THE RUINS: MEDITATION ON THE REVOLUTIONS OF EMPIRES AND THE
LAW OF NATURE
by C. F. VOLNEY
CONTENT [Ch. IX] [Ch. X] [Ch. XI] [Ch. XII]
"We are mutually injuring each other by our passions; and, aiming to grasp
every thing, we hold nothing. What one seizes to-day, another takes to-morrow,
and our cupidity reacts upon ourselves. Let us establish judges, who shall
arbitrate our rights, and settle our differences! When the strong shall rise
against the weak, the judge shall restrain him, and dispose of our force to
suppress violence; and the life and property of each shall be under the
guarantee and protection of all; and all shall enjoy the good things of
Conventions were thus formed in society, sometimes express, sometimes tacit,
which became the rule for the action of individuals, the measure of their
rights, the law of their reciprocal relations; and persons were appointed to
superintend their observance, to whom the people confided the balance to weigh
rights, and the sword to punish transgressions.
Thus was established among individuals a happy equilibrium of force and
action, which constituted the common security. The name of equity and of justice
was recognized and revered over the earth; every one, assured of enjoying in
peace, the fruits of his toil, pursued with energy the objects of his attention;
and industry, excited and maintained by the reality or the hope of enjoyment,
developed, all the riches of art and of nature. The fields were covered with
harvests, the valleys with flocks, the hills with fruits, the sea with vessels,
and man became happy and powerful on the earth. Thus did his own wisdom repair
the disorder which his imprudence had occasioned; and that wisdom was only the
effect of his own organization. He respected the enjoyments of others in order
to secure his own; and cupidity found its corrective in the enlightened love of
Thus the love of self, the moving principle of every individual, becomes the
necessary foundation of every association; and on the observance of that law of
our nature has depended the fate of nations. Have the factitious and
conventional laws tended to that object and accomplished that aim? Every one,
urged by a powerful instinct, has displayed all the faculties of his being; and
the sum of individual felicities has constituted the general felicity. Have
these laws, on the contrary, restrained the effort of man toward his own
happiness? His heart, deprived of its exciting principle, has languished in
inactivity, and from the oppression of individuals has resulted the weakness of
As self-love, impetuous and improvident, is ever urging man against his
equal, and consequently tends to dissolve society, the art of legislation and
the merit of administrators consists in attempering the conflict of individual
cupidities, in maintaining an equilibrium of powers, and securing to every one
his happiness, in order that, in the shock of society against society, all the
members may have a common interest in the preservation and defence of the public
The internal splendor and prosperity of empires then, have had for their
efficient cause the equity of their laws and government; and their respective
external powers have been in proportion to the number of persons interested, and
their degree of interest in the public welfare.
On the other hand, the multiplication of men, by complicating their
relations, having rendered the precise limitation of their rights difficult, the
perpetual play of the passions having produced incidents not foreseen--their
conventions having been vicious, inadequate, or nugatory--in fine, the authors
of the laws having sometimes mistaken, sometimes disguised their objects; and
their ministers, instead of restraining the cupidity of others, having given
themselves up to their own; all these causes have introduced disorder and
trouble into societies; and the viciousness of laws and the injustice of
governments, flowing from cupidity and ignorance, have become the causes of the
misfortunes of nations, and the subversion of states.
GENERAL CAUSES OF THE PROSPERITY OF ANCIENT STATES
Such, O man who seekest wisdom, such have been the causes of revolution in
the ancient states of which thou contemplatest the ruins! To whatever spot I
direct my view, to whatever period my thoughts recur, the same principles of
growth or destruction, of rise or fall, present themselves to my mind. Wherever
a people is powerful, or an empire prosperous, there the conventional laws are
conformable with the laws of nature--the government there procures for its
citizens a free use of their faculties, equal security for their persons and
property. If, on the contrary, an empire goes to ruin, or dissolves, it is
because its laws have been vicious, or imperfect, or trodden under foot by a
corrupt government. If the laws and government, at first wise and just, become
afterwards depraved, it is because the alternation of good and evil is inherent
to the heart of man, to a change in his propensities, to his progress in
knowledge, to a combination of circumstances and events; as is proved by the
history of the species.
In the infancy of nations, when men yet lived in the forest, subject to the
same wants, endowed with the same faculties, all were nearly equal in strength;
and that equality was a circumstance highly advantageous in the composition of
society: as every individual, thus feeling himself sufficiently independent of
every other, no one was the slave, none thought of being the master of another.
Man, then a novice, knew neither servitude nor tyranny; furnished with resources
sufficient for his existence, he thought not of borrowing from others; owning
nothing, requiring nothing, he judged the rights of others by his own, and
formed ideas of justice sufficiently exact. Ignorant, moreover, in the art of
enjoyments, unable to produce more than his necessaries, possessing nothing
superfluous, cupidity remained dormant; or if excited, man, attacked in his real
wants, resisted it with energy, and the foresight of such resistance ensured a
Thus original equality, in default of compact, maintained freedom of person,
security of property, good manners, and order. Every one labored by himself and
for himself; and the mind of man, being occupied, wandered not to culpable
desires. He had few enjoyments, but his wants were satisfied; and as indulgent
nature had made them less than his resources, the labor of his hands soon
produced abundance--abundance, population; the arts unfolded, culture extended,
and the earth, covered with numerous inhabitants, was divided into different
The relations of man becoming complicated, the internal order of societies
became more difficult to maintain. Time and industry having generated riches,
cupidity became more active; and because equality, practicable among
individuals, could not subsist among families, the natural equilibrium was
broken; it became necessary to supply it by a factitious equilibrium; to set up
chiefs, to establish laws; and in the primitive inexperience, it necessarily
happened that these laws, occasioned by cupidity, assumed its character. But
different circumstances concurred to correct the disorder, and oblige
governments to be just.
States, in fact, being weak at first, and having foreign enemies to fear, the
chiefs found it their interest not to oppress their subjects; for, by lessening
the confidence of the citizens in their government, they would diminish their
means of resistance--they would facilitate foreign invasion, and by exercising
arbitrary power, have endangered their very existence.
In the interior, the firmness of the people repelled tyranny; men had
contracted too long habits of independence; they had too few wants, and too much
consciousness of their own strength.
