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Cato's Letter No. 74

The Vanity of Conquerors, and the Calamities attending Conquests

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, April 28, 1722)

SIR, The condition of an absolute prince is thought the highest lot of human life, in point of splendor, plenty, and power; and is perhaps the lowest in point of happiness. The greatest appearances of pleasure are no certain proofs of pleasure; and he who can enjoy all things, has often the least enjoyment: Having little or nothing to expect, he is at a stand in life; than which there cannot be a greater unhappiness. It is an agreeable fallacy which men keep themselves under, that while they find themselves daily disappointed in the enjoyments from which they expected most pleasure, they still press forward to more enjoyments, without expecting to be disappointed in these, though they certainly will. Their happiness consists in being deceived without knowing it; and when they find that they are, they do not grow wiser, but go on to promise themselves satisfaction from things, which, upon a thousand trials, they have found gave them none.

Our only lasting pleasure therefore is expectation. And what have absolute princes to expect; they who are in possession of all things? Yet they cannot live without expectation: They grow weary of pleasures within their power, and are therefore for stretching their power to procure more or better; which yet it will not procure. But thus their hopes beguile them.

Hence great and famous conquerors, never content with their present condition, come to be the incessant troublers of the world: And they who should have protected it, and preserved its peace, have often sought their pleasures in the tears, misery, and sorrows of millions; nay, often found their own grief, ruin, and ill fate in doing so. That this has been their character, is too universally true; and I believe it will be hard to shew one such prince in an hundred, who never laid snares either against his own people, or his neighbours; and though he never did, yet it was their duty and near concern to be upon their guard against him. They might have depended upon it, as a proposition that had infinite odds on its side, that he was not satisfied with its present condition, and that he would alter it, if he could, at their expence. Either his power was not absolute enough, or his dominions not wide enough; nor would they ever have been, whatever accessions of both accrued to him. There was still some darling point to gain, dearer than any before gained, though they were all so before they were gained.

It is the hard fate of conquerors, that their only, or chiefest remaining pleasure, is that of doing mischief: but the fate of their subjects and neighbours is harder. They are often undone to furnish out employment for their governors, who find their pleasure in destroying their people, or in doing that which destroys them. To increase power is, no doubt, the maxim of these princes; but their practice generally contradicts it, while they lessen their people and their wealth to enlarge their territory; every addition of this kind being an addition to their weakness: And therefore great empires, from the moment they are at their height, are in a continual decay; the decay and discouragement of the people being the unnatural means of their first growth; and indeed their increase contained in it, and carried along with it, certain seeds of decrease and desolation.

It may seem a contradiction, to say, that the whole can be built upon the destruction of the parts: Yet it is true of absolute monarchy, which does ever subsist by ruining and destroying those by whom it subsists; and the people, without whom it is nothing, must be undone to make it what it is. It is a power erected upon the ruin of its own strength, which is the people; and when they are gone, the power must go, growing first impotent in proportion to their misery and thinness: And that it does make them miserable and thin, and must at last extinguish them, I have at large shewn in former letters; I think demonstrated. It may bounce and terrify for a while, and extend its bounds; but even at the time when it looks biggest and strongest, it is wearing out, and by its conquest does but dig its own grave the deeper, by consuming its old people to acquire new, whom it also consumes, and with whom it must also consume; like a debauchee in private life, the faster he lives, the less time he has to live.

The conquests of the Spaniards made a great noise in the world, and them very terrible for a time. But their gold and silver mountains of Mexico and Peru, though they be such glorious prizes as never before fell to the lot of any conqueror, have not made that nation amends for the loss and fewness of their people at home. Those that remain there cannot be said to be enriched by these vast acquisitions, whatever some particulars may be, who by their inequality and insolence oppress the whole. And for the Turkish empire, which frighted Europe and the world, and subdued great part of it, it is so wretchedly sunk in its discipline and forces, and its provinces are so desolate and poor, that, in all human probability, this generation will see it broken into an hundred pieces. It has spun itself out, as the Saracen empire did before it, into a thread too long and too small to bear its own great burden without breaking.

People are like wire: The more they are extended, the weaker they become; and the closer they are together, the richer they grow, and more potent. This is the language of common sense and experience: But ambition speaks another and a different language, for extensive empire and uncontrolled dominion; and being too well heard, puts men upon sacrificing their real strength to that which is only imaginary. Hence they become really impotent in quest of false power, and destroy men in gross for the venal breath of a few flatterers, which they call glory. But horrid and detestable are the ways to such glory, which incites them to ravage and plague, to fetter and kill [the] human race, for the sake of a pleasant dream; to which too they sacrifice all their waking quiet, and make themselves and all others miserable for this delusive vision of their own separate happiness, which, like a phantom, mocks their sight, and flies from them the more they pursue it.

