Helvetius Essay III- XVII



This desire derives its source from the love of pleasure, and consequently from the nature of man himself. Every one ‘would be as happy as possible;—everyone would be invested with the power of forcing men to contribute to their happiness to the utmost of their power; and for this reason everyone desires to command.

All people are either governed according to laws and established conventions, or by an arbitrary will. In the first case, the power over them is less arbitrary, and they are not under so great a necessity of pleasing the prince; besides, he that would govern a people according to their laws must know (hem, reflect upon them, and endure the fatigue of studying them,— from which indolence always seeks to be delivered. In order to gratify this indolence, he aspires to an absolute power, which, exempting him from all care, study, and the fatigue of attention, makes his fellow-creatures the abject slaves of his will.

According to Aristotle, a despotic government is that in which all men are slaves, and only one free.

This is the motive that induces every man to desire to be despotic. In order to be so, he must demolish the power both of the great and of the common people, and consequently divide the interest of the citizens. In a long succession of age’?, opportunities will offer, and almost all sovereigns, being animated by a view of their interest more lively than rational, embrace them with avidity.

On this anarchy of interests is established the despotic power of the East, resembling the picture given by Milton of the empire of Chaos, which, says he, extends its royal pavilion over a barren and wasteful abyss, where Confusion, involved in herself, maintains the anarchy and discord of the elements, and governs each atom with a sceptre of iron.

A division being once sown between the citizens, it is necessary to debase and degrade their minds, by brandishing the sword of tyranny, and making it dazzle in their eyes; to place the virtues in the rank of crimes, and to punish them as such. To what cruelties of this kind have not only the despotic power of the East, but even that of the Roman emperors, been carried? “Under the reign of Domitian,” says Tacitus, «’ the virtues were decrees of death. Rome swarmed with informers; the slave was a spy on his master, the freedman on his patron, the friend on his friend.” In those calamitous ages, the virtuous man did not advise the commission of crimes, but he was obliged to wink at them. Had he shewn more courage and firmness on such occasions, it would have been treated as a crime against the state. Among the degenerate Romans, weakness was the heroism. In that reign were punished Senecio and Rusticus, the panegyrists of the virtues of Thrasea and Helvidius; those illustrious orators were treated as criminals of state, and their works burnt by public authority. Celebrated writers, such as Pliny, were reduced to compose grammatical books, because every work, on a more elevated subject, might nave given umbrage to the tyrant, and have been dangerous to the author. The learned, who had been invited to Borne by an Augustus, a Vespasian, an Antoninus, and a Trajan, were banished by a Nero, a Caligula, a Domitian, and a Caracalla: the philosophers were driven away, and the sciences proscribed. “These tyrants,” says Tacitus, “endeavored to obliterate whatever had the marks of genius and virtue.”

By thus keeping the mind in the perpetual tremors of fear, tyranny debases it to her purposes. It is she who in the East has invented those cruel tortures and punishments practiced there*;—punishments sometimes necessary in those detestable countries, because the people are invited to commit crimes, not only by their misery, but also by the example of the sultan, who teaches them to despise justice.

These are both the motives on which the love of despotic authority is founded, and the means employed to arrive at it. Thus, foolishly in love with arbitrary power, kings inconsiderately throw themselves into a road interrupted by a thou« «and precipices, down which a thousand tyrants have fallen. Let us here venture, for the good of human nature, and that of sovereigns, to lend them some light, and to shew them the dangers to which, under such a government, they and their people are exposed. Let them from henceforward keep far from them every perfidious counsel, that inspires them with the desire of arbitrary power; and let them at length know, that the strongest and most masterly treatise against tyranny would be a treatise on the happiness and preservation of kings.

* The punishments, in use almost all over the East, fill the human mind with horror, because the tyrant who orders them is himself above the laws. This is not the case in republics, where the laws are always mild, because those who establish submit to them.

But, it is said, who can conceal this truth from them? why do not they compare the small number of princes banished from England with the prodigious number of Greek and Turkish emperors murdered on the throne of Constantinople? If the sultans, I reply, are not deterred by these terrible examples, it is from their not having this picture habitually present to their minds: it is from their being continually prompted to despotism, by the wretches who would share with them the arbitrary power; and because most of the eastern princes, being governed by the will of a vizier, yield, through weakness, to his desires, and are not sufficiently informed of their injustice by the noble resistance of their subjects.

The entrance into despotism is easy. The people seldom foresee the evils a confirmed tyranny prepares for them; and, if they at last perceive it, it is not till they sink under the yoke, are changed on all sides; and, being unable to defend themselves, only wait trembling for the punishment to which, they must be condemned.

Emboldened by the weakness of the people the princes become despotic tyrants. They do not know, that they themselves suspend over their heads the sword that is to give them, the mortal blow; that, to abrogate all law, and reduce every thing to arbitrary power, they must perpetually have recourse to force, and often employ the soldier’s sword. Now, the habitual custom of making use of such methods, either provokes the citizens to revolt, and invites them to revenge, or insensibly accustoms them to know no other justice than force.