States being of a moderate size, it was difficult to divide their citizens so
as to make use of some for the oppression of others. Their communications were
too easy, their interest too clear and simple: besides, every one being a
proprietor and cultivator, no one needed to sell himself, and the despot could
find no mercenaries.
If, then, dissensions arose, they were between family and family, faction and
faction, and they interested a great number. The troubles, indeed, were warmer;
but fears from abroad pacified discord at home. If the oppression of a party
prevailed, the earth being still unoccupied, and man, still in a state of
simplicity, finding every where the same advantages, the oppressed party
emigrated, and carried elsewhere their independence.
The ancient states then enjoyed within themselves numerous means of
prosperity and power. Every one finding his own well-being in the constitution
of his country, took a lively interest in its preservation. If a stranger
attacked it, having to defend his own field, his own house, he carried into
combat all the passions of a personal quarrel; and, devoted to his own
interests, he was devoted to his country.
As every action useful to the public attracted its esteem and gratitude,
every one became eager to be useful; and self-love multiplied talents and civic
Every citizen contributing equally by his talents and person, armies and
funds were inexhaustible, and nations displayed formidable masses of power.
The earth being free, and its possession secure and easy, every one was a
proprietor; and the division of property preserved morals, and rendered luxury
Every one cultivating for himself, culture was more active, produce more
abundant; and individual riches became public wealth.
The abundance of produce rendering subsistence easy, population was rapid and
numerous, and states attained quickly the term of their plenitude.
Productions increasing beyond consumption, the necessity of commerce arose;
and exchanges took place between people and people; which augmented their
activity and reciprocal advantages.
In fine, certain countries, at certain times, uniting the advantages of good
government with a position on the route of the most active circulation, they
became emporiums of flourishing commerce and seats of powerful domination. And
on the shores of the Nile and Mediterranean, of the Tygris and Euphrates, the
accumulated riches of India and of Europe raised in successive splendor a
hundred different cities.
The people, growing rich, applied their superfluity to works of common and
public use; and this was in every state, the epoch of those works whose grandeur
astonishes the mind; of those wells of Tyre, of those dykes of the Euphrates, of
those subterranean conduits of Media,* of those fortresses of the desert, of
those aqueducts of Palmyra, of those temples, of those porticoes. And such
labors might be immense, without oppressing the nations; because they were the
effect of an equal and common contribution of the force of individuals animated
* See respecting these monuments my Travels into Syria, vol. ii. p. 214.
From the town or village of Samouat the course of the Euphrates is
accompanied with a double bank, which descends as far as its junction with the
Tygris, and from thence to the sea, being a length of about a hundred leagues,
French measure. The height of these artificial banks is not uniform, but
increases as you advance from the sea; it may be estimated at from twelve to
fifteen feet. But for them, the inundation of the river would bury the country
around, which is flat, to an extent of twenty or twenty-five leagues and even
notwithstanding these banks, there has been in modern times an overflow, which
has covered the whole triangle formed by the junction of this river to the
Tygris, being a space of country of one hundred and thirty square leagues. By
the stagnation of these waters an epidemical disease of the most fatal nature
was occasioned. It follows from hence, 1. That all the flat country bordering
upon these rivers, was originally a marsh; 2. That this marsh could not have
been inhabited previously to the construction of the banks in question; 3. That
these banks could not have been the work but of a population prior as to date;
and the elevation of Babylon, therefore, must have been posterior to that of
Nineveh, as I think I have chronologically demonstrated in the memoir above
cited. See Encyclopedia, vol. xiii, of Antiquities.
The modern Aderbidjan, which was a part of Medea, the mountains of
Koulderstan, and those of Diarbekr, abound with subterranean canals, by means of
which the ancient inhabitants conveyed water to their parched soil in order to
fertilize it. It was regarded as a meritorious act and a religious duty
prescribed by Zoroaster, who, instead of preaching celibacy, mortifications, and
other pretended virtues of the monkish sort, repeats continually in the passages
that are preserved respecting him in the Sad-der and the Zend- avesta:
"That the action most pleasing to God is to plough and cultivate the earth,
to water it with running streams, to multiply vegetation and living beings, to
have numerous flocks, young and fruitful virgins, a multitude of children,"
Among the aqueducts of Palmyra it appears certain, that, besides those which
conducted water from the neighboring hills, there was one which brought it even
from the mountains of Syria. It is to be traced a long way into the Desert where
it escapes our search by going under ground.
Thus ancient states prospered, because their social institutions conformed to
the true laws of nature; and because men, enjoying liberty and security for
their persons and their property, might display all the extent of their
faculties,--all the energies of their self-love.
GENERAL CAUSES OF THE REVOLUTIONS AND RUIN OF ANCIENT STATES
Cupidity had nevertheless excited among men a constant and universal
conflict, which incessantly prompting individuals and societies to reciprocal
invasions, occasioned successive revolutions, and returning agitations.
And first, in the savage and barbarous state of the first men, this audacious
and fierce cupidity produced rapine, violence, and murder, and retarded for a
long time the progress of civilization.
When afterwards societies began to be formed, the effect of bad habits,
communicated to laws and governments, corrupted their institutions and objects,
and established arbitrary and factitious rights, which depraved the ideas of
justice, and the morality of the people.
Thus one man being stronger than another, their inequality--an accident of
nature--was taken for her law;* and the strong being able to take the life of
the weak, and yet sparing him, arrogated over his person an abusive right of
property; and the slavery of individuals prepared the way for the slavery of
*Almost all the ancient philosophers and politicians have laid it down as a
principle that men are born unequal, that nature his created some to be free,
and others to be slaves. Expressions of this kind are to be found in Aristotle,
and even in Plato, called the divine, doubtless in the same sense as the
mythological reveries which he promulgated. With all the people of antiquity,
the Gauls, the Romans, the Athenians, the right of the strongest was the right
of nations; and from the same principle are derived all the political disorders
and public national crimes that at present exist.
