whose maiden name was Mathilde Arditti, had had an Italian passport as a child, but on the trip, both she and her 10-year-old son had Turkish passports. Knowing the lack of food in Vienna, Canetti’s mother obtained a chest full of dehydrated vegetables to take back to Vienna. At the Predeal station, in Romania, the customs officers did not like their Turkish passports and decided to inspect their luggage, and for that they put all the contents of the trunk into the platform while making a mockery of it. The act was clearly an abuse of authority, as the passengers were there only in transit. Soon the steam which they were supposed to take began to signal that it was about to leave, and Canetti’s mother was forced to leave everything behind.

The photo passport

Although photography was invented in the early 19th century, it was only in 1915 that Britain introduced a new model of passport with space for a photograph of the bearer. In 1917, the United States also introduced a new passport format with a space for a photograph. When photographs were first introduced into passports, they could vary. Only later, the passport photographs were standardized.

The International Civil Aviation Organization – ICAO

After the end of the war, the newly created League of Nations met in 1920, specifically to discuss the issuing of passports and make recommendations on that. The United Nations, which in 1946 replaced the League of Nations, established in that same year the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which assumed the mandate to prescribe international passport standards. It was also ICAO which decided on the international standards for biometric passports, which are referred to as ‘machine-readable travel documents’ (MRTD). Due to the ease introduced by technology, the cost of renewing passports has greatly decreased. The expected trend is for such savings to be passed on to those requesting the renewal of their passports, as the United States already do.

Cost and duration of passports

The issuance of passports is a service, so it is natural for countries to charge a fee for such service. As already seen, from 1856 the American government started to charge for issuing passports, the amount of  one dollar. Nowadays, an American passport costs about $ 100. Political scientists call ‘rents’ the money that the government collects through direct or indirect taxes. Many governments use the passport as a rent generator, charging a higher price than it should. Evidence of this practice is the discrepancy in rates charged between countries, as shown in Table 1, below.

Table 1. Comparison of the cost and duration of adult passports around the world (approximate values in 2016, in various currencies, for passports obtained within each country).

CountryCost in various currenciesCost in US$Duration in Years
South Africa£35 (price charged at the consulate in London)$505
Argentina$(ARG) 550$3610
AustraliaAUD 127 / 254$95 / $1895 / 10
BrazilR$257 first / renewal R$334 with urgency R$514 renewal without the presentation of the old passport$68 $89 $13710
CanadaCAD 120 / 160$90 / $1205 / 10
Spain€35$395 / 10
United StatesUSD 110 first USD 30 renewal$110 $3010
France€85$945/10
Italy€116$12810
PolandPLN 140$3610
United Kingdom£72,50$10310
SwedenSEK 350$415

Passport and nationality

The common modern passport is a symbol of nationality and a proof of affiliation to a certain society. This does not mean that prior to its existence there were no other ways of establishing citizenship. In all countries where citizenship is accompanied by certain rights, there have always been ways to separate citizens from others. From the classical period of Greece and the Roman Empire to the modern nations of the West, there has been migration of individuals from one country to another, but immigrants have a lower status than the full citizens. The exception to this rule is hostile migration, or conquest, in which the conquerors become the new elite after evicting the previous elite.

Not all passports are guarantee of nationality. The former League of Nations made provisions for ‘stateless’ people to obtain emergency travel documents and passports. When the League of Nations was dissolved and the United Nations created, the latter took on the same responsibility.  On 28 March 1959, in Geneva, the United Nations organized a convention for the reduction of statelessness, which was concluded in New York, on 30 August 1961. The stateless condition prevents people from gaining access to basic human rights. It is estimated that there are more than 10 million stateless people around the world, and in Europe alone the estimated number is 600 thousand.

There are two accepted principles of proof of nationality: jus soli and jus sanguinis. According to the jus soli principle, nationality is based on the place of birth, and according to  the jus sanguinis principle, nationality is based on parenthood. Today, most countries adopt a mixture of these two principles, not giving or denying nationality just because one was born in a determined country. There are many situations that cause an individual to become ‘stateless’, but the most common cause are the loopholes in nationality legislation, including the discrimination against women, when they are barred from transmitting nationality. Another cause is when a person moves to another country where he or she does not qualify for naturalization, and, at the same time, is unable to meet the bureaucratic demands of their country of origin. A third reason is when a country withdraw the citizenship of their own citizens.

