Additional Letters of Cato No. 5

Considerations upon the Condition of Prime Ministers of State.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, November 30, 1723)

SIR, I have considered, in three former letters, some of the many evils that encompass royalty: I shall here consider the condition of great ministers; who are far from being so happy as they appear. Those who view them at a distance, are apt to measure their happiness by their greatness; and, as they do in other things, to take appearances for proofs. They see the elevation of great men, the shew that they make, the numbers that follow them, and the obedience and adoration which are paid them; and from all this infer a suitable degree of felicity. This is wrong reasoning. The world affords not more unhappy men, than those who seem to abound in happiness, by abounding in certain things, which others, who have them not, consider as the means of happiness. The increase of fortune is followed by an increase of cares; and riches and power, so much the aim of all men, as the chief causes of worldly happiness, are no more capable of giving it, than of giving health, strength, or beauty; but often become real misfortunes, and the bitter sources of misery in various shapes. All which will be more manifest from an enquiry into the condition of a great man.

In his pursuit of greatness he will meet with many rough rebukes, and many shocking disappointments. Things, upon which he had set his heart, will often fail him; and the next hopes of his ambition be often frustrated. Little men and small accidents will frequently do him great and essential harm; and the chance of a day destroy the schemes of years. Those who are his equals, will not care to see over their heads one who they think ought to be at their elbow; and when he offers to break out of his rank, will be apt to give him an invidious pull backwards. They will not care to see their companion become their master; and such as are yet greater than he, will not love one who would be as great as they, and when he is as great, would be greater; one, who, having been accustomed to mount above his equals, aims visibly at equalling his superiors or at having none.

Here are the beginnings of numerous conspiracies against him and his ambition; conspiracies that will watch his steps, retard his advancement, blast his views, and perhaps his reputation; and, when he has gained ground, be ready to set him back again: They will often reduce him to difficulties, often to despair, or to painful patience, and make his ascent tedious and tiresome: They will be heavy weights upon him while he rises, and thorns in his side when he is risen; and possibly push him over a precipice at last.

In his state of exaltation he will find new difficulties to encounter, besides most of the old ones increased; and the grandeur which he had so long and so painfully pursued, he will now find to be chiefly pomp and name, the reputation of happiness without happiness: He will meet with a thousand mortifications which a private character is a stranger to, and which but for his elevation he would have never known. He will never be able to oblige all who are able to hurt him, if they be not obliged; nor to terrify all who can distress him, if they be not terrified. By this power he will think himself entitled to honour and submission; and where he misses the same, as certainly he often will, his vexation will be as great as are the notions which he entertains of his worth and power; and those notions being generally sufficiently selfish, that is, extreme, that vexation must likewise be extreme.

Hence a disappointment in small things often gives men great disturbance; not from the value of the thing, but from the value which they put upon themselves; and great men are not apt to value themselves less than other men are, but much more, and, at least, in proportion to their greatness. A private manís vineyard could not be of much importance to a king; but a king thought it of great importance to be refused, when he had set his heart upon having it. Ahab could not brook this refusal of Naboth; and therefore ďAhab came into his house heavy and displeased; and he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread.Ē 1 Kings xxi. 4. Archbishop Laud was equally discontented, and more enraged, by ajest of Archy, the Kingís fool, upon the mad and unsuccessful pranks which his Grace was playing with religion in Scotland; so enraged, that though Archy was a professed arid allowed buffoon, and had made many jests equally severe upon the King himself without offence, yet of so fierce and unforgiving a temper was the Archbishop, and so much a greater man than his Majesty, that poor Archy was by a solemn act of council banished the court, for offending his meek Grace of Canterbury.

Such instances shew, that trifles are capable of mortifying the most exalted men, because the most exalted men think that they ought to be balked and ruffled in nothing, and expect to be protected by their exaltation from all contradiction and opposition: Whereas greatness, which must be supported by much action, and by the co-operation of many persons, does, by increasing their necessities and views, increase also their anxieties and disappointments. They will need many helps, and be obliged to embark in many designs; and both the helps and the designs that they relied on will often fail them. And as they will find the cause of that failure in the shortness of their power, it will be natural for them to be trying expedients to enlarge their power: If those expedients miscarry, as they frequently will, their uneasinesses are multiplied by an attempt to cure them: If they succeed, the success will only imbitter their enemies, and probably help to strengthen them, by furnishing them with a popular handle for reproach, and for alarming the publick. And as to their friends, who are only to be made so by giving each his lot in the power which they assist to raise, it is not to be expected that they will raise it so high, as no longer to want their assistance, unless in cases perfectly desperate, when in the last struggle of parties one or other must inevitably swallow all; and then the respect of persons must carry it.

But I speak here of the usual contention for the usual advantages of power, which is not to be acquired without difficulty and struggles, unless where by the maggot of a prince a favourite is raised in a day; as King James I from a stripling, without name or experience, or any fitness for business, made young Villiers his first minister for his handsome face. But, however it may be thus hastily got, or rather given, that minister found that it was not easily kept: for, though he was possessed of his masterís whole authority, and invested, in effect, with royalty; and though that weak timorous king did not at first, and afterwards durst not, refuse him any thing, how absurd, extravagant, and arbitrary soever; and though the civil and military lists were filled with his creatures and family; yet he was not too big to be shaken: His foundation, as strong and broad as it was, felt many terrible convulsions; and if King Charles I who had likewise taken him for his minister, or rather for his master, had not loved him better than he loved the constitution, and parted with the Parliament rather than part with Buckingham, his fall must have been as swift as his rise, as it was afterwards sudden by the hand of an assassin.

Cardinal Richelieu, infinitely more able, and far more powerful, as that monarchy, which he governed with a high hand, was more absolute than ours, was never free from difficulties, dangers, and embarrassments: And though by his great talents and good fortune he overcame them almost as fast as they arose; yet still they arose as fast as he overcame them. The intrigues of the cabinet against him were so many, so powerful, and so constant, that, though he had almost all Europe to contend with, he declared, that one chamber (meaning the cabinet) embarrassed him more than all Europe. The plots against his power were perpetual, and there were frequent plots against his life: Cardinal de Retz (then the Abbot de Retz) owns himself to have been engaged in one, and Monsieur Cinqmars died for another. Cinqmars was the Kingís favourite, and the King knew his design, though it does not appear that he approved it; but it is certain that he hated the Cardinal, as did all France.

As his power grew, his crosses and danger grew; so much are they mistaken, who from the growth of power expect equal ease and security. Cardinal Richelieu had the entire power of France in his hands, her armies, her garrisons, and her finances: The King was no more than his pupil; and every thing that obeyed the monarchy, obeyed him. Mazarin, who had the same authority, but seems to me to have been rather a little tricking Italian than a great politician, underwent so many insults, disgraces, dangers, and disappointments, that none but a man mad with ambition and avarice would have held his place upon such miserable terms.

G. I am,&c.

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