For the present I should like merely
to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many
cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no
other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to
the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do
them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather
than contradict him.
Surely a striking situation!
Yet it is so common that
one must grieve the more and wonder the less at the spectacle of a million
men serving in wretchedness, their necks under the yoke, not constrained by
a greater multitude than they, but simply, it would seem, delighted and
charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear, for he
is evidently the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of
his inhumanity and brutality toward them.
A weakness characteristic of
humankind is that we often have to obey force; we have to make concessions;
we ourselves cannot always be the stronger.
Therefore, when a nation is
constrained by the fortune of war to serve as a clique, as happened when the
city of Athens served the thirty Tyrants, one should not be amazed that the
nation obeys, but simply be grieved by the situation; or rather, instead of
being amazed or saddened, consider patiently the evil and look forward
hopefully toward a happier future.
Our nature is such that the common duties of human relationship occupy a
great part of the course of our life. It is reasonable to love virtue, to
esteem good deeds, to be grateful for good from whatever source we may
receive it, and, often, to give up some of our comfort in order to increase
the honor and advantage of some man whom we love and who deserves it.
Therefore, if the inhabitants of a country have found some great personage
who has shown rare foresight in protecting them in an emergency, rare
boldness in defending them, rare solicitude in governing them, and if, from
that point on, they contract the habit of obeying him and depending on him
to such an extent that they grant him certain prerogatives, I fear that such
a procedure is not prudent, inasmuch as they remove him from a position in
which he may do evil.
Certainly while he continues to manifest good will one
need fear no harm from a man who seems to be generally well disposed.
But - in the pursuit of understanding - I ask you!
What strange phenomenon
What name shall we give it?
What is the nature of this misfortune?
What vice is it, or, rather, what degradation?
To see an endless multitude
of people not merely obeying, but driven to servility?
Not ruled, but
These wretches have no wealth, no kin, nor wife nor
children, not even life itself that they can call their own.
plundering, wantonness, cruelty,
not from an army, not from a barbarian
horde, on account of whom they must shed their blood and sacrifice their
lives, but from a single man
not from a Hercules nor from a Sampson, but
from a single little man
Too frequently this same little man is the most
cowardly and effeminate in the nation, a stranger to the powder of battle
and hesitant on the sands of the tournament; not only without energy to
direct men by force, but with hardly enough virility to bed with a common
Shall we call subjection to such a leader cowardice? Shall we say
that those who serve him are cowardly and faint-hearted?
If two, if three,
if four, do not defend themselves from the one, we might call that
circumstance surprising but nevertheless conceivable. In such a case one
might be justified in suspecting a lack of courage. But if a hundred, if a
thousand endure the caprice of a single man, should we not rather say that
they lack not the courage but the desire to rise against him, and that such
an attitude indicates indifference rather than cowardice?
When not a
hundred, not a thousand men, but a hundred provinces, a thousand cities, a
million men, refuse to assail a single man from whom the kindest treatment
received is the infliction of serfdom and slavery, what shall we call that?
Is it cowardice? Of course there is in every vice inevitably some limit
beyond which one cannot go.
Two, possibly ten, may fear one; but when a
thousand, a million men, a thousand cities, fail to protect themselves
against the domination of one man, this cannot be called cowardly, for
cowardice does not sink to such a depth, any more than valor can be termed
the effort of one individual to scale a fortress, to attack an army, or to
conquer a kingdom.
What monstrous vice, then, is this which does not even
deserve to be called cowardice, a vice for which no term can be found vile
enough, which nature herself disavows and our tongues refuse to name?
Place on one side fifty thousand armed men, and on the other the same
number; let them join in battle, one side fighting to retain its liberty,
the other to take it away; to which would you, at a guess, promise victory?
Which men do you think would march more gallantly to combat - those who
anticipate as a reward for their suffering the maintenance of their freedom,
or those who cannot expect any other prize for the blows exchanged than the
enslavement of others?
One side will have before its eyes the blessings of
the past and the hope of similar joy in the future; their thoughts will
dwell less on the comparatively brief pain of battle than on what they may
have to endure forever, they, their children, and all their posterity. The
other side has nothing to inspire it with courage except the weak urge of
greed, which fades before danger and which can never be so keen, it seems to
me, that it will not be dismayed by the least drop of blood from wounds.
Consider the justly famous battles of Miltiades,
still fresh today in recorded history and in the minds of men as if they had
occurred but yesterday, battles fought in Greece for the welfare of the
Greeks and as an example to the world.
What power do you think gave to a
mere handful of men not the strength but the courage to withstand the attack
of a fleet so vast that even the seas were burdened, and to defeat the
armies of so many nations, armies so immense that their officers alone
outnumbered the entire Greek force? What was it but the fact that in those
glorious days this struggle represented not so much a fight of Greeks
against Persians as a victory of liberty over domination, of freedom over
It amazes us to hear accounts of the valor that liberty arouses in the
hearts of those who defend it; but who could believe reports of what goes on
every day among the inhabitants of some countries, who could really believe
that one man alone may mistreat a hundred thousand and deprive them of their
Who would credit such a report if he merely heard it, without being
present to witness the event? And if this condition occurred only in distant
lands and were reported to us, which one among us would not assume the tale
to be imagined or invented, and not really true?
Obviously there is no need
of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated
if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: it is not necessary
to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing; there is no need
that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does
nothing against itself. It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who
permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to
submit they would put an end to their servitude.
A people enslaves itself,
cuts its own throat, when, having a choice between being vassals and being
free men, it deserts its liberties and takes on the yoke, gives consent to
its own misery, or, rather, apparently welcomes it. If it costs the people
anything to recover its freedom, I should not urge action to this end,
although there is nothing a human should hold more dear than the restoration
of his own natural right, to change himself from a beast of burden back to a
man, so to speak.
I do not demand of him so much boldness; let him prefer
the doubtful security of living wretchedly to the uncertain hope of living
as he pleases. What then?
If in order to have liberty nothing more is needed
than to long for it, if only a simple act of the will is necessary, is there
any nation in the world that considers a single wish too high a price to pay
in order to recover rights which it ought to be ready to redeem at the cost
of its blood, rights such that their loss must bring all men of honor to the
point of feeling life to be unendurable and death itself a deliverance?
Everyone knows that the fire from a little spark will increase and blaze
ever higher as long as it finds wood to burn; yet without being quenched by
water, but merely by finding no more fuel to feed on, it consumes itself,
dies down, and is no longer a flame. Similarly, the more tyrants pillage,
the more they crave, the more they ruin and destroy; the more one yields to
them, and obeys them, by that much do they become mightier and more
formidable, the readier to annihilate and destroy.
But if not one thing is
yielded to them, if, without any violence they are simply not obeyed, they
become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no
nourishment, the branch withers and dies.
To achieve the good that they desire, the bold do not fear danger; the
intelligent do not refuse to undergo suffering. It is the stupid and
cowardly who are neither able to endure hardship nor to vindicate their
rights; they stop at merely longing for them, and lose through timidity the
valor roused by the effort to claim their rights, although the desire to
enjoy them still remains as part of their nature.
A longing common to both
the wise and the foolish, to brave men and to cowards, is this longing for
all those things which, when acquired, would make them happy and contented.
Yet one element appears to be lacking. I do not know how it happens that
nature fails to place within the hearts of men a burning desire for liberty,
a blessing so great and so desirable that when it is lost all evils follow
thereafter, and even the blessings that remain lose taste and savor because
of their corruption by servitude.
Liberty is the only joy upon which men do
not seem to insist; for surely if they really wanted it they would claim it.
Apparently they refuse this wonderful privilege because it is so easily
Poor, wretched, and stupid peoples, nations determined on your own
misfortune and blind to your own good! You let yourselves be deprived before
your own eyes of the best part of your revenues; your fields are plundered,
your homes robbed, your family heirlooms taken away. You live in such a way
that you cannot claim a single thing as your own; and it would seem that you
consider yourselves lucky to be loaned your property, your families, and
your very lives.
All this havoc, this misfortune, this ruin, descends upon
you not from alien foes, but from the one enemy whom you yourselves render
as powerful as he is, for whom you go bravely to war, for whose "greatness"
you do not refuse to offer your own bodies unto death.
He who thus domineers
over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is
possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your
cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him
to destroy you.
Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do
not provide them yourselves?
How can he have so many arms to beat you with,
if he does not borrow them from you?
The feet that trample down your cities,
where does he get them if they are not your own?
How does he have any power
over you except through you?
How would he dare assail you if he had no
cooperation from you?
What could he do to you if you yourselves did not
connive with the thief who plunders you, if you were not accomplices of the
murderer who kills you, if you were not traitors to yourselves?
You sow your
crops in order that he may ravage them, you install and furnish your homes
to give him goods to pillage; you rear your daughters that he may gratify
his lust; you bring up your children in order that he may confer upon them
the greatest "privilege" he knows - to be led into his battles, to be
delivered to butchery, to be made the servants of his greed and the
instruments of his vengeance; you yield your bodies unto hard labor in order
that he may indulge in his delights and wallow in his filthy pleasures; you
weaken yourselves in order to make him the stronger and the mightier to hold
you in check.
From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the
field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking
action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you
are at once freed.
I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to
topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will
behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall
of his own weight and break into pieces.
Doctors are no doubt correct in warning us not to touch incurable wounds;
and I am presumably taking chances in preaching as I do to a people which
has lost all sensitivity and, no longer conscious of its infirmity, is
plainly suffering from mortal illness.
Let us therefore understand by logic,
if we can, how it happens that this obstinate willingness to submit has
become so deeply rooted that the very love of liberty now seems no longer
In the first place, all would agree that, if we led our lives according to
the ways intended by nature and the lessons taught by her, we should be
intuitively obedient to our parents; later we should adopt reason as our
guide and become slaves to nobody. Concerning the obedience given
instinctively to one's father and mother, we are in agreement, each one
admitting himself to be a model. As to whether reason is born with us or
not, that is a question loudly discussed by academicians and treated by all
schools of philosophers.
For the present I think I do not err in stating
that there is in our souls some native seed of reason, which, if nourished
by good counsel and training, flowers into virtue, but which on the other
hand, if unable to resist the vices surrounding it, is stifled and blighted.
Yet surely if there is anything in this world clear and obvious, to which
one cannot close one's eyes, it is the fact that nature has cast us all in
the same mold in order that we may behold in one another companions, or
rather brothers. If in distributing her gifts nature has favored some more
than others with respect to body or spirit, she has nevertheless not planned
to place us within this world as if it were a field of battle, and has not
endowed the stronger or the clever in order that they may act like armed
brigands in a forest and attack the weaker.
One should rather conclude that
in distributing larger shares to some and smaller shares to others, nature
has intended to give occasion for brotherly love to become manifest, some of
us having the strength to give help to others who are in need of it.
since this kind mother has given us the whole world as a dwelling place, has
lodged us in the same house, has fashioned us according to the same model so
that in beholding one another we might almost recognize ourselves; since she
has bestowed upon us all the great gift of voice and speech for fraternal
relationship, thus achieving by the common and mutual statement of our
thoughts a communion of our wills; and since she has tried in every way to
narrow and tighten the bond of our union and kinship; since she has revealed
in every possible manner her intention, not so much to associate us as to
make us one organic whole, there can be no further doubt that we are all
naturally free, inasmuch as we are all comrades.
Accordingly it should not
enter the mind of anyone that nature has placed some of us in slavery, since
she has actually created us all in one likeness.
Therefore it is fruitless to argue whether or not liberty is natural, since
none can be held in slavery without being wronged, and in a world governed
by a nature, which is reasonable, there is nothing so contrary as an
injustice. Since freedom is our natural state, we are not only in possession
of it but have the urge to defend it.
Now, if perchance some cast a doubt on
this conclusion and are so corrupted that they are not able to recognize
their rights and inborn tendencies, I shall have to do them the honor that
is properly theirs and place, so to speak, brute beasts in the pulpit to
throw light on their nature and condition.
The very beasts, if men are not
too deaf, cry out to them, "Long live Liberty!"
Many among them die as soon
as captured: just as the fish loses life as soon as he leaves the water, so
do these creatures close their eyes upon the light and have no desire to
survive the loss of their natural freedom. If the animals were to constitute
their kingdom by rank, their nobility would be chosen from this type.
Others, from the largest to the smallest, when captured put up such a strong
resistance by means of claws, horns, beak, and paws, that they show clearly
enough how they cling to what they are losing; afterwards in captivity they
manifest by so many evident signs their awareness of their misfortune, that
it is easy to see they are languishing rather than living, and continue
their existence more in lamentation of their lost freedom than in enjoyment
of their servitude.
What else can explain the behavior of the elephant who,
after defending himself to the last ounce of his strength and knowing
himself on the point of being taken, dashes his jaws against the trees and
breaks his tusks, thus manifesting his longing to remain free as he has been
and proving his wit and ability to buy off the huntsmen in the hope that
through the sacrifice of his tusks he will be permitted to offer his ivory
as a ransom for his liberty?
We feed the horse from birth in order to train
him to do our bidding. Yet he is tamed with such difficulty that when we
begin to break him in he bites the bit, he rears at the touch of the spur,
as if to reveal his instinct and show by his actions that, if he obeys, he
does not of his own free will but under constraint. What more can we say?
And now, since all beings, because they feel, suffer misery in subjection
and long for liberty; since the very beasts, although made for the service
of man, cannot become accustomed to control without protest, what evil
chance has so denatured man that he, the only creature really born to be
free, lacks the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to
There are three kinds of tyrants; some receive their proud position through
elections by the people, others by force of arms, others by inheritance.