There are special circumstances in which an individual, in spite of being a citizen of a particular country, is in a situation where he can not obtain a passport from his own country. In 1914, when Britain had declared war on Germany, the United States consulate in Germany granted emergency passports to British citizens who were in that country.

The passport as an instrument of repression or coercion

The purpose of the passport is to facilitate an international trip. However, such objective is often overlooked when a country uses the passport to show power, persecute enemies or coerce citizens into something unconnected with travel.

In 1837, in Fiume, now Rijeka, Croatia, when the English deputy consul went to inquire into the situation of an English citizen accused of traveling with a false passport, he was shocked to find him arrested and in chains. In examining the defendant’s passport, the deputy consul found that it was genuine. The passport had been printed during the reign of William IV, but due to the king’s sudden death, the printed name of the king was strikethrough and on top of it written the name of the new sovereign, Queen Victoria. The vice-consul’s explanation was not enough for the overzealous immigration officers in Fiume, who pointed to two more discrepancies in the passport: the description of the person as lieutenant-colonel and gentleman at the same time, and the title of Reverend. The British Vice-Consul had to explain that in England one could be an army officer and a gentleman, and, that the person being held had the title of Reverend because he had been ordained by the Anglican Church, in which there is no impediment to the marriage of priests.

The above described incident at Fiume had a mitigating factor in the country’s civilizational backwardness. In the early nineteenth century, France used the passport as a tool of repression without any mitigating factor. Napoleon’s police minister, Joseph Fouché (1763-1820), was known for an inflexibility that was close to fanaticism, in the exercise of his function. When Madame de Stael, the daughter of Louis XVI’s former finance minister, became a disaffection of Napoleon for her political views, Napoleon not only banned her from Paris, but also coerced Poland not to stamp her passport, which prevented her from staying in that country for a few days as she had planned, during a trip to Russia. Difficulties with obtaining passports were also imposed on her family and friends.

Even in the twentieth century, the passport continued to serve as an instrument of repression and coercion. Cuba, in the 1970s, issued passports which allowed citizens to leave the country but did not allow them to return. Cuba’s recent political openness is still a question mark regarding the freedom to enter and leave the country.

The United States, through its State Department, revoked the passport of Edward Snowden, due to the fact that he had placed classified documents of the country on the internet. There are other similar cases where passports have been revoked for reasons of national security. For Professor Patrick Weil, a legal expert, a such a revocation violates a citizen’s right to have a passport to confirm his or her legal identity while abroad, a right protected by Amendment 14 of the United States Constitution.

Conclusion

The modern passport is a symbol of nationality and a proof of affiliation to a particular society, and for this reason, deserves the respect of all. The State, as society’s manager, must treat the passport according to its greater purpose of facilitating international travel.


[i] This essay is an improved version of another that was first published in 2011 in the online magazine PortVitoria.

[ii] BCE: abbreviation of Before the Common Era; CE: abbreviation of Common Era.

[iii] Atticus is a metaphor for  ‘good lawyer’ or ‘good counsellor’,  as it comes from Titus Pomponius Atticus (110-132 BCE), a friend and advisor to Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-143 BCE).

Note. This essay was taken from Joaquina Pires-O’Brien’s O homem razoável, on sale at Amazon.

Friedrich Hayek: the philosopher of freedom

Both in his work and in his life, Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) showed what freedom is. In both, Hayek defended freedom against those who did not mind exchanging it for things which he perceived to be secondary. Hayek was born and raised in Vienna, Austria, in a family that was Catholic and full of intellectuals. His father and grandfather were both biologists and botanists, and through them, Hayek captured the essence of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. As if these were not enough, he was the cousin of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). It is natural that Hayek benefited from the intellectual wealth of both his family and Viennese society. After fighting in the first World War, Hayek completed two university courses at the University of Vienna, one in law and another in economics. Subsequently, he obtained a doctorate in economics at the same university, under the guidance of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), a specialist in economic cycles and one of the last members of the original group of the ‘Austrian school of economics’, which exerted a worldwide influence on the latter decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century.

When Hayek came to London in 1931 to teach at the London School of Economics and Political Science, he noted in Britain the growing popularity of socialism and a disregard for the traditional values ​​of freedom. Hayek knew that other nations that had gone down this path found totalitarianism[i] and felt that he had an obligation to warn the British people. The reason for this wandering off was the same throughout Europe: the economic depression resulting from Wall Street’s Black Friday in New York during November 1929.

