Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 16: The observation of the Laws of Nature is absurdly expected from Tyrants, who set themselves up against all Laws: and he that subjects Kings to no other Law than what is common to Tyrants, destroys their being. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 16: The observation of the Laws of Nature is absurdly expected from Tyrants, who set themselves up against all Laws: and he that subjects Kings to no other Law than what is common to Tyrants, destroys their being. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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The observation of the Laws of Nature is absurdly expected from Tyrants, who set themselves up against all Laws: and he that subjects Kings to no other Law than what is common to Tyrants, destroys their being.
Our author’s last clause acknowledging kings to be bound by a general law to provide for the safety of the people, would be sufficient for my purpose if it were sincere; for municipal laws do only shew how that should be performed: and if the king by departing from that rule degenerates, as he says, into a tyrant, ’tis easily determined what ought then to be done by the people. But his whole book being a heap of contradictions and frauds, we can rely upon nothing that he says: And his following words, which under the same law comprehend both kings and tyrants, shew that he intends kings should be no otherwise obliged than tyrants, which is, not at all. By this means, says he, are all kings, even tyrants and conquerors, bound to preserve the lands, goods, liberties and lives of all their subjects, not by any municipal law of the land, so much as by the natural law of a father, which obligeth them to ratify the acts of their forefathers and predecessors in things necessary for the publick good of their subjects. 1 If he be therefore in the right, tyrants and conquerers are kings and fathers. The words that have been always thought to comprehend the most irreconcileable contrariety, the one expressing the most tender love and care, evidently testified by the greatest obligations conferred upon those who are under it; the other the utmost of all injuries that can be offer’d to men, signify the same thing: There is no difference between a magistrate who is what he is by law, and a publick enemy, who by force or fraud sets himself up against all law: And what he said before, that kings degenerated into tyrants, signifies nothing, for tyrants also are kings.
His next words are no less incomprehensible; for neither king nor tyrant can be obliged to preserve the lands, goods and liberties of their subjects if they have none. But as liberty consists only in being subject to no man’s will, and nothing denotes a slave but a dependence upon the will of another; if there be no other law in a kingdom than the will of a prince, there is no such thing as liberty. Property also is an appendage to liberty; and ’tis as impossible for a man to have a right to lands or goods, if he has no liberty, and enjoys his life only at the pleasure of another, as it is to enjoy either when he is deprived of them. He therefore who says kings and tyrants are bound to preserve their subjects’ lands, liberties, goods and lives, and yet lays for a foundation, that laws are no more than the significations of their pleasure, seeks to delude the world with words which signify nothing.
The vanity of these whimseys will farther appear, if it be considered, that as kings are kings by law, and tyrants are tyrants by overthrowing the law, they are most absurdly joined together; and ’tis not more ridiculous to set him above the law, who is what he is by the law, than to expect the observation of the laws that enjoin the preservation of the lands, liberties, goods and lives of the people, from one who by fraud or violence makes himself master of all, that he may be restrain’d by no law, and is what he is by subverting all law.
Besides, if the safety of the people be the supreme law, and this safety extend to, and consist in the preservation of their liberties, goods, lands and lives, that law must necessarily be the root and beginning, as well as the end and limit of all magistratical power, and all laws must be subservient and subordinate to it. The question will not then be what pleases the king, but what is good for the people; not what conduces to his profit or glory, but what best secures the liberties he is bound to preserve: he does not therefore reign for himself, but for the people; he is not the master, but the servant of the commonwealth; and the utmost extent of his prerogative is to be able to do more good than any private man. If this be his work and duty, ’tis easily seen whether he is to judge of his own performance, or they by whom and for whom he reigns; and whether in order to this he be to give laws, or to receive them. ’Tis ordinarily said in France, il faut que chacun soit servi a sa mode; Every man’s business must be done according to his own mind: and if this be true in particular persons, ’tis more plainly so in whole nations. Many eyes see more than one: the collected wisdom of a people much surpasses that of a single person; and tho he should truly seek that which is best, ’tis not probable he would so easily find it, as the body of a nation, or the principal men chosen to represent the whole. This may be said with justice of the best and wisest princes that ever were; but another language is to be used when we speak of those who may succeed, and who very often through the defects of age, person, or sex, are neither fit to judge of other men’s affairs, nor of their own; and are so far from being capable of the highest concernments relating to the safety of whole nations, that the most trivial cannot reasonably be referred to them.