Those who have acquired power by means of war, act in such wise that it is
evident they rule over a conquered country. Those who are born to kingship
are scarcely any better, because they are nourished on the breast of
tyranny, suck in with their milk the instincts of the tyrant, and consider
the people under them their inherited serfs; and according to their
individual disposition, miserly or prodigal, they treat their kingdom as
He who has received his position from the people, however,
ought to be, it seems to me, more bearable and would be so, I think, were it
not for the fact that as soon as he sees himself higher than the others,
flattered by that quality which we call grandeur, he plans never to
relinquish his position.
Such a man usually determines to pass on to his
children the authority that the people have conferred upon him; and once his
heirs have taken this attitude, strange it is how far they surpass other
tyrants in all sorts of vices, and especially in cruelty, because they find
no other means to impose this new tyranny than by tightening control and
removing their subjects so far from any notion of liberty that even if the
memory of it is fresh it will soon be eradicated.
Yet, to speak accurately,
I do perceive that there is some difference among these three types of
tyranny, but as for stating a preference, I cannot grant there is any.
although the means of coming into power differ, still the method of ruling
is practically the same; those who are elected act as if they were breaking
in bullocks; those who are conquerors make the people their prey; those who
are heirs plan to treat them as if they were their natural slaves.
In connection with this, let us imagine some newborn individuals, neither
acquainted with slavery nor desirous of liberty, ignorant indeed of the very
words. If they were permitted to choose between being slaves and free men,
to which would they give their vote? There can be no doubt that they would
much prefer to be guided by reason itself than to be ordered about by the
whims of a single man.
Certainly all men, as long as they remain men, before
letting themselves become enslaved must either be driven by force or led
into it by deception; conquered by foreign armies, as were Sparta and
by the forces of Alexander or by political factions, as when at an earlier
period the control of Athens had passed into the hands of Pisistrates.
they lose their liberty through deceit they are not so often betrayed by
others as misled by themselves.
This was the case with the people of
Syracuse, chief city of Sicily when, in the throes of war and heedlessly
planning only for the present danger, they promoted Denis, their first
tyrant, by entrusting to him the command of the army, without realizing that
they had given him such power that on his victorious return this "worthy"
man would behave as if he had vanquished not his enemies but his
compatriots, transforming himself from captain to tyrant.
It is incredible how as soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls
into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused
to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and so willingly that one is
led to say, on beholding such a situation, that this people has not so much
lost its liberty as won its enslavement.
It is true that in the beginning
men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey
without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done
because they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then nourished
and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their
native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right, and considering as
quite natural the condition into which they were born.
There is, however, no
heir so spendthrift or indifferent that he does not sometimes scan the
account books of his father in order to see if he is enjoying all the
privileges of his legacy or whether, perchance, his rights and those of his
predecessor have not been encroached upon. Nevertheless it is clear enough
that the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than
in this, namely, habituation to subjection.
It is said that Mithridates
trained himself to drink poison. Like him we learn to swallow, and not to
find bitter, the venom of servitude.
It cannot be denied that nature is
influential in shaping us to her will and making us reveal our rich or
meager endowment; yet it must be admitted that she has less power over us
than custom, for the reason that native endowment, no matter how good, is
dissipated unless encouraged, whereas environment always shapes us in its
own way, whatever that may be, in spite of nature's gifts.
The good seed
that nature plants in us is so slight and so slippery that it cannot
withstand the least harm from wrong nourishment; it flourishes less easily,
becomes spoiled, withers, and comes to nothing. Fruit trees retain their own
particular quality if permitted to grow undisturbed, but lose it promptly
and bear strange fruit not their own when engrafted.
Every herb has its
peculiar characteristics, its virtues and properties; yet frost, weather,
soil, or the gardener's hand increase or diminish its strength; the plant
seen in one spot cannot be recognized in another.
Whoever could have observed the early Venetians, a handful of people living
so freely that the most wicked among them would not wish to be king over
them, so born and trained that they would not vie with one another except as
to which one could give the best counsel and nurture their liberty most
carefully, so instructed and developed from their cradles that they would
not exchange for all the other delights of the world an iota of their
freedom; who, I say, familiar with the original nature of such a people,
could visit today the territories of the man known as the Great Doge, and
there contemplate with composure a people unwilling to live except to serve
him, and maintaining his power at the cost of their lives?
Who would believe
that these two groups of people had an identical origin? Would one not
rather conclude that upon leaving a city of men he had chanced upon a
menagerie of beasts?
Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, is reported to have
reared two dogs of the same litter by fattening one in the kitchen and
training the other in the fields to the sound of the bugle and the horn,
thereby to demonstrate to the Lacedaemonians that men, too, develop
according to their early habits. He set the two dogs in the open market
place, and between them he placed a bowl of soup and a hare.
