Helvetius Essay III- XIX



Though the viziers, it is objected, may not find it for their interest to improve their minds, yet it is most certainly for the interest of the public, that they should not be ignorant, since every nation desires to be well governed: what then is the reason, that no citizen in those countries has the virtue to reproach the viziers for their ignorance and injustice, and to force them by the fear of contempt to become good citizens? It is because the property of despotic power is to debase and degrade the mind.

In states where the law alone dispenses punishments and rewards, and where obedience is paid to none but the laws, the virtuous, dwelling in safety, contract a boldness and firmness of soul, that cannot subsist in a country which is the seat of despotic power, where property, life, and liberty, depend on the caprice* and arbitrary will of one man. In these countries it would be as imprudent to be virtuous, as it would have been to be viscious in Crete and Lacedemon. There no man rises up against injustice, and, rather than applaud it, cries with, the philosopher Philoxenes, “Let me be carried back to the quarries.”

* We can find no instance in Turkey like that which happened in Scotland, of the laws punishing the sovereign for an act of injustice committed against a subject. At Malcolm.s accession to the throne of Scotland, a nobleman presented to him the patent of his privileges, entreating his majesty to confirm them: but the king took the patent, and tore it in pieces. The nobleman complained of this to the parliament, who decreed, that the king should sit on his throne, and in the presence of the whole court stitch the nobleman.s patent together with a needle and thread.

In these governments, how difficult would it be to be virtuous? To what dangers would a person of probity be exposed? Suppose a man in love with virtue; would we have such a man perceive, that the injustice or incapacity of the viziers or satraps was the cause of the miseries of the public, and yet be silent? this would be a contradiction. Besides, a mute probity would here be of no use. The more virtuous this man was, the more eager would he be to point out him on whom the national contempt ought to fall: and I even maintain, that he ought to do it. Now, from the injustice and weakness of a vizier invested, as I have said above, with the power necessary to condemn merit to the greatest torments, this man would be so much the sooner delivered to the mutes, in proportion to his being more the friend of virtue than of his country.

As Nero, when on the stage, extorted the applauses of the spectators, more barbarous than himself; so the viziers require the praises of even those they use ill, and overload with taxes. They are like Tiberius, under whose reign the sighs and cries of the unhappy wretches under oppression were construed to proceed from a factious spirit, because every thing is criminal, says Suetonius, under a prince who is constantly stung with his own guilt.

There is not a vizier, who would not reduce mankind to the condition of those ancient Persians, who, being cruelly whipped by the order of their prince, were obliged to appear before him: “We come,” said they, “to thank thee for having condescended to remember us.”

The noble boldness of a citizen, so virtuous as to reproach the viziers for their ignorance and injustice, ‘would be soon followed by his punishment*, to which nobody would expose themselves. Nobody, you will say, but the brave man, the hero. He might do it, I reply, when supported by the hope of esteem and glory; but, if he is deprived of this hope, his courage abandons him. Among a slavish people, the name of factious is given to a generous citizen; and there will be found those who approve his punishment. There is no crime on which praise is not lavished, in a state where an abject mean* ness is become the mode. “If the plague,” says Gordon, “had garters, pensions, and ribbons, to bestow, there are churchmen vile enough, and civilians base enough, to main* tain, that the plague reigns by divine right; and that to withdraw ourselves from its malignant influences is a sin against God.” It is then more prudent in these countries to be the accomplice than the accuser of knaves; for virtue and talents are always the but of tyranny.

* When a vizier commits a fault during his administration, if the public suffer by it, the people complain, and the vizier’s pride is offended: but, so far is he from changing his measures, and trying by a better conduct to calm their too just complaints, that he solely employs himself in methods of imposing silence on the citizens. These methods of force exasperate them, and they redouble their cries: the vizier has then only two parts to take, cither to expose the state to revolutions, or to carry despotic power to that excess which always threatens the ruin of empires. This last choice is most commonly preferred by the viziers.

On the conquest of India by Thamas Kouli Khan, the only man worthy of esteem, whom that prince found in the Mogul’s empire, was one named Mahmouth, and this Mahmouth was banished.

In countries subject to a despotic government, the love of the esteem and acclamations of the people is so criminal, that the prince always punishes those who obtain them. Agricola, after having triumphed over the Britons, in order to escape the applauses of the people, as well as the fury of Domitian, passed the streets of Rome in the night, in his way to the emperor’s palace: the prince embraced him coldly: Agricola retired; and the conqueror of Briton, says Tacitus, was instantly lost in the crowd of other slaves.

In those unhappy times, one might have cried out at Rome, with Brutus, “O virtue, thou art but an empty name [” How can we expect to find it amongst a people who live in perpetual agonies, and whose minds, being broke with fear, hava lost all their force and vigour? Among such people, we only meet with powerful insolence, and abject dastard!)* slaves. What picture can be more humbling to human nature than the audience of a vizier, when, with a grave and stupid air of importance, he advances into the midst of a crowd of clients, who, grave, mute, and immoveable, with their eyes fixed and cast down, wait trembling for the favour of a look*, nearly in the attitude of those bramins, who, with their eyes fixed on the end of their noses, wait for the blue and divine flame with which Heaven is to bestow its illuminations, and whose appearance, according to them, is to raise them to the dignity of a pagod!

* The vizier himself never enter! the divan, when the sultan it there, without trembling.

When we see merit thus humbled before an ignorant vizier, or even a despicable eunuch, we cannot help calling to mind the ridiculous veneration in which cranes are held at Japan, where the name of that bird is never uttered without its being preceded by O-thurisama, or, my lord.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: