Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 39: Those Kings only are heads of the People, who are good, wise, and seek to advance no Interest but that of the Publick. - Discourses Concerning Government
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
SECTION 39: Those Kings only are heads of the People, who are good, wise, and seek to advance no Interest but that of the Publick. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Those Kings only are heads of the People, who are good, wise, and seek to advance no Interest but that of the Publick.
The worst of men seldom arrive to such a degree of impudence, as plainly to propose the most mischievous follies and enormities. They who are enemies to virtue, and fear not God, are afraid of men, and dare not offer such things as the world will not bear, lest by that means they should overthrow their own designs. All poison must be disguised, and no man can be persuaded to eat arsenic, unless it be cover’d with something that appears to be harmless. Creusa would have abhorr’d Medea’s present, if the pestilent venom had not been hidden by the exterior lustre of gold and gems. The garment that destroy’d Hercules appear’d beautiful;1 and Eve had neither eaten of the forbidden tree, nor given the fruit to her husband, if it had not seemed to be good and pleasant, and she had not been induced to believe that by eating it they should both be as gods. The servants of the Devil have always followed the same method: their malice is carried on by fraud, and they have seldom destroy’d any, but such as they had first deceived. Truth can never conduce to mischief, and is best discovered by plain words; but nothing is more usual with ill men than to cover their mischievous designs with figurative phrases. It would be too ridiculous to say in plain terms, that all kings without distinction are better able to judge of all matters than any or all their people; they must therefore be called the head, that thereby they may be invested with all the preeminences which in a natural body belong to that part; and men must be made to believe the analogy between the natural and political body to be perfect. But the matter must be better examined before this mortal poison seem fit to be swallowed.
The word head is figuratively used both in Scripture and profane authors in several senses, in relation to places or persons, and always implies something of real or seeming preeminence in point of honor or jurisdiction. Thus Damascus is said to be the head of Syria; Samaria of Ephraim, and Ephraim of the ten tribes:2 that is, Ephraim was the chief tribe; Samaria was the chief city of Ephraim, and Damascus of Syria; tho it be certain that Ephraim had no jurisdiction over the other tribes, nor Samaria over the other cities of Ephraim, but every one according to the law had an equal power within itself, or the territories belonging to it; and no privileges were granted to one above another, except to Jerusalem, in the matter of religion, because the Temple was placed there.
The words also head, prince, principal man, or captain, seem to be equivocal; and in this sense the same men are called heads of the tribes, princes in the houses of their fathers: and ’tis said, that two hundred heads of the tribe of Reuben were carried away captive by Tiglathpileser,3 and proportionably in the other tribes; which were a strange thing, if the word did imply that supreme, absolute and infinite power that our author attributes to it: and no man of less understanding than he, can comprehend how there should be two hundred or more sovereign unlimited powers in one tribe, most especially when ’tis certain that one series of kings had for many ages reigned over that tribe and nine more; and that every one of those tribes, as well as the particular cities, even from their first entrance into the promised land, had a full jurisdiction within itself. When the Gileadites came to Jephthah, he suspected them, and asked whether indeed they intended to make him their head? they answered, if he would lead them against the Ammonites, he should be their head.4 In the like sense when Jul. Caesar in despair would have killed himself, one of his soldiers dissuaded him from that design, by telling him, That the safety of so many nations that had made him their head, depending upon his life, it would be cruelty in him to take such a resolution.5 But for all that, when this head was taken off, the body did still subsist: upon which I observe many fundamental differences between the relation of this figurative head (even when the word is rightly applied) and that of the natural head to their respective bodies.
The figurative heads may be many, the natural but one.
The people makes or creates the figurative head, the natural is from itself, or connate with the body.
The natural body cannot change or subsist without the natural head; but a people may change and subsist very well without the artificial. Nay, if it had been true, that the world had chosen Caesar, as it was not (for he was chosen only by a factious mercenary army, and the soundest part so far opposed that election, that they brought him to think of killing himself) there could have been no truth in this flattering assertion, That the safety of the whole depended upon his life: for the world could not only subsist without him, but without any such head, as it had done, before he by the help of his corrupted soldiery had usurped the power; which also shews that a civil head may be a matter of convenience, but not of necessity. Many nations have had none; and if the expression be so far stretched, as to make it extend to the annual or temporary magistrates set up by the Athenians, Carthaginians, Romans, and other ancient commonwealths, or to those at this day in Venice, Holland, Switzerland, and other places, it must be confess’d that the people who made, deposed, abrogated, or abolished both the magistrates and magistracies, had the power of framing, directing and removing their heads, which our author will say is most absurd. Yet they did it without any prejudice to themselves, and very often much to their advantage.
In mentioning these vast and essential differences between the natural and political head, I no way intend to exclude others that may be of equal weight; but as all figurative expressions have their strength only from similitude, there can be little or none in this, which differs in so many important points, and can therefore be of no effect.
