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Algernon Sidney on not unquestioningly “rendering unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” before checking to see if they legitimately belong to Caesar (1689)

The English radical republican Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) wants us to ask “who is this Caesar” and “what legitimately belongs to him” before we give Caesar anything:

Our author (Filmer) confines the subject’s choice to acting or suffering, that is, doing what is commanded, or lying down to have his throat cut, or to see his family and country made desolate. This he calls giving to Caesar that which is Caesar’s; whereas he ought to have considered that the question is not whether that which is Caesar’s should be rendered to him, for that is to be done to all men; but who is Caesar, and what doth of right belong to him.

… Therefore if this implicit faith be grounded upon a supposition of profound wisdom in the prince, the foundation is overthrown, and it cannot stand; for to repose confidence in the judgment and integrity of one that has none, is the most brutish of all follies. So that if a prince may have or want the qualities, upon which my faith in him can be rationally grounded, I cannot yield the obedience he requires, unless I search into the secrets relating to his person and commands, which he forbids. I cannot know how to obey, unless I know in what, and to whom: Nor in what, unless I know what ought to be commanded: Nor what ought to be commanded, unless I understand the original right of the commander, which is the great arcanum. Our author finding himself involved in many difficulties, proposes an expedient as ridiculous as anything that had gone before, being nothing more than an absurd begging the main question, and determining it without any shadow of proof. He enjoins an active or passive obedience before he shews what should oblige or persuade us to it. This indeed were a compendious way of obviating that which he calls popular sedition, and of exposing all nations, that fall under the power of tyrants, to be destroyed utterly by them. Nero or Domitian would have desired no more than that those who would not execute their wicked commands, should patiently have suffered their throats to be cut by such as were less scrupulous: and the world that had suffered those monsters for some years, must have continued under their fury, till all that was good and virtuous had been abolished. But in those ages and parts of the world, where there hath been anything of virtue and goodness, we may observe a third sort of men, who would neither do villainies, nor suffer more than the laws did permit, or the consideration of the publick peace did require. Whilst tyrants with their slaves, and the instruments of their cruelties, were accounted the dregs of mankind, and made the objects of detestation and scorn, these men who delivered their countries from such plagues were thought to have something of divine in them, and have been famous above all the rest of mankind to this day. Of this sort were Pelopidas, Epaminondas, Thrasybulus, Harmodius, Aristogiton, Philopoemen, Lucius Brutus, Publius Valerius, Marcus Brutus, C. Cassius, M. Cato, with a multitude of others amongst the ancient heathens. Such as were instruments of the like deliverances amongst the Hebrews, as Moses, Othniel, Ehud, Barak, Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, Samuel, David, Jehu, the Maccabees and others, have from the Scriptures a certain testimony of the righteousness of their proceedings, when they neither would act what was evil, nor suffer more than was reasonable. But lest we should learn by their examples, and the praises given to them, our author confines the subject’s choice to acting or suffering, that is, doing what is commanded, or lying down to have his throat cut, or to see his family and country made desolate. This he calls giving to Caesar that which is Caesar’s; whereas he ought to have considered that the question is not whether that which is Caesar’s should be rendered to him, for that is to be done to all men; but who is Caesar, and what doth of right belong to him, which he no way indicates to us: so that the question remains entire, as if he had never mentioned it, unless we do in a compendious way take his word for the whole.

About this Quotation:

The English radical republican Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) wrote his Discourses Concerning Government (1898) to rebut the arguments of the defender of absolute monarchy Robert Filmer. Filmer urged his readers “not to meddle with mysteries of state” by asking too many questions about the character or the motives of those who ruled them, how they came to hold they powers that they had, and by what right they continued to wield those powers. In his view they were “mysteries” which should remain mysteries. On the other hand, Sidney wanted to know about their qualifications to rule over him and, if they proved to be unsatisfactory, take his business elsewhere, just as he would make inquiries about the skills and qualifications of a shoe maker before deciding to get a pair of shoes made. And if the shoes hurt his foot he would find another shoe maker. Sidney was determined to do the same with the ruler of the government. He wanted to “know what he is, why he is, and by whom he is made to be what he is” and, most importantly, what was “the original right of the commander.” Living in a very religious age, he wittily turns a story from Matthew 22: 15-22 concerning the submissive and rather passive duty of Christians to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” into the much more radical demand that “the question is not whether that which is Caesar’s should be rendered to him, for that is to be done to all men; but who is Caesar, and what doth of right belong to him.” It was questions like this that got Sidney executed for treason in 1689.

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