Because the head of a family could be absolute in his house, he made his own
affections and desires the rule of his conduct; he gave or resumed his goods
without equality, without justice; and paternal despotism laid the foundation of
despotism in government.*
* Upon this single expression it would be easy to write a long and important
chapter. We might prove in it, beyond contradiction, that all the abuses of
national governments, have sprung from those of domestic government, from that
government called patriarchal, which superficial minds have extolled without
having analyzed it. Numberless facts demonstrate, that with every infant people,
in every savage and barbarous state, the father, the chief of the family, is a
despot, and a cruel and insolent despot. The wife is his slave, the children his
servants. This king sleeps or smokes his pipe, while his wife and daughters
perform all the drudgery of the house, and even that of tillage and cultivation,
as far as occupations of this nature are practised in such societies; and no
sooner have the boys acquired strength then they are allowed to beat the females
and make them serve and wait upon them as they do upon their fathers. Similar to
this is the state of our own uncivilized peasants. In proportion as civilization
spreads, the manners become milder, and the condition of the women improves,
till, by a contrary excess, they arrive at dominion, and then a nation becomes
effeminate and corrupt. It is remarkable that parental authority is great in
proportion as the government is despotic. China, India, and Turkey are striking
examples of this. One would suppose that tyrants gave themselves accomplices and
interested subaltern despots to maintain their authority. In opposition to this
the Romans will be cited, but it remains to be proved that the Romans were men
truly free and their quick passage from their republican despotism to their
abject servility under the emperors, gives room at least for considerable doubt
as to that freedom.
In societies formed on such foundations, when time and labor had developed
riches, cupidity restrained by the laws, became more artful, but not less
active. Under the mask of union and civil peace, it fomented in the bosom of
every state an intestine war, in which the citizens, divided into contending
corps of orders, classes, families, unremittingly struggled to appropriate to
themselves, under the name of supreme power, the ability to plunder every thing,
and render every thing subservient to the dictates of their passions; and this
spirit of encroachment, disguised under all possible forms, but always the same
in its object and motives, has never ceased to torment the nations.
Sometimes, opposing itself to all social compact, or breaking that which
already existed, it committed the inhabitants of a country to the tumultuous
shock of all their discords; and states thus dissolved, and reduced to the
condition of anarchy, were tormented by the passions of all their members.
Sometimes a nation, jealous of its liberty, having appointed agents to
administer its government, these agents appropriated the powers of which they
had only the guardianship: they employed the public treasures in corrupting
elections, gaining partisans, in dividing the people among themselves. By these
means, from being temporary they became perpetual; from elective, hereditary;
and the state, agitated by the intrigues of the ambitious, by largesses from the
rich and factious, by the venality of the poor and idle, by the influence of
orators, by the boldness of the wicked, and the weakness of the virtuous, was
convulsed with all the inconveniences of democracy.
The chiefs of some countries, equal in strength and mutually fearing each
other, formed impious pacts, nefarious associations; and, apportioning among
themselves all power, rank, and honor, unjustly arrogated privileges and
immunities; erected themselves into separate orders and distinct classes;
reduced the people to their control; and, under the name of aristocracy, the
state was tormented by the passions of the wealthy and the great.
Sacred impostors, in other countries, tending by other means to the same
object, abused the credulity of the ignorant. In the gloom of their temples,
behind the curtain of the altar, they made their gods act and speak; gave forth
oracles, worked miracles, ordered sacrifices, levied offerings, prescribed
endowments; and, under the names of theocracy and of religion, the state became
tormented by the passions of the priests.
Sometimes a nation, weary of its dissensions or of its tyrants, to lessen the
sources of evil, submitted to a single master; but if it limited his powers, his
sole aim was to enlarge them; if it left them indefinite, he abused the trust
confided to him; and, under the name of monarchy, the state was tormented by the
passions of kings and princes.
Then the factions, availing themselves of the general discontent, flattered
the people with the hope of a better master; dealt out gifts and promises,
deposed the despot to take his place; and their contests for the succession, or
its partition, tormented the state with the disorders and devastations of civil
In fine, among these rivals, one more adroit, or more fortunate, gained the
ascendency, and concentrated all power within himself. By a strange phenomenon,
a single individual mastered millions of his equals, against their will and
without their consent; and the art of tyranny sprung also from cupidity.
In fact, observing the spirit of egotism which incessantly divides mankind,
the ambitious man fomented it with dexterity, flattered the vanity of one,
excited the jealousy of another, favored the avarice of this, inflamed the
resentment of that, and irritated the passions of all; then, placing in
opposition their interests and prejudices, he sowed divisions and hatreds,
promised to the poor the spoils of the rich, to the rich the subjection of the
poor; threatened one man by another, this class by that; and insulating all by
distrust, created his strength out of their weakness, and imposed the yoke of
opinion, which they mutually riveted on each other. With the army he levied
contributions, and with contributions he disposed of the army: dealing out
wealth and office on these principles, he enchained a whole people in
indissoluble bonds, and they languished under the slow consumption of
Thus the same principle, varying its action under every possible form, was
forever attenuating the consistence of states, and an eternal circle of
vicissitudes flowed from an eternal circle of passions.
And this spirit of egotism and usurpation produced two effects equally
operative and fatal: the one a division and subdivision of societies into their
smallest fractions, inducing a debility which facilitated their dissolution; the
other, a preserving tendency to concentrate power in a single hand,* which,
engulfing successively societies and states, was fatal to their peace and social
* It is remarkable that this has in all instances been the constant progress
of societies; beginning with a state of anarchy or democracy, that is, with a
great division of power they have passed to aristocracy, and from aristocracy to
monarchy. Does it not hence follow that those who constitute states under the
democratic form, destine them to undergo all the intervening troubles between
that and monarchy; but it should at the same time be proved that social
experience is already exhausted for the human race, and that this spontaneous
movement is not solely the effect of ignorance.
Thus, as in a state, a party absorbed the nation, a family the party, and an
individual the family; so a movement of absorption took place between state and
state, and exhibited on a larger scale in the political order, all the
particular evils of the civil order. Thus a state having subdued a state, held
it in subjection in the form of a province; and two provinces being joined
together formed a kingdom; two kingdoms being united by conquest, gave birth to
empires of gigantic size; and in this conglomeration, the internal strength of
states, instead of increasing, diminished; and the condition of the people,
instead of ameliorating, became daily more abject and wretched, for causes
derived from the nature of things.
Because, in proportion as states increased in extent, their administration
becoming more difficult and complicated, greater energies of power were
necessary to move such masses; and there was no longer any proportion between
the duties of sovereigns and their ability to perform their duties:
Because despots, feeling their weakness, feared whatever might develop the
strength of nations, and studied only how to enfeeble them:
Because nations, divided by the prejudices of ignorance and hatred, seconded
the wickedness of their governments; and availing themselves reciprocally of
subordinate agents, aggravated their mutual slavery:
Because, the balance between states being destroyed, the strong more easily
oppressed the weak.
