Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 16: The ancients chose those to be Kings, who excelled in the Virtues that are most beneficial to Civil Societies. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 16: The ancients chose those to be Kings, who excelled in the Virtues that are most beneficial to Civil Societies. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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The ancients chose those to be Kings, who excelled in the Virtues that are most beneficial to Civil Societies.
If the Israelites, whose lawgiver was God, had no king in the first institution of their government, ’tis no wonder that other nations should not think themselves obliged to set up any: if they who came all of one stock, and knew their genealogies, when they did institute kings, had no regard to our author’s chimerical right of inheritance, nor were taught by God or his prophets to have any; ’tis not strange that nations, who did not know their own original, and who probably, if not certainly, came of several stocks, never put themselves to the trouble of seeking one, who by his birth deserved to be preferred before others; and if the various changes happening in all kingdoms (whereby in process of time the crowns were transported into divers families, to which the right of inheritance could not without the utmost impiety and madness be imputed) such a fancy certainly could only enter into the heads of fools; and we know of none so foolish to have harbour’d it.
The Grecians, amongst others who followed the light of reason, knew no other original title to the government of a nation, than that wisdom, valour and justice, which was beneficial to the people. These qualities gave beginning to those governments, which we call heroum regna;1 and the veneration paid to such as enjoyed them, proceeded from a grateful sense of the good received from them: They were thought to be descended from the gods, who in virtue and beneficence surpassed other men: The same attended their descendants, till they came to abuse their power, and by their vices shewed themselves like to, or worse than others. Those nations did not seek the most ancient, but the most worthy; and thought such only worthy to be preferred before others, who could best perform their duty. The Spartans knew that Hercules and Achilles were not their fathers, for they were a nation before either of them were born; but thinking their children might be like to them in valour, they brought them from Thebes and Epirus to be their kings. If our author is of another opinion, I desire to know, whether the Heraclidae, or the Aeacidae were, or ought to be reputed fathers of the Lacedemonians; for if the one was, the other was not.
The same method was followed in Italy; and they who esteemed themselves Aborigines,
could not set up one to govern them under the title of parent. They could pay no veneration to any man under the name of a common father, who thought they had none; and they who esteemed themselves equal, could have no reason to prefer any one; unless he were distinguished from others by the virtues that were beneficial to all. This may be illustrated by matters of fact. Romulus and Remus, the sons of a nun, constuprated, as is probable, by a lusty soldier, who was said to be Mars, for their vigour and valour were made heads of a gathered people. We know not that ever they had any children; but we are sure they could not be fathers of the people that flocked to them from several places, nor in any manner be reputed heirs of him or them that were so; for they never knew who was their own father; and when their mother came to be discovered, they ought to have been subjects to Amulius or Numitor, when they had slain him. They could not be his heirs whilst he lived, and were not when he died: The government of the Latins continued at Alba, and Romulus reigned over those who joined with him in building Rome. The power not coming to him by inheritance, must have been gained by force, or conferred upon him by consent: It could not be acquired by force; for one man could not force a multitude of fierce and valiant men, as they appear to have been. It must therefore have been by consent: And when he aimed at more authority than they were willing to allow, they slew him. He being dead, they fetched Numa from among the Sabines: He was not their father, nor heir to their father, but a stranger; not a conqueror, but an unarmed philosopher. Tullus Hostilius had no other title: Ancus Marcius was no way related to such as had reigned. The first Tarquin was the son of a banished Corinthian. Servius Tullius came to Rome in the belly of his captive mother, and could inherit nothing but chains from his vanquished father. Tarquin the Proud murdered him, and first took upon himself the title of king, sine jussu populi.3 If this murder and usurpation be called a conquest, and thought to create a right, the effect will be but small: The conqueror was soon conquered, banished, and his sons slain, after which we hear no more of him or his descendants. Whatsoever he gained from Servius, or the people, was soon lost, and did accrue to those that conquered and ejected him; and they might retain what was their own, or confer it upon one or more, in such manner and measure as best pleased themselves. If the regal power, which our author says was in the consuls, could be divided into two parts, limited to a year, and suffer such restrictions as the people pleased to lay upon it, they might have divided it into as many parcels, and put it into such form, as best suited with their inclinations; and the several magistracies which they did create for the exercise of the kingly, and all other powers, shews that they were to give account to none but themselves.
The Israelites, Spartans, Romans and others, who thus framed their governments according to their own will, did it not by any peculiar privilege, but by a universal right conferred upon them by God and nature: They were made of no better clay than others: They had no right, that does not as well belong to other nations; that is to say, the constitution of every government is referred to those who are concerned in it, and no other has anything to do with it.