There are few men (except such as are like Filmer, who by bidding defiance to the laws of God and man, seems to declare war against both) whom I would not trust to determine whether a people, that can never fall into nonage or dotage, and can never fail of having men of wisdom and virtue amongst them, be not more fit to judge in their own persons, or by representatives, what conduces to their own good, than one who at a venture may be born in a certain family, and who, besides his own infirmities, passions, vices, or interests, is continually surrounded by such as endeavour to divert him from the ways of truth and justice. And if no reasonable man dare prefer the latter before the former, we must rely upon the laws made by our forefathers, and interpreted by the nation, and not upon the will of a man.
’Tis in vain to say that a wise and good council may supply the defects, or correct the vices of a young, foolish, or ill disposed king. For Filmer denies that a king, whatever he be without exception (for he attributes profound wisdom to all), is obliged to follow the advice of his council; and even he would hardly have had the impudence to say, that good counsel given to a foolish or wicked prince were of any value, unless he were obliged to follow it. This council must be chosen by him, or imposed upon him: if it be imposed upon him, it must be by a power that is above him, which he says cannot be. If chosen by him who is weak, foolish, or wicked, it can never be good; because such virtue and wisdom is requir’d to discern and chuse a few good and wise men, from a multitude of foolish and bad, as he has not. And it will generally fall out, that he will take for his counsellors rather those he believes to be addicted to his person or interests, than such as are fitly qualified to perform the duty of their places. But if he should by chance, or contrary to his intentions, make choice of some good and wise men, the matter would not be much mended, for they will certainly differ in opinion from the worst. And tho the prince should intend well, of which there is no assurance; nor any reason to put so great a power into his hands if there be none, ’tis almost impossible for him to avoid the snares that will be laid to seduce him. I know not how to put a better face upon this matter; for if I examine rather what is probable than possible, foolish or ill princes will never chuse such as are wise and good; but favouring those who are most like to themselves, will prefer such as second their vices, humours, and personal interests, and by so doing will rather fortify and rivet the evils that are brought upon the nation through their defects, than cure them. This was evident in Rehoboam: he had good counsel, but he would not hearken to it. We know too many of the same sort; and tho it were not impossible (as Machiavelli says it is) for a weak prince to receive any benefit from a good council,2 we may certainly conclude, that a people can never expect any good from a council chosen by one who is weak or vicious .
If a council be imposed upon him, and he be obliged to follow their advice, it must be imposed by a power that is above him; his will therefore is not a law, but must be regulated by the law: the monarchy is not above the law; and if we will believe our author, ’tis no monarchy, because the monarch has not his will, and perhaps he says true. For if that be not an aristocracy, where those that are, or are reputed to be the best do govern, then that is certainly a mixed state, in which the will of one man does not prevail. But if princes are not obliged by the law, all that is founded upon that supposition falls to the ground: They will always follow their own humours, or the suggestions of those who second them. Tiberius hearkened to none but Chaldeans,3 or the ministers of his impurities and cruelties: Claudius was governed by slaves, and the profligate strumpets his wives. There were many wise and good men in the senate during the reigns of Caligula, Nero and Domitian; but instead of following their counsel, they endeavour’d to destroy them all, lest they should head the people against them; and such princes as resemble them will always follow the like courses.
If I often repeat these hateful names, ’tis not for want of fresher examples of the same nature; but I chuse such as mankind has universally condemn’d, against whom I can have no other cause of hatred than what is common to all those who have any love to virtue, and which can have no other relation to the controversies of later ages, than what may flow from the similitude of their causes, rather than such as are too well known to us, and which every man, according to the measure of his experience, may call to mind in reading these. I may also add, that as nothing is to be received as a general maxim, which is not generally true, I need no more to overthrow such as Filmer proposes, than to prove how frequently they have been found false, and what desperate mischiefs have been brought upon the world as often as they have been practiced, and excessive powers put into the hands of such as had neither inclination nor ability to make a good use of them.
1. But if the safety of nations be the end for which governments are instituted, such as take upon them to govern, by what title soever, are by the law of nature bound to procure it; and in order to this, to preserve the lives, lands, liberties and goods of every one of their subjects: and he that upon any title whatsoever pretends, assumes, or exercises a power of disposing of them according to his will, violates the laws of nature in the highest degree.
2. If all princes are obliged by the law of nature to preserve the lands, goods, lives and liberties of their subjects, those subjects have by the law of nature a right to their liberties, lands, goods, &c. and cannot depend upon the will of any man, for that dependence destroys liberty, &c.
