Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 11: Liberty produceth Virtue, Order and Stability: Slavery is accompanied with Vice, Weakness and Misery. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 11: Liberty produceth Virtue, Order and Stability: Slavery is accompanied with Vice, Weakness and Misery. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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Liberty produceth Virtue, Order and Stability: Slavery is accompanied with Vice, Weakness and Misery.
Our author’s judgment, as well as inclinations to virtue, are manifested in the preference he gives to the manners of the Assyrians and other Eastern nations, before the Grecians and Romans: Whereas the first were never remarkable for anything, but pride, lewdness, treachery, cruelty, cowardice, madness, and hatred to all that is good; whilst the others excelled in wisdom, valour, and all the virtues that deserve imitation. This was so well observed by St. Augustine, that he brings no stronger argument to prove, that God leaves nothing that is good in man unrewarded, than that he gave the dominion of the best part of the world to the Romans, who in moral virtues excelled all other nations.1 And I think no example can be alleged of a free people that has ever been conquer’d by an absolute monarch, unless he did incomparably surpass them in riches and strength; whereas many great kings have been overthrown by small republicks: and the success being constantly the same, it cannot be attributed to fortune, but must necessarily be the production of virtue and good order. Machiavelli discoursing of these matters, finds virtue to be so essentially necessary to the establishment and preservation of liberty, that he thinks it impossible for a corrupted people to set up a good government, or for a tyranny to be introduced if they be virtuous; and makes this conclusion, That where the matter (that is, the body of the people) is not corrupted, tumults and disorders do no hurt; and where it is corrupted, good laws do no good:2 Which being confirmed by reason and experience, I think no wise man has ever contradicted him.
But I do not more wonder that Filmer should look upon absolute monarchy to be the nurse of virtue, tho we see they did never subsist together, than that he should attribute order and stability to it; whereas order doth principally consist in appointing to everyone his right place, office, or work; and this lays the whole weight of the government upon one person, who very often does neither deserve, nor is able to bear the least part of it. Plato, Aristotle, Hooker, and (I may say in short) all wise men have held, that order required that the wisest, best, and most valiant men, should be placed in the offices where wisdom, virtue and valour are requisite. If common sense did not teach us this, we might learn it from the Scripture. When God gave the conduct of his people to Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and others, he endowed them with all the virtues and graces that were required for the right performance of their duty. When the Israelites were oppressed by the Midianites, Philistines and Ammonites, they expected help from the most wise and valiant. When Hannibal was at the gates of Rome, and had filled Italy with fire and blood; or when the Gauls overwhelmed that country with their multitudes and fury, the senate and people of Rome put themselves under the conduct of Camillus, Manlius, Fabius, Scipio, and the like; and when they failed to chuse such as were fit for the work to be done, they received such defeats as convinced them of their error. But if our author say true, order did require that the power of defending the country should have been annexed as an inheritance to one family, or left to him that could get it, and the exercise of all authority committed to the next in blood, tho the weakest of women, or the basest of men.
The like may be said of judging, or doing of justice; and ’tis absurd to pretend that either is expected from the power, not the person of the monarch; for experience doth too well shew how much all things halt in relation to justice or defence, when there is a defect in him that ought to judge us, and to fight our battles. But of all things this ought least to be alleged by the advocates for absolute monarchy, who deny that the authority can be separated from the person, and lay it as a fundamental principle, that whosoever hath it may do what he pleases, and be accountable to no man.
Our author’s next work is to shew, that stability is the effect of this good order; but he ought to have known, that stability is then only worthy of praise, when it is in that which is good. No man delights in sickness or pain, because it is long, or incurable; nor in slavery and misery, because it is perpetual: much less will any man in his senses commend a permanency in vice and wickedness. He must therefore prove, that the stability he boasts of is in things that are good, or all that he says of it signifies nothing.
I might leave him here with as little fear, that any man who shall espouse his quarrel, shall ever be able to remove this obstacle, as that he himself should rise out of his grave and do it: but I hope to prove, that of all things under the sun, there is none more mutable or unstable than absolute monarchy; which is all that I dispute against, professing much veneration for that which is mixed, regulated by law, and directed to the publick good.
This might be proved by many arguments, but I shall confine myself to two; the one drawn from reason, the other from matters of fact.
