Front Page Titles (by Subject) DISCOURSE XI.: Of Nobility. - The Works of Tacitus, vol. 3 - Gordon's Discourses II, History (Books 1-2)
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DISCOURSE XI.: Of Nobility. - 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.
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The political cause of Nobility. They are readily respected by the People: apt to oppress. Nobility without Virtue, what. The Spirit of Nobility, what it ought to be.
AFTER so much said about the People, it may not be improper to add something concerning the Nobility. As by the People I mean not the idle and indigent rabble, under which name the People are often understood and traduced, but all who have property, without the privileges of Nobility; so by the latter I mean such as are possessed of privileges denied to the People.
In a State no man ought to rise above the rest, without giving the rest some equivalent for such superiority; and for all public distinction there ought to be some public merit. As it is wise in a Prince or a State to employ men of virtue and capacity, it is but just to reward them. This was the natural rise of the Roman Senators, chosen for their ability and experience to direct the State, and dignified with the title of Conscript Fathers, as were their descendents by that of Patricians. Their duty arose from their dignity, and their dignity recompensed their duty. Thus they merited their pre-eminence and popular estimation; nor did the People ever fail in reverence to them, until they failed in their respect to the People, and hardly then. So natural it is for power to encroach, and so much apter are men in authority to depart from moderation, than the People from subjection. As property begets power, so does power property: The Senators, they who swayed the State, engrossed the riches of the State. The People were poor, and kept poor by the Nobility, who oppressed them by excessive usury, and when they could not satisfy the debt, seized their persons, and kept them in bonds. The violence was too great, the usage too ignominious to be always borne by a free and bold People, who therefore in their own defence forced the Nobility to allow them Magistrates and Protectors of their own. Thus began the popular Tribunes, Officers who frequently mortified the Nobility, taught the People to aspire in their turn, and to assert a right to all the highest Honours. This was the effect and punishment of Patrician Pride. The People were content to be governed; but when their Governors insulted and oppressed them, they assumed a share in governing themselves.
The People are the materials of Government, their protection its end, nor can it have any other; and that Government is a Monster where the People have no share, such a Monster as nature produces not, a Head unconcerned for the Body and Members, and, instead of nourishing, devouring them. In Society no man should be higher than others, but for the good of others; when that good is not obtained, when he considers himself only for himself, and pursues his own advantage to the hurt of others, his elevation is preposterous; it is against justice and nature, and better he descend than all men sink. Nature produces no Nobility, nor do the greatest when they come into the world, surpass the meanest in features, complexion or strength. The difference is created by civil establishment, which confers Nobility for political ends, but cannot convey a great soul with a great name, any more than stature or strength. It would be well, if, when the best men are thus raised, their descendents would continue to resemble them. When they do not, their degeneracy is a scandal to themselves as well as injurious to the Public, and thence the more scandalous. For being elated none of them have any cause, since it is incumbent upon them to surpass others in Virtue as well as in Title.
Nobility without Virtue is but exalted infamy, and the severest thing you can say of a great man, is to call him mean; and mean he is if he do mean things, let his name be ever so sounding; nay, he is mean when his behaviour is not great. The absence of good qualities is abundant reproach; but where he has many evil and none good, he becomes a disgrace to his Country, ought to be the scorn of his order, and consigned to the rabble, as he is already one of them in masquerade. His spirit ought to be noble like his name, full of private benevolence, full of public zeal, abhorring corruption, despising little personal advantages, doing justice to every man, seeking the good of all men; his example illustrious as his title, above falshood, above lucre. It is thus he deserves superiority and praise, and were he not noble, has a claim to be so. He honours a great station more than a great station can him. Greatness of soul is above the gift of man; a Crown cannot convey it, but only distinguish it, and does honour to itself by honour so bestowed. Little to be valued is that reverence which is paid only to title and rank; nor will a wise man much regard that respect which would be paid to his footman, were his footman in the same station. True esteem is always personal. What men pay to fortune and accidents, is only flattery or fashion, and in it the heart has no share.
The Duty of a Nobleman to his Country. In Virtue and public Spirit he ought to surpass others.
A MAN of great title with a little and evil mind, is worse and more despicable than the lowest of the vulgar, who are often bad through mere necessity and ignorance, as well as through a vicious education. Even poverty cannot excuse the base actions of a man of rank. He who has a worthy mind, will not act poorly even in poverty; he will consider his Duty and Honour preferably to his wants, and bear calamity rather than reproach. All Noblemen should be the ornaments of Society, else Society cannot esteem them, nor ought; for their integrity is of great concernment to the Public. According to the measure of their Virtue or Corruption, the State often thrives or decays, especially where they have a large share in making the Laws, and in directing the Administration. It is but common honesty to be just to their Country, to consult and promote its interest; it is no more than the duty which all men owe it; and upon public men, men of eminence and title, this duty is more particularly incumbent: They are of most consideration, they are better qualified (it is to their irreparable shame if they are not) and they are already possessed of their reward, by being what they are.
