Slaves By Choice
Document Item Type Metadata
Slaves by Choice:
The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude,
Étienne de La Boétie
SLAVES BY CHOICE
Having several lords is no good thing:
Let one, and one alone, be lord and king!
So spoke Ulysses, in a speech recorded by Homer. If Ulysses had simply said ‘Having several lords is no good thing’, then he could have said nothing better. He ought to have gone on to show why domination by several people cannot be a good thing: the reason is that if you call anyone ‘master’, even if it is only one man, he will become harsh and unreasonable simply because he has been given that title. But instead of doing that, he went and added just the opposite, ‘Let one, and one alone, be lord and king!’
Ulysses does perhaps have an excuse. He made this utterance at a time when a mutiny in the military had to be quelled, and it seems to me that this circumstance had more influence upon him than the objective truth did. The plain fact is that to be the subject of a master who always has the power to be wicked, and who can therefore never be relied on to be good, is an extreme misfortune — and the extremity of the misfortune is multiplied by the number of masters one has. But my topic is not that constantly debated question of whether the other types of political systems are better than monarchy. (Actually, it is debatable whether monarchy ought to be ranked among political systems at all, for it is hard to believe there is any such thing as politics when everything is in the hands of one man). I leave that question for another time. It requires a separate treatise — or rather, it brings with it every political discussion there is.
My sole aim on this occasion is to discover how it can happen that a vast number of individuals, of towns, cities and nations can allow one man to tyrannize them, a man who has no power except what they themselves give him, who could do them no harm were they not willing to suffer harm, and who could never wrong them were they not more ready to endure it than to stand in his way. It is a grievous matter — and yet so commonplace that our sorrow is the greater and our surprise the less — to see a million men in abject servitude, their necks bound to the yoke, and in that state not because they have had to yield to some greater force but, it seems, because they have been mesmerized by the mere name of a single man, a man they ought neither to fear (for he is just one man) nor love (as he is inhuman and barbaric towards them).
We often find ourselves in a position of weakness, with no option but to yield to force. We do not always have the upper hand, and we may have to play for time. We must not be surprised, then, when a nation which is at war finds itself compelled to serve one ruler (as the city of Athens served the thirty tyrants) — though we must deplore that servitude. Or rather, we must neither be surprised at the situation nor deplore it, but endure the misfortune patiently, and look forward to better fortune in the future.
Human nature is such that the way we live is largely influenced by the common duties of friendship. It is reasonable that we should love virtue, that we should have a high regard for noble deeds, that when someone does us a favor we should acknowledge the fact, and that we should be prepared to accept some reduction in our own comfort in order to enhance the standing of one whom we love and who had deserved our love. And in the same way, citizens of a whole nation will acknowledge that a particular individual has protected them by displaying great foresight, or had defended them with great bravery, or governed them with great care, and they may thus accept that it is reasonable to be obedient towards him, and they may go so far as to entrust him with power over them. I am not sure that this is wise, for they are removing him from a position in which he was doing good and putting him in a position in which he can do harm. But there is no doubt that there is something commendable about the fact that they fear no harm from someone who has done them nothing but good.
But — oh good God! — what is this? What words can describe this vice, this misfortune (or rather, vice and misfortune!) Whereby the obedience of an infinite number of people degenerates into servitude, government turns to tyranny, and people have nothing they can call their own, not even their parents, their wives, their children, their own lives! And they become prey to the pillage, lusts and cruelty not of some army, not of a barbarian horde which they could only resist by shedding their blood and laying down their lives, but of a single man! And is he a Hercules or a Samson? No, he is a solitary weakling, and usually the most cowardly and effeminate in the land, who is unaccustomed to the dust of battle and has hardly even set eyes on the sand of the jousting arena, and who has no authority to issue orders to men since he is an abject slave of some pitiful little woman! Are we to say that the people are cowards? Shall we call them pusillanimous and faint-hearted? Supposing you have two people, or three or four, who fail to defend themselves against one man: that is a strange situation, but still withing the bounds of possibility, and we can rightly say that these people are lacking in courage. But if a hundred or a thousand people are willing to tolerate one man, surely we have to conclude not that they dare not defy him, but that they do not want to, and that their attitude is not one of cowardice but rather of apathy and disdain? If what we see is not a hundred or a thousand men, but a hundred nations and a thousand cities and a million men failing to challenge one man (who, however well he treats any individual, is still treating him as a serf and a slave), what are we to call that? Is it cowardice? Now all vices have natural limits: two people may fear one man, ten people may fear him. But if a thousand men, a million men, a thousand cities do not defend themselves against one man, that cannot be cowardice, for cowardice cannot go that far, just as valor cannot go so far as to lead one man to scale a fortress, to attack an army, to conquer a kingdom. So what prodigious vice is this for which the term ‘cowardice’ is too flattering, for which there is no name vile enough, which nature herself will not admit to having created and which the tongue can find no name for?
Suppose we have two armies of fifty thousand men confronting each other, with one army made up of free men fighting to stay free and the other fighting to take their freedom away from them: when they join battle, which side do you expect to emerge victorious? Who will go into battle with the greater vigor? Will it be those whose reward for their efforts will be the retention of their freedom, or will it be those whose only reward for the blows they give or receive will be to impose slavery on other people? One army has its past good fortune to reflect on, and the expectation that this good fortune will continue in the future: their thoughts will be not so much on what little they have to endure while the battle lasts as on what they and their children and their descendants might have to endure forever. Their foes have nothing but greed to spur them on. However sharp this greed, it is immediately blunted by danger; however violently it burns, it is extinguished by the first drop of their own blood. Consider those most illustrious battles fought two thousand years ago in Greece and Miltiades, Leonidas and Themistocles, battles which are fresh in our minds, and in the minds of writers, as though they had happened but yesterday. These battles were fought as examples for the whole of humanity as well as for the benefit of the Greeks. And what do you think it was that gave the Greeks, so few in number, that courage which transcended their lack of power, and enabled them to withstand a fleet so vast that the very sea was overloaded, and to defeat nations so numerous that the battalion of Greeks would not have been numerous enough to supply generals for the armies of the enemy? Was it not that in those glorious days it was no so much the Greeks fighting the Persians as a victory of liberty over domination, of freedom over greed?
It is curious to hear tell of the valor that freedom in the heart of its defenders. But who would ever believe that one man could oppress a hundred thousand and deprive them of their liberty (and this happens in all lands, in all communities, every day!), if all he had to go on was someone else’s report, and if he did not have the evidence of his own eyes? If it only happened in foreign, faraway lands, and somebody told us it was happening, surely anybody would reckon that the story was utterly fictitious?
