Front Page Titles (by Subject) 16.: Catiline's Conspiracy 28 FEBRUARY, 1826 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
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16.: Catiline’s Conspiracy 28 FEBRUARY, 1826 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
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MS, University of Toronto Library, MSS 3074. Headed in Mill’s hand, “Speech / delivered at the / London Debating Society / Tuesday 28th Feby / 1826 / on the character of Catiline.” As there is no Fabian Society typescript, this is probably one of the two MSS that Laski sold immediately after acquiring them in 1922. The Laws and Transactions confirms the date of this, the sixth debate, “That the Character of Catiline has been calumniated by the Roman Historians.” Roebuck proposed the subject and opened in the affirmative; Mill replied. They are the only speakers listed in the debate, which was carried by the negative, 15 to 12. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
it is a remark of condorcet, that he is a public benefactor, who questions the authority of received opinions: and this not only when the received opinions are wrong, but sometimes even when they are right.1 If they are wrong, it is of course an advantage to get rid of an error: if they are right, it is still no small advantage, to believe upon evidence what we had hitherto believed upon trust.
If there be as much merit in propounding a paradox in history, as Condorcet says there is in propounding a paradox in philosophy,2 my honourable friend3 the opener of the debate may lay claim to a considerable share of our approbation. He is certainly entitled to whatever praise may be due to those who impugn the reigning opinion: and thus much may be conceded to him; that we are in general too apt to give implicit credence to everything which is asserted by historians, particularly by classical historians: in as much as we have not only read it in print, but what is still more conclusive, we have read it at school. Till within a short period, no one seems to have suspected, that ancient historians had their passions; that ancient historians had their prejudices; that the evidence which they had before them was not always of the best kind, nor their powers of weighing evidence, always of the highest order: in short, we are only now beginning to conceive it possible, that a historian who wrote in Greek or Latin, could be a deceiver or deceived. We are really indebted, therefore, to any one, who by boldly setting himself up against the authority of nineteen centuries, raises doubts, and provokes enquiry.
I know not whether my honourable friend really entertains the opinion in defence of which he has displayed so much ingenuity and research; or whether he has any other purpose than by exemplifying the uncertainty which hangs over the best established historical facts, to shake that unbounded confidence which we are so prone to repose in whatever has been handed down to us under the name of history, and send us back to reperuse our books and reconsider our old opinions. If this be his purpose, he has chosen his subject well, and the Society will I am sure agree with me that the subject has not lost any thing, by his manner of treating it.
To me, who, in history as in most other things, look chiefly to that which is practical, which bears upon the present situation of the human race, for which alone I concern myself, questions of this sort, I confess, are not very interesting. It is criminal in wives to murder their husbands, whether Mary Queen of Scots murdered her husband or no;4 and in forming a resolution to be an honest man, I shall not wait till I have ascertained whether Catiline was a rascal. If therefore my honourable friend had done no more than throw doubts upon the reality of the criminal actions imputed to Catiline, I should have suffered his speech to produce what effect it might upon the Society, and left it for other gentlemen to answer it if they could. But he has done more than deny those actions; he has attempted to justify them: and it is for this reason that I intend to oppose him. History, which resembles a novel in so many other respects, resembles it also in this, that it matters little whether the actions which the historian or the novelist relates ever really happened or not, but it matters very much that the moral judgment which we form of those actions should be correct. It is of very little consequence whether Catiline was a rascal, but it is of very great consequence that every rascal should be treated as such, whether in the situation of Catiline or in any other; and consequently, that a man who did what Catiline is acknowledged to have done, should be estimated as he deserves. Without therefore touching upon those actions in the private life of Catiline, the evidence of which may appear questionable, I shall confine myself to the consideration of that one of his actions which can neither be denied nor explained away: his conspiracy.
My honourable friend has contributed to our instruction and entertainment by a dissertation on the vices of the aristocratic government of Rome. It is not my wish to extenuate those vices; I do not fall short of my honourable friend in my contempt of those shallow and superficial politicians who see no despotism but where they see a single despot; who imagine that a government with popular forms must be a popular government, and who when they have played off one turbulent faction against another, imagine that they have secured liberty. I trust, Sir, that without being numbered among such persons, I may be permitted to see more points for consideration in this question, than my honourable friend seems to have been aware of. I must acknowledge indeed that his argument is recommended, if not by its conclusiveness, at least by its beautiful simplicity: The Roman government was not the best government conceivable: ergo, it was lawful to subvert it at any time, by any means, and to substitute any other government in the place of it. I must confess myself dull enough not to feel the force of this reasoning; and sufficiently bigotted to certain notions of morality, to think that civil war is a tremendous evil, and not to be hazarded but when the prospective good preponderates over the immediate evil: and that the existence of abuses is no pretext for a revolution unless it be the object of that revolution to remedy them.