One ran to the
bowl of soup, the other to the hare; yet they were, as he maintained, born
brothers of the same parents. In such manner did this leader, by his laws
and customs, shape and instruct the Spartans so well that any one of them
would sooner have died than acknowledge any sovereign other than law and
I am of the opinion that one should pity those who, at birth, arrive with
the yoke upon their necks. We should exonerate and forgive them, since they
have not seen even the shadow of liberty, and, being quite unaware of it,
cannot perceive the evil endured through their own slavery. It is truly the
nature of man to be free and to wish to be so, yet his character is such
that he instinctively follows the tendencies that his training gives him.
Let us therefore admit that all those things to which he is trained and
accustomed seem natural to man and that only that is truly native to him
which he receives with his primitive, untrained individuality.
becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude. Men are like handsome
racehorses who first bite the bit and later like it, and rearing under the
saddle a while soon learn to enjoy displaying their harness and prance
proudly beneath their trappings.
Similarly men will grow accustomed to the
idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in
the same way; they will think that they are obliged to suffer this evil, and
will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally
investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the
idea that it has always been that way.
There are always a few, better endowed than others, who feel the weight of
the yoke and cannot restrain themselves from attempting to shake it off:
these are the men who never become tamed under subjection. These are in fact
the men who, possessed of clear minds and far-sighted spirit, are not
satisfied, like the brutish mass, to see only what is at their feet, but
rather look about them, behind and before, and even recall the things of the
past in order to judge those of the future, and compare both with their
These are the ones who, having good minds of their own,
have further trained them by study and learning. Even if liberty had
entirely perished from the earth, such men would invent it.
For them slavery
has no satisfactions, no matter how well disguised.
The Grand Turk was well aware that books and teaching more than anything
else give men the sense to comprehend their own nature and to detest
tyranny. I understand that in his territory there are few educated people,
for he does not want many.
On account of this restriction, men of strong
zeal and devotion, who in spite of the passing of time have preserved their
love of freedom, still remain ineffective because, however numerous they may
be, they are not known to one another; under the tyrant they have lost
freedom of action, of speech, and almost of thought; they are alone in their
The essential reason why men take orders willingly is that they are born
serfs and are reared as such. From this cause there follows another result,
namely that people easily become cowardly and submissive under tyrants. For
this observation I am deeply grateful to Hippocrates, the renowned father of
medicine, who noted and reported it in a treatise of his entitled Concerning
This famous man was certainly endowed with a great heart and
proved it clearly by his reply to the "Great King," who wanted to attach him
to his person by means of special privileges and large gifts. Hippocrates
answered frankly that it would be a weight on his conscience to make use of
his science for the cure of barbarians who wished to slay his fellow Greeks,
or to serve faithfully by his skill anyone who undertook to enslave Greece.
The letter he sent this tyrant can still be read among his other works and
will forever testify to his great heart and noble character.
By this time it should be evident that liberty once lost, valor [strength of
mind, bravery] also perishes. A subject people shows neither gladness nor
eagerness in combat: its men march sullenly to danger almost as if in bonds,
and stultified; they do not feel throbbing within them that eagerness for
liberty which engenders scorn of peril and imparts readiness to acquire
honor and glory by a brave death amidst one's comrades.
Among free men there
is competition as to who will do most, each for the common good, each by
himself, all expecting to share in the misfortunes of defeat, or in the
benefits of victory; but an enslaved people loses in addition to this
warlike courage, all signs of enthusiasm, for their hearts are degraded,
submissive, and incapable of any great deed.
Tyrants are well aware of this,
and, in order to degrade their subjects further, encourage them to assume
this attitude and make it instinctive.
It is indeed the nature of the populace, whose density is always greater in
the cities, to be suspicious toward one who claims to have their welfare at
heart, and gullible toward one who fools them.
Do not imagine that there is
any bird more easily caught by decoy, nor any fish sooner fixed on the hook
by wormy bait, than are all these poor fools neatly tricked into servitude
by the slightest feather passed, so to speak, before their mouths. Truly it
is a marvelous thing that they let themselves be caught so quickly at the
slightest tickling of their fancy.
Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators,
strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates, these were for
ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the
instruments of tyranny.
By these practices and enticements the ancient
dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yokes, that the
stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed
before their eyes, learned subservience as naively, but not so creditably,
as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books.
tyrants invented a further refinement. They often provided the city wards
with feasts to cajole the rabble, always more readily tempted by the
pleasure of eating than by anything else. The most intelligent and
understanding amongst them would not have quit his soup bowl to recover the
liberty of the Republic of Plato.
Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel
of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce: and then everybody would
"Long live the King!"
