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Cato’s Letter Number 71

March 31, 1722
Polite Arts and Learning naturally produced in free States, and marred by such as are not free
Thomas Gordon
Published in the London Journal:
Saturday, March 31, 1722

SIR, In the first rise and beginning of states, a rough and unhewn virtue, a rude and savage fierceness, and an unpolished passion for liberty, are the qualities chiefly in repute. To these succeed military accomplishments, domestick arts and sciences, and such political knowledge and acquirements, as are necessary to make states great and formidable abroad, and to preserve equality, and domestick happiness, and security, at home. And lastly, when these are attained, follow politeness, speculative knowledge, moral and experimental philosophy, with other branches of learning and the whole train of the muses.

The Romans were long masters of the arts of war and policy, before they knew much of the embellishments of letters.

Serus enim Graecis admovit acumina chartis,
Et, post Punica bella, quietus quaerere coepit,
Quid Sophocles & Thespis, & Aeschylus utile ferrent.

These were the effects of ease, leisure, security, and plenty, and the productions of men retired from the hurry and anxieties of war, and sequestered from the tumults of the world; of men not ruffled by disappointment, nor scared with the noise of foreign invasions, nor disturbed with civil tumults; and of men not distressed by want, or wholly employed with the cares of life, and solicitous for a support to themselves and families;()

(?praeter laudem nullius avaris.)

The Romans had secured their conquests, and settled their power, before they grew fond of the ornaments of life.

How should my Mummius have time to read,
When by his ancestors famed glory led
To noble deeds, he must espouse the cause
Of his dear country’s liberties and laws?
Amongst rough wars how can verse smoothly flow,
Or midst such storms the learned laurel grow?

L. Mummius was one of the principal men of Rome; yet so late as the taking of Corinth, he was so ignorant in the polite arts, that when he was shipping off the glorious spoils of that great city to Rome, he ridiculously threatened the masters of the vessels, that if they broke or lost any of the statues, paintings, or of the other curious Greek monuments, they should be obliged to get others made in their room at their proper expence.

But the Romans quickly improved in their taste, quickly grew fond of works of genius of every kind, having now leisure to admire them, and encouragement to imitate them. And the Greeks, from whom the Romans had them, were first great in power, and their civil oeconomy was excellently established, before they grew eminent in politeness and learning.

But neither will the single invitations of leisure and ease prove sufficient to engage men in the pursuits of knowledge as far as it may be pursued. Other motives must be thrown in; they must find certain protection and encouragements in such pursuits, and proper rewards at the end of them. The laurel is often the chief cause of the victory. The Greeks who encouraged learning and the sciences more, and preserved them longer than any people ever did, kept stated, public’ and general assemblies, on purpose forthe trial and encouragement of wit and arts, and for the distinguishing of those who professed them. Thither resorted all who had any pretensions that way, or had engaged in performances of that kind: All the most illustrious men in Greece, the nobility, the magistracy, the ambassadors of princes, sometimes princes themselves, were the auditors and judges: By these merit was distinguished, the contention for glory decided, the victory declared, and by these the rewards of it were bestowed. Thus glorious was the price of excelling; thus equitable, public’, and loud was the fame of it. It is therefore no wonder that it was courted by the Greeks with as much ardour and application, as the chief dignities in a state are courted by others. And, considering how strong were the stimulations of the Greeks to study, Horace might well say,

(Graiis ingenium, graiis dedit ore rotundo)
Musa loqui.- – — – –

Before this august assembly, Herodotus repeated his history with great applause; which so animated Thucydides, then very young, that, in emulation of Herodotus, he wrote a better history than that of Herodotus. Here Cleomenes recommended himself, by only repeating some verses skilfully collected out of Empedocles; and here Euripides and Xenocles contended for preference in the drama.

Indeed, the honours attending a victory upon these occasions were excessive, and, according to Cicero, did almost equal those of a Roman triumph. The victors were reckoned to have arrived to the highest human felicity, to have entailed glory upon all that belonged to them, upon their families, friends, their native city, and the place of their education. Elogiums were made upon them, statues were erected to them, and, ever after, they met every-where the same preference, which they had met at the Olympick assemblies. A preference which so fired the emperor Nero, that, when he had ridiculously stood competitor at a singing-match, and taken a journey to Greece on purpose, he first declared himself victor, and then, to destroy all marks and memory of those who had been so before him, he commanded all their pictures and statues to be pulled down, and thrown into the privies.

