Cato's Letter No. 44

Men Not Ruled by Principle, but by Passion

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, September 9, 1721)

SIR, Mr. Bayle, in the article of Epicurus, says, that "Multitudes of Christians believe well, and live ill: But Epicurus and his followers had, on the contrary, very ill opinions, and yet lived well." The truth is, the worst opinions that are can do but little harm, when they are impracticable, or when no advantages are gained by reducing them into practice; and the best can do but little good, when they contradict the darling pleasures and prevailing interests of men.

Dry reasoning has no force: If you would have your doctrine successful, you must prove it gainful. And as in order to lay down good rules for well governing the commonwealth, you must first know the commonwealth; so in order to persuade and govern men, you must know what will please or frighten them. The good that they do to one another, they do not because it is just or commanded; nor do they forbear mutual evil, because it is unjust or forbid: But those things they do out of choice or fear, and both these center in themselves; for choice is pleasure, and fear is the apprehension of pain. So that the best things that men do, as well as the worst, are selfish; and self-love is the parent of moral good and evil.

What Mr. Selden says of humility, may be said of every other virtue. "Humility," says that wise man, "is a virtue that all preach, none practise, and yet every body is content to hear: The master thinks it good doctrine for his servants, the laity for the clergy, and the clergy for the laity."

Thus we deal with all the virtues; we leave and recommend the practice of them to others, and reserve the advantage and praise of them to ourselves.

All this, and the rest of this letter, is meant to shew that this world is governed by passion, and not by principle; and it ever will be so as long as men are men.

There are rarely any men, never any body of men, but what profess some sort of religion; and every religion professes to promote the peace of mankind, the happiness of human society, and the security of the world; and, for proof of this, refers to its principles, doctrines, and decisions. And it is very true, that all parties in religion contend for submission to the state, as long as the state humours them, or submits to them; but their obedience and good humour never hold longer. All their principles ply in the day of trial, and are either thrown away, or distinguished away; which is the same thing, though not so honest. Nature is then the best guide, and passion the most popular preacher.

Men suit their tenets to the circumstances that they are in, or would be in; and when they have gained their point, they forget their tenets. I could give instances of this from all sorts of men, and even from many whose names are great and venerable.

Gregory Nazianzen, that eloquent and eminent Greek Father, being himself orthodox, contended for toleration to the Arians, while the Arians were uppermost, and had the emperor on their side: but as soon as things took a contrary turn, and his own party had the imperial power on their side, he changed his style; and then it was unpardonable boldness and a horrible attempt, for the Arians and Macedonians so much as to meet together to worship God their own way.

St. Austin had the same spirit and inconsistency: He was once in the sentiments of charity and toleration towards hereticks; but his dispute afterwards with the Donatists so inflamed him, that he changed without any ceremony from white to black, and maintained with violence, that hereticks ought to be compelled, persecuted, and exterminated.

Thus it is that men bear witness against themselves, and practise the evils which they condemn. The Puritans, says Mr. Selden, "who will allow no free will at all, but God does all; yet will allow the subject his liberty to do, or not to do, notwithstanding the king, who is God upon Earth: The Arminians, who hold that we have free-will, do yet say, when we come to the king, we must be all obedience, and no liberty is to be stood for."

"While Spain was the most renowned power in Europe, the Jesuits," says Mr. Bayle, "were all Spaniards; as well those born at Paris, or Rome, as those born in old Castile. Ever since the decay of the house of Austria, and the elevation of Lewis le grand, the Jesuits are all French, at Rome, at Vienna, at Madrid, as well as in the College of Clermont. In those days the liberties of the Gallican church appeared to them not well grounded: They never ceased writing for the rights of the Pope against those of our kings. One might fill a library with the defences composed by the Society, and condemned by the parliament and the Sorbon. At present his Majesty has not trustier pens than theirs in his differences with the Pope. It is now the turn of the court of Rome to censure the books of the reverend fathers. It seems the king's prosperity and successes have afforded them new lights."

It is with laymen and civil societies, as with religious: They have one set of principles when they are in power; another, and a contrary, when they are out of it. They that command, and they that obey, have seldom or never the same motives. Men change with their condition, and opinions change with men. And thus is verified that maxim of Rochefoucauld's, that the understanding is the dupe or tool of the heart; that is, our sentiments follow our passions.

Nor has religion been suffered to mend nature: On the contrary, being instituted as a restraint, and an antidote against sin, it has been, and is frequently perverted into a reason for sinning: Yes, to the shame and misfortune of the world, men often make war upon truth, conscience, and honesty, in behalf of their religion; and there are others, who, when they have wantonly wounded virtue, have recourse to religion for a balsam.