The fools did not realize that they
were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler
could not have given them what they were receiving without having first
taken it from them. A man might one day be presented with a sesterce [Roman
coin] and gorge himself at the public feast, lauding Tiberius and Nero for
handsome liberality, who on the morrow, would be forced to abandon his
property to their avarice, his children to their lust, his very blood to the
cruelty of these magnificent "Emperors" without offering any more resistance
than a stone or a tree stump.
The mob has always behaved in this way -
eagerly open to bribes that cannot be honorably accepted, and dissolutely
callous to degradation and insult that cannot be honorably endured.
They didn't even neglect, these "Roman Emperors," to assume generally the
title of "Tribune of the People," partly because this office was held sacred
and inviolable and also because it had been founded for the defense and
protection of the people. By this means they made sure that the populace
would trust them completely, as if they merely used the title and did not
Today there are some who do not behave very differently; they
never undertake an unjust policy, even one of some importance, without
prefacing it with some pretty speech concerning "public welfare" and "common
The earliest Kings of Egypt rarely showed themselves without carrying
a cat, or sometimes a branch, or appearing with fire on their heads, masking
themselves with these objects and parading like workers of magic.
this they inspired their subjects with reverence and admiration, whereas
with people neither too stupid nor too slavish they would merely have
aroused, it seems to me, amusement and laughter.
It is pitiful to review the
list of devices that despots have used to establish their tyranny; to
discover how many little tricks they employed, always finding the populace
conveniently gullible, readily caught in the net as soon as it was spread.
Indeed they always fooled their victims so easily that while mocking them
they enslaved them the more.
What comment can I make concerning another fine counterfeit that ancient
peoples accepted as true money? They believed firmly that the great toe of
Pyrrhus, tyrant of Epirus, performed miracles and cured diseases of the
spleen; they even enhanced the tale further with the legend that his toe,
after the corpse had been burned, was found among the ashes, untouched by
the fire. In this wise a foolish people itself invents lies and then
Many men have recounted such things, but in such a way that
it is easy to see that the parts were pieced together from idle gossip of
the city and silly reports from the rabble.
When Vespasian, returning from
Assyria, passes through Alexandria on his way to Rome to take possession of
the empire, he performs wonders: he makes the crippled straight, restores
sight to the blind, and does many other fine things, concerning which the
credulous and undiscriminating were, in my opinion, more blind than those
Tyrants themselves have wondered that men could endure the
persecution of a single man; they have insisted on using religion for their
own protection and, where possible, have borrowed a stray bit of "divinity"
to bolster up their evil ways.
Our own leaders have employed in France certain similar devices, such as
fleurs-de-lys, sacred vessels, and standards with flames of gold.
However that may be, I do not wish, for my part, to be incredulous, since
neither we nor our ancestors have had any occasion up to now for skepticism.
It has always happened that tyrants, in order to strengthen their power,
have made every effort to train their people not only in obedience and
servility toward themselves, but also in adoration.
Therefore all that I
have said up to the present concerning the means by which a more willing
submission has been obtained applies to dictators in their relationship with
the inferior and common classes
I come now to a point which is, in my
opinion, the mainspring and the secret of domination, the support and
foundation of tyranny.
Whoever thinks that halberds [battle-axes], sentries,
the placing of the watch, serve to protect and shield tyrants is, in my
judgment, completely mistaken. These are used, it seems to me, more for
ceremony and a show of force than for any reliance placed in them. It is not
the troops on horseback, it is not the companies afoot, it is not arms that
defend the tyrant.
This does not seem credible on first thought, but it is
nevertheless true that there are only four or five who maintain the
dictator, four or five who keep the country in bondage to him. Five or six
have always had access to his ear, and have either gone to him of their own
accord, or else have been summoned by him, to be accomplices in his
cruelties, companions in his pleasures, panders to his lusts, and sharers in
These six manage their chief so successfully that he comes to
be held accountable not only for his own misdeeds but even for theirs. The
six have six hundred who profit under them, and with the six hundred they do
what they have accomplished with their tyrant.
The six hundred maintain
under them six thousand, whom they promote in rank, upon whom they confer
the government of provinces or the direction of finances, in order that they
may serve as instruments of avarice and cruelty, executing orders at the
proper time and working such havoc all around that they could not last
except under the shadow of the six hundred, nor be exempt from law and
punishment except through their influence.
The consequence of all this is fatal indeed. And whoever is pleased to
unwind the skein [reel of yarn or thread] will observe that not the six
thousand but a hundred thousand, and even millions, cling to the tyrant by
this cord to which they are tied. According to Homer, Jupiter boasts of
being able to draw to himself all the gods when he pulls a chain.
scheme caused the increase in the senate under Julius, the formation of new
ranks, the creation of offices; not really, if properly considered, to
reform justice, but to provide new supporters of despotism. In short, when
the point is reached, through big favors or little ones, that large profits
or small are obtained under a tyrant, there are found almost as many people
to whom tyranny seems advantageous as those to whom liberty would seem
Whenever a ruler makes himself a dictator, all the wicked dregs
who are corrupted by burning ambition or extraordinary avarice, these gather
around him and support him in order to have a share in the booty and to
constitute themselves petty chiefs under the big tyrant.
