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Cato’s Letter Number 57

December 16, 1721
Of false Honour, publick and private
Thomas Gordon
Published in the London Journal:
Saturday, December 16, 1721

SIR, I have more than once complained in these letters, that the best things being most abused are capable of doing the greatest harm: Nor is it a new observation, whatever new occasion there may be, at all times, to repeat it. Men have been ever deceived by good names into an approbation of ill things, sanctified by these names. Imposture and delusion have been called religion, and thought so; oppression and rapine have been called government, and esteemed government. Teachers have degenerated into deceivers, submission into slavery, taxation into plundering, protection into destruction, and magistrates into murderers, without changing their names: Power and right have been ever confounded; and success, or the want of success, has turned villainy into virtue, and virtue into villainy.

Hence it is that little crimes and small criminals have been detested and punished, while great malefactors have been generally reverenced and obeyed: and that little rogues have been called thieves, and hanged; and great thieves have been styled conquerors and princes, and sometimes deified. Your Alexanders and Caesars were only felons above the gallows; and so have been many others of much less figure than they. Great crimes protect themselves, and one another; so that, in effect, crimes are not always punished because they are crimes, but because they are not mighty crimes: Nor, in the inflicting of punishments, has the offence or the offender been considered, but only the figure of the offender; who, if he were poor and necessitous, has been put to death; if great and ambitious, has been protected or preferred. And thus it is, that halters and garters, axes and white staves, palaces and dungeons, have been often miserably confounded and misplaced.

Thus are the boundaries and distinction between good and evil almost lost in the world. To illustrate this in every instance that deserves illustration, would be to write a folio instead of a letter; at present I shall confine myself to the consideration of false honour, which has done much more mischief to mankind than ever real honour did good, as it is more conducing to the little personal gratifications, and the crooked self-ends of particular men.

True honour is an attachment to honest and beneficent principles, and a good reputation; and prompts a man to do good to others, and indeed to all men, at his own cost, pains, or peril. False honour is a pretence to this character, but does things that destroy it: And the abuse of honour is called honour, by those who from that good word borrow credit to act basely, rashly, or foolishly.

A man cannot act honourably in a bad cause. That he thinks it a good cause, is not a good excuse; for folly and mistake is not honour: Nor is it a better excuse, that he is engaged in it, and has pledged his faith to support it, and act for it; for this is to engage his honour against honour, and to list his faith in a war against truth. To say that he is ashamed to desert it, is to say that he is ashamed to do an honest thing; and that he prefers false shame to true honour, which engages the man that possesses it to hate and break all criminal engagements. If a man enter into a party or society, because he thinks it an honest society; is he obliged to continue in it, when he finds it a society of knaves? And does his honour oblige him to be a knave too, or to desert those that are knaves? Or, does a robber, who leaves the gang, violate his honour, which was only an obligation to rob?

A good conscience, an honest heart, and clean hands, are inseparable from true honour; nor does true honour teach any man to act against his judgment. It must be convinced before it acts, and mere authority has no weight with it. In human matters, it does not consider what is commanded, but what ought to be commanded; and before it executes an injunction, enquires whether the same be rational and just. When superior orders are unjust, the honour of obedience is taken away; for honour is not the instrument of evil; it is therefore false and pretended honour, to execute and vindicate a bad action by an unjust command. Indeed, no command of any consequence ought to be obeyed, but what is or ought to be law, and is not forbidden by any law.

But this is only reasoning, which has but little force with men when it combats their interest and worst passions. To them therefore who follow the guides of gain and ambition, what I have here said is not addressed; but to those who, contrary to their interest, follow and approve others whose only principle is interest.

False honour has more power over men than laws have; and those who despise all the ties of laws, and of religion and humanity, are often very exact in observing all the fantastical and wicked rules of false honour. There are no debts so punctually paid as those contracted at play: though there are express laws against play, and against paying of money won at play; nay, ’tis penal to pay such debts. And yet those that are thus exact in paying to their own ruin, and in defiance of law, whatever debts they contract to avowed sharpers, who live by cheating and picking pockets, and are the destruction of families, and a public’ nuisance: I say, those men thus exact in unrighteousness and their own wrong, shall run in debt to honest tradesmen, without any purpose of paying them, and, unconcerned, see them broke, imprisoned, and undone, for want of such payment. So lawlessly just are they to rogues that ruin them, and so barbarously unjust to industrious and credulous men, who feed and clothe them!

Is this honour! What dupes are we to words and to our own vice and folly! It is but small comfort to us, that this voluntary madness prevailed of old amongst our barbarous German ancestors; of whose distracted propensity to gaming Tacitus gives us this astonishing account:

(Aleam sobrii inter seria exercent, tanta lucrandi perdendive temeritate, ut cum omnia defecerunt, extremo ac novissimo jactu, de libertate & de corpore contendant. Victus voluntariam servitutem adit, quamvis junior, quamvis robustior, adligari se ac venire patitur. Ea est in re prava pervicacia: ipsi fidem vocant.)

[“Gaming is one of their most serious employments, and even sober they are gamesters! To this rash vice they are so violently addicted, that when they have wantonly lost all, they have not done, but desperately stake their liberty and their persons upon the last throw. The loser goes calmly into bondage; and though the younger and the stronger, suffers himself tamely to be bound and sold by him that wins. Such is their vicious perseverance in folly! they themselves call it honour.”]