Finally, because in proportion as states were concentrated, the people,
despoiled of their laws, of their usages, and of the government of their choice,
lost that spirit of personal identification with their government, which had
caused their energy.
And despots, considering empires as their private domains and the people as
their property, gave themselves up to depredations, and to all the
licentiousness of the most arbitrary authority.
And all the strength and wealth of nations were diverted to private expense
and personal caprice; and kings, fatigued with gratification, abandoned
themselves to all the extravagancies of factitious and depraved taste.* They
must have gardens mounted on arcades, rivers raised over mountains, fertile
fields converted into haunts for wild beasts; lakes scooped in dry lands, rocks
erected in lakes, palaces built of marble and porphyry, furniture of gold and
diamonds. Under the cloak of religion, their pride founded temples, endowed
indolent priests, built, for vain skeletons, extravagant tombs, mausoleums and
pyramids;** millions of hands were employed in sterile labors; and the luxury of
princes, imitated by their parasites, and transmitted from grade to grade to the
lowest ranks, became a general source of corruption and impoverishment.
* It is equally worthy of remark, that the conduct and manners of princes and
kings of every country and every age, are found to be precisely the same at
similar periods, whether of the formation or dissolution of empires. History
every where presents the same pictures of luxury and folly; of parks, gardens,
lakes, rocks, palaces, furniture, excess of the table, wine, women, concluding
The absurd rock in the garden of Versailles has alone cost three millions. I
have sometimes calculated what might have been done with the expense of the
three pyramids of Gizah, and I have found that it would easily have constructed
from the Red Sea to Alexandria, a canal one hundred and fifty feet wide and
thirty deep, completely covered in with cut stones and a parapet, together with
a fortified and commercial town, consisting of four hundred houses, furnished
with cisterns. What a difference in point of utility between such a canal and
** The learned Dupuis could not be persuaded that the pyramids were tombs;
but besides the positive testimony of historians, read what Diodorus says of the
religious and superstitious importance every Egyptian attached to building his
dwelling eternal, b. 1.
During twenty years, says Herodotus, a hundred thousand men labored every day
to build the pyramid of the Egyptian Cheops. Supposing only three hundred days a
year, on account of the sabbath, there will be 30 millions of days' work in a
year, and 600 millions in twenty years; at 15 sous a day, this makes 450
millions of francs lost, without any further benefit. With this sum, if the king
had shut the isthmus of Suez by a strong wall, like that of China, the destinies
of Egypt might have been entirely changed. Foreign invasions would have been
prevented, and the Arabs of the desert would neither have conquered nor harassed
that country. Sterile labors! how many millions lost in putting one stone upon
another, under the forms of temples and churches! Alchymists convert stones into
gold; but architects change gold into stone. Woe to the kings (as well as
subjects) who trust their purse to these two classes of empirics!
And in the insatiable thirst of enjoyment, the ordinary revenues no longer
sufficing, they were augmented; the cultivator, seeing his labors increase
without compensation, lost all courage; the merchant, despoiled, was disgusted
with industry; the multitude, condemned to perpetual poverty, restrained their
labor to simple necessaries; and all productive industry vanished.
The surcharge of taxes rendering lands a burdensome possession, the poor
proprietor abandoned his field, or sold it to the powerful; and fortune became
concentrated in a few hands. All the laws and institutions favoring this
accumulation, the nation became divided into a group of wealthy drones, and a
multitude of mercenary poor; the people were degraded with indigence, the great
with satiety, and the number of those interested in the preservation of the
state decreasing, its strength and existence became proportionally
On the other hand, emulation finding no object, science no encouragement, the
mind sunk into profound ignorance.
The administration being secret and mysterious, there existed no means of
reform or amelioration. The chiefs governing by force or fraud, the people
viewed them as a faction of public enemies; and all harmony ceased between the
governors and governed.
And these vices having enervated the states of the wealthy part of Asia, the
vagrant and indigent people of the adjacent deserts and mountains coveted the
enjoyments of the fertile plains; and, urged by a cupidity common to all,
attacked the polished empires, and overturned the thrones of their despots.
These revolutions were rapid and easy; because the policy of tyrants had
enfeebled the subjects, razed the fortresses, destroyed the warriors; and
because the oppressed subjects remained without personal interest, and the
mercenary soldiers without courage.
And hordes of barbarians having reduced entire nations to slavery, the
empires, formed of conquerors and conquered, united in their bosom two classes
essentially opposite and hostile. All the principles of society were dissolved:
there was no longer any common interest, no longer any public spirit; and there
arose a distinction of casts and races, which reduced to a regular system the
maintenance of disorder; and he who was born of this or that blood, was born a
slave or a tyrant--property or proprietor.
The oppressors being less numerous than the oppressed it was necessary to
perfect the science of oppression, in order to support this false equilibrium.
The art of governing became the art of subjecting the many to the few. To
enforce an obedience so contrary to instinct, the severest punishments were
established, and the cruelty of the laws rendered manners atrocious. The
distinction of persons establishing in the state two codes, two orders of
criminal justice, two sets of laws, the people, placed between the propensities
of the heart and the oath uttered from the mouth, had two consciences in
contradiction with each other; and the ideas of justice and injustice had no
longer any foundation in the understanding.
Under such a system, the people fell into dejection and despair; and the
accidents of nature were added to the other evils which assailed them.
Prostrated by so many calamities, they attributed their causes to superior and
hidden powers; and, because they had tyrants on earth, they fancied others in
heaven; and superstition aggravated the misfortunes of nations.
Fatal doctrines and gloomy and misanthropic systems of religion arose, which
painted their gods, like their despots, wicked and envious. To appease them, man
offered up the sacrifice of all his enjoyments. He environed himself in
privations, and reversed the order of nature. Conceiving his pleasures to be
crimes, his sufferings expiations, he endeavored to love pain, and to abjure the
love of self. He persecuted his senses, hated his life; and a self-denying and
anti-social morality plunged nations into the apathy of death.
