The Marquis de Condorcet’s Progressive Technique




The Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) was the youngest and only philosophe of note who played a major role in the French Revolution. He was already a celebrated mathematician when he took up politics and became a member of Voltaire’s Enlightenment clique. Opposed to the sentimental approach of Rousseau to human nature, Condorcet employed mathematical language, extending differential calculus and the theory of probability to moral and social behavior, employing statistical methodology to analyze sociological phenomena.

Condorcet is best known for pioneering perhaps the first modern theory of progress. The social scientist presumes that human behavior like the rest of nature is subject to certain laws which he might discover through the careful observation of phenomena and reflections thereupon, leading to the formulation of hypotheses for experimentation.

Human evil, he believed, was largely due to the miscalculation of human interest. In sum: evil outcomes are due to errors in judgment. Humans are natural-born gamblers: they instinctively weigh the chance of one result against another. To obtain better results, a scientific method is needed to eliminate error; to wit: the social calculus of probability.

The application of mathematics and political arithmetic to social science provides us with a quantitative degree of certainty about what outcomes will obtain when conditions are manipulated. Presumably social scientists conduct their studies for the benefit of society, that society may improve or progress. Condorcet is best known for pioneering perhaps the first modern theory of progress.

So the social scientist presumes that human behavior like the rest of nature is subject to certain laws which he might discover through the careful observation of phenomena and reflections thereupon, leading to the formulation of hypotheses for experimentation.

Nature including humankind is undoubtedly subject to laws, but human beings, endowed with the power of reasoning, have the ability to modify the application of natural laws to their personal and mutual advantage. The ability to reason is natural, therefore so is progress. Reasoning may be employed to ascertain logical means to measurable progress. For instance, probability theory employs symbolic logic to determine what course of action is most likely to succeed. Hence progress in is augmented by a precise language grounded in facts of sense.

It follows that human progress is entirely up to us, that it is not dependent on the miraculous intervention of transcendental forces beyond our apprehension and comprehension. Therefore Condorcet was “anti-Christian” as Christianity was then conceived. He was raised by Jesuits, who apparently had a knack, at least when confronted with rebellious young minds, for cultivating brilliant “atheists,” especially in France.

Human beings, he asserted, progress from conditions of brute enslavement, including enslavement to their own passions, towards mastery over those conditions. Mastery is achieved by the removal of certain obstacles to the ultimate perfectibility of humankind, such as elitism, tyranny, popular prejudice, ignorance. The impediments to progress can be removed from the progressive highway by scientific and technological advances, and political revolution.

The goal of progress is freedom, but absolute freedom from restraints, absolute power, is impossible, not to be had except in Chaos. Relative freedom, on the other hand, is possible, and is always from an evil towards a good. The perfectibility of man, however, which is indefinite, is by no means assured. National and class inequalities may be eventually reduced, and the lot of individuals improved via the historical movement is towards equality; not absolute, totalitarian equality, but the equality of rights, the equality of freedom without regard to race, color, creed or sex (Condorcet was an advanced feminist).

Wherefore Condorcet advocated freedom in order; freedom under law; freedom legally constituted with a constitution, preferably that of a liberal democracy.

He was enthusiastic about the outbreak of the Revolution, but he did not conceive of Reason as a raving lunatic or murderous fanatic. His independent adherence to reason instead of the bloodthirsty mob would cost him his life.

Condorcet had considerable influence in England. For instance, his thinking had an impact on an eccentric inventor and English radical by the name of Charles Stanhope (Lord Mahon). Stanhope, the son of a mathematician, was like his father in important respects. Joseph Priestley, a man very much admired by Condorcet, dedicated his third volume of ‘Experiments on Air’ to Charles Stanhope’s father.

Condorcet also admired Stanhope’s associate, Richard Price, an important adviser to the fledgling United States of America. Price pioneered actuarial methodology for mutual aid societies, devising sinking fund schemes to fund social security and reduce the national debt.

Practically all radicals worth their roots were enthusiastic about social mathematics and political arithmetic. That is not to say they were cold-hearted, calculating, mean-minded men. An emphasis on reason may be compensation for underlying passion. Condorcet, despite his romantic temperament, was wrongly depicted as an arid, heartless man.

Condorcet lost his life attempting to thwart the Jacobin movement. He had been “proscribed” by the Jacobins, meaning that he was to be decapitated, so he went into hiding. He eventually disguised himself and left the house he was hiding in because he feared for the safety of the painter’s widow who had insisted on harboring him there despite his protests. After wandering about for three days with a tattered copy of Horace, he walked into a tavern where he was pointed out and arrested.

On the day of his imprisonment, while awaiting the guillotine, he died, some say by self-administered poison he allegedly kept hidden in his ring. Suicide would have been a fitting end, for he always said that even there are laws regulating the universe, man has the natural power to modify their application for his own benefit, and that is the very nature of his freedom.

Condorcet circumspectly warned his daughter against unregulated passion shortly before he died, highly recommending reason as passion’s proper guide. And he wrote his incredibly optimistic essay on the history of progress under the shadow of the guillotine.

No doubt he had his doubts in dire circumstances, but he still enjoyed a degree of certainty he called “hope,” hope not for his own fate but for man’s movement into the next epoch along the long road of indefinite perfectibility. He eschewed the opposite, pessimistic perspective on probability that considers the long-term disadvantage, that the house always wins in the long run, because if something can go wrong it eventually will.

No, the Marquis de Condorcet was certainly not a cold-blooded, heartless being. He was an enthusiastically human being.

On Common Informers Good and Evil


“I confess, it is my nature’s plague, To spy into abuses; and oft my jealousy Shapes faults that are not.” – Othello




A wise man may live well, and a government that knows all may govern for the common good. The good citizen not only obeys the laws, he bears witness against law breakers. He is a common informer. If everyone, although not personally aggrieved, had the duty and material incentives and standing in court to personally or by his private attorney denounce and prosecute, as a representative and common informer of the people, without resort to public prosecutors, anyone for any civil or penal violation of law that he has espied or become aware of, the proverbial war against incivilities and crimes including the malfeasances of government would be won. Or so it seems.

The good man has introjected the mores of his culture, concealing his resentment the best he can, hence he is self-governed even to the extent of punishing himself for real and imaginary infractions. Alas then that man by nature is inclined to break every law made by others and himself at one time or another, and sometimes almost all the time. So the individual is a natural born criminal. He is divided within, fundamentally set against the impositions of the forces that he must love and obey or else perish. There exists a struggle for survival where some live at the expense of others when individual life is god.

So the other side of the story is that man “is born in sin,” that is, with a will of his own, opposed as it is from time to time not only to the will of a few others around him, but to the common good. And the trouble with the common good on this planet is that Good wants definition by people who are inherently selfish and thus differ in their definitions; even majority rule falls short of the common good. If the will of a faction small or large is uniformly imposed on all, their version of the common good could constitute the worst state of affairs, either chaos at one extreme, or a totalitarian police state at the other.

Indeed, the notion that the ability of a “common informer” to prosecute others for violations of law in the stead of a public prosecutor guarantees the freedom of the people and ensures integrity in government has proven to be a very bad idea when there are few civil rights including due process of law, and the motive for complaining is revenge or greed for property and other forms of power. In any case, it is highly unlikely that the motivation of a common informer is altruistic, or that he acts for the sake of duty. We may concur with Kant that it is “absolutely impossible by experience to discern with complete certainty a single case” of anyone acting solely for the sake of duty, and that a “cool observer is bound to be doubtful sometimes whether true virtue can really be found anywhere in the world.”

Today we have whistleblowers in the United States who are rewarded for prosecuting persons for making false claims on the government or who otherwise cheat the treasury. The public prosecutor may or may not step in after the informer complains; if he does, the prize will more likely be won. The whistleblower may recover his costs if he must prosecute a case himself, and the reward may be substantial, running into millions of dollars in some cases. Whistleblowers are naturally despised by the persons exposed. Everyone has something to hide, so he tends to hate “rats,” but he also cannot help admiring one who brings down the rich and powerful, and he envies one whose reward is substantial.

The federal and local whistleblower acts are a vestige of English law derived from Roman law. There was no official public prosecutor such as an attorney-general available in ancient Rome. Citizens, foreigners, and even slaves could originate libels or suits against prominent persons, currying favor with emperors and nobles, taking advantage of their resentments, jealousies, and rivalries, and in the process slaves won their freedom and other persons of low birth sometimes won great fortunes and high office for themselves. The most successful of these “common informers” were advocates i.e. lawyers. The whole lot of them, the paid informers, accusers, denunciators, witnesses and calumniators as well as those who served their mandating clients as advocates in the court of justice and the senate, were impugned as “delators,” meaning tattlers.

The most infamous form of delation endured nearly a century during the Roman Empire, reaching its height during the imperium of Tiberius Caesar. The practice had begun with laying the name (nomen deferre) of someone who owed property or taxes to the treasury before a magistrate. These fiscal delators, who received a portion of the value collected, as do whistleblowers today, were part of the state machinery. The category of offenses was extended to include celibacy, adultery, defamation, collusion (prevarication), perjury, tergiversation (bribery or intimidation to drop cases instead of resorting to a formal abolition), perjury, and treason.

The delator received roughly a fourth of the penalty, which could included the entire estate of a wealthy person exiled or executed, and the treasury got the rest. The reward could include high office. The denounced person, to salvage whatever he could, might denounce himself for the delator’s portion of the reward. If his life was at risk, suicide would save his estate against the judgment; the delator would still get his reward but it would come from the treasury. Political cases were tried before the senate.

Eventually a charge of treason was added to every offense charged against prominent persons since every crime is in a sense against the state or the emperor, the incarnation of the people. Nowadays we distinguish political crimes from civil crimes. But all crimes are political inasmuch as they are crimes against the state to be prosecuted by someone on behalf of the state and not by particular victims. Happily, that advance in procedure, based on the notion that a realm belongs to its sovereign and all crimes committed therein are therefore offenses against him, supplanted feuding, where everyone was a law unto himself except when on royal grounds and highways. In any case, it served delators, the emperor, and the treasury well to make the emperor an offended party to every kind of complaint no matter how remote the offense was from political business.

Delators always found plenty of muck to rake given the corruption of their day. Of course some sort of documentation was required to support a charge, yet clever sophists could create muck out of thin air if none were found. If their case failed, however, the delator and his mandator or sponsor would have to suffer the penalty they wanted for the accused.

Commoners were not the only informers. Even senators stooped to betray their colleagues and best friends and family members for the rewards. So it is no wonder that delation fell into disrepute. The muckraking delator had a status lower than the garbage collector.

The infamous practice waned by the time of Tacitus, the historian credited with rendering Tiberius so infamous by emphasizing the evils in his contradictory anecdotal gossip in his Annals. Tacitus was himself a muckraker or sort of common informer, laying the evils of the times on Tiberius, who reportedly attempted to follow in the steps of Augustus, his august predecessor, who had made use of common informers. Tiberius lacked the charisma and passion of Augustus. He took occasional steps to curb delation, perhaps with ulterior motives, and instituted other reforms. At least one academic, the Reverend John Rendle, MA, has pointed out the contradictions in Tacitus’ account, painting Tiberius as a great emperor, with a few qualifications of course, at book length in The History of That Inimitable Monarch Tiberius (1811). In sum, the Reverend agreed with “seven contemporary and other writers” that:

Tiberius was very studious of every liberal and useful science; the friend of none but virtuous and learned men as long as he lived; most cordially beloved by all his officers and men when commander and chief; the sole supporter of the Roman super-eminence during the Pannonian and German wars; by the senate made equal in power to Augustus five years before he became a Monarch; a detester of flattery and all pompous titles long after he was a monarch; the abhorrent opposer of his own deification in the tenth year of his monarchy; most eminent, exemplary, great, just and humane long after the disaster at Fidenae (collapse of the amphitheatre that killed or injured 20,000); an eater of human flesh and drinker of human blood after he was so very exemplary; the universal dispenser of the blessings of peace during most of his reign; permitted the worst of all civil wars to rage at Rome from the fourteenth to the nineteenth of his reign; overcome by the pressure of family affections during the first years of the same period; negligent of the gods, but attentive to some one god in the decline of life; a friend of Jews and the maintainer of Jewish rights always; a hearer of the law and a partial doer of it from the time he went to Rhodes; remarkably inquisitive about futurity sometime before he died; a believer in the divinity of Jesus Christ in the fourteenth year of his reign; the abolisher of al sanctuary protections after the Jews and preferred Barabbas to Jesus; the first prohibitor of immediate executions before the death of Sejanus; the nursing father of the infant Catholic Church during the last eight years of his reign; the protection of Jewish Christians as not blasphemers in the sixteenth year of his reign; of all kings or autocrats the most venerable when old; as some affirmed, prefigured by that of a phoenix; solemnized with due pomp and at the public expense as his funeral; and, lastly, who, at his death, followed Augustus to the residence of the gods.

