Additional Letters of Cato No. 1

That ambitious Princes rule and conquer only for their own Sakes; illustrated in a Dialogue between Alexander the Great and a Persian.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, August 24, 1723)

SIR, Man is more selfish than all other creatures; as habit, or imagination, has made more things necessary to his pleasure and convenience, than other animals want for theirs. Lust and hunger are their only appetites; further than these prompt them, they commit no ravages, and they have the plea of necessity for the evils which they do. None of them invade countries for the vanity of a title; nor enslave, plunder, and burn, out of pride. They have no avarice; they do not starve millions to surfeit one, or a few. They have no ambition; they do not destroy for glory. To the disgrace of humanity, and the misfortune of the world, all these mischiefs and abominations come from the impulse of human passions, from a ravenousness and ferocity, worthy only of wild beasts, but practised by men with much more extensive and successful cruelty. The false refinements of reason have taught them to make the earth a wilderness, or a shambles; and to commit oppressions and butcheries, which true reason abhors.

Men are so conceited, that they think they deserve every thing they want, and may do every thing to procure it; and nothing but fear restrains man from dealing with man as nations deal with nations, that is, from devouring one another. There is not a city or country in the world, but, were it let alone, would swallow up all the rest; and cities and countries are compounded of men, and governed by them. And, as every nation is in its own conceit better than another, almost every man in every nation is in his own opinion better than all the rest. Some may ask, whether a poor labourer in a ditch fancies himself as good a man as the lord of the soil? I answer, try him: Offer him the manor, and then see whether, from a mean opinion of his merit, he rejects the offer. Who is it that refuses or resigns greatness, from the inaptness of his talents to sustain it? Titles and honours are only due to merit; but who denies them from a sense of the want of it? On the contrary, are not the weakest and most worthless men the easiest puffed up with the vanity of a gay name; which is so far from giving them any intrinsick advantages, that it really exposes their defects? And do they not make one acquisition, which they merited not, a ground and reason for expecting and demanding, perhaps for extorting, others, which they merit as little? Great men are sometimes supplanted and undone by their creatures; and princes have had the crown taken from their head, and with it their life, by such as they had raised from the dust.

Leave men to take the full reward of their fancied merit, and the world will be thought too little for almost every individual, as Alexander thought it for him. He had the fortune to ravage the world, and from thence believed he had a right to it. Omnia vult, qui omnia potest. Men thus let loose, do no more mischief than they can, nor less. The world is therefore a foot-ball; a great scene of contention, revolutions, and misery: It is full of Alexanders.

For the better illustration of this subject, I will here subjoin a dialogue between Alexander the Great and a Persian.

Alex. I find you a man of understanding; and you shall say with security what you please: But sure you must acknowledge that I have acquired everlasting glory in conquering this great empire.

Pers. You have done many horrible things for this glory; made havock of mankind, all Asia a scene of blood, and the world a theatre of sorrow and violence, to gain it.

Alex. Is not glory thus gained?

Pers. More is the shame and the pity, that so wicked a thing should have so fine a name. If you had saved us from all the evil, that you have done us, I should have called it glory.

Alex. Great actions are glorious, let the consequences be good or bad.

Pers. Then I perceive there is no difference between good and bad actions; at least great mischief is as good and as glorious for your purpose as great good.

Alex. For the mischiefs that you have suffered, your king must answer: He drew the war upon you.

Pers. How so?

Alex. Xerxes, one of his predecessors, invaded Greece.

Pers. If he did it wantonly, he did wrong, and sacrificed many lives to his pride: But I thought all this had been glory, because you seek glory the same way.

Alex. No, I revenge Greece upon Persia.

Pers. So he did Persia upon Greece, though with less advantage to him, and less detriment to the Grecians. Besides, he is dead, and it is unjust to punish those who hurt you not, for those who hurt your ancestors a great while ago.

Alex. Greece and Persia still subsist.

Pers. They are still called Persia and Greece; but the men of whom you complain no longer subsist.

Alex. Darius, your present Emperor, whom I have so often beaten, still lives, and he oppressed the Greek cities in Asia.

Pers. So he did the Persian cities, and his whole empire; or his governors did it for him. Now if you had come and relieved us, and gone back again, I should not differ with you about the notions of glory: But to invade us, and make us the plunder of armies for another man’s crimes, which we condemn, and could not help, is no glory to us.

Alex. I meant his subjects no harm.

Pers. But you have done it as effectually as if you had.

Alex. I could not come at him, without killing his soldiers, and subduing his people.

Pers. Then you should have let him alone, at least till he had molested you.