But provident nature having endowed the heart of man with hope inexhaustible,
when his desires of happiness were baffled on this earth, he pursued it into
another world. By a sweet illusion he created for himself another country--an
asylum where, far from tyrants, he should recover the rights of nature, and
thence resulted new disorders. Smitten with an imaginary world, man despised
that of nature. For chimerical hopes, he neglected realities. His life began to
appear a troublesome journey--a painful dream; his body a prison, the obstacle
to his felicity; and the earth, a place of exile and of pilgrimage, not worthy
of culture. Then a holy indolence spread over the political world; the fields
were deserted, empires depopulated, monuments neglected and deserts multiplied;
ignorance, superstition and fanaticism, combining their operations, overwhelmed
the earth with devastation and ruin.
Thus agitated by their own passions, men, whether collectively or
individually taken, always greedy and improvident, passing from slavery to
tyranny, from pride to baseness, from presumption to despondency, have made
themselves the perpetual instruments of their own misfortunes.
These, then, are the principles, simple and natural, which regulated the
destiny of ancient states. By this regular and connected series of causes and
effects, they rose or fell, in proportion as the physical laws of the human
heart were respected or violated; and in the course of their successive changes,
a hundred different nations, a hundred different empires, by turns humbled,
elevated, conquered, overthrown, have repeated for the earth their instructive
lessons. Yet these lessons were lost for the generations which have followed!
The disorders in times past have reappeared in the present age! The chiefs of
the nations have continued to walk in the paths of falsehood and tyranny!--the
people to wander in the darkness of superstition and ignorance!
Since then, continued the Genius, with renewed energy, since the experience
of past ages is lost for the living--since the errors of progenitors have not
instructed their descendants, the ancient examples are about to reappear; the
earth will see renewed the tremendous scenes it has forgotten. New revolutions
will agitate nations and empires; powerful thrones will again be overturned, and
terrible catastrophes will again teach mankind that the laws of nature and the
precepts of wisdom and truth cannot be infringed with impunity.
LESSONS OF TIMES PAST REPEATED ON THE PRESENT
Thus spoke the Genius. Struck with the justice and coherence of his
discourse, assailed with a crowd of ideas, repugnant to my habits yet convincing
to my reason, I remained absorbed in profound silence. At length, while with
serious and pensive mien, I kept my eyes fixed on Asia, suddenly in the north,
on the shores of the Black sea, and in the fields of the Crimea, clouds of smoke
and flame attracted my attention. They appeared to rise at the same time from
all parts of the peninsula; and passing by the isthmus into the continent, they
ran, as if driven by a westerly wind, along the oozy lake of Azof, and
disappeared in the grassy plains of Couban; and following more attentively the
course of these clouds, I observed that they were preceded or followed by swarms
of moving creatures, which, like ants or grasshoppers disturbed by the foot of a
passenger, agitated themselves with vivacity. Sometimes these swarms appeared to
advance and rush against each other; and numbers, after the concussion, remained
motionless. While disquieted at this spectacle, I strained my sight to
distinguish the objects.
Do you see, said the Genius, those flames which spread over the earth, and do
you comprehend their causes and effects?
Oh! Genius, I answered, I see those columns of flame and smoke, and something
like insects, accompanying them; but, when I can scarcely discern the great
masses of cities and monuments, how should I discover, such little creatures? I
can just perceive that these insects mimic battle, for they advance, retreat,
attack and pursue.
It is no mimicry, said the Genius, these are real battles.
And what, said I, are those mad animalculae, which destroy each other? Beings
of a day! will they not perish soon enough?
Then the Genius, touching my sight and hearing, again directed my eyes
towards the same object. Look, said he, and listen!
Ah! wretches, cried I, oppressed with grief, these columns of flame! these
insects! oh! Genius, they are men. These are the ravages of war! These torrents
of flame rise from towns and villages! I see the squadrons who kindle them, and
who, sword in hand overrun the country: they drive before them crowds of old
men, women, and children, fugitive and desolate: I perceive other horsemen, who
with shouldered lances, accompany and guide them. I even recognize them to be
Tartars by their led horses,* their kalpacks, and tufts of hair: and, doubtless,
they who pursue, in triangular hats and green uniforms, are Muscovites. Ah! I
now comprehend, a war is kindled between the empire of the Czars and that of the
* A Tartar horseman has always two horses, of which he leads one in hand. The
Kalpeck is a bonnet made of the skin of a sheep or other animal. The part of the
head covered by this bonnet is shaved, with the exception of a tuft, about the
size of a crown piece, and which is suffered to grow to the length of seven or
eight inches, precisely where our priests place their tonsure. It is by this
tuft of hair, worn by the majority of Mussulmen, that the angel of the tomb is
to take the elect and carry them into paradise.
Not yet, replied the Genius; this is only a preliminary. These Tartars have
been, and might still he troublesome neighbors. The Muscovites are driving them
off, finding their country would be a convenient extension of their own limits;
and as a prelude to another revolution, the throne of the Guerais is
And in fact, I saw the Russian standards floating over the Crimea: and soon
after their flag waving on the Euxine.
Meanwhile, at the cry of the flying Tartars, the Mussulman empire was in
commotion. They are driving off our brethren, cried the children of Mahomet: the
people of the prophet are outraged! infidels occupy a consecrated land and
profane the temples of Islamism.* Let us arm; let us rush to combat, to avenge
the glory of God and our own cause.
* It is not in the power of the Sultan to cede to a foreign power a province
inhabited by true believers. The people, instigated by the lawyers, would not
fail to revolt. This is one reason which has led those who know the Turks, to
regard as chimerical the ceding of Candia, Cyprus, and Egypt, projected by
certain European potentates.
And a general movement of war took place in both empires. In every part armed
men assembled. Provisions, stores, and all the murderous apparatus of battle
were displayed. The temples of both nations, besieged by an immense multitude,
presented a spectacle which fixed all my attention.
On one side, the Mussulmen gathered before their mosques, washed their hands
and feet, pared their nails, and combed their beards; then spreading carpets
upon the ground, and turning towards the south, with their arms sometimes
crossed and sometimes extended, they made genuflexions and prostrations, and
recollecting the disasters of the late war, they exclaimed:
God of mercy and clemency! hast thou then abandoned thy faithful people? Thou
who hast promised to thy Prophet dominion over nations, and stamped his religion
by so many triumphs, dost thou deliver thy true believers to the swords of
And the Imans and the Santons said to the people:
It is in chastisement of your sins. You eat pork; you drink wine; you touch
unclean things. God hath punished you. Do penance therefore; purify; repeat the
profession of faith;* fast from the rising to the setting sun; give the tenth of
your goods to the mosques; go to Mecca; and God will render you victorious.
