Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE INTRODUCTION. - The Works of Tacitus, vol. 3 - Gordon's Discourses II, History (Books 1-2)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
THE INTRODUCTION. - Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Works of Tacitus, vol. 3 - Gordon’s Discourses II, History (Books 1-2) [120 AD]
The Works of Tacitus. In Four Volumes. To which are prefixed, Political Discourses upon that Author by Thomas Gordon. The Second Edition, corrected. (London: T. Woodward and J. Peele, 1737). Vol. 3.
Part of: The Works of Tacitus, 4 vols.
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 text is in the public domain.
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.
I NOW acquit myself of my engagement to the Public, by sending abroad the remaining Works of Tacitus translated into English. In this second Volume I have followed the same method as in the first, allowing for the difference of stile in the Original; for that of the History is more eloquent and sounding than that of the Annals; though both Works are equally grave, equally abounding in strong sense and beautiful reflections, such as at once convince the understanding, affect the heart, and please the imagination: Proofs of the power of good writing, and indeed of its utmost perfection. A very fine stile may be very languid; very lively expression may have very little force; very grave reasonings may be far short of persuading. But when a writer at the same time delights, and animates and instructs, when his sentences are brilliant, his propositions self-evident, his arguments irresistible, his manner charming, and when his heart withal is benevolent and sincere, he is an accomplished, he is a perfect writer. Such a writer is Tacitus, as I have already largely shewn. Nor do I mean or want to add further to the character or defence of that extraordinary Author. I hope I need not. I have already amply displayed and defended it, and the more I study him, the more cause I find to admire and justify him, and to wonder at the objections usually made to him, as fantastical and groundless.
The following History is one of the most entertaining that can possibly be read, full of surprising events and revolutions, recounted with great spirit and judgment, in a stile more free and flowing than that of the Annals, and every where enriched with curious observations, all charming and wise. Equally noble and delightful are his two Treatises subjoined, his Account of Germany, and the Life of Agricola, both very curious, both very instructive, and only worthy of the masterly hand of Tacitus.
In the beginning of the former Volume, I have shewn how ill he had been used by former Translators. His History has hardly fared better than his Annals. Sir Henry Savil who translated it first, has taken great pains and is very exact; but his expression is mean, lifeless and perplexed, void of all force and beauty. He grovels from sentence to sentence, labouring after the meaning of words and particular phrases, and quite loses, or quite starves the noble and nervous thoughts of Tacitus. He is a cold dealer in dry grammar, untouched with the vivacity of his Author, and without feeling, much less possessing, any part of his strength and fire. His Notes are learned, but insipid, and shew great diligence and memory, but a barren genius, and very short discernment. His censures of Tacitus are pitiful, and in them he chiefly betrays his own peevishness, his vanity and carping temper.
Since him there has been another Translation still worse, by several hands, most of them beholden to him for the sense of Tacitus, and guilty of enfeebling even the weak expression of Sir H. Savil. He translated four books of the History, with the Life of Agricola (I presume he omitted the fifth book in tenderness to the Jews) and they who translated these over again have sadly maimed them to make them modern English, that is to say, to make Tacitus prate pertly and familiarly. Were it not for fear of tiring my reader I could largely shew the many and continual defects of both Translations as I did those in the Translations of the Annals. But to such as have any doubt or curiosity about it, I refer that task.
In defence of my own Translation, I have little else to say than that it wanted no care of mine to make it exact, to make it resemble the Original, and yet not to read like a Translation. It is my opinion, that it is possible for an English writer to imitate the Ancients very nearly in phraseology and stile. As our Language is capable of many variations of phrase, there is great room to improve it by the transposition of words from the common way of marshalling them; and in solemn works of prose well as in poetry, it must be frequently done in order to preserve a decent dignity of expression, and to avoid the lightness and familiarity of ordinary conversation: Whatever is intended to convince the understanding, and to move the heart, must be noble and grave, free from all trite words, from all light and trivial sounds. And because we want variety of words, and our words often want force, it will be found necessary to give them some advantage in the Ranging and Cadence; a thing which may easily be done. Of this a thousand instances might be produced, especially from Milton and other of our Poets. But I shall illustrate what I mean by a quotation or two from the old Testament, The Prophet speaking of Tophet, says, “Wide and deep it was made: For the King it was made.” This seems to me more noble and sounding than if it had been expressed a different and the usual way, though the very same words had been employed: “It was made wide and deep: It was made for the King.” Another example I shall take from the Book of Job. “By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils they are consumed.” This manner of expression is far from being stiff. I think it more flowing as well as more forcible than the common manner. Here both periods close with the strongest ideas, those conveyed by the words perish, and consumed; and the vigour of the sentence is found where it should be, in the end of it.
