Cato's Letter No. 105

Of the Weakness of the human Mind; how easily it is misled.

John Trenchard (Saturday, December 1, 1722)

SIR, Things of the greatest seeming difficulty appear the easiest to us when found out. There was no wit necessary to set an egg on one end, when Columbus had shewn the way. Jugglers do many things by slight of hand, which to a gaping beholder appear to be witchcraft; and when he knows how they are done, he wonders at himself for wondering at them. A ship as big as a castle is sailed by a rudder and a puff of wind; and a weight, which a thousand men cannot move, may be easily managed by one, by the help of wheels and pullies. The same is true in the direction of mankind, who will be always caught by a skillful application to their passions and weaknesses, and be easily drawn into what they will be very difficultly driven. The fiercest horses are subdued by the right management of the bit; the most furious wild beasts tamed by gratifying their appetites, or working upon their fears; and the most savage tempers are made tractable by soothing their foibles, or knowing how to manage their panicks.

This is what is called the knowledge of mankind, which very few of them know any thing of. Pedants hope to govern them by distinctions and grave faces; tyrants by force and terror; philosophers by solemn lectures of morality and virtue. And all these have certainly a share in influencing their minds, and determining their actions; but, all together, not half so much as applying to their reigning appetites, appearing interests, and predominant foibles, and taking artful advantages of favourable opportunities, and catching at lucky conjectures, to effect at once what a long series of wise counsels, and the best concerted measures, cannot bring about.

Wise statesmen will understand this foible in human nature, and often take advantage from a plot discovered, or a rebellion quelled; from the transports of a restoration, or a victory obtained; or during the terrors of a pestilential distemper, or the rage of a prevailing faction, or the fears of a desponding one, to accomplish what neither threats nor armies could extort, nor bribes nor allurements persuade.

The same advantages have been as luckily taken by the leaders of popular parties, upon sudden discontents and unsuccessful acts of power, to obtain concessions and privileges which they durst not think of, much less hope for, at other times. My Lord Clarendon furnishes us with many instances of such concessions, which neither the crown would have granted, nor the people been prevailed upon to ask, nor perhaps accept, before, or possibly after.

Whereas a preposterous and ill-timed attempt, on either side, would have increased the power which they designed to lessen, or take away. The greatest secret in politicks is, to drive the nail that will go.

If a solemn soothsayer, a poet, or philosopher, talk of the dignity of human nature, man is lifted up to a resemblance with his great Creator: He is lord of the universe; all things are made for his use, even such as are of no use to him, but do him mischief. The sun is placed in the firmament to ripen his cabbage, and dry his linen; and infinite millions of stars are stuck there, many thousand times bigger than the earth, to supply the want of farthing candles, though vastly many of them are not to be seen but by glasses, and, without doubt, infinite others not to be seen with them. He is made wise, discerning, formed for virtue, mutual help and assistance; and probably it was all true before the fall: But as he is now degenerated, I fear that the reverse of all this is true. It is plain that he is foolish, helpless, perfidious, impotent, easily misled and trepanned, and, for the most part, caught by as thin snares and little wiles as his fellow-creatures, which, we are told, are made for his use; and his boasted faculty of reason betrays him to some from which the others are exempt.

True reason has little to do in his speculations or his actions. Enthusiasm or panick fear often supplies the place of religion in him: Obstinacy is called constancy; and indifference, moderation: His passions, which direct and govern all the motions of his mind, seem to me to be purely mechanical; which perhaps I may shew more at large hereafter: and whoever would govern him, and lead him, must apply to those passions; that is, pull the proper ropes, and turn the wheels which will put the machine in motion. When Chrysippus was introduced into the presence of Dionysius, and, according to the custom of the court, fell upon his face, and kissed the oppressor’s feet; he was asked by Plato, how he, who was a Greek, a free man, and a philosopher, could fall prostrate before a tyrant, and adore him? He answered merrily, “That he had business with the tyrant; and if his ears were in his feet, he must speak to him where his ears lay.”

Now most people’s ears lie in the wrong place; and whoever will be heard, must apply accordingly: We rarely see a wise man, who does not carry a half-fool about him; one who, by soothing his vanities, flattering his passions, and taking advantages of his other weaknesses, can do more with him than all the world besides. Indeed most men are governed by those who have less wit than themselves, or by what ought least to influence them. Men, like other animals, are caught by springs, wires, or subtleties: Foxes are trepanned by traces, pheasants by a red rag, and other birds by a whistle; and the same is true of mankind.

A lucky thought, a jest, a fortunate accident, or a jovial debauch, shall bring about designs and revolutions in human affairs, which twenty legions in the field could not bring about. A filthy strumpet made Alexander, for a kiss, burn Persepolis, the august seat of the Persian empire; and I have heard, somewhere or other, of a great prince, who being prevailed upon to swear by his mistress’s bum, that he would dissolve the States of his kingdom, religiously kept that oath against his interest, though he never valued all the rest that he took upon the evangelists. How often hath a merry story in our days turned a debate, when the most grave and solemn arguments, and the most obvious representations of publick advantage, could not prevail? And how many a fair and accomplished lady has been won by bribing her chambermaid, when perhaps all the solicitations of her parents and relations, and all the motives of self-interest, would have proved ineffectual?

The lucky adjusting of times and seasons, taking advantage of prevailing prejudices and panicks, and knowing how to humour and lay hold of the predominant enthusiasm of human nature, has given birth to most of the revolutions in religion and politicks which ever happened in the world. A juggler swallowing bibles and hour-glasses, shall do more with a modern mob than a philosopher; and a scarecrow prater, with distorted limbs and understanding, shall make thousands of them weep and wring their hands, when the oratory of Demosthenes, or the reasonings of Mr. Locke, would make them laugh or hoot. There is a certain assimilation of passions and faculties in men, which attract one another when they meet, and always strike together. As when two fiddles are tuned up to the same pitch, if you hit the one, the other sounds; so men are easiest operated upon by those of like understandings with their own, or those who the best know how to dally and play with their foibles, and can do the same thing with design as the others do naturally.

I doubt not but I shall be censured for making thus bold with the Lord of the Creation, by those who make much more bold with Him on other occasions, and who would have the monopoly of enjoying all the scandal to themselves. But, by the leave of those solemn gentlemen, I shall take the liberty of considering man as he is, since it is out of our power to give a model to have him new made by.

Since then, by the sins of our first parents, we are fallen into this unhappy and forlorn condition, all wise and honest men are obliged, in prudence and duty, not only by lectures of philosophy, religion, and morals, to fashion this sovereign of the universe into his true interest, but to make use of his weaknesses to render him happy, as wicked men do to make him miserable; in which I shall be more particular hereafter.

T I am, &c.

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