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Cato's Letter No. 112

Fondness for Posterity nothing else but Self-love. Such as are Friends to publick Liberty, are the only true Lovers of Posterity.

John Trenchard (Saturday, January 19, 1723)

SIR, Men, for the sake of their posterity, do many things, which, they tell us, they would not do for their own sakes. The wealth which they do not spend, they lay up for posterity; and their care for posterity is made a pretence, to justify all the acquisitions that they make of fortune and dominion. But this is false reasoning, though by it they often deceive themselves and others. They find that they have greater appetites to acquire wealth, than they have to enjoy it; and, not being able to deny, that wealth is only so far useful as it is enjoyed, and no farther, they cannot justify their conduct, but by furnishing themselves with a false excuse from their regard for posterity: As if the affections of men could be stronger for others, and for a future race, of whom they know nothing, or for such as perhaps may never exist, than for themselves. Doubtless, men are in no circumstances to be separated from themselves: They are ever the chief objects of their own tenderness and good wishes; and the love of posterity is only self-love continued beyond the grave. We see those who have no posterity, nor the prospect of any, engaged in the same passionate and greedy pursuits as those who have; and they often leave their estates, when they die, to those for whom, while they lived, they shewed no concern.

This ambition therefore amongst men, of leaving an illustrious posterity, is mere self-love; a passion to survive themselves, and to make a figure after they are dead. To gratify this passion, men in all stations often take wild and unaccountable courses: They employ great pains for that which they can never enjoy, and run many dangers for what they will never reap: They drudge, and laboriously contrive ways to wear themselves out, they deny themselves rest and ease, and the comforts of life, that some future men, whom they know not, may live in idleness and abundance, and perhaps despise these their careful and penurious ancestors, who painfully provided for them the means of luxury, and enabled them to be insolent, or debauched, or insignificant to society. They are indeed generally but even with one another: The descendent receives, without gratitude, an estate which his ancestor left him without affection. People would take it greatly amiss, if you supposed that they wanted honour for their ancestors, or regard to their posterity; and that they themselves were the only real objects of all this regard, and of that honour. But let them ask themselves, whether they would restore to their grandfather again the estate which he left them, were he to rise from the dead, and demand it? or, whether they are willing to part with it to their children before their own death? or, if they sometimes do, whether they have not other motives besides paternal affection? and, whether their own credit and vanity be not the strongest?

Thus men gratify their own tempers, and invent fine false reasons and specious names for what they do. A passion for posterity, is a passion for fame; and he who raises a family, considers his race as hereditary trustees for his name and grandeur, and as the proper means and channel for perpetuating himself. Nor does he carry about him an appetite more selfish and personal than this. So that all the wicked things which a man does to raise a posterity, are but so many infamous steps to acquire personal fame, which he will never arrive at; and does therefore but labour against the very end which he labours for. If his posterity prove good, it will be remembered to their praise, and his shame, what a vile ancestor they had: If they prove bad, it will not be forgot how much they resemble him; and he will become still more odious in his odious descendents. Even the wisest men do a foolish thing, when they employ great assiduity and care to leave a great estate to a random heir, whom nature, or chance, or the law, gives them. How many immense estates, gathered in a long course of years and application, have we seen thrown away suddenly upon harlots and sharpers! The acquisitions of half a century have disappeared, as it were, in a moment; and the chief remaining monuments of the founderís name were jests made upon his memory.

But of all the foolish and wicked ways of raising families, none equals that of raising them upon the ruins of publick liberty. The general security is the only certain security of particulars; and though desperate men often find safety in publick destruction, yet they cannot ensure the same safety to their children, who must suffer with the rest in the misery of all. If great wicked men would consider this, the world would not be plagued with their ambition. Their posterity scarce ever miss to reap the bitter fruits of their actions; and the curse of their iniquities rarely fails to follow them to the third and fourth generation.