Tacitus’ descriptions of the pestilent effects of delation rings true, however, reminding us of East Berlin under surveillance by the Stasi, the U.S.S.R secured by the KGB, and other totalitarian states that have been established throughout the world.

This was the most pestilent calamity of those times, that the first men of the senate performed the office of the meanest informers: some openly, many in secrecy; nor could you observe any distinction between kinsmen and aliens, friends and strangers,—whether the acts imputed were recent, or fetched from the obscurity of past times: equally for words spoken in the forum,—at entertainments,—upon whatsoever subject,—the speakers were accused, according as everyone hastened to get the start and point out the culprit : some did it for their own protection, but the generality infected, as it were, with the malady and contagion of the times….. At no time was the city in a state of deeper anxiety and alarm, never was there greater need of caution against a man’s nearest relatives; men were afraid to meet, afraid to discourse: silence and distrust extended alike to strangers and acquaintance, and both were equally avoided: even things dumb and inanimate, roofs and walls, were regarded with apprehension. Annals

An example related by Tacitus was the case of four informers who had all been praetors (elected magistrates) set up a trap to gather evidence against a Roman knight by the name of Titus Sabinus. They endeavored to get rid of him because he stood in the way of their aspirations to consulship, which could be obtained through the auspices of Lucius Aelieus Sejanus, the praetor prefect who practically ruled Rome during the moody absences of his best friend Tiberius, who would eventually become wary of a coup and have him imprisoned, strangled and tossed down the Gemonian stairs to rot. Sabinus’ offense was his friendship for Tiberius’s nephew, “Germanicus,” the agnomen given him after to his victories in Germany. Germanicus died of a mysterious disease, rumored to have been poisoned at the behest of Tiberius. The praetors Latinius Latiaris was enlisted to curry favor with Sabinus, attracting him into his home, where senators were hidden in the attic with their ears glued to “nooks and crannies.” Latiaris induced Sabinus to denounce Sejanus for his cruelty, pride, and terrible plots, and, in the process of doing so, Tiberius was uttered against as well. This information was dispatched in the form of a written memorial to Tiberius, who sent a letter a letter to the senate on the matter, then indicted Sabinus before the senate for treason in terms that required vengeance. The historical accounts of his death are contradictory; Tacitus claims that Sabinus was dragged out and immediately put to death.

Naturally paranoid megalomaniacal emperors representing themselves as the divine incarnation of the people could take offense at almost any offense reported by a common informer as treason, striking fear into the hearts of the people they supposedly represented that the slightest hint of disagreement or even a tear shed over the death of a relative who happened to be the emperor’s enemy might result in their own prosecution and demise. A modern historian sums up the ancient annals as follows:

“The law decreed that the informer should receive a quarter of the goods belonging to the condemned, but this sum was often exceeded when the victim was a person of importance. After the condemnation of Thrasea and Soranus the chief informers each received five million terces (one million francs), and by these means scandalously large fortunes were quickly acquired. Epriuss Marcellus and Vibius Crispus earned at this trade three hundred million sesterces (sixty million francs). The Emperor was not satisfied with repaying their services by money, he also lavished upon them all the State dignities. After each important case there was a distribution of praetorships and edileships. These ancient republican dignities served as a price for shameful compliance. Nothing, according to Tacitus, was a greater offence to honest people than to see the informers “displaying the sacerdotal offices and the consulate, as though they were spoils taken from the enemy.” At the end of Tiberius’ reign men only became consul when they had ruined one of Caesar’s enemies. And under Domitian it was the shortest road by which public dignities could be attained. In this way, towards the time of Tiberius, informers issued from all ranks of this corrupt society. Seneca tells us, “That on every side there was a mania for informing which emptied Rome more quickly than a civil war.”Nothing is richer in contrasts than the group of informers that Tacitus describes to us; every social rank and position are represented in it. By the side of this crowd of smaller people-slaves, freedmen, soldiers, schoolmasters–we also find the names of a few of the old nobility, a Dulabella, a Scaurus, and even a Cato. There were bold cynical informers, who prided themselves on defying public opinion, who made honest men blush and were proud of doing so, who boasted of their great deeds and claimed glory for them. There were informers belonging to the lower classes, who commenced by the vilest functions, and who having reached wealth and power always retained something of their origin, like Vatinius, whom Tacitus calls one of the monstrosities of Nero’s court. He was formerly a cobbler, and owed his fortune to the buffoonery of his mind and the deformities of his body. And lastly, there were elegant informers, who piqued themselves on their distinction and fine manners, and who gracefully asked for a man’s death. One day an informer of this class appeared before the Senate, dressed in the latest fashion, a smile upon his lips, he came to accuse his father. [Gaston Boissier “Etudes des Moeurs Romaines sous I’Empire,” in The History of Ancient Civilization, A Handbook Based Upon m. Gustave Ducoudray’s Histoire Sommaire de la Civilization, Ed. Rev. J, Verschoyle, New York, Appleton & Company 1889]

Common informers albeit always despised continued to pester the Empire after Tiberius from time to time. His successor Caligula (37-41), who would eventually be assassinated, declared an amnesty and halted the treason trials, thus getting rid of the informers except himself. Much maligned Nero (54-68), who famously committed suicide following a false report that he was about to be executed as a public enemy number one, reduced the rewards to common informers. Titus (79-81), an anti-Semite whom the Talmud reports died pleading with YHWH for mercy because a gnat flew up his nose and turned into a bird, persecuted the informers. His younger brother, totalitarian-minded Domition (81-96), who would be assassinated, encouraged them.

Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire recounts that Commodus (177-192), the son of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors, became suspicious that senators were conspiring to assassinate him. The senators hated the megalomaniacal Commodus, who considered himself to be a demigod, and celebrated himself as the new Hercules and Romulus, but the conspiracy that had him strangled in his bath by his wrestling partner, Narcissus, was actually formed by a prefect named Laetus; the Senate thereafter declared Commodus to be a public enemy. Common informers enjoyed a resurgence of delation due to his delusions of grandeur and persecution (paranoia).

The Delators, a race of men discouraged, and almost extinguished, under the former reigns, again became formidable as soon as they discovered that the emperor was desirous of finding disaffection and treason in the senate. That assembly, whom Marcus had ever considered as the great council of the nation, was composed of the most distinguished of the Romans; and distinction of every kind soon became criminal. The possession of wealth stimulated the diligence of the informers; rigid virtue implied a tacit censure of the irregularities of Commodus; important services implied a dangerous superiority of merit, and the friendship of the father always insured the aversion of the son. Suspicion was equivalent to proof; trial to condemnation. The execution of a considerable senator was attended with the death of all who might lament or revenge his fate; and when Commodus had once tasted human blood, he became incapable of pity of remorse.

Eventually offenses other than treason were prosecuted in the courts of justice by the aggrieved parties or their attorneys. Constantine (306-337), reputedly the first Christian emperor, punished them. Edward Gibbon’s research of ancient writers who freely exposed the faults of Constantine confessed that his predecessor Maxentius (306-312), who drowned in a river fleeing Constantine’s victorious army, was far worse than Constantine, that he was cruel, rapacious, and profligate, and that his suppression of a slight rebellion in Africa “was followed by the abuse of law and justice. A formidable army of sycophants and delators invaded Africa; the rich and the noble were easily convicted of a connection with the rebels; and those among them who experienced the emperor’s clemency were only punished by the confiscation of their estates.”

Theodosius (379-395), whose will divided a reunified empire between East and West at his death, made a nice distinction between common informers and persons willing to denounce pagans and heretics such as the Manicheans:

“In the mind of Theodosius Christianity and citizenship were coterminous and anyone who denied Christ automatically made himself an outlaw of the Christian Roman society. An even more sternly worded edict against the Manicheans was issued by Theodosius (31 March 382) in which the recipient, Florus, the praetorian prefect, was told to establish special courts for the trial of Manicheans and receive (anonymous) informers (indices) and denouncers (denunctiatores) without the odium of delation. It was a well-held principle of Roman Law that frivolous or baseless accusations put forward by anonymous indices should be discouraged and all accusation should be conducted by formal delation in which an unsuccessful delator was liable to an action for calumnia. Constantine laid down in a law of 313 a certain regulations concerning informers and threatened those who broke them with the death penalty and this was reaffirmed by a later law of 319.” (Samuel N.C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China (1992)]

Given human nature, vestiges of delation were destined to survive and bloom full after the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 when Romulus Augustulus was deposed by the Germanic King Odoacer (476 CE). Sidonius Apollinaris (430-489), prefect of Gaul, denounced them in a letter: “They are the wretches, as you yourself have heard me say upon the spot, whom Gaul endures with groans these many years, and who make the barbarians themselves seem merciful in comparison. They are the scoundrels whom even the formidable fear. They are the men whose peculiar province it seems to be to calumniate, to denounce, to intimidate and to plunder.”

Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565) had the ancient Roman laws compiled, using as primary source the Institutes of Roman Law (160 AD) composed by the celebrated Roman jurist Gaius. Delation was described therein as a popular action brought by an informer for a reward, where the informer enforces a public right, suing as a procurator for the people. Infamous or ignominious persons such as prostitutes, pimps, gladiators, dancers, alien homosexuals and others defamed by a censor or praetor were not allowed to serve in that capacity. Criminals, however, were naturally encouraged to inform on others.

Justinian’s Code, a unit within his Corpus Juris Civilis along with the Digest and Institutes, clearly prohibits delation unless the “detestable” or “execrable” delator is a fiscal informer who benefits the state treasury. Informers who protect the property interests of cities, however, shall not be considered odious. Slaves who inform on their masters shall be executed even if their accusations are true.

“Neither a servant nor freeman shall be permitted to be an informer and no one need fear death or loss of property from that source. And if anyone informs against another that he has found a treasure or for some other reason, he shall, if he be a slave, be at once delivered to a death by fire, especially if he should inform against his master; if he be free, his goods shall be confiscated, he shall lose his citizenship and shall be banished from the soil of the Roman Empire.”

If an informer is “proven to be a malicious accuser, or if he desists from the accusation and hides, he shall, if he disdains a pecuniary punishment on account of the smallness of his property, be subjected to lashes and to perpetual banishment; but if he belongs to the imperial service or has an honorable position of possesses ample property, he shall lose both his position and property, and will be forbidden to reside in the imperial city or in the province.”

The Turkish Ottomans brought the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the East to an end with a 53-day siege culminating with the fall of its capital, Constantinople, to an army led by a 21-year old sultan in 1453, a grievous blow as well to Christendom in the East. By then common informers had by no means vanished from the face of the Earth. Delation persisted in Europe where Romans had established themselves, thriving, for example, for centuries in Britain. The English would put so-called common informers to use whether they could personally prosecute a case or not. For example, Catholicism was harassed by them by virtue or vice of the 1699 “Act for further preventing the growth of Popery (11 & 12 Gul. III, 4) offer a reward to common informers of a 100-pound reward for the apprehension of priests.

The libels or writs of common informers who could prosecute cases themselves in England were called as a qui tam (“who as well”) writs, from qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur, “he who sues in this matter for the king as well as himself.” More specifically, a qui tam was an action under a statute which imposes a penalty for the doing or not doing an act, and gives that penalty in part to whosoever will sue for the same, and the other part to the commonwealth, or some charitable, literary, or other institution, and makes it recoverable by action. The plaintiff describes himself as suing as well for the commonwealth for example, as for himself.

In the thirteenth century, prior to the inclusion of qui tam in statutes, qui tam was a means of bringing a suit rather than a peculiar form of action, so a non-statutory qui tam plaintiff filed his suit in an ordinary general writ as if he were suing to recover for an ordinary wrong. There were two types of non-statutory qui tam, then, that allowed private plaintiffs to file complaints in the emerging royal courts: one served the interests of parties who had actually suffered a wrong; the other included the interests of the common informer in their bounties. Eventually, in the fourteenth century, the jurisdiction of the royal courts was extended to the hearing of complaints from the aggrieved parties themselves without the qui tam means, leaving qui tam as the tool of common informers.

A qui tam action has rarely if ever been used in England since the Common Informers Act of 1951 abolished the provision of rewards to private citizens for bring suits on behalf of the state. Qui tam is, however, alive and well in the United States in so-called whistleblower acts; e.g. the federal False Claims Act where a “relator,” someone who relates information to obtain a specific reward, can step in and file a writ against someone defrauding or cheating the government.