This is the
practice among notorious robbers and famous pirates:
some scour the country,
others pursue voyagers
some lie in ambush, others keep a lookout
commit murder, others robbery
although there are among them differences
in rank, some being only underlings while others are chieftains of gangs,
yet is there not a single one among them who does not feel himself to be a
sharer, if not of the main booty, at least in the pursuit of it
Thus the despot subdues his subjects, some of them by means of others, and
thus is he protected by those from whom, if they were decent men, he would
have to guard himself; just as, in order to split wood, one has to use a
wedge of the wood itself.
Such are his archers, his guards, his halberdiers
[soldiers with battle-axes]; not that they themselves do not suffer
occasionally at his hands, but this riff-raff, can be led to endure evil if
permitted to commit it, not against him who exploits them, but against those
who like themselves submit, but are helpless.
Nevertheless, observing those
men who painfully serve the tyrant in order to win some profit from his
tyranny and from the subjection of the populace, I am often overcome with
amazement at their wickedness and sometimes by pity for their folly.
all honesty, can it be in any way except in folly that you approach a
tyrant, withdrawing further from your liberty and, so to speak, embracing
with both hands your servitude? Let such men lay aside briefly their
ambition, or let them forget for a moment their avarice, and look at
themselves as they really are.
Then they will realize clearly that the
townspeople, the peasants whom they trample underfoot and treat worse than
convicts or slaves, they will realize, I say, that these people, mistreated
as they may be, are nevertheless, in comparison with themselves, better off
and fairly free. The tiller of the soil and the artisan, no matter how
enslaved, discharge their obligation when they do what they are told to do;
but the dictator sees men about him wooing and begging his favor, and doing
much more than he tells them to do.
Such men must not only obey orders; they
must anticipate his wishes; to satisfy him they must foresee his desires;
they must wear themselves out, torment themselves, kill themselves with work
in his interest, and accept his pleasure as their own, neglecting their
preference for his, distorting their character and corrupting their nature;
they must pay heed to his words, to his intonation, to his gestures, and to
Let them have no eye, nor foot, nor hand that is not alert to
respond to his wishes or to seek out his thoughts.
Can that be called a happy life? Can it be called living? Is there anything
more intolerable than that situation, I won't say for a man of mettle nor
even for a man of high birth, but simply for a man of common sense or, to go
even further, for anyone having the face of a man? What condition is more
wretched than to live thus, with nothing to call one's own, receiving from
someone else one's sustenance, one's power to act, one's body, one's very
Still men accept servility in order to acquire wealth; as if they could
acquire anything of their own when they cannot even assert that they belong
to themselves, or as if anyone could possess under a tyrant a single thing
in his own name.
Yet they act as if their wealth really belonged to them,
and forget that it is they themselves who give the ruler the power to
deprive everybody of everything, leaving nothing that anyone can identify as
belonging to somebody.
They notice that nothing makes men so subservient to
a tyrant's cruelty as property; that the possession of wealth is the worst
of crimes against him, punishable even by death; that he loves nothing quite
so much as money and ruins only the rich, who come before him as before a
butcher, offering themselves so stuffed and bulging that they make his mouth
These favorites should not recall so much the memory of those who have won
great wealth from tyrants as of those who, after they had for some time
amassed it, have lost to him their property as well as their lives; they
should consider not how many others have gained a fortune, but rather how
few of them have kept it.
Whether we examine ancient history or simply the
times in which we live, we shall see clearly how great is the number of
those who, having by shameful means won the ear of tyrants - who either
profit from their villainies or take advantage of their naivety - were in
the end reduced to nothing by these very tyrants; and although at first such
servitors were met by a ready willingness to promote their interests, they
later found an equally obvious inconstancy which brought them to ruin.
Certainly among so large a number of people who have at one time or another
had some relationship with bad rulers, there have been few or practically
none at all who have not felt applied to themselves the tyrant's animosity,
which they had formerly stirred against others.
Most often, after becoming
rich by despoiling others, under the favor of his protection, they find
themselves at last enriching him with their own spoils.
Quite generally known is the striking phrase of that other tyrant who,
gazing at the throat of his wife, a woman he dearly loved and without whom
it seemed he could not live, caressed her with this charming comment:
lovely throat would be cut at once if I but gave the order."
That is why the
majority of the dictators of former days were commonly slain by their
closest favorites who, observing the nature of tyranny, could not be so
confidant of the whim of the tyrant as they were distrustful of his power.
