Cato's Letter No. 119

The same Subject continued.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, March 9, 1723)

SIR, No people upon earth were more grateful to their good citizens than the Greeks and Romans were, or encouraged virtue more, or rewarded it better: Nor did they scarce ever banish any man till he became terrible to them; and then it was time. Nor is there one great absolute monarchy in the world, or ever was from the beginning of it, but destroyed more innocent men in amonth, than the commonwealth of Rome did in a hundred years; besides, that a free state produces more great men in fifty years, than an absolute monarchy does in a thousand.

Those who had done any signal service to the state of Athens, were endowed with eminent privileges, and distinguished with all publick marks of honour: They had the first seats at publick entertainments and assemblies; they had publick statues erected to them; they had crowns conferred upon them; they were exempted from duties, taxes, and contributions, they were maintained at the publick charge, and sometimes their families after them: The publick resented the injuries done them; buried them magnificently; made publick orations in their praise; portioned out their daughters; and paid lasting honours to their name. And all this at a time when publick honours were only the rewards of merit, and parsimoniously distributed.

The Athenians had a particular law against ingratitude: And as to the ostracism, which may seem to contradict it, and by which they banished for ten years such great men as they judged formidable to their state, though they had formerly served it; it ought to be considered in its behalf, that the Athenians, like other free states, had suffered so much from their first-rate citizens, who suppressed their liberty under colour of advancing it, that they had great reason to be jealous of such. Whoever would live in a free state, must live upon a foot of equality; which great officers, accustomed to command, care not to do; and if they do not, they are justly removed. It is better that one man, however innocent, should suffer, than a whole people be ruined, or even hurt, if not by him, yet by his example: Nor ought they to shew, in one instance that cannot harm them, an indulgence, which in other and future instances may be their overthrow. Besides, the ostracism took nothing from any man, but a power of hurting every man: It affected not their goods, nor their persons, nor even their good name; and left them their full possessions, and their full liberty, every where but at Athens; whither, after ten years, they had a right to return, and were often recalled much sooner. It was likewise made use of sometimes only to pacify the fury of the envious, and to protect the innocent from it; and when base fellows came at last to be banished by it, it was laid aside.

The first purpose of the ostracism was, to keep publick benefactors from turning publick parricides, great men from being too great, subjects from growing too powerful for the state; a reasonable precaution, and practised some way or other by every state in the world: nor can any state subsist where it is not practised. Even in England, the hanging of two or three great men among the many guilty, once in a reign or two, would have prevented much evil, and many dangers and oppressions, and saved this nation many millions.

If we now consider absolute monarchy, we shall find it grafted upon ingratitude, which is blended with the root of it. Arbitrary princes cannot, dare not, be grateful to elevated merit, which by the tenour of their power they are obliged to dread. They only consider their single selves, and their separate interest; and must cut off, for their own security, every man whose true glory may eclipse their false, and who draws away, in any degree, the thoughts and eyes of the people. If they have no magnanimity of their own, they hate or fear such as have; or if they are brave themselves, they will be jealous of those who are more so, or as much. The same may be said of every other virtue. They may heap wealth upon buffoons, and confer dignities upon parasites; but celebrated virtue, conspicuous abilities, and signal services, are their eye-sores and certain aversion. If they be hated, they will not bear that any one should be esteemed; and if they be valued themselves, they will hate rivals.

Under most of the Roman emperors, popular virtue was certain death; ob virtutes certissimum exitium; and those who served them most, were surest of destruction; nec minus periculum ex magna fama quam ex mala. Germanicus, who saved the empire of Tiberius, his uncle and father by adoption, by reconciling to him the mutinous and revolted legions, was the first great sacrifice to his jealousy, being poisoned in Asia, whither he was sent under pretence of commanding it. Thus Nero too rewarded Corbulo; and thus Domitian rewarded Agricola; both the greatest officers of their time, and the greatest benefactors to these ungrateful tyrants, who aimed at cutting up virtue by the roots: Nor did Vespasian, the first Roman emperor that changed for the better, prove much more grateful to Antonius Primus, who had signally served him, and paved his way to the imperial diadem.

It were endless to mention other absolute monarchies. They are all animated by the same ungrateful, cruel, and suspicious spirit, and make havock of every thing that is good, destroying fastest those who serve them most. If they be ever grateful, they are only so to the vilest instruments of their tyranny; but for such as serve them against their foreign foes with just and popular glory, they are generally sacrificed to their endless jealousy of every thing that is noble. Belisarius is an affecting instance of this; an illustrious general, who, in the decline of the Roman empire, did, as it were, new conquer the world for his royal master; and for a reward, was stripped of all that he had, and turned off to beg his bread with his eyes put out.

It is a fine observation of Tacitus; Neque nobilem, neque ingenuum, neque libertinum quidem praeponere armis, regia utilitas est;

It is the business and special interest of an arbitrary prince, that his forces be commanded neither by a nobleman, nor by a freeman, nor, indeed, by any man who is two degrees removed from a slave.
Or, if such princes be obliged by the necessity of their affairs to employ an illustrious person in an important command, they always employ him with fear; and when their turn is served, and he has made them safe, dismiss him into obscurity with contempt, if he escape so well; for all their suspicions generally end in blood. Machiavel, who knew this well, says, that a great and successful general, under an arbitrary prince, has but two ways to escape the certain ruin which his glory, services, and renown, will else bring upon him: He must either quit the army, and, retiring from all power, live like a private man; or depose his master, and set up himself: Which last is generally the safer course.

It is well known how the Ottoman monarchs reward their bravest bashaws. The successful and unfortunate have the same fate: As the latter are sacrificed to rage, the other are to jealousy: Even their own sons have been recompensed with death, for deserving esteem. Nor is that cruel ingratitude peculiar to one race or family of princes, but eternally attached to that sort of power where-ever it is found.

But far different is the spirit of the people: They are prone to gratitude, and lavish in their affections and returns for benefits received. Nothing is too much or too high for the benefactor, or for one whom they think so. They are apt to continue blind to his faults, even when he has forfeited their favour; and to remain constant in their zeal to his name and posterity, in instances where they ought to detest both. This is abundantly exemplified and confirmed by the lasting respect and reverence paid by the Romans to those plagues of Rome, and of the earth, the family of the Caesars; by the French, to the stupid and sanguinary posterity of Charlemain; by the Turks, to the bloody family of Ottoman; by the Egyptians, to their luxurious and contemptible Ptolemies; by the Jews, to the cruel race of the Asmonaeans, or Maccabees; by the Parthians, to the barbarous line of the Arsacides; and by almost every instance of every people in the world. I could mention instances here at home, but they will occur fast enough to every reader who knows any thing of our history. The people are indeed grateful and constant, even to superstition, to persons and names to which they conceive themselves once obliged: Nor do they ever act ungratefully, but where they are first deceived by those whom they trust. The people of Athens, deceived by some of their demagogues, put once to death some of their sea officers, who did not deserve it; but they soon grew apprized of their error, and were severely revenged upon the traitorous calumniators who caused it.

Several instances may, no doubt, be found of the people’s ingratitude to their friends, and of the contrary quality in some absolute monarchs. But exceptions do not weaken a rule.

G. I am,&c.

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