The instruments of public ruin have generally at once entailed misery upon their country and upon their own race. Those who were the instruments and ministers of Caesar and Augustus, and put the commonwealth under their feet, and them above the laws, did not consider, that they were not only forging chains for their country, but whetting swords against their own families, who were all cut off under succeeding tyrants: Nay, most of their children fell early and bloody sacrifices to the cruel and suspicious spirit of Tiberius. He began his reign with the murder of young Agrippa, whose father had, by his courage and conduct in war, established the tyranny in that house. What availed to Agrippa all his great riches, his sumptuous buildings, and even his near alliance with the prince, whose daughter he married, but to hasten and magnify the fall and destruction of his own house? There was not one Roman family wickedly enriched by their base subserviency to Augustus, but was slaughtered and confiscated under his successors, and most of them under his immediate successor: Nay, their riches and splendor were reasons for destroying them. The freed slaves of the emperors grew afterwards the first men in Rome, and had at their mercy the heads and estates of the patricians; nor could any of the great Roman lords come into any post or office in their own empire, but by the pleasure and permission of those slaves, and by servile court paid to them.

Would their illustrious ancestors, who were the friends and abettors of Caesar, have done as they did, had they foreseen this vile subserviency of their posterity to slaves and pathicks, and the daily and wanton sacrifices made of their boasted blood? And yet was not all this easily to be foreseen? While they were arming him with a power over their country, they stripped themselves of all title to their lives and estates. By laying up riches for their families, they did but lay snares for the ruin of their families. It grew a crime under these tyrants, to be conspicuous for any thing; and riches, virtue, eloquence, courage, reputation, nay, names and accidents, became crimes. Men, and even women, were put to death, for having had illustrious ancestors; and some, for bearing the fortuitous surnames of great men dead an hundred years before.

So that these men, who, from the bait of present wealth and place, helped to overthrow the constitution of that great state, were not only the parricides of their country, but the murderers of their own children and families, by putting a lawless dagger into the hands of these tyrants to execute these murders. They sold their own blood and posterity to these imperial butchers, whose chief employment it was to shed it. These mistaken men might flatter and blind themselves with a conceit, that they were laying up riches for ages, and entailing honours upon their latest race: For what is so blind as ambition and avarice? But to their unhappy descendents it proved a terrible inheritance of servitude, exile, tortures, and massacre. What they meant to perpetuate, their fortune and race, were the first things seized and extirpated. They had been real traitors to make their children great; and their children were put to death for false treason, merely for being great. So nearly are punishments allied to crimes, and so naturally do they rise from them!

Thus rash and unadvised, even as to themselves and their own families, are those wicked men, who raise up an enormous power in their country, because they were its livery, and are for some time indulged by it in their own pride and oppressions! And so ungrateful is that power when it is raised, even to the props and instruments that raised it! They themselves are often crushed to death by it, and their posterity certainly are.

This may serve among other arguments, to prove, that men ought to be virtuous, just, and good, for their own sake, and that of their families; and especially great men, whose lasting security is best found in the general security. Pericles had long and arbitrarily lavished away the publick money to buy creatures, and perpetuate his power; and, dreading to give up his accounts, which the Athenians began to call for, thought that he had no other way to avoid doing this justice to his country, but by adding another great crime to his past crimes. He would venture the ruin of the commonwealth, rather than be accountable to it: He therefore threw all things into confusion, raised armies, and entered precipitately into a war with Lacedaemon; which, after much blood, misery, and desolation, ended in the captivity of his country. During that war, he died of the plague, which the war was thought to occasion; and to his pride and guilt alone were owing the plague, war, and the taking of Athens, with the desolation of the city and territory. Before he died he felt the loss of his whole family, and of all his friends and relations; and, doubtless foresaw the downfall of his country. What huge and complicated ruin! He would see the state sink, rather than lose his authority in it: But in the destruction of his country, his own was justly and naturally involved. Where was now the great, the politick, the eloquent, Pericles? Where was the proud state which he had long and haughtily swayed? Where was his family and race? Where were all his mighty future views? Why, the sword, the pestilence, and foreign conquest, had, by his own management, put an end to them all; and his wisdom and profound foresight proved miserable and ruinous folly.

T I am, &c.

 Cato's Letters

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