Besides, whosoever considers the many difficulties and dangers, the endless uncertainties and anxieties, and the general horror and hatred, inseparable from such pursuits, will see how poorly they reward him who makes them; having long stretched out his arms to embrace happiness, he is at last forced to draw them back empty, or full of sorrows. He who seeks felicity this way, hunts a shadow, which he will never overtake: And, in truth, what can such a troubler of the earth expect, but the bitter aversion of his own people, whom he oppresses and exhausts; and the curses of mankind, whom he persecutes and lays waste? Conquest gives him no new security; but, far from it, multiplies those who have a mind to destroy him, and arms more hands against him. They who possess most, have more to fear; especially when coming to their possessions by injustice, they must maintain them by violence. Hence the endless fears and insecurity of conquerors and oppressors, and the many conspiracies against them;

Sine caede & sanguine pauci ————

Such therefore is the bitter fruit, and such often is the terrible and bloody end, of such wild and pernicious pursuits. No wise man would, for the empire of the earth, live in perpetual or strong apprehensions of any kind; much less under a tormenting opinion, that whole nations detested him, and sought his life for making them miserable, as conquerors always do, and must consequently be considered by them as their worst enemies.

But the strange madness of conquest appears from another consideration, namely, that there is not a prince in the world, let his territory be ever so small, but must find full employment to govern it, if he govern it as he should do; and therefore there never was a great empire so well governed as private cities; and no city so well as private families. Where the governed are but few, or live in little compass, the eye of the magistrate is over them, and the eye of the law over him, where he is not above it: Complaints can be easily examined, and violence and injustice be quickly overtaken, or readily prevented. But in wide and over-grown empires, especially where all depends upon the will and care of one, let his heart be ever so upright, a thousand evils and injuries will be done, which he can never hear of, nor they who suffer them have the means of representing to him; and which probably are done or connived at by his own deputies, whom he employs to prevent or punish them.

All princes have indeed more business than they can well do; and when they look out for new business, they must neglect the old, and throw off necessary cares, to assume wanton ones, inconsistent with the other. Harmless amusements they ought to have; and whatever amusements those are, is all one to their people, provided the general security be consulted, and property and peace be preserved: But to embark in wars, and make conquests at the expence of the people, and not for the people, is a preposterous way of protecting them, and of fulfilling the duties of reigning. Such a war was that of Troy; where all the princes of Greece, leaving their several countries in a state of anarchy, and drained of their bravest men, beat their heads against stone walls for ten years together, because these walls contained, as they were told, a Greek beauty who was a great strumpet. And having sacrificed their time, their navy, and the forces of their country, to this wise resentment, at last, by a stratagem, they got their chaste and important prize,[*] and for joy and anger, burnt the city, putting the king and all the inhabitants, who had done them no wrong, to the sword.

Most of the wars in the world have been Trojan wars; but most particularly those in the Holy Land, whither most of the princes in Christendom made lunatic and ruinous expeditions, to rescue from the Saracens a grave which could not be known from other graves. Great preparations were lately made for a Trojan war at Astracan; and in Italy a Trojan war is apprehended. We too, since the reigns of the Plantagenets, have had our Trojan wars; and our English Ajaxes and Achilleses have fought many bloody battles, in which England had no other interest, but the inward satisfaction and glory of losing its men and money.

Conquest, or fighting for territory, is, for the most part, the most shameless thing in the world. Government is either designed for the people’s good, or else I know not what business it has in the world: And therefore in all contests among conquerors about territory, if natural justice and common sense were to decide it, that prince ought to carry it, who can satisfy the people that he will use them best. And sometimes they all vouchsafe to promise this, though very few of them perform it. But this consideration, which ought to be the only one, and is perhaps used by them in their manifestoes, has not the least weight with most of them. On the contrary, their chief argument to move people is often the most ridiculous, stupid, and absurd of all others, and really concerns the people the least of any other. As to the great point of using the people well, and promoting their prosperity, these are considerations so much below the thoughts of your conquerors, and so opposite to their practice, that if the people were to throw dice for one of them, they would do as wisely as if they chose him by deliberate voices, if they were at liberty to choose him, since there is rarely a better or a worse amongst them. And therefore the Persian nobles did not amiss, when they delegated the choice of such a sovereign to the horses which they rode. If Philip II of Spain had in the least aimed at governing the Seven Provinces for their good, he would never have disturbed their revolt; since he might see that they prospered a thousand times faster without him than ever they could with him. But as this reasonable and beneficent thought had no authority with him, he exhausted in vain the forces of that great monarchy, to reduce those new states under his tyranny, and to make them as wretched and desolate as he made his other dominions.

G I am, &c.



[*] Herodotus says, that Helena, during all that long war purposely made for her recovery, was not in Troy, but in Egypt.

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