The Black Friday of 1929 made most of the intellectuals inside and outside the academy believe that the economic system of capitalism had reached the end of the line. Hayek saw the cyclical character of Black Friday and the resulting depression. Having this long vision, Hayek soon recognized that the perplexities of the time – the economic depression of the 1930s – required time for reflection.

In the 1930s, the ‘publish or perish’ dictum was already in place in the leading academic institutions. However, the fact that most scholars were besotted by socialism – a fact evidenced by the enormous growth in the number of left wing academic journals – could be a barrier for articles with dissonant ideas to be published. Hayek had already published a book and several articles in German, but now that he lived in England he had to publish in English. There were, at the time, two periodicals of prestige considered liberal. The first was The Fortnightly Review[ii], a biweekly magazine, founded in 1865 by the writer Anthony Trollope, to counterbalance the partisanship of journalism at the time. The second was Contemporary Review, a monthly magazine, founded in 1866 by Alexander Strahan, with the aim of promoting independent and intelligent opinion on the great themes of the day. In April 1938, Hayek published in Contemporary Review the essay ‘Freedom and the Economic System’, alerting the British public on the threat that socialism represented to the freedom that until then had been taken for granted. Hayek developed the ideas of this essay, and the result was his book The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944.

In this book, Hayek examines the arguments in favour of socialism and concludes that its only positive thing is the more equitable distribution of wealth caused by the abolition of income differences that are seen in capitalist society. However, he pointed out as a disadvantage, the cost of such a system in terms of personal freedom, which is rarely mentioned. For Hayek, economic planning and the manipulation of the economy, as an alternative of leaving it under the forces of competition, are the most pernicious aspects of socialism. In his view,

“to direct all our activities according to a single plan presupposes that every one of our needs is given its rank in an order of values, which must be complete enough to make it possible to decide between all the different courses between which the planner has to choose. It presupposes, in short, the existence of a complete ethical code in which all the different human values ​​are allotted their due place.”

Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom criticizes not only socialism and the totalitarian governments, but also democracy. It shows how democracy is often misunderstood: “Many think it is an end in itself, but it is a means to something far higher than freedom”. It shows the varieties of democratic governments and explains why they also need to have power limiting parameters; it also explains why democracy does not necessarily imply individual freedom. Finally, it shows the misunderstanding of the economic systems of capitalism and socialism:

“The choice open to us is not between a system in which everybody will get what he deserves according to some absolute and universal standard of right, and one where the individual shares are determined partly by accident or good or ill chance, but between a system where it is the will of a few persons that decides who is to get what, and one where it depends at least partly on the ability and enterprise of the people concerned and partly on unforeseeable circumstances.”

The liberals of the eighteenth century were the first to defend the idea that the free market was superior to the centrally controlled market. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek reintroduces this thesis along with an idea of ​​his own, showing that the attempts to exercise central control of the economy lead to the loss of individual freedom, that is, to totalitarianism. The idea of ​​the free market of Hayek and the eighteenth-century liberals does not mean that governments can not intervene in the economy; it simply means that the level of government interference in the economy should  be minimal.

Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom showed his vast knowledge in the field of philosophy, a discipline in which he became interested from a young age, inspired by the philosopher and physicist Ernst Mach (1938-1916), known for his influence with the Vienna Circle, as well as for its role in bridging the gap that then existed between science and philosophy. Undoubtedly, this book was an important factor in Hayek’s academic change when he left the field of economic theory and moved to the field of political philosophy[iii], where he remained for the rest of his life.

One year after the publication of The Road to Serfdom, World War II ended, creating the necessary conjuncture for the return of economic growth that would culminate in the ‘golden decade’ of the 1950s. The economic system of capitalism had not reached the end of the line as so many had thought. Hayek’s insight was recognized, and The Road to Serfdom was a huge success in the United States, to where Hayek moved in 1950, after being invited to teach at the University of Chicago.

Hayek was appointed professor of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. It is stated in his biography that he did not enter the Department of Economics, because he was barred by one of its members, due to his way of thinking according to the ‘School of Austrian economics’. In 1960, Hayek published The Constitution of Liberty, a book that was highly praised by academic critics and considered his most important work. Despite its success in academia, the book failed to repeat the success of The Road to Serfdom with the public.

In 1962, Hayek exchanged the University of Chicago for the University of Freiburg, Germany, where he remained until his retirement in 1968. According to his biographers, Hayek went through a period of depression after his retirement. However, since people’s lives also have their cycles, everything improved after 1974, the year in which Hayek shared with the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal (1898-1987) the Nobel Prize in Economics, for showing the interdependence between social factors and cycles, and the fallibility of the individual knowledge about these issues.

