Cato's Letter No. 134

What small and foolish Causes often misguide and animate the Multitude.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, June 29, 1723)

SIR, It is surprizing what minute and contemptible causes create discontents, disorders, violence, and revolutions amongst men; what a small spring can actuate a mighty and many-headed multitude; and what mighty numbers one man is capable of drawing into his disgusts and designs. It is the weakness of the many; when they have taken a fancy to a man, or to the name of a man, they take a fancy even to his failings, adopt his interest right or wrong, and resent every mark of disfavour shewn him, however just and necessary it be. Nor are the resentments and fondness the less violent for being ill-grounded. If a man make them drunk once or twice a year, this injury is a kindness which they never forget; and he is sure of their hearts and their hands for having so generously robbed them of their time, their innocence, and their senses. They are grateful for the mischief done them; and in return, are ready to do any for him. He who restrains them from drunkenness, or even punishes them for it, is a greater and a real benefactor; but such a benefactor as they will never forgive, and he is sure to lose their good will, probably to purchase their hatred.

This shews how much their senses are stronger, than their understandings. They are governed not by judgment, but by sensations; and, one guinea in drink obliges them more than two in clothes; or in any other dry way. Liquor warms their hearts, and fills them with the man who is the author of so much joy. So that to instruct them, feed them, and employ them, are not such sure ways to win them, as to mislead and inflame them, and to waste their time. For this reason, the sober and the sensible clergyman is never so popular, as the loud, the factious, and the hot-headed. Rational and sober instruction is a cold thing, and goes no farther than the understanding: But noise and raving awaken and intoxicate the animal spirits, and set the blood on fire, and have all the effects of wine.

So that in raising parties and factions, inflaming goes a thousand times farther than reasoning and teaching. A foolish speech, supported with vehemence and brandy, will conquer the best sense, and the best cause in the world, without anger or liquor. Sobriety and capacity are not talents that recommend to the crowd, who are always taken with shallow pomp and sound, and with men of little restraints. The debauched and the superstitious have great hold of them: Men who will sin with them, or men who can give them amulets against the vengeance due to sinning. But men who will neither corrupt them, nor deceive them, are to them distasteful Stoicks, or frightful infidels, and sometimes used as such. One may at any time gain an interest in a mob with a barrel of beer, or without it, by means of a few odd sounds, that mean nothing, or something very wild or wicked. Let any superstition, though ever so wild or foolish, be advanced by one who has credit enough to deceive them; let any favourite party watch-word be invented, and pronounced in such a tone and such a posture, it soon becomes sacred, and in the highest esteem; and woe be to him that speaks against a mystery: Every argument shall be an affront and a sign of unbelief; which is a crime always highest, and most hated, when it is best grounded. The managers of the charm, on the contrary, are men of vast reverence, moment, and popularity: and a zeal for the charm, creates guards and revenues to the charmers. If you go about to expose the imposture, and unfold the cheat, you are a foe to all religion, and will believe nothing without evidence. The superstition grows in established repute, and ‘tis dangerous to oppose it, till some other, often more absurd, and consequently more prevailing, undermines and exterminates it: For there is that propensity in most men to delusion and grimace, that they seldom recur to the plain and amiable precepts taught in the scripture, and to a religion without shew, pageantry, and ceremonies; but superstition almost always subsists in some shape or other, and grows strong and reverenced in proportion to its weakness, nonsense, and absurdity: As it is admired in proportion as it is foolish or wonderful, it is believed in proportion as it is incredible. So that the credulity of the people for the most part follows the wise improvement of nonsense:

Cupidine ingenii humani libentius obscura credi.
Considering the weakness of man’s nature, prone to imaginary fears, to lean upon imaginary props, and to seek imaginary cures, limited deluders are often to be borne; but the worst is, that they will not be limited, but extend their guile to instances where it is not wanted; and from managing his whims, assume a right to direct his property, his eating and drinking, and every part of his behaviour; and turn canting and telling dreams, into authority and ruling.

The Egyptians have been always a most superstitious nation, always under the dominion of their priests, and consequently prone to tumults and insurrections. Their priests were at one time arrived to that monstrous pitch of power and tyranny, that they used to dispatch their kings by a message. If they did but signify their pious pleasure, that his Majesty was to cut his throat he durst not refuse, but must humbly take the knife, and be his own executioner. But the power of the priests was weakened, and the danger of frequent rebellions prevented, by the following stratagem of one of the princes. He considered the madness of the multitude after their gods, and their priests; and that their unity in religious frenzy and nonsense, disposed them to unanimity in their civil rage. He therefore divided Egypt into several districts, and endowed every district with its peculiar and separate deities. He knew, that if they differed about their gods, or divine cattle, and vegetables of worship, and about the rites paid them, they would agree about nothing else, and consequently never to conspire against him. One division had for its deity a monkey, another had a cat, another a crocodile, another a kite; and some adored leeks and garlick, savoury gods of their own planting.