The Romans, as soon as they had leisure from their long and many wars, fell quickly into the same studies, and into the same emulation to excel in them. They no sooner had any acquaintance with Greece, but they were possessed with a fondness for all her refinements.

(Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, & artes)
(Intulit agresti Latio.)- – — – –

The fierce Romans subdued Greece by their arms; and Greece made rustick Italy a captive to her arts. All the youth of Rome were charmed with the beauties of learning, and eager to possess them: Many of the Senators were caught by the same passions; even the elder Cato, who was at first against these improvements, which, he feared, would soften too much the rough Roman genius, yet changed his opinion so far afterwards, as to learn Greek in his old age.

This prodigious progress of the Romans in learning had no other cause than the freedom and equality of their government. The spirit of the people, like that of their state, breathed nothing but liberty, which no power sought to control, or could control. The improvement of knowledge, by bringing no terror to the magistrates, brought no danger to the people. Nothing is too hard for liberty; that liberty which made the Greeks and Romans masters of the world, made them masters of all the learning in it: And, when their liberties perished, so did their learning. That eloquence, and those other abilities and acquirements, which raised those who had them to the highest dignities in a free state, became under tyranny a certain train to ruin, unless they were prostituted to the service of the tyrant.

That knowledge, and those accomplishments, which create jealousy instead of applause, and danger instead of reward, will be but rarely and faintly pursued; and for the most part not at all. No man will take great pains, spend his youth, and lose his pleasures, to purchase infamy or punishment: And therefore when such obstacles are thrown in his way, he will take counsel of self-love, acquiesce in the fashionable stupidity, and prefer gilded and thriving folly to dangerous and forbidden wisdom.

Ignorance accompanies slavery, and is introduced by it. People who live in freedom will think with freedom; but when the mind is enslaved by fear, and the body by chains, inquiry and study will be at an end. Men will not pursue dangerous knowledge, nor venture their heads, to improve their understandings. Besides, their spirits, dejected with servitude and poverty, will want vigour as well as leisure to cultivate arts, and propagate truth; which is ever high-treason against tyranny. Neither the titles nor the deeds of tyrants will bear examination; and their power is concerned to stupify and destroy the very faculties of reason and thinking; Nor can reason travel far, when force and dread are in the way; and when men dare not see, their eyes will soon grow useless.

In Turkey, printing is forbid, lest by its means common sense might get the better of violence, and be too hard for the imperial butcher. It is even capital, and certain death there, only to reason freely upon their Alcoran. A sure sign of imposture? But by imposture, stupidity, and janizaries, his throne is supported; and his vast, but thin dominions, know no inhabitants but barbarous, ignorant, and miserable slaves.

Nor is printing in other arbitrary countries of much use but to rivet their chains: It is permitted only on one side, and made the further means of servitude. Even in Christian countries, under arbitrary princes, the people are for the most part as ignorant and implacable bigots as the Turks are. And as it is rare to find a slave who is not a bigot, no man can shew me a bigot who is not an ignorant slave; for bigotry is a slavery of the soul to certain religious opinions, fancies, or stories, of which the bigot knows little or nothing, and damns all that do.

The least cramp or restraint upon reasoning and inquiry of any kind, will prove soon a mighty bar in the way to learning. It is very true, that all sorts of knowledge, at least all sorts of sublime and important knowledge, are so complicated and interwoven together, that it is impossible to search into any part of it, and to trace the same with freedom to its first principles, without borrowing and taking in the help of most, if not all, of the other parts. Religion and government, particularly, are at the beginning and end of every thing, and are the sciences in the world the most necessary and important to be known; and as these are more or less known, other knowledge will be proportionably greater or smaller, or none: But, where these cannot be freely examined, and their excellencies searched into, and understood, all other wisdom will be maimed and ineffectual, indeed scarce worth having.

Now, in all arbitrary governments, and under all created and imposing religions, nothing must be found true in philosophy, which thwarts the received scheme, and the uppermost opinions: The most evident mathematical demonstrations must not disprove orthodox dogmas, and established ideas; the finest poetical flights must be restrained and discouraged, when they would fly over the narrow inclosures and prison-walls of bigots: Nor must the best, the strongest, and the most beautiful reasoning dare to break through popular prejudices, or attempt to contend with powerful and lucrative usurpation. A bishop was burned before the Reformation, for discovering the world to be round; and, even in the last century, the excellent Galileo was put into the dismal prison of the Inquisition, for maintaining the motion of the Earth round the Sun, as her centre. This proposition of his, which he had demonstrated, he was forced to recant, to save his life, and satisfy the Church.

