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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Of the Natural Knavery of Men

March 10, 1756
To the Venerable Mr. Avenger,


I was the other Day involv’d in the renewal of a Lease with one of my Tenants. We had come to an Understanding, as of one Man to another, with respect to Terms, Rents, etc. and had shaked Hands. After writing up the Terms into a Contract and sitting down to sign it, I suddenly became mightily perplex’d (as is my wont) over the philosophical Implications of what we were about.

You see, I was struck by the Absurdity of being obliged to go to the considerable Expense of having my Lawyer contrive a Piece of Parchment, and then have it signed, witness’d and notarised, all of which is merely to repeat, in a new Form, all that we had already agreed to in Words and had seal’d by Shake of Hand. Wherefore the Need, pray, for all this high Ceremony?

Perchance HORACE was correct in opining that iura inventi metu iniusti fateare necesse est, tempora si fastosque velis evolvere mundi [“If you will but turn over the annals and records of the world, you must needs confess that justice was born of the fear of injustice.” Horace, Satires, 1.3.111-112 — Ed.]. Still, if I believed my Tenant were such a Knave as to commit a Fraud upon me, why wou’d I consider entering into any Bargain with such a Character in the first Place? After all, I shou’d rather do Business with a trustworthy Man, even if he shou’d offer me inferior Terms, than to play the Bubble, and Hazard my Wealth upon a bad Wager with a worthless Fellow, one who wou’d as soon pick my Pockets as do Business with me. In short, I shou’d much rather do Business with no Man than with such an one as the latter.

Nay, I cou’d not have thought my Tenant a Knave. Surely I trusted him as much as I wou’d trust any other Man who had given me no previous Cause to doubt his Honour. But there, you see, is the Trouble: in brief, he is a Man, and being such, as Sir Thomas BROWNE hath it, he is a Monster, that is, “a Composition of Man and Beast” [Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, Pt. I, §53 — Ed.] Sadly, we are but fallen Creatures, and tho’ the greatest Part of Humankind shou’d be Honest, or at least Honest the greater Part of the Time, yet some Number needs must be Knaves, and which are which we cannot always tell,

For neither Man nor Angel can discern
Hypocrisie, the only evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone
[John Milton, Paradise Lost, III: 682-684].

Quite beside the Difficulty of discovering who is a Knave and who is honest, there is our common Predicament, which is that so much must depend upon the being able to trust in the Word of another. Without Trust and plain-dealing, Humankind wou’d be no more civilised than a Troop of mangy Baboons, or what is worse, as violent and unsociable as wild Tygers. In short, instead of being Browne’s composite Monsters, we wou’d be Beasts intire.

Indeed, because so much hangs upon the ability to trust in another’s Word, I find myself in concord with honest old MONTAIGNE, who was of the Opinion that “lying is an accursed Vice, for it is only our Words which bind us together and make us Human. If we but understood the Horror and Gravity of lying we wou’d perceive that it is more deserving of the Stake or the Gibbet than other Crimes” [Michel de Montaigne, “On Liars,” Essays. Darlington is somewhat liberal in his translation — Ed.].

If we must presume in our private Dealings that our Fellows are Rogues, we must be doubly cautious in publick Dealings, where the greater number of Men involv’d must of necessity mean the likelihood of a greater number of Knaves. Tho’ the barest Possibility of Knavery wou’d necessitate Prudence in a Man’s private Affairs, the inexorable Arithmetick of larger Numbers wou’d dictate that Prudence is a most vital Necessity in Politicks. As Mr. HUME judiciously observes, “in contriving any System of Government, and fixing the several Checks and Controuls of the Constitution, every Man ought to be supposed a Knave, and to have no other End, in all his Actions, than private Interest” [David Hume, “Of the Independency of Parliament”, in Essays Moral, Political, and Literary — Ed.]. A most wise Maxim, notwithstanding that the greater Part of those who are Subjects of the Commonwealth are honest Men.

If we must treat Citizens as if they are all Rogues, how much more so must we treat Politicians! The political Man is capable of many a Misdeed which the same Man in his private Capacity would scarce entertain, let alone perform. The plain Truth is, too many are the Temptations to which even the best of Men must be subject, and nowhere is this more true than in Politicks, where Power and Influence present a greater Number of Opportunitys for Thievery, Jobbery, and the picking of the Publick’s Pockets.

I was violently rowz’d from my Reverie by the urging of my Tenant, who was pressing me to put Quill to Parchment, which I did only with an inexplicable Heaviness of Heart, for there immediately came into my Mind the Words of Monsieur BRUYÈRE: “The Invention of legal Instruments to remind Men of what they promised, and to convince them that they did so, is a Shame and a Blot upon the Children of Men” [Jean de La Bruyère, Characters, “Of Mankind,” §27. Again, his translation is rather loose — Ed.].

I remain, Sir, ever your Servant,

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxon.

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