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Cato's Letter No. 131

Of Reverence true and false.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, June 1, 1723)

SIR, The word reverence has had the fate of many, indeed of almost all, good words, and done much mischief: It signifies a solemn regard paid the persons of men of gravity, of religion, and of authority. By these qualifications men are entitled to it. But when the pride and craft of men who have no real gravity, no real religion, or a foolish one, and only a pretended or an absurd authority, would annex reverence only to grave or grotesque names, it becomes as ridiculous to men of good sense, as it seems awful to such as have none. Reverence belongs only to reverend qualities and reverend actions. As to names and habits, the more grave they are, the more ludicrous they become, when worn by persons who live loosely, and act ludicrously.

Garments signify nothing themselves. They grow first solemn, by being worn by men of character and solemnity: But the most solemn garment becomes contemptible and diverting upon the back of a droll, a buffoon, or upon a cheat or mountebank of any kind. The gravest man alive drest up in the cap and coat of a harlequin, would look like a harlequin; and the gravest speech that he could make, would be laughed at: Yet a coat of many colours was a coat of value in the East, in Jacobís time, and his favourite son Joseph wore one. Nor do our own ladies lose any respect by wearing all the colours of the peacock and the rainbow. On the other side, the gravest clothes put upon burlesque animals, will look burlesque. A monkey in a deep coat, and a broad beaver, would be still more a monkey, and his grimace would be still more diverting grimace; and a hog in a pair of jack-boots, and a coat of mail, would make no formidable figure, notwithstanding his warlike equipment.

These two last instances of the monkey and the hog may be farther improved, to shew the spirit of false reverence. A monkey in a red coat, and a hog in armour, would give no offence to a soldier, because his character consists in actions which these creatures cannot perform nor mimick; and consequently these animals, though accoutered like a soldier, cannot ridicule a soldier. But if you put a popish mitre, and the rest of that sort of gear, upon a hog, the useless and stupid solemnity of the animal gives you instantly the idea of a popish bishop, and if you are not a papist, will divert you: Or, if you dress up a baboon in the fantastical habit of a Romish priest, that animal which can chatter much and unintelligibly, and can really do most of the tricks which the priest himself can do, does genuinely represent the original; and therefore creates true mirth, and fully shews, that there cannot be much reverence in that which a baboon can perform as well, for aught I know better, as he is naturally a creature of grimace and humour. And the said bishop and priest could not with any temper bear the sight, their rage and impatience would be still farther proofs, that the monkey did them justice, that the trial was successful, and the mirth occasioned by it just. Such sport would indeed be tragical in popish countries; which is but another confirmation that false reverence cannot bear ridicule, and that the true is not affected by it.

Many of the ancient Greek philosophers took great pride, and found mighty reverence, in the length and gravity of their beards. Now an old goat, who had as much gravity and beard as any of them, had he been placed in any of their chairs, would, doubtless, have provoked the philosopher, and diverted the assembly. Pomp and beard were therefore ridiculous, since they could be ridiculed: But nothing that constitutes a philosopher, neither genius, nor virtue, nor useful learning, nor any thing that is good for something, can be ridiculed, at least justly ridiculed. The odd dance of judges and bishops in The Rehearsal, does neither ridicule bishops nor judges, because they never practice such odd dances: But if these grave men met and gambolled together as they do there, the ridicule would be strong upon them.

It is a jest to expect from all men great reverence to that which every man may do, whether it consist in reading, or repeating, or wearing, or acting. Where is the difficulty or merit of saying certain words, or of making bows, or of spreading the arms, or crossing them, or of wearing a long coat, or a short cravat? It is impudence and imposture to demand singular and vast respect to small and common things. Superior virtue and capacity, publick actions and services done to mankind; a generous and benevolent heart, and greatness of mind, are the true objects and sources of reverence. But to claim reverence to prating, to cuts, and colours, and postures, is stupid, ridiculous and saucy. The a-b-c of a tinker is as good as a Popeís a-b-c; and it is open cheating and conjuring to pretend, that the same words have not the same force out of the mouth of a cobbler as out of a cardinalís mouth. When any one of these mighty claimers (I had almost said clamourers) of reverence from their visionary empire of words and tricks, can by the magick of their art remove a mountain or a mole-hill, or raise a house, or a dead insect, or kill a heretick, or a grasshopper by a charm, I am ready to bow down before them: But while I see any of them living like other men, or worse, and doing nothing but what so many chimney-sweepers (who can read) may do as well; I can consider such who do so only as solemn liars, and seducers; and as much worse than fortune-tellers, as they cheat people out of much more money, and fill their minds with worse terrors.

The Roman augurs made no such base use of their power, and of their ghostly trade, which was instituted, at least practised, for the ends of good policy; and, as far as I can find, they had no revenues: I would therefore have respected them, as they were great officers of the Roman state. But had an augur, as an augur, demanded reverence of me for his long staff, his tricks, and divinations, I should have done what Cato the elder wondered they themselves did not do as often as they met, laughed in his face, as I would in the face of any man who pretended to be my superior and director, because his coat was longer than mine, or of a different colour; or because he uttered words which I could utter as well, or played pranks which a posture-master could play better.

I will reverence a man for the good which he does, or is inclined to do; and for no other reason ought I. But if under the pretence of doing me good, which I neither see nor feel, he pick my pocket, and do me sensible harm, or would do it; how can I help hating and despising him? If he turn religion into selfishness, and a plain trade, or by it destroy morality; if he set himself up in Godís stead, and by pretending boldly to his power, abuse his holy name, and oppress his creatures; if he exclaim against covetousness, and be governed by it; and practice every vice which he condemns; if he preach against the world, and yet have never enough of it; and against the flesh, and yet be visibly governed by all its worst passions and appetites; if he take immense wages for promoting the welfare of society, and yet disturb, impoverish, and enslave it; how can I reverence him, if I would? And is he not lost to all modesty if he desire it?