Another improvement would arise from reviving some of our old words, such as have significancy and sound: For many such there are, and many such we eminently want. I have ventured upon doing this in a few instances; and it may be done in abundance with success.
I have not yet found any cause for wishing that I had taken another method in translating Tacitus. Whoever would do him justice must endeavour to preserve his brevity and fire, and, instead of bringing him down to common language, endeavour to raise the language up to him, or as near him as the idiom will permit. Such transformation is for its advantage, may be made without hurting perspicuity or the ear, and will prove more beautiful as well as more lively. I mean not a verbal translation, which is generally no language, but only harshness and jargon. What I mean is Pruning and Ranging, the Rejecting all waste words, all faint phrases, and the Consolidating spirit and sound. These variations from the usual and familiar form, are by some called Latinisms, and under that name condemned. But if they be clear and strong, and read well, they are just, whatever they be called. I wish our Language resembled Latin more. I own that an exact imitation of the Latin will never do, witness the old Translation of Tacitus, which creeps after every word with equal insipidness and obscurity. I shall only produce one example. That Writer speaking of the Germans, says, Argentum & aurum propitii an irati Dii negaverint, dubito. The Translator renders it thus: “Silver and Gold whether the angry or favourable Gods have denied them, I doubt.” This is nonsense. The man perhaps knew what Tacitus meant; but no English reader can know what he himself means, though he has adhered literally to the Latin. In my own Translation of this passage, I have preserved something of the Latin manner, I hope without injuring the English. “Silver and Gold the Gods have denied them, whether in kindness or in anger, I am unable to decide.” Sir Walter Raleigh, Mr. Hobbes, Milton and Shakespear, are all great masters of language; and their language resembles that of the Ancients.
Whatever objections to this performance come from men of capacity and candour, I have ever regarded, I ever shall regard, with due submission to them, with due distrust of my self, and be ready to own my conviction, or to convince them that I cannot see cause. There may be very just and unanswerable exceptions, which have not been communicated to me. Whenever they are, I shall be forward and glad to make suitable alterations.
In reviewing my Translation of the Annals I have discovered some mistakes, which though they be of little importance, I shall rectify in the next edition. The like care I shall take of the present Volume, where I hope very few will be sound.
The following Discourses, like the former, were composed for the interest of public Liberty, against public violence and the iniquities of power. Nor can one who reads Tacitus attentively, fail of starting a thousand reflections, such as must fill his heart with anguish for the deplorable lot of a people enslaved and oppressed, and with bitterness against their tyrants and oppressors. Unless he have hardened his heart against all the impulses of humanity and compassion, unless he have lost all regard for right and wrong, all sense of liberty and truth, he must be struck with the sad scenes before him, innocence suffering, cruelty devouring, iniquity exalted and powerful, virtue persecuted and perishing. He must rejoice in his own happier lot and that of his country; must abhor all practices and principles repugnant to liberty, and productive of servitude, abhor the men who broach such principles, and advance such practices. He must find proportionable delight from seeing the cause of Liberty flourish, from seeing it well explained, asserted and recommended.
The advantages and blessings of Liberty are there most palpably to be discerned, where Tyranny is most heavily felt; and from this very History the reader will see, that whatever is good or amiable in the world is by Tyranny destroyed and extinguished; that whatever is evil, mischievous and detestable, is by Tyrants introduced, nurtured and propagated. From hence he will reason and recollect that every thing dear and desirable to society must result from a state of liberty; that there only property and life are not precarious, nor conscience and the faculties of the soul bound in chains: That even Religion, in order to do good, must be left entirely free, and that in countries enslaved, it is converted, even the sacred alliance between the soul of man and its Creator, is converted, into an apparent engine of tyranny and delusion, into a manifest market and commodity for deluders, who whilst they are openly engaged in nothing but gain, and fraud and domineering, and the like selfish pursuits, all very worldly, many very wicked, have the confidence to preach up self-denial, to preach against the world, and to claim successorship to the poor, wandering, holy and disinterested Apostles. A sort of hypocrisy and assurance more insulting than all the rest of their unhallowed contradictions and doings, that such men as they, the tools of Tyranny, and themselves Tyrants, dare thus cover their pride and passions with the name and commission of the meek and merciful Jesus; dare pretend to reasoning, yet forbid all enquiry, talk of learning, and promote ignorance, demand vast reverence from the people for keeping them in a condition of savageness and slavery, and take great revenues for deceiving and oppressing them.
By such considerations upon nations under servitude, especially under popish servitude, the most hideous and complete that the world ever saw, he will be awakened with just zeal for the preservation of his own British Liberty, and grow jealous of every attempt to abridge it; since whoever will know the value of Liberty, need only examine the dismal state of those countries where it is not.
