An Essay Towards Preventing The Ruin Of Great Britain
by Bishop Berkeley
Whether the prosperity that preceded, or the calamities that succeed the South Sea project have most contributed to our undoing is not so clear a point as it is that we are actually undone, and lost to all sense of our true interest. Nothing less than this could render it pardonable to have recourse to those old fashioned trite maxims concerning Religion, Industry, Frugality, and Public Spirit, which are now forgotten, but if revived and put in practice, may not only prevent our final ruin, but also render us a more happy and flourishing people than ever.
Religion hath in former days been cherished and reverenced by wise patriots and lawgivers, as knowing it to be impossible that a nation should thrive and flourish without virtue, or that virtue should subsist without conscience, or conscience without religion : insomuch that an atheist or infidel was looked on with abhorrence, and treated as an enemy to his country- But, in these wiser times, a cold indifference for the national religion, and indeed for all matters of faith and Divine worship, is thought good sense. It is even become fashionable to decry religion ; and that little talent of ridicule is applied to such wrong purposes that a good Christian can hardly keep himself in countenance.
Liberty is the greatest human blessing that a virtuous man can possess, and is very consistent with the duties of a good subject and a good Christian. But the present age abounds with injudicious patrons of liberty, who, not distinguishing between that and licentiousness, take the surest method to discredit what they would seem to propagate. For, in effect, can there be a greater affront offered to that just freedom of thought and action which is the prerogative of a rational creature, or can any thing recommend it less to honest minds, than under colour thereof to obtrude scurrility and profaneness on the world? But it hath been always observed of weak men, that they know not how to avoid one extreme without running into another.
Too many of this sort pass upon vulgar readers for great authors, and men of profound thought; not on account of any superiority either in sense or style, both which they possess in a very moderate degree, nor of any discoveries they have made in arts and sciences, which they seem to be little acquainted with ; but purely because they flatter the passions of corrupt men, who are pleased to have the clamours of conscience silenced, and those great points of the Christian religion made suspected which withheld them from many vices of pleasure and interest, or made them uneasy in the commission of them.
In order to promote that laudable design of effacing all sense of religion from among us, they form themselves into assemblies, and proceed with united counsels and endeavours; with what success, and with what merit towards the public, the effect too plainly shows. I will not say these gentlemen have formed a direct design to ruin their country, or that they have the sense to see half the ill consequences which must necessarily flow from the spreading of their opinions ; but the nation feels them, and it is high time the legislature put a stop to them.
I am not about placing an invidious power in the hands of the clergy, or complying with the narrowness of any mistaken zealots who should incline to persecute Dissenters. But, whatever conduct common sense, as well as Christian charity, obliges us to use towards those who differ from us in some points of religion, yet the public safety requires that the avowed contaminators of all religion should be severely chastised. And perhaps it may be no easy matter to assign a good reason why blasphemy against God should not be inquired into and punished with the same rigour as treason against the king.
For, though we may attempt to patch up our affairs, yet it will be to no purpose ; the finger of God will unravel all our vain projects, and make them snares to draw us into greater calamities, if we do not reform that scandalous libertinism which (whatever some shallow men may think) is our worst symptom, and the surest prognostic of our ruin.
Industry is the natural sure way to wealth. This is so true that it is impossible an industrious free people should want the necessaries and comforts of life, or the idle enjoy them under any form of government. Money is so far useful to the public as it promotes industry, and credit having the same effect is of the same value with money ; but money or credit circulating through a nation from hand to hand, without producing labour and industry in the inhabitants, is direct gaming.
It is not impossible for cunning men to make such plausible schemes as may draw those who are less skilful into their own and the public ruin. But surely there is no man of sense and honesty but must see and own, whether he understands the game or not, that it is an evident folly for any people, instead of prosecuting the old honest methods of industry and frugality, to sit down to a public gaming-table, and play off their money one to another.
The more methods there are in a state for acquiring riches without industry or merit, the less there will be of either in that state ; this is as evident as the ruin that attends it. Besides, when money is shifted from hand to hand in such a blind, fortuitous manner that some men shall from nothing in an instant acquire vast estates without the least desert; while others are as suddenly stripped of plentiful fortunes, and left on the parish by their own avarice and credulity, what can be hoped for, on the one hand, but abandoned luxury and wantonness, or, on the other, extreme madness and despair?
In short, all projects for growing rich by sudden and extraordinary methods, as they operate violently on the passions of men, and encourage them to despise the slow moderate gains that are to be made by an honest industry, must be ruinous to the public, and even the winners themselves will at length be involved in the public ruin.