All men speak well of religion, either natural or revealed, and readily practise every thing in religion that is easy, indifferent, or advantageous to them: But in almost every contention between religion and the appetites, the victory remains to nature; that is, men are never dishonest without temptation, and rarely honest against it.

Thus their principle is interest or pleasure; and when they say that they act from principle, how can we believe them, unless we see that they do it against interest? A proof which they rarely give us! Had the several contracts and treaties between nation and nation been observed, there would never have been war above once between any; or had every free nation observed its own laws, every free nation would have continued free; or, had private men observed the common laws of equity, and those of mutual compact between each other, every private man would have lived in peace and security. But treaties, compacts, and laws are only so far strong as no body dares break them.

I think it is Juvenal, who somewhere brings in a couple of false witnesses perjuring themselves for hire; one is a religious rogue, and believes in the gods; the other is an infidel, who disbelieves or despises them. But though they disagree in their sentiments, they agree in the thing, with this very small difference; the atheist forswears himself boldly without remorse; the believer for- swears himself too, but does it with a small qualm, which is presently over.

———Vendet perjuria summa
Exigua, Cereris tangens aramque pedemque.

Bayle very humourously engages a mandarin of China, of the sect of the Literati, in a dialogue with the Jesuits, and with a Dutch ambassador: The Jesuits tell the mandarin, "that the Emperor had no subjects in his dominions, whose obedience was so secure to him as that of their converts the Christians; and none whose allegiance was so precarious as that of the Literati, who were atheists.

"'Hold,' cries the mandarin; 'let us not assert too much without proving it: What reason have you to say that the submission of the Christians to the orders of the Emperor is more certain than that of all his other subjects?'

"'That book inspired by God,' answer the Jesuits; 'that book, which is the rule of our faith, commands us expressly to submit ourselves to the higher powers: Take the trouble, my lord, to read in it such and such passages: Nothing is more clear, nothing so precisely determined.'

"'But,' says the mandarin turning to the ambassador, 'are not you in Europe divided about the meaning of these passages?'

"'So divided,' replies the Dutchman, 'that one room would not contain the volumes written for and against the right of subjects to resist and depose their prince: And both sides take particular care in all their writings to examine accurately every text of scripture, which the reverend fathers refer you to. This discussion of texts has therefore begot two propositions, flatly contradicting each other. One party asserts, that in departing from your obedience, you depart from the Bible: The other says, they resist with the Bible on their side. We have in Christendom many instances of princes attacked by parties of their subjects, bereft of their sovereignty, banished, beheaded, assassinated, and generally for the interest of religion. Nor is there any end of the books published on this occasion; we have every day printed accusations, and every day printed apologies; and both they who accuse and they who defend appeal to God, and refer to his word. As to the Jesuits in particular, it becomes them the least of all men to talk in this manner; no society of men have ever written so much in behalf of popular insurrections; they have openly contended for rebellion, and practised it; they have been the authors of royal assassinations, and have been turned out of states for disturbing them.'

"'If these things are so,' concludes the mandarin, 'you gentlemen of the Order of Jesus have no reason to boast in behalf of yourselves and your followers, as if you were better subjects than other men. This your pretended article of faith about the submission of the subject is couched so obscurely in your book of sacred laws, that you will never find it there when you have occasion for a rebellion or a revolution; events which I find are frequent enough in your country.'"

The same Bayle observes, that the same party of Christians, namely, the French Catholicks, who had maintained, under Charles IX and Henry III that it was against all laws, human and divine, for subjects to take arms against their prince, did also maintain, even before the death of Henry III that it was agreeable to laws, human and divine, to take up arms against one's prince. The other party of Christians, namely, the Protestants, were not more consistent. They maintained, during the reigns of Charles IX and Henry III that laws, human and divine, allowed the smaller part of the subjects to arm themselves against the greater part even with the king at their head: But after the death of Henry III when they had got a king of their own religion, they maintained, that both the law of God and the law of man forbid even the greater part of the subjects to arm themselves against the smaller part with the king at their head.

It were needless to give more proofs, and endless to give all that might be given. Almost every thing that men do, is an evidence that their friendship for themselves does effectually extinguish their regard for all the rest of their species; and that they adopt or reject principles, just as these principles promote or contradict their interest and passions.

Nor are religious or moral principles the worse for being thus used; but men shew their own unconquerable malignity and selfishness in using them thus.

Upon the whole, I think it very plain, that if you separate from the principles of men the penalties and advantages which are annexed to them by laws human and divine, or which every man has annexed to them in his own mind, you will hardly leave such a thing as principle in the world; the world is therefore not governed by principle.

G. I am,&c.

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