Now there is no need to combat this solitary tyrant, no need to defeat him: he will be automatically defeated, provided only that the nation refuses to accept slavery. There is no need to take anything from him: simply refuse to give him anything. There is no need for the nation to do anything on its own behalf, so long as it refrains from doing anything against itself. It is evident, then, that people allow themselves to be dominated, or rather that they actually bring about their own domination, since merely by ceasing to serve they would be free. It is the people who enslave themselves, who cut their own throats, who, faced with a choice between servitude and freedom, abandon their liberty and accept the yoke, who consent to being harmed — or rather, seek to be harmed. If it costs the people something to recover their freedom, I would not press the point (is there anything, though, that man ought to hold more dear than to recover what nature entitles him to, and to become, as it were, a man rather than a beast?). But I am not calling upon men to display such bravery; I am accepting that they may prefer some sort of wretchedly secure existence to the dubious expectation of a live of full contentment. The point is this: if, to possess freedom, all you need to do is desire it, if all that is required is a simple act of the will, a mere wish, is there a single nation which will begrudge this simple desire, which will retrieve a possession worth winning at the cost of one’s blood? Any man of honor will feel the loss of such a possession so keenly as to reckon life itself as tiresome and death as salutary.
A little spark can start a flame which will devour all the wood it finds, growing stronger all the time. But you do not need water over it to extinguish it — if you stop supplying wood it will consume itself, since it has nothing else to consume, and will languish and die out. In the same way, the more that tyrants pillage, the more they exact and extort, the more they ruin and destroy, the more you give them, the more you subject yourself to them — so much the stronger they become, so much the readier to destroy everything, to wipe out everything. But if you give them nothing, if you withhold your obedience, then — without you having to struggle or strike a blow — they become naked, defeated, mere nonentities, nothing but the dry, dead branch of a tree whose roots have been deprived of moisture and sustenance.
Bold men have no fear of danger when it comes to getting what they want, and intelligent people do not begrudge effort. People who are cowardly and lazy are not able to endure hardship and not able to get what they want. All they can do is wish they could, for their cowardice denies them the courage needed to go out and get it. Their desire remains, as is natural. And the desire, the will, is common to the wise and the foolish, the courageous and the cowardly: they all long for what would make them happy and contented if they got it. There is just one desire which nature — I know not why — has failed to endow us with, and that is the desire for liberty. And yet liberty is such a great and pleasurable possession that if we lose it, all evils come upon us one after the other, and even those good things which we still have lose all their flavor and taste, as they are corrupted by servitude. Liberty is the one thing which men have no desire for, and it seems as though the only reason this is so is that if they desired it, they would have it. It is as though they are refusing this wonderful acquisition simply on the grounds that it costs so little effort.
Pitiful, abject nations, you have taken leave of your senses! You cling stubbornly to evil and are blind to what is good. You allow the best part of your income to be taken from you, you let your farms be pillaged, your houses despoiled and stripped of your ancient ancestral possessions! You can claim nothing as your own, and it seems you would be glad to be allowed to rent from someone else your possessions, your families and your very lives. And all this devastation, this misfortune, this ruin is not visited upon you by an enemy — or rather, it does come from an enemy, and from the man to whom you give the power he has, for whom you so courageously go to war, laying down your lives without hesitation to make him more powerful. Your oppressor has but two eyes, two hands, one body, and has nothing that the least of your infinite number of citizens does not have — except the advantage you give him, which is the power to destroy you. Where did he get those eyes which spy on you, if you did not give him them? Would he have all those hands to strike you with, if he did not get them from you? Those feet which trample upon your cities, where did he get them if they are not your own. What power has he over you, if it is not the power you give him. How would he ever dare attack you, if you were not his accomplices? What could he do to you, if you were not receivers of the goods this thief plunders from you, the companion of this murderer who is killing you, traitors to yourselves? You sow your fruit so that he can destroy the harvest. You furnish your houses, so that he can pillage them. You bring up your daughters to sate his lust. You bring up your children so that (at best) he will take them off to fight his wars and be butchered, or make them ministers to his greed and instruments of his vengeance. You accustom yourselves to hardship so that he can enjoy a life of luxury and wallow in foul and base pleasures. You make yourselves weak so that he can be strong and oppress you ever more harshly. The very beasts would not endure these humiliations if they were capable of feeling them. But you can deliver yourselves if you make the effort — not an effort to deliver yourselves, but an effort to want to do so. Resolve to be slaves no more, and you are free! I am not asking you to push him out of your way, to topple him: just stop propping him up and, like a great colossus whose plinth has been taken from under him, he will crumble and be shattered under his own weight.
But doctors tell us we ought not to meddle with wounds that are incurable. I am wasting my time preaching this lesson, for the people long ago lost consciousness, lost all awareness that they are sick. This fact demonstrates plainly that the condition is fatal. Let us therefore attempt to explain how this stubborn desire to be slaves has become so deeply-rooted that it now seems as though the very love of liberty is no longer natural.
In the first place, it is I think beyond doubt that if we were to live according to the rights which nature gave us and the precepts she teaches us, we would be naturally obedient to our parents, we would be the subjects of reason and we would be the serfs of nobody. Concerning obedience to parents, we can all testify that nature instructs us in that. Concerning reason, and the question of whether we are born with reason or acquire it, a question debated in depth by the academics and touched on by all schools of philosophy, I do not think I shall be going far wrong if I say that our soul possesses by nature a seed of reason which, when sustained by good counsel and good habits, reaches the full power of virtue, and which on the other hand, in the presence of vices, is often unable to survive, and is stifled and crushed. But we have to admit that if there is anything clear and self-evident in nature, anything which we cannot pretend to be blind to, it is that nature, the minister of God and the governor of men, has made all of us in the same form, in the same mold as it were, so that we should recognize each other as fellow-beings — or rather, as brothers. In sharing out her gifts, she may have given some people physical or intellectual advantages over others, but it was certainly not her intention to place us in a kind of battleground, with the stronger or more intelligent terrorizing the weak, like armed brigands in a forest. Rather must we believe that in giving greater shares to some and less to others, she wanted to leave scope for the exercise of brotherly love, with some people being in a position to offer assistance and others needing it.
Since, then, our good mother nature has given all of us the whole world as our dwelling, and has, so to speak, lodged us all in the same house, and has designed us on the same pattern so that each of us could see himself reflected in others and recognize himself in others, and has given us all the great gift of speech so that we could come to a still deeper acquaintance and brotherhood, and acquire a common will by sharing our thoughts one with another, and has striven by every possible means to bind us together in the tight embrace of kinship and companionship, and has shown in everything she does that her intention was not was not so much to make us united as to make us one — we cannot doubt that we are by nature free, since we are companions of each other. And nobody can imagine that nature has placed anyone in a position of servitude, since she has made each of us the companion of all others. But it is really idle to debate whether liberty is ordained by nature, since it is impossible to keep anyone in a state of servitude without doing him wrong, and nature, being entirely reasonable, abhors nothing more than a wrong. The only remaining conclusion is that liberty is ordained by nature, and by the same token we will conclude (in my view) that we are born not simply in possession of our freedom, but with a desire to defend it.