Yet if it be asserted, that the government of Rome was paternal, or they had none at all; I desire to know, how they came to have six fathers of several families, whilst they lived under kings; and two or more new ones every year afterwards: Or how they came to be so excellent in virtue and fortune, as to conquer the best part of the world, if they had no government. Hobbes indeed doth scurrilously deride Cicero, Plato and Aristotle, caeterosque Romanae & Graecae anarchiae fautores.4 But ’tis strange that this anarchy, which he resembles to a chaos, full of darkness and confusion, that can have no strength or regular action, should overthrow all the monarchies that came within their reach, If (as our author says) the best order, greatest strength, and most stability be in them.5 It must therefore be confessed, that these governments are in their various forms, rightly instituted by several nations, without any regard to inheritance; or that these nations have had no governments, and were more strong, virtuous and happy without government, than under it, which is most absurd.
But if governments arise from the consent of men, and are instituted by men according to their own inclinations, they did therein seek their own good; for the will is ever drawn by some real good, or the appearance of it. This is that which man seeks by all the regular or irregular motions of his mind. Reason and passion, virtue and vice do herein concur, tho they differ vastly in the objects, in which each of them thinks this good to consist. A people therefore that sets up kings, dictators, consuls, praetors or emperors, does it not, that they may be great, glorious, rich or happy, but that it may be well with themselves and their posterity. This is not accomplished simply by setting one, a few, or more men in the administration of powers, but by placing the authority in those who may rightly perform their office. This is not every man’s work: valour, integrity, wisdom, industry, experience and skill, are required for the management of those military and civil affairs that necessarily fall under the care of the chief magistrates. He or they therefore may reasonably be advanced above their equals, who are most fit to perform the duties belonging to their stations, in order to the publick good, for which they were instituted.
Marius, Sulla, Catiline, Julius or Octavius Caesar, and all those who by force or fraud usurped a dominion over their brethren, could have no title to this right; much less could they become fathers of the people, by using all the most wicked means that could well be imagined to destroy them; and not being regularly chosen for their virtues, or the opinion of them, nor preferred on account of any prerogative that had been from the beginning annexed to their families, they could have no other right than occupation could confer upon them. If this can confer a right, there is an end of all disputes concerning the laws of God or man. If Julius and Octavius Caesar did successively become lords and fathers of their country, by slaughtering almost all the senate, and such persons as were eminent for nobility or virtue, together with the major part of the people, it cannot be denied, that a thief, who breaks into his neighbour’s house, and kills him, is justly master of his estate; and may exact the same obedience from his children, that they render to their father. If this right could be transferred to Tiberius, either through the malice of Octavius, or the fraud of his wife; a wet blanket laid over his face, and a few corrupted soldiers could invest Caligula with the same. A vile rascal pulling Claudius out by the heels from behind the hangings where he had hid himself, could give it to him. A dish of mushrooms well seasoned by the infamous strumpet his wife, and a potion prepared for Britannicus by Locusta, could transfer it to her son, who was a stranger to his blood. Galba became heir to it, by driving Nero to despair and death. Two common soldiers by exciting his guards to kill him, could give a just title to the empire of the world to Otho, who was thought to be the worst man in it. If a company of villains in the German army, thinking it as fit for them as others, to create a father of mankind, could confer the dignity upon Vitellius; and if Vespasian, causing him to be killed, and thrown into a jakes less impure than his life, did inherit all the glorious and sacred privileges belonging to that title, ’tis in vain to inquire after any man’s right to anything.