Edward Coke (1552-1634), who served Britain variously as Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Attorney General and Solicitor General for England and Wales, took common informers to task in his Institutes of English Law: Third Part Concerning High Treason, And Other Pleas of the Crown, and Criminal Causes (1798) Capitulo 88, “Against Vexatious Relators, Informers, Promoters upon Penal Statutes.” The foregoing persons he labeled in Latin “turbidum hominem genus” i.e., men who stir up trouble i.e. muckrakers. He attributed a “multiplication of suits in law” in part to “the swarm of informers” and a “multitude of attorneys.”

“Informers and relators,” he wrote, “raised many suits, by informations, writs, &c. in the King’s Courts as Westminster upon penal statutes, many whereof were obsolete, inconvenient, and not fit for those days, and yet remain snares upon the subject…. Lastly, the multitude of attorneys, more than is limited by law, is a great cause of increase in suits.”

Informers, he claimed, are “viperous vermin, which endeavored to have eaten out the sides of the church and the commonwealth.” So laws were made in the 18th and 28th and 31st year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign including corporal punishment to rein in common informers, but another law to the same end is required because there people are still causing a great deal of grief to the Queen’s subjects. He explained that many obsolete penal laws remain on the books as snares which relators, informers and promoters used to vex and entangle subjects. For example: statutes regulating the price of poultry, the transportation of corn, the price of hats, caps, candles. broadcloth, concerning vagabonds, unlawful games, and alehouses, the sale of wine, decay of houses, buying of wool, keeping of great horses, manufacture of locks, rings and crosses, the sale of colored cloth, and so on. The king’s courts in Westminster are being clogged with suits brought by common informers from counties everywhere so that Westminster is likely to suffer from apoplexy. To make matters worse, an informer in one county can at his pleasure bring suit against an alleged infraction in other counties where parties and witnesses are unknown.

Therefore the “Act for the Ease of the Subject concerning the Informations upon Penal Statutes,” in short, “the Common Informers Act of 1623,” (21 Jac. 1, c. 4), specifies “That all offences hereafter to be committed against any penal statute, for which any common informer or promoter may lawfully ground any popular action, bill, plaint, suit or information, &c. shall be commenced, sued, prosecuted, &c. in the counties where the offenses were committed, and not elsewhere.”

The foregoing was apparently insufficient, as we can see from “The Common Informer,” an article by dramatist (“the little Shakespeare”) and journalist Douglas William Jerrold (1803-1857), published in London in 1840 by Vizetelly & Co. in the book entitled, Heads of the People, Portraits of the English.

We all know that many people love to complain about trivial breaches of conduct. They will complain all the more given a reward for complaining, no matter how small. “It is but a few days since,” indited Jerrold, “that a celebrated Informer laid an information against the servants of our maiden queen for having failed to emblazon her initials on the vehicle, and thereby having exposed their gracious mistress to the fatal visitation of a fine. But queens are seldom caught tripping; and, by some means, we are happy to state that Her Majesty escaped the stern sense of justice animating the bosom of the Informer, though we have felt it due to him to chronicle the circumstance, as displaying the virtuous boldness of his character.”

He observed that “The Common Informer so generally confines himself to the healthful castigation of the poor, that he is assuredly an Informer very far from the common who has the moral courage to make known the peccadillo of a queen.” That was certainly not the case in Rome of yore, where vast fortunes were made by delators.

What does a common informer look like? According to Jerrold:

“The Common Informer combines in his visage the offensive acuteness of a sharp-practicing attorney, with the restlessness of an illegal pickpocket: we have seen a Common Informer with a face that reminded us of a shaven ferret. We have read what we think may be adduced as good reason for this. Babies feeding at the breast, and gazing up at the face of the parent, are said to become endowed with a resemblance of the mother: the Common Informer, with his eyes constantly fixed on the flaws and crookednesses of the statutes, and feeding upon them, contracts in his features an habitual sharpness and wary meanness of expression, a sort of hungry half-sagacity, illustrative of his beloved studies. The Common Informer is, in fact, the child, the lawful offspring of the silly, the bungling, and the bigoted legislator: hence, the Most Noble the Marquis of —– may, and know it not, be the legislative father of a Johnson and a Byers. If Common Informers have a patron saint, sure we are it must be Saint Stephen.”

“But, it shall be opposed, the Common Informer may be an injured goodness, a real benevolence under a cloud of odium; inasmuch as his labors, suspected and despised as they always are, may, in many instances, enforce the working out of legislative wisdom, and thus ensure to society the blessings of parliamentary philanthropy. All praise to the Common Informer when such is his design! He is then, indeed, a moral presence,–a philosophic goodness toiling under a bad name. Great, indeed, is his character; noble his purpose, contemplated by this light: and yet, unhappily, we cannot call to our recollection the names of any illustrious Informers who, with valuable eccentricity, have worked for the public good in the abstract, where half the imposed fine did not revert to themselves in the concrete….. Bentham has declared the functions of the Common Informer to be most honorable: in truth, Cato, with his sour face and bare feet, might have plied the trade, gaining a civic wreath for the energy and utility of his practice….”

Indeed, the benevolent side of the story had been well elucidated by the inestimable jurist and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and is well worth quoting at length. He rationalized, under the title, “Rationale of Reward,” the provision of bounties to informers:

In this country where, properly speaking, there is no public prosecutor, many offences, which no individual has any peculiar interest in prosecuting, are liable to remain unpunished. In the way of remedy, the law offers from £10 to £20, to be levied upon the goods of the offender, to whoever will successfully undertake this function: sometimes it is added, that the expenses will be repaid in case of conviction: sometimes this is not promised. These expenses may amount to thirty, fifty, and even one hundred pounds; it is seldom as little as twenty pounds. After this, can we be surprised that the laws are imperfectly obeyed?

It may be added, that it is considered dishonorable to attend to this summons of the laws. An individual, who in this manner endeavors to serve his country, is called an informer; and lest public opinion should not be sufficient to brand him with infamy, the servants of the law, and even the laws themselves, have on some occasions endeavoured to fix the stain. The number of private prosecutors would be much more numerous, if, instead of the insidious offer of a reward, an indemnification were substituted. The dishonorable offer being suppressed, the dishonor itself would cease.

And who can say, when by such an arrangement the circumstance which offends it is removed, whether honor itself may not be pressed into the service of the laws? …. In vain did the Roman emperors bestow honors upon the most odious informers; they degraded the honors, but the informers were not the less infamous. But it is not enough that it does not oppose the prejudices: it is desirable that every reward should obtain the approbation of the public. The execution of a law cannot be enforced unless the violation of it be denounced; the assistance of the informer is therefore altogether as necessary and as meritorious as that of the judge.

It is odious (it is said) to profit by the evil we have caused to others. This objection is found on a feeling of improper commiseration for the offender; since pity towards the guilty is cruelty towards the innocent. The reward paid to the informer has for its object, the service he has performed; in this respect, he is upon a level with the judge who is paid passing sentence. The informer is a servant of the government, employed in opposing the internal enemies of the state, as the soldier is a servant employed in opposing its external foes. It introduces into society a system of espionage. To the word espionage, a stigma is attached let us substitute the word inspection, which is unconnected with the same prejudices. Pecuniary may induce false to conspire against the government. If we suppose a public and well-organized system of procedure in which the innocent are not deprived of any means of defense, the danger resulting from conspiracy will appear but small.

These objections are urged in justification of the prejudice which exists; but the prejudice itself has been produced by other causes; and those causes are specious. The first, with respect to the educated classes of society, is a prejudice drawn from history, especially from that of the Roman emperors. The word informer at once recalls to the mind those detestable miscreants, the horror of all ages, whom even the pencil of Tacitus has failed to cover with all the ignominy they deserve: but these informers were not the executors of the law; they were the executors of the personal and lawless vengeance of the sovereign.

These cases of tyranny excepted, the prejudice which condemns mercenary informers is an evil. It is a consequence of the inattention of the public to their true interests, and of the general ignorance in matters of legislation. Instead of acting in consonance with the dictates of the principle of utility, people in general have blindly abandoned themselves to the guidance of sympathy and antipathy — of sympathy in favour of those who injure — of antipathy to those who render them essential service. If an informer deserves to be hated, a judge deserves to be abhorred.

The prejudice also springs from a confusion of ideas. No distinction is made between the judicial and the private informer; between the man who denounces a crime in a court of justice, and he who secretly insinuates accusations against his enemies; between the man who affords to the accused an opportunity of defending himself, and he who imposes the condition of silence with respect to his perfidious reports. Clandestine accusations are justly considered as the bane of society: they destroy confidence, and produce irremediable evils; but they have nothing in common with judicial accusations.

Besides the prodigious difficulty of inventing a coherent tale capable of enduring a rigorous examination, there is no comparison between the reward offered by the law, and the risk to which false witnesses are exposed. Mercenary witnesses also are exactly those who excite the greatest distrust in the mind of a judge, and if they are the only witnesses, a suspicion of conspiracy instantly presents itself, and becomes a protection to the accused.

Three years prior to the publication of Jerrold’s article in the mother country, we find this report, entitled “Report On The Abolition of Capital Punishment” (Paper No. 4, 1837, issued by the Massachusetts House of Representatives Committee on Capital Punishment:

Whereas Revenge is an Unholy Passion and the Law must be Wholly Passionless: There may have been many cases where government found it expedient to employ revenge, as well as other bad passions, to execute its decrees: such a necessity is to be regretted, and the practice abandoned as soon as the necessity ceases. Encouraging common informers was an expedient of this sort, very common in our own laws, but it has been wisely stricken out in almost every instance from the Revised Statutes.” Fixing a price upon the head of a refugee was once thought just and useful, but is now condemned. Promising pardon to an accomplice, to induce him to testify against his fellow criminal, is a use now made of the treachery which is despised while it is used. In a state of nature, every man revenges to the utmost of his power the injury that he has received: retaliation is the only rule of punishment. In a rude state of society these practices are suffered to continue, because they cannot be prevented. The law only undertakes to restrict them within certain limits, and to forbid their most cruel excesses. The legislator, who should enact laws which presuppose a more elevated standard of morality, would find that public opinion did not sustain him, and that his statutes would remain inoperative and useless. It has been observed, that among a people hardly yet emerged from barbarity, punishments should be most severe, as strong impressions are required; but in proportion as the minds of men become softened by their intercourse in society, the severity should be diminished, if it be intended that the necessary relation between the infliction and its object should be maintained. For this reason, the indulgence of individual revenge is much less an evil, while society is obliged to tolerate it, than it would be in a later stage, when it might be, and ought to be suppressed.

Bentham’s suasions held for a century and a half in Britain, but in 1951 fell to an ‘Act to abolish the common informer procedure’ (14 & 15 Geo. 6, c. 39):

“No proceedings for a penalty or forfeiture under any Act in the Schedule to this Act or under any local and private Act shall be instituted in Great Britain against any person after the commencement of this Act. Provided that no part of the penalty or forfeiture is payable to a common informer….”

British lawmakers have since regretted the abolition of rewards to common informers. The practice is alive and well in the United States. On the federal level, the False Claims Act, called the Lincoln Law, was legislated in 1863, subsequently amended, to curb frauds on the government by punishing crooked contractors. To wit, 31 U.S.C. § 3729 et seq., provides for liability for triple damages and a penalty from $5,500 to $11,000 per claim for anyone who knowingly submits or causes the submission of a false or fraudulent claim to the United States. A qui tam provision allows common informers i.e. whistleblowers to sue on behalf of the government and collect from 10 to 30% of the amount recovered. The federal government recovered an estimated $60 billion under the Act since 1987, of which over two-thirds was derived from qui tam actions brought by relators. States and other jurisdictions have similar statutes on the books that allow informants to collect finders’ fees. The rewards may be large. Whistleblowers, who are likely to be fired if they work for the organizations that makes the false claim, may retain law firms to have them reinstated with double back pay and to pursue the case if the government declines to intervene. The chances of recovery are much higher if the government does intervene, accounting for over 95% of recoveries as of 2015.

False claim acts do not include tax fraud. The federal and state governments otherwise pay bounties on amounts recovered from tax fraud to informants who make formal claims with governments when submitting information. Those non-qui-tam informants may not bring the suit for recovery themselves.