Our modern gamesters do not indeed go quite this length; they only sell themselves, with their families and posterity, to beggary: For as to their bodies, no body will stake any thing against them. But in point of honour, in gaming, we still retain the strictness of these our polite ancestors at play, and generously pay to the last morsel of bread, and venture famine rather than a dun from one that has foiled us at the art of picking pockets. As to other duns, honest and necessitous duns, we matter them not; and debts of real honour and conscience, do not at all touch our honour.

Thus is honour set up against virtue and law. Good laws not executed are worse than none, and only teach men to despise law: whereas reverence and obedience go together. No law will or can ever be executed by inferior magistrates, while the breach of it is openly encouraged by the example of superior. Does any man think that the best laws, even inspired laws, against duelling, would have any effect, if there was at the same time a duelling-office kept open at St. James’s? The example of those that should execute laws, or see them executed, is stronger than the authority of those that make them. The example of Vespasian did more towards the restraint of luxury, than all the sumptuary laws of Rome could do till his time.

(Praecipuus adstricti moris auctor Vespasianus fuit. Obsequium inde in principem, & aemulandi amor, validior quam poena ex legibus & metus).

[“Vespasian was himself a special instance and author of temperance and frugality. From hence grew in the people a reverence for the example of the prince, and an emulation to conform their manners to his; a tie much stronger than the dread of laws and all their penalties.”]

It is moreover become a mighty piece of honour to repair one crime by another, and a worse; and when one has done you an injury, he must, by the rules of honour, fight to defend it. Having affronted or harmed you, contrary to justice and honour, he makes you satisfaction by taking away your life, according to the impulses of true honour; so here is a war of honour against honour and justice and common sense.

Another piece of honour is an adherence to error, after conviction, and not to change a bad religion for a better. To have been born in a certain faith, is just as good sense as to have been born a lawyer or mathematician; and yet that same is often the best and truest reason against change! And therefore we often adhere against all our reason, to what others said or did for us without our consent, and when we had no reason. Because perhaps some people promised for us when we were a day old, that we should forty years afterwards, and all our life, count beads, worship unsavoury bones, be governed by deceivers and believe contradictions; are we therefore obliged to do all this, though we find it to be against all religion? Must we be hypocrites, because our ancestors were fools? Are old falsehoods and fooleries the standard of our honour? Are we never to mend a wretched condition, and never to make use of our conscience? If so, then here is a war of honour against conscience, a war of faith against belief, and a war of religion against persuasion!

Another piece of false honour has sometimes been that of serving a prince at the expence of one’s country, though the serving of that country was the only duty and only business of the prince, and of every man in office under him. But this, though a truth as self-evident as any in the Bible, has been so little understood or practised, that the wicked execution of impious engagements made to a tyrant, against those made to society, has been called honour. And it has frequently been the honour of a courtier, to execute all the ill purposes of a court against his country. And here was the war of honour against duty.

The honour of a party is to adhere to one another, right or wrong; and though their chief be a knave and a traitor, their honour is engaged to be honest to him in all his rogueries and treason. And this is a war of honour against honesty.

The honour and (bona fide) of some princes have been of that odd and unprincely contexture, that they were never once restrained by the same, from deceiving, plaguing, invading, robbing, and usurping upon their neighbours, and doing things which would have entitled a plain subject to the gibbet. Their honour seems to have been deeply concerned to have no honour: And though their faith was engaged to protect their subjects; yet their honour, on the other side, was engaged to pillage and enslave them. And here grew the royal war of honour against faith and equity!

How many peaceable nations have been robbed, how many millions of innocents butchered, out of mere honour, princely honour? This honour is indeed so wild, mischievous, and extravagant, that words, the most warm and significant words, fail in describing it. I shall therefore subjoin a few instances of its spirit, and conclude.

His Grace, Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, engaged his country in two mad wars at once with the two greatest powers in Europe, because his honour had suffered a rebuff in his attempts to debauch two great foreign ladies. Europe was to be embroiled; lives, treasure, and the safety of kingdoms to be risked and thrown away, to vindicate, forsooth, his Grace’s debauched honour.

Cambyses, to revenge an affront put upon his father many years before by an Egyptian king, in the business of sending him a wife, involved the world in a flame of war; and at the expence of perhaps a million of lives, and the destruction of kingdoms, did at last heroically vindicate his father’s honour and his own, upon the bones of a dead king, whom he caused to be dug up, and, after many indignities, cast into the fire.

White elephants are rare in nature, and so greatly valued in the Indies, that the King of Pegu hearing that the King of Siam had got two, sent an embassy in form, to desire one of them of his royal brother, at any price: But being refused, he thought his honour concerned to wage war for so great an affront. So he entered Siam with a vast army, and with the loss of five hundred thousand of his own men, and the destruction of as many of the Siamese, he made himself master of the elephant, and retrieved his honour.

Darius (I think it was Darius the Mede) found his honour concerned to chastise the Scythians for having invaded Asia a hundred and thirty years before; and lost a great army to vindicate his honour, which yet was not vindicated; that is, he missed the white elephant.

In short, honour and victory are generally no more than white elephants; and for white elephants the most destructive wars have been often made. What man free, either by birth or spirit, could, without pity and contempt, behold, as in a late French reign he frequently might behold, a swarm of slavish Frenchmen, in wooden shoes, with hungry bellies, and no clothes, dancing round a maypole, because their (Grand Monarque, )at the expence of a million of their money, and thirty or forty thousand lives, had acquired a white elephant, or, in other words, gained a town or victory?

Instances are endless, or else I could name other people, who have employed themselves several years in catching white elephants by sea and land; but I am in haste to conclude.

G( I am, &c).

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