Alex. He did; he enthralled my brethren the Asiatick Greeks; which I could not brook.

Pers. Give me leave to say, you have enthralled Greece itself, and Asia, and the world. How comes thraldom from Alexander to be better than thraldom from Darius? or why should it be better brooked?

Alex. I see you are no politician: You do not consider, that when I was about to invade Asia, it would have been madness to have left Greece unsubdued behind me.

Pers. The great Mithra shining yonder over our heads, and witnessing our actions, preserve all sober men from madness; and, for the peace of mankind, restore all madmen to their senses! And so, to revenge Greece upon Asia, which a hundred years before would have subdued Greece, you subdued Greece yourself, in order to subdue us harmless Asiaticks, who never saw any of your faces, till you came sword in hand to kill and oppress us for glory. You have arrived at that glory: And now I hope you will leave us, and return home.

Alex. No: Your King Darius still lives.

Pers. What! would you kill him?

Alex. No.

Pers. Then why do you pursue him?

Alex. To have him in my power.

Pers. And make him a captive and a slave; which is worse than killing him. But when you have him in your power, do you propose to set him up again, or in his room another royal Persian, who has not offended you?

Alex. No: Whom can I set up so worthy as Alexander, over the conquests of Alexander?

Pers. Doubtless none so brave to maintain them. But what right do you claim to the crown of Persia?

Alex. My sword; that sword which has conquered it.

Pers. While that right is in such hands, few will care to dispute it. But were I, who am no conqueror, to drive away my neighbour’s flocks and herds, and make them my own, I doubt you would call it robbery, and impale me alive.

Alex. Doubtless: I conquered the Persian empire; but I will protect the Persians in their lives and property: It is suitable to my generosity and justice.

Pers. In conquering us you have destroyed many lives, and much property, against all justice; and reserve the rest for your own use, whenever and as often as you think fit to take them.

Alex. It is the right of war.

Pers. War is then an unrighteous and inhuman thing, and entitles the next invader (if his sword be longer than yours, and his fortune superior) to drive you out, as you have done Darius.

Alex. Who shall dare to brave Alexander? Who contend with the son of a god?

Pers. Methinks you come not very honourably by that divine pedigree, and carnal divinity; which reflects some disgrace too upon your mother, and her husband Philip, and is not much to the reputation of this god of the desert. But who told you that he was your father?

Alex. His priests.

Pers. They would have told me as much, had I been there at the head of an army in quest of a celestial descent. It is no great credit to be akin to the figure of a ram: It is at least as much honour to be akin to the next palm-tree, or to the next marble-quarry, the elements of such inanimate deities.

Alex. Blaspheme not the gods, if thou wouldest avoid their vengeance: They will punish thee, though I forbear.

Pers. If the son forgive me, I will venture the displeasure of the father. I honour that only god, whose bright image I behold in the skies; nor fear the indignation of a piece of a trunk, or of a rock, however fashioned; unworthy kindred of the great Alexander, the most exalted of men, but subject to pain, misfortunes, and grief, and all the symptoms of mortality: The conqueror of Asia, the avenger of Greece, must die. But first, how is Greece avenged?

Alex. By conquering Persia.

Pers. You have ruined both: But of the two you have rather revenged Persia upon Greece. The lesser follows the greater. You are already monarch of Asia; and Greece, which you have enslaved, will be but a province of Persia: You do the very thing which you were so incensed against our former princes for intending. If your sovereignty continue, Persians will in time be sent governors of Greece; nay, you yourself, who are a Greek, wear already a Persian habit.

Alex. I have made the world my own, and will do with it as I list.

Pers. You do so; but it is more than you would suffer others to do, who thought they had a better right. If you be innocent, how were the Persian monarchs faulty?

Alex. I am Alexander, the son of Jupiter, and conqueror of the world.

Pers. Nay, they had sublime titles too, and heavenly alliances. They were lords of the world, and brothers of the sun; a more illustrious and visible deity than Jupiter the ram.

Alex. Their gods could not protect them; and mine have given me their empire. Once more, I am Alexander; the world is mine, and I will keep it.

Pers. Now this is open and fair dealing, worthy the great spirit of Alexander. You had a mind to the world, and you took it; nor think it enough for you. If you had made this frank declaration at first, I should not have troubled you with so much contradiction. If the great and bold mind of Alexander can stoop to dissemble, we are never to expect that men will own the true motives of their conduct. Their reason is just what their passion pleases. All their plausible and framed pretences are resolvable into some selfish appetite, which, like their conceit, is generally unmeasurable.

G. I am, &c.

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