If men would preserve themselves from superstition, and servitude, and folly, they must beware of reverencing names and accidents. A wise man does not reverence rulers for their insignia and great titles: As there is no use of rulers, but to do service to mankind, he reverences them for that service done: If they do none, he despises them: If they do mischief, he hates them. What are men reverenced for, but for the good talents which they possess, or for the useful offices which they bear. Now if a man have never a good quality, or having such, abuse them; or if he do no good with the office which he bears, but harm (which he must do, if he do no good), every omission by which many are hurt, being a crime against many; how am I to reverence him, for taking away by his conduct the only cause of reverence? If he give me cause to hate him, am I for all that to love him? Either there is no such passion as hatred, which none but a madman will say, or it must be raised by the causes, that raise it; and what are those causes, but mischief done, when good is due, and expected; or the disappointment of a great good; which is a great mischief.

But when people are taught to reverence butchers, robbers, and tyrants, under the reverend name of rulers, to adore the names and persons of men, though their actions be the actions of devils: Then here is a confirmed and accomplished servitude, the servitude of the body, secured by the servitude of the mind, oppression fortified by delusion. This is the height of human slavery. By this, the Turk and the Pope reign. They hold their horrid and sanguinary authority by false reverence, as much as by the sword. The Sultan is of the family of Ottoman, and the Pope St. Peterís successor; they are therefore reverenced, while they destroy human race. The Christians hate the Turk, and call him a tyrant: Protestants dread the Pope, and call him an impostor. Yet I could name Christians who have tyrants of their own, as bad as the Sultan; I could name Protestants who have had impostors of their own as cruel as the Pope, had their power been as great, and their hands as loose. Men see the follies and slavery of others; but their own nonsense is all sacred, their own popes and sultans are all of heavenly descent, and their authority just and inviolable. But truth and falsehood, wisdom and folly, do not vary with the conceptions and prepossessions of men. Affliction and misery, oppression and imposture, are as bad in Christendom as in Turkey, in Holland as in Rome. Protestant rulers have no more right than the Sultan to oppress Protestants; and the Pope has as good a title as a Protestant parson to deceive Protestants. God forbid that all religions should be alike; but all who make the same ill use of every religion, are certainly alike; as are all governors, Turkish, popish, or Protestant, who make the same ill use of power.

If therefore all governors whatsoever, of what conduct soever, [are] to be reverenced, why not the Turk and old Muly of Morocco, who are both great governors, and have as much a divine authority to be tyrants as any governor of any name or religion ever had? And if all clergy whatsoever [are] to be reverenced, why not the Druids, and the priests of Baal, and the priests of Mecca and of Rome? But if only the good of both sorts [are] to be reverenced, why have we been told so much of the mighty respect due in the lump to priests and rulers? Is there any other way in common sense to gain respect, but to deserve it? Could the Romans reverence their governor Nero for robbing them of their lives and estates, for burning the city, and for wantonly making himself sport with human miseries: could the first Christians reverence him for dressing them up in the skins of wild beasts, and setting on other wild beasts to devour them: or for larding them all over with pitch and tallow, and lighting them up like lamps to illuminate the city?

If we reverence men for their power alone, why do we not reverence the Devil, who has so much more power than men? But if reverence be due only to virtuous qualities and useful actions, it is as ridiculous and superstitious to adore great mischievous men, or unholy men with holy names, as it is to worship a false god, or Satan in the stead of God. Are we to be told, that though we [are] to worship no god but the good and true God, yet we are to pay reverence, which is human worship, to wicked men, provided they be great men, and to honour the false servants of the true God, whom they dishonour? Or, that any sort of men can be his servants or deputies in any sense, but a good and sanctified sense? And if they be not, are we for the sake of God, to reverence those who belie him, and are our enemies? Or, am I to reverence the men, though I detest their actions and qualities which constitute the characters of men? Can I love or hate men, but for what they are, and for what they do? We ought to reverence that which is good, and the men that are good: Are we therefore to reverence wickedness and folly, and those who commit them? Or, because they have good names and offices, which are to be honoured, are they to be honoured for abusing those good things, and for turning good into evil?

We must deserve reverence before we claim it. If a man occupy an honourable office, civil or sacred, and act ridiculously or knavishly in it, do I dishonour that office by contemning or exposing the man who dishonours it? Or ought I not to scorn him, as much as I reverence his office, which he does all he can to bring into scorn? I have all possible esteem for quality; but if a man of quality act like an ape, or a clown, or a pick-pocket, or a profligate, I shall heartily hate or despise his lordship, notwithstanding my great reverence for lords. I honour episcopacy; but if a bishop be an hypocrite, a time-server, a traitor, a stock-jobber, or an hunter after power, I shall take leave to scorn the prelate, for all my regard for prelacy.

It is not a name, however awful, nor an office, however important, that ought to bring, or can bring, reverence to the man who possesses them, if he act below them, or unworthily of them. Folly and villainy ought to have no asylum; nor can titles sanctify crimes, however they may sometimes protect criminals. A right honourable or a right reverend rogue, is the most dangerous rogue, and consequently the most detestable.

Omne animi vitium tanto conspectius in se
Crimen habet, quanto major qui peccat habetur.

G I am, &c.

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