Thus was Domitian killed by Stephen, Commodus by one of his mistresses, Antoninus by Macrinus, and practically all the others in similar violent
The fact is that the tyrant is never truly loved, nor does he love.
Friendship is a sacred word, a holy thing; it is never developed except
between persons of character, and never takes root except through mutual
respect; it flourishes not so much by kindness as by sincerity. What makes
one friend sure of another is the knowledge of his integrity: as guarantees
he has his friend's fine nature, his honor, and his constancy.
There can be
no friendship where there is cruelty, where there is disloyalty, where there
is injustice. And in places where the wicked gather there is conspiracy
only, not companionship: these have no affection for one another; fear alone
holds them together; they are not friends, they are merely accomplices.
Although it might not be impossible, yet it would be difficult to find true
friendship in a tyrant; elevated above others and having no companions, he
finds himself already beyond the pale of friendship, which receives its real
sustenance from an equality that, to proceed without a limp, must have its
two limbs equal.
That is why there is honor among thieves (or so it is
reported) in the sharing of the booty; they are peers and comrades; if they
are not fond of one another they at least respect one another and do not
seek to lessen their strength by squabbling.
But the favorites of a tyrant
can never feel entirely secure, and the less so because he has learned from
them that he is all powerful and unlimited by any law or obligation. Thus it
becomes his wont to consider his own will as reason enough, and to be master
of all with never an equal.
Therefore it seems a pity that with so many
examples at hand, with the danger always present, no one is anxious to act
the wise man at the expense of the others, and that among so many persons
fawning upon their ruler there is not a single one who has the wisdom and
the boldness to say to him what, according to the fable, the fox said to the
lion who feigned illness:
"I should be glad to enter your lair to pay my
respects; but I see many tracks of beasts that have gone toward you, yet not
a single trace of any who have come back."
These wretches see the glint of the despot's treasures and are bedazzled by
the radiance of his splendor.
Drawn by this brilliance they come near,
without realizing they are approaching a flame that cannot fail to scorch
them. Similarly attracted, the indiscreet satyr of the old fables, on seeing
the bright fire brought down by Prometheus, found it so beautiful that he
went and kissed it, and was burned; so, as the Tuscan poet reminds us, the
moth, intent upon desire, seeks the flame because it shines, and also
experiences its other quality, the burning.
Moreover, even admitting that
favorites may at times escape from the hands of him they serve, they are
never safe from the ruler who comes after him. If he is good, they must
render an account of their past and recognize at last that justice exists;
if he is bad and resembles their late master, he will certainly have his own
favorites, who are not usually satisfied to occupy in their turn merely the
posts of their predecessors, but will more often insist on their wealth and
Can anyone be found, then, who under such perilous
circumstances and with so little security will still be ambitious to fill
such an ill-fated position and serve, despite such perils, so dangerous a
What suffering, what martyrdom all this involves!
to be occupied
night and day in planning to please one person, and yet to fear him more
than anyone else in the world
to be always on the watch, ears open,
wondering whence the blow will come
to search out conspiracy, to be on
guard against snares, to scan the faces of companions for signs of
treachery, to smile at everybody and be mortally afraid of all, to be sure
of nobody, either as an open enemy or as a reliable friend
showing always a
gay countenance despite an apprehensive heart, unable to be joyous yet not
daring to be sad!
However, there is satisfaction in examining what they get out of all this
torment, what advantage they derive from all the trouble of their wretched
Actually, the people never blame the tyrant for the evils they
suffer, but they do place responsibility on those who influence him;
peoples, nations, all compete with one another, even the peasants, even the
tillers of the soil, in mentioning the names of the favorites, in analyzing
their vices, and heaping upon them a thousand maledictions.
prayers, all their vows are directed against these persons; they hold them
accountable for all their misfortunes, their pestilences; and if at times
they show them outward respect, at those very moments they are fuming in
their hearts and hold them in greater horror than wild beasts.
This is the
glory and honor heaped upon influential favorites for their services by
people who, if they could tear apart their living bodies, would still clamor
for more, only half satiated by the agony they might behold.
For even when
the favorites are dead those who live after are never too lazy to blacken
the names of these man-eaters with the ink of a thousand pens, tear their
reputations into bits in a thousand books, and drag, so to speak, their
bones past posterity, forever punishing them after their death for their
Let us therefore learn while there is yet time, let us learn to claim our
Let us open our eyes to our natural freedom for the sake of our
honor, for the very love of virtue. As for me, I truly believe I am right,
since there is nothing so contrary to reason as self-imposed tyranny. I
believe the time will come when support will be withdrawn from tyrants and
Then let us watch them all fall from their own corrupted