Thomas Gordon asks whether tyranny is worse than anarchy (1728)

Thomas Gordon

Found in The Works of Tacitus, vol. 3 - Gordon’s Discourses II, History (Books 1-2)

The English radical Whig and Commonwealthman Thomas Gordon (1692-1750) argues in his Discourses on Tacitus (1728) that “a settled active Tyranny” is worse than no government at all:

IT is usually said, that bad Government is better than none; a proposition which is far from self-evident. I am apt to think that absolute Tyranny is worse than Anarchy; for I can easily suppose popular confusion to be less mischievous than a settled active Tyranny, that it will do no less harm, and is likely to end sooner. All tumults are in their nature, and must be, short in duration, must soon subside, or settle into some order. But Tyranny may last for ages, and go on destroying, till at last it has left nothing to destroy. What can the most dreadful Anarchy produce but a temporary work of desolation and fury, what but violation of Law and Life? And can Government be said to exist, where all Justice is neglected, where all Violence and Oppression is committed, where lawless Will is the only reason, where the ravages of blind appetite, and of the blind sword; are the only administration?

After excoriating the British empire in his journalistic writings in the early 1720s (such as Cato’s Letters) Gordon turned to translating and commenting upon the works of the Roman historians Tacitus and Sallust in a series of Political Discourses which appeared between 1828 and 1744. He appended to each volume lengthy “discourses” in which he compared the abuses of power the historians found in the Roman Empire with the abuses he saw the British Empire replicating in his own times. One of his major themes was the idea that war and empire abroad inevitably led to tyranny and corruption at home. These translations and accompanying discourses were much read by the colonists in north America who were not slow to see the comparisons Gordon was making. We have gathered together in one volume Gordon’s complete Political Discourses for the first time - Thomas Gordon’s Political Discourses on Tacitus and Sallust: Tyranny, Empire, War, and Corruption (1728-1744). Three of his Discourses on Tacitus, which were rather cheekily dedicated to the Prince of Wales, deal with the the proper behaviour of Princes. The advice Gordon gives to a Prince is not surprisingly very un-Machiavellian.