Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

animal creation, might be measured by the distance of the most refined enjoyments from the most ordinary wants, or, in other words, by the distance of wealth from poverty. Unfortunately, this passion for riches, which nature designed for such useful and beneficial purposes, has long been a constant source of disorder, violence, and calamities, among individuals and nations. Ancient history, and the records of the middle age, continually exhibit the passion for wealth to the philosophical observer as an obstacle to the safety, liberty, and happiness of individuals, to the independence and prosperity of nations, and to the increase and welfare of mankind ; it is always arming men against men, cities against cities, and people against people. During those two periods, it seemed as if one man could not possess more than he stood in need of, without depriving another of the necessaries of life; as if cities could not be rich but at the expence of the country, and as if a nation could not be wealthy but by impoverishing other nations. Every-where wealth is wrested from poverty, and opulence amassed out of the wrecks of indigence. Ages had rolled along before men perceived, or even before they suspected a more productive, a more abundant source of wealth, than the misery of their fellow-creatures. Communities, or individuals, all fancied they could not be rich but by seizing the property of others; and all attempted to secure a surplus by depriving others of their absolute necessary. With this intent were framed the constitutions of the ancients, and of the people of the middle age;

in this spirit were their laws conceived, digested, and executed : such was the peculiar character of their institutions, governments, and public and private manners; such the end of their social compact. The servitude of the most numerous part of the people was the first consequence of this system. We find slavery established in the most remote times; and this circumstance has betrayed some writers (in other respects estimable) into the supposition that servitude is a law of nature. Independently of the greatest part of the people being enslaved, we find another considerable portion plunged into a depth of misery little preferable to slavery, and opulence reserved for a few privileged beings, whose number bears no proportion to the multitude bending under the load of social calamities. To what cause ought we to ascribe a distinction so degrading to humanity ? Not to human nature: it makes neither masters nor slaves, neither rich nor poor. The inequality of strength, courage, and activity, may have produced the inequality of riches; but it could not be the immediate cause of servitude and misery. The individual who is least favoured by nature, may much more easily do without the assistance of his fellow-creatures, in the social state, than in the state of nature: and surely it was not for the greater benefit of the weak man, that he was reduced to slavery by the strong one; nor was it from a motive of humanity, or by way of kindness, that the rich rendered the misery of the poor subservient to the increase of their riches. This distinction of masters and slaves, of rich and

[ocr errors]

poor, was, in ancient times and in the middle age, the unavoidable consequence of their civil associations being founded upon a system which stripped the weak for the benefit of the strong ; or, rather, upon the wrong direction given to the inexhaustible passion for wealth. Aware that they could not grow rich without their assistance, men used every means in their power to subdue their fellow-creatures, and to impose upon them the yoke of their caprices and vices, and the care of supplying their wants and providing for their enjoyments. Man became the property of man, and in this respect J. J. Rousseau was right when he asserted, that he who laid the first foundation of property, was guilty of treason against humanity, and deserved the curses of mankind. Fatal as this attempt of the passion for riches proved, every where, to the most numerous part of the people, it was yet repeated with the same ardour, and, at first, with the same success, by mations against each other. They were all anxious to appropriate to themselves the wealth of other states, and to submit them to their domination. Hostilities became permanent, and in this general struggle, a few proving victorious, subdued the others and stripped them of their riches. But punishment followed close upon the crime. The predominating states were no sooner arrived at the summit of power, than they fell with the same rapidity, and, to use the more correct than elegant comparison of Fergusson*, they disappeared all at once, and “ the conflagration, which had filled

[ocr errors]

* Fergusson's History of Civil Society.

“ the world with its flames, subsided like a wax-taper “ under an extinguisher.”

The causes and effects of this political phenomenon are established beyond contradiction, by the annals of all the distinguished nations of antiquity.

The Persians, who appear first on the theatre of history, were wretchedly poor when Cyrus led them on to the conquest of the rich provinces of Asia. The hope of emerging from misery was their only motive for war. They became conquerors for the sole purpose of enriching themselves; which they accomplished by stripping the vanquished of their wealth. The treasures of the conquered kings were distributed by the conquerors among the army, the generals and grandees, and all who, by their services, had deserved well of the country. Thus the wealth acquired by conquest contributed, at first, to the grandeur of the monarch, and the splendour of the empire: but it soon devolved to a few favourites, courtiers, and slaves; to all, in short, who, under absolute governments, feed upon the depravity and vices of their masters. From that instant the power of the Persians declined, until it vanished before an army of thirtyfive thousand men, who issued from the barren mountains of Macedonia, or enlisted from among the Proletarians of Greece”.

* The Proletarians (Proletarii & prole creandá) were those citizens among the Romans who, being possessed of no more than fifteen hundred sesterces, had nothing to contribute to the exigences of the state but their children. Asperis reipublica temporibus cum juventutis inopia esset, Proletarii in militiam tumultuariam lege bantur. Aul. Gell. xvi. 10.-T.

The Spartans, not less celebrated for their contempt of rici es than for their astonishing exploits, appear little entitled to the praises with which they have been honoured by posterity. They reduced the Helotes, or inhabitants of Laconia, to servitude, for the purpose of imposing upon them the task of supplying their wants. The laws of Lycurgus, which had grounded the happiness of the Spartans upon disinterestedness, and obtained the approbation of the gods, could not guard them against the dangerous seduction of riches, Scarcely had their illustrious Lawgiver ended his days, than, regardless of both his laws and the gods, who had, as it were, declared themselves the patrons of those laws, the Spartans conquered Messene, and exterminated, banished, or enslaved its inhabitants: and it is this very period of oppression and robbery which marks the beginning of their importance and consideration among the nations of Greece. The Spartans did not shew themselves more rigid observers of the laws of Lycurgus against riches at any other period of their history : the ransom of the prisoners of war, and the booty of Plataea, were eagerly heaped up in their public exchequer; and, as Plutarch justly observes, “private individuals “ took care not to despise the wealth which the public “ held in estimation ; and the law which watched

“ at the gate of their houses to keep them shut

[ocr errors]

* against gold, proved less powerful than the exam“ ple of the people, who opened their hearts to “ cupidity.” Their best generals, and even the chiefs

of the state, were bribed by the gold of the great

« ForrigeFortsett »