Now if we have any doubt about that, and have fallen so far beneath the human that we are insensitive to those possessions and desires which nature placed in man, then I shall have to treat you with the respect you deserve and, so to speak, place the very beasts in the professional chair so as to teach you your nature and condition. The beasts — God help me! — will cry out to men provided they do not turn an entirely deaf ear), ‘Long live freedom!’ As a fish takes leave of life itself the moment it leaves the water, there are many beast which die as soon as they are captured, refusing to survive the loss of their natural freedom. If there were any social ranking among animals, those would be the aristocrats. Other animals, from the greatest to the smallest, violently resist capture with claws, horns, beaks, feet, declaring attachment to what they are losing, and when they are captured they give many clear signs of their unhappiness, so that we note — and with admiration for them — that henceforth they are languishing rather than living, and prolonging their life in order to deplore their lost comfort rather than because they are content with servitude. When an elephant has defended himself to the point of total exhaustion and sees that capture is inevitable, he buries his jaws into trees and smashes his teeth: what does that mean? It means his longing to retain his freedom has sharpened his wits, moving him to make a deal with the hunters so that they will let him go in exchange for his teeth, allowing him freedom for his ivory. We try to accustom a horse from birth to be subservient to us by offering it food, but despite all our blandishments it will bite the bit when we start trying to tame it, and resist the spur — as if to demonstrate to nature in that one way at least that its servitude is not a willing one, but one which we have imposed upon it. What then are we to conclude?
Oxen, even, at the yoke will groan,
And birds in cage confined will always moan
— as I once said in verse. (For, Longa, I have no hesitation in inserting my verses in a book dedicated to you: whenever I read them to you, you seem well content and make me feel quite conceited!). Since, then, all beings which are endowed with feeling automatically feel that subjection is evil, and hanker after liberty, and since beasts, albeit made for the service of man, cannot accustom themselves to servitude without protesting a contrary desire, what manner of disaster has so distorted the nature of man, the only being truly born to be free, and caused him to lose the memory of his original state and desire to regain it?
There are three types of tyrant. Some are king by democratic election, others by force of arms, others by inheritance. Those who have become king by right of war conduct themselves in such a way that people are left in no doubt that they are living in what are called conquered lands. Those who are born kings are commonly little better; being born and brought up in the womb of tyranny, they imbibe a tyrant’s nature with their mother’s milk, and treat their underlings as their inherited serfs, and treat the kingdom as a personal inheritance to be administered with parsimony or prodigality, according to their own temperament. A man given power by the people ought, it seems to me, to be more bearable; and I imagine he would be, were it not that from the moment he sees himself elevated above the others, he feels flattered by something people call greatness, and resolves not to relinquish power, and usually arranges to hand on to his children that power which the people have given him. And as soon as these people get these ideas, it is a curious fact that they surpass the other tyrants in all sorts of vices, and especially in cruelty. For they see no other way of consolidating the new tyranny than by making servitude so prevalent and liberty so alien to people that they lose all memory of it, however recent that memory. So, truth to tell, I can see some difference between these sorts of tyrant, but can see nothing at all to choose between them. They come to power by different methods, but the way they govern is always virtually identical. Elected monarchs treat the people like bulls to be tamed, conquerors treat the people as their prey, inheritors treat the people as their natural slaves.
But now, supposing a new race of men were to be born today, neither accustomed to subjection nor enamored of liberty, having no knowledge of either, and scarcely even familiar with the words ‘subjection’ and ‘liberty’, and supposing they were offered the choice between being serfs and living in freedom according to laws they agreed on among themselves, there can be no doubt they would greatly prefer to obey reason alone rather than be the slaves of one man. The exception, perhaps, would be the people of Israel who, being under no pressure and having no need to do this, made themselves a monarch. Whenever I read the history of this nation I am greatly irritated at this decision of theirs, almost to the point of taking an inhuman delight in all the ills that befell them because of it. But there is no doubt that so long as men retain something of the human about them, they will only be reduced to subservience either by constraint or deception. Constraint may come from foreign military force, as in the case of the subjection of Sparta or Athens to the armies of Alexander, or from factions, as was the case with Athens before it came into the hands of Pisistratus. Deception is a frequent cause of loss of liberty, and in this people are more often deceived by themselves than by other people. Thus, when the people of Syracuse (the main city of Sicily, which I gather is now called Saragossa) found themselves at war, they dealt only with the immediate danger and made Dionysius I the sole commander of the army — a reckless thing to do. They did not realize how powerful the army was making him; and when he returned victorious with this mighty force, he changed from being a general to being a king, and from a king to a tyrant, as though it were not the enemy he had defeated, but his fellow-citizens.
It is incredible how the people, once subjugated, forget their freedom so rapidly and so completely that they are quite unable to wake up and win it back. They are such willing slaves that you would say they had gained their servitude rather than lost their freedom. It is true that initially it takes force to reduce people to a state of servitude. But there is nothing reluctant about the servitude of future generations: they carry out willingly the tasks that their predecessors had done through compulsion. Men born beneath the yoke and educated in slavery will look no further; they are content to live in the condition in which they were born, with no other possessions or entitlements, and assume that this condition is the one which nature ordains. And yet you will find no heirs so reckless and apathetic as to fail to check his father’s inventories so as to be sure he has duly inherited all that he is entitled to, and that no-one has defrauded him or his predecessor. But custom, which holds great sway over us in all respects, is supremely powerful in teaching us to be slaves, and to swallow the venom of servitude without noticing any bitter taste, just as Mirthridates is said to have accustomed himself to drinking poison. One cannot deny that Nature has great influence over us, and inclines us the way she wills, which is why people are called ‘good natured’ or ‘bad natured’. But we have to confess that she has less power over us than custom does, for our natural state, however good it may be, is lost if it is not developed, whereas our upbringing always molds us into its own shape, whatever our natural disposition. The good seeds that nature sows in us are so tiny and so insecure that they cannot withstand the slightest pressure from a contrary upbringing. And developing them is not easy — whereas it is easy for them to become bastardized and melt away into nothing. In the same way, fruit trees have their own nature, and retain it if left on their own to grow, but they lose it and bear alien fruit when grafted. Plants all have their own natural properties, but their individual qualities can be greatly developed or diminished by frost, by the passing of time, by the soil they are in or by the hand of the gardener, so that a species you may have seen in one place can be hard to recognize elsewhere.