It is an easy matter to contrive projects for the encouragement of industry : I wish it were as easy to persuade men to put them in practice. There is no country in Europe where there is so much charity collected for the poor, and none where it is so ill managed. If the poor tax was fixed at a medium in every parish, taken from a calculation of the last ten years, and raised for seven years by act of parliament, that sum (if the common estimate be not very wrong), frugally and prudently laid out in workhouses, would for ever free the nation from the care of providing for the poor, and at the same time considerably improve our manufactures. We might by these means rid our streets of beggars; even the children, the maimed, and the blind, might be put in a way of doing something for their livelihood. As for the small number of those who by age or infirmities are utterly incapable of all employment, they might be maintained by the labour of others; and the public would receive no small advantage from the industry of those who are now so great a burden and expense to it.
The same tax, continued three years longer, might be very usefully employed in making high roads, and rendering rivers navigable - two things of so much profit and ornament to a nation, that we seem the only people in Europe who have neglected them. So that in the space of ten years the public may be for ever freed from a heavy tax, industry encouraged, commerce facilitated, and the whole country improved, and all this only by a frugal honest management, without raising one penny extraordinary.
The number of people is both means and motives to industry. It should therefore be of great use to encourage propagation, by allowing some reward or privilege to those who have a certain number of children; and, on the other hand, enacting that the public shall inherit hall the unentailed estates of all who die unmarried of either sex.
Besides the immediate end proposed by the foregoing methods, they furnish taxes upon passengers and dead bachelors, which are in no sort grievous to the subject, and may be applied towards clearing the public debt, which, all mankind agree, highly concerns the nation in general, both court and country. Caesar indeed mentions it as a piece of policy that he borrowed money from his officers to bestow it on the soldiers, which fixed both to his interest; and, though something like this may pass for skill at certain junctures in civil government yet, if carried too far, it will prove a dangerous experiment.
There is still room for invention or improvement in most trades and manufactures, and it is probable, that premiums given on that account to ingenious artists, would soon be repaid a hundredfold to the public. No colour is so much wore in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, as black ; but our black cloth is neither so lasting, nor so good for dye as the Dutch, which is the reason of their engrossing the profit of that trade. This is so true that I have known English merchants abroad wear black cloth of Holland themselves, and sell and recommend it as better than that of their own country. It is commonly said the water of Leyden hath a peculiar property for colouring black, but it hath been also said and passed current that good glasses may be made no where but at Venice, and there only in the island of Murano; which was attributed to some peculiar property in the air. And we may possibly find other opinions of that sort to be as groundless, should the legislature think it worthwhile to propose premiums in the foregoing, or in the like cases of general benefit to the public; but I remember to have seen, about seven years ago, a man pointed at in a coffee-house who (they said) had first introduced the right scarlet dye among us, by which the nation in general, as well as many private persons, have since been great gainers, though he was himself a beggar, who, if this be true, deserved an honour- maintenance from the public.
There are also several manufactures which we have from abroad that may be carried on to as great perfection here as elsewhere. If it be considered that more linen is worn in Great Britain than in any other country of Europe, it will be difficult to assign a reason why linen may not be made here as good, and in the same quantity, as in Holland, or France or Genoa. This is a manufacture of great consumption and wou!d save much to the public The like may be said of tapestry, lace, and other manufactures, which, if set in cheap parts of the country would employ many hands, and save money to the nation, as well as bring it from abroad. Projects for improving old manufactures, or setting up new ones, should not be despised in a trading country, but the making them pretences for stock-jobbing hath been a fatal imposition.
As industry depends upon trade, and this, as well as the public security, upon our navigation, it concerns the legislature to provide that the number of our sailors do not decrease - to which it would very much conduce, if a law were made prohibiting the payment of sailors in foreign parts ; for it is usual with those on board merchant- men as soon as they set foot on shore to receive their pay, which is soon spent in riotous living ; and when they have emptied their pockets, the temptation of present money never fails to draw them into any foreign service. To this (if I may credit the information I have had from some English factors abroad) it is chiefly owing, that the Venetians, Spaniards, and others have so many English on board their ships. Some merchants indeed and masters of vessels may make a profit in defrauding those poor wretches, when they pay them in strange coin (which I have been assured often amounts to twelvepence in the crown), as well as in ridding themselves of the charge of keeping them when they sell their ships, or stay long in port ; but the public lose both the money and the men, who, if their arrears were to be cleared at home, would be sure to return, and spend them in their own country. It is a shame this abuse should not be remedied.
