“Ignorance is the opiate of the poor”

Was Marx making a play on an obscure text by Soames Jenyns?

Call me an ignoramus. I never heard of Soame Jenyns, the author of an eighteenth-century deistic and anti-democratic tract Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil. He had some success in politics, but his literary fame seems to rest largely on vicious review of the Free Inquiry by Samuel Johnson, as Filmer is now known mainly as Locke’s foil. I’m not alone in my ignorance; even Jenyns’s Wikipedia entry is largely cribbed from the 11th Britannica.

But as I was reading J.H. Plumb’s The First Four Georges , a rather gripping family portrait of a rather dull family and also a painless and amusing introduction to eighteenth-century British politics, a quotation from Jenyns jumped out at me:

Ignorance is the opiate of the poor, a cordial administered by the kindly purposes of Providence.

According to Plumb, Jenyns’s point was that educating the poor would only deprive them of the ignorance that made their poverty tolerable. (Recall that the connotation of “opiate” at the time was “palliative,” not “dangerously stupefying and addictive drug.”)

Plumb does not mention the pre-echo of Marx on religion. Does any reader know whether Jenyns was sufficiently read in the nineteenth century to make it plausible that Marx might have read the Free Inquiry?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com