Though a long time be required to spread such an idea among the people, it forces its way at last, and reaches even to the soldiers, who, at length, perceiving that no collective body in the state is capable of resisting them, and that the prince, odious to his subjects, owes all his power to them, their souls are open to the most audacious projects, and they long to better their condition. If then a bold and courageous man flatters them with the hope of plundering some great cities, such a man, as all history proves, is sufficient to cause a revolution ;—• a revolution that is always speedily followed by a second; since, in despotic states, as the illustrious president de Montesquieu observes, the tyrants are often assassinated, without destroying the tyranny. When once the soldiers know their strength, it is impossible to keep them within just bounds. I could cite on this occasion all the Roman emperors proscribed by the Praetorian bands, for resolving to free the country from the tyranny of the soldiers, and to re-establish the ancient discipline of the army.

The despotic tyrant then, in order to command slaves, is forced in his turn to obey his ever turbulent and imperious troops. But the case is very different, when the prince has created in the state a powerful body of magistrates, by whom the people, being judged, obtain ideas of justice and equity; the soldiers, being always taken out of the body of the citizens, preserve in their new state some idea of justice; besides, they are sensible that the entire body of the citizens, called together by the prince and the magistrates, under the standard of the laws, would oppose any bold attempt, and let the valour of the army be ever so great, it must at length be overpowered by numbers. Hence, the soldiers are kept within the bounds of duty by sentiments of justice and fear.

A powerful body of magistrates is then necessary to the safety of kings: it is a buckler, behind which both the prince and people are sheltered, the one from the madness of sedition, and the other from the cruelties of tyranny.

The Khalif Aaron Al-Raschid reflecting on this subject, in order to preserve himself from the dangers which on all sides surround despotic princes, one day asked his brother, the celebrated Beloulh, what advice he could give him on the manner of reigning well? “Make thy will,” said he, “conformable to the laws, and not the laws to thy will. Reflect, that men without merit are always craving, and that great men are so modest that they seldom ask; refuse then the requests of the one, and prevent those of the other. Load not thy people with taxes too burthensome; and recollect on this subject, the advice which king Nouchirvon the Just gave to his son Ormous: “My son,” said he, ‘« nobody will be happy in thine empire, if thou thinkest only of pleasure. When thou art reclined on thy pillow, and ready to taste the sweets of sleep, remember those whom oppression keeps awake; when a splendid repast shall be served up before thee, think on those who languish in misery; when thou ramblest through the delightful groves of thine haram, remember that there are those who are unfortunate, and whom tyranny keeps in irons.—I shall only add one word more,” said Beloulh; “receive into thy favour men eminent in the sciences, and conduct thyself by their advice, in order that monarchy may be obedient to the written law, and not the law to monarchy*.”

* See Chardin, vol. v.

Themistius+, being commissioned by the senate to harangue Jovianus on his advancement to the throne, made nearly the same discourse to that emperor: “Remember,” said he, ‘«that, though the army has raised thee to the empire, thou must learn from the philosophers the art of governing; the first has given thee the purple of the Csesars; but the latter will teach thee how to wear it worthily.”

+ Critical History of Philosophy, by M. Seslandes.

Even among the ancient Persians, the most abject and dastardly of all people, the philosophers, who inaugurated the princes, were allowed to repeat these words to them at their coronation §: “Know, O king, that thine authority shall cease to be lawful on the very day that thou ceasest to render the Persians happy.” A truth of which Trajan appears to be fully sensible, when, being raised to the throne, and presenting the sword, as usual, to the prefectus pretorio, he said, “Receive from me this sword, and make use of it under my reign, either to defend in me a just prince, or to punish in me a tyrant.”

\§: Ibid.

Whoever,’under pretence of supporting the authority of his sovereign, would stretch it to an arbitrary power, is at the same time a bad father, a bad citizen, and a bad subject: a bad father and a bad citizen, because he would load his posterity and his country with the chains of slavery; and a bad subject, because, by changing a lawful for an arbitrary authority, he is summoning up ambition and despair against the king. I call to witness the thrones of the East, so often stained with the blood of their sovereigns ^. If the sultans well understood their own interest, it would never permit them either to wish for such a power, or in this respect to yield to the desires of their viziers. Kings ought to be deaf to such advice, and to recollect that their highest interest requires, if I may so express myself, that they should set a proper value on their kingdom, in order that it may be enjoyed by them and their posterity. This true interest can only be understood by intelligent princes: in others, the contemptible glory they propose to themselves, by commanding absolutely, and the love of indolence, which conceals from them the dangers with which they are surrounded, will always prevent their engaging in more noble pursuits; hence all governments perpetually tend towards despotic power.

^ Notwithstanding the attachment of the Chinese to their sovereigns, which has often led several thousands of them to sacrifice themselves on the tomb of their monarchs, yet how many revolutions has the ambition of arbitrary power excited in that empire? See the History »f the Huns, by M. de Guignet, in the article of China.

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