Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

THE RUINS, OR, MEDITATION ON THE REVOLUTIONS OF EMPIRES

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THE NEW AGE.


Scarcely had he finished these words, when a great tumult arose in the west; and turning to that quarter, I perceived, at the extremity of the Mediterranean, in one of the nations of Europe, a prodigious movement--such as when a violent sedition arises in a vast city--a numberless people, rushing in all directions, pour through the streets and fluctuate like waves in the public places. My ear, struck with the cries which resounded to the heavens, distinguished these words:

What is this new prodigy? What cruel and mysterious scourge is this? We are a numerous people and we want hands! We have an excellent soil, and we are in want of subsistence? We are active and laborious, and we live in indigence! We pay enormous tributes, and we are told they are not sufficient! We are at peace without, and our persons and property are not safe within. Who, then, is the secret enemy that devours us?

Some voices from the midst of the multitude replied:

Raise a discriminating standard; and let all those who maintain and nourish mankind by useful labors gather round it; and you will discover the enemy that preys upon you.

The standard being raised, this nation divided itself at once into two bodies of unequal magnitude and contrasted appearance. The one, innumerable, and almost total, exhibited in the poverty of its clothing, in its emaciated appearance and sun-burnt faces, the marks of misery and labor; the other, a little group, an insignificant faction, presented in its rich attire embroidered with gold and silver, and in its sleek and ruddy faces, the signs of leisure and abundance.

Considering these men more attentively, I found that the great body was composed of farmers, artificers, merchants, all professions useful to society; and that the little group was made up of priests of every order, of financiers, of nobles, of men in livery, of commanders of armies; in a word, of the civil, military, and religious agents of government.

These two bodies being assembled face to face, and regarding each other with astonishment, I saw indignation and rage arising in one side, and a sort of panic in the other. And the large body said to the little one: Why are you separated from us? Are you not of our number?

No, replied the group; you are the people; we are a privileged class, who have our laws, customs, and rights, peculiar to ourselves.

PEOPLE.--And what labor do you perform in our society?

PRIVILEGED CLASS.--None; we are not made to work.

PEOPLE.--How, then, have you acquired these riches?

PRIVILEGED CLASS.--By taking the pains to govern you.

PEOPLE.--What! is this what you call governing? We toil and you enjoy! we produce and you dissipate! Wealth proceeds from us, and you absorb it. Privileged men! class who are not the people; form a nation apart, and govern yourselves.*


  • This dialogue between the people and the indolent classes, is applicable to every society; it contains the seeds of all the political vices and disorders that prevail, and which may thus be defined: Men who do nothing, and who devour the substance of others; and men who arrogate to themselves particular rights and exclusive privileges of wealth and indolence. Compare the Mamlouks of Egypt, the nobility of Europe, the Nairs of India, the Emirs of Arabia, the patricians of Rome, the Christian clergy, the Imans, the Bramins, the Bonzes, the Lamas, etc., etc., and you will find in all the same characteristic feature:--Men living in idleness at the expense of those who labor.


Then the little group, deliberating on this new state of things, some of the most honorable among them said: We must join the people and partake of their labors and burdens, for they are men like us, and our riches come from them; but others arrogantly exclaimed: It would be a shame, an infamy, for us to mingle with the crowd; they are born to serve us. Are we not men of another race--the noble and pure descendants of the conquerors of this empire? This multitude must be reminded of our rights and its own origin.

THE NOBLES.--People! know you not that our ancestors conquered this land, and that your race was spared only on condition of serving us? This is our social compact! this the government constituted by custom and prescribed by time.

PEOPLE.--O conquerors, pure of blood! show us your genealogies! we shall then see if what in an individual is robbery and plunder, can be virtuous in a nation.

And forthwith, voices were heard in every quarter calling out the nobles by their names; and relating their origin and parentage, they told how the grandfather, great-grandfather, or even father, born traders and mechanics, after acquiring wealth in every way, had purchased their nobility for money: so that but very few families were really of the original stock. See, said these voices, see these purse-proud commoners who deny their parents! see these plebian recruits who look upon themselves as illustrious veterans! and peals of laughter were heard.

And the civil governors said: these people are mild, and naturally servile; speak to them of the king and of the law, and they will return to their duty. People! the king wills, the sovereign ordains!

PEOPLE.--The king can will nothing but the good of the people; the sovereign can only ordain according to law.

CIVIL GOVERNORS.--The law commands you to be submissive.

PEOPLE.--The law is the general will; and we will a new order of things.

CIVIL GOVERNORS.--You are then a rebel people.

PEOPLE.--A nation cannot revolt; tyrants only are rebels.

CIVIL GOVERNORS.--The king is on our side; he commands you to submit.

PEOPLE.--Kings are inseparable from their nations. Our king cannot be with you; you possess only his phantom.

And the military governors came forward. The people are timorous, said they; we must threaten them; they will submit only to force. Soldiers, chastise this insolent multitude.

PEOPLE.--Soldiers, you are of our blood! Will you strike your brothers, your relatives? If the people perish who will nourish the army?

And the soldiers, grounding their arms, said to the chiefs:

We are likewise the people; show us the enemy!

Then the ecclesiastical governors said: There is but one resource left. The people are superstitious; we must frighten them with the names of God and religion.

Our dear brethren! our children! God has ordained us to govern you.

PEOPLE.--Show us your credentials from God!

PRIESTS.--You must have faith; reason leads astray.

PEOPLE.--Do you govern without reason?

PRIESTS.--God commands peace! Religion prescribes obedience.

PEOPLE.--Peace supposes justice. Obedience implies conviction of a duty.

PRIESTS.--Suffering is the business of this world.

PEOPLE.--Show us the example.

PRIESTS.--Would you live without gods or kings?

PEOPLE.--We would live without oppressors.

PRIESTS.--You must have mediators, intercessors.

PEOPLE.--Mediators with God and with the king! courtiers and priests, your services are too expensive: we will henceforth manage our own affairs.

And the little group said: We are lost! the multitude are enlightened.

And the people answered: You are safe; since we are enlightened we will commit no violence; we only claim our rights. We feel resentments, but we will forget them. We were slaves, we might command; but we only wish to be free, and liberty is but justice.



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