Nothing can be called stable, that is not so in principle and practice, in which respect human nature is not well capable of stability; but the utmost deviation from it that can be imagined, is, when such an error is laid for a foundation as can never be corrected. All will confess, that if there be any stability in man, it must be in wisdom and virtue, and in those actions that are thereby directed; for in weakness, folly and madness there can be none. The stability therefore that we seek, in relation to the exercise of civil and military powers, can never be found, unless care be taken that such as shall exercise those powers, be endowed with the qualities that should make them stable. This is utterly repugnant to our author’s doctrine: He lays for a foundation, that the succession goes to the next in blood, without distinction of age, sex, or personal qualities; whereas even he himself could not have the impudence to say, that children, and women (where they are admitted) or fools, madmen, and such as are full of all wickedness, do not come to be the heirs of reigning families, as well as of the meanest.3 The stability therefore that can be expected from such a government, either depends upon those who have none in themselves, or is referred wholly to chance, which is directly opposite to stability.
This would be the case, tho it were (as we say) an even wager, whether the person would be fit or unfit, and that there were as many men in the world able, as unable to perform the duty of a king; but experience shewing that among many millions of men, there is hardly one that possesses the qualities required in a king, ’tis so many to one, that he upon whom the lot shall fall, will not be the man we seek, in whose person and government there can be such a stability as is asserted. And that failing, all must necessarily fail; for there can be no stability in his will, laws or actions, who has none in his person.
That we may see whether this be verified by experience, we need not search into the dark relations of the Babylonian and Assyrian monarchies: Those rude ages afford us little instruction; and tho the fragments of history remaining do sufficiently show, that all things there were in perpetual fluctuation, by reason of the madness of their kings, and the violence of those who transported the empire from one place or family to another, I will not much rely upon them, but slightly touching some of their stories, pass to those that are better known to us.
The kings of those ages seem to have lived rather like beasts in a forest than men joined in civil society: they followed the example of Nimrod the mighty hunter; force was the only law that prevailed, the stronger devoured the weaker, and continued in power till he was ejected by one of more strength or better fortune.4 By this means the race of Ninus was destroy’d by Belochus: Arbaces rent the kingdom asunder, and took Media to himself. Morodach extinguished the race of Belochus, and was made king: Nebuchadnezzar like a flood overwhelmed all for a time, destroy’d the kingdoms of Jerusalem and Egypt, with many others, and found no obstacle, till his rage and pride turned to a most bestial madness: And the Assyrian empire was wholly abolish’d at the death of his grandchild Belshazzar;5 and no stability can be found in the reigns of those great kings, unless that name be given to the pride, idolatry, cruelty and wickedness in which they remained constant. If we examine things more distinctly, we shall find that all things varied according to the humour of the prince. Whilst Pharaoh lived, who had received such signal services from Joseph, the Israelites were well used: but when another rose up who knew him not, they were persecuted with all the extremities of injustice and cruelty, till the furious king persisting in his design of exterminating them, brought destruction upon himself and the nation.6 Where the like power hath prevailed, it has ever produced the like effects. When some great men of Persia had persuaded Darius, that it was a fine thing to command, that no man for the space of thirty days should make any petition to God or man, but to the king only, Daniel the most wise and holy man then in the world must be thrown to the lions. When God had miraculously saved him, the same sentence was passed against the princes of the nation.7 When Haman had filled Ahasuerus his ears with lies, all the Jews were appointed to be slain; and when the fraud of that villain was detected, leave was given them, with the like precipitancy, to kill whom they pleased.8 When the Israelites came to have kings, they were made subject to the same storms, and always with their blood suffer’d the penalty of their prince’s madness. When one kind of fury possessed Saul, he slew the priests, persecuted David, and would have killed his brave son Jonathan: When he fell under another, he took upon him to do the priest’s office, pretended to understand the word of God better than Samuel, and spared those that God had commanded him to destroy: Upon another whimsy he killed the Gibeonites, and never rested from finding new inventions to vex the people, till he had brought many thousands of them to perish with himself and his sons on Mount Gilboa.9 We do not find any king, in wisdom, valour and holiness, equal to David; and yet he falling under