Front Page Titles (by Subject) NO. 2. SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 1723. Considerations upon the Condition of an absolute Prince. (Gordon) - Cato's Letters, vol. 4 December 8, 1722 to December 7, 1723 (LF ed.)
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NO. 2. SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 1723. Considerations upon the Condition of an absolute Prince. (Gordon) - John Trenchard, Cato’s Letters, vol. 4 December 8, 1722 to December 7, 1723 (LF ed.) 
Cato’s Letters, or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects. Four volumes in Two, edited and annotated by Ronald Hamowy (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 4.
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NO. 2. SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 1723. Considerations upon the Condition of an absolute Prince. (Gordon)
There is no human condition but what carries uneasinesses with it; and I believe it will be difficult to know what condition makes men most happy, or happy at all. There is no judging of it by outward appearances. We often envy others for what they find misfortunes; and pity them for things, which are blessings, and either make them happy, or hinder them from being miserable. Nothing can be happiness in this world but gratifying our desires and inclinations; and yet we can seldom gratify them to any degree, but by turning them into misfortunes; yet we must gratify them in some degree, or else we can have no happiness at all.
To have no desires (if that be possible) is a perfect state of stupidity; and our desires must be always to attain what we do not then enjoy, and often what we cannot compass. This produces uneasiness, or in other words, renders us unhappy in some degree. The man therefore who has fewest desires, or desires the least difficult to be accomplished, has the least unhappiness; but wants many agreeable sensations, which men of more lively and active spirits enjoy. So that, upon the whole, if we balance the account, men have little reason to envy or pity one another: But if there be any difference between them, the condition of absolute princes and great men is by far the most miserable. They have little relish of the enjoyments, which they possess; they are always pursuing things difficult to be obtained, and are in as constant fear and danger of losing what they have, as of gaining what they have not; and if they do gain it they are seldom the better, but often plunged into new difficulties by their success.
Great fortune comes attended with great cares, and much greatness has many incumbrances. This is the condition of a despotick prince, who, having much more business than himself can do, be his diligence ever so great, must share the great weight and multiplicity of his affairs amongst many; who will be but too apt, in the administration of their several parts, to attend more to their own greatness and advantages, than to their master's reputation and security, to justify their ill actions by his authority, and to acquire grandeur and riches to themselves, while they heap obloquy upon him.
This is often the true reason why a good prince is not always popular. People will judge of him by what is done, and not by what he causes to be done; and therefore the publick dislike rarely stops at his servants, who perhaps alone deserve it; but have often the art of involving him in the ill consequences of their own conduct, and of making their crimes complete, by engaging him to support them in their crimes, by persuading him that all their views and actions were for his service, and by frightening him with this false and mischievous maxim, That a prince must never give up his servants: A maxim fatal to many princes, and big with nonsense and with ruin to the people, as it makes all ministers, even the weakest and the worst, perfectly unaccountable!
This is an unnatural maxim: Nor have the most absolute monarchs, though their power be erected upon the violent abasement of human nature, and upon the ruins of all goodness, happiness, and virtue, been ever able to practise it, however they may want it, and in speculation pretend to it. The Great Turk is often forced to give up his servants, who must die for his crimes, as well as for their own; so far is he from sacrificing himself for theirs, as this maxim would direct. Nor is there an arbitrary prince in the world but must give up the best minister that he has, if his army demand it; and where the people have any share of power, no well-advised prince will employ a servant whom they justly hate and suspect.
Princes are set in a high place; which, though the most coveted of all, has the least happiness of any other. Those, who have no equals, can hardly have any friends; and a particular friendship and confidence between an arbitrary prince and any of his own subjects, is seldom sincere on either side, especially on theirs; and often fatal to him, sometimes to them. Such princes are most successfully betrayed by their greatest favourites, who are likewise frequently undone for being favourites. Nor can princes, with all their power, raise to the highest place those who are highest in their favour. Interest, or ambition, and sometimes fear, determines their choice; and their first minister is often the man whom they hate most, or dread most, which is the beginning of hatred. Nero hated Seneca and Burrhus; and Lewis XIII hated Cardinal Richelieu; as did King James I towards his latter end, the Duke of Buckingham. Even the crafty, implacable, and diffident Tiberius was forced to continue the traitor Sejanus in his power, places and trust, a good while after he had full proof that he sought his life and empire.