* There is but one God, and Mahomet is his prophet.
And the people, recovering courage, uttered loud cries:
There is but one God, said they transported with fury, and Mahomet is his
prophet! Accursed be he who believeth not!
God of goodness, grant us to exterminate these Christians; it is for thy
glory we fight, and our death is a martyrdom for thy name. And then, offering
victims, they prepared for battle.
On the other side, the Russians, kneeling, said:
We render thanks to God, and celebrate his power. He hath strengthened our
arm to humble his enemies. Hear our prayers, thou God of mercy! To please thee,
we will pass three days without eating either meat or eggs. Grant us to
extirpate these impious Mahometans, and to overturn their empire. To thee we
will consecrate the tenth of our spoil; to thee we will raise new temples.
And the priests filled the churches with clouds of smoke, and said to the
We pray for you, God accepteth our incense, and blesseth your arms. Continue
to fast and to fight; confess to us your secret sins; give your wealth to the
church; we will absolve you from your crimes, and you shall die in a state of
And they sprinkled water upon the people, dealt out to them, as amulets and
charms, small relics of the dead, and the people breathed war and combat.
Struck with this contrast of the same passions, and grieving for their fatal
consequences, I was considering the difficulty with which the common judge could
yield to prayers so contradictory; when the Genius, glowing with anger, spoke
What accents of madness strike my ear? What blind and perverse delirium
disorders the spirits of the nations? Sacrilegious prayers rise not from the
earth! and you, oh Heavens, reject their homicidal vows and impious
thanksgivings! Deluded mortals! is it thus you revere the Divinity? Say then;
how should he, whom you style your common father, receive the homage of his
children murdering one another? Ye victors! with what eye should he view your
hands reeking in the blood he hath created? And, what do you expect, oh
vanquished, from useless groans? Hath God the heart of a mortal, with passions
ever changing? Is he, like you, agitated with vengeance or compassion, with
wrath or repentance? What base conception of the most sublime of beings!
According to them, it would seem, that God whimsical and capricious, is angered
or appeased as a man: that he loves and hates alternately; that he punishes or
favors; that, weak or wicked, he broods over his hatred; that, contradictory or
perfidious, he lays snares to entrap; that he punishes the evils he permits;
that he foresees but hinders not crimes; that, like a corrupt judge, he is
bribed by offerings; like an ignorant despot, he makes laws and revokes them;
that, like a savage tyrant, he grants or resumes favors without reason, and can
only be appeased by servility. Ah! now I know the lying spirit of man!
Contemplating the picture which he hath drawn of the Divinity: No, said I, it is
not God who hath made man after the image of God; but man hath made God after
the image of man; he hath given him his own mind, clothed him with his own
propensities; ascribed to him his own judgments. And when in this medley he
finds the contradiction of his own principles, with hypocritical humility, he
imputes weakness to his reason, and names the absurdities of his own mind the
mysteries of God.
He hath said, God is immutable, yet he offers prayers to change him; he hath
pronounced him incomprehensible, yet he interprets him without
Imposters have arisen on the earth who have called themselves the confidants of God; and, erecting themselves into teachers of the people, have opened the ways of falsehood and iniquity; they have ascribed merit to practices indifferent or ridiculous; they have supposed a virtue, in certain postures, in pronouncing certain words, articulating certain names; they have transformed into a crime the eating of certain meats, the drinking of certain liquors, on one day rather than another. The Jew would rather die than labor on the sabbath; the Persian would endure suffocation, before he would blow the fire with his breath; the Indian places supreme perfection in besmearing himself with cow-dung, and pronouncing mysteriously the word Aum;* the Mussulman believes he has expiated everything in washing his head and arms; and disputes, sword in hand, whether the ablution should commence at the elbow, or finger ends;** the Christian would think himself damned, if he ate flesh instead of milk or butter. Oh sublime doctrines! Doctrines truly from heaven! Oh perfect morals, and worthy of martyrdom or the apostolate! I will cross the seas to teach these admirable laws to the savage people--to distant nations; I will say unto them:
* This word is, in the religion of the Hindoos, a sacred emblem of the
Divinity. It is only to be pronounced in secret, without being heard by any one.
It is formed of three letters, of which the first, a, signifies the principal of
all, the creator, Brama; the second, u, the conservator, Vichenou; and the last,
m, the destroyer, who puts an end to all, Chiven. It is pronounced like the
monosyllable om, and expresses the unity of those three Gods. The idea is
precisely that of the Alpha and Omega mentioned in the New Testament.
** This is one of the grand points of schism between the partisans of Omar
and those of Ali. Suppose two Mahometans to meet on a journey, and to accost
each other with brotherly affection: the hour of prayer arrives; one begins his
ablution at his fingers, the other at the elbow, and instantly they are mortal
enemies. O sublime importance of religious opinions! O profound philosophy of
the authors of them!
Children of nature, how long will you walk in the paths of ignorance? how
long will you mistake the true principles of morality and religion? Come and
learn its lessons from nations truly pious and learned, in civilized countries.
They will inform you how, to gratify God, you must in certain months of the
year, languish the whole day with hunger and thirst; how you may shed your
neighbor's blood, and purify yourself from it by professions of faith and
methodical ablutions; how you may steal his property and be absolved on sharing
it with certain persons, who devote themselves to its consumption.
Sovereign and invisible power of the universe! mysterious mover of nature!
universal soul of beings! thou who art unknown, yet revered by mortals under so
many names! being incomprehensible and infinite! God, who in the immensity of
the heavens directest the movement of worlds, and peoplest the abyss of space
with millions of suns! say what do these human insects, which my sight no longer
discerns on the earth, appear in thy eyes? To thee, who art guiding stars in
their orbits, what are those wormlings writhing themselves in the dust? Of what
import to thy immensity, their distinctions of parties and sects? And of what
concern the subtleties with which their folly torments itself?
And you, credulous men, show me the effect of your practices! In so many
centuries, during which you have been following or altering them, what changes
have your prescriptions wrought in the laws of nature? Is the sun brighter? Is
the course of the seasons varied? Is the earth more fruitful, or its inhabitants
more happy? If God be good, can your penances please him? If infinite, can your
homage add to his glory? If his decrees have been formed on foresight of every
circumstance, can your prayers change them? Answer, O inconsistent mortals!
