Helvetius Essay III- XX



Since, as I have already proved in the preceding chapters, the ignorance of the viziers is a necessary consequence of despotic forms of government; the ridicule, which in those countries is cast on virtue, seems equally to proceed from the same effect.

Is it to be doubted, that, in the sumptuous repasts of the ancient Persians, and in their elegant evening entertainments, they ridiculed the frugality and coarse food of the Spartans? and that the courtiers, accustomed to cringe in the anti-chamber of the eunuchs, in order to obtain the disgraceful honour of being their sport, did not give the name of ferocity to the noble pride which forbade the Greeks prostrating themselves before the great king.

A slavish people cannot avoid treating with ridicule bravery, magnanimity, disinterestedness, a contempt of life, and all the virtues founded on patriotism and liberty. In Persia, they must then have treated as a fool, and the enemy of a prince, every virtuous subject, who, struck with the heroism of the Greeks, exhorted his fellow-citizens to assemble, and, by a speedy reformation of the government, prevent the approaching ruin of an empire, where virtue was despised*. The Persians, to escape the mortification of thinking themselves mean, were under the necessity of considering the Greeks as ridiculous. We can never be struck by any sentiments that do not affect us in a lively manner. A brave citizen, who is had in veneration wherever the rank of a citizen subsists, must ever pass for a fool in all despotic governments.

* At the very moment when three hundred Spartans defended the pass of Thermopylae, some Arcadian deserters were giving Xerxes an account of the Olympic games, when a Persian lord cried out— “What men are we going to fight! Insensible of interest, they are only greedy of glory!”

Among us Europeans, who approach nearer to the heroism of the Greeks than to the servility of the eastern empires, how many great actions would be deemed foolish, were they not consecrated by the admiration of all ages! To this admiration is to be ascribed our not mentioning as ridiculous th» order sent by the people of Sparta to King Agis, before the battle of Mantinea: “Take no advantage of superiority of numbers; send back a part of the troops, and fight the enemy with equal force.” In like manner we should treat as ridiculous the answer made by Callicratidas, general of the Lacedemonian fleet, before the battle of Argineuses. Hermon advising him not to engage the Athenian fleet with unequal force, “O Hermon,” he replied, “the gods forbid that I should follow an advice that would be attended with such fatal consequences to my country. Sparta shall not be dishonoured by her general. Here both I and my army must either con. quer or perish. Is it for Callicratidas to teach the art of making a retreat to men who, to this day, have never inquired what were the numbers of the enemy, but only where they were encamped?” So bold and noble an answer would to most men appear foolish. What men have such an elevation of soul, such a profound knowledge of politics, as to perceive, like Callicratidas, the importance of cherishing in the Spartans that obstinate bravery that rendered them invincible? This hero knew that to be incessantly employed in cherishing their sentiments of courage and glory, too much prudence might blunt their edge; and that a nation can have none of the virtues, without having the scruples that attend them.

Half politicians, for want of comprehending a sufficient extent of time, are always struck in too lively a manner with a present danger. Accustomed to consider every action independently of the chain by which they are all united, when they think of correcting the success of any virtue that prevails among a people, they too often only take from them the palladium tp which is fixed their success and glory.

It is then to this ancient admiration that we owe our still continuing to admire these actions: this admiration is then ouly hypocritical, or the effect of prejudice. A felt admiration would necessarily lead us to imitation. , Now, what man is there, among those who pretend to be passionately fond of glory, who would blush at a victory, that was not entirely owing to his bravery and military skill? Are there many Antiochus Soters? That prince, sensible that he owed the defeat of the Galates only to the terror and confusion into which they were thrown by the unexpected sight of the elephants, shed tears on his triumphal palms, and on the field of battle caused trophies to be raised to his elephants.

