Essays (Cowley)/Of Liberty

Cowley's Essays.


The liberty of a people consists in being governed by laws which they have made themselves, under whatsoever form it be of government; the liberty of a private man in being master of his own time and actions, as far as may consist with the laws of God and of his country. Of this latter only we are here to discourse, and to inquire what estate of life does best suit us in the possession of it. This liberty of our own actions is such a fundamental privilege of human nature, that God Himself, notwithstanding all His infinite power and right over us, permits us to enjoy it, and that, too, after a forfeiture made by the rebellion of Adam. He takes so much care for the entire preservation of it to us, that He suffers neither His providence nor eternal decree to break or infringe it. Now for our time, the same God, to whom we are but tenants-at-will for the whole, requires but the seventh part to be paid to Him at as a small quit-rent, in acknowledgment of His title. It is man only that has the impudence to demand our whole time, though he neither gave it, nor can restore it, nor is able to pay any considerable value for the least part of it. This birthright of mankind above all other creatures some are forced by hunger to sell, like Esau, for bread and broth; but the greatest part of men make such a bargain for the delivery up of themselves, as Thamar did with Judah; instead of a kid, the necessary provisions for human life, they are contented to do it for rings and bracelets. The great dealers in this world may be divided into the ambitious, the covetous, and the voluptuous; and that all these men sell themselves to be slaves—though to the vulgar it may seem a Stoical paradox—will appear to the wise so plain and obvious that they will scarce think it deserves the labour of argumentation. Let us first consider the ambitious; and those, both in their progress to greatness, and after the attaining of it. There is nothing truer than what Sallust says: "Dominationis in alios servitium suum mercedem dant": They are content to pay so great a price as their own servitude to purchase the domination over others. The first thing they must resolve to sacrifice is their whole time; they must never stop, nor ever turn aside whilst they are in the race of glory; no, not like Atalanta for golden apples; "Neither indeed can a man stop himself, if he would, when he is in this, career. Fertur equis auriga neque audit currus habenas.

Pray let us but consider a little what mean, servile things men do for this imaginary food. We cannot fetch a greater example of it than from the chief men of that nation which boasted most of liberty. To what pitiful baseness did the noblest Romans submit themselves for the obtaining of a prætorship, or the consular dignity? They put on the habit of suppliants, and ran about, on foot and in dirt, through all the tribes to beg voices; they flattered the poorest artisans, and carried a nomenclator with them, to whisper in their ear every man's name, lest they should mistake it in their salutations; they shook the hand, and kissed the cheek of every popular tradesman; they stood all day at every market in the public places, to show and ingratiate themselves to the rout; they employed all their friends to solicit for them; they kept open tables in every street; they distributed wine, and bread, and money, even to the vilest of the people. En Romanos, rerum Dominos! Behold the masters of the world beginning from door to door. This particular humble way to greatness is now out of fashion, but yet every ambitious person is still in some sort a Roman candidate. He must feast and bribe, and attend and flatter, and adore many beasts, though not the beast with many heads. Catiline, who was so proud that he could not content himself with a less power than Sylla's, was yet so humble for the attaining of it, as to make himself the most contemptible of all servants, to be a public bawd for all the young gentlemen of Rome whose hot lusts, and courages, and heads, he thought he might make use of. And since I happen here to propose Catiline for my instance, though there be thousand of examples for the same thing, give me leave to transcribe the character which Cicero gives of this noble slave, because it is a general description of all ambitious men, and which Machiavel perhaps would say ought to be the rule of their life and actions. "This man," says he, as most of you may well remember, "had many artificial touches and strokes that looked like the beauty of great virtues; his intimate conversation was with the worst of men, and yet he seemed to be an admirer and lover of the best; he was furnished with all the nets of lust and luxury, and yet wanted not the arms of labour and industry: neither do I believe that there was ever any monster in nature, composed out of so many different and disagreeing parts. Who more acceptable, sometimes, to the most honourable persons? who more a favourite to the most infamous? who, sometimes, appeared a braver champion? who, at other times, a bolder enemy to his country? who more dissolute in his pleasures? who more patient in his toils? who more rapacious in robbing? who more profuse in giving? Above all things, this was remarkable and admirable in him. The arts he had to acquire the good opinion and kindness of all sorts of men, to retain it with great complaisance, to communicate all things to them, to watch and serve all the occasions of their fortune, both with his money and his interest, and his industry, and if need were, not by sticking at any wickedness whatsoever that might be useful to them, to bend and turn about his own nature and laveer with every wind, to live severely with the melancholy, merrily with the pleasant, gravely with the aged, wantonly with the young, desperately with the bold, and debauchedly with the luxurious. With this variety and multiplicity of his nature, as he had made a collection of friendships with all the most wicked and reckless of all nations, so, by the artificial simulation of some virtues, he made a shift to ensnare some honest and eminent persons into his familiarity; neither could so vast a design as the destruction of this empire have been undertaken by him, if the immanity of so many vices had not been covered and disguised by the appearances of some excellent qualities."

