Cato's Letter No. 117

Of the Abuse of Words, applied more particularly to the covetous Man and the Bigot.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, February 23, 1723)

SIR, I have often thought, that most of the mischiefs under which mankind suffers, and almost all their polemick disputes are owing to the abuse of words. If men would define what they mean by the sounds which they make use of to express their thoughts, and then keep to those definitions, that is, annex always the same ideas to the same sounds, most of the disputes in the world would be at an end: But this would not answer the purposes of those who derive power and wealth from imposing upon the ignorance and credulity of others. And therefore, till the world can agree to be honest, and to buy and sell by the same measure (which they do not seem in haste to do), I doubt this evil is likely to go on.

There are no words in language which seem to me to be more misapplied than the word self-interest, by divines, orators, philosophers, or poets: All have exerted themselves with great efforts of exhortation, reason, eloquence, and wit, against this reigning vice; but I conceive, that they have all missed the mark. Indeed, in the larger sense of the word, I think it impossible for any man to act upon any other motive than his own interest: For every pursuit that we make must have for its end the gratification of some appetite, or the avoiding of some evil which we fear; and, in truth, when we say that any man is self-interested, we mean only, that he is not enough in his own interest.

A good-humoured man, when he pities another, gratifies a natural passion, in having a fellow-feeling of the calamities of others, and a desire to see all men out of pain or trouble. A generous man pleases his vanity, ostentation, or temper, in doing good to others; or by it intends to gain friends or dependents. An indulgent parent takes pleasure to see that his children (whom he esteems parts of himself) live happy, contented, and make a figure in the world; and derives credit and reputation to himself from their doing so. A beneficent patron, or a man in love, reaps great personal satisfaction in obliging the objects of his kindness, and by making them more devoted to himself. And all these pity or contemn one who wants these agreeable appetites, and most reasonably judge, that he wants many pleasures which they themselves enjoy; as well knowing, that, next to the preservation of their beings by wholesome food, and warm raiment, and the enjoying the common necessaries and usual diversions of life, all that can be added to their happiness is, to obtain respect, love, and esteem, from others.

Even all the worst passions flow from the same source. For, what is hatred, malice, and revenge, but gratifying vicious appetites? And fear and cowardice are only struggles in nature to avoid evils to ourselves. Of all men, the covetous man is the most unhappy: For, as every pleasure is the gratification of some appetite or desire, the man who has least desires and appetites, must have the least pleasures, and he must lose many agreeable sensations which other men enjoy. I laugh at the foolish philosophy of some sects in old Greece, who placed the summum bonum, or chief happiness, in the absence of all passions or desires; which can be only a state of death, or perfect stupidity, whilst we are alive. Men exceed vegetables no otherwise than as they think; and when they cease to think (if that can be) they are in a temporary state of death; and the objects of all thinking must be something which we desire to attain, or fear to lose: And as thought itself is only a motion of the mind, so one motion must produce another, as every thought must do, and be perpetually progressive, till death puts an end to all thoughts. Here covetousness therefore can only proceed from a poorness and dejection of soul, which always fears want and misery, and must ever be bereft of all lively and sparkling imaginations, be in a constant state of diffidence and despondency, and lose all the gay, cheerful and generous sensations, which flow from a free, active, happy, and beneficent mind.

I must take the liberty therefore to think, that self-interest, in the ill sense of the word, ought to be new-defined, and made applicable only to those who prefer a small interest to a great one, or to such who take a wrong way to attain that great one: And in this latter sense the bigot is the most self-interested person in the world: His whole thoughts are so wound up in himself, and his own personal views, that he is wholly regardless of what becomes of the rest of the world, unless he can find his own benefit in it. Indeed he will give some loose pence to beggars or vagabonds, and perhaps sums to maintain idlers and cynicks, not out of humanity and generous principles, but in order to put it out to large interest: I do not mean for five or six per cent but for more than sixty times sixty thousand; though, if a nation [is] to be saved, or a great people protected from slavery, he is wholly unconcerned about the event, as esteeming the little affairs of this world much below his notice and consideration.

He is the same in respect of the other world, as the covetous man is in respect of this; and both their good qualities proceed from the same principles and appetites in nature. He is covetous for the good things in the kingdom of heaven, as the other is for them here; and both take much the same way to get them. They both contemn wise men, because wise men contemn them; their despising the vanities of the world, saves money; their condemning the modest pleasures of life, gratifies their sour and censorious temper; their living cloistered and retired lives, feeds natural melancholy; and the former hopes to carry heaven (which the other does not trouble himself about) by singing songs upon earth, by being perfectly useless to society, and good for no one thing in the world.

This sort of creature is the tool for knaves to work with, and made use of to serve their interests, whilst he intends only to pursue his own. He is made to believe that kingdoms, infinitely preferable to those of this world, are to be gained by the manner of cutting his corns, or by forms, fashions, habits, postures, cringes and grimaces; by using a rote of words, or by useless speculations, and dancing after idle harangues, and always by being an implacable enemy and a furious adversary to all who have generous and beneficent affections towards their own species. He values opinions like rotten cheese, in proportion as they are old: and is more concerned for peopleís believing right, than for their doing right. He thinks that the way to shew our gratitude to God, is to refuse his gifts; and believes truth the more sacred, the less it is understood; and nothing worthy to be called faith, but what is absurd to reason, and contradicts all the principles of science. He is a fast friend to every thing that looks like a mystery; thinks common sense too common, and sublime nonsense to be always a proof of inspiration. He measures virtue and vice, right and wrong not by the interests of mankind, but by scanty and partial rules, invented by pedants and hypocrites, and calculated chiefly for their own benefit. He is a friend to no man, and all his thoughts and speculations are above humanity and social pleasures, and all the frail things of this world; and so he keeps all his money to himself, and, at last, perhaps, starves his friends and family, to leave it to such wretches as he is, not out of kindness to them, but to receive ample payment again where he is going.

