Cato's Letter No. 102

The Contemptibleness of Grandeur without Virtue.

John Trenchard (Saturday, November 10, 1722)

SIR, The first reasonable desire which men have, is, to be in easy circumstances, and as free from pain and dangers as human condition will permit; and then all their views and actions are directed to acquire homage and respect from others; and, indeed, in a larger sense, the latter are included in the former. Different ways are taken to attain this end; arts, arms, learning, power, but most of all, riches, are sought after; and when just and proper means are used to acquire them, the pursuit is reasonable, and always to be commended. But when they are gained by injustice, the end is frustrated for which alone they are valuable; that is, the respect is lost which they are intended to procure: For, who does not value an honest man in moderate circumstances, before another grown rich by oppression? Who does not esteem a steady patriot, who despises threats, bribes, and dignities, when they stand between him and his duty to his country, before an over-grown plunderer, who has sacrificed a nation to his ambition? Men will indeed bow down in the House of Rimmon, but they detest the idol in their heart. It is all false homage. Such men are adored publickly, and cursed privately; and most of those who seem to adore them, would with much more pleasure follow them to the scaffold.

How many have we seen in our days, who are thought to have died martyrs to their pride and covetousness, hooted with the reproaches and detestation of every honest man in England, and, I doubt not, with the private curses of many of their own followers? And how many are there in all countries, who are never seen or spoken of but with contempt and indignation, even in the midst of greatness?

What is there in this world worth being a knave for; especially a manís being so, who already enjoys all the conveniencies of life? Who would lose the just applause of honest men, wise men, and free men, for the servile incense of flatterers? How much more preferable is it, to make millions of people happy, and receive the grateful acknowledgments of a thankful nation, than to purchase their hatred and resentments, by making them abject, poor, and miserable, and themselves and their families so too in consequence? And what is all this for? To create false dependents, who flatter them, in order to cheat them, or otherwise make their advantages of them, instead of steady and true friends: For a certain degree of familiarity is necessary to friendship, or free conversation; without which no conversation is agreeable, or worth having. Few men take pleasure in the company of those who are much their superiors, who always strike them with awe, and most commonly with emulation; and what is got amongst them is generally spent among equals.

I have seen many supple and bowing guests at the table of a great man, whom, for his vanity, he treated magnificently, and at a great expence; none of which he would have kept company with in any other place, nor perhaps they with him. Men of virtue and understanding are conscious of their own worth: They will be sought after, and can be brought rarely to contribute to the pride, grandeur, and ostentation of those whom they privately hate, fear, or contemn: And therefore the latter, in their own defence, are obliged to associate with the most worthless part of mankind, with flatterers and parasites, hunters of good tables, sharpers, and pick-pockets; which are the usual attendants and ornaments of their greatness. Their domestick followers are generally made up of insolent and debauched beggars, who fancy themselves to be gentlemen; and as they cheat their master to be so, so depending upon his protection, they insult his neighbours, ride over the country people, and are perpetually annoying the peaceable and industrious farmers and labourers, and giving examples of prodigality and lewdness; insomuch that an estate is some yearsí purchase less valuable that lies within the influence of such malignant constellations.

Their sons are educated in idleness, debauchery, and ignorance; taught to believe, that greatness consists in pride, insolence, and extravagance; and so, for the most part, want every qualification proper to adorn their characters, to serve their prince or country, or to direct their own conduct, govern their families, or manage their own estates; which generally become the property of their stewards, bailiffs, or debauched followers, whilst they themselves often pay large interest to them for their own money, run in debt to tradesmen and mechanicks for the common conveniences of life, whom they either pay not at all, or pay treble values to; till at last their necessities make them submit to a paltry pension; and, instead of being the generous asserters of publick liberty, they become the mean and humble instruments of power.

Their daughters partake of this happy education; they are bred up to be above looking to their own families, or to know any thing of their own affairs; and, indeed, it is become a qualification now, to be good for no one thing in the world, but to dance, dress, play upon the guitar, to prate in a visiting-room, or to play amongst sharpers at cards and dice: And when they cannot be exercising these laudable accomplishments, they are always in the vapours and the spleen; and so they can get no husbands, or ruin those who are indiscreet enough to marry them. The necessities of their parents, arising from their profusion in all other respects, will not afford fortunes great enough to marry them to men of their own quality, who run into the city for grocersí and mercersí daughters, to repair their shattered affairs, and generally use them as such. For all private gentlemen (whose alliance is worth courting) are ever afraid of her ladyship, and think themselves not worthy of so much honour; very few instances excepted of vain and inconsiderate young gallants, who are caught with outside shew and pageantry, and drawn in to make great settlements, and repent it all their lives after.

I do not say that this is always the case: For virtue and good sense is not confined to any order of men or women; and without doubt there are excellent men and ladies amongst the quality. But I appeal to general experience, whether what I have said be not most commonly the real truth. And who dares be so sanguine, as to hope that it will not be the case of his own posterity, if something be not done to mend the present education of youth; which never can be done, without mending that which must mend every thing else? For those who have an interest in keeping the nobility and gentry ignorant, debauched, and extravagant, and consequently necessitous and dependent, will never voluntarily endeavour to lessen their own power and influence.

This is indeed a melancholy, but true, scene of modern greatness. And is this a condition to be envied or courted by any who have plentiful (though not great and exorbitant) fortunes? who have all the means of enjoying private happiness, and of educating their children in virtue, knowledge, and publick principles, and can make a modest provision for them after their death; and, by leaving them examples of frugality, and prudent oeconomy, enable them to abound in the true necessaries and conveniencies of life; which the other (like Tantalus) want in the midst of profusion?

Nature is easily contented, and with few things. The most luxurious palate may be gratified by what moderate circumstances can afford. Those who have the most magnificent palaces, choose to live in the least and meanest apartments of them; and such as have the richest and most expensive clothes, and other personal ornaments, wear the worst when by themselves; so that all the rest are only pride and ostentation, and often procure emulation and ill-will from neighbours and acquaintance, but seldom true and real respect. However, since the mind of man, like every thing else in nature, is in constant progression, and in perpetual pursuit of one thing or other, I do not condemn the moderate pursuit of wealth, if we do not buy it too dear, and at the price of our health or integrity; for riches in a wise manís hands are certainly conducive to happiness, though they are more often the causes of misery to others.

Men, for the most part, are not so solicitous to acquire them for the real pleasure that they give, and to satiate personal appetites, as in compliance with the custom of the world. We seldom examine ourselves, but enquire of others, whether we are happy or not; and provided we can make those whom we do not value, and who do not value us, envy and admire our felicity, are contented to know that we have none. Such is the force of prejudice, flowing from foolish vanity, pride, or custom! True happiness resides alone in the mind; and whoever hunts after it elsewhere, will never find it. All the hurry and tumults of faction, most of the eager pursuits after vice under the name of pleasure, and the vain and noisy chases of ambition, are but so many disguises to cover internal uneasiness, and stratagems to fly from ourselves; but haeret lateri lethalis arundo: The deer is struck, and where-ever he flies, must carry his griefs about him.

Nothing can fill the mind of a truly great man, but the love of God, of virtue, and of his country. All other pleasures ought to be but amusements, and subservient to these, and very often turn to misfortunes; but here is an inexhaustible source of inward satisfaction, which is the only true happiness, which wicked men never feel; and consequently they are the most unhappy of all men.

T I am, &c.

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