I see, methinks, the character of an Anti-Paul, who became all things to all men, that he might destroy all; who only wanted the assistance of fortune to have been as great as his friend Cæsar was, a little after him. And the ways of Cæsar to compass the same ends—I mean till the civil war, which was but another manner of setting his country on fire—were not unlike these, though he used afterward his unjust dominion with more moderation than I think the other would have done. Sallust, therefore, who was well acquainted with them both and with many such-like gentlemen of his time, says, "That it is the nature of ambition" (Ambitio multos mortales falsos fieri coegit, etc.) "to make men liars and cheaters; to hide the truth in their breasts, and show, like jugglers, another thing in their mouths; to cut all friendships and enmities to the measure of their own interest, and to make a good countenance without the help of good will." And can there be freedom with this perpetual constraint? What is it but a kind of rack that forces men to say what they have no mind to? I have wondered at the extravagant and barbarous stratagem of Zopirus, and more at the praises which I find of so deformed an action; who, though he was one of the seven grandees of Persia, and the son of Megabises, who had freed before his country from an ignoble servitude, slit his own nose and lips, cut off his own ears, scourged and wounded his whole body, that he might, under pretence of having been mangled so inhumanly by Darius, be received into Babylon (then besieged by the Persians) and get into the command of it by the recommendation of so cruel a sufferance, and their hopes of his endeavouring to revenge it. It is a great pity the Babylonians suspected not his falsehood, that they might have cut off his hands too, and whipped him back again. But the design succeeded; he betrayed the city, and was made governor of it. What brutish master ever punished his offending slave with so little mercy as ambition did this Zopirus? and yet how many are there in all nations who imitate him in some degree for a less reward; who, though they endure not so much corporal pain for a small preferment, or some honour, as they call it, yet stick not to commit actions, by which they are more shamefully and more lastingly stigmatised? But you may say, "Though these be the most ordinary and open ways to greatness, yet there are narrow, thorny, and little-trodden paths, too, through which some men find a passage by virtuous industry." I grant, sometimes they may; but then that industry must be such as cannot consist with liberty, though it may with honesty.

Thou art careful, frugal, painful. We commend a servant so, but not a friend.

Well, then, we must acknowledge the toil and drudgery which we are forced to endure in this assent, but we are epicures and lords when once we are gotten up into the high places. This is but a short apprenticeship, after which we are made free of a royal company. If we fall in love with any beauteous woman, we must be content that they should be our mistresses whilst we woo them. As soon as we are wedded and enjoy, 'tis we shall be the masters.