Ye conquerors of the earth, who pretend you serve God! doth he need your aid?
If he wishes to punish, hath he not earthquakes, volcanoes, and thunder? And
cannot a merciful God correct without extermination?
Ye Mussulmans, if God chastiseth you for violating the five precepts, how
hath he raised up the Franks who ridicule them? If he governeth the earth by the
Koran, by what did he govern it before the days of the prophet, when it was
covered with so many nations who drank wine, ate pork, and went not to Mecca,
whom he nevertheless permitted to raise powerful empires? How did he judge the
Sabeans of Nineveh and of Babylon; the Persian, worshipper of fire; the Greek
and Roman idolators; the ancient kingdoms of the Nile; and your own ancestors,
the Arabians and Tartars? How doth he yet judge so many nations who deny, or
know not your worship-- the numerous castes of Indians, the vast empire of the
Chinese, the sable race of Africa, the islanders of the ocean, the tribes of
Presumptuous and ignorant men, who arrogate the earth to yourselves! if God
were to gather all the generations past and present, what would be, in their
ocean, the sects calling themselves universal, of Christians and Mussulmans?
What would be the judgments of his equal and common justice over the real
universality of mankind? Therein it is that your knowledge loseth itself in
incoherent systems; it is there that truth shines with evidence; and there are
manifested the powerful and simple laws of nature and reason--laws of a common
and general mover--of a God impartial and just, who sheds rain on a country
without asking who is its prophet; who causeth his sun to shine alike on all the
races of men, on the white as on the black, on the Jew, on the Mussulman, the
Christian, and the Idolater; who reareth the harvest wherever cultivated with
diligence; who multiplieth every nation where industry and order prevaileth; who
prospereth every empire where justice is practised, where the powerful are
restrained, and the poor protected by the laws; where the weak live in safety,
and all enjoy the rights given by nature and a compact formed in justice.
These are the principles by which people are judged! this the true religion
which regulates the destiny of empires, and which, O Ottomans, hath governed
yours! Interrogate your ancestors, ask of them by what means they rose to
greatness; when few, poor and idolaters, they came from the deserts of Tartary
and encamped in these fertile countries; ask if it was by Islamism, till then
unknown to them, that they conquered the Greeks and the Arabs, or was it by
their courage, their prudence, moderation, spirit of union--the true powers of
the social state? Then the Sultan himself dispensed justice, and maintained
discipline. The prevaricating judge, the extortionate governor, were punished,
and the multitude lived at ease. The cultivator was protected from the rapine of
the janissary, and the fields prospered; the highways were safe, and commerce
caused abundance. You were a band of plunderers, but just among yourselves. You
subdued nations, but did not oppress them. Harassed by their own princes, they
preferred being your tributaries. What matters it, said the Christian, whether
my ruler breaks or adores images, if he renders justice to me? God will judge
his doctrines in the heavens above.
You were sober and hardy; your enemies timid and enervated; you were expert
in battle, your enemies unskillful; your leaders were experienced, your soldiers
warlike and disciplined. Booty excited ardor, bravery was rewarded, cowardice
and insubordination punished, and all the springs of the human heart were in
action. Thus you vanquished a hundred nations, and of a mass of conquered
kingdoms compounded an immense empire.
But other customs have succeeded; and in the reverses attending them, the
laws of nature have still exerted their force. After devouring your enemies,
your cupidity, still insatiable, has reacted on itself, and, concentrated in
your own bowels, has consumed you.
Having become rich, you have quarrelled for partition and enjoyment, and
disorder hath arisen in every class of society.
The Sultan, intoxicated with grandeur, has mistaken the object of his
functions; and all the vices of arbitrary power have been developed. Meeting no
obstacle to his appetites, he has become a depraved being; weak and arrogant, he
has kept the people at a distance; and their voice has no longer instructed and
guided him. Ignorant, yet flattered, neglecting all instruction, all study, he
has fallen into imbecility; unfit for business, he has thrown its burdens on
hirelings, and they have deceived him. To satisfy their own passions, they have
stimulated and nourished his; they have multiplied his wants, and his enormous
luxury has consumed everything. The frugal table, plain clothing, simple
dwelling of his ancestors no longer sufficed. To supply his pomp, earth and sea
have been exhausted. The rarest furs have been brought from the poles; the most
costly tissues from the equator. He has devoured at a meal the tribute of a
city, and in a day that of a province. He has surrounded himself with an army of
women, eunuchs, and satellites. They have instilled into him that the virtue of
kings is to be liberal, and the munificence and treasures of the people have
been delivered into the hands of flatterers. In imitation of their master, his
servants must also have splendid houses, the most exquisite furniture; carpets
embroidered at great cost, vases of gold and silver for the lowest uses, and all
the riches of the empire have been swallowed up in the Serai.
To supply this inordinate luxury, the slaves and women have sold their
influence, and venality has introduced a general depravation. The favor of the
sovereign has been sold to his vizier, and the vizier has sold the empire. The
law has been sold to the cadi, and the cadi has made sale of justice. The altar
has been sold to the priest, and the priest has sold the kingdom of heaven. And
gold obtaining everything, they have sacrificed everything to obtain gold. For
gold, friend has betrayed friend, the child his parent, the servant his master,
the wife her honor, the merchant his conscience; and good faith, morals,
concord, and strength were banished from the state.
The pacha, who had purchased the government of his province, farmed it out to
others, who exercised every extortion. He sold in turn the collection of the
taxes, the command of the troops, the administration of the villages; and as
every employ has been transient, rapine, spread from rank to rank, has been
greedy and implacable. The revenue officer has fleeced the merchant, and
commerce was annihilated; the aga has plundered the husbandman, and culture has
degenerated. The laborer, deprived of his stock, has been unable to sow; the tax
was augmented, and he could not pay it; the bastinado has been threatened, and
he has borrowed. Money, from want of security, being locked up from circulation,
interest was therefore enormous, and the usury of the rich has aggravated the
misery of the laborer.
When excessive droughts and accidents of seasons have blasted the harvest,
the government has admitted no delay, no indulgence for the tax; and distress
bearing hard on the village, a part of its inhabitants have taken refuge in the
cities; and their burdens falling on those who remained, has completed their
ruin, and depopulated the country.