However, right proceeds from identity, and not from similitude. The right of a man over me is by being my father, and not by being like my father. If I had a brother so perfectly resembling me as to deceive our parents, which has sometimes happened to twins, it could give him no right to anything that is mine. If the power therefore of correcting the parties peccant, which our author attributes to kings, be grounded upon the name of head, and a resemblance between the heads of the body politick and body natural; if this resemblance be found to be exceedingly imperfect, uncertain, or perhaps no way relating to the matter in question; or tho it did, and were absolutely perfect, could confer no right; the allegation of it is impertinent and absurd.
This being cleared, ’tis time to examine, what the office of the head is in a natural body, that we may learn from thence why that name is sometimes given to those who are eminent in political bodies, and to whom it does belong.
Some men account the head to be so absolutely the seat of all the senses, as to derive even that of feeling, which is exercised in every part, from the brain: but I think ’tis not doubted that all the rest have both their seat and function in the head; and whatsoever is useful or hurtful to a man, is by them represented to the understanding; as Aristotle says, Nihil est in intellectu, quod non sit prius in sensu.6 This is properly the part of every magistrate: He is the sentinel of the publick, and is to represent what he discovers beneficial or hurtful to the society; which office belongs not only to the supreme, but proportionably to the subordinate. In this sense were the chief men among the Israelites called heads of their father’s house, choice and mighty men of valour, chief of the princes.7 And in the following chapter mention is made of nine hundred and fifty Benjaminites, chief men in the house of their fathers.8 These men exercised a charitable care over such as were inferior to them in power and valour, without any shadow of sovereignty, or possibility that there could be so many sovereigns: and such as were under their care are said to be their brethren; which is not a word of majesty and domination, but of dearness and equality. The name therefore of head may be given to a sovereign, but it implies nothing of sovereignty; and must be exercised with charity, which always terminates in the good of others. The head cannot correct or chastise; the proper work of that part is only to indicate, and he who takes upon him to do more, is not the head. A natural body is homogeneous, and cannot subsist if it be not so. We cannot take one part of a horse, another of a bear, and put upon them the head of a lion; for it would be a monster, that would have neither action nor life. The head must be of the same nature with the other members, or it cannot subsist. But the lord or master differs in specie9 from his servants and slaves, he is not therefore properly their head.
Besides, the head cannot have a subsistence without the body, nor any interest contrary to that of the body; and ’tis impossible for anything to be good for the head, that is hurtful to the body. A prince therefore, or magistrate, who sets up an interest in himself distinct from, or repugnant to that of the people, renounces the title or quality of their head. Indeed, Moses was the head of the Israelites; for when God threatened to destroy that people, and promised to make him a great nation, he waived the particular advantages offer’d to himself, interceded for them, and procured their pardon. Yet he was not able to bear the weight of the government alone, but desired that some might be appointed to assist him. Gideon was the head of the same people, but he would not reign himself, nor suffer his sons to reign over them. Samuel was also their head; he took nothing from any man, defrauded none, took bribes from no man, oppressed none; God and the people were his witnesses: He blamed them for their rebellion against God in asking a king, but was no way concerned for himself or his family. David likewise had a right to that title; for he desired that God would spare the people, and turn the effect of his anger against himself, and the house of his father. But Rehoboam was not their head; for tho he acknowledged that his father had laid a heavy yoke upon them, yet he told them he would add to the weight; and that if his father had chastised them with whips, he would chastise them with scorpions. The head is no burden to the body, and can lay none upon it; the head cannot chastise any member; and he who does so, be it more or less, cannot be the head. Jeroboam was not the head of the revolting tribes; for the head takes care of the members, and to provide for the safety of the whole: But he through fear that the people going to Jerusalem to worship, should return to the house of David, by setting up idols to secure his own interests, drew guilt and destruction upon them. Tho it should be granted that Augustus by a gentle use of his power, had in a manner expiated the detestable villainies committed in the acquisition, and had truly deserved to be called the head of the Romans; yet that title could no way belong to Caligula, Claudius, Nero or Vitellius, who neither had the qualities requir’d in the head, nor the understanding or will to perform the office. Nay, if I should carry the matter farther, and acknowledge that Brutus, Cincinnatus, Fabius, Camillus, and others, who in the time of their annual or shorter magistracies, had by their vigilance, virtue and care to preserve the city in safety, and to provide for the publick good, performed the office of the head, and might deserve the name; I might justly deny it to the greatest princes that have been in the world, who having their power for life, and leaving it to descend to their children, have wanted the virtues requir’d for the performance of their duty: And I should less fear to be guilty of an absurdity in saying, that a nation might every year change its head, than that he can be the head, who cares not for the members, nor understands the things that conduce to their good, most especially if he set up an interest in himself against them. It cannot be said that these are imaginary cases, and that no prince does these things; for the proof is too easy, and the examples too numerous. Caligula could not have wished the Romans but one head, that he might cut it off at once, if he had been that head, and had advanced no interest contrary to that of the members. Nero had not burn’d the city of Rome, if his concernments had been inseparably united to those of the people. He who caused above three hundred thousand of his innocent unarmed subjects to be murder’d, and fill’d his whole kingdom with fire and blood, did set up a personal interest repugnant to that of the nation; and no better testimony can be requir’d to shew that he did so, than a letter written by his son, to take off the penalty due to one of the chief ministers of those cruelties, for this reason, that what he had done, was by the command and for the service of his royal father.10 King John did not pursue the advantage of his people, when he endeavoured to subject them to the pope or the Moors. And whatever prince seeks assistance from foreign powers, or makes leagues with any stranger or enemy for his own advantage against his people, however secret the treaty may be, declares himself not to be the head, but an enemy to them. The head cannot stand in need of an exterior help against the body, nor subsist when divided from it. He therefore that courts such an assistance, divides himself from the body; and if he do subsist, it must be by a life he has in himself, distinct from that of the body, which the head cannot have.