Anyone who saw the Venetians, a tiny nation living in such liberty that the worst rogue among them would not wish to be their king, born and bred with a single avowed ambition to excel their fellows in meticulous and vigilant care to uphold liberty, formed from the cradle to reject all other worldly goods rather than lose one iota of their freedom — anyone, I say, who saw those people and then went to the realm of the man we call the Great Lord, and saw how people there reckon that the sole purpose of their existence is to serve this man and to sacrifice their lives to keep him in power: would he reckon that these two nations shared a common nature, or would he not rather judge that he had left a city and entered a sheepfold? Lycurgus, the legislator of Sparta, is said to have kept two dogs which were brothers and reared on the same milk: but one was fattened in the kitchen, the other toughened in the fields to the sound of the hunting-horn and the bugle. To show the Spartans that men are what their upbringing makes them, he placed the two dogs in the public square and put between them a bowl of broth and a hare: one dog went for the bowl and the other went for the hare. ‘And yet’, he said, ‘they are brothers’. Lycurgus, then, by his law making and government, educated and formed the Spartans so successfully that each one of them would rather have died a thousand deaths than acknowledge any other master than reason and law.
It is delightful to recall the conversation which once took place between a courtier of the great Persian king Xerxes and two Spartans. When Xerxes was equipping his great army to conquer Greece, he sent ambassadors to the Greek cities to demand earth and water: that was the formula by which the Persians used to call on cities to ally themselves with them. He sent no ambassadors to Athens or Sparta because when his father Darius had sent ambassadors to these two cities, they had thrown some of them into pits and the others into wells, telling them that those were the places where they could go and find earth and water to take back to their king. Those nations could not bear to hear the slightest word which might injure their liberty. But the Spartans knew that in treating the ambassadors that way, they has incurred the hatred of the gods, and especially of Talthibius, the god of heralds. To make their peace with the gods, they decided to send two of their own citizens to Xerxes; they were to present themselves to him with the message that he could treat them as he saw fit, and thus secure compensation for his father’s ambassadors whom they had killed. Two Spartans, one called Spertus and the other Bulis, volunteered to go. And so they set off, and on the way they arrived at a place belonging to a Persian named Hydarnes, who was the king’s lieutenant in the Asian coastal cities. Hydarnes gave them a most honorable reception, and welcomed them with great splendor, and after conversing casually on various topics he asked them why they so vehemently turned down the king’s offers of friendship. ‘You Spartans have only to look around you’, he said, ‘and you will realize from the way the king has treated me that he has his way of showing esteem for meritorious people. Just think: if you were allies of his, he would treat you this way as well. If he got to know you, you would each be the master of a city in Greece’. ‘You are not in a position to advise us on this’, said the Spartans. ‘You have experienced the good fortune which you are promising us but you have no knowledge of the good fortune which we at present enjoy. You have known the king’s favor, but you know nothing of the sweet taste of freedom. And if you had tasted it, you would be advising us to defend it not just with spear and shield but with tooth and nail’. The Spartan alone was talking sense, but there is no doubt that it was each man’s upbringing that determined what he said. For it was impossible for the Persian to hanker after liberty, having never experienced it, or for the Spartan to endure subjugation when he had tasted freedom.
When Cato of Utica was still a child under instruction, he often used to visit the house of the dictator Sulla, partly because his family’s prestige gave him free access and partly because the two families were related. As was the custom with children of noble households, he always had his tutor with him when he went to Sulla’s house. He observed there that in Sulla’s presence, or on the orders of Sulla, people were imprisoned and condemned to death. One man was banished, another strangled, one man demanded confiscation of a citizen’s possessions, another demanded a citizen’s head. In short, the conduct of affairs indicated that this was not the residence of a public official but that of an oppressor of the people, not a court of justice but a tyrant’s workshop. And so this young lad said to his tutor, ‘Why don’t you give me a dagger? I can hide it beneath my cloak. I often go into Sulla’s bedroom before he gets up, and I am strong enough to free the city of him’. That is truly an utterance worthy of Cato, a first glimpse of his character, and of a piece with the manner of his death. And yet if this event were related without mention of the name and nationality of Cato, the facts would still speak for themselves, and you would certainly judge that the protagonist was a Roman, and born in Rome in the days when the city was free.
What point am I making here? I am certainly not saying that one’s nationality and birthplace determine anything, since subjection is bitter and liberty is sweet wherever you happen to be. What I am saying is that one ought to pity those who find their neck in the yoke at birth. They ought to be excused or forgiven if they have not seen the shadow of liberty and have no inkling that it exists, and therefore do not realize what an evil they are enduring as slaves. Supposing there existed a land like the one Homer says the Cimmerii live in, where the sun shines continuously for six months and then leaves them slumbering in darkness during the other half- year: if those that were born during this long night had not heard of daylight, would it be surprising if they became accustomed to the darkness they were born in, and had no desire for daylight? We never yearn for what we have never known, and regret can only come after we have experienced pleasure, and a memory of past joys always accompanies a knowledge of evil. The nature of man is certainly to be free, but his nature is also such that he adopts the lifestyle that his upbringing gives him.
Let us say, then, that all those things that a man is brought up to do and which he becomes accustomed to, seem natural to him, but that what is proper to him is exclusively what his simple, unadulterated nature impels him to do. Thus, the first explanation for voluntary servitude is custom. The most spirited of horses will first bite the bit — and then they play with it; and at first they try to throw off the saddle — but then proudly disport in the harness and show off their apparel. Men say that they have always been subjects of a king, that their ancestors lived this way. They imagine that they are obliged to endure this evil, and they convince themselves of this by pointing to examples, and they argue that those who tyrannize them are entitled to because they have been doing this for so long. The truth is that the passage of time does not legitimize wrongdoing, it only aggravates the injury. But there are always some men who are more noble than others, who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot prevent themselves shaking it off, who will never be tame enough to accept subjugation. These men, like Ulysses (who, in all his travels, longed to see again the smoke from his own humble dwelling), will always remain aware of those privileges which Nature gave them, and will recall their original, ancestral state. These people, endowed with a clear mind and a visionary spirit, do not confine their gaze to what lies at their feet as the common run of humanity does), but readily look backward and forward, recalling past events so as to weigh up the present and judge the proper course for the future. These men were endowed with a good mind and have refined it by study and erudition: even if liberty were wiped off the face of the earth, these men would see it in their mind’s eye, and have a feel for it, and savor it, and they would have no taste for servitude no matter how well it was dressed up.