They boast of the generosity of Gelon. After the defeat of the innumerable army of the Carthaginians, when the conquered expected the hardest conditions, that prince only required of the humbled Carthaginians the abolition of the barbarous sacrifices of their own children, whom they offered to Saturn. That conqueror would reap no other advantage from his victory than the conclusion of the only treaty that perhaps was ever made in favour of human nature. Among so many admirers, why has Gelon no imitator? A thousand heroes have by turns subdued Asia: however, there is not one who, sensible of the miseries suffered by the human race, has improved his victory, by freeing the Orientals from that weight of wretchedness and degradation- into which they have been sunk by despotic power. None of them have destroyed those houses of grief and lamentation where jealousy without remorse mutilates the unhappy persons destined to guard their pleasure, and condemned to the punishment of having desires always reviving and always impotent. People have then no esteem for Gelon’s action, but what is hypocritical, or the effect of prejudice.

We honour valour, but it is less than it was honoured at Sparta: therefore we do not experience, at the view of a fortified town, the sensations of contempt felt by the Spartans. Some of them, passing under the walls of Corinth, asked— “By what women is this city inhabited?”—” These are,” they were told, «’ the Corinthians.”—” Do not these meanspirited and cowardly men know,” they resumed, “that the only ramparts impenetrable to the enemy are citizens determined to die?” Such Courage and elevation of soul are only to be found in warlike republics. With whatever love we are animated for our country, we do not see the mother, after the loss of a son killed in battle, reproach her other sons who have survived the defeat. We do not take example from those virtuous Spartans: after the battle of Leuctra, ashamed of having borne in their wombs men capable of flying, those, whose children had escaped the slaughter, retired to the innermost parts of their houses, in mourning and silence; while, on the contrary, the mothers, whose sons died fighting, filled with joy, and, with their heads crowned with flowers, went to the temple to return thanks to the gods.

However brave our soldiers may be, we do not see a body of twelve hundred men sustain, like the Swiss at the battle of St. James l’Hospital*, the efforts of an army of sixty thousand men, who paid for their victory by the loss of eight thousand Soldiers. We no longer see governments treat as cowards, and condemn as such, ten soldiers, who, escaping from the slaughter of that battle, brought home the news of so glorious a defeat.

* M. Duclos, in the History, of Louis XI. says, that the Swiss, to the number of three thousand, sustained the shock of the Dauphin.s army, composed of fourteen thousand French and eight thousand English. The battle was fought near Bottelin, and the Swiss were ‘almost all slain.
At the battle of Morgarten, thirteen hundred Swiss routed the Archduke Leopold’s army, composed of twenty thousand men. Near the Wesen, in the canton of Claris, three hundred and fifty Swiss defeated eight thousand Austrians 4 every year they celebrate the memory of this defeat on the field of battle, when an orator makes- a panegyric on this action, and reads the list of the three hundred and fifty names.

If in Europe itself we have only a barren admiration of such actions and such virtues, what contempt must the people of the East feel for the same virtues? Who can make these think of them with respect? Those countries are peopled with abject vicious minds; and when the virtuous men in a country are not sufficiently numerous to give the bent to a nation, it necessarily receives it from those who are corrupt. These last, always interested in ridiculing the sensations they do not feel, render the virtuous silent. Unhappily there are but few who do not yield to the clamours of those by whom they are surrounded, who are courageous enough to brave the contempt of their country, and have the judgment to think that the esteem of a nation, placed on a certain degree of degradation, is less flattering than dishonourable.

Did the little value set on Hannibal, at the court of Anticchus, dishonour that great man? did the cowardice, with which Prusias would have sold him to the Romans, stain the glory of that illustrious Carthaginian? In the eyes of posterity, it has only dishonoured the king, the council, and the people, who deliberated upon it.

The result of what I have said is, that people have really in despotic empires only a contempt for virtue, and that nothing but the name is honoured. If every day we invoke this virtue, and require it of the citizens, it is only, in this case, with virtue as with truth, it is demanded on condition we arc so prudent as to conceal it.

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