I am willing to stick to this similitude in the case of greatness: we enter into the bonds of it, like those of matrimony; we are bewitched with the outward and painted beauty, and take it for better or worse before we know its true nature and interior inconveniences. "A great fortune," says Seneca, "is a great servitude." But many are of that opinion which Brutus imputes (I hope untruly) even to that patron of liberty, his friend Cicero. "We fear," says he to Atticus, "death, and banishment, and poverty, a great deal too much. Cicero, I am afraid, thinks these to be the worst of evils, and if he have but some persons from whom he can obtain what he has a mind to, and others who will flatter and worship him, seems to be well enough contented with an honourable servitude, if anything, indeed, ought to be called honourable in so base and contumelious a condition." This was spoken as became the bravest man who was ever born in the bravest commonwealth. But with us, generally, no condition passes for servitude that is accompanied with great riches, with honours, and with the service of many inferiors. This is but a deception the sight through a false medium; for if a groom serve a gentleman in his chamber, that gentleman a lord, and that lord a prince, the groom, the gentleman, and the lord are as much servants one as the other. The circumstantial difference of the one getting only his bread and wages, the second a plentiful, and the third a superfluous estate, is no more intrinsical to this matter than the difference between a plain, a rich and gaudy livery. I do not say that he who sells his whole time and his own will for one hundred thousand is not a wiser merchant than he who does it for one hundred pounds; but I will swear they are both merchants, and that he is happier than both who can live contentedly without selling that estate to which he was born. But this dependence upon superiors is but one chain of the lovers of power, Amatorem trecentæ Pirithoum cohibent catenæ. Let us begin with him by break of day, for by that time he is besieged by two or three hundred suitors, and the hall and anti-chambers (all the outworks) possessed by the enemy; as soon as his chamber opens, they are ready to break into that, or to corrupt the guards for entrance. This is so essential a part of greatness, that whosoever is without it looks like a fallen favourite, like a person disgraced, and condemned to do what he please all the morning. There are some who, rather than want this, are contented to have their rooms filled up every day with murmuring and cursing creditors, and to charge bravely through a body of them to get to their coach. Now I would fain know which is the worst duty, that of any one particular person who waits to speak with the great man, or the great man's, who waits every day to speak with all the company. Aliena negotia centum Per caput et circum saliunt latus: A hundred businesses of other men (many unjust and most impertinent) fly continually about his head and ears, and strike him in the face like dors. Let us contemplate him a little at another special scene of glory, and that is his table. Here he seems to be the lord of all Nature. The earth affords him her best metals for his dishes, her best vegetables and animals for his food; the air and sea supply him with their choicest birds and fishes; and a great many men who look like masters attend upon him; and yet, when all this is done, even all this is but Table d'Hôte. It is crowded with people for whom he cares not—with many parasites, and some spies, with the most burdensome sort of guests—the endeavourers to be witty.

But everybody pays him great respect, everybody commends his meat—that is, his money; everybody admires the exquisite dressing and ordering of it—that is, his clerk of the kitchen, or his cook; everybody loves his hospitality—that is, his vanity. But I desire to know why the honest innkeeper who provides a public table for his profits should be but of a mean profession, and he who does it for his honour a munificent prince. You'll say, because one sells and the other gives. Nay, both sell, though for different things—the one for plain money, the other for I know not what jewels, whose value is in custom and in fancy. If, then, his table be made a snare (as the Scripture speaks) to his liberty, where can he hope for freedom? there is always and everywhere some restraint upon him. He is guarded with crowds, and shackled with formalities. The half hat, the whole hat, the half smile, the whole smile, the nod, the embrace, the positive parting with a little bow, the comparative at the middle of the room, the superlative at the door; and if the person be Pan huper sebastos, there's a Huper superlative ceremony then of conducting him to the bottom of the stairs, or to the very gate: as if there were such rules set to these Leviathans as are to the sea, "Hitherto shalt thou go, and no further." Perditur hæc inter misero Lux. Thus wretchedly the precious day is lost.

How many impertinent letters and visits must he receive, and sometimes answer both too as impertinently? He never sets his foot beyond his threshold, unless, like a funeral, he hath a train to follow him, as if, like the dead corpse, he could not stir till the bearers were all ready. "My life," says Horace, speaking to one of these magnificos, "is a great deal more easy and commodious than thine, in that I can go into the market and cheapen what I please without being wondered at; and take my horse and ride as far as Tarentum without being missed." It is an unpleasant constraint to be always under the sight and observation and censure of others; as there may be vanity in it, so, methinks, there should be vexation too of spirit. And I wonder how princes can endure to have two or three hundred men stand gazing upon them whilst they are at dinner, and taking notice of every bit they eat. Nothing seems greater and more lordly than the multitude of domestic servants, but, even this too, if weighed seriously, is a piece of servitude; unless you will be a servant to them, as many men are, the trouble and care of yours in the government of them all, is much more than that of every one of them in their observation of you. I take the profession of a schoolmaster to be one of the most useful, and which ought to be of the most honourable in a commonwealth, yet certainly all his farces and tyrannical authority over so many boys takes away his own liberty more than theirs.

