Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 27: The Mischiefs and Cruelties proceeding from Tyranny are greater than any that can come from Popular or mixed Governments. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 27: The Mischiefs and Cruelties proceeding from Tyranny are greater than any that can come from Popular or mixed Governments. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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The Mischiefs and Cruelties proceeding from Tyranny are greater than any that can come from Popular or mixed Governments.
’Tis now time to examine the reasons of our author’s general maxims. The cruelties, says he, of a tyrant extend ordinarily no farther than some particular men that offend him, and not to the whole kingdom. It is truly said of his late majesty King James, a king can never be so notoriously vicious, but he will generally favour justice, and maintain some order. Even cruel Domitian, Dionysius the tyrant, and many others are commended in histories as great observers of justice, except in particular cases, wherein his inordinate lusts may carry him away.1 This may be said of popular governments; for tho a people through error do sometimes hurt a private person, and that may possibly result to the publick damage, because the man that is offended or destroy’d, might have been useful to the society, they never do it otherwise than by error: For having the government in themselves, whatever is prejudicial to it, is so to them; and if they ruin it, they ruin themselves, which no man ever did willingly and knowingly. In absolute monarchies the matter is quite otherwise. A prince that sets up an interest in himself, becomes an enemy to the publick: in following his own lusts he offends all, except a few of his corrupt creatures, by whose help he oppresses others with a yoke they are unwilling to bear, and thereby incurs the universal hatred. This hatred is always proportionable to the injuries received, which being extreme, that must be so too; and every people being powerful in comparison to the prince that governs, he will always fear those that hate him, and always hate those he fears. When Luigi Farnese first duke of Parma had by his tyranny incensed the people of that small city, their hatred was not less mortal to him than that of the whole empire had been to Nero; and as the one burn’d Rome, the other would have destroy’d Parma, if he had not been prevented. The like has been, and will be everywhere, in as much as every man endeavours to destroy those he hates and fears; and the greatness of the danger often drives this fear to rage and madness.2 For this reason Caligula wish’d but one neck to all the people; and Nero triumphed over the burning city, thinking by that ruin he had prevented his own danger. I know not who the good authors are that commend Domitian for his justice; but Tacitus calls him principem virtutibus infestum;3 and ’tis hard to find out how such a man can be observer of justice, unless it be just, that whoever dares to be virtuous under a vicious and base prince should be destroy’d. Another author of the same time speaking of him, does not say he was unjust but gives us reason to think he was so,4 unless it were just for him, who had a power over the best part of the world, to destroy it; and that he who by his cruelty had brought it to the last gasp, would have finish’d the work, if his rage had not been extinguished.
Many princes not having in themselves power to destroy their people, have stirred up foreign nations against them, and placed the only hopes of their safety in the publick calamity; and lawful kings when they have fallen into the first degree of madness, so as to assume a power above that which was allowed by the law, have in fury proved equal to the worst usurpers. Cleonymus of Sparta was of this sort: He became, says Plutarch, an enemy to the city, because they would not allow him the absolute power he affected; and brought Pyrrhus, the fiercest of their enemies, with a mighty and excellently well disciplin’d army to destroy them.5 Vortigern the Britain call’d in the Saxons with the ruin of his own people, who were incensed against him for his lewdness, cruelty, and baseness.6 King John for the like reasons offer’d the kingdom of England to the Moors, and to the pope. Peter the Cruel, and other kings of Castile brought vast armies of Moors into Spain to the ruin of their own people, who detested their vices, and would not part with their privileges. Many other examples of the like nature might be alleged; and I wish our own experience did not too well prove that such designs are common. Let him that doubts this, examine the causes of the wars with Scotland in the years 1639, 1640; the slaughters of the Protestants in Ireland 1641; the whole course of alliances and treaties for the space of fourscore years; the friendship contracted with the French; frequent quarrels with the Dutch, together with other circumstances that are already made too publick: if he be not convinced by this, he may soon see a man in the throne,7 who had rather be a tributary to France than a lawful king of England, whilst either parliament or people shall dare to dispute his commands, insist upon their own rights, or defend a religion inconsistent with that which he has espoused; and then the truth will be so evident as to require no proof.
Grotius was never accused of dealing hardly with kings, or laying too much weight upon imaginary cases; nevertheless amongst other reasons that in his opinion justify subjects in taking arms against their princes, he alleges this, propter immanem saevitiam, and quando rex in populi exitium fertur; in as much as it is contrary to, and inconsistent with the ends for which governments are instituted;8 which were most impertinent, if no such thing could be; for that which is not, can have no effect. There are therefore princes who seek the destruction of their people, or none could be justly opposed on that account.
