The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 3/The Examiner, Number 27
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 1710-11.
THERE is no vice which mankind carries to such wild extremes, as that of avarice. Those two which seem to rival it in this point, are lust and ambition; but the former is checked by difficulties and diseases, destroys itself by its own pursuits, and usually declines with old age; and the latter requiring courage, conduct, and fortune in a high degree, and meeting with a thousand dangers and oppositions, succeeds too seldom in an age to fall under common observation. Or, avarice is perhaps the same passion with ambition; only placed in more ignoble and dastardly minds, by which the object is changed from power to money. Or it may be that one man pursues power in order to wealth; and another wealth in order to power; which last is the safer way, although longer about; and suiting with every period, as well as condition of life, is more generally followed.
However it be, the extremes of this passion are certainly more frequent than of any other; and often to a degree so absurd and ridiculous, that if it were not for their frequency, they could hardly obtain belief. The stage, which carries other follies and vices beyond nature and probability, falls very short in the representations of avarice; nor are there any extravagances in this kind, described by ancient or modern comedies, which are not outdone by a hundred instances, commonly told among ourselves.
I am ready to conclude hence, that a vice which keeps so firm a hold upon human nature, and governs it with so unlimited a tyranny, since it cannot wholly be eradicated, ought at least to be confined to particular objects; to thrift and penury, to private fraud and extortion, and never suffered to prey upon the publick; and should certainly be rejected as the most unqualifying circumstance for any employment, where bribery and corruption can possibly enter.
If the mischiefs of this vice in a publick station were confined to enriching only those particular persons employed, the evil would be more supportable: but it is usually quite otherwise. When a steward defrauds his lord, he must connive at the rest of the servants, while they are following the same practice in their several spheres: so that in some families you may observe a subordination of knaves, in a link downward to the very helper in the stables, all cheating by concert, and with impunity. And even if this were all, perhaps the master could bear it without being undone; but it so happens, that for every shilling the servant gets by iniquity, the master loses twenty; the perquisites of servants being but small compositions for suffering shopkeepers to bring in what bills they please. It is exactly the same thing in a state: an avaricious man in office, is in confederacy with the whole clan of his district or dependance; which in modern terms of art, is called to live and let live; and yet their gains are the smallest part of the publick's loss. Give a guinea to a knavish land waiter, and he shall connive at the merchant for cheating tht queen of a hundred. A brewer gives a bribe to have the privilege of selling drink to the navy; but the fraud is a hundred times greater than the bribe, and the publick is at the whole loss.
Moralists make two kinds of avarice; that of Cataline, alieni appetens, sui profusus; and the other more generally understood by that name, which is the endless desire of hoarding. But I take the former to be more dangerous in a state, because it mingles with ambition, which I think the latter cannot; for, although the same breast may be capable of admitting both, it is not able to cultivate them; and where the love of heaping wealth prevails, there is not in my opinion much to be apprehended from ambition. The disgrace of that sordid vice is sooner apt to spread than any other; and is always attended with the hatred and scorn of the people: so that whenever those two passions happen to meet in the same subject, it is not unlikely that Providence has placed avarice to be a check upon ambition; and I have reason to think, some great ministers of state have been of my opinion.
The divine authority of holy writ, the precepts of philosophers, the lashes and ridicule of satirical poets, have been all employed in exploding this insatiable thirst of money; and all equally controlled by the daily practice of mankind. Nothing new remains to be said upon the occasion; and if there did, I must remember my character, that I am an Examiner only, and not a Reformer.
However, in those cases where the frailties of particular men do nearly affect the public welfare, such as a prime minister of state, or a great general of an army; methinks there should be some expedient contrived, to let them know impartially what is the world's opinion in the point. Encompassed with a crowd of depending flatterers, they are many degrees blinder to their own faults, than the common in, firmities of human nature can plead in their excuse. Advice dares not to be offered, or is wholly lost, or returned with hatred: and whatever appears in publick against their prevailing vice goes for nothing; being either not applied, or passing only for libel and slander, proceeding from the malice and envy of party.
I have sometimes thought, that if I had lived at Rome in the time of the first triumvirate, I should have been tempted to write a letter, as from an unknown hand, to those three great men who had then usurped the sovereign power; wherein I would freely and sincerely tell each of them that fault which I conceived was most odious, and of worst consequence to the commonwealth. That to Crassus should have been sent to him after his conquests in Mesopotamia, and in the following terms.
"To Marcus Crassus, health.
"IF you apply, as you ought, what I now write, you will be more obliged to me than to all the world, hardly excepting your parents or your country. I intend to tell you, without disguise or prejudice, the opinion which the world has entertained of you; and to let you see I write this without any sort of ill-will, you shall first hear the sentiments they have to your advantage. No man disputes the gracefulness of your person; you are allowed to have a good and clear understanding, cultivated by the knowledge of men and manners, although not by literature; you are no ill orator in the senate; you are said to excel in the art of bridling and subduing your anger, and stifling or concealing your resentments; you have been a most successful general, of long experience, great conduct, and much personal courage; you have gained many important victories for the commonwealth, and forced the strongest towns in Mesopotamia to surrender, for which frequent supplications have been decreed by the senate. Yet, with all these qualities, and this merit, give me leave to say, you are neither beloved by the patricians nor plebeians at home, nor by the officers or private soldiers of your own army abroad. And do you know, Crassus, that this is owing to a fault of which you may cure yourself by one minute's reflection? What shall I say? You are the richest person in the commonwealth; you have no male child; your daughters are all married to wealthy patricians; you are far in the decline of life, and yet you are deeply stained with that odious and ignoble vice of covetousness. It is affirmed, that you descend even to the meanest and most scandalous degrees of it; and while you possess so many millions, while you are daily acquiring so many more, you are solicitous how to save a single sesterce; of which a hundred ignominious instances are produced, and in all men's mouths. I will only mention that passage of the buskins, which, after abundance of persuasion, you would hardly suffer to be cut from your legs, when they were so wet and cold, that to have kept them on would have, endangered your life.
"Instead of using the common arguments to dissuade you from this weakness, I will endeavour to convince you, that you are really guilty of it; and leave the cure to your own good sense. For perhaps you are not yet persuaded that this is your crime; you have probably never yet been reproached for it to your face; and what you are now told comes from one unknown, and it may be from an enemy. You will allow yourself indeed to be prudent in the management of your fortune; you are not a prodigal, like Clodius, or Catiline: but surely that deserves not the name of avarice. I will inform you how to be convinced. Disguise your person, go among the common people in Rome, introduce discourses about yourself, inquire your own character: do the same in your camp; walk about it in the evening, hearken at every tent; and if you do not hear every mouth censuring, lamenting, cursing this vice in you, and even you for this vice, conclude yourself innocent. If you be not yet persuaded, send for Atticus, Servius Sulpicius, Cato, or Brutus; they are all your friends; conjure them to tell you ingenuously, which is your great fault, and which they would chiefly wish you to correct; if they do not agree in their verdict, in the name of all the gods you are acquitted.
"When your adversaries reflect how far you are gone in this vice, they are tempted to talk as if we owed our successes not to your courage or conduct, but to those veteran troops you command; who are able to conquer under any general, with so many brave and experienced officers to lead them. Besides, we know the consequences your avarice has often occasioned. The soldier has been starving for bread, surrounded with plenty, and in an enemy's country; but all under safeguards and contributions; which, if you had sometimes pleased to have exchanged for provislons, might, at the expense of a few talents in a campaign, have so endeared you to the army, that they would have desired you to lead them to the utmost limits of Asia. But you rather chose to confine your conquests within the fruitful country of Mesopotamia, where plenty of money might be raised. How far that fatal greediness of gold may have influenced you, in breaking off the treaty with the old Parthian king Orodes, you best can tell; your enemies charge you with it; your friends offer nothing material in your defence; and all agree, there is nothing so pernicious which the extremes of avarice may not be able to inspire.
"The moment you quit this vice, you will be a truly great man; and still there will imperfections enough remain to convince us, you are not a god. Farewel."
Perhaps a letter of this nature, sent to so reasonable a man as Crassus, might have put him upon examining into himself, and correcting that little sordid appetite, so utterly inconsistent with all pretences to heroism. A youth in the heat of blood, may plead, with some show of reason, that he is not able to subdue his lusts. An ambitious man may use the same arguments for his love of power; or perhaps other arguments to justify it. But excess of avarice has neither of these pleas to offer; it is not to be justified, and cannot pretend temptation for excuse. Whence can the temptation come? Reason disclaims it altogether; and it cannot be said to lodge in the blood or the animal spirits. So that I conclude, no man of true valour, and true understanding, upon whom this vice has stolen unawares, when he is convinced he is guilty, will suffer it to remain in his breast an hour.
- Wet stockings.