On the Commonwealth, Book V



Ennius has told us

  • “Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque.”
  • “Rome’s Commonwealth in men and manners stands.”

This verse, both for its precision and its verity, appears to me as if it had issued from an oracle. He justly couples men and manners together, for neither the men, unless the state had adopted certain manners, nor the manners, unless illustrated by the men, could ever have established or maintained, for so many ages, so vast a dominion.

Thus, long before our own times, the force of hereditary manners moulded our greatest men, and the most eminent citizens, in return, gave new weight to the venerable customs of our ancestry.

Our age, on the contrary, receiving the Commonwealth as a finished picture of another century, already evanescent through the lapse of years—not only has neglected to renew the colours of the original painting, but has not even cared to [290]preserve its general form and prominent lineaments. (Note I.)

Alas! what now remains of those antique manners, on which the poet based our Commonwealth? They are now so superannuated, so obsolete, that they are not only not cultivated, but not even mentioned. As to the men, what shall I say? The manners would never have thus perished, but through a scarcity of patriotic worthies, who should support them. Of which great defect, we are not only called to give an account, but even, as in capital offences, to implore absolution. Thanks to our vices, rather than our misfortunes, we retain our glorious commonwealth in name only, when we have long since lost the reality.

There is no employment so essentially royal as the exposition of equity, which comprises the true meaning of all laws. This justice, subjects generally expect from their kings. For this reason, lands, fields, woods, and pastures were reserved as the property of kings, and cultivated for them, without any labour on their part; that no anxiety on account of their personal interests might distract their attention from the welfare of the state. No private man was allowed to be the judge or arbitrator in any suit: all disputes terminated in the royal sentence.

Of all our Roman monarchs, Numa appears to me to have best preserved this ancient [291]custom of the kings of Greece. The others, though theyalso discharged this duty, were, for the main part, employed in examining the rights of war, and in conducting military enterprises. But the long peace of Numa’s reign was the mother of religion and justice in Rome. He was himself the author of those admirable laws respecting our political economy, which, as you are aware, are still extant. This legislative genius is precisely the characteristic of the great man we require as our governor.


—Ought not a farmer to be acquainted with the nature of plants and seeds?


—Certainly, provided he attends to his practical business also.


—Do you think he should give his whole time to the study of agriculture?


—No, for then his fields would be unfruitful, for want of agricultural labour.


—Therefore, as the farmer knows agriculture, and the scribe knows penmanship, and both seek in their respective sciences, not mere amusement only, but practical utility; so our statesmen should be familiar with the science of jurisprudence and legislation, even in their profoundest principles. But he should not embarrass himself in debating, arguing, and lecturing and scribbling. He should rather employ himself in the actual administration of government, as a skilful superintendent, [292]and become a farmer of the revenue, so as to make the state as flourishing as posible by a wholesome political economy. He will, indeed, be perfectly conversant with the principles of universal law and equity,—without which no man can be just,—nor will he be unfamiliar with the civil law of states; but he will use them for practical purposes, even as a pilot uses astronomy, and a physician natural philosophy. Both of these bring their theoretical science to bear on the practice of their arts: a statesman should do the same with the science of politics, and make it subservient to the actual interests of philanthropy and patriotism. (Note II.)

In all states, good men desire glory and approbation, and shun disgrace and ignominy. Such men are less alarmed by the threats and penalties of the law, than by that sentiment of honour with which nature has endowed man, which is nothing else than an antipathy to all deserved censure. The wise director of a government strengthens this natural instinct by the force of public opinion, and perfects it by education and manners. And thus the citizens are preserved from vice and corruption, rather by honour and modesty than by fear of punishment. But this argument will be better illustrated when we treat of the love of glory and praise, which we shall discuss on another occasion.


As respects the private life and the manners of the citizens, they are intimately connected with the laws that constitute just marriages and legitimate progenies, under the protection of the guardian deities, around the domestic hearths. By these laws, all men should be maintained in their rights of public and private property. It is only under a good government like this, that men can live happily—for nothing can be more delightful than a well–constituted state.

Fortitude is that virtue which comprizes magnanimity, and the contempt of pain and death.