The Sultan of Turkey realized that books and learning, more than anything else, give men the understanding and the wit to recognize those of their fellows who resist tyranny. I gather he hardly has any learned men in his territories, and has no desire that there should be any. Normally, people who have kept their devotion to freedom intact despite the passage of time are unable to make each other’s acquaintance, and so their zealous longing for freedom remains ineffectual, however numerous they may be. Under a tyrant, they are denied freedom to act, to speak, almost even to think, so that those who hold these views are kept apart from each other. So Momus, the god of derision, was not far off the mark when he found fault with the man that Vulcan had made, on the grounds that he had not put a little window in his heart so that his thoughts would be visible. It has been said that when Brutus, Cassius and Casca set about delivering Rome from tyranny — or rather, delivering the whole world — they did not want Cicero, that zealous defender of the common good if ever there was one, to be a party to their action, and they considered he lacked the courage for such a noble deed: they were quite sure which side he was on, but not at all sure that he was brave enough.
And yet, the ancient annals offer anyone a clear historical lesson: of those people who have seen their country badly governed and have sought through good, honest motives to deliver it, have been unsuccessful. Liberty has always given herself a helping hand. Harmodius, Aristogiton, Thrasybulus, Brutus the Elder, Valerius and Dion were of courageous mind, and hence successful in their enterprises: Fortune almost never fails the virtuous. Brutus the Younger and Cassius were very successful in removing servitude, but restoring freedom cost them their lives. It would be wrong to say that they died wretchedly (it would be blasphemous to say there was anything wretched about those people, in death or in life!), but their deaths brought about untold harm, perpetual misfortune and the entire ruin of the state, which, it seems, was buried with them. Other, subsequent enterprises against Roman emperors were simply conspiracies of ambitious men, and we ought not to pity them for the price they paid, since it is clear that they set out not to remove kingship but to make a different man a king, and their aim was to drive out the tyrant whilst retaining tyranny. Even I would not have wanted these people to be successful, and I am glad that they show by their example that the holy name of liberty must not be abused for evil ends.
But to get back to the point that I had almost lost sight of, the first reason why people choose slavery is that they are born and brought up as serfs. This leads us to another reason, which is that under the rule of a tyrant, men easily become cowardly and effeminate. I am immeasurably grateful of Hippocrates, that great father of medicine, who observed the phenomenon and described it in a book of his titled On Sickness. This man certainly had his heart in the right place in every respect, a fact which he demonstrated when the king of Persia tried to attract him with great promises of gifts. He replied candidly, to the effect he would feel very guilty were he to take the job of curing those barbarians who aim to kill Greeks, and if he were to use his art in the service of a king who sought to reduce Greece to servitude. The letter he sent to the king has survived, and can be read along with his other works: it will be an eternal testimony to his great heart and noble nature. Now it is certain that when liberty is lost, valor is lost at the same time. The subjects of a king have no heart for combat or difficulty: they face danger with a servile and leaden soul, as it were, out of obligation, and feel nothing of that ardent love of freedom which has people despise peril and long to acquire honor and glory among their fellows by a good death. Free men strive in emulation with each other to work for the common good — and for their own good: they expect as individuals to have their share in the evils that come with defeat or the benefits that victory brings. But people who are slaves lose not just courage in war but also a vitality in all other things, and they have a lowly, effeminate heart which is incapable of great things. Tyrants know that very well, and when they see their subjects going in that direction, they encourage the process so as to make them more lethargic still.
Xenophon, one of the most authoritative of the Greek historians, wrote a book in which he has Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, discuss the miseries of the tyrant. This book is full of sound and weighty warnings, and they are presented in the most pleasing style imaginable. Would to God that all tyrants had studied it carefully and used it as a mirror! They would most certainly recognize their scabs, and felt some shame for their warts. In this treatise, Xenophon related the troubles of tyrants who, because they do evil to all men, are obliged to fear all men. Among other things, he says that bad kings employ mercenary soldiers to fight their wars, since they do not dare put weapons in the hands of their own people whom they have harmed. (There have of course been good kings, especially French ones, who have employed foreigners, particularly in the past, but for another reason: to protect their own people, counting as nothing an expense which saves lives. It was the great Scipio Africanus, I think, who said that he would rather have saved one citizen than killed a hundred of the enemy). But it is certain that the tyrant never reckons his power is secure until he has reached the stage when there is no man of valor beneath him. Hence, one can rightly put to him the reproach which Terence’s Thraso claims to have put to the elephant trainer:
At government, you think you’re clever:
You govern beasts — but humans never.
But this ruse whereby tyrants reduce their subjects to the status of beasts is nowhere better illustrated then in the story of what Cyrus did to the Lydians after he had seized their principal city and captured its immensely wealthy king, Croesus, and taken him away as captive. News was brought to Cyrus of a revolt by the people of Sardis. He could have brought them to heel very quickly, but he did not wish either to have such a beautiful city sacked or to have to keep an army there to guard it, and so he hit upon a most expedient way of ensuring control of the city: he set up brothels there, and taverns, and public festivities, and issued a decree to the effect that all inhabitants were to patronize them. This garrison turned out to be so effective that he was never again obliged to draw his sword against the Lydians. These poor, miserable souls devoted themselves to inventing all sorts of games, with the result that the Romans took from them their word for games, and what we call pastimes they call ‘ludi’, recalling ‘Lydia’. Not all tyrants have explicitly declared, as he did, that it was their intention to make people effeminate, but there is no doubt that most of them pursued covertly a policy which this man decreed formally and publicly.
The truth is that ordinary folk, who always form the majority of then population in cities, are by nature suspicious of the man who loves them and credulous towards the man who deceives them. No bird more readily succumbs to deception, no fish snatches the bait more rapidly, than entire nations succumb to the blandishments of servitude as soon as the most transparent trick is played upon them. It is incredible how rapidly they let themselves be taken in, provided only that someone tickles them. Theaters, games, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, tableaux and other such drugs were the bait that lured ancient nations into servitude, they were the price at which freedom was sold, they were the instruments of tyranny: these were the methods, the procedures, the allurements which ancient tyrants could use to put their people to sleep, to place them under the yoke. Thus, these foolish people, finding these pastimes enjoyable, taken in by the idle pleasures which met their gaze, became accustomed to slavery: they were as gullible as little children who are induced to read by the colorful illustrations in books — but their gullibility is culpable.
The Roman tyrants hit upon another ploy: the frequent celebration of ten-day periods of public revelry. The common rabble is crying out to be exploited this way, for they delight in nothing more than gluttony. The most intelligent and perceptive among them would not be denied his bowl of soup even if it meant recovering the freedom of Plato’s Republic. Tyrants used to hand out a quarter bushel of wheat, a flagon of wine and a couple of bronze coins, and straightway you would hear those abject cries, ‘Long live the king!’. What these blockheads fail to understand was that they were simply getting back a part of what belonged to them, and that the tyrant would not have been able to give that back to them if he had not taken it from them in the first place. The self-same man who picks up the bronze coin one day and gorges himself in the public festival and sings the praises of Tiberius and Nero and their wonderful generosity is the man who, the following day, is obliged to abandon his possessions to the avarice of these magnificent emperors, to abandon his children to their lust and his very blood to their cruelty — and he is as silent as a stone, motionless as a tree-stump.