Whoever is indifferent about the interest of his Country, let his condition be ever so low, is unworthy to live in it, and it ought to drive him out; for he who is not its friend, is its enemy. Though he may have no fortune, he has still something valuable to engage him; he has a life to lose or to be protected, and by being protected by the Public, he is bound, nay, he is paid to wish it well and to defend it. Besides this, common humanity, the interest, and distress, and preservation of his acquaintance and neighbours, or relations, are powerful calls upon him to love and promote the good of the whole. He who has no public Virtue can hardly be thought to have any other; since out of a complication of private virtues public virtue arises, out of tenderness and mercy, out of generosity and goodness of spirit, out of friendship and justice, out of love for Liberty, and Right, and Peace, as likewise from an aversion to Intrusion and Violence, to Usurpation and Servitude.
A passion for the public Weal is the noblest passion that can possess the heart of man, and he who has it not can have little else that is good or laudable there. A benevolent heart interests it self even in the concerns of remote Nations, and in Revolutions which befell many ages ago. Who can read of free Nations falling into bondage, of Virtue depressed, of Villainy exalted, without sympathy and commiseration? Who, even at this distance, or a thousand ages hence, can behold the divine Brutus perishing in defence of the most righteous cause upon earth, behold the debauched Anthony, the faithless Octavius, triumphing in the worst, without being touched with indignation, touched with forrow? Or see, without emotion and heaviness, these and the succeeding Tyrants mowing down, with settled fury, whatever was good and glorious amongst men?
If public Spirit be the duty of all men, the duty not only of the middle, but the lowest order, how much public Spirit is to be expected from the Nobility, from them upon whom their Country has poured its highest favours, upon whom it should rely for the last zeal and services? What can be so just, what so dear, what so noble and comprehensive, what so much a duty, as to love and maintain what gave us not only birth, but fortune, honours and distinction? It is but gratitude to a generous benefactor: and if we are ungrateful, so sovereignly ungrateful, what good quality have we? Against Ingrates the ancient Persians had an express Law, very penal and rigorous. They considered ingratitude as the source of all enmities amongst men, and an indication of the vilest spirit, nor believed it possible for an ungrateful man to love the Gods or Men, or his Friends, Parents, or Country. Surely he that loves not the last, can love none of the rest, and ingratitude to one’s Country implies universal ingratitude.
A Nobleman void of good Qualities, or possessed with bad, a miserable Character. The Baseness and Corruption of the Roman Nobility; its fatal consequence.
ANOBLEMAN and not a Patriot, is a wild contradiction, at best a pitiful and depraved character. What is he? Surely not worthy to bear any trust for his Country, or to shine in her honours, if he make no conscience of his trust, if he betray it, or be indifferent about it, or want public faith and zeal, uncorruptible faith and affectionate zeal. As public Honours should be given for public Spirit, public Spirit should ever accompany public Honours: nor without that has any man a right to these, either to obtain them or to keep them. By such an essential defect and disqualification he degrades himself, and forfeits what he has no capacity to enjoy. He is afterwards to be considered as an Intruder, a Mimic who indeed acts a part, but sustains no real Dignity. Nor can the ornaments and prerogatives of his Order serve for aught but to expose him to constant ridicule and despight; like many of the Nobility in the time of Sallust, who says of them, “That they were like so many Statues, and besides their pompous name had nothing to recommend them.”
The stupidity of the Roman Nobility was far from being their worst quality. They were corrupted, debauched, oppressive, insolent, venal; mercenary men who betrayed the Public, who debased themselves to make vile traffic of their voices and power in the State, sold Justice, sold Countries, gave judgment against the Innocent for money, or neglected to do it when the Innocent had none: For money they protected public Enemies, for money authorized domestic Oppressors. Whoever would see a true picture of them, need only read the story of the War against Jugurtha finely told by Sallust. By their Corruption they hastened the downfal of Liberty, of which in truth corrupt men are never worthy. What they afterwards suffered in the civil war, from the rage of Usurpers, was a just punishment upon them for such shameful degeneracy and corruption. Thenceforth they served for continual sacrifices to succeeding Tyrants. They might thank themselves: Had they been just and uncorruptible, they might have saved themselves and the State. By their Corruption and Venality, by their Pride and Oppression, they had lost their power.