the temptations that attend the greatest fortunes, brought civil wars and a plague upon the nation. When Solomon’s heart was drawn away by strange women, he filled the land with idols, and oppressed the people with intolerable tributes.10 Rehoboam’s folly made that rent in the kingdom which could never be made up.11 Under his successors the people served God, Baal or Ashtaroth, as best pleased him who had the power; and no other marks of stability can be alleged to have been in that kingdom, than the constancy of their kings in the practice of idolatry, their cruelty to the prophets, hatred to the Jews, and civil wars producing such slaughters as are reported in few other stories: The kingdom was in the space of about two hundred years possessed by nine several families, not one of them getting possession otherwise than by the slaughter of his predecessor, and the extinction of his race; and ended in the bondage of the ten tribes, which continues to this day.12
He that desires farther proofs of this point, may seek them in the histories of Alexander of Macedon, and his successors: He seems to have been endow’d with all the virtues that nature improved by discipline did ever attain, so that he is believed to be the man meant by Aristotle, who on account of the excellency of his virtues was by nature framed for a king; and Plutarch ascribes his conquests rather to those, than to his fortune: But even that virtue was overthrown by the successes that accompanied it: He burnt the most magnificent palace of the world, in a frolick, to please a mad drunken whore: Upon the most frivolous suggestions of eunuchs and rascals, he kill’d the best and bravest of his friends; and his valour, which had no equal, not subsisting without his other virtues, perished when he became lewd, proud, cruel and superstitious; so as it may be truly said, he died a coward.13 His successors did not differ from him: When they had killed his mother, wife and children, they exercised their fury against one another; and tearing the kingdom to pieces, the survivors left the sword as an inheritance to their families, who perished by it, or under the weight of the Roman chains.
When the Romans had lost that liberty which had been the nurse of their virtue, and gained the empire in lieu of it, they attained to our author’s applauded stability. Julius being slain in the senate, the first question was, whether it could be restored, or not? And that being decided by the battle of Philippi, the conquerors set themselves to destroy all the eminent men in the city, as the best means to establish the monarchy. Augustus gained it by the death of Antonius, and the corruption of the soldiers; and he dying naturally, or by the fraud of his wife, the empire was transferred to her son Tiberius; under whom the miserable people suffer’d the worst effects of the most impure lust and inhuman cruelty: He being stifled, the government went on with much uniformity and stability; Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius regularly and constantly did all the mischief they could, and were not more like to each other in the villainies they committed, than in the deaths they suffered. Vespasian’s more gentle reign did no way compensate the blood he spilt to attain the empire: And the benefits received from Titus his short-liv’d virtue, were infinitely overbalanced by the detestable vices of his brother Domitian, who turned all things into the old channel of cruelty, lust, rapine and perfidiousness. His slaughter gave a little breath to the gasping perishing world; and men might be virtuous under the government of Nerva, Trajan, Antoninus, Aurelius, and a few more; tho even in their time religion was always dangerous. But when the power fell into the hands of Commodus, Heliogabalus, Caracalla, and others of that sort, nothing was safe but obscurity, or the utmost excesses of lewdness and baseness. However, whilst the will of the governor passed for a law, and the power did usually fall into the hands of such as were most bold and violent, the utmost security that any man could have for his person or estate, depended upon his temper; and princes themselves, whether good or bad, had no longer leases of their lives, than the furious and corrupted soldiers would give them; and the empire of the world was changeable, according to the success of a battle.
Matters were not much mended when the emperors became Christians: Some favour’d those who were called Orthodox, and gave great revenues to corrupt the clergy. Others supported Arianism, and persecuted the Orthodox with as much asperity as the pagans had done. Some revolted, and shewed themselves more fierce against the professors of Christianity, than they that had never had any knowledge of it. The world was torn in pieces amongst them, and often suffered as great miseries by their sloth, ignorance and cowardice, as by their fury and madness, till the empire was totally dissolved and lost. That which under the weakness and irregularity of a popular government, had conquer’d all from the Euphrates to Britain, and destroyed the kingdoms of Asia, Egypt, Macedon, Numidia, and a multitude of others, was made a prey to unknown barbarous nations, and rent into as many pieces as it had been composed of, when it enjoy’d the stability that accompanies divine and absolute monarchy.