The common people have always been like that: totally open and dissolute in accepting pleasures which they ought not to accept. Nowadays, when Nero is mentioned, everybody trembles at the very name of that vile monster, that foul scourge of mankind. And yet it can truthfully be said of that man — that arsonist, that butcher, that wild beast — that after his death (a death as sordid as his life), the noble people of Rome were so distressed when they thought of the games and banquets he had given them that they almost went into mourning. That fact is recorded by Cornelius Tacitus, a good, sound author and one of the most reliable. And that will not surprise anyone, when we consider how the Romans had responded earlier to the death of Julius Ceasar, who abolished liberty and the rule of law, and who seems to me to have been an utterly worthless man (for his clemency, even, which is so frequently extolled, was more harmful that the cruelty of the most savage tyrant who ever lived, as that venomous mildness of his was in reality the sugar-coating which made servitude acceptable to the Romans). After his death, the Romans, whose lips were still telling of his banquets and whose minds were still full of the memory of his prodigality, piled up the benches in the forum for a funeral pyre and raised a column for him bearing the inscription, ‘To the father of the nation’, and they bestowed more honor upon him, though he was dead, than they ought rightfully to have conferred on any mortal man — except possibly those who had killed him.
Another thing the Roman emperors did not overlook: many of them assumed the title of ‘Tribune of the people’. They did this partly because this office was held to be sacred and holy, and partly because it had been established for the defense and protection of the people. And in this way they exploited the constitution to ensure that the people would more readily trust them. They expected the people to pay more attention to the title than to their actions, which belied it. There are people nowadays who are little better: they accompany their anti-social measures, especially the major ones, with some fine preamble about the common good and betterment of the people. For you are very familiar, Longa, with the formula they use — a formula which could be deployed with some subtlety, though usually their shamelessness excludes subtlety.
The kings of Assyria and, later, the kings of Medea, delayed appearing in public for as long as they could so that the people would begin to wonder whether they were in some respect more than mere mortals, and they allowed them to harbor this illusion (for people readily allow full reign to the imagination when they have no evidence of their own to go on). And so all those nations which for so long formed part of the Assyrian empire acquired the habit of slavery along with this mystery; and the fact that they did not know who their master was, and hardly knew whether they had one at all, made them all the more willing to be slaves. On the strength of hearsay, they all feared a man whom nobody had seen. The first kings of Egypt, when they appeared in public, almost invariably carried a cat or a branch, or had flames over their heads: the point of this farcical disguise was that it was strange, and would therefore induce a reverence and admiration in their subjects; had the people not been so stupid and so enslaved, this would simply have made them laugh. It is pitiful to hear of the variety of little tricks the ancient tyrants exploited to establish their tyrannies; from time immemorial, they found the people made the way they wanted them, ready to fall into the most clumsily-made trap, always so gullible that they were best enslaved when they were most profoundly mocked.
And what about that other little deception which ancient nations accepted as legal tender? They firmly believed that the big toe of Pyrrhus, king of the Epirotes, wrought miracles and cured people of sickness of the spleen. And they embellished the story, saying that this toe survived among the ashes when the rest of the body was cremated. This is how it always happens: the foolish people make up false stories, so that they can believe them. Many authors have related that story about Pyrrhus, but in a way that makes it clear they got it from rumor and the idle gossip of the populace. Vespasian, when he was returning from Ayssria and passing through Alexandria on the way to Rome to seize the empire, worked miracles: he cured cripples, made blind people see, and carried out all sorts of other great deeds. Anyone unable to see what was bogus about all that was in my view blinder than the people he cured.
Even tyrants found it really strange that men could tolerate one who did them harm. They were very keen to use religion to protect them and, if possible, to appropriate some diving attribute to sustain their wicked way of life. Thus, if we are to believe the sybil whom Virgil introduces in his description of hell, Salmoneus is now paying the price for having deceived people by making out that he was Jupiter. The sybil saw him in the recesses of hell,
Suffering grievous woe, for claiming he had use
Of thunder and of lightning, sole property of Zeus.
Drawn by four fine horses, with brave, triumphant hand
He brandished in the heavens a brightly flaming brand.
In the market place at Elis he strutted through the crowd,
Showing off before the Greeks, vain, arrogant and proud,
And in his pompous progress he rashly laid a claim
To the honor and the glory due solely to God’s name:
Mad fool, who did imagine that his mere bronze could fake
The thunder and the lightning that no mere man can make!
The vengeance of the deity was sure, and it came fast:
The thunderbolt that struck him was no puny, mortal blast.
If this man who was simply acting the fool is getting the treatment he deserves in hell, I think there is even better reason why those who abuse religion to evil ends should finish up there..... Our French writers propagated something similar to that — the story about the toads, the fleur-de-lis, the phial and the oriflamme. Whatever the truth is about that, I am reluctant to cast doubt on it, since neither we nor our ancestors have so far had any reason to disbelieve these stories, since our kings have always been virtuous in peacetime and valiant in war: even though they were born to kingship, it seems as though nature has made them different from other kings. They seem to have been chosen by almighty God, before birth, to govern and preserve this kingdom. And even if that were not the case, I still would not wish to enter the lists and debate the truth of our history, and scrutinize it so closely — that is a subject for our French poets to joust over. Indeed, our Ronsard, Baif, and Du Bellay have not just enriched French poetry, they have entirely renewed it, and they are conferring such status on our language that I dare to hope that before very long the only claim to pre-eminence the Greeks and Romans will have over us where poetry is concerned is that they came before us. And indeed it would be very wrong of me to deny to French verse (for I have no objection to using this word ‘verse’: many people have made verse merely mechanical, but there are others who are able to restore its old luster and nobility), it would be very wrong of me, I say, to seek to deprive it of those fine stories about king Clovis. In fact, we can readily see that Ronsard is going to make this subject his own, and that his Franciade will be a delightful poem. I know his talents, his sharp mind, the gracious way he expresses himself. He will make use of Clovis’s oriflamme in the same way as the Romans did of their shields,
The shields from heaven earthwards hurled
as Virgil says. He will make the same use of the phial as the Athenians did of the basket of Erichthonius, and will make our insignia as renowned as our olive, which they say is still found today in the tower of Minerva. Clearly, I would be going too far if I set out to refute our French histories and encroach upon the territory of poets in this way. But to get back to the point from which I somehow digressed, tyrants have always sought to buttress their position by accustoming the people not just to obedience and servitude, but also to religious devotion to them.
