Econlib

The Library

Other Sites

Front Page arrow Quotations arrow Other Quotes arrow Week of 6 December, 2010

Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

As a journalist Thomas Gordon was not able to develop his political ideas in a lengthy and methodical manner. This was left to his very lengthy “commentaries” and “discourses” on two Roman historians whose work he translated: Tacitus and Sallust. For each he devoted nearly half the entire volume to developing his ideas on the nature of political corruption, how tyrants are able to come to power (and stay in power), and the connection between war, state debt, and empire. In this quotation from his discourses on Sallust, Gordon ponders on the nature of the “spirit of party” and, in an early formulation of one of Friedrich Hayek’ insights, “why the worst get on top” (in The Road to Serfdom (1944) concludes that “the ablest and best Men are often precluded from the Service of their Country; the weakest, the worst, and most contemptible, employed in its Service”. So he despairs at the condition of British politics in the 1740s when a great defender of liberty such as John Locke (1632-1704) could never be elected to office. The party machine men would rather put forward what he calls “dirty Dabblers in Party” and “popular Fool(s)” and the people would duly elect them.

Other quotes about Parties & Elections:

6 December, 2010

Gordon_SallustWorks1562_TP

Thomas Gordon on how the “Spirit of Party” substitutes party principles for moral principles, thus making it possible for the worst to get on top (1744)

Read the full quote in context here.

Thomas Gordon (1692-1750) used his translation of the Roman historian Sallust (84-36 BC) as an opportunity to comment on how the spirit of party had undermined Roman liberties. Seeing many parallels with his own day he observed how politicians are judged, not by the justice or morality of what they do, but whether or not they are faithful supporters of a party line:

IN most Countries, they who blind and enslave the People, are popular, and reverenced; they who would enlighten and free them, hated and persecuted… It is with Measures as with Men; they are praised, or condemned, not because they are Right or Wrong, Beneficial or Hurtful, but because they come from this Party, or the other. Evil is turned into Good, and Good into Evil: Truth passes for Falshood; Falshood is dressed up in the Guise of Truth: The best Actions are decried as the worst, if they arise from one Quarter; the worst Actions adored as the best, if from the other. The Resisting of lawless Tyrants, is, at one time, Rebellion and Damnation: To rebel against the most lawful Authority, is, at another time, Duty and Glory… When we have taken a Fancy to a Man, and chuse or consider him as our Chief and Leader, we are disposed to see all Excellency and no Fault in him, to think him every way able to serve and support us, and quite uncapable of betraying or hurting us, or of ill serving us. We represent him to ourselves, just like ourselves, full of warm Zeal for Us and our Cause, without any Views to himself, or any Motives that are personal… Party Principles are therefore substituted for moral Principles; the sure way to destroy all Morality, and to confound the Characters of Men, and even those of Good and Evil. In truth, Morality, with Sense, is the only true Standard of Popularity, and the only just Recommendation to it. A virtuous Man can never endanger Liberty, nor hurt Society; nor is a wicked Man ever to be trusted with the Support of either. Yet from this Spirit, this baneful and pestilent Spirit of Party, the ablest and best Men are often precluded from the Service of their Country; the weakest, the worst, and most contemptible, employed in its Service; and the best Men often forced from that Service, to make room for the worst. 

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

SECT. II. How apt Parties are to err in the Choice of their Leaders. How little they regard Truth and Morality, when in Competition with Party. The terrible Consequences of all this; worthy Men decried and persecuted; worthless and wicked Men popular and preferred; Liberty oppressed and expiring.

IN most Countries, they who blind and enslave the People, are popular, and reverenced; they who would enlighten and free them, hated and persecuted. For an Attempt to relieve the Spaniards from the horrid Dungeons, Flames, and Tortures of the Inquisition, the Spaniards would, with Zeal and Indignation, surrender you to those very Dungeons, Flames, and Tortures. Is this Encouragement for serving, or striving to save Societies? It must be confessed, that the People, were they otherwise instructed, would act otherwise. They should thereforehear with Patience such as would shew them the Truth, and their own Interest, and never be afraid to enquire and examine, and not run after Names and Notions, which serve only to inflame and divide them, and therefore first mislead and deceive them.

It is with Measures as with Men; they are praised, or condemned, not because they are Right or Wrong, Beneficial or Hurtful, but because they come from this Party, or the other. Evil is turned into Good, and Good into Evil: Truth passes for Falshood; Falshood is dressed up in the Guise of Truth: The best Actions are decried as the worst, if they arise from one Quarter; the worst Actions adored as the best, if from the other. The Resisting of lawless Tyrants, is, at one time, Rebellion and Damnation: To rebel against the most lawful Authority, is, at another time, Duty and Glory. One Year, a Prince, who openly defies Oaths and Law, and violates every Obligation, Sacred and Civil, is still the Lord’s Anointed, still not to be opposed; a wanton Usurper has a Right to all things, the Subject, the most unoffending Subject, a Security for nothing; nor is Law and Right any Defence against Violence and Plunder. Another Year, and for a Course of Years the most solemn Oaths taken to a Government, which, in all things, acts by the Measure of Right, are not binding; and that Government is called Usurpation, though it usurp nothing, but is founded wholly upon Law, and from the Laws only derives its whole Force.

To support such Extremes, to reconcile such wild Contradictions, the Divine Word is boldly called in and misapplied, the Divine Aid promised and invoked. One Scripture is made to justify one extravagant Proposition to Day: To-morrow the same Scripture, or another Scripture, is forced to defend an opposite Proposition, and to destroy the former; and the Supreme Being is always supposed angry or pleased, just as Factions are, adopting the foolish Passions and Partialities of Parties, and shifting his Passions, as Parties shift theirs.