There is one question which does seem to me to deserve more consideration than my honourable friend has apparently thought necessary to bestow upon it: and this is, what were Catiline’s designs? The existing government was bad, we will grant: but would Catiline have established a better? This to say the least my honourable friend has not proved. He appears to have reckoned upon finding in us a disposition to believe any thing in behalf of the unfortunate, and to have thought that our imaginations could not harbour the idea of two parties cutting each other’s throats, and neither of them in the right. I grant that in reading the pages of history, which are so often the annals of human misery and human guilt, it is with difficulty that the lover of virtue can force himself to believe that all was equally black. It is painful to dwell on the dull detail of crime after crime, and see nothing to love, nothing to admire, but every thing to execrate. The imagination must have something to sympathize with: and what it cannot find in the successful, it seeks in the unsuccessful party. They at least were no tyrants: they have not shocked us by their proscriptions and their confiscations: in our abhorrence of the crimes which were perpetrated against them, we forget those which they sought to perpetrate, we think only of the suffering of men who were more sinned against than sinning;5 and vainly flatter ourselves that those virtues which we see but too clearly were not found in the victors, would have been found in the vanquished if they had prevailed. I might perhaps condemn this illusion of the imagination, if I myself could boast of being free from it: but I still read the stories of Cato and Brutus6 with the same intense interest as if I had not known them to have been among the most selfish of mankind; and I bestow on an ideal Cato and Brutus that love and admiration which I feel that the real Cato and Brutus did not deserve. I would gladly if I could, regard Catiline too in the light of a persecuted patriot, a hero and a martyr: but my principles compel me to pass the severest condemnation upon a man who would subvert an established government without substituting a better, and plunge his country into the horrors of a civil war, for no nobler purpose than the gratification of his own rapacity, or his own selfish ambition.
If Catiline had succeeded, he would have had his choice of three things. He might have retained the old constitution, placing his own party in power, that like Marius or Sylla he might have glutted himself and his followers with the blood and riches of the opposite party:7 or secondly, he might have established a military despotism, or thirdly and lastly a good government. Let us examine into the comparative probability of these three suppositions, beginning with the last.
I am ready to give Catiline all the advantage of the plea that what we know of him comes to us solely from his enemies: but when we make all the deductions, which this circumstance requires, from the value of their testimony, or even were we to reject that testimony altogether, the utmost that we could conclude would be, that there is no evidence against him. The absence of evidence against him is not evidence in his favour: thought it were not proved that his designs were bad, this is no proof that they were good. My honourable friend will not probably carry his disbelief in history so far as to contend that we ought always to believe the contrary of what historians tell us, and to infer at once that Catiline was an honest man, because Sallust says he was a profligate.8 Now I ask, Is the thing itself so intrinsically probable, that we should believe it without evidence? Is disinterested patriotism so very common a thing, a quality of such vulgar, such every day occurrence, that we should ascribe it without proof to a man of whose moral character the very best that can be said is that we know nothing about it? My honourable friend must have a very good opinion of mankind. He has surely lived in some country where moral virtues are like blackberries, and patriots grow upon every bush. It is not so I fear in London: I am sure it was not so in Rome: and till I have some better evidence of Catiline’s honesty, than his own word and my honourable friend’s, I will at the risk of sacrificing my own character for charity and liberality, consider him as a knave.