Whenever Government becomes corrupt and oppressive, it grows from that moment hated and weak. Hence ambitious men find temptation and opportunity to overturn it. They will find enough to say against it, and enow to hear them; what they say will be greedily swallowed. The lot that is disliked, is generally believed the worst that can happen, another is desired, and a remedy hoped from a change, which seldom brings one. Whenever the present Governors are hated, their Competitors are sure of being admired, though perhaps much worse. But the evil which is immediately felt is thought heaviest, and to get rid of it, a heavier is often incurred. Besides men will venture a mischief to themselves, if by it they can afflict their enemies. The Roman Nobility had provoked the Roman People, so that both pursuing separate interests fell naturally under the dominion of one. The like happened in Denmark: All public burdens and taxes were laid upon the People, nor would the Nobility bear any part, but treated them with scorn and oppression. The injured People took bitter vengeance, made the King absolute to make the Nobility Slaves. These made once a great figure: At present a small Officer in the Army is of more account than a Nobleman of Denmark.
The beginning of public Corruption generally from the Nobility: How ruinous this to the Public, and to themselves.
THE first great blow that was given to the Liberties of France, was given by the Nobility, who consented, in the reign of Charles the seventh, as Philip de Comines observes, that the Court should raise money upon their Tenants, for the venal consideration of having share of that money to themselvesa . He adds that by this that King brought a heavy sin upon his own soul and upon that of his Successors, and gave his Kingdom a wound which would continue long to bleed. Upon this occasion, I cannot forbear quoting another passage from that good Frenchman, that honest Politician, worthy Historian. “Is there, says he, a Prince upon earth, who has power to lay a single penny upon his Subjects, without the grant and consent of those who are to pay it, otherwise than by Tyranny and Violence?----No Prince can levy it, unless through Tyranny, and under the penalty of excommunication. But there are those who are brutish enough not to know what they can do or omit in this affair.”
These impositions grew monstrous, almost as soon as they grew arbitrary: Charles the seventh, who began them, never raised annually above an hundred and eighty thousand pounds. His Son Lewis XI. almost trebled that Revenue; and since then all that the Kingdom and People had, even to their skins, has hardly been thought sufficient for their Kings. All this might have been easily foreseen; but a little present lucre blinded the French Nobility.
By money got with their consent, the Court could maintain Armies without their consent; and it was too late to defend their public privileges, when they had given away the public purse, the first and greatest privilege, the bulwark of all the rest. They afterwards found, by dear experience, that nothing which hurts their Country could in the issue benefit them, and that in betraying the rights of the Public, they had betrayed their own. By flattering and exalting the Crown for some present gratuity, some poor personal advantages, they brought themselves to a slavish dependence upon the Crown for all the advantages of honour and life. Neither could the Crown be blamed for giving them money, if it was true that they would not do their duty, would not serve their Country without money. By it however they gained little. Besides the meanness and disgrace of it, what they got corruptly, they wasted prodigally, and ruined their posterity without mending their own condition. It was moreover a temptation to the Crown to grasp at all, since whatever is coveted, it knew how to accomplish.
What the Nobility did, others were too ready to imitate, and the Court took advantage of the venality of all. So that Mezeray had too much cause to say what he does of the States-General holden in the beginning of the reign of Charles the eighth, that the President of the States, many of the Ecclesiastics, and several Deputies, sold themselves to the Court, and betrayed the public cause. It must be owned that whatever the Court acquired this way, was but a poor acquisition, not the hearts of the People, but the venal mouths of their Deputies. Nor can a Monarchy be ever strengthened by any acquisitions which weaken the People. It is at best but the strength of a man in a frenzy and convulsions, mighty for a time, and supernatural, but ending in miserable faintness, languor and death.
The advantages of public Liberty to the Nobility. How fast Tyrants destroy them. The strange degeneracy of the Roman Nobility: contemptible, yet proud: subject to be degraded for base Morals or Poverty.
IN a free Country the Nobility have room to exercise all their virtues: Under an arbitrary Prince what virtue they have they must hide; since if it be signal, they may find it fatal. It is certain that by most it is marked with a jealous eye, and such jealousy seldom sleeps or forgivesb . The Politics of almost all the Cæsars were nothing else than bloody devices to murder every man of quality signal for any virtue military or civil, or for wealth and family. Tacitus is full of such examples, and I have elsewhere referred to them. It was treasonable to be noble; capital to be rich; criminal to have borne honours, criminal to have declined them; and the reward of worth and virtue was quick and inevitable destruction; says Tacitus. So that men of character, possessed of great qualities, were, for safety, obliged to disguise them, and to appear, against nature, mean, fawning, debauched, and even stupid, like the first Brutus under Tarquin. The natural heaviness of Galba was supposed to be assumed, purposely to escape the deadly suspicion of the several Tyrants under whom he had lived. Such was the splendor of his race, and such the terrible spirit of those times (which he had escaped) that thence colour was ministered for bestowing the name of real wisdom upon that which in him was real heaviness, as the same author observes. Through this fear and precaution, under the Tyranny of Domitian, Tacitus says, men were so careful to conceal their faculties, that they lost a great space of their life in silence and non-existence, insomuch that they had survived not only others but themselves. Now where was the advantage, where the honour of being Noble, when such as were Noble were obliged to act meanly, and to seem mean? It was all mock-honour, and a misfortune to possess it. Under such pressure and terrors could virtue rise or flourish, a thing too rare even where it was encouraged?
