Essay 7

The Balance Of Power

by David Hume Icon

Is the idea of the balance of power created by modern policy? Or is it a new invention?

Xenophon’s Institution of Cyrus writes about the combination of the Asiatic powers from a jealousy of the encreasing force of the Medes and Persians. This proves that the balance of power was a prevailing notion in the ancient times.

This balance is in the anxiety of Greek politics. Thucydides writes that the league formed against Athens leading to the Peloponnesian war was caused by this principle.

After the decline of Athens, the Thebans and Spartans fought each other for sovereignty.

  • The Athenians, and many other republics, always sided with the weaker faction to preserve the balance.
    • They supported Thebes against Sparta until the great victory gained by Epaminondas at Leuctra.
    • Afterwards, they immediately switched sides to the conquered, from generosity as they pretended.
    • In reality, it was from their jealousy of the conquerors.

Demosthenes’s oration for the Megalopolitans shows the utmost refinements on this principle.

  • He immediately saw the danger of the rise of Macedon, so he sounded the alarm throughout all Greece.
  • He assembled that confederacy led by Athens which fought the great and decisive battle of Chaeronea.

The Grecian wars were wars of emulation rather than of politics. Each state wanted to lead for honour instead of authority and dominion.

The balance of power was itself sufficiently secured in Greece because of:

  • the low population size of any one republic
  • the great difficulty of forming sieges
  • the extraordinary bravery and discipline of every free Greek

It did not need to be guarded with that caution needed in other ages.

But whether we ascribe the shifting of sides in all the Grecian republics to jealous emulation or cautious politics, the effects were alike.

  • Every prevailing power was sure to meet with a confederacy against it.
  • This confederacy was often made up of its former friends and allies.

The same principle, call it envy or prudence, which produced the Ostracism of Athens, and Petalism of Syracuse,5 and expelled every citizen whose fame or power overtopped the rest.

the same principle naturally discovered itself in foreign politics, and soon raised enemies to the leading state, however moderate in the exercise of its authority.

In terms of force, the Persian monarch was really a petty prince compared to the Greek republics.

  • This caused him to be wary of his safety which then led him to support the weaker side in every Greek contest.

This was the advice given by Alcibiades to Tissaphernes. It stayed nearly a century until it was neglected for a moment after the first appearance of Philip. He brought that lofty and frail edifice of Persian strength to the ground so quickly.

The Alexander’s successors showed great jealousy of the balance of power.

  • It was a jealousy founded on true politics and prudence.
  • It preserved Alexander’s partition of his empire for several ages after his death.

Antigonus’ fortune and ambition threatened them anew with a universal monarchy.

  • But their combination, and their victory at Ipsus saved them.

In subsequent times, the Eastern princes considered the Greeks and Macedonians as the only real military force with whom they had any intercourse.

  • Thus, they kept always a watchful eye over that part of the world.
  • The Ptolemies, in particular, supported first Aratus and the Achaeans, and then Cleomenes king of Sparta, merely to counterbalance the Macedonian monarchs. This is the account which Polybius gives of the Egyptian politics.

Modern philosophers think that the ancients were entirely ignorant of the balance of power because of the Roman history more than the Grecian because the Roman history is more familiar to us.

The Romans never had serious opposition proportional to their rapid conquests and ambition. They peaceably subdued their neighbours, one after another, until they ruled over the whole known world.

Hannibal’s invasion of Rome was a remarkable crisis for all civilized nations. It was a contest for universal empire. Yet no prince or state seems to have been alarmed by it.

Philip of Macedon remained neutral until he saw the victories of Hannibal.

  • He then most imprudently formed an alliance with Carthage.
  • He imprudently stipulated that he was to assist Carthage in their conquest of Italy.
  • He then sent over forces into Greece, to assist Hannibal in subduing the Greek commonwealths.

The ancient historians regarded the Rhodian and Achaean republics as wise. Yet both of them assisted the Romans in their wars against Philip and Antiochus.

And what may be esteemed still a stronger proof, that this maxim was not generally known in those ages;

No ancient author:

  • thought that those measures were imprudent
  • blamed that absurd treaty of Philip and the Carthaginians

Princes and statesmen, in all ages, may, before-hand, be blinded in their reasonings with regard to events. But it is somewhat extraordinary, that historians, afterwards, should not form a sounder judgment of them.

Massinissa, Attalus, Prusias, in gratifying their private passions, were, all of them, the instruments of the Roman greatness. They never suspected that they were forging their own chains, while they advanced the conquests of their ally.

A simple treaty between Massinissa and the Carthaginians, so much required by mutual interest, barred the Romans from all entrance into Africa, and preserved liberty to mankind.