But if, on the one hand, my honourable friend may with reason require of us to make the due abatement from the degree of credit due to Catiline’s enemies because they were his enemies he should on the other hand reflect that this abatement does not amount to a total rejection of their testimony, and that even a man’s enemies do not load him with accusations which every man has it in his power to contradict. At the hazard then of incurring the contempt of my honourable friend, I will say, that little as we know of Catiline, and that little only from his enemies, we know enough to pronounce with some confidence that he was every thing which a political reformer should not be. I see no reason to doubt that he was a needy adventurer, reduced to penury by what to avoid the sarcasms of my honourable friend I will call by no worse name than extravagance: that when he had squandered his fortune, he still retained the habits which that fortune had engendered, and though without the means of satisfying his natural wants, was still tormented by artificial wants which it required a large fortune to supply: that he was deeply in debt, that he had no honest means of livelihood, and that he had gathered round him a multitude of men whose wants like his own were pressing and their fortunes spent. Now there are many instances in history of conspiracies in which such men have been the leaders: they are indeed the stuff of which conspirators are made: but I do not think there is one instance of a conspiracy led by such persons, which has had any righteous purpose or which has turned out well. A man who has been ruined by his vices is not a man to reform the government of his country. A political reformer should be a man who can resist temptation—who can command his passions—who looks to distant and durable enjoyments rather than to those which are immediate and transitory and who can toil half his life thankless and unrewarded, undervalued and perhaps abhorred by the majority of mankind with nothing to support him but the cheering consciousness that his labours and his sacrifices will one day be appreciated. Can we expect this from a man who, reckless of the consequences, is a slave to the pursuit of immediate gratifications, neglecting all others? No: it is a fatal error to imagine that public virtue and private vices are ever allied, or that he who has sacrificed fame, fortune and liberty to his ungovernable passions, will have more regard for the happiness of his fellow citizens than he has had for his own. It is too much to suppose that he who is an enemy to himself, will be a friend to the rest of mankind, or that he whom prudence cannot restrain from vicious indulgence will be restrained from it by forbearance towards others or by love of his country.
I conclude therefore, that if Catiline had succeeded, he would either after a series of massacres and proscriptions, have ended by leaving the government as it was before, or he would have established a military despotism. I am sure there is no one here who would have attempted to justify him, had he adopted the former alternative. But as my honourable friend appears to have some hankering after a military despotism, and to think that it would have been at least an improvement upon the Roman aristocracy, I must not dismiss this part of the subject without observation.
I am no very vehement admirer of an aristocratic government: and the Roman aristocracy had its full share of the vices to which that form of government is liable. But an aristocracy, be it ever so bad, if composed of a considerable number of members, seldom or never reduces the human mind so completely to the level of the brutes, as a military despotism. An aristocracy—at least a numerous aristocracy—has more points in common with the people: it has at least an interest in establishing a regular government, and letting its subjects know all the evil which they are liable to suffer at its hands. It is the interest of an aristocracy that personal security should be inviolable; for their own persons may one day be in danger. It is the interest of an aristocracy that there should be protection to property: for the time may come when their property may stand in need of it. In short though an aristocracy might and would have the will to oppress in at least as great a degree as a monarch, it would in general oppress by means of the laws, rather than against them. Now a government of law is always preferable to a government of arbitrary will. However oppressive the laws might be, they might at any rate be known. Though the law might take from us nine tenths of the produce of our industry, it would be something to know, that the remaining tenth would be secure. I can hardly imagine any laws so bad, to which I would not rather be subject than to the caprice of a man: whose ever varying will could never for an instant be known—who would punish me today for executing his yesterday’s commands,—who would load me today with riches and honours and send me to the scaffold tomorrow. I would rather if I must choose, be habitually overtaxed, than live in constant fear that the whole of my property might be taken from me at a moment’s warning by the fiat of a despot. I would rather have every action controlled—every movement chained up by restrictive laws which iniquitous as they might be would not destroy my security, since I should only have to obey them and be safe: than lead a life of incessant anxiety lest by some of my acts I should unwittingly infringe against a will which had never been made known to me, and violate prohibitions which had never existed any where but in the royal bosom. Nor is this utter insecurity, this constant sense of alarm, confined to those who are sufficiently conspicuous to attract the notice of the despot, and sufficiently wealthy to excite his cupidity or his jealousy. If the great body of the people is not the prey of the despot, it is the prey of his subordinate instruments: petty tyrants, whom experience has proved to be the worst of tyrants and who are but the more likely to be tyrants because they themselves are slaves. My honourable friend has expatiated on the tyranny which the proconsuls exercised over the provinces, because having but a year to reign they made haste to plunder as much as they conveniently could in that short time. But if this be true, what may we not expect from the agent of a despot, who has no security that his power will continue so long? History affords some remarkable examples in point; and I am inclined to think that the government of a Turkish Pacha would form but a disadvantageous contrast even with that of a Roman proconsul.