The like may be said of all the kingdoms in the world; they may have their ebbings and flowings according to the virtues or vices of princes or their favorites; but can never have any stability, because there is, and can be none in them: Or if any exception may be brought against this rule, it must be of those monarchies only which are mixed and regulated by laws, where diets, parliaments, assemblies of estates or senates, may supply the defects of a prince, restrain him if he prove extravagant, and reject such as are found to be unworthy of their office, which are as odious to our author and his followers, as the most popular governments, and can be of no advantage to his cause.
There is another ground of perpetual fluctuation in absolute monarchies; or such as are grown so strong, that they cannot be restrained by law, tho according to their institution they ought to be, distinct from, but in some measure relating to the inclinations of the monarch, that is, the impulse of ministers, favorites, wives or whores, who frequently govern all things according to their own passions or interests. And tho we cannot say who were the favorites of every one of the Assyrian or Egyptian kings, yet the examples before-mentioned of the different method follow’d in Egypt before, and after the death of Joseph, and in Persia whilst the idolatrous princes, and Haman, or Daniel, Esther and Mordecai were in credit; the violent changes happening thereupon, give us reason to believe the like were in the times of other kings: and if we examine the histories of later ages, and the lives of princes that are more exactly known, we shall find that kingdoms are more frequently swayed by those who have power with the prince, than by his own judgment: So that whosoever hath to deal with princes concerning foreign or domestick affairs, is obliged more to regard the humour of those persons, than the most important interests of a prince or people.
I might draw too much envy upon myself, if I should take upon me to cite all the examples of this kind that are found in modern histories, or the memoirs that do more precisely shew the temper of princes, and the secret springs by which they were moved. But as those who have well observed the management of affairs in France during the reigns of Francis the First, Henry the Second, Francis the Second, Charles the Ninth, Henry the Third, Henry the Fourth, and Lewis the Thirteenth, will confess, that the interests of the dukes of Montmorency and Guise, Queen Catherine de Medici, the duke of Epernon, La Fosseuse, Madame de Guiche, de Gabriele, d’ Entragues, the Marechal d’ Ancre, the Constable de Luines, and the Cardinal de Richelieu,14 were more to be consider’d by those who had any private or publick business to treat at court, than the opinions of those princes, or the most weighty concernments of the state; so it cannot be denied, that other kingdoms where princes legally have, or wrongfully usurp the like power, are governed in the like manner; or if it be, there is hardly any prince’s reign that will not furnish abundant proof of what I have asserted.
I agree with our author, that good order and stability produce strength. If monarchy therefore excel in them, absolute monarchies should be of more strength than those that are limited according to the proportion of their riches, extent of territory, and number of people that they govern; and those limited monarchies in the like proportion more strong than popular governments or commonwealths. If this be so, I wonder how a few of those giddy Greeks who, according to our author, had learning enough only to make them seditious,15 came to overthrow those vast armies of the Persians as often as they met with them; and seldom found any other difficulty than what did arise from their own countrymen, who sometimes sided with the barbarians. Seditions are often raised by a little prating; but when one man was to fight against fifty, or a hundred, as at the battles of Salamis, Plataea, Marathon, and others, then industry, wisdom, skill and valour was required; and if their learning had not made them to excel in those virtues, they must have been overwhelmed by the prodigious multitudes of their enemies. This was so well known to the Persians, that when Cyrus the younger prepar’d to invade his brother Artaxerxes, he brought together indeed a vast army of Asiaticks; but chiefly relied upon the counsel and valour of ten thousand Grecians, whom he had engaged to serve him. These giddy heads, accompanied with good hands, in the great battle near Babylon, found no resistance from Artaxerxes his army; and when Cyrus was killed by accident in the pursuit of the victory they had gained, and their own officers treacherously murder’d, they made good their retreat into Greece under the conduct of Xenophon, in despite of above four hundred thousand horse and foot, who endeavour’d to oppose them. They were destitute of horse, money, provisions, friends and all other help, except what their wisdom and valour furnished them; and thereupon relying, they passed over the bellies of all the enemies that ventur’d to appear against them in a march of a thousand miles. These things were performed in the weakness of popular confusion; but Agesilaus not being sensible of so great defects, accompanied only with six and thirty Spartans, and such other forces as he could raise upon his personal credit, adventured without authority or money to undertake a war against that great king Artaxerxes; and having often beaten Pharnabazus and Tissaphernes his lieutenants, was preparing to assault him in the heart of his kingdom, when he was commanded by the ephori to return for the defence of his own country.16
It may in like manner appear strange, that Alexander with the forces of Greece, much diminished by the Phocaean, Peloponnesian, Theban, and other intestine wars, could overthrow all the powers of the East, and conquer more provinces than any other army ever saw; if so much order and stability were to be found in absolute monarchies, and if the liberty in which the Grecians were educated did only fit them for seditions: and it would seem no less astonishing, that Rome and Greece, whilst they were free, should furnish such numbers of men excelling in all moral virtues, to the admiration of all succeeding ages; and thereby become so powerful that no monarchs were able to resist them; and that the same countries since the loss of their liberty, have always been weak, base, cowardly and vicious, if the same liberty had not been the mother and nurse of their virtue, as well as the root of their power.