As we have seen, the evils of delation are believed to due to pecuniary and other material rewards made available to greedy common informers. On the other hand, greed, if that is what we must call the passion, and protection from retaliation, has results superior to other base motives such as pride, envy, wrath, malice and such. So-called qui tam actions where delators, now called relators, have a right to prosecute as private persons on behalf of government may indeed provide a better incentive for insiders to out wrongdoers than a conscious will to do their ethical duty for the public. Most whistleblowers are insiders simply because they have access inside information. Employers who treat their employees very well are unlikely to be outed by them. And the very high rate of recovery obtained when government intervenes in qui tam filings indicates that the imagination or malicious motives of common informants lead them to file frivolous or false informations.

The good citizen is expected to altruistic or to be good from a sense of duty to the common good and not from selfish reasons. But we cannot be absolutely certain in any case that an actor is self-interested. Why should he be, when the egoistic or “Dear Self” (Kant) is essential to the survival and progress of the human race?

We all have some complaints in common and are all informers to the degree we voice them. The question is, what sort of informers are we, and to what extent? We may reflect on history as if in a mirror and beg askance of our motives for answers.

No doubt the common informer is as good and evil as any other man or single god for that matter. Therefore it behooves government to make the best of him.


When Truth is Defamatory






“Defamation” generally means using words to hurt the fame of a person (de bona fama aliquid detrahere: “to hurt his good fame.”) A person’s fame is his common or widespread reputation.

Spoken words may be easily forgotten, whereas writings may be preserved and referred to indefinitely. Defamatory words when spoken are slanderous, and, when written, libelous, although that legal distinction has been rendered obsolete in jurisdictions such as Australia. Indeed, the legal definition of defamation varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Presently, in the United States, the scandalous words must be false, or, if true, must have false implications. So it is said that the perfect defense against a defamation suit is truth. Elsewhere, depending on time and place, hailing back even to ancient Rome, statements injurious to reputation may be either true or false. That is, true statements can be defamatory, sometimes with the exception that they are allowed if justified as necessary to protect the public.

Some persons are more famous than others. The public order may depend on the good reputation or majesty of its leaders, especially when the leader happens to be a virtual god, say, a Roman emperor, or a king, say, of England, who rules by divine right, notwithstanding that any singular god is apparently both good and evil despite theodical caviling that attempts to explain how a presumably absolutely good and omnipotent god can countenance evil.

To publish a detraction of a majestic sovereign who claims to be the supreme or divine representative of the people would be a seditious libel whether its propositions were true or false, providing that the sovereign powers deemed it threatening to the peace of the state.

Some sovereigns have thinner skins than others, especially when envious nobles i.e. “known” or famous persons including “equals” are vying against one another and their ruler for fortune and power. Today, where the people are sovereign, seditious libel involves the publication of words designed to incite the violent overthrow of government.

Tiberius Claudius Nero, the emperor who ruled the Roman Empire as a virtual dictator from 14 AD to 37 AD, allowed that almost any offense against the law was an offense against his majesty and therefore treasonous. That allowed common informers known as “delators” to aid and abet rivalries and thus obtain wealth and titles by accusing or informing on people against whom they or advocates would bring action in the Senate, ostensibly presided over by the emperor. Tacitus relates (or delates) in his Annals that:

If anyone impaired the majesty of the Roman people by betraying an army, by exciting sedition among the commons, in short, by any maladministration of the public affairs, the actions were matter of trial, but words were free. Augustus was the first who used to take cognizance of libels under pretence of this law, incensed by the insolence of Cassius Severus, which had prompted him to asperse distinguished persons of both sexes by coarse lampoons. Soon after, Tiberius, when Pompeius Macer, the praetor, consulted him ‘whether trials should be had under this law’ answered,’ said ‘that the laws must be executed.’ He also was exasperated by the publication of satirical verses written by unknown authors, exposing his cruelty, his pride, and dissensions with his mother.

Of course experienced advocates or lawyers were more likely to be successful in taking a denunciation to trial, and senators disgraced themselves by acting as delators, exposing even one another and their own families to depredation, banishment, and death.

This was the most pestilent calamity of those times, that the first men of the senate performed the office of the meanest informers: some openly, many in secrecy; nor could you observe any distinction between kinsmen and aliens, friends and strangers,—whether the acts imputed were recent, or fetched from the obscurity of past times : equally for words spoken in the forum,—at entertainments,—upon whatsoever subject,—the speakers were accused, according as everyone hastened to get the start and point out the culprit : some did it for their own protection, but the generality infected, as it were, with the malady and contagion of the times. (ibid)

A prominent, reputable person and his family might be defamed and ruined by a charge that would be considered trivial today, such as consulting with an astrologist or palm reader for advice as to what a judge will decide in a pending case. They were banished or executed and their estates confiscated. Suicide prior to judgment was for a time a way to save family and fortune. Tacitus tells us of a case brought under the imperium of Nero:

A charge of recent date involved the daughter in her father’s (Soranus) peril: it was, “that she had distributed sums of money among the magi.” Such was the fact, it must be admitted; but it arose from the filial piety of Servilia, for that was her name, who out of affection for her parent, and with the simplicity natural to so young a creature, had merely consulted them “on the safety of the family: whether Nero would be disposed to mercy, and whether the investigation before the senate would issue in anything of a formidable nature”…. The accuser then questioned her, “whether she had not sold her bridal ornaments, and even the chain off her neck, to raise money for the performance of magic rites?” At first she fell prostrate upon the floor, and continued for a long time bathed in tears and speechless; afterwards, embracing the altar and its appendages, she said, ” I have prayed to no malignant deities: I have used no spells: nor did I seek aught by my unhappy prayers than that you, Caesar, and you, fathers, would preserve this best of fathers unharmed. With this view I gave up my jewels, my raiment, and the ornaments belonging to my station; as I would have given up my blood and life, had they required them. To those men, till then unknown to me, it belongs to declare whose ministers they are, and what mysteries they use; the prince’s name was never uttered by me except among the gods. Yet to all this proceeding of mine, whatever it were, my most unhappy father is a stranger; and if it is a crime, I alone am the delinquent.” …. Thrasea, Soranus, and Servilia were indulged with the choice of their mode of death…. (ibid)

The reader should keep in mind when reading Tacitus that he tended to repeat what amounted to gossip, that his accounts of Tiberius were frequently contradictory and at variance with other historical narratives. The reader may consult The History of that Inimitable Monarch Tiberius (1811) by Reverend John Rendle for a scholarly exposé of Tacitus’ history and the elevation of Caesar Tiberius into virtual sainthood. Of one thing we can be sure, the empire was pestered and plagued by common informers.

Anyone who reads the law at length today might notice that the law especially case law or casuistry is irrational, and he might therefore resort to an astrologer for advice on cases. Americans prefer their laws in writing, but then lawyers i.e. licensed delators plead cases for fees, judges interpret it for salaries. The adjudications add to the vagaries of the “unwritten” or common law, which they all are wont to say is perfectly reasonable, protecting a profession that virtually rules every walk of life.

The more sophisticated Roman delators developed some rather absurd but winning arguments at trial to prove their cases. One interesting plea, a charge of defamation, is related by Tacitus, who as a historian is a sort of common informer or denunciator since his every writing constitutes an indictment of the ruling elite of the age. He certainly was interested in defaming emperors, who were creatures of their time and culture, some of which seems to persist to this day as the Cosa Nostra or what is popularly called the Mafioso.

Here is the legal tactic: Good can be found without evil in every man and the gods he projects. When prosecuting someone for slander, testify that he pronounced all the known faults of a person, not mentioning the virtues. People who know the person will believe those things were said about him because they are true.

Granius Marcellus, praetor of Bithynia, was prosecuted for high treason by his own quaestor, Cepio Crispinus; Romanus Hispo supporting the charge. This Cepio began a species of avocation, which through the miserable times and the daring wickedness of men afterwards became very common and notorious; for, at first needy and obscure but of a restless spirit, by creeping into the good graces of the prince, who was naturally cruel, by secret informations, and thus imperiling the life of all the most distinguished citizens, he acquired influence with one, but the hatred of all, and thus exhibited an example, by following which men from being poor became rich, from being contemptible became formidable. and, after bringing destruction on others, would perish by their own arts. He accused Marcellus of “holding defamatory discourses concerning Tiberius,” a charge which it was impossible to repel, when the accuser collected all the most detestable parts of the prince’s character, and framed his accusation with reference to them; for because they were true they were believed to have been spoken. To this Hispo added,” that the statue of Marcellus was by him placed higher than those of the Caesars, and that having cut off the head of an Augustus, he had in the room of it set the head of a Tiberius.” At this (Tiberius) flew into such a rage, that breaking silence he cried out, that “he would himself, in this cause, give his vote openly, and upon oath,” that the rest might be under the necessity of doing the same. There remained even then some faint traces of expiring liberty. Hence Cneius Piso asked him, “In what place, Caesar, will you give your opinion? If first, I shall have your example to follow; if last, I fear I may unwittingly dissent from you.” Deeply affected by these words, and by how much the more indiscreetly he had let his passion boil over, by so much the more submissive now from regret that he should have committed himself, he suffered the accused to be acquitted of high treason. (ibid)

So Tiberius shamed himself, and the truth set Marcellus free. But that did not have to occur. If the sovereign had not acted so shamefully as a person at the trial, Marcellus might have been convicted of insulting the sovereignty itself, strangled and hurled down the infamous steps to rot; and likewise anyone who begged askance or who loved him enough to shed tears. By the way, the other charge, that of peculation, was referred to a court of justice with jurisdiction.