But what contributes most of all to sink the minds of the unhappy subjects of a despotism into the lowest state of brutality and degradation of which human nature is susceptible, is that merit, instead of being the road to distinction, is more dangerous to its possessor than even wealth: that every quality which adorns a man is dreaded and persecuted, while the only qualities which recommend to favour are those of a sycophant and a slave. From this general corruption, an extensive aristocracy is exempt. There it is not by the arts of fawning and flattering and cringing and pandering and backbiting and slandering, that men raise themselves to the head of the state: there are no court intrigues, no favorites, no royal mistresses: the meanest of vices, those of a courtier, are unknown. Talents and intellect are in honour, because these are the qualities which are really serviceable, and because, where the possessors of power are too numerous to be acted upon by private favour, the qualities that are really serviceable, are the qualities that are preferred. And at Rome, where the lowest citizen, if a man of talent, was not excluded by his birth from those public situations which are the proper reward of talent, the human mind could not become utterly degraded. Where the great prizes fell to a Marius or a Cicero, Marius’s and Cicero’s would not be wanting. Under a despotism such men, if they had ever arisen, would have been crushed in the beginning of their career. It has been remarked that nothing contributed so much to the unequalled grandeur of the Roman state as the succession of great men who ruled its councils and commanded its armies for century after century.9 And to what cause is it to be ascribed that a state which from so small a beginning had raised itself to so much grandeur not suddenly and by the individual talents of one great captain but gradually through a succession of ages and by a succession of statesmen and warriors, should first have stopt short, then fallen gradually into decay, until with the whole civilization of the world at its beck, it was unable to defend its own existence against a few hordes of savages? Could this have happened under a government under which merit was rewarded—under which it was even tolerated—but it has been truly said by a historian whose authority indeed does not go for much with my honourable friend, Regibus boni quam mali suspectiones sunt, semperque his aliena virtus formidolosa est.10
Bad then as the Roman aristocracy was (and I neither palliate nor deny its badness) he who had sought to subvert it with the intention of erecting a military despotism on its ruins, is not entitled to plead the end, in justification of the means, and it is not any ordinary end which would justify such means. Though it would be too much to say that civil war is the worst of evils, since the evil of misgovernment is worse; there is scarcely an imaginable horror which is not included in it. Rapine and murder on the largest scale and in the most aggravated form, are but a specimen. There are occasions, it is indeed true, when humanity itself commands us to risk even these evils to effect a greater good. But though the friend of mankind may despise the pusillanimity or execrate the hypocrisy of those who would persuade us to endure the perpetual evils of tyranny rather than expose ourselves to the temporary hazards of a political convulsion; it does not become him to give a handle to the eternal enemies of all reforms from the greatest to the least for accusing him of insensibility to the tremendous evils by which such convulsions are but too often accompanied. An indifference to those evils is precisely what those who do not wish to see the people happy are in the constant habit of charging upon those who do; and it is of the highest importance that the language and conduct of the friends of freedom should be such as to give no colour to so serious an accusation. Let them acknowledge that the man who like Catiline produces these evils for his own selfish purposes, and with no intention of effecting a permanent improvement, is a most atrocious criminal: but let them add that there is a degree of guilt still more atrocious than his: it is the guilt of those who by upholding bad institutions when the spirit of the age imperatively calls for reform, expose their country to the same calamities for purposes equally selfish, and if the extent of the evil sought to be produced be the test of wickedness, still more detestably wicked.
[1 ]Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743-94), Vie de Voltaire (1787), in Voltaire, Oeuvres, Vol. LXIV, p. 14.
[3 ]John Arthur Roebuck (1801-79), then a student of law, and later a leading Radical politician, had come under Mill’s tutelage after his return to England from Canada in 1824. He was probably Mill’s closest associate at this time.
[4 ]Queen Mary (1542-87) married Henry Stuart (1545-67), Lord Darnley, in 1565. He associated with rebels, and was subject to a secret sentence of death when the house in which he was recuperating (perhaps from poison) was blown up; his strangled corpse was discovered in the grounds.
[5 ]William Shakespeare (1564-1616), King Lear, III, ii, 59; in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 1275.
[6 ]Marcus Junius Brutus (ca. 78-42 ), assassin of Julius Caesar in 44 , committed suicide after his defeat at Philippi, where he had been fighting to maintain the republic.
[7 ]Gaius Marius (157-86 ) and Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 ), though rivals, served together in the Jugurthine war in Africa (107 ) and the war against the Cimbri and Teutones (104-101 ), during which their troops were noted for plunder. Sulla also amassed treasure in the war (87-83 ) against Mithradates. Marius served as Consul six times between 107 and 100 ; Sulla was Dictator of Rome from 82 to 80
[8 ]Sallust, “Bellum Catilinae,” in Sallust, Vol. I, pp. 8-10 (V).
[9 ]Montesquieu, Considérations, p. 3.
[10 ]Sallust, “Bellum Catilinae,” p. 12 (VII).