But besides these enormities, that testify the most wicked rage and fury in the highest degree, there is another practice, which no man that knows the world can deny to be common with princes, and incompatible with the nature of a head. The head cannot desire to draw all the nourishment of the body to itself, nor more than a due proportion. If the rest of the parts are sick, weak or cold, the head suffers equally with them, and if they perish must perish also. Let this be compared with the actions of many princes we know, and we shall soon see which of them are heads of their people. If the gold brought from the Indies has been equally distributed by the kings of Spain to the body of that nation, I consent they may be called the heads. If the kings of France assume no more of the riches of that great kingdom than their due proportion, let them also wear that honourable name. But if the naked backs and empty bellies of their miserable subjects evince the contrary, it can by no means belong to them. If those great nations waste and languish; if nothing be so common in the best provinces belonging to them, as misery, famine, and all the effects of the most outrageous oppression, whilst their princes and favorites possess such treasures as the most wanton prodigality cannot exhaust; if that which is gained by the sweat of so many millions of men, be torn out of the mouths of their starving wives and children, to foment the vices of those luxurious courts, or reward the ministers of their lusts, the nourishment is not distributed equally to all the parts of the body; the economy of the whole is overthrown, and they who do these things, cannot be the heads, nor parts of the body, but something distinct from and repugnant to it. ’Tis not therefore he who is found in, or advanced to the place of the head, who is truly the head: ’Tis not he who ought, but he who does perform the office of the head, that deserves the name and privileges belonging to the head. If our author therefore will persuade us that any king is head of his people, he must do it by arguments peculiarly relating to him, since those in general are found to be false. If he say that the king as king may direct or correct the people, and that the power of determining all controversies must be referred to him, because they may be mistaken, he must show that the king is infallible; for unless he do so, the wound is not cured. This also must be by some other way, than by saying he is their head; for such powers belong not to the office of the head, and we see that all kings do not deserve that name: Many of them want both understanding and will to perform the functions of the head; and many act directly contrary in the whole course of their government. If any therefore among them have merited the glorious name of heads of nations, it must have been by their personal virtues, by a vigilant care of the good of their people, by an inseparable conjunction of interests with them, by an ardent love to every member of the society, by a moderation of spirit affecting no undue superiority, or assuming any singular advantage which they are not willing to communicate to every part of the political body. He who finds this merit in himself, will scorn all the advantages that can be drawn from misapplied names: He that knows such honor to be peculiarly due to him for being the best of kings, will never glory in that which may be common to him with the worst. Nay, whoever pretends by such general discourses as these of our author, to advance the particular interests of any one king, does either know he is of no merit, and that nothing can be said for him which will not as well agree with the worst of men; or cares not what he says so he may do mischief, and is well enough contented, that he who is set up by such maxims as a publick plague, may fall in the ruin he brings upon the people.
[Medea, divorced by Jason, sends to his new bride Creusa a magic robe that consumes her in fire. Similarly, Hercules’ wife Deianira sends him a robe which she thinks will cause him to love her, but which in fact consumes him in fiery pain. See Seneca, Medea and Hercules Oetaeus.]
1 Chron. 5.
Cum tot ab hac anima populorum vita salusque/Pendeat, & tantus caput hoc sibi fecerit orbis,/Saevitia est voluisse mori. Lucan. [Lucan, Pharsalia, bk. 5, li. 685.]
[“Nothing is in the intellect which is not first in the senses.” Aristotle, On the Soul, bk. 3, 432a.]
1 Chron. 7.40.
[Actually in 9:9.]
[Charles I is meant. The “minister of those cruelties” was the earl of Strafford. The “innocent unarmed subjects” were the English Protestants massacred in the Irish rebellion of 1641.]