Only Hiero, the king of Syracuse, seems to have understood the balance of power during Roman times.

  • He was an ally of Rome.
  • But he sent assistance to the Carthaginians during the war of the auxiliaries.

Polybius says:

Hiero acted with great wisdom and prudence when he retained his dominions in Sicily so that Carthage would be safe while preserving the Roman friendship. If Carthage fell, the Romans without contrast or opposition would be able to act at will. Such a force should never to be thrown into one hand, as to incapacitate the neighbouring states from defending their rights against it.

The maxim of preserving the balance of power is founded on common sense. It is impossible that antiquity could not know it. It was known by the wiser and more experienced princes and politicians.

Even at present, it has less real authority than those who govern the world.

After the fall of the Roman empire, the government established by the northern conquerors incapacitated Rome from future conquests. It kept each state in its proper boundaries for a long time.

But after vassalage and the feudal militia were abolished, people were alarmed anew by the danger of universal monarchy from the union of so many kingdoms under emperor Charles.

The power of the house of Austria was based on:

  • their extensive but divided dominions,
  • their riches from mines of gold and silver

This power was likely to decay from internal defects than from external forces.

  • In less than a century, the violent and haughty house of Austria was shattered.

It was succeeded by Great Britain.

  • It was a new power more formidable to the liberties of Europe
  • It had all the advantages of the house of Austria without its defects, except a share of that spirit of bigotry and persecution which infected and still infects the house of Austria

The British are so nationalistic and know the blessings of their government. This is proven by the following.

  1. We have the the ancient Greek spirit of jealous emulation instead of prudence.

Our wars with France began from necessity. But they have always been too far pushed because of obstinacy and passion.

The same peace, which was afterwards made at Ryswick in 1697, was offered so early as 1692.

  • It finally was concluded at Utrecht in 1712
  • But it could have been finished on as good conditions at Gertruytenberg in 1708.

We could have given at Frankfort in 1743 the same terms which we were glad to accept at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

Over half of our wars with France, and all our public debts, are due to our own imprudent vehemence than to our neighbours’ ambition.

  1. We oppose the French power and defend our allies so much that they always depend on our forces like their own.

They expect to carry on war at our expence and refuse all reasonable terms of accommodation.

At the start of the last parliament, the House of Commons voted to:

  • make the queen of Hungary inflexible in her terms
  • prevent that agreement with Prussia which would immediately restore the peace in Europe.
  1. We are such true combatants, that, when once engaged, we lose all concern for ourselves and our posterity, and consider only how we may best annoy the enemy.

It is most fatal to mortgage our revenues at so deep a rate in wars where we were only accessories. A huge, poisonous debt should only be incurred as the last resort. These excesses are prejudicial and can become worse by rendering us totally careless and supine with regard to the fate of Europe.

The Athenians started as the most bustling and warlike people of Greece. They made the mistake of thrusting themselves into every quarrel and abandoning all attention to foreign affairs.

Self-Preservation Creates the Balance of Power by Avoiding Overextension

Enormous monarchies are, probably, destructive to human nature and are naturally short-lived.

The military genius who took the monarchy soon leaves the center of government to carry out distant wars which interest few of his countrymen.

The ancient nobility live all at court and never will accept of distant military employments that would take them away from their pleasures and their fortune. Thus, they hire mercenaries without zeal, attachment, nor honour, who are always ready to switch sides for better pay and plunder.

Thus, human nature checks its own airy elevation. Thus ambition blindly labours for the destruction of the conqueror, his family, and everything dear to him.

The Bourbons trusted their brave, faithful, and affectionate nobility to push their advantage without limitation.

  • They were filled with glory and emulation, but could not fight.
  • Their troops were filled with Cravates and Tartars, Hussars, Cossacs, and a few mercenaries.

This is how the Roman emperors collapsed, leading to the monarchy’s dissolution.

Latest Articles

How to Fix Ukraine
How to Fix Ukraine
The Age of the Universe
The Age of the Universe
Material Superphysics
The End of Capitalism (and Marxism)
The End of Capitalism (and Marxism)
The Elastic Theory of Gravity
The Elastic Theory of Gravity
Material Superphysics

Latest Simplifications

Nova Organum by Francis Bacon
Nova Organum by Francis Bacon
The Analects by Confucius
The Analects by Confucius
The Quran by The Prophet Mohammad
The Quran by The Prophet Mohammad

All Superphysics principles in our books

The Simplified Series

Developing a new science and the systems that use that science isn't easy. Please help Superphysics develop its theories and systems faster by donating via GCash