I have often wondered how this stupid animal could ever be in repute; how the most insignificant and worst being in the universe could be thought the most acceptable to the best; and how any one can be supposed to merit heaven, by being useless upon earth. Castruccio Castracani said well, that he would never believe that Friar Hieronymo had more interest above than he himself had. Surely he judged right; yet the world ever has run, and, I doubt, ever will run, madding after hermits, cynicks, dreamers of dreams, venders of prophecy, and after recluse and sequestered persons, who are supposed to know heavenly things in proportion as they know nothing here. They call their solemn folly, divine wisdom; their spleen and melancholy, godly contemplation; their envious, sullen, and morose tempers, strict and rigid virtue, and detestation of vice: Covetousness in frugality, and the contempt of things below. Whereas a truly virtuous and godly man is the most candid, amiable, and best natured creature upon earth: He spends his life in doing all the good that he can, and to all the men that he can: He takes pleasure in seeing all men happy, and will endeavour to make them all happy: He has large and comprehensive notions of the deity; and as he finds in himself kind and beneficent affections towards the whole creation, believes that the Supreme Being has the same; and, consequently, will not make our happiness or misery to depend upon what is out of our power, or upon such speculations or actions as can produce no moral good, but often destroy it, and promote evil.


God wants nothing; and if we have any gifts to bestow, his creatures are our only proper objects: But those who crave in his name largesses and endowments, which they apply to their own use and luxury, and call their own luxury and pomp the serving of him, make the Almighty as greedy as they are, and the giver of all things to want almost every thing; and confining all their bounty and charity to their own dear persons, think that he does so too, and that they are as dear to him as they are to themselves; and so hate and despise, distress and destroy, in the name of God, all whom they hate for their own sakes: So that, excepting a very few men (the most ridiculous and the worst of the whole) all the human species are esteemed by them as outcasts, whom the wise Creator and Governor of the World has sent into it only to abhor and to damn them; and though his favours are infinite, yet they think that he bestows them all upon a little island, or a poor desert, or on a small and contemptible corner of the earth, purely because the inhabitants wear blue, or black, or broad bonnets, quaint doublets, or long petticoats; and eat, or refuse to eat fish or flesh, and other food given for the general use of all men; or make selfish and partial speeches to him, and use crazy distinctions about him, which he commands not, which wise men understand not, and which the weakest men alone are governed by.

With bigots almost every thing that is truth is blasphemy. With them a sour face, and a bitter and implacable heart, are qualifications so acceptable to the wise, merciful, and forgiving God, that he hates all who want these qualifications: So that, in great detestation of blasphemy, they blasphemously make the God and father of mercies, and of man, a party-man too; or, at best, the head of the most senseless, useless, inhuman, and mischievous party in the universe, the party of bigots; who, being blindly and obstinately addicted to their own incurable follies, are furiously bent against all the wise and sober men in the world: they improve the world by defacing it; and their way of building up, is to destroy and pull down. This they call edification.

But religion is another and a contrary thing; and whoever would entertain a just idea of the divine being, must conceive of him in direct opposition to the bigotís conceptions; namely, that the God of Truth is not the author of contradictions; that when he speaks to men, he speaks not above the capacities of men, but to their capacities, which is the end of speaking; that he who makes the hearts of men, is the best and only judge of menís hearts, who cannot see into one anotherís, that being the only province and privilege of omniscience; that his perfect goodness cannot punish men, whom he has created naturally subject to errors, for involuntary errors; that having not made man perfect, he cannot be offended with him for natural and inevitable imperfections.

That we cannot provoke him, when we intend to adore him; that the best way to serve him, is to be serviceable to one another; he himself, who is omnipotent, wanting none of our impotent assistance and benefits, which must come from him, but cannot go from us to him; that to hurt men, or betray them, for his sake, is to mock him, and impiously to father upon the God of Wisdom and Peace our own rage and folly; that to him neither sounds, nor gestures, nor actions, are good or bad, pleasing or displeasing, but as the intentions from whence they spring are sincere or insincere, of which he alone can be judge.

That he who made the world has not restrained his gifts, favours, and mercies, to a nook of it; nor picks out from among men, who are all his, a few particular minions and favourites, or gives these authority to domineer over the rest, and to oppress them in the name of that God who is not the god of a nation, or of a sect, but of all nations, tongues, and persuasions, and is heard of all that call upon him and fear him: That the only way to please and resemble him, is to do, as he does, good to all impartially, and to restrain men from hurting or persecuting one another: And, in fine, that anger, revenge, and ambition, are not religion; nor the author and object of it an angry, partial, whimsical, and cruel being; but that religion is as different from bigotry, and as far above it, as the wise, great, and good God is above weak, little, ill, and angry men.

G I am, &c.

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