In fact most of the Nobility were what they seemed, corrupt, base, servile, void of spirit and virtue, destitute of accomplishments, in name only and fortune distinguished from the Rabble, and therefore worse than they. Ridiculous is a noble name without noble qualities. Is a fruit-tree to be regarded, which bears no fruit? The reasoning of Marius is unanswerablec . The illustrious virtue of the founder of a family, is but a perpetual reproach upon his descendants, if they want virtue. The merit of our forefathers derives none upon us, no more than their crimes do guilt. Is it any praise to a coward, that he had an ancestor who was brave? He has much cause to be ashamed, none to glory, yet probably will glory in spite of shame. The less merit generally the more pride, and nothing is more common than to find in very worthless, in very corrupt men, notable stateliness and insolence. I have known men of the most fastidious spirit and confident mien, do actions little and base, known them false, sordid, unjust. What can be more odious than such men, what more contemptible? Do not Titles and Honours, if they have any, render them more contemptible, more odious? For a great man to be dishonest and corrupt, is infamy in abundance; but when to corruption and dishonesty he adds insolence and disdain, he is completely infamous, and claims abhorrence from all men.
It was part of the office of the public Censors at Rome, to weed the Senate, and to degrade unworthy Senators: Nor could that illustrious dignity be gained or kept without a suitable fortune. It was not thought honourable or safe, that any one with an ill character and no estate, should act and vote amongst Magistrates and Lawgivers; that a man of bad morals should direct the public manners, and dispose of property, yet have none. Nor was aught more just, than that they who had the spirit of the worst Plebeians, as well as the poverty, should be reduced into the class of men whom they resembled. A Senator was at first no more than a Plebeian well accomplished, and therefore ennobled; and it was but reasonable, that Senators, who wanted accomplishments, should be declared Plebeians again, when in effect they were so before. Nobility was the price of worth, and without worth, reckoned Usurpation. It was thought equitable usage, as to raise men of merit, so to pull down men who happened to be raised without it. The worthless Nobility were a scandal to the worthy, as well as to their own ancestors; nor was it just that the worst should be ennobled, when the best could be no more. Great qualities were accounted natural Nobility, such as no favour, no power could bestow; and the power which exalted worthless men, was thought rather to debase it self than to honour them. Besides it was disgraceful and dangerous to the State, that men unqualified, corrupt, venal, infamous, should be allowed any share in the sway; that an Ignorant and a Mercenary should have equal weight with the ablest Senators, and upright Patriots.
Public Virtue justly due from the Nobility to the Public. They ought to be zealous for Liberty upon their own account.
IT is but just to the Publick, for men to merit the stations which they hold in it, to render themselves worthy of the privileges and emoluments which they enjoy from it. To take a reward without deserving it, is a sort of robbery, especially when to that reward public Service and Duty are annexed. The Nobility of a Country have more advantages from it than the rest of the Natives, and are therefore more bound in honour and conscience to serve it. It is for this only they are, or should be Noble. For their own sake also they are bound to study its prosperity, and to guard its Liberty and Laws. Where these are precarious, so will be their dignity, which can never be safe where Liberty is not so, unless in an established Aristocracy, of which I do not now speak. By such righteous conduct, a conduct so worthy of public Leaders, so incumbent upon the Protectors of their Country, they entail security upon their families, and glory upon their own name. For under Tyranny even the memory of great Men is denied Justice. Arulenus Rusticus was condemned for having published the life and praises of Thrasea Pætus, a glorious Patriot murdered by Nero, who hated him for his virtue, which the Monster laboured to extirpate from the earth. Herennius Senecio was put to death under Domitian, for doing the like justice to the virtuous memory of Helvidius Priscus. Even the books were doomed to the flames; so zealous were these Tyrants to destroy the name as well as the life of every excellent person. But in spite of the Tyrants, in spite of all their power and rage, those precious names are still preserved, still praised: So will be the names of all great Men remarkably good; and, to heighten the glory of these, the infamy of great bad Men, will be never suffered to perish. Here therefore is the choice, to be immortal in Praise, or in Reproach.
[a ]A cecy consentirent les Seigneurs de France, pour certaines pensions qui leur furent promises, pour les deniers qu’on leveroit en leurs terres.
[b ]Promptissimus quisque sævitia Principis interciderat.
[c ]Quanto vita illorum præclarior, tanto horum socordia flagitiosior.