Clearly, what I have said so far about ways in which tyrants make people more willing to accept servitude applies almost exclusively to the unthinking masses. But now I come to a point which is in my view the secret source of the power of tyrants, the very basis and foundation of that power. Anyone who imagines that tyrants are protected by halberds, by guards, by sentries, is in my view profoundly mistaken. Tyrants make use of such means, it seems to me, more as a formality, and to frighten people, than because they think they are effective. The king’s archers can prevent badly dressed-people from getting into the palace — but these people are not the sort who are going to be able to do any harm. They cannot keep out well-armed men. — who are just the people to carry out some dangerous enterprise. Indeed, a quick count shows there are far fewer Roman emperors who escaped danger from the help of their guards than there are whom were killed by the guards themselves. A tyrant is not protected by calvary or infantry, or by weapons. It may be hard to believe at first, but there is no doubt that this is true. There are always four or five men who keep the tyrant in power, who keep the country enslaved for him. There have always been five or six men who have had the ear of the tyrant, either because they ingratiated themselves with him or because they were summoned by him to be the accomplices of his cruelty, the companions of his pleasures, the panders to his vices, the partners in his thefts. These six men train their chief so well that he takes on their wickedness in addition to his own, simply through being their companion. These six men have beneath them six hundred others, and the six hundred have the same effect on the six as the six do on the tyrant. The six hundred have beneath them six thousand whom on whom they have conferred public offices, such a governing a province or handling public money: these men will provide for their avarice and cruelty, and will do what is required when it is required. They carry out so many other evil deeds that they are only able to stay in office and exempt themselves from the laws and get out of trouble thanks to the protection of those above them. After that, you have a great crowd of other people, and anyone who unravels this thread will see that it is not just six thousand who are connected to the tyrant, but hundreds of thousands, millions. And the tyrant makes use of this cord. It is like the chain which, according to Homer, Jupiter has, and which he boasts would draw all the other gods to him if he pulled it. This is the explanation of Julius’s expansion of the Senate, for the establishment of public offices, the creation of new state posts — not, you understand, to reform the administration of justice, but to provide new pillars of tyranny.
The result of these favors and advantages passed on is that you have almost as many people who seem to be profiting from tyranny as you do who would appreciate liberty. Doctors say that when an additional disease afflicts a body which is already sick, the new disease immediately joins forces with the existing ill: in the same way, as soon as a king has shown himself to be a tyrant, all the evil men, all the dregs of society, all the thieves and villains who are afflicted with burning ambition and wicked avarice, assemble around him and support him, so as to have their share in the booty and become little tyrants beneath the principle one. These are people who, in a republic, would have very little influence for good or ill. Great thieves and pirates do just the same: some spy out the land, others rob travelers, some lay ambushes, others are lookouts, others murder and despoil people, and although you do have a hierarchy among them, and some are just servants and the other bosses, they all gain some benefit, if not from the robbery itself but from the plotting of it. It has indeed been pointed out that the problem about the Cilician pirates was just not that they were so numerous that Pompey the Great had to be sent out against them, but that they made allies of several fine towns and great cities whose harbors provided them with shelter when they were returning from their piracy, and which, in exchange, gained from receiving the stolen goods.
In this way the tyrant has his subjects impose servitude upon each other, and is protected by those very people whom he ought to guard against, were they not utterly worthless. As the saying goes, you split wood with a wedge of wood. These men, condemned and abandoned by God and man, are the bodyguards, the archers, the sentries which the tyrant uses. It is true that they too suffer at his hands, but they are content to endure ill-treatment themselves — not upon the man who inflicts it upon them, but on people who are enduring it like themselves and who can do nothing at all about it. All the same, when I see those people debasing themselves for the tyrant so that they can derive some benefit from his tyranny and from the slavery he imposes upon the population, my reaction is usually amazement at their wickedness and often pity at their stupidity. For if the truth be told, to approach the tyrant is surely to retreat from one’s liberty and, so to speak, to grasp servitude with both hands and embrace it? If they were to set aside their ambition a little, and to shed some of their avarice, and to reflect upon themselves and know themselves as they are, they would realize that the peasants, those rustic folk whom they do their very best to trample underfoot, and whom they treat worse than convicts or slaves, are fortunate in comparison with them, and have a kind of freedom, even though they are badly treated.
The farm laborer and the artisan are in a state of servitude, and have to do what they are told, but that is where it ends. But the courtiers of a tyrant ingratiate themselves with him and beg favors of him, and the tyrant, seeing this, requires them not just to do what he says but to think the way he wants them to and, often, to anticipate his desires. It is not enough that these people obey him, they must also please him in every way, they must endure hardship, torment themselves and drive themselves to the grave in carrying out his business; his pleasure must be their pleasure, his taste must be theirs, they must distort and cast off their natural disposition, they must hang on his every word, his tone of voice, his gestures, his expression; their every faculty must be alert to catch his wishes and to discern his thoughts. Is that a happy existence? Can that be called living? Is there anything in the world less tolerable than that? And I do not mean less tolerable to a man of valor, a man of natural goodness, but simply endowed to a man with common sense, or just someone who has the appearance of a man? What way of life is more abject than one bereft of possessions, in which one’s comfort, liberty, body and life depend on someone else?
But the goal of their servitude is wealth. As though they could gain anything which would belong to them, since they cannot even claim that they belong to themselves, as though anyone could own anything beneath a tyrant! They seek great possessions, but forget that it is they who give the tyrant the power to take everything from everyone, leaving nothing which can be said to be owned by any individual. They see that it is possessions alone which make men subject to the tyrant’s cruelty, that in his eyes wealth is the only capital crime, that his only love is riches and that it is the rich man alone whom he brings down — and yet they come and present themselves before the butcher, as it were, and offer themselves to him nicely fattened up, to incite his appetite! These courtiers ought to forget those who enriched themselves in the entourage of tyrants, and remember those who amassed wealth for a time but ended up losing wealth and life. They ought to reflect not on how many other people have gained wealth that way, but on how few of them who have kept it. Just look at the whole of history, just contemplate what has happened within living memory, and it will be evident how many people there are who, having gained the ear of monarchs by evil means, exploiting their wickedness or naivety, have ended up being destroyed by them, and have discovered that the ease with which monarchs elevated them was equaled by the fickleness with which they brought them down. There is no doubt that among the vast number of courtiers of so many wicked kings, there have been few, scarcely any in fact, who did not themselves experience that cruelty of the tyrant which they had previously kindled against others. Usually, by having enriched themselves by using the tyrant’s protection to despoil others, they enriched the tyrant with what he despoiled from them.