Liberty, which is the people’s civil salvation, cannot be too often inculcated and explained. Where Liberty is gone, what have they more? It has been often secretly undermined, often openly attacked in this free Nation. Against it many monstrous and wicked doctrines have been advanced: To overturn it the holy name of God has been boldly profaned, his sacred Word impiously perverted, all the excesses of oppression and public robbery have been encouraged and sanctified: And all this by some Oracles of the Law, in defiance of Law, by many ministers of Religion, in spight of Religion and of solemn Oaths. Injustice has usurped the name of Law; nonsense, chicanery, and the prostitution of Scripture, were called found Divinity; usurpation and misrule were stiled the Ordinance of God: madness was Loyalty; common sense was Treason.
Thus was every thing dear and valuable to this Nation given up: nor was it a meer compliment officiously made, and not taken. To manifest how acceptable it was, the perjured and godless traitors who made it, were openly distinguished with protection and rewards: To refute their reveries and barbarous positions, was dangerous, forbidden, nay, capital; and to prevent the poor people, thus doomed to bondage and misery, from perceiving how inhumanly they were abused and betrayed by their professed guides and pensioners, and by these their paid protectors, they were blinded and terrified by the witchery of words and superstition, nay, threatened with damnation if they would not be damned to be slaves.
What language can paint such shocking wickedness and delusion! Surely none ever feared God so little as some who have spoken in his name; none have ever been so void of humanity towards men as many who assumed a right to guide them to all happiness. Nor was it possible for any man to deliver such tenets as from God, without being either a bold Impostor, or an Enthusiast stark mad, a hard-hearted Knave, or a dreaming Lunatic. In truth, these doctrines of theirs were as notoriously selfish as they were notoriously wicked and absurd. Whenever they themselves were caressed, they never failed to justify oppression and to deify oppressors. Whenever they thought themselves slighted, though bereft of nothing but the power of doing mischief, they ever laboured with all bitterness to distress and even to destroy every administration however legal, however free from any violation offered to oaths and laws. Could there be a stronger demonstration, that such a spirit came not from a gracious and a just God, or from reason, or from any concern for right and justice, and the good of men? And was it not evidently inspired by the foulest ambition, by malice and rage, and every corrupt and ungodly passion? Could they after this expect to be trusted or respected by men, they who had shewn themselves such restless enemies to society and the good of men?
To vindicate the Deity from the impious charge of protecting Tyrants, to maintain the cause of Liberty, and shew its blessings, to assert the rights of men and of society, and to display the sad consequences of public corruption, with the beauty and benefit of public virtue, is the design of these discourses. The design I hope is pardonable, and in pursuing it I can truly say, that I was utterly divested of all personal passions, of every partiality, friendship or enmity, and utterly free from any view to hurt or to flatter any man in the world. If I inveigh against any of the dead, or praise them, it is for a warning and incitement to the living. To explain the evils of Tyranny lay directly in my way, and tended to shew the value, the inestimable value of Liberty.
What so nearly concerns the happiness of all men, it imports every man to know. It is but knowing their birthright, with the measures of securing it, as also the peril and ways of losing it, and the curse attending the loss. It is a subject of infinite availment, and comprehends whatever is dear to men in the world; it furnishes the strongest truths, the clearest reasonings, and is perplexed with no intricacies. The great question arising from it, is chiefly this, whether men have a right to what God and Nature has given them, to what their own Laws and Constitutions confirm to them, to what the Oaths and Duty of their Magistrates testify to belong to them: Whether that sort of government which is evidently best for men, be well pleasing to the Deity, or whether he espouses and approves the worst. What question ever admitted of a clearer answer? Yet what tomes of nonsense and ungodly falshoods have been published about it, to sanctify oppression, to blast and overthrow all the natural and civil rights of men!
Common happiness and security are the ends of society; to procure these ends is the duty of Governors; where they are procured it is the duty of subjects to obey, and reverence, and support their Governors. Where such ends are not pursued, but, in opposition to them, power degenerates into violence, and subjection into slavery; where meer will and passion bear rule, where universal misery and dread and open oppression prevail, can Government be said to exist? No; this is not the exercise of Government, but of hostility; and to resist an enemy is but self-defence; it is the law and duty of nature. Is it not repugnant to nature and to all common sense, to reverence evil, to be fond of the author of evil, and to conceive that any duty is due to him? Was it possible for the Romans to love Tiberius, possible to esteem Caligula or Nero? It is enough that people love such as love them, that they esteem those who protect and relieve them.
DISCOURSES UPON TACITUS.