If King James9 was of another opinion, I could wish the course of his government had been suited to it. When he said that whilst he had the power of making judges and bishops, he would make that to be law and gospel which best pleased him, and filled those places with such as turned both according to his will and interests, I must think that by overthrowing justice, which is the rule of civil and moral actions, and perverting the Gospel which is the light of the spiritual man, he left nothing unattempted that he durst attempt, by which he might bring the most extensive and universal evils upon our nation that any can suffer. This would stand good, tho princes never erred, unless they were transported with some inordinate lusts;10 for ’tis hard to find one that does not live in the perpetual power of them. They are naturally subject to the impulse of such appetites as well as others, and whatever evil reigns in their nature is fomented by education. ’Tis the handle by which their flatterers lead them; and he that discovers to what vice a prince is most inclin’d, is sure to govern him by rendering himself subservient. In this consists the chief art of a courtier, and by this means it comes to pass that such lusts as in private men are curbed by fear, do not only rage as in a wild beast, but are perpetually inflamed by the malice of their own servants: their hatred to the laws of God or men that might restrain them, increases in proportion with their vices, or their fears of being punished for them. And when they are come to this, they can set no limits to their fury, and there is no extravagance into which they do not frequently fall. But many of them do not expect these violent motives: the perversity of their own nature carries them to the extremities of evil. They hate virtue for its own sake, and virtuous men for being most unlike to themselves. This virtue is the dictate of reason, or the remains of divine light, by which men are made beneficent and beneficial to each other. Religion proceeds from the same spring, and tends to the same end; and the good of mankind so entirely depends upon these two, that no people ever enjoyed anything worth desiring that was not the product of them; and whatsoever any have suffer’d that deserves to be abhorr’d and feared, has proceeded either from the defect of these, or the wrath of God against them. If any prince therefore has been an enemy to virtue and religion, he must also have been an enemy to mankind, and most especially to the people under him. Whatsoever he does against those that excel in virtue and religion, tends to the destruction of the people who subsist by them. I will not take upon me to define who they are, or to tell the number of those that do this: but ’tis certain there have been such; and I wish I could say they were few in number, or that they had liv’d only in past ages. Tacitus does not fix this upon one prince, but upon all that he writes of; and to give his readers a taste of what he was to write, he says, that nobility and honours were dangerous, but that virtue brought most certain destruction; and in another place, that after the slaughter of many excellent men, Nero resolved to cut down virtue itself, and therefore kill’d Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus.11 And whosoever examines the Christian or ecclesiastical histories, will find those princes to have been no less enemies to virtue and religion than their predecessors, and consequently enemies to the nations under them, unless religion and virtue be things prejudicial or indifferent to mankind.
But our author may say, these were particular cases; and so was the slaughter of the prophets and apostles, the crucifixion of Christ, and all the villainies that have ever been committed; yet they proceeded from a universal principle of hatred to all that is good, exerting itself as far as it could, to the ruin of mankind: And nothing but the over-ruling power of God, who resolved to preserve to himself a people, could set bounds to their rage, which in other respects had as full success as our author, or the Devil could have wished.
Dionysius (his other example of justice) deserves observation: More falsehood, lewdness, treachery, ingratitude, cruelty, baseness, avarice, impudence and hatred to all manner of good, was hardly ever known in a mortal creature. For this reason, Diogenes seeing him at Corinth, tho in a poor and contemptible condition, said, he rather deserved to have continued in the misery, fears and villainies of his tyranny, than to be suffer’d peaceably to converse with honest men.12 And if such as these are to be called observers of justice, it must be concluded that the laws of God and of men, are either of no value, or contrary to it; and that the destruction of nations is a better work than their preservation. No faith is to be observed: temples may be justly sack’d; the best men slain for daring to be better than their masters; and the whole world, if it were in the power of one man, rightly torn in pieces and destroy’d.
His reasons for this are as good as his doctrine: It is, saith he, the multitude of people and abundance of riches, that are the glory and strength of every prince: the bodies of his subjects do him service in war, and their goods supply his wants. Therefore if not out of affection to his people, yet out of natural love unto himself, every tyrant desires to preserve the lives and goods of his subjects.13 I should have thought that princes, tho tyrants, being God’s vicegerents, and fathers of their people, would have sought their good, tho no advantage had thereby redounded to themselves, but it seems no such thing is to be expected from them. They consider nations, as grazers do their herds and flocks, according to the profit that can be made of them: and if this be so, a people has no more security under a prince, than a herd or flock under their master. Tho he desire to be a good husband, yet they must be delivered up to the slaughter when he finds a good market, or a better way of improving his land; but they are often foolish, riotous, prodigal, and wantonly destroy their stock, tho to their own prejudice. We thought that all princes and magistrates had been set up, that under them we might live quietly and peaceably, in all godliness and honesty: but our author teaches us, that they only seek what they can make of our bodies and goods, and that they do not live and reign for us, but for themselves. If this be true, they look upon us not as children, but as beasts, nor do us any good for our own sakes, or because it is their duty, but only