Essay 12 by David Hume Part 1

Civil Liberty

January 12, 2020

Political writers who are free from party-prejudices cultivate a science that contributes most to public utility, of all sciences. They get a private satisfaction from it. However, I suspect that the world is still too young to establish many general universal truths in politics.

We still have not experienced 3,000 years and so the art of reasoning is still imperfect in this science, as in all others. We even lack sufficient materials to reason on. We do not fully know:

  • how refined humans can be in either virtue or vice,
  • what may be expected of mankind from any great revolution in their education, customs, or principles.

Machiavel was certainly a great genius. But he confined his study to:

  • the tyrannical governments of ancient times, or
  • the little disorderly principalities of Italy.

His reasonings, especially on monarchy, were extremely defective. His maxims in The Prince have been entirely refuted. He says that a weak prince is incapable of receiving good counsel. If he consult with several, he will not be able to choose among their different counsels. If he chooses only one, that minister might have capacity. But he will not long be a minister. He will be sure to dispossess his master, and place himself and his family on the throne.

This is one of Machiavel’s many errors from him living in too early an age of the world, to be a good judge of political truth. Almost all the princes of Europe are at present governed by their ministers for nearly 200 years. Yet no such event has ever happened, or can possibly happen. Sejanus might project dethroning the Cæsars. But Fleury, though ever so vicious, could not think of dispossessing the Bourbons.

Trade only became an affair of the state from the 17th century. Few ancient political writers have mentioned trade. Even the Italians have kept a profound silence with regard to it, though it has now engaged the chief attention of ministers and speculative reasoners.

People were taught of the importance of an extensive commerce by the great opulence, grandeur, and military achievements of Holland and England.

I intended to show the great advantages of civil liberty over absolute governments.

I then began to suspect that no man in this age was sufficiently qualified for such an undertaking.

Whatever any one should advance on that head would, in all probability, be refuted by further experience, and be rejected by posterity.

Such mighty revolutions have happened in human affairs, and so many events have arisen contrary to the expectation of the ancients, that they are sufficient to beget the suspicion of still further changes.

The ancients have observed that all the arts and sciences arose in free nations. The Persians and Egyptians had ease, opulence, and luxury. But they few efforts to develop those finer pleasures which were perfected by the Greeks amidst their continual wars with poverty and their simple life and manners.

When the Greeks lost their liberty, they increased mightily in riches through Alexander’s conquests. Yet the arts, from that moment, declined and never rose again.

Learning was transplanted to Rome, the only free nation at that time. It met with so favourable a soil and made prodigious shoots for over a century until the decay of liberty produced also the decay of letters and spread a total barbarism over the world.

These two experiments, each double in its kind, showed the fall of learning in absolute governments and the rise of learning in popular ones. Longinus thus asserted that the arts and sciences could only flourish in a free government.

This opinion has been supported by several eminent British writers who either confined their view merely to ancient facts, or biased towards free governments. But what would these writers have said about the learning of modern Rome and of Florence?

Modern Rome perfected all the finer arts of sculpture, painting, music, and poetry, even under tyranny and priests. Florence progressed in the arts and sciences after it lost its liberty through the usurpation of the Medici family. Ariosto, Tasso, Galileo, more than Raphael, and Michael Angelo, were not born in republics.

The Lombard school was famous as well as the Roman school. Yet the Venetians have had the smallest share in its honours, and seem inferior to the other Italians, in their genius for the arts and sciences.

Rubens established his school at Antwerp, not at Amsterdam. The centre of politeness in Germany is Dresden, not Hamburgh.

But France is the most eminent proof of the flourishing of learning in absolute governments. It has carried the arts and sciences as near perfection as any other nation.

The English are, perhaps, greater philosophers. The Italians are better painters and musicians. The Romans were greater orators. But the French are the only people besides the Greeks who have been at once philosophers, poets, orators, historians, painters, architects, sculptors, and musicians. They have excelled even the Greeks in theater, who far excelled the English.

The art of society and conversation “l’Art de Vivre” is the most useful and agreeable. The French have perfected this in common life.