The greatest princes therefore are generally destitute of friends. To purchase friends, they must give them power; and power cancels all friendships. It is the most selfish thing in the world. Those who have it are too frequently faithless to the giver; and when it is taken away, always ungrateful. And this is the reason why they may dislike their ministers, and yet be loth to change them: They know, that to dismiss their servants, is to multiply their enemies. So they are forced to accept faint or false services, to prevent open opposition; which they who have been in their service, and know their affairs and designs, are the best qualified to make.
The opening of one's heart to a friend, is one of the greatest pleasures and reliefs arising from friendship; and private men can practise it, because where the reputation of keeping a secret is greater than the temptation to reveal it, it will be kept: But to whom can a prince lay open his heart in any great and tender point, when by doing it he puts his safety and reputation in the power of another, who must be paid dear for being faithful; and perhaps at last is not so, because he never thinks himself sufficiently paid!
Hence princes and great men are naturally close and reserved, and keep themselves as far as possible within their own power: They know that the fidelity of men is then only greater than their treachery, when the price is greater. Secrecy is indeed so absolutely necessary in great affairs, that he who wants it is utterly unfit for them; and I have known very little men, who, with this qualification alone, have been thought great men. Sometimes men are dark and cautious from the littleness of their talents; and employments and trust generally make men so.
As to the publick friendships of princes, that is, of princes with princes, it is generally grimace; and there can scarce be any such thing. They are all rivals for power and credit; and all envy, or are envied by, one another. Nor do treaties and alliances allay their jealousies and heart-burnings, but often increase them: They are generally made out of fear, and always imply distrust. Men of power, at least men of equal power, princes or subjects, never agree but from the necessity of their affairs; and they too often seem to be friends, on purpose to execute their malice with the greater certainty. Every particular wants to be master, and to give laws to all the rest; and they often push their mutual diffidence even to ridicule, and fall into violence and quarrels about the ceremonial; which, like some other ceremonies, signifies not a straw to the rest of the world, and yet must be owned to be of considerable consequence to those that deal in it.
Nor are princes more happy in their families. They are unhappy if they have no children, because by it conspiracies are encouraged, as one life is easier destroyed than several. Julius Caesar had no child; and the tyrannicides hoped in him to have destroyed his family. The same consideration was doubtless one motive to the many plots against Queen Elizabeth and King William: If they have children, they are often as unhappy; and there is seldom a good understanding between the incumbent and the next heir; who sometimes takes the throne before it is vacant, and sometimes makes a vacancy: Imperium habere quam expectare mallet. And sometimes the father destroys the son, for fear of being destroyed by him; as did Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and Philip II of Spain. And thus the excellent Germanicus owed his murder to the cruel politicks of Tiberius, his uncle, and his father by adoption. Nor do the children of princes hate one another less, than the eldest or the most ambitious generally does his father. The Great Mogul almost always sees his sons, and his daughters with them, engaged in wars and blood for their father's empire; and he is their prisoner by turns, as their several parties prevail, and perhaps ends his life in a dungeon. One of David's sons lay with his sister, and was killed by another son, who defiled his father's bed, and endeavoured to dethrone him; and Solomon, as soon as his father was dead, put his eldest brother to death.
Princes are likewise subject to higher dangers, and have more and greater enemies, than other men; and their lives and reputations are more exposed. They have no small enemies, but either neighbouring princes and states as powerful or politick as themselves; or great domestick conspirators, often more terrible; or little assassins, the most formidable enemies of all, as they are the most sure and sudden. Besides, the dangers they are sometimes in are not seen or credited till they are past remedy. Domitian therefore said well, Conditionem principum miserrimam, quibus de conjuratione comperta non crederetur, nisi occisis: “It is a miserable lot that of princes, never to be believed as to any conspiracy formed against them till it has had its effect, and they are fallen by it.” Sueton. in Domitian. C. 21.
I shall refer to another paper my further considerations upon the condition of a prince.
G I am,&c.