O sanctas gentes, quibus haec nascuntur in hortis
This dividend of deities had the desired effect. The several districts abhorred all the neighbouring celestial gentry as intensely and madly as they doted on their own; and were ready to spill their blood, either offensively, or defensively, for the honour and interest of these their different divinities. Hence the religious and bloody war between two neighbouring towns, finely described by Juvenal with his usual force and indignation.Inter finitimos vetus atque antiqua simultas,
Immortale odium & nunquam sanabile vulnus
Ardet adhuc, Ombas & Tentyra. Summus utrinque
Inde furor vulgo, quod numina vicinorum
Odit uterque locus; cum solos credit habendos
Esse deos quos ipse colit.
Juv. Sat. 15
When people are once divided in their affections, every thing, however innocent and indifferent, if it be peculiar to the one, becomes a mark of iniquity, and an object of hatred to the other. A different hat or coat becomes the source of resentment, when perhaps a cloak or a ruff creates friendship and esteem. A judgment is made of the hearts of men by their habit, and particular good or bad qualities are annexed to cloth and colours. There are instances of monarchs deposed and murdered by their people for wearing a foreign dress, or for speaking a foreign language: And there are instances of nations persecuted, wasted, and laid in blood by their princes, for using, or not using, particular gestures and sounds, which their Highnesses had taken a liking to; and of princes used the same way by their people for the same reason.

If they take an affection to the word abracadabra, though they join to it no certain idea, they think themselves justified in oppressing, and sometimes in butchering, all who do not profess the same vehement affection to the same senseless sound. But the man who is loud and mutinous for abracadabra is their darling: They grow fond of him for being fond of their word: His fondness is a compliment to them; and they will venture life and limb for a cheat, or a blockhead, who opens his mouth just as they do theirs. Their zeal is the fiercer, because it is blind. If they fall religiously in love with an ape, or an ox, or with those that tend him, as the Egyptians did, he is presently a blasphemer, who does not debase his understanding or forfeit his sincerity, by sacrificing shamefully and devoutly to these brute creatures, and by reverencing and pampering the solemn Merry Andrews that look after them.

The great island of Madagascar is divided into two great parts and parties, who are at fierce strife and everlasting war about a sanctified elephant’s tooth, which both own to have come down from heaven, and both pretend to have it; and I am not sure whether it has not worked miracles on both sides: but as neither side will allow the other to have it, they hate one another as much as they love and hate the said tooth. Great is the elephant of Madagascar, and the tusk which fell down from Jupiter!

The Turks and the Persians are equally the devout, the blind, and bigotted followers of Mahomet, and differ in no point of doctrine. This doctrinal unanimity, one would think, must be a powerful bond of union, at least of religious union between the two empires. But no such matter. They treat one another as execrable hereticks and infidels, and do not hate the Christians more, though their only or principal difference in opinion is, that the Turks hold Omar for the true successor of Mahomet, and the Persians maintain that Ali was. They tie their religion, at least the efficacy of it, to the succession; and deny that there can be any salvation in any church where the uninterrupted succession is not kept up: So that each side is damned in the opinion of each. This hatred and division is increased by another momentous difference, the difference of the colours and caps which they wear. The Turks wear white turbans, and the Persians wear red bonnets. These are such abominable marks of heresy and schism, as deserve to be expiated with blood: And therefore that heresy has always been assigned as a principal cause of their many mutual invasions, merciless wars, and devastations.

I wish I could not say, that the wise and grave English nation have had also their holy and outrageous quarrels about words and motions, crape and cloth, bonnets and colours, and about the eastern and western situation of joint-stools. Thank God it is not quite so bad at present, no thanks to our education.

I would, for a conclusion to this letter, only desire it to be considered, what infamy and contempt it reflects upon the human understanding, and indeed upon the human species, to be thus apt to run into discord and animosities upon such wretched and unmannerly motives; and what monsters and impostors they must be, who begin, or manage, or heighten these absurd and impious contentions amongst any part of the race of men, already too unhappy by the lot of nature.

G. I am,&c.

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