Where religion and government are most deformed, as religion ever is where it is supported by craft and force, and government ever is when it is maintained by whips and chains, there all examination into either, and all reasoning about them, is most strictly forbid and discouraged: And as one sort of inquiry and knowledge begets another; and as, when the wits of men are suffered to exert themselves freely, no body knows where their pursuits may end; so no tyranny of any kind is safe, where general, impartial, and useful knowledge is pursued. Inhuman violence, and stupid ignorance, are the certain and necessary stay of tyrants; and every thing that is good or valuable in the world is against them.

In the East (if we except China) there is not a glimmering of knowledge; though the eastern people are, from their natural climate and genius, vastly capable of all knowledge. Bernier, mentioning the cruelty of the government, and the great misery of the people there, says,

“From the same cause, a gross and profound ignorance reigns in those states: Nor is it possible there should be academies and colleges well founded in them. Where are there such founders to be met with? And, if they were, where are the scholars to be had? Where are those who have means sufficient to maintain their children in colleges? And, if there were, who durst appear to be rich? And if they would, where are those benefices, preferments, and dignities, which require knowledge and abilities, and animate young men to study?”

I will not deny, but that, in arbitrary countries, there are sometimes found men of great parts and learning. But these are either ecclesiasticks, who, even in the greatest tyrannies, at least in Europe, are blessed with great liberty, and many independent privileges, and are freemen in the midst of slaves, and have suitable leisure and revenues to support them in their studies; or they are men invited and encouraged by the prince to flatter his pride, and administer to his pomp and pleasures, and to recommend his person and power. For these reasons alone they are caressed, protected, and rewarded. They are endowed with the advantages of freemen, merely to be the instruments of servitude. They are a sort of Swiss, hired to be the guards of their proud master’s fame, and to applaud and vindicate all his wickedness, wildness, usurpations, prodigalities, and follies. This therefore is the worst of all prostitutions, and most immoral of all sort of slavery; as it is supporting servitude with the breath of liberty, and assaulting and mangling liberty with her own weapons. A creature that lets out his genius to hire, may sometimes have a very good one; but he must have a vile and beggarly soul, and his performances are at best but the basest way of petitioning for alms.

France could boast many men of wit and letters in the late reign, though it was a very severe one, and brought infinite evils upon all France and Europe. But these great wits were many of them the instruments and parasites of power, who bent the whole force of their genius to sanctify domestick oppression and foreign usurpation: Such were the characters and employment of Pelisson, Boileau, Racine, and several others. France saw at the same time several churchmen of great and exalted talents, such as the late Archbishop of Cambray, the Cardinal de Retz, Claude Joly,[*] the present Abbot Vertot, and many more excellent men, all lovers of liberty, which, by being churchmen, they possessed.

But though it be true, that the late French king encouraged all sorts of learning, that contributed to the grandeur of his name and court, and did not contradict his power, and courted great writers all over Europe, either to write for him, or not against him; yet the nature of his government was so constant a damp upon general learning, that it was at last brought to a very low pass in that kingdom, even in his time. Monsieur Des Maizeaux tells us, in his dedication of St. Evremond’s works to the late Lord Halifax, that the great geniuses of France were, about the time I speak of, so constrained, as either to have forbore writing at all, or to have expressed what they thought by halves; that La Bruyere complains, that the French are cramped in satire; that Regis, the famous philosopher, solicited ten years for a licence to publish his course of philosophy, and at last obtained it only on this condition, to retrench whatever displeased the censors; That monsieur de Fontenelle hath been obliged to depart from the freedom which he used in the first works he published; that but few of the present French authors distinguish themselves either by their learning or wit; and that all this is to be attributed to the nature of the government; which is unquestionably true.

What Mr. Des Maizeaux says upon this argument is so judicious and just, that I shall borrow another paragraph from the same dedication: “Liberty,” says he, “inspires a noble and elevated confidence, which naturally enlarges the mind, and gives it an emulation to trace out new roads towards attaining the sciences; whereas a servile dependence terrifies the soul, and fills the mind with a timorous circumspection, that renders it mean and groveling, and even debars the use of its most refined natural talents. Greece and Italy never had illustrious writers, but whilst they preserved their liberty. The loss of that was followed by the decay of wit, and the ruin of polite learning. Greece, formerly the seat of the Muses, is now involved in a frightful barbarity, under the slavery of the Ottoman Empire; and Italy, which, under the influence of a Senate, was so fruitful in great and learned men, now subject to the tribunal of the Inquisition, produces no considerable works of erudition or politeness.”