Why We Write

by Darwin Leon – stolen painting
Jean-Paul Sartre was looking for himself in The Family Idiot. His theme is that Gustave Flaubert, the so-called realist, had turned his imagination to the wrong end, to “Nothing” instead of “Existence” as the ground of “Being.” He opined that Flaubert, not wanting to engage in the existential struggle one way or the other, chose to merely criticize it; that is, he was a pacifist or coward instead of an activist like him.
Sartre diagnosed his dead patient as “pithiatic,” a neurotic disorder named after the hysterical antics of drugged Cretan nuns called Pythias used as oracles at Delphi in ancient times. Their shrieks were interpreted by Apollo’s priests into answers to questions put to them by leading figures concerned for their futures. Greek states banked their treasures at Delphi, and were wont to bankrupt the politico-religious center when funds were wanted for war.
Shall I win a war I want to wage? I might bribe a priest for a favorable answer. The wily priest would render the Pythia’s rant into an insipid, ambiguous poem, favorable to me or not depending on one’s prejudice, therefore my campaign is divinely sanctioned, and the oracle has an out in case I lose.  
It is meet to recall that Sartre’s feminist “pythia,” Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote the fascinating book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, declared that it was impossible to find an ethical system in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. In The Second Sex, while discussing the “myth of the family,” she declares that “a woman’s body—and specifically the girl’s—is a ‘hysterical’ body in the sense that there is, so to speak, no distance between psychic life and its physiological realization.”
Everybody knows that women are hysterical and males are reasonable; how else would women have survived if they had not thrown fits to get their way and “civilize” men in the process?
Pithiatism has its passive and active aspect. The process if guided by an analyst may result in the “persuasive healing” of a troubled person by employing the power of suggestion to cultivate a positive or constructive mental attitude causing one to be proactive, to participate in world affairs.
That was the philosopher Jules de Gaultier’s take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  He purged her of the arsenic she was taking, turned her around with some reasonable persuasion, nudging her in the right direction. She was, thought he, indeed exemplary of a social malady; she was its passive victim. The harm was not in the power of suggestion itself; one could make active use of it to effect a cure; wherefore he prescribed what he called Bovarysm as the solution to the culture’s misguided inclination. In short, Jules de Gaultier’s Bovarysm takes advantage of Madame Emma Bovary’s neurosis to prescribe a healthy response to the foolish romantic uneasiness of her time. Her neurotic tendency was in effect a betrayal of the Imagination.
On the other hand, a pithiatic subject might withdraw into a corner to brood and poison oneself with nihilism if not arsenic, as Flaubert was said to do. Not that he did not have a great deal of fun in his youth, travelling in 1848-1849 with his wealthy friend Maxime du Camp about North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East, fighting off thieves, consorting with belly dancers, native girls, and prostitutes. Du Camp consequently produced what may be the world’s first travel photography book.  Eventually Flaubert would brood at home in Rouen between trips to Paris, where he enjoyed himself one way or another. Yet his experience with humankind overall, and especially with his countrymen at the subjugation of France by Germany, gave him nothing to have faith in except nothing itself, which would be something if nothing actually exists. If not a nihilist, he was a cynic and skeptic. Flaubert, by the way, contracted syphilis in Beirut; that may help explain his negative attitude.
Many authors, neurotic or not, naturally sympathize with literary giants such as Gustave Flaubert and Jean-Paul Sartre, both of whom were rather realistic in their preoccupation with writing. Flaubert is celebrated as a Realist, a label he was not comfortable with, but he was really a frustrated romantic. Most people do mature to be more or less realistic, yet as idealistic children they were fond of popular romances and adventure stories, their imaginations captivated by heroes and villains and monsters.
Family influences matter, but family is not as deterministic of one’s fate as its enthusiasts believe. Indeed, the mythical nuclear family is a pious fraud, as can be seen by lifting the roofs off homes and peering into the virtual snake pits. Heredity largely determines an individual’s intelligence and temperament hence his fate, not the collection of traits found in a particular family. It was of little avail to our ancestors to exterminate the families of criminals, to burn down their homes, kill their livestock, and uproot their crops. Ridding society of the nuclear patriarchal family altogether might even benefit society according to some radicals.
Jean-Paul undoubtedly saw a bit of himself in Gustave while peering under his roof, albeit in a different light, inasmuch as he was pampered by the dominant male in his own household. The Family Idiot is unfinished hence inconclusive, but Sartre wanted to demonstrate among other things that a person’s family is in fact the determining factor in his or her life; hence he partly exonerates Flaubert and himself for faults.
The redundancy of his the ten-year, unfinished project may be in part due to Sartre’s use of a combination of aspirin and amphetamine that perked him up as he peered, like narcotized Narcissus, into a mirror of his own ‘hysteria.’ His autobiography, The Words, portrays his early struggle against insanity, a jihad that would lead to his existentialist affirmations.
His father died before he was two. He was a lonely, sad, and sickly child, half blind and wall-eyed, spoiled by his patriarchal grandfather, who treated his mother like a slave in chains. He did not have kids to play with so he escaped from the lack, reading trashy adventure novels supplied by his mother, books he preferred to the serious tomes of his grandfather’s large collection. In order to elicit praise for precocity, he pretended he liked authors such as the romantic/classical tragedian, Pierre Corneille.
“I was a fake child. I could feel my acts changing into gestures. Playacting robbed me of the world and of human beings. I saw only roles and props.”
Flaubert, on the other hand, had plenty of kids to play with; playacting was his favorite pastime; he wrote a play about satanic monster called Yuk: Flaubert evidently appeared to be a phony to Sartre.
Sartre called his escapism “death by ecstasy.”
Sartre started writing monster stories at age eight, letting his imagination run wild, and he soon realized that he himself was the toady monster he had imagined. He finally found some kids to play with when he went off to school, but the madness of writing to “forgive” his existence had already determined his arrogant and despairing manner of existing.
Both authors were profoundly influenced by war. Gustave Flaubert and his home in Rouen were left unscathed by the war between France and Germany of 1870-1871 except he was emotionally traumatized by the behavior of his “stupid” countrymen.  For Sartre, World War II was an extremely unpleasant personal experience. His residence had been bombed after moving in, he had suffered being a prisoner of war, and so on, but being a member of the Resistance was worth it.
Sartre never forgave or “let go” of his existence. He endured it and survived the circumstances, and found consolation in philosophizing after the war in a basement jazz cellar. An American journalist asked a singer what people were doing there.
“Just existing,” she said.
Thus was the cradle laid for “Existentialism.” Existentialism was not a philosophy or ideology to begin with. The Existentialists denied they were Existentialists at first, and then accepted the label for convenience of being recognized as influential collaborators. Camus never embraced the tag because it was definitely absurd, as can be seen by the metaphysical jibber jabber about the difference between existence and being, and being and nothingness.
To just exist means the individual disregards socializing concepts as beings by placing existence before such being. Sartre like any bourgeoisie intellectual worth existing resented and despised bourgeoisie being. He leaned to the left, but abhorred Nazism and Stalinism.
There is no God to rely on:  Man is responsible for himself. Nature does not care: life is absurd. Ethics are incoherent: ambiguity is the rule.
What choice is there but to exist as responsibly as one can?
What can a writer do?
Write to resist, write to free people including ourselves from mass hysteria.
That is why we write, or so we think.


The Constitutional Utility of Being Useful



My Canadian friend Helga is amazed by the United States of America’s declared devotion to the pursuit of happiness extending beyond man’s basic needs. She has in a touching essay compared us with her socialist compatriots: Canadians are presumably somewhat boring for the lack of our energetic pursuit of happiness. I recall once again bits and pieces of her sentimental speech:

“It (the United States) is the only country I’m aware of that has articulated the right to pursuit of HAPPINESS… it recognizes that personhood has an emotional as well as PHYSICAL AND MENTAL component. An individual has the RIGHT TO emotional WELL-BEING and to seek to improve the quality of life. This goes beyond the right to live and have one’s basic needs met.”

I responded that the pursuit of happiness was well known overseas: that, for instance, the Philosophic Radical Jeremy Bentham and his Utilitarian colleagues made quite a fuss over the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Yet they found little use in discussing metaphysical, arbitrary, and capricious sentiments; not they were devoid of sentiment: they were merely being objective in an effort to come up with something everyone could appreciate. Moreover, I declared property to be the original ticket to real happiness in America. 

Helga felt I had callously disregarded her sentiments and that I had cynically taken her words out of context. Such was not my intention. It simply takes me quite awhile to respond at length to old themes in the brief New World overtures. When ‘The Helgalian Chronicle’ releases its last edition, I’m sure Helga will find her love of the United States of America fully justified. In the interim, may I recommend investing in real estate? For real property is the basis of material wealth. Remember, the word “property” is the name of one of our inalienable Rights in a rough draft of our Declaration of Independence; Jefferson later omitted it favor of the more sensible word for the revolutionary occasion: the euphemism, “happiness.” 

Overseas, the French did not mince words in their ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’: 

“2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, PROPERTY, security, and resistance to oppression.” 

Why prevaricate? Property is the basic bone of contention. Did not Proudhon proudly say that “Property is theft”, in answer to the capitalist property proposition?

As for Happiness in France, Liberty is the sine qua non of French happiness. In fact, happiness would be an understatement in a French bill of rights. French liberty is defined as follows:

“4. Liberty consists in being able to do everything that injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those that assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.” 

Even before those words were written, France, Great Britain and Spain took the liberty to participate in enormous land grabs in the Americas; the seizures were perfectly legal, in accord with the sovereign jungle rights of nations. The spread of the white man’s natural rights accelerated imperially in the late 19th century: by 1900 European civilization dominated the Earth. A fifth of the globe and one-tenth of its population had been overpowered. Nine-tenths of Africa was divvied up; France got the largest share, a land area twenty times the size of her national home. France was spreading her liberty in the Pacific as well, and in China where she took control of a quarter of its southern provinces along with a fifth of its population. Britain, not to be out done, asserted its exclusive interest in the Yantze basin with over half the population of the Chinese empire. Russia moved in too–already in 1864, it had taken over in Central Asia an area larger than Asia Minor. Imperial Germany’s interests were small in comparison to that of the other powers; still they amounted to over a million square miles in Africa and the Pacific islands, with a population of thirteen millions. The United States, quite busy with occupying its own territory, still contributed to the global spread of freedom, moving in on Hawaii, and declaring war on Spain for dominion over her insular jewels. The spread of white power was not merely for glory and wealth, it was a dutiful service to mankind. In fact, the whole imperial venture was unprofitable; nonetheless, white colonists in their struggle with their own masters taught “coloured” people how to fight for their liberties. The industrial-scientific revolution was no respecter of persons: Europe had unleashed a tiger on the world, a tiger that had sentiments of its own. (1) 

Jeremy Bentham saw the global revolution coming forth, and busied himself writing a constitution to ride the tiger anywhere. He did not constitute the divine metaphysical right of kings whose ruled was based on the arbitrary and capricious, personal nature of a tyrant; rather, he constituted a government based on equitable positive laws. That does not mean he was a cold-hearted calculating man who eschewed sentiment altogether; rather, he wanted objective reason for its organization. He knew very well that, when people have their own ground beneath them, they could afford to have fine sentiments. 

When I discussed Bentham’s greatest happiness principle, I certainly did not want to give Helga the wrong impression of the “bloody English”, or to reinforce Canadian prejudices already in place. Of course, when we reflect on Bentham’s early attitude we might jump to the conclusion that his utility related only to the physical or material aspect of man. Yet as a man he naturally had his arbitrary and frivolous sympathies and antipathies; for instance, when Aaron Burr stayed with him after getting out of Jefferson’s hostile sights, Bentham was excited by Burr’s scheme for Mexico: indeed, he was quite warm to the prospect of providing it with a sound constitution for positive law. No, Bentham was no cold fish, at least not in his later years–a time when even hard-nosed men do seem to take on feminine sentiments. Bentham even had his regrets about utility, or rather about his selection of the word “utility”, since its popular usage meant that happiness is in the having of intrinsically useful things. He regretfully said his choice of the word was “unfortunate.” 

Bentham certainly knew that the public welfare or the greatest happiness of the greatest number is not simply the sum of objects or property possessed, nor is happiness merely physical pleasure. Nonetheless, we should not blame him for refusing to resort to metaphysical speculations when growing numbers of people were being reduced to miserable circumstances by the industrial-scientific revolution of his day. Nevertheless, it is indeed unfortunate that the calculating element of moral utilitarianism espoused by the Radical Utilitarians became the sole principle of modern economics, leaving behind quality of life as incalculable except indirectly via the counting of property. 

In any event, We the People of the United States of America are a practical or utilitarian people. We might not all say “One for all and all for one,” but we do find the greater happiness of the greatest number in being useful to each other and to ourselves as individuals. 

We like to say an individual is an end in himself rather than merely a means, for people do not like to be used up and discarded. People on the whole are both ends and means: we are means to our ends. Philosophers for the sake of economy have simply said our general end is happiness or well being. The means to that complex end are various: they are the objects of desire both tangible and intangible which have greater or lesser value depending on how much we need or want them. We can make ourselves happy by possessing useful things, including abstract things like ideas or objects of thought. It a thing is not useful, then, we are not happy with it, and it is deemed worthless and discarded, ignored or forgotten. 

Hence there arises an economic relation between the individual subject and his perceived and conceived objects or world. Someone might say that only to the extent the world exists for him does it have any personal value at all. That might seem to be a tad selfish or self-centered to us in the pride of our generosity; nevertheless, we might generously observe that, without the world, a man is nothing; that, without consciousness of objects in contrast to his self-consciousness, a human being does not exist as such. In a sense the world is FOR the man providing he makes use of it. 

Man is a natural born utilitarian. We cannot survive doing nothing at all, therefore we are consigned if not condemned to lead productive lives. Since we cannot do without certain useful objects like food, we are inclined to consider our happiness as something intrinsic to the object itself. Still, since we might choose to starve ourselves to death to feed others, or to obtain a greater happiness in the other world where food is inutile, even the value of needed objects depends on subjective evaluation. Hence we encounter the philosophical problem of “utility” and several of the simpler concepts of modern economics. 

“Utility” and “happiness” were once almost synonymous. The old meaning of utility had the value, “happiness”, as intrinsic to a thing, something inherent in property. As the Italian economist Ferdinando Galiani put it in 1750, utility is “the CAPACITY of a THING to procure felicity.” 

Of course common sense then and now mixes up the intrinsic value of a desirable thing with the subjective evaluation of the user, but the intrinsic theory predominated thinking for a while. The association of the term “utility” with intrinsic value led to the expression “commodity fetish.” 

Portuguese voyageurs found primitives fondly fashioning bewitched fetishes (“that which is made in order to make”) for their magico-religious cults. But the primitives were not so primitive as we might think. The sociologist Auguste Comte considered fetishism a great leap forward from animal-like life to human life; he also thought fetishism was further advanced than theology along Great Being’s road to his scientific Positive Utopia. 

Be that as it may, we moderns have a commodity fetish, if we are to believe the sociologist Karl Marx. The theory of labor is based on intrinsic utility, the idea that an object possesses the labor value invested in its creation. 

Other economic thinkers, however, recognizing the subjective aspect of evaluation, came to emphasize “value in use” or use value. For example, William Jevons declared in 1871 that utility is “the sum of pleasure and the pain prevented” by the USE of a thing; that is, he rejected the idea that the exchange value of an object is the cost expended to produce it; value is instead dependent on the subjective evaluation of the user. 

The foregoing developments led to the economic utility theory itself, upon which is based the great synthesis of economic equilibrium: value depends on both the utility and scarcity of an object. That theory resolved the embarrassing paradox of the cheapness of the most useful goods such as water and the dearness of such things as diamonds. 