Horace observes the state of the sciences and polite arts of the Romans:

—Sed in longum tamen ævum Manserunt, hodieque manent vestigia ruris.
This is also true for the British who have neglected very much the elegance and propriety of style. We have no English dictionary, and scarcely a tolerable grammar. The first polite prose we have, was writ by a man who is still alive. Sprat, Locke and, even Temple knew too little of the rules of art to be esteemed elegant writers. The prose of Bacon, Harrington, and Milton, is stiff and pedantic, though their sense is excellent. The British have been so much occupied in the great disputes of Religion, Politics, and Philosophy, that they had no relish for the minute observations of grammar and criticism. Though this turn of thinking must have considerably improved our sense and our talent of reasoning; it must be confessed, that, even in those sciences above-mentioned, we have not any standard-book, which we can transmit to posterity: The most we can boast of are a few essays on a more just philosophy which is still imperfect. People think that commerce can only flourish in a free government. Such an opinion is based on the experience of arts and sciences. Commerce progressed in the free governments from Tyre to Athens, Syracuse, Carthage, Venice, Florence, Genoa, Antwerp, Holland, England, etc. The three greatest trading towns now in Europe, are London, Amsterdam, and Hamburgh. They are all free and protestant cities, enjoying a double liberty. Those two maxims are refuted by their great jealousy of the commerce and learning of France. France proves that the subjects of an absolute prince may become our rivals in commerce, as well as in learning. Despite this, I think that Commerce tends to decay in absolute governments, not because it is there less secure, but because it is less honourable. A subordination of ranks is absolutely necessary to the support of monarchy. Birth, titles, and place, must be honoured above industry and riches. This tempts the major traders to throw up their commerce to buy some of those employments which have privileges and honours. The foreign and domestic management of free and absolute governments have improved much in modern times. The internal Police of states has also received great improvements within the last century. The balance of power is a secret in politics, fully known only to the present age. Sallust tell us that Catiline’s army was much augmented by the accession of the highwaymen about Rome. though I believe, that all of that profession, who are at present dispersed over Europe, would not amount to a regiment. In Cicero’s pleadings for Milo, I find this argument, among others, made use of to prove, that his client had not assassinated Clodius. Had Milo, said he, intended to have killed Clodius, he had not attacked him in the daytime, and at such a distance from the city: He had way-laid him at night, near the suburbs, where it might have been pretended, that he was killed by robbers; and the frequency of the accident would have favoured the deceit. This is a surprizing proof of the loose police of Rome, and of the number and force of these robbers. Clodius was then attended by 30 armed slaves who were used to blood and danger in the frequent tumults excited by that seditious tribune. The monarchical government has made the greatest advances towards perfection, of all the kinds of government. In the past, republics alone were praised as the government of Laws, not of Men. But nowadays, civilized monarchies are the same. They are found susceptible of order, method, and constancy, to a surprizing degree. Property is there secure; industry encouraged; the arts flourish; and the prince lives secure among his subjects, like a father among his children. For 200 years, there have been nearly 200 absolute princes, big and small, in Europe. and allowing 20 years to each reign, that there have been in 2,000 monarchs or tyrants, as the Greeks would have called them. Yet of these there has not been one, not even Philip II of Spain, so bad as Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, or Domitian who were 4 out of 12 Roman emperors. Though monarchical governments have approached nearer to popular ones, in gentleness and stability; they are still inferior. Our modern education and customs instil more humanity and moderation than the ancient. but have not as yet been able to overcome entirely the disadvantages of that form of government. I think that monarchical governments have a source of improvement and popular governments have a source of degeneracy. In time, these will bring these governments to a nearer equality. France is the most perfect model of pure monarchy. The greatest abuses in France are not from taxes, but from the expensive, unequal, arbitrary, and intricate method of levying them. These discourage the industry of the poor, especially of the peasants and farmers. It makes agriculture a beggarly and slavish employment. These abuses benefit the nobility which is inherent in a monarchy, since the nobility are the true supports of monarchy. But the nobility are, in reality, the chief losers by this oppression since it ruins their estates and beggars their tenants. **The only gainers are the finançiers.** They are a race of men odious to the nobility and the whole kingdom. If a prince or minister gains enough discernment to know his own interest and that of the public, and can break through ancient customs with sufficient force of mind, then these abuses can be remedied. In such a case, the difference between that absolute government and our free one, would not be so considerable as at present. The source of degeneracy in free governments is in: - the contracting of debt and mortgaging the public revenues, and - These make taxes intolerable after some time. - all the property of the state be brought into the hands of the public. This practice is of modern date. Xenophon says that the Athenian republic paid nearly 200% for borrowed money. Among the moderns, the Dutch first introduced the practice of borrowing great sums at low interest. They have well nigh ruined themselves by it. Absolute princes have also contracted debt. An absolute prince may make a bankruptcy when he pleases. But his people can never be oppressed by his debts. In popular governments, ranking people are commonly the public creditors. It is difficult for democratic states to use borrowing. High interest rates therefore is an inconvenience which threatens nearly all free governments especially our own at the present. We should increase our frugality of public money, lest we be reduced by the multiplicity of taxes or by servitude to other nations.

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