All the great geniuses, who lived in the days of Augustus, were born and educated in the days of liberty; and he borrowed from the commonwealth all the ornaments of his court and empire. In spite of all his boasted taste of letters, and the encouragement which he gave them, I do not remember one extraordinary genius bred under his influence: On the contrary, all that were so, died in his time, without leaving any successors. (Quicquid Romana facundia habet quod insolenti Graeciae aut opponat aut praeferat, circa Ciceronem effloruit. Omnia ingenia quae lucem studiis nostris attulerunt, tunc nata sunt. In deterius deinde quotidie data res est,) says Seneca. “Every improvement in the Roman eloquence, which either equals or excels that of assuming Greece, flourished in the time of Cicero. All the great wits, that now animate and direct our studies, were then born. But, ever since then, wit daily decays, and grows lower and lower.”

This decay began in the time of Augustus, who began his reign with butchering Cicero, his patron, his father, and his friend, and the prodigy of Roman eloquence and learning; and that decay increased so fast, that from the first Roman emperor to the last, for the space of about five hundred years, the great city of Rome did not produce five great geniuses; and those that it did produce, were produced near the times of liberty, when they were yet warmed with its memory, before the tyrants had yet time utterly to abolish all that was good, though they made infinite haste. Tacitus was their last great historian, and Juvenal their last great poet, both passionate adorers of liberty. It is melancholy what the former says upon this subject, (Post bellatum apud Actium,) (atque omnem potestatem ad unum conferre pacis interfuit, magna illa ingenia cessere.) The Romans had no longer any great geniuses, than while they were free.

The Greeks preserved learning some time after the Romans had lost it; for, though they were conquered by the Romans, many of the Greek cities were suffered to enjoy their ancient liberties and laws: They paid only an easy homage, and no troops were quartered among them, as in the other provinces. However, as they were at the mercy of foreign masters, the vigour of their spirit was gone, and they produced but few good authors: Dio and Plutarch are, I think, reckoned the chief. It is the observation of the learned, polite, and ingenious author of the (Reflexions critiques sur la poesie & sur le peinture,) that Greece had more great men of all kinds in the age of Plato alone, when its liberties flourished, than in all the many ages between Perseus, the last king of Macedon, and the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, amounting to seventeen hundred years.

The several attempts made by Vespasian, Titus, and Trajan, to restore learning, proved almost vain. The Muses, who, frightened by tyranny, were now fled out of the world, could not be allured back to Rome, where baseness, terrors, and servitude had long reigned, and where their seats were filled by pedantick praters, by babbling and hypocritical philosophers: For, the itch and name of learning still subsisted; and therefore Seneca says, (ut omnium rerum, sic literarum quoque intemperantia laboramus.)

The root of the evil remained; the empire of mere will had usurped the throne of the laws, and the place of learning. The genius, that bold and glorious genius inspired by liberty, was gone; and the trial to restore learning, without restoring liberty, only served to shew that they who would do good to a community, which is ill constituted or corrupted, must either begin with the government, and alter or reform that, or despair of success. All that the best Roman emperors could at last do, was, not to butcher nor oppress their people; which yet they could not restrain their ministers from doing. Mucianus blackened the reign of Vespasian by his pride, insolence, and cruelties; and the ministers of Nerva, under colour of punishing the informers, a crew of rogues licensed and encouraged by the former emperors, to ensnare and destroy their dreadful foes, the innocent and virtuous, made use of that good prince’s authority, and his hatred of these vermin, to banish, plunder, kill, and ruin, many of the best men in Rome.

The government, the arbitrary single government, had long discouraged and banished every thing that was good; and, with the rest, learning irretrievably.

(G )I am, &c.



[*] Claude Joly, Canon of Notre Dame, Paris, has published a treatise entitled Recueil de maximes véritables et importantes pour l’institution du roy. Contre la fausse [et pernicieuse] politique du cardinal Mazarin [Paris, 1652], wherein he shows that the power of kings is limited by that of their estates and parlements, and gives authentic proofs that such is the original constitution of the government of France. He died 1700.

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