Advancing a little beyond the simple theory of utility, we come across another concept that should be remembered by every poor person who wants to be happier: the theory of diminishing marginal utility. For example, a hundred dollars means nothing to a multi-millionaire, but it means everything to you when you are flat broke; therefore he should give you the hundred dollars voluntarily or be taxed for it. This is a heartwarming concept for the majority, one that was enshrined as the progressive income tax clause in the Communist Manifesto. The power elite has doubts about its utility, and many would prefer to rely on voluntary charity instead. Private charity is a good sentiment, but it does not suffice to obtain the greatest happiness of the greatest number that Almighty God wants. Puritanical thrift accumulated enormous wealth, but then fell in love it, creating an unfulfilled need for even greater charity. 

That sort of love called “greed” is not good for the public wellbeing or welfare mentioned in the Preamble of the United States Constitution. At least my sentiments are against it and my reason follows in tow. I am one who suspects that “reason” is a part of passion, not something standing as aloof as we might think in order to haughtily rationalize our behavior; I feel reason is a passionate force that organizes greed. I’ve found that employing reason to plan my future is similar to reading the I Ching: I may not be aware of it, but what I really desire is already in my heart, hence I get the future and the fortune I actually wanted, sometimes instead of the one I had in mind. If I am willing to make concessions, my path and goal might be different, but I still have my destiny and deserts in any case. Confronted with resistance, my greed finds a better organization, never knowing for sure its finality. I believe that is what our social organization is doing as well: it is organizing greed that the species may survive. 

By the way, so my true colors may be known: my totem is the Jayhawk, the bird that flies backwards; I care only about the past because that is what I know, and I don’t give a damn where I am going because I know I’ll get there in a free state. 

Helga may not appreciate Jayhawker tactics, yet I feel most of the foregoing will not only assuage Helga’s concerns over my sanity since my escape from my ninety-day observation period Upstate, but shall also serve to persuade her that the socialist or sociological perspective is as emotional as emotion can be. Indeed, it is the noblest emotion of all in the United States of America, South of the Canadian border, where everyone is noble or “known”; where everyone is a monarch or “one ruler”; where everyone, from a Canadian perspective, is a Southern aristocrat possessing “arete” or excellence, the consummate virtuous and valorous character. 

Yes, if we are to speak sentimentally of the United States citizen, then we must speak of the Ideal Man–and as a matter of course I mean Ideal Woman when I say “man”, as symbolized by the first two letters of the noun. Unfortunately, the Ideal Man of the United States is today’s Forgotten Man, the man who was once the beacon and the envy of the world. He was a socialist in his individualism. He was liberally educated not in anarchy but in the freedom of responsibility. As the ideal individual, he was an excellent instrument for the greatest good of the greatest number. 

Helga mentioned the dull socialism of Canada in contrast to the virtues down South. Methinks Helga does not realize yet that it is the more energetic socialism of the United States that brings her South to the land of liberty. Perhaps if I can find my manifesto, I will be of better use to her and to everyone else. Perhaps I may become a productive member of society after all. 

What better life can there be than Being Useful? 


(1) Geoffrey Barraclough, AN INTRODUCTION TO CONTEMPORARY HISTORY, Middlesex: Penguin, 1967

(2) Helga Ross,’ My American Love Affair’, Australia: Writtenbyme, 2001. Helga Ross

High Priestess Seized!

High Priestess
Priestess of Delphi by John Collier (1891)






The Third Sacred War and the general who seized the priestess at Delphi and forced her to deliver the so-called oracle: that he could do as he pleased. Whether he did his will or the god’s will, or whether or not there is a difference between the two, we shall leave to the philosophers to settle.

Reasonable people know oracles are unreliable or ambiguous. Nevertheless, almost everyone who has their fortune told would believe that it is custom-made for them even though a particular reading may have so many different meanings that it could be applicable to almost anyone at any time.

Even a negative reading, say, of impending death, can be interpreted positively in order to avoid it, perhaps by moving elsewhere; alas, death is waiting elsewhere. And when the outcome is not the future hoped for, the fault is said not to be with the oracle as delivered in the dice cast, cards shuffled, nor in the hysterical utterance of the Sibyl or Pythia at Delphi, but with the mistaken interpretation of the chance event. That is, the god Chance is never wrong: the fault resides in the priest or supplicating gambler. And when the random result seems too egregious to blame on its hapless victims; well, god works his will in mysterious ways; that is, in ways contrary to the individual’s will.

That was certainly the case for Philomelus, a wealthy man of Phocia who argued the case against Thebes and was appointed its military general. “Let us reply to our enemies by re-asserting our lost rights and seizing the temple; we shall obtain support and countenance from many Grecian states, whose interest is the same as our own, to resist the unjust decrees of the Amphictyons. Our enemies the Thebans are plotting the seizure of the temple for themselves, through the corrupt connivance of an Amphictyonic majority: let us anticipate and prevent their injustice.”

The Amphictyonic Council, an ancient league or “gathering” of only twelve of the Hellenic nations, associated with the guardianship of the worship of Apollo at Delphi and Demeter at Thermopylae, had been politically manipulated by Thebes to impose a huge fine in 357 B.C. on its neighbor, Phocia, after Thebes charged Phocia with cultivating a rather small strip of land in the Crissaean plain that had previously been consecrated to Apollo after the entire population was slaughtered for harassing pilgrims visiting Apollo’s temple at Delphi.

The plain had declared off limits and Delphi turned over to the Delphians by the Amphictyonic Council at the conclusion of the First Sacred War, waged for ten years and ending in 585 B.C. Legend has it that Solon poisoned the water supply with hellebore roots, causing the inhabitants of Crissa to perish miserably from intestinal disorders. The Phocians, who had possession of the temple as late as 450 B.C., lost control, and then, with the help of the Athenians, captured Delphi in 448 B.C., at the outset of the so-called Second Sacred War, but it was retaken and handed back to the Delphians with the help of the Spartans. The tug-of-war continued until a 421 B.C. peace treaty confirmed Delphi’s independence under the Delphians. Thus the number of “sacred wars” varies among historians.

Other pretexts for the Third Sacred War, with Theban forces set against the Phocians, may have been that Phocia had invaded Boeotia, or had started a war by abducting a married Theban woman named Theano. Of course such acts would be violations of the pact between the Amphictyonic members. According to Aeschines’ De Falsa Legatione, the oath anciently taken by the members of the league was “That they would not destroy any city of the Amphictyonic tribes; that they would not cut off their springs of water either in peace or war; that they would turn their arms against any people who did such things, and destroy their cities; that, if anyone committed sacrilege against the god, or formed, or was privy to, any design to injure the temple, they would exert themselves with hand, foot, tongue, and all their might, to punish him.”

Thebes and Phocia were already subject to an ancient animosity over running border disputes, and Thebes, now leading the dominant faction in the Amphictyonic league, had been most recently angered, in 363 B.C., by Phocia’s unwillingness to participate in its Matinea campaign, where the great Theban commander, Epaminondas, was mortally wounded, presaging the decline of Theban influence although Thebes won the battle. The Phocians argued that their pact with Thebes dictated that Phocia assist Thebes in defensive, not offensive wars.

Refusal to pay the unreasonable sanction could itself be grounds for the Council’s declaration of a sacred war against the political heretic, and the Phocians were not expected to pay, especially after it was doubled in response to their objection that it would ruin them. Even so, the fine alone was considered insufficient to provoke Phocia into starting a war and thus take the blame for initiating it. Wherefore under Theban influence the Council also consecrated all Phocian land to Apollo, which would deprive Phocians of the right to cultivate their own land and reduce them to serfs. The Council also declared Apollo’s central temple at Delphi, which was in the possession of the Phocian’s old ‘brothers’, the Delphians, as the rightful possession of the Delphians alone. Wherefore Philomelus was chosen by the Phocians in 356 B.C. to wage war so Phocians could use their land as they pleased, and to repossess Apollo’s temple at Delphi to boot.

The temple was the political-religious center of the Greek world. It served as an international ‘bank’ and catholic gaming hall where treasure was stored in conspicuous national vaults to display relative wealth, and where political fortunes were told, the outcomes being undoubtedly fixed in advance by the powers that be. That is not to say, however, that the gas-intoxicated priestesses raved in vain or that their interpreting priests were entirely corrupt in their more rational renderings of the absurd logos ensuing from the mouths of those Cretan nuns.

Phocia had every right to be especially indignant over the disposition of the temple: According to Homer, the management of the temple belonged by right of ancient privilege to the Phocians. However, it had been expropriated from the Phocians a century prior to the current Council’s mandate, which was now a religious pretext for the Third Sacred War.

General Philomelus lost no time raising funds, patriots, and mercenaries for this sacred war, his enemies being the Thebans, Thessalians, Locrians, Dorians, and Macedonians. He attacked the town of Delphi in 356 B.C., murdering the prominent family that had played a part in imposing the fine on Phocis, promising the rest of the people no harm even though he intended to enslave them. Having made himself master of the countryside, he seized the temple of Delphi, destroying the tablet recording the decree against his people, and setting up his own government. He issued a proclamation reiterating to the high heavens the ancient Phocian right to administer the temple, assuring everyone concerned that the temple’s treasures were secure in his hands. Thus Philomelus’ preemptive blitzkrieg ostensibly saved the sacred political casino and holy bank.

Yet something more spiritual was needed to make Philomelus’ actions official; namely, the rendering of the oracle in favor of his divine cause. Therefore he ordered the Pythian priestess to mount her tripod, the three-legged gambling bowl that had become the Pythia’s sacred seat and a model for trophies bestowed on athletic heroes, and commanded her to deliver the desired oracle.

Diodorus of Sicily, a 1st century historian, said that, “when Philomelus had control of the oracle, he directed the Pythia to make her prophecies from the tripod in ancestral fashion. But when she replied that such was not the ancestral fashion, he threatened her harshly and compelled her to mount the tripod. Then when she frankly declared, referring to the superior power of the man who was resorting to violence: ‘It is in your power to do as you please,’ he gladly accepted her utterance and declared that he had the oracle which suited him. He immediately had the oracle inscribed and set it up in full view, and made it clear to everyone that the god gave him the authority to do as he pleased. Having put together an assembly and disclosed the prophecy to the multitude and urged them to be of good cheer, he turned to the business of war.”

George Grote, whose History of Greece is one of the great masterpieces of modern historical scholarship, rendered this account of the momentous event:

“Philomelus, while taking pains to set himself right in the eyes of Greece, tried to keep the prophetic agency of the temple in its ordinary working, so as to meet the exigencies of sacrificers and inquirers as before. He required the Pythian priestess to mount the tripod, submit herself to the prophetic inspiration, and pronounce the word thus put into her mouth, as usual. But the priestess—chosen by the Delphians, and probably herself a member of one among the sacred Delphian Gentes—obstinately refused to obey him; especially as to the first question which he addressed concerning his own usurpation, and his chances of success against enemies. On his injunctions, that she should prophecy according to the traditional rites, she replied that these rites were precisely what he had just overthrown; upon which he laid ahold of her, and attempted to place her on the tripod by force. Subdued and frightened for her own personal safety, the priestess exclaimed involuntarily that he might do as he chose. Philomelus gladly took this as an answer favorable to his purpose. He caused it to be put in writing and proclaimed, as an oracle from the god, sanctioning and licensing his designs. He convened a special meeting of his partisans and the Delphians generally, wherein appeal was made to this encouraging answer, as warranting full confidence with reference to the impending war. So it was construed by all around, and confirmatory evidence was derived from further signs and omens occurring at the moment. It is probably however that Philomelus took care for the future to name a new priestess, more favorable to his interest, and disposed to deliver oracular answers under the new administrators in the same manner as under the old.”

General Philomelus, thus favored by the oracle, went about the war and enjoyed some brilliant victories, such as that against the Locrian tribe—the founder of the Hellenes was traditionally said to have resided in one of their towns. The Thebans, alarmed by his success in that campaign, proceeded to organized the Amphictyonic states for an assault on Phocia, “to assist the god,” as Grote put it. Philomelus knew his only chance at holding out was to hire mercenaries to help him protect the god from the enemies who wanted to assist the god, so he reluctantly “borrowed” some treasure from Apollo’s vaults at the temple. He gave his forces a generous fifty-percent raise, and there was the usual enrichment of friends and the adorning of wives with precious ornaments and fineries.

Despite the funds so impiously borrowed by the Phocians to increase their forces and the beauty of their women, the Thebans grew more and more confident of their success as this Sacred War dragged on. So confident that, at one point in the conflict, they had all prisoners executed; the Phocians, not to be outdone, did likewise. To make a long story short, Philomelus eventually got his army into a bad position near the town of Neon:

“An engagement took place,” recounted Diodorus, “and then a sharp battle in which the Boeotians (Thebans), who far outnumbered the Phocians, defeated them. As the flight took place through precipitous and almost impassable country, many of the Phocians and their mercenaries were cut down. Philomelus, after he had fought courageously and had suffered many wounds, was driven into a precipitous area, and was there hemmed in, and, since there was no exit from it, and he feared the torture after capture, he hurled himself over the cliff: having made atonement to the god, he ended his life.”