If driven to extremity by tyranny and outrage, the villages have revolted,
the pacha rejoices. He wages war on them, assails their homes, pillages their
property, carries off their stock; and when the fields have become a desert, he
"What care I? I leave these fields to-morrow."
The earth wanting laborers, the rain of heaven and overflowing of torrents
have stagnated in marshes; and their putrid exhalations in a warm climate, have
caused epidemics, plagues, and maladies of all sorts, whence have flowed
additional suffering, penury, and ruin.
Oh! who can enumerate all the calamities of tyrannical government?
Sometimes the pachas declare war against each other, and for their personal
quarrels the provinces of the same state are laid waste. Sometimes, fearing
their masters, they attempt independence, and draw on their subjects the
chastisement of their revolt. Sometimes dreading their subjects, they invite and
subsidize strangers, and to insure their fidelity set no bounds to their
depredations. Here they persecute the rich and despoil them under false
pretences; there they suborn false witnesses, and impose penalties for
suppositious offences; everywhere they excite the hatred of parties, encourage
informations to obtain amercements, extort property, seize persons; and when
their short-sighted avarice has accumulated into one mass all the riches of a
country, the government, by an execrable perfidy, under pretence of avenging its
oppressed people, takes to itself all their spoils, as if they were the
culprits, and uselessly sheds the blood of its agents for a crime of which it is
Oh wretches, monarchs or ministers, who sport with the lives and fortunes of
the people! Is it you who gave breath to man, that you dare take it from him? Do
you give growth to the plants of the earth, that you may waste them? Do you toil
to furrow the field? Do you endure the ardor of the sun, and the torment of
thirst, to reap the harvest or thrash the grain? Do you, like the shepherd,
watch through the dews of the night? Do you traverse deserts, like the merchant?
Ah! on beholding the pride and cruelty of the powerful, I have been transported
with indignation, and have said in my wrath, will there never then arise on the
earth men who will avenge the people and punish tyrants? A handful of brigands
devour the multitude, and the multitude submits to be devoured! Oh! degenerate
people! Know you not your rights? All authority is from you, all power is yours.
Unlawfully do kings command you on the authority of God and of their
lance--Soldiers be still; if God supports the Sultan he needs not your aid; if
his sword suffices, he needs not yours; let us see what he can do alone. The
soldiers grounded their arms; and behold these masters of the world, feeble as
the meanest of their subjects! People! know that those who govern are your
chiefs, not your masters; your agents, not your owners; that they have no
authority over you, but by you, and for you; that your wealth is yours and they
accountable for it; that, kings or subjects, God has made all men equal, and no
mortal has the right to oppress his fellow-creatures.
But this nation and its chiefs have mistaken these holy truths. They must
abide then the consequences of their blindness. The decree is past; the day
approaches when this colossus of power shall be crushed and crumbled under its
own mass. Yes, I swear it, by the ruins of so many empires destroyed. The empire
of the Crescent shall follow the fate of the despotism it has copied. A nation
of strangers shall drive the Sultan from his metropolis. The throne of Orkhan
shall be overturned. The last shoot of his trunk shall be broken off; and the
horde of Oguzians,* deprived of their chief, shall disperse like that of the
Nagois. In this dissolution, the people of the empire, loosened from the yoke
which united them, shall resume their ancient distinctions, and a general
anarchy shall follow, as happened in the empire of the Sophis;** until there
shall arise among the Arabians, Armenians, or Greeks, legislators who may
compose new states.
* Before the Turks took the name of their chief, Othman I., they bore that of
Oguzians; and it was under this appellation that they were driven out of Tartary
by Gengis, and came from the borders of Giboun to settle themselves in
** In Persia, after the death of Thamas-Koulikan, each province had its
chief, and for forty years these chiefs were in a constant state of war. In this
view the Turks do not say without reason: "Ten years of a tyrant are less
destructive than a single night of anarchy."
Oh! if there were on earth men profound and bold! what elements for grandeur
and glory! But the hour of destiny has already come; the cry of war strikes my
ear; and the catastrophe begins. In vain the Sultan leads forth his armies; his
ignorant warriors are beaten and dispersed. In vain he calls his subjects; their
hearts are ice. Is it not written? say they, what matters who is our master? We
cannot lose by the change.
In vain the true believers invoke heaven and the prophet. The prophet is
dead; and heaven without pity answers:
Cease to invoke me. You have caused your own misfortunes; cure them
yourselves. Nature has established laws; your part is to obey them. Observe,
reason, and profit by experience. It is the folly of man which ruins him; let
his wisdom save him. The people are ignorant; let them gain instruction. Their
chiefs are wicked; let them correct and amend; for such is Nature's decree.
Since the evils of society spring from cupidity and ignorance, men will never
cease to be persecuted, till they become enlightened and wise; till they
practise justice, founded on a knowledge of their relations and of the laws of
* A singular moral phenomenon made its appearance in Europe in the year 1788. A great nation, jealous of its liberty, contracted a fondness for a nation the enemy of liberty; a nation friendly to the arts, for a nation that detests them; a mild and tolerant nation, for a persecuting and fanatic one; a social and gay nation, for a nation whose characteristics are gloom and misanthropy; in a word, the French were smitten with a passion for the Turks: they were desirous of engaging in a war for them, and that at a time when revolution in their own country was just at its commencement. A man, who perceived the true nature of the situation, wrote a book to dissuade them from the war: it was immediately pretended that he was paid by the government, which in reality wished the war, and which was upon the point of shutting him up in a state prison. Another man wrote to recommend the war: he was applauded, and his word taken for the science, the politeness, and importance of the Turks. It is true that he believed in his own thesis, for he has found among them people who cast a nativity, and alchymists who ruined his fortune; as he found Martinists at Paris, who enabled him to sup with Sesostris, and Magnetizers who concluded with destroying his existence. Notwithstanding this, the Turks were beaten by the Russians, and the man who then predicted the fall of their empire, persists in the prediction. The result of this fall will be a complete change of the political system, as far as it relates to the coast of the Mediterranean. If, however, the French become important in proportion as they become free, and if they make use of the advantage they will obtain, their progress may easily prove of the most honorable sort; inasmuch as, by the wise decrees of fate, the true interest of mankind evermore accords with their true morality.