If there be such a thing as right or wrong to be examined by men, and any rules set, whereby the one may be distinguished from the other; these extravagancies can have no effect of right. Such as commit them, are not to be looked upon as fathers; but as the most mortal enemies of their respective countries. No right is to be acknowledged in any, but such as is conferred upon them by those who have the right of conferring, and are concerned in the exercise of the power, upon such conditions as best please themselves. No obedience can be due to him or them, who have not a right of commanding. This cannot reasonably be conferred upon any, that are not esteemed willing and able rightly to execute it. This ability to perform the highest works that come within the reach of men; and integrity of will not to be diverted from it by any temptation, or consideration of private advantages, comprehending all that is most commendable in man; we may easily see, that whensoever men act according to the law of their own nature, which is reason, they can have no other rule to direct them in advancing one above another, than the opinion of a man’s virtue and ability, best to perform the duty incumbent upon him; that is, by all means to procure the good of the people committed to his charge. He is only fit to conduct a ship, who understands the art of a pilot: When we are sick, we seek the assistance of such as are best skill’d in physick: The command of an army is prudently conferred upon him that hath most industry, skill, experience and valour: In like manner, he only can, according to the rules of nature, be advanced to the dignities of the world, who excels in the virtues required for the performance of the duties annexed to them; for he only can answer the end of his institution. The law of every instituted power, is to accomplish the end of its institution, as creatures are to do the will of their creator, and in deflecting from it, overthrow their own being. Magistrates are distinguished from other men, by the power with which the law invests them for the publick good: He that cannot or will not procure that good, destroys his own being, and becomes like to other men. In matters of the greatest importance, detur digniori6 is the voice of nature; all her most sacred laws are perverted, if this be not observed in the disposition of the governments of mankind: But all is neglected and violated, if they are not put into the hands of such as excel in all manner of virtues; for they only are worthy of them, and they only can have a right who are worthy, because they only can perform the end for which they are instituted. This may seem strange to those, who have their heads infected with Filmer’s whimseys; but to others, so certainly grounded upon truth, that Bartholomew de Las Casas Bishop of Chiapa, in a treatise written by him, and dedicated to the Emperor Charles the 5th, concerning the Indies, makes it the foundation of all his discourse, that notwithstanding his grant of all those countries from the pope, and his pretentions to conquest, he could have no right over any of those nations, unless he did in the first place, as the principal end, regard their good: The reason, says he, is, that regard is to be had to the principal end and cause, for which a supreme or universal lord is set over them, which is their good and profit, and not that it should turn to their destruction and ruin; for if that should be, there is no doubt but from thence forward, that power would be tyrannical and unjust, as tending more to the interest and profit of that lord, than to the publick good and profit of the subjects; which, according to natural reason, and the laws of God and man, is abhorred, and deserves to be abhorred.7 And in another place speaking of the governors, who, abusing their power, brought many troubles and vexations upon the Indians; he says, They had rendered his majesty’s government intolerable, and his yoke insupportable, tyrannical, and most justly abhorred.8 I do not allege this through an opinion, that a Spanish bishop is of more authority than another man; but to shew, that these are common notions agreed by all mankind; and that the greatest monarchs do neither refuse to hear them, or to regulate themselves according to them, till they renounce common sense, and degenerate into beasts.
But if that government be unreasonable, and abhorred by the laws of God and man, which is not instituted for the good of those that live under it; and an empire, grounded upon the donation of the pope, which amongst those of the Roman religion is of great importance, and an entire conquest of the people, with whom there had been no former compact, do degenerate into a most unjust and detestable tyranny, so soon as the supreme lord begins to prefer his own interest or profit, before the good of his subjects; what shall we say of those who pretend to a right of dominion over free nations, as inseparably united to their persons, without distinction of age or sex, or the least consideration of their infirmities and vices; as if they were not placed in the throne for the good of their people, but to enjoy the honours and pleasures that attend the highest fortune? What name can be fit for those, who have no other title to the places they possess, than the most unjust and violent usurpation, or being descended from those, who for their virtues were, by the people’s consent, duly advanced to the exercise of a legitimate power; and having sworn to administer it, according to the conditions upon which it was given, for the good of those who gave it, turn all to their own pleasure and profit, without any care of the publick? These may be liable to hard censures; but those who use them most gently, must confess, that such an extreme deviation from the end of their institution, annuls it; and the wound thereby given to the natural and original rights of those nations cannot be cured, unless they resume the liberties, of which they have been deprived, and return to the ancient custom of chusing those to be magistrates, who for their virtues best deserve to be preferred before their brethren, and are endowed with those qualities that best enable men to perform the great end of providing for the publick safety.
[Kingdoms of heroes.]
[“Natives, … who were born of split oaks, made of clay, having no parents.” Juvenal, Satire 6, li. 12–13, in Juvenal and Perseus, Satires (rev ed.; Loeb, 1940).]
T. Liv. [“Without the command of the people.” Livy, History of Rome, bk. 1, ch. 49.]
[“And the other patrons of Greek and Roman anarchy.” Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, ch. 12, sec. 3.]
[Patriarcha, ch. 15, p. 86.]
[“Let it be given to the worthier.”]
La razon es porque siempre se ha de tener respeto al fin y causa final, por el qual, el tal supremo y universal sennor se los pone, que es su bien y utilitad; y a que no se le convierte el tal supremo sennorio in danno, pernicie y destruycion. Porque si assi fuesse, no ay que dudar, que non desde entonees inclusivamente seria injusto, tyrannico y iniquo tal sennorio, come mas se enderezasse al proprio interesse y provecho del sennor, que al bien y utilitad comun de los subditos; lo qual de la razon natural y de todas las leyes humanas y divinas es abhorrecido y abhorrexible. Bar. de las Casas. destr. de las Indias, pag. 111 . [Bartolomé de Las Casas, Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias (1552), actually on p. 115. The quotation is from a dispute between Casas and Sepulveda, Twelfth Reply.]
El yugo y governacion de Vuestra Magestad importable, tirannico y degno de todo abhorrecimento. Pag. 167. [Ibid. The quotation is from a section called Entre los Remedios …, Fourth Reason.]