Philomelus’ death at the Battle of Neon on the slopes of Mount Parnassus was not the end of the war. It dragged on with the help of Apollo’s wealth; the Phocians managed to hold onto the temple until 346 B.C. Their final defeat was due to the intervention of Philip of Macedonia, drawn into the war by the Thessalians, who had appointed him their Archon. Making himself the champion of the Delphian god, and taking advantage of the dissension of the Greeks, Philip the outsider would eventually subjugate the Greek nations to “barbarian” i.e. Macedonian domination. The Phocians had been led by other generals, beginning with Onomarchus, Philomelus’ brother, who rallied the troops after the defeat at Neon, doubling the size of the army to 20,000 men. Onomarchus, who was even more generous with Apollo’s treasure than his late brother, was successful for awhile, but six thousand of his troops were killed in a horrendous battle with Philip’s forces, leaving Philip master of Thessaly. Onomarchus was probably crucified; three thousand prisoners were drowned. Another brother would then assume command, followed by other generals.

Once the war was lost, the Phocians were forced by virtue of the Amphictyonic Council, now under Philip’s domination, to pay onerous reparations, at the rate of 60 talents per year, for the damage they had caused, but they were allowed to keep their land, although all cities but one were laid waste to and the inhabitants scattered into villages. Their two votes in the Amphictyonic Council were given to Philip, who had dictated the terms of the peace with the Phocians, and their Spartan and Athenian allies. The Spartans would never submit to paying fines, and the Athenians were not punished since Philip had induced the Athenians, who were weary of the war and more afraid of Thebes than Philip, to make common cause with him against the Thebans while severing their alliance with the Phocians; he then marched into Phocia, where the Phocians surrendered without conditions. This end to the Third Sacred War made Macedonia the leading power in Greece.

The oracle at Delphi had told Philip that, “With silver spears you may conquer the world,” wherefore he seized silver mines and used the precious metal to bribe Greeks to sell each other out. But Philip fell short of conquering the world shortly after a family squabble over succession to the Macedonia throne. Philip, in a drunken rage at a marriage banquet, would even have put his own son Alexander, who had accused Philip of calling him a bastard, to death with his sword, but he collapsed in a stupor instead, whereupon Alexander reportedly said, ” Here is a man, preparing to cross from Europe into Asia, who yet cannot step surely from one couch to another.” Further cause of animosity between Philip and Alexander and certain Macedonian factions ensued, which the king hoped to cure by holding great festival, where in one his own statute as a god was added to the statues of the twelve traditional gods. However, he neglected to resolve the complaint of a royal bodyguard by the name of Pausanias, who had been incensed by some outrage he had been subjected to by the uncle of Philip’s new queen, Cleopatra.

“Unconscious of the plot,” Grote recounts in his Greek History, “Philip was about to enter the theatre, already crowded with spectators. As he approached the door, clothed in a white robe, he felt so exalted with impressions of his own dignity, and so confident in the admiring sympathy of the surrounding multitude, that he advanced both unarmed and unprotected, directing his guards to hold back. At this moment Pausanias, standing near with a Gallic sword concealed under his garment, rushed upon him, thrust the weapon through his body, and killed him.”

Apparently, the noble assassin had not acted at the spur of the moment, but had been put up to the deed by conspirators, which reminds us of something Demosthenes said to the Athenians in his first anti-Philip speech: “Do not imagine that his fortune is built to last forever, as if he were a God. He also has those who hate him and fear him, men of Athens, and envy him too, even among those who now seem to be his closest friends. All the feelings that exist in any other body of men must be supposed to exist in Philip’s supporters.”

Heraclitus nearly two centuries before had said that, “To extinguish hubris is more needed than to extinguish a fire.” Now ‘hubris’ is a classical Greek word so often used that it is a standard word in modern English usage. It is similar to the “false pride” denounced by Christians, and denotes a man’s failure to understand that he is not a god. His hubris blinds him to his proper role, and subjects him to the envy and wrath of the gods, resulting in his ruination. We note that the old gods are all too human in respect to their passions, and that atheists should beware that the feelings that exist in other groups of men also exist in their own closest supporters including their bodyguards.

The priests had Delphi had published a rendering of another one of the Pythia’s declamations, as to who would conquer the world: whosoever could ride a black colt, owned by Philip, that no one could mount. Philip gave the horse to Alexander, who saw that it was afraid of its own shadow, and used that information to mount it and conquer the world.

It is often said that freedom is not in doing what one pleases but in doing what one ought to do. But today liberty seems to dictate that everyone ought to do what one pleases. We may insist that what we would do is “the right thing to do,” or what anyone ought to do, and refer questions about the nature of right to God, conscience, and reason, yet we may do nothing more than what we would have been pleased to have done in the first place without rationalizing our appetite or will. Indeed, how often it is that someone asks us for advice only to go off and do what they wanted to do all along. As for oracles, we recall that the Stoics held that an ethical person does as duty calls no matter what their fate may be, so they did not bother with fortune tellers.

No doubt General Philomelus believed he was doing the right thing by defending Phocia to his own death. He consulted the oracle at Delphi not because he wanted to know the outcome of the war, which would be liberty in victory or death in defeat, but because he wanted to be seen as favored by Apollo, not viewed as an atheist, and as staking a legitimate or traditional Phocian claim to possession of the temple.

Athenian temple at Delphi

The Delphians, who had come into possession of the temple, were Phocians in the broader sense. Delphi was once the Phocian capital, but Delphians did not like to be referred to as Phocians, anymore, and claimed to be a separate people in their own right. In any event, the oracle had often been a political instrument despite the sincerity of the intoxicated Pythias and truth-seeking priests, and Philomelus was moved to use the ultimate political resort, the force of naked arms, instead of a contribution of booty to get a favorable pronouncement. Everyone naturally wanted the god’s blessing. Philomelus embezzled the god’s treasure, but he meant to repay it with booty providing that he won the war with the loot he looted from the temple to support his campaigns. Who can blame him for doing the right thing, provided that he kept the oracle’s prior advice to Sparta in mind?

Love of money and nothing else shall ruin Sparta.

The Great Man Theory

Victor Cousin




Do Great Men and Women determine the course of history?

“We thought that under his shadow we would live among the nations. (Lamentations 4:20)

It is our nature to imitate other people and to emulate the personal authorities given to us in order to survive. We are not always born under the best of parental examples, which we normally want to equal or to exceed, but we are given a wider variety of models to choose from as we mature and become, at least to some extent, the independent authors of our fates.

Every child wants most of all to be a grown up, a big person, and by extension a great adult. As children many of us dream of being great men and great women in terms of social status. We soon realize that the world needs few United States presidents, for example, therefore we learn to aspire to other positions, and sometimes we must vie for any position we can get. But we do not give up our dreams of social greatness; we enjoy greatness vicariously as we continue to admire the examples before us as well as those presented by historians. Of course we do not always admire great men and women, we despise them too, and we might not even know who they are; but whether we praise or blame them, or are ignorant of their existence, we generally recognize that our lives have been influenced by the conduct of great men and women.

Nonetheless, strange as it might seem, some historians believe the most important people in the history books were not very important after all, at least not in the general context of human progress. The Great Man Theory of history formulated by thinkers of an aristocratic bent of mind has been greatly discounted by socialist intellectuals who believe far too much credit has been given to great men for the course of history, a course historians have historically portrayed as a history of war and conquest from which all good things under civilization’s cover have ensued. Socialist thinkers would rather not attribute progress to the crimes against humanity led by politicians, heroes, and generals, but would instead emphasize the part ordinary or common people play in the development of humane society.

The term ‘elite’ originally denoted a few powerful men who deserved praise and therefore had a right to be proud, but when that right was contested and subverted by popular demand because the right no longer seemed merited, especially when inherited, the term ‘elite’ took on a pejorative hue connoting the corrupt minority at the top who on average did not deserve their superior status. Of course the overthrow of the old regimes in favor of republican and democratic forms of government were led by great men who were often aristocratic defectors or who were sometimes great men arising from the ranks below. Therefore, if history supports enduring truths, it appears that the aristocratic intellectual’s preference for the Great Man Theory is justified by reality. No matter how conservative or progressive it might be, society is always led by great men and women. In fact, modern studies of obedience and authority support the view that the majority of people, as if they love to be ruled, will support and follow current authority no matter what its character might be.

The intellectual process in itself raises the man above the brute, wherefore men strive to make the most of reason; those who succeed are often feared and resented by so-called ‘anti-intellectuals’ who use their own intellects to defame the intellect – an eloquent argument against the prime virtue of reason is certainly ironic. Thus in matters of mind the will to emulate, to equal and to overpower, exerts itself just as it does elsewhere, and the result is everywhere a ‘pecking order’, a hierarchy of ideas and a social stratification of people – not that the best ideas rise to the top.

Now the best socialist thinkers are the greatest men and women in their field; they are not champions of the Great Man Theory but of The People ‘democratically’ organized. Nonetheless everyone, no matter how humble they might be, would be a great man or woman in one way or another. Socialist equality needs great men to effect it; the arrogant elite are overthrown and another cult of personality is developed around the socialist leader. The communist party is democratically organized according to the self-contradictory tenets of ‘anarchistic communism’ or ‘democratic socialism’; provisions are made for elections; a bureaucracy arises that survives those elections; eventually only one candidate is on the ballot; and, despite the constitutional separation of party and state, the party apparatus controls. Obviously, people will not give up their objective models of greatness regardless of what the current political hypothesis happens to be, and when they sincerely try to give them up, great men are shoved down their collective throat by a ruthless elite.

Therefore, since great men and women are here to stay, and since we all may be great in our own little ways nowadays, it behooves us to revisit the Great Man Theory no matter how unpopular it may be with the intellectual elite who would be lords of public opinion. To that end I have chosen to review the concept as presented by the French philosopher, Victor Cousin, for he was an eclectic philosopher or borrower of opinions who lived when kings and aristocrats were still falling with the rapid rise of modern nations, yet he still believed in great men and presented us with an abstract portrait of the Great Man who is no longer a master of a people but a servant of his nation. We should keep in mind that he borrowed heavily from his friend, Hegel, so much so that Hegel said Cousin had taken some of his fish and much of his sauce.

According to Cousin, people who best represent the spirit of a nation belong to an aristocracy of great men generated by that nation. The great man is not merely a particular individual who, standing alone, would be small, helpless, and miserable. Rather, he embodies the universal nature which endows him with a general power superior to his individuality. In actuality, he is just the right organic balance of universal and particular, an exemplary person, an ideally socialized individual. Of course the great man is also beautiful because we find in him the criterion of true beauty, the harmony of the universal – which is infinite, ideal and sublime – and of the particular – which is finite, real and pretty. He is a concrete universal; he is a living unity in diversity, not a handsome, immobile statue chiseled from stone or modeled in cement; he is a spiritual embodiment endowed with the highest qualities. In terms of social psychology, he is the most powerful interaction of individuality and situation.

The great man is a national representative but he is not necessarily its political representative. He may be a great legislator, warrior, artist, philosopher, pontiff, and so on. In any case, he represents a spirit common to all citizens; that is to say, a national spirit:

“A nation is veritably a nation on the condition of expressing an idea, which, entering into all the elements which compose the interior life of this nation, into its language, it religion, its manners, its arts, its laws, its philosophy, gives it a distinct physiognomy…. The spirit of a nation, the spirit common to all citizens, is what constitutes the country,” Cousin lectured his audience.

Cousin identified three types of individuals:

Ordinary Individuals: “There are individuals who have, so to speak, a general character only, that of their age and of their country, mere echoes of the voices of their times; they form the crowd, and are, thus to call them, the anonymous beings of the human species…. ordinary men, a numerous class, honest, useful… excellent soldiers of the spirit of the people; the form the army of every great cause that finds sufficient captains; it is with them, and them only, that one can perform great things: they know how to obey.”

Original Individuals: “At the other extreme are the friends of individuality… who seize for a moment upon their poor individuality… cling to it… proudly insurgent against all authority. The mania of individuality is to cut the knot which binds the individual to common sense by authority. There are the originals of the human species: they form a class apart: the give themselves out as the heroes of independence, and are, in general men without energy and without character; they are agitated for a moment without doing anything, and pass away without leaving any trace in history… (They are) unsusceptible of discipline, unworthy to command, incapable of obeying, their great aim upon this vast scene of the world is to represent, what? themselves, and nothing more.”