that we may be useful to them, as oxen are put into plentiful pastures that they may be strong for labour, or fit for slaughter. This is the divine model of government that he offers to the world. The just magistrate is the minister of God for our good: but this absolute monarch has no other care of us, than as our riches and multitude may increase his own glory and strength. We might easily judge what would be the issue of such a principle, when the being of nations depending upon his will, must also depend upon his opinion, whether the strength, multitude and riches of a people do conduce to the increase of glory and power, or not, tho histories were silent in the case; for these things speak of themselves. The judgment of a single man is not to be relied upon; the best and wisest do often err, the foolish and perverse always; and our discourse is not of what Moses or Samuel would do, but what may come into the fancy of a furious or wicked man who may usurp the supreme power, or a child, a woman, or a fool, that may inherit it. Besides, the proposition upon which he builds his conclusion, proves often false: for as the riches, power, number and courage of our friends is for our advantage, and that of our enemies threatens us with ruin; those princes only can reasonably believe the strength of their subjects beneficial to them, who govern so as to be assured of their affection, and that their strength will be employ’d for them: But those who know they are, or deserve to be hated, cannot but think it will be employ’d against them, and always seek to diminish that which creates their danger. This must certainly befall as many as are lewd, foolish, negligent, imprudent, cowardly, wicked, vicious, or any way unworthy the places they obtain; for their reign is a perpetual exercise of the most extreme and ruinous injustice: Every man that follows an honest interest, is prejudic’d: Everyone who finds the power that was ordained for his good, to be turned to his hurt, will be angry and hate him that does it: If the people be of uncorrupted manners, this hatred will be universal, because every one of them desires that which is just; if composed of good and evil, the first will always be averse to the evil government, and the others endeavouring to uphold it, the safety of the prince must depend upon the prevalence of either party. If the best prove to be the strongest, he must perish: and knowing himself to be supported only by the worst, he will always destroy as many of his enemies as he can; weaken those that remain; enrich his creatures with their spoils and confiscations; by fraud and rapine accumulate treasures to increase the number of his party, and advance them into all places of power and trust, that by their assistance he may crush his adversaries; and every man is accounted his adversary, who has either estate, honor, virtue or reputation. This naturally casts all the power into the hands of those who have no such dangerous qualities, nor anything to recommend them, but an absolute resignation of themselves to do whatever they are commanded. These men having neither will nor knowledge to do good, as soon as they come to be in power, justice is perverted, military discipline neglected, the publick treasures exhausted, new projects invented to raise more; and the prince’s wants daily increasing, through their ignorance, negligence, or deceit, there is no end of their devices and tricks to gain supplies. To this end swarms of spies, informers and false witnesses are sent out to circumvent the richest and most eminent men: The tribunals are fill’d with court-parasites of profligate consciences, fortunes and reputation, that no man may escape who is brought before them. If crimes are wanting, the diligence of well-chosen officers and prosecutors, with the favour of the judges, supply all defects; the law is made a snare; virtue suppress’d, vice fomented, and in a short time honesty and knavery, sobriety and lewdness, virtue and vice, become badges of the several factions; and every man’s conversation and manners shewing to what party he is addicted, the prince who makes himself head of the worst, must favour them to the overthrow of the best, which is so straight a way to an universal ruin, that no state can prevent it, unless that course be interrupted.
These things consider’d, no general judgment can be made of a magistrate’s counsels, from his name or duty. He that is just, and become grateful to the people by doing good, will find his own honour and security in increasing their number, riches, virtue, and power: If on the other side, by doing evil, he has drawn upon himself the publick hatred, he will always endeavour to take from them the power of doing him any hurt, by bringing them into the utmost weakness, poverty, and baseness. And whoever would know whether any particular prince desires to increase or destroy the bodies and goods of his subjects, must examine whether his government be such as renders him grateful or odious to them; and whether he do pursue the publick interest, or for the advancement of his own authority set up one in himself contrary to that of his people; which can never befall a popular government, and consequently no mischief equal to it can be produced by any such, unless something can be imagined worse than corruption and destruction.
[Patriarcha, ch. 19, p. 92.]
Cuncta ferit dum cuncta timet. Lucan. [“He strikes down everything while he fears everything.” Claudian, Against Eutropius, bk. 1, li. 182.]
Tacit. in vit. Agric. [“A prince hostile to virtues.” Tacitus, Life of Agricola, ch. 41.]
Cum jam semianimem laceraret Flavius orbem/Tertius, & calvo serviret Roma tyranno. Juvenal. [“When the third Flavian was torturing the already half-dead world, and Rome served a bald tyrant.” Juvenal, Satire 4, li. 36.]
Plut. vit. Pyrrh. [Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus, ch. 26.]
Math. Westm. [Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History (formerly attributed to “Matthew Westminster”), vol. 1, p. 5 (the year 449).]
[The future James II, a professed Catholic, who became king shortly after Sidney’s execution.]
[“On account of their great savagery” and “when the king hastens to the ruin of his people.” Hugo Grotius, De jure, bk. 1, ch. 4, sec. 11 .]
[James I, author of several works on kingship referred to elsewhere by Sidney.]
[Patriarcha, ch. 19, p. 92.]
C. Tacit. Hist. l. 1. Ann. l. 4. [Tacitus, Histories, bk. 1, ch. 3; Annals, bk. 16, ch. 21.]
[Plutarch, Precepts of Statecraft, ch. 54, in Plutarch, Moralia, vol. 10 (Loeb, 1936).]
[Patriarcha, ch. 19, p. 92.]