Frugality of manners is the nourishment and strength of bodies politic. It is that by which they grow and subsist, until they are corrupted by luxury; the natural cause of their decay and ruin. Of this we have examples in the Persians, Lacedemonians, and Romans : not to mention many later governments which have sprung up, continued awhile, and then perished by the same natural abuses. But these are it seems, of no use to us; and, in spite of them, we are in a fair way of becoming ourselves another useless example to future ages.
Men are apt to measure national prosperity by riches. It would be righter to measure it by the use that is made of them. Where they promote an honest commerce among men, and are motives to industry and virtue, they are, without doubt, of great advantage ; but where they are made (as too often happens) an instrument to luxury, they enervate and dispirit the bravest people. So just is that remark of Machiavel - that there is no truth in the common saying, money is the nerves of war; and though we may subsist tolerably for a time amongst corrupt neighbours, yet if ever we have to do with a hardy, temperate, religious sort of men, we shall find, to our cost, that all our riches are but a poor exchange for that simplicity of manners which we despise in our ancestors. This sole advantage has been the main support of all the republics that have made a figure in the world ; and perhaps it might be no ill policy in a kingdom to form itself upon the manners of a republic.
Simplicity of manners may be more easily preserved in a republic than a monarchy ; but if once lost may be sooner recovered in a monarchy, the example of a court being of great efficacy, either to reform or to corrupt a people ; that alone were sufficient to discountenance the wearing of gold or silver, either in clothes or equipage, and if the same were prohibited by law, the saving so much bullion would be the smallest benefit of such an institution - there being nothing more apt to debase the virtue and good sense of our gentry of both sexes than the trifling vanity of apparel which we have learned from France, and which hath had such visible ill consequences on the genius of that people. Wiser nations have made it their care to shut out this folly by severe laws and penalties, and its spreading among us can forbode no good, if there be any truth in the observation of one of the ancients, that the direct way to ruin a man is to dress him up in fine clothes.
It cannot be denied that vanity of Dress gives a behaviour to our women, which may pass for a small offence, because it is a common one, but is in truth the source of great corruptions. For this small offence the prophet Isaiah denounced a severe judgment against the ladies of his time. It is very remarkable that luxury was never at so great a height, nor spread so generally through the nation, as during the expense of the late wars, and the heavy debt that still lies upon us.
This vice draws after it a train of evils which cruelly infest the public ; faction, ambition, envy, avarice, and that of the worst kind, being much more hurtful in its consequences, though not so infamous as penury. It was the great art of Cardinal Richelieu, by encouraging luxury and expense, to impoverish the French nobility and render them altogether dependent on the crown, which has been since very successfully effected. These and many more considerations show the necessity there is for sumptuary laws ; nor can anything be said against them in this island which might not with equal force be objected in other countries, which have nevertheless judged the public benefit of such institutions to be of far greater importance than the short sufferings of a few who subsist by the luxury of others.
It is evident that old taxes may be better borne, as well as new ones raised, by sumptuary laws judiciously framed, not to damage our trade, but retrench our luxury. It is evident that for want of these, luxury (which, like the other fashions, never fails to descend) has infected all ranks of people, and that this enables the Dutch and French to undersell us, to the great prejudice of our traffic. We cannot but know that, in our present circumstances it should be our care, as it is our interest, to make poverty tolerable ; in short, we have the experience of many ages to convince us that a corrupt luxurious people must of themselves fall into slavery. These and the like obvious reflections should, one would think, have forced any people in their senses upon frugal measures.
But we are doomed to be undone, Neither the plain reason of the thing, nor the experience of past ages, nor the examples we have before our eyes, can restrain us from imitating, not to say surpassing, the most corrupt and ruined people, in those very points of luxury that ruined them. Our Gaming, our Operas, our Masquerades, are, in spite of our debts and poverty, become the wonder of our neighbours. If there be any man so void of all thought and common sense as not to see where this must end, let him but compare what Venice was at the league of Cambray with what it is at present, and he will be convinced how truly those fashionable pastimes are calculated to depress and ruin a nation.
But neither Venice nor Paris nor any other town in any part of the world, ever knew such an expensive folly as our Masquerade. This alone is sufficient to inflame and satisfy the several appetites for gaming, dressing, intriguing, and luxurious eating and drinking. It is a most skilful abridgment, the very quintessence, the abstract of all those senseless vanities that have ever been the ruin of fools and detestation of wise men. And