I do but slightly touch upon all these particulars of the slavery of greatness; I shake but a few of their outward chains; their anger, hatred, jealousy, fear, envy, grief, and all the et cetera of their passions, which are the secret but constant tyrants and torturers of their life. I omit here, because though they be symptoms most frequent and violent in this disease, yet they are common too in some degree to the epidemical disease of life itself. But the ambitious man, though he be so many ways a slave (O toties servus!), yet he bears it bravely and heroically; he struts and looks big upon the stage, he thinks himself a real prince in his masking habit, and deceives too all the foolish part of his spectators. He's a slave in Saturnalibus. The covetous man is a downright servant, a draught horse without bells or feathers; ad metalla damnatus, a man condemned to work in mines, which is the lowest and hardest condition of servitude; and, to increase his misery, a worker there for he knows not whom. He heapeth up riches and knows not who shall enjoy them; 'tis only that he himself neither shall nor can enjoy them. He is an indigent needy slave, he will hardly allow himself clothes and board wages; Unciatim vix demenso de suo suum defraudans Genium comparsit miser. He defrauds not only other men, but his own genius. He cheats himself for money. But the servile and miserable condition of this wretch is so apparent, that I leave it, as evident to every man's sight, as well as judgment. It seems a more difficult work to prove that the voluptuous man too is but a servant. What can be more the life of a freeman, or, as we say ordinarily, of a gentleman, than to follow nothing but his own pleasures? Why, I'll tell you who is that true freeman and that true gentleman; not he who blindly follows all his pleasures (the very name of follower is servile), but he who rationally guides them, and is not hindered by outward impediments in the conduct and enjoyment of them. If I want skill or force to restrain the beast that I ride upon, though I bought it, and call it my own, yet in the truth of the matter I am at that time rather his man than he my horse. The voluptuous men (whom we are fallen upon) may be divided, I think, into the lustful and luxurious, who are both servants of the belly; the other whom we spoke of before, the ambitious and the covetous, were κακἁ θηρία, evil wild beasts; these are Γαστέρες ἀργαί, slow bellies, as our translation renders it; but the word Άργαί (which is a fantastical word with two directly opposite significations) will bear as well the translation of quick or diligent bellies, and both interpretations may be applied to these men. Metrodorus said, "That he had learnt Άληθως γαστρὶ χαρίζεσθαι, to give his belly just thanks for all his pleasures." This by the calumniators of Epicurus his philosophy was objected as one of the most scandalous of all their sayings, which, according to my charitable understanding, may admit a very virtuous sense, which is, that he thanked his own belly for that moderation in the customary appetites of it, which can only give a man liberty and happiness in this world. Let this suffice at present to be spoken of those great trinmviri of the world; the covetous man, who is a mean villain, like Lepidus; the ambitious, who is a brave one, like Octavius; and the voluptuous, who is a loose and debauched one, like Mark Antony. Quisnam igitur Liber? Sapiens, sibi qui Imperiosus. Not Oenomaus, who commits himself wholly to a charioteer that may break his neck, but the man

Who governs his own course with steady hand,
Who does himself with sovereign power command;

Whom neither death nor poverty does fright,
Who stands not awkwardly in his own light
Against the truth: who can, when pleasures knock
Loud at his door, keep firm the bolt and lock.
Who can, though honour at his gate should stay
In all her masking clothes, send her away,
And cry, Begone, I have no mind to play.

This I confess is a freeman; but it may be said that many persons are so shackled by their fortune that they are hindered from enjoyment of that manumission which they have obtained from virtue. I do both understand, and in part feel the weight of this objection. All I can answer to it is, "That we must get as much liberty as we can; we must use our utmost endeavours, and when all that is done, be contented with the length of that line which is allowed us." If you ask me in what condition of life I think the most allowed, I should pitch upon that sort of people whom King James was wont to call the happiest of our nation, the men placed in the country by their fortune above an high constable, and yet beneath the trouble of a justice of the peace, in a moderate plenty, without any just argument for the desire of increasing it by the care of many relations, and with so much knowledge and love of piety and philosophy (that is, of the study of God's laws and of his creatures) as may afford him matter enough never to be idle though without business, and never to be melancholy though without sin or vanity.

I shall conclude this tedious discourse with a prayer of mine in a copy of Latin verses, of which I remember no other part, and (pour faire bonne bouche) with some other verses upon the same subject.

Magne Deus, quod ad has vitæ brevis attinet boras,
Da mihi, da Panem Libertatemque, nec ultrà
Sollicitas effundo preces, si quid datur ultrà
Accipiam gratus; si non, contentus abibo.

For the few hours of life allotted me,
Give me, great God, but Bread and Liberty,
I'll beg no more; if more thou'rt pleased to give,
I'll thankfully that overplus receive.
If beyond this no more be freely sent,
I'll thank for this, and go away content.

Martial. Lib. 2.
Vota tui breviter, etc.

Well then, sir, you shall know how far extend,
The prayers and hopes of your poetic friend.
He does not palaces nor manors crave,
Would be no lord, but less a lord would have.
The ground he holds, if he his own can call,
He quarrels not with Heaven because 'tis small:
Let gay and toilsome greatness others please,
He loves of homely littleness the ease.
Can any man in gilded rooms attend,
And his dear hours in humble visits spend,
When in the fresh and beauteous fields he may
With various healthful pleasures fill the day?
If there be man, ye gods, I ought to hate,
Dependence and attendance be his fate.
Still let him busy be, and in a crowd,
And very much a slave, and very proud:
Thus he, perhaps, powerful and rich may grow;
No matter, O ye gods! that I'll allow.

But let him peace and freedom never see;
Let him not love this life, who loves not me.

Martial Lib. 2.
Vis fieri Liber, etc.

Would you be free? 'Tis your chief wish, you say,
Come on; I'll show thee, friend, the certain way.
If to no feasts abroad thou lov'st to go,
Whilst bounteous God does bread at home bestow;
If thou the goodness of thy clothes dost prize
By thine own use, and not by others' eyes;
If, only safe from weathers, thou canst dwell
In a small house, but a convenient shell;
If thou without a sigh, or golden wish,
Canst look upon thy beechen bowl and dish;
If in thy mind such power and greatness be—
The Persian King's a slave compared with thee.

Martial. L. 2.
Quod te nomine? etc.

That I do you with humble bows no more,
And danger of my naked head, adore;
That I, who lord and master cried erewhile,
Salute you in a new and different style,
By your own name, a scandal to you now;
Think not that I forget myself or you:
By loss of all things by all others sought
This freedom, and the freeman's hat, is bought.
A lord and master no man wants but he
Who o'er himself has no authority,
Who does for honours and for riches strive,
And follies without which lords cannot live.
If thou from fortune dost no servant crave,
Believe it, thou no master need'st to have.




Freedom with virtue takes her seat;

Her proper place, her only scene,
Is in the golden mean,
She lives not with the poor, nor with the great:
The wings of those, Necessity has clipped,
And they're in Fortune's Bridewell whipped,
To the laborious task of bread;
These are by various tyrants captive led.
Now wild Ambition with imperious force
Rides, reins, and spurs them like th' unruly horse;
And servile Avarice yokes them now
Like toilsome oxen to the plough;
And sometimes Lust, like the misguiding light,
Draws them through all the labyrinths of night.
If any few among the great there be
From the insulting passions free,

Yet we even those too fettered see
By custom, business, crowds, and formal decency;
And wheresoe'er they stay, and wheresoe'er they go,
Impertinences round them flow.
These are the small uneasy things
Which about greatness still are found,
And rather it molest than wound
Like gnats which too much heat of summer brings;
But cares do swarm there too, and those have stings:
As when the honey does too open lie,
A thousand wasps about it fly
Nor will the master even to share admit;
The master stands aloof, and dares not taste of it.


'Tis morning, well, I fain would yet sleep on;

You cannot now; you must be gone
To Court, or to the noisy hall:
Besides, the rooms without are crowded all;
The steam of business does begin,
And a springtide of clients is come in.

Ah, cruel guards, which this poor prisoner keep,
Will they not suffer him to sleep!
Make an escape; out at the postern flee,
And get some blessed hours of liberty.
With a few friends, and a few dishes dine,
And much of mirth and moderate wine;
To thy bent mind some relaxation give,
And steal one day out of thy life to live.
Oh happy man, he cries, to whom kind Heaven
Has such a freedom always given!
Why, mighty madman, what should hinder thee
From being every day as free?


In all the freeborn nations of the air,

Never did bird a spirit so mean and sordid bear
As to exchange his native liberty
Of soaring boldly up into the sky,
His liberty to sing, to perch, or fly
When, and wherever he thought good,
And all his innocent pleasures of the wood,
For a more plentiful or constant food.

Nor ever did ambitious rage
Make him into a painted cage
Or the false forest of a well-hung room
For honour and preferment come.
Now, blessings on ye all, ye heroic race,
Who keep their primitive powers and rights so well
Though men and angels fell.
Of all material lives the highest place
To you is justly given,
And ways and walks the nearest Heaven;
Whilst wretched we, yet vain and proud, think fit
To boast that we look up to it.
Even to the universal tyrant Love
You homage pay but once a year;
None so degenerous and unbirdly prove,
As his perpetual yoke to bear.
None but a few unhappy household fowl,
Whom human lordship does control;
Who from their birth corrupted were
By bondage, and by man's example here.


He's no small prince who every day

Thus to himself can say,
Now will I sleep, now eat, now sit, now walk,
Now meditate alone, now with acquaintance talk;
This I will do, here I will stay,
Or, if my fancy call me away,
My man and I will presently go ride
(For we before have nothing to provide,
Nor after are to render an account)
To Dover, Berwick, or the Cornish Mount.
If thou but a short journey take,
As if thy last thou wert to make,
Business must be despatched ere thou canst part.
Nor canst thou stir unless there be
A hundred horse and men to wait on thee,
And many a mule, and many a cart:
What an unwieldy man thou art!
The Rhodian Colossus so
A journey too might go.


Where honour or where conscience does not bind,

No other law shall shackle me?
Slave to myself I will not be,
Nor shall my future actions be confined
By my own present mind.
Who by resolves and vows engaged does stand
For days that yet belong to fate,
Does like an unthrift mortgage his estate
Before it falls into his hand;
The bondman of the cloister so
All that he does receive does always owe.
And still as time come in it goes away,
Not to enjoy, but debts to pay.
Unhappy slave, and pupil to a bell
Which his hour's work, as well as hour's does tell!
Unhappy till the last, the kind releasing knell.


If Life should a well-ordered poem be

(In which he only hits the white

Who joins true profit with the best delight),
The more heroic strain let others take,
Mine the Pindaric way I'll make,
The matter shall be grave, the numbers loose and free.
It shall not keep one settled pace of time,
In the same tune it shall not always chime,
Nor shall each day just to his neighbour rhyme.
A thousand liberties it shall dispense,
And yet shall manage all without offence
Or to the sweetness of the sound, or greatness of the sense;
Nor shall it never from one subject start,
Nor seek transitions to depart,
Nor its set way o'er stiles and bridges make,
Nor thorough lanes a compass take
As if it feared some trespass to commit,
When the wide air 's a road for it.
So time imperial eagle does not stay
Till the whole carcase he devour
That's fallen into its power;
As if his generous hunger understood

That he can never want plenty of food,
He only sucks the tasteful blood,
And to fresh game flies cheerfully away;
To kites and meaner birds he leaves the mangled prey.