It sometimes happens that good men gain the favor of a tyrant. But, though these men may advance far in the tyrant’s good graces, and though virtue and integrity may shine brightly within them (and these are qualities which even wicked men revere when they observe them at close hand), these good men cannot survive in the company of the tyrant and, like everyone else, they see their plans obstructed by tyranny. Take the case of Seneca, Burrus and Thrasea, a trio of good men: through ill-fortune, two of them became part of the entourage of the tyrant, who esteemed and cherished them, and made them responsible for the government of affairs; and the third had been responsible for his education, a fact which was the pledge of the friendship he enjoyed with the tyrant. But the cruel deaths endured by these three shows clearly how little faith can be placed in the favor of an evil master. And indeed, what friendship can one expect of a man who is so heard-hearted as to hate his kingdom when it is doing nothing but obeying him, and who, because he does not know where his own true interests lie, impoverishes himself and destroys his own power?
Now if you argue that these people received this ill-treatment because they acted virtuously towards the tyrant, then take a good look at that man’s whole entourage, and you will see that those who ingratiated themselves with him and kept his favor by evil means lasted no longer. Who has ever heard or read of a love as precipitate, an affection as stubborn, an infatuation as obstinate as his for Poppaea? Well, he later poisoned her. His mother, Agrippina, had killed her husband Claudius to allow him to become emperor, never shrinking from any action, and hardship which would benefit him. Well, her very son, her offspring, the man she had handed the empire to, let her down many times and finally took her life. Everyone said she richly deserved to have life taken from her — by anyone other than the man she had given life to. What man was ever more gullible, more naive, or — to put it more accurately — more complete a fool than emperor Claudius? Who was ever more infatuated with a woman than he was with Messalina? He ended by handing her over to the executioner. If tyrants are naive, that naivety always prevents them doing any good. But whatever wit they do have, however little, is eventually spurred into action when it comes to exercising cruelty, especially against those in their entourage. Everyone knows that nice saying of the other tyrant who stroked the bare neck of that wife whom he most loved, and without whom it seemed he could not go on living, with the fine words, ‘This beautiful neck will be cut one day, if I but give the word’. That is why most ancient tyrants were killed by their closest favorites who, knowing the nature of tyranny, trusted the will of the tyrant less than they mistrusted his power. Thus, Domitian was killed by Stephanus, Commodus by one of his own mistresses, Antoninus by Macrinus — and the same thing happened with almost all the others.
There is no doubt that the tyrant is never loved, and loves nobody. Friendship is a sacred word, it is a holy thing, and it exists only between good people, it is kindled by mutual esteem. It is sustained not so much by favors as by a good life. What gives you confidence you can rely on a friend is the knowledge you have his integrity: the guarantors of that are his natural virtue, his trustworthiness and his constancy. Where there is cruelty, treachery and injustice there can be no friendship. Evil men are not companions of one another, they are conspirators. They have no mutual affection, but a mutual fear: the are not friends, but accomplices.
Now even if that consideration were not an obstacle, it would still be difficult to establish solid friendship with a tyrant. The reason is that he is above all other men, and has no peer, and so he is necessarily beyond the bounds of friendship, which is all about equality: you do not want a relationship which limps. That is why they say thieves trust each other when it comes to dividing the spoils, as they are equals and companions; they have no love of each other, but they do fear each other, and do not want to reduce their security by becoming involved in disputes. But the favorites of a tyrant can have no such assurances about him, for they are the very people who have taught him that he is all powerful, and that he is bound by no law or duty, and that he may count his will as synonymous with reason, and that he had no peer, but is master of all. How lamentable, then, that with all these clear examples, and with the danger so close at hand, nobody deigns to learn from the mistakes of others! All of those people who so readily approach tyrants, not one is wise enough to tell them what the fox in the story said to the lion who was pretending to be ill: ‘I would be glad to come see you in your lair. But I can see the footprints of many beasts going into your lair, but none coming out...’
These abject men see the glitter of the tyrant’s gold and are mesmerized by the rays of his might: this is what dazzles and incites them, and they draw nigh, not noticing that they are walking into the flames which will assuredly consume them. In the same way, that reckless satyr of old saw the light of the torch that Prometheus discovered, and found it so appealing that he went to kiss it — and was burned by it, as the Tuscan poet says. Similarly, the butterfly, hoping to experience pleasure, is drawn into a flame by the attraction of the light — but experiences the flames other quality, and is burned by it. But even supposing these sycophants escape the clutches of their master, there is no escaping his successor. If he is a virtuous man, then the day of reckoning is at hand and they have to come to terms with reason. If, like their present master, he is a wicked man, he will most certainly have his own favorites, and these people are not usually content to take over other people’s offices, they usually demand their possession and their lives as well. So will anyone be willing to take on that wretched task of serving such a dangerous master, a task which can be only carried out with great anguish and at great peril, and with such little confidence? What anguish, what martyrdom! Good God! The man you strive night and day to please is the one you fear more than any other. And at every moment your eyes and ears must be open, to anticipate the blow, to see the traps people are laying for you, to weigh up what someone’s expression signifies, to know who your betrayer is, to smile at everyone and yet fear them all, to have no avowed enemy or reliable friend, with a smile on your face and your heart numb with fear, always unable to feel any joy, yet daring not to be sad.
But it is pleasurable to consider what benefit they derive from the great trouble they put themselves to, and what they gain from their pitiful, tormented existence. People readily find someone to blame for their sufferings - and they do not blame the tyrant, but his advisers. The entire population of a whole nations, right down to the peasants and farm-laborers, will outbid each other in naming names, in denouncing these people for their vices, in heaping upon them a thousand insults, a thousand defamations, a thousand curses. The nation’s every prayer is devoted to their downfall. They blame them for every misfortune, every outbreak of the plague, every famine. They may, on occasion, appear to be bestowing some recognition upon them, but it is then especially that their secret detestation of them is most heartfelt, that they feel more horror of them than of any wild beast. Such is the glory and renown these people gain from their service to the community: if their bodies were torn into as many pieces as there are citizens, people would feel that that did not compensate for the anguish they endured, that that only goes halfway to satisfying them. Furthermore, after their death, future generations never fail to blacken the name of these vultures in the ink of a thousand books, raking over their very bones, so to speak, and punishing them, even posthumously, for their wicked lives.
Come then, let us learn to act virtuously. Let us lift up our eyes towards heaven, for the sake of our honor or for love of virtue itself — or, more properly, for the love and honor of almighty God, who is assuredly a witness of our deeds and a just judge of our faults. For my part, I am convinced, and am not mistaken in this conviction (since nothing is more contrary to the free and gracious nature of God than tyranny is) that he has a place in hell where tyrants and their accomplices undergo some torment reserved especially for them.