Party, as I have already said, always implies Anger, which is never a fair Reasoner, nor a sure Guide. When Fierceness and Ill-will possess a Man, or Body of Men, Reason has little Power left over them; Complaints grow into Invectives, Representations become Aggravations; and I doubt it is too true, that as under such a Spirit we are very ready to spy Faults, so we are glad to find them; at least prone to aggravate them, and, I fear, even to make them. When we think Men our Enemies, it is too natural to wish them every Quality proper to hate, and to find their Actions as bad as our own Resentment is severe. If, for a Shew of Impartiality, we at any time praise them, it is often either Affectation, or to make them the more guilty and inexcusable.

When we have taken a Fancy to a Man, and chuse or consider him as our Chief and Leader, we are disposed to see all Excellency and no Fault in him, to think him every way able to serve and support us, and quite uncapable of betraying or hurting us, or of ill serving us. We represent him to ourselves, just like ourselves, full of warm Zeal for Us and our Cause, without any Views to himself, or any Motives that are personal; though it is possible, that from such Motives only he became very zealous for us, and very angry at others. Thus we court, thus paint, and trust, and admire the Man who joins with us, and who espouses our Resentments and Disgusts, or seems to espouse them.

To the Man, on the contrary, who is not of our Party, but of the opposite Party, we hardly allow one good Quality, but are ready to impute every ill one. Every thing that he does, is bad and malicious, and all his Intentions are wicked; and though he be charged with doing a World of Mischief, it is odds but he is reckoned void of Parts, and a very silly Fellow. For those who follow, or are supposed to follow him, we have just the same want of common Charity and Complaisance. As all our own Friends and Champions are virtuous, and able, and amiable; all on the other Side are guilty, weak, and hateful. And, just in the same Style, those of the other Side speak and judge of us, from the same Prejudices.

Now, where are the Hopes of Union or Reconciliation, when the Rent is thus wide, and the Rancour thus implacable? Each Party think themselves innocent as Angels, and the other Party as black as Devils. Will Angels ever condescend to treat with Devils, or confederate cordially with them even for a Day? The Breach therefore, instead of healing, widens; mutual Fury and Fierceness are increased by mutual Lyes and Invectives; Reason is lost in Rage; Justice is swallowed up in Revenge, a High-way is raised to Blood and Massacre; and, neither Side expecting from the other fair Usage or Humanity, both betake themselves to Frauds and Cruelty: Both pretend the public Good, both obstruct it, and rend the Public between them. Nay, one Party will risque all, sacrifice the State, and themselves with it, rather than miss Revenge upon the other; and, to this bloody End, call in the inveterate Enemies of their common Country, Savages and Barbarians. This has often happened; and We, even We of this Generation, had like to have seen it happen.

Men, therefore, had need beware of their own Hearts, and to watch over them, as in all Pursuits, so particularly in those of Party; I speak of all Parties: For, in none yet did I ever see Justice and Candour practised between the Individuals of opposite Parties. One is charged as insatiable in his Ambition, another in his Revenge; when, perhaps, better Passions animate both, or at least the former Passions, if they have them, are not near so intense. But, on these Occasions, Men extol or condemn by the Lump, and when they are resolved to hate, must find no Reasons to extenuate their Hatred; no more than their Admiration, when bent upon admiring.

Thus I have seen Wretches the most abject, vicious and silly, idolized; and Men of the most elevated Capacity, virtuous and accomplished, exposed to the Detestation and Reproach of Fools; seen a Fellow, hardly rational, canonized by the Populace for being their Enemy, and an Incendiary; seen one of the grearest Lights of the Age, venerable for his Piety, admired for his Knowledge and Charity, threatened with the Justice of a mad Mob, or with Fire and Faggot; seen a Friend and an Ornament to human Kind, unpopular, in Disgrace and Danger; and a common Disturber, whose Zeal was Lunacy, caressed and adored. Was Mr. Locke, that great Master of Reason, that Light shining amongst Men, that Friend to Conscience and civil Liberty, ever half so popular as many little dirty Dabblers in Party, who had no other Merit than that of promoting Ignorance, Strife, and Disorder? Or, would the ablest and worthiest Man in England carry an Election, by the Strength of his Character, against a popular Fool?

This is terrible and discouraging, a huge Obstruction to all Virtue, to Truth, and Morality. Party Zeal acquires Reputation, even where common Honesty, and common Sense, are wanting; and Attachment to Party is Honesty, and all things. Strange Perversion of Order and Truth, that Men should be deemed Honest without Morality! To be Honest is, with Party, to be of it; and nothing more is required. Thus, very contemptible and very wicked Men make a Figure in Party, and are esteemed by it; since Sense and Honesty are not required, nor any thing else but Zeal; and such Zeal being generally blind, the less Sense, the more Zeal; and Zeal is an Atonement for the want of Morality, and every good Quality.

Party Principles are therefore substituted for moral Principles; the sure way to destroy all Morality, and to confound the Characters of Men, and even those of Good and Evil. In truth, Morality, with Sense, is the only true Standard of Popularity, and the only just Recommendation to it. A virtuous Man can never endanger Liberty, nor hurt Society; nor is a wicked Man ever to be trusted with the Support of either. Yet from this Spirit, this baneful and pestilent Spirit of Party, the ablest and best Men are often precluded from the Service of their Country; the weakest, the worst, and most contemptible, employed in its Service; and the best Men often forced from that Service, to make room for the worst. 

[More works by Thomas Gordon (1692 – 1750) and on 18th Century Commonwealthmen]