It cannot be said that Alexander was a monarch in our author’s sense; for the power of the Macedonian kings was small. Philip confessed the people were freemen, and his son found them to be so, when his fortune had overthrown his virtue, and he fell to hate and fear that generosity of spirit which it creates. He made his conquests by it, and lov’d it as long as he deserved to be lov’d. His successors had the same fortune: When their hearts came to be filled with barbarick pride, and to delight only in rendering men slaves, they became weak and base, and were easily overthrown by the Romans, whose virtue and fortune did also perish with their liberty. All the nations they had to deal with, had the same fate. They never conquer’d a free people without extreme difficulty: They received many great defeats, and were often necessitated to fight for their lives against the Latins, Sabines, Tuscans, Samnites, Carthaginians, Spaniards; and in the height of their power found it a hard work to subdue a few poor Aetolians: But the greatest kings were easily overcome. When Antiochus had insolently boasted that he would cover Greece and Italy with the multitude of his troops, Quintus Flaminius ingeniously compared his army of Persians, Chaldeans, Syrians, Mesopotamians, Cappadocians, Arabians, and other base Asiatic slaves, to a supper set before him by a Grecian friend, which seeming to be of several sorts of venison, was all cut out of one hog, variously dress’d; and not long after was as easily slaughter’d as the hog had been.17 The greatest danger of the war with Mithridates was to avoid his poisons and treacheries; and to follow him through the deserts where he fled. When Lucullus with less than twenty thousand men had put Tigranes with two hundred thousand to flight, the Roman soldiers who for a while had pursued the chase, stood still on a sudden, and fell into loud laughter at themselves for using their arms against such wretched cowardly slaves.18 If this be not enough to prove the falsehood of our author’s proposition, I desire it may be consider’d whether good order or stability be wanting in Venice: Whether Tuscany be in a better condition to defend itself since it fell under the power of the Medicis, or when it was full of free cities: Whether it were an easy work to conquer Switzerland: Whether the Hollanders are of greater strength since the recovery of their liberty, or when they groaned under the yoke of Spain: And lastly, whether the entire conquest of Scotland and Ireland, the victories obtained against the Hollanders when they were in the height of their power, and the reputation to which England did rise in less than five years after 1648,19 be good marks of the instability, disorder, and weakness of free nations: And if the contrary be true, nothing can be more absurdly false than our author’s assertion.
De Civ. Dei. [Augustine, City of God, 7 vols. (Loeb, 1957), bk. 5, ch. 19.]
Si puo far questa conclusione, che dove la materia non e corrotta, i tumulti ed altri scandali non nuocono; là dove la e corrotta le buone leggi non giovano. Machiav. Disc. sopra T. Livio, lib. 1. [Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, bk. 1, ch. 17.]
[Filmer discusses succession as an inherited right in Patriarcha, ch. 5–6, pp. 60–63.]
[The reign of Saul is described in 1 Samuel 8–31.]
[2 Samuel 11, 12.]
[1 Kings 11.]
[1 Kings 12.]
Plut. in Vit. Alex. [Plutarch, Life of Alexander.]
[These royal favorites held great sway over their respective monarchs in France.]
[Patriarcha, ch. 15, pp. 85–86.]
Plut. vit. Artax. [Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes.]
Plut. in vit. Q. Flamin. [Plutarch, Life of Quintus Flaminius, ch. 17.]
Plut. in vit. Lucul. [Plutarch, Life of Lucullus, ch. 28.]
[Charles I was executed in early 1649, from which time Parliament governed England unchallenged until 1653.]