3. Ill men will not, and weak men cannot provide for the safety of the people; nay the work is of such extreme difficulty, that the greatest and wisest men that have been in the world are not able by themselves to perform it; and the assistance of counsel is of no use unless princes are obliged to follow it. There must be therefore a power in every state to restrain the ill, and to instruct weak princes by obliging them to follow the counsels given, else the ends of government cannot be accomplished, nor the rights of nations preserved.
All this being no more than is said by our author, or necessarily to be deduced from his propositions, one would think he were become as good a commonwealths-man as Cato; but the washed swine will return to the mire. He overthrows all by a preposterous conjunction of the rights of kings which are just and by law, with those of tyrants which are utterly against law; and gives the sacred and gentle name of father to those beasts, who by their actions declare themselves enemies not only to all law and justice, but to mankind that cannot subsist without them. This requires no other proof, than to examine whether Attila or Tamerlane did well deserve to be called fathers of the countries they destroy’d. The first of these was usually called the scourge of God, and he gloried in the name. The other being reproved for the detestable cruelties he exercised, made answer, You speak to me as to a man; I am not a man, but the scourge of God and plague of mankind.4 This is certainly sweet and gentle language, savouring much of a fatherly tenderness: There is no doubt that those who use it will provide for the safety of the nations under them, and the preservation of the laws of nature is rightly referred to them; and ’tis very probable, that they who came to burn the countries, and destroy the nations that fell under their power, should make it their business to preserve them, and look upon the former governors as their fathers, whose acts they were obliged to confirm, tho they seldom attained to the dominion by any other means than the slaughter of them and their families.
But if the enmity be not against the nation, and the cause of the war be only for dominion against the ruling person or family, as that of Baasha against the house of Jeroboam, of Zimri against that of Baasha, of Omri against Zimri, and of Jehu against Jehoram, the prosecution of it is a strange way of becoming the son of the person destroyed. And Filmer alone is subtle enough to discover, that Jehu by extinguishing the house of Ahab, drew an obligation upon himself, of looking on him as his father, and confirming his acts. If this be true, Moses was obliged to confirm the acts of the kings of the Amalekites, Moabites and Amorites that he destroy’d; the same duty lay upon Joshua, in relation to the Canaanites: but ’tis not so easily decided, to which of them he did owe that deference; for the same could not be due to all, and ’tis hard to believe, that by killing above thirty kings, he should purchase to himself so many fathers; and the like may be said of divers others.
Moreover, there is a sort of tyrant who has no father, as Agathocles, Dionysius, Caesar, and generally all those who subvert the liberties of their own country. And if they stood obliged to look upon the former magistrates as their predecessors, and to confirm their acts, the first should have been to give impunity and reward to any that would kill them, it having been a fundamental maxim in those states, that any man might kill a tyrant.5
This being in all respects ridiculous and absurd, ’tis evident that our author, who by proposing such a false security to nations for their liberties, endeavours to betray them, is not less treacherous to kings, when under a pretence of defending their rights, he makes them to be the same with those of tyrants, who are known to have none (and are tyrants because they have none) and gives no other hopes to nations of being preserved by the kings they set up for that end, than what upon the same account may be expected from tyrants, whom all wise men have ever abhorr’d, and affirmed to have been produced to bring destruction upon the world,6 and whose lives have verifi’d the sentence.
This is truly to depose and abolish kings, by abolishing that by which and for which they are so. The greatness of their power, riches, state, and the pleasures that accompany them cannot but create enemies. Some will envy that which is accounted happiness; others may dislike the use they make of their power: some may be unjustly exasperated by the best of their actions when they find themselves incommoded by them; others may be too severe judges of slight miscarriages. These things may reasonably temper the joys of those who delight most in the advantages of crowns. But the worst and most dangerous of all their enemies are these accursed sycophants, who by making those that ought to be the best of men, like to the worst, destroy their being; and by persuading the world they aim at the same things, and are bound to no other rule than is common to all tyrants, give a fair pretence to ill men to say, they are all of one kind. And if this should be received for truth, even they who think the miscarriages of their governors may be easily redressed, and desire no more, would be the most fierce in procuring the destruction of that which is naught in principle, and cannot be corrected.
[Patriarcha, ch. 24, p. 103.]
[Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 23.]
[Tiberius believed in Chaldean astrology. Tacitus, Annals, bk. 2, ch. 27.]
Vit. Tamerl. Hist. Thuan. [Jacques-Auguste de Thou, Life of Tamerlane.]
Unicuique licere tyrannum occidere.
In generis humani exitium natos.