Hayek was admired by many statesmen, including Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, who remained in that post from 1979 to 1990. It is said that during one of the debating sections in the British Parliament she took out the book The Foundations of Liberty from her briefcase, and after showing it to those present, slammed it on the table and said,  “This is what we believe”. Through Thatcher’s recommendation, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Hayek a member of the Order of Companions of Honour of the Commonwealth for ‘services rendered to the study of economics’.

The ideas that Hayek recorded in The Road to Serfdom and The Foundations of Freedom are still current in the twenty-first century; and they continue to persuade young people around the world to opt for the path of freedom.


[i] The term ‘totalitarianism’ designates the political regime in which the state controls the entire life of citizens and the economy, maintaining power through propaganda, personality worship, media control, and population surveillance. Who first used this term was the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt, in the book The concept of the political (1927). During the Cold War, it was used to designate the regime of the Soviet Union.

[ii] Unfortunately The Fourthnightly Review ceased to be published in 1954, when it was incorporated into Contemporary Review which ceased publication in December 2012 (when it was already quarterly). Contemporary Review is also the magazine where the author of this book (JPO) published several essays and reviews, from 1999 to 2008. A new series of The Fourthnightly Review resurfaced in electronic form in 2014: http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/about /.

[iii] This change in field serves to demonstrate the enormous freedom of action of the British and American higher education institutions.

Note. From my book “O Homem Razoável”, on sale at Amazon.

The reasonable man

Jo Pires-O’Brien

One of the many curiosities of English and Welsh law which I encountered while working as a court interpreter in England is the use of the concept of ‘the reasonable man’ in the characterization of crimes based on an expectation of behaviour. For example, in a case of negligence, the expected pattern of behaviour of ‘the reasonable man’ helps the magistrate to evaluate the conduct of a defendant. Another example would be a case of slander  in which the perspective of ‘the reasonable man’ is applied to determine whether the saying in question is indeed defamatory. In England, this hypothetical character is also described as ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’[i], an individual of a reasonable educational level, although noting out of the ordinary.

The importance of this hypothetical reasonable man in the law of England and Wales has much to do with the tradition of common law in these countries. Even in cases where such common laws have been replaced by ordinary laws, many peculiarities of the former have been preserved in the latter, as is the case with ‘the reasonable man’. Such a concept is used both in criminal and civil proceedings and in contractual law, but especially in the topic of ​​negligence in the area of ​​tort. To characterize a crime of negligence in England and Wales, there is no need to prove malice: it suffices to show that the precautions expected from ‘the reasonable man’ were not employed. However, it is accepted that ‘the reasonable man’ does not know everything, and therefore, can make ‘reasonable’ mistakes.

Despite the expectations surrounding the hypothetical ‘reasonable man, this does not mean that there is a uniform pattern of conduct: less is expected from a child than an adult, and more from an adult in a privileged position than an ordinary adult. Therefore, if we ask ‘what is the expected behaviour of a reasonable individual in a given situation?’, the answer will depend on the circumstances of the defendant in question.

In England and Wales the concept of the reasonable man is also employed in the writing of codes of ethics for companies and organizations. In the face of a decision on ethics, one of the first questions asked is ‘what would the reasonable man do in this situation?’ As in the law, the standard of conduct is not fixed. The higher the individual’s place in the work hierarchy, the greater the seriousness of misconduct, such as insulting someone.

The concept of the reasonable man is not unique to England and Wales for it occurs throughout the Anglophone world. ‘The average man’ is the alternative to ‘the reasonable man’ in the rest of the world.

Genealogy of the idea of the reasonable man

The idea of ​​a reasonable man can be traced back to antiquity. The correspondent of reasonableness in ancient Greece was phronēsis (φρόνησις), or practical wisdom; the reasonable man of ancient Greece was the man of phronesis. In his book Menon, Plato shows a dialogue of Socrates in which he states that phronesis is the most important attribute to learn, although it can not be taught and has to be acquired through self-development. For Socrates, the man who possessed phronesis was the one who could discern how and why to act virtuously, and who would also encourage this practical virtue on other people.

Aristotle also deals with phronesis in his Nicomachean Ethics (Book 6) where he contrasts phronēsis with sophia (σοφία). Although the former was associated with practical wisdom and the latter with theoretical wisdom, both are intellectual virtues. For Aristotle, phronesis is not a mere skill (technē), for it also involves the ability to think rationally.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the philosopher Baruch Espinosa (1632-77) wrote that there is nothing more useful in the world than a reasonable man. Spinoza defined the reasonable man as the one who cultivates self-knowledge. For him, such an objective does not make the individual more special or less human, but perfectly human. The more reasonable men are, the more useful they are to society. By the same token, society is all the more virtuous the greater its wealth in reasonable citizens.

The Belgian mathematician and astronomer Adolphe Jacques Quételet (1796-1874) deals with the hypothetical average man in his book Sur l’homme (1835; in English, A treatise on man and the development of his faculties, 1842). In this book, Quételet shows a large number of tables of physical characteristics and observable behaviours. However, the mental characteristics of the man that Quételet describes are not based on measurements of any nature.

Quételet presumes an average hypothetical individual who represents the mind of the people. The hypothetical average individual possesses all possible qualities, although in a latent state. It also presumes a hypothetical perfect individual in which all qualities latent in the average individual are realized, recognizing, however, that such an individual does not exist in reality.

“The natural consequence of the ideas which I have just stated, is, that an individual who should comprise in himself (in his own person), at a given period, all the qualities of the average man, would at the same time represent all which is grand, beautiful, and excellent. But such an identity can scarcely be realized, and it is rarely granted to individual men to resemble this type of perfection, except in a greater or less number of points”.

Quételet considers that the mental capacity of the hypothetical average individual lies between two extreme parameters of mental capacity, that is, it lies within the same normal curve proved by the sampling of measurable characteristics. He develops his reasoning by describing these two extremes: “Just as there are those who represent it less clearly, more confusingly and imperfectly, so there are also those who represent it more clearly and perfectly, and less confusingly”.

A third hypothetical individual of Quételet is the great man (grand homme), whom he defines as the man who possesses a good deal of individuality and a harmonious union of the particular and the general. His speculation goes too far when he claims to believe that there is a close connection between the physical and moral characteristics of man, citing as an example the observation that civilized man is generally stronger than the wild man. Quételet planted the seeds of eugenics with this observation. It is curious that a polymath like him, who underlines the harmony between the particular and the general has broken this harmony, particularizing excessively the generalization of mens sana in corpore sano. Despite such failure, Quételet left an important legacy to statistics and the humanities.

The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) created hypothetical individuals which he describes in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus), first published as a two-part article in 1904-5 . Weber’s ‘ideal type’ is a hypothetical individual, constructed from certain elements of reality, which presents the expected typical behaviours. Weber did not just create a hypothetical individual, but many, such as ‘the charismatic leader’, the ‘exemplary prophet’ and ‘the economic man’.

The concept of the reasonable man is part of the tradition of legislators in England, Wales and many other countries – taking into account the way of thinking of both luminaries and ordinary citizens. This tradition has paid off in the past and therefore deserves to continue. To throw away this tradition just because it has some ambiguities is to throw away the baby along with the bath water.

The individuals who are followers of the doctrine of cultural relativism do not accept the idea of ​​a standard of conduct, let alone that such idea is used in judicial trials. There is a relativistic attack on the use of the concept of reasonable man in law, and no one knows if it will prevail.


[i] Borrow of the Greater London situated south of the Thames.

Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and Its Discontents — David Labaree on Schooling, History, and Writing

This post is an essay by political scientist Francis Fukuyama about the challenges facing liberal democracy today from populisms of the left and right.  The original appeared in the on-line journal, American Purpose, which he helped found.   A large number of essays have emerged in recent years worrying about the future of liberal democracy, but […]

Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and Its Discontents — David Labaree on Schooling, History, and Writing

You’re So Wrong, Richard Feynman — The Multidisciplinarian

“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”   This post is more thoughts on the minds of interesting folk who can think from a variety of perspectives, inspired by Bruce Vojak’s Epistemology of Innovation articles. This is loosely related to systems thinking, design thinking, or – more from […]

You’re So Wrong, Richard Feynman — The Multidisciplinarian

7 Influential Ideas from the Enlightenment — Understanding Now

It can be hard to imagine how ideas that emerged over two hundred years ago still have so much relevance today, but the Age of Enlightenment was a time that gave the Western world many of the values it looks up to today. During the 17th and 18th centuries, academics, scientists and philosophers were coming […]

7 Influential Ideas from the Enlightenment — Understanding Now