Great Individuals: “A great man is equally removed from the original and the ordinary man. He is the nation, and he is himself too; he is the harmony of generality and individuality… the spirit of his nation and of his times is the stuff of which the great man is made… it is from the height of the spirit, common to all, that he is great and commands all.”

Warriors are the first and most popular rank of great men, followed by Cousin’s own class, the philosophers – Cousin was famous in his time and received a standing ovation for the lecture we are quoting here.

“It is upon the field of battle that energetic and faith representatives are necessary, and there they are never wanting. Glory is an unexceptional witness of the importance of the true greatness of men. Now, what are the greatest glories? In fact, they are those of warriors…. Nowhere do the masses identify themselves more visibly with the great man than on the field of battle; but if this identification is more brilliant in the great captain, it is more intimate and more profound in the great philosopher.

“…it must be observed that nowhere are there more great men than in philosophy. The highest degree of individuality is reflection, which separates us from all that is not ourselves, and puts us face to face with ourselves; at the same time the object of philosophical reflection is what is most general in thought. Reflection has generality for its foundation, and individuality for its form. It is precisely the highest alliance of these two elements which constitutes the great man.”

Great political leaders and heroes govern and defend their respective nations and find glory in getting deeds done or in doing them. Although reputation is a paltry and petty thing, glory is glorious:

“…whatever is human is made so by humanity; to curse power… is to blaspheme humanity; to accuse glory, is simply to accuse humanity that decrees it. What is glory? The judgment of humanity upon one of its members, and humanity is always right…. There are a thousand ways to acquire a reputation; it is an enterprise just like any other, it does not even suppose a great ambition. What distinguishes reputation from glory is, that reputation is the judgment of the few, while glory is the judgment of a great number… With the masses, deeds are everything…. (Humanity) wishes great results…. Great results cannot be contested, and glory, which is their expression, can none the more be contested.”

We sense in Cousin the ancient militant feeling that might is right, or, at least might is required to make right. Force must be exerted to accomplish anything at all; in order to perform his work, the great man must move ahead and take all – he must win, and no matter what happens we should be on the side of the winners, not the losers:

“…the strife of nations is sorrowful, if the vanquished excites our pity, our greatest sympathy must be reserved for the vanquisher, since very victory infallibly draws after it a progress of humanity… we must be on the side of the victor, for that is always the side of civilization, the side of the present and the future, while the side of the conquered is always that of the past. The great man conquered is a great man out of place in his times; and his defeat must be applauded, since it was just and useful, since with his great qualities, his virtue and his genius, he marched contrary to humanity and the times.”

When we evaluate great men, we should ignore their sordid individuality and ask, What did they do for the nation?

“The fundamental rule of philosophy in regard to great men is to do as humanity does… to neglect the description of weaknesses inherent in their individuality and which have perished with it… to fasten itself upon the great things which they have done, which have served humanity, and which still endure in the memories of men… to search out what has given them power and glory, namely, the idea they represent, and their intimate relation with the spirit of their times and their nation….”

Furthermore, great men are called by the times and do not come into being unless there is something for them to do, their work – Cousin notes that many of them are fatalists, superstitious, hesitant and inactive until definitely called.

“It is the fortune of a great man to represent better than any other man of his times the ideas of those times, their interests, their wants. All the individuals composing a nation have the same general ideas, the same interests, the same wants, but without the energy necessary to realize and to satisfy them; they represent their times and their nation, but in a powerless, unfaithful, obscure manner. But as soon as the true representative shows himself, all recognize him distinctly what they have confusedly seized upon in themselves; they recognize the spirit of their times, the spirit even which is in themselves; they consider the great man as their true image, as their idea; and under this title they adore and follow him who is their idol and their chief….”

As for the great philosophers Cousin mentions after great heroes, they usually withdraw from immediate action to reflect at length, hence they become masters of symbolic activity. A king might be a frustrated philosopher or vice versa, but it is unwise for a philosopher interested in his immortal fame to associate too closely with the government of a nation or even the nation itself. It might be healthier for the dedicated philosopher to spit (my words) on national grounds from time to time. In any case, nations and civilizations rise and fall in due course of time, thus it behooves the philosopher to be a citizen of the cosmos no matter how powerful Athens and Rome might be at present. No doubt modern historians will associate a philosopher’s philosophy with his historical period, and declare his thinking passe today, but the citizen of the cosmos is something more than the victim of his circumstances, and we may enjoy and be enlightened by the leftovers from his fire.

Cousin the philosopher did not take his own philosophical advice, to remain aloof from politics, to heart. How could he, if a great man represents his nation? Cousin associated with the current powers that be, and, although he was the most famous French philosopher of his day, his sway over the Cosmos was tainted by ephemeral politics; his shooting star soon fell from grace. Cousin was a liberal agitator before 1830; thereafter, he was a moderate ‘doctrinaire’, sharing with the Doctrinaires their ‘chartist’ enthusiasm for a ‘constitutional monarchy’ form of government, an English model with a French twist. Cousin rode the July Monarchy to its fall. By 1851, he was completely out of favor, demonstrating that he was correct to assume philosophers are ill-advised to meddle in politics. His nickname was ‘Plato’, after his famous translation of Plato, whose utopian ‘Republic’ was governed by a philosopher king; perhaps Cousin, against his better judgment, was unduly influenced by the Plato’s political ideology, or maybe reading the German romantic philosophers made him rash.

In any case, a particular political theology is a dangerous enterprise for a searcher of truth to embark upon. Yet great men do take risks. Was Victor Cousin a great man? the type he identified as a ‘Great Individual’, in contrast to the Individual and Original types? He was obviously no ordinary individual; at one time he had virtual dictatorial control over the education of the French nation. And he was not an original, ‘flash in the pan’ sort of man either. Despite the world acclaim he enjoyed during his time, and his influence, for example, on the New England Transcendentalists and on the formation of the educational system of the United States, Cousin is often regarded as a ‘mediocre’ philosopher who lacked ‘originality.’ After all, his writing is an easy read and thus easy to criticize: a mere novice can understand what he is talking about. His philosophical platitudes are obvious. And, say his critics, Cousin’s eclectic or ‘borrowing’ approach to the world’s truths wants a criterion or method for deciding what to keep and what to throw away.

As a matter of fact, philosophical eclecticism is nothing new, and Cousin said he had no desire to be original. We have already seen what he thought about the original type of man. Then again, the great man may be original by not being original, but rather by incorporating the spirit of his people. Perhaps wisdom is moderation and obscure philosophies are mystical nonsense about common sense, or sophisticated variations on platitudes. The publicly ‘great’ man, then, would be unusual in his expression of the common spirit, and we would raise him up as ‘original’ because he either said what we already knew, thus confirming us in the truth. Walters Brewer puts it this way:

“Cousin insisted that if he were to be accused of having introduced foreign doctrines incompatible with traditional French systems of thought and practice, then he would have to be credited with a certain originality; the originality of his philosophy, he said, however, lay precisely in fact that it sought not to be original at all. Eclecticism was simply a way of looking at the various philosophies already propounded, an historical method that was in no sense a balance between the systems but that chose from among them… If the eclectic approach was to be assigned to a rubric, he added, then it would best come under spiritualism, that same doctrine at which Plato and Socrates began…” (Brewer, Walter Vance, Victor Cousin as a comparative educator, New York: Teachers College Press, 1971)

Now Cousin said that great men represent national spirits. He was an excellent expositor of the spirit of his nation. His writing speaks to us both passionately and formally, romantically and classically. Although a pragmatic logician or logical positivist might scoff at his presentation, Cousin gives us lyrical lines that make spiritual sense; after all, he held forth the simple proposition that the spirit of history advances our freedom in the world. He educates us to the spirit of his time. It is a mistake to call him a ‘mediocre’ philosopher for synthesizing and clearly expressing some of the ideas of Thomas Reid, Maine de Biran, Kant, Schelling and Hegel. Cousin was one of the best of his kind. Indeed, his supposed faults are occasionally attributed to the French at large; witness Hippolyte Taine’s disdain for the French genius, a Latin genius which, step by step, reconciles the dirty details of the English genius and the lofty speculations of the German genius, presenting the spiritual synthesis in beautiful, romantic speeches; something which the Frenchman Taine was a master at himself despite himself: he said he fought against it! the very quality that makes his conservative history of the French Revolution a pleasing read even for liberals.

A legitimate ‘theory’ is supposed to be good for something; the Great Man Theory may sound good but what is it good for? Isn’t it just rhetoric? Yes, if well plead, it is persuasive rhetoric, but even if it be badly presented, there is some motivating truth to it that, once recognized, causes one who wants to be great to be more enthusiastic about his ability to exceed himself, to become greater than he is. Victor Cousin and his contemporaries were enthusiastic about the spiritual development of national identities represented by great men, enthusiastic men who aspired to lead their nations to greatness. Given the tragic effects of excessive national zeal, we are much less sanguine in respect to national spirits today. All too often the love of country, patriotism, or father-ism, is hate-based love. Given the advancement of technology, the violent conflict of national spirits makes a universal hell out of Earth.

The philosophical developments leading up to and following the French Revolution, especially those woven by the German philosophers who influenced Cousin, had an enormous political impact, eventually dividing the world into totalitarian extremes of ‘left’ and ‘right.’ Gods and princes were thrown down from the high places and stoned to death; states were raised thereupon and sacrificed as the highest form of humanity. A French ‘race’, an English ‘race’, a German ‘race’, or a ‘race of saints and so forth, represented by great men, did not satisfy the defrosted beast. Cousin’s Great Man was replaced by the Super Man of a mythical ‘Fire and Ice’ Super Race, and the unfrozen beast ran amok.

Victor Cousin certainly had his blinding prejudices, some inherited from German philosophers. For instance, he found truth all over the globe but he did not find any great men in the Orient, not “between the mountains of Persia and the sea-shore of China.” Today every European school kid should know of many great men in Oriental history; one of my favorites is Asoka, the amazing emperor of an Indian empire – Asoka is well known to Buddhists as ‘Buddhism’s Constantine.’ In fact, China and India were admired by Europeans: China for its imperial state and moralism, and India for its spiritualism. India’s Hinduism particularly inspired the transcendentally inclined German philosophers – Cousin described his own philosophy not only as ‘electicism’ but also as ‘Spiritualism.’

Human spirits are personal and representative – the ‘person’ is the social ‘interface’ of the willful individual. Abstract states and gods may be enlightening, but they do not give us the personal examples we need. Moral beings that we are, we tend to look for the best example; there are always a few persons who rise to the occasional although not to the perfect ideal we might desire. Now Cousin criticized India, saying its national spirit had been dissipated and its individual spirits throttled by the worship of impersonal infinity. As we know, Hindus do have a wide variety of personal forms available for worship although the Supreme Being of some schools is impersonal infinity – the Supreme Being can hypothetically take personal forms for particular purposes. We are well aware of the dangers of worshiping any definite person whether divine or, heaven forbid, human, therefore we look to the infinite possibilities beyond the imperfections that lead us astray. That is, we reach for the greatest beyond which no greater can be thought. Nevertheless, great men and women are indispensable for the advance of each and every person.

We might wonder whether or not the greatest leaders are the greatest followers and where each of us fits in to the scheme, but to doubt the existence and influence of great men and women would be fatal for the human race.

“When man does not regard himself seriously,” Victor Cousin lectured, “and has no importance in his eyes, he takes no note of what he does… Man, not believing himself worthy of memory, abandons the world to the action of the forces of nature, and history to the gods.”


Quoted Source:

Cousin, Victor 1792-1867, Course of the history of modern philosophy, New York: D. Appleton & company, 1857.

Contrary Notes:

The view that great men are the products of history rather than its masters can be found, for instance, in Leo Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE. His theoretical digressions on war and his philosophy of history is interspersed in Books Three and Four of that great work. Here are a few excerpts from Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation:

“On the 12th of June 1812 the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not regard at the time as crimes.”

“Without each of these (foregoing) causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes – myriads of causes – coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had to come from the east to west slaying their fellows.”

“We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events…. The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become.”

“Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, unversal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evidence is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.”

“A king is history’s slave.”

“In historic events the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connexion with the event itself. Each act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary, and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity.”

“The actors of 1812 have long since left the stage, their personal interests have vanished leaving no trace, and nothing remains of that time but its historic results. Providence compelled all these men, striving to attain personal aims, to further the accomplishment of a stupendous result no one of them at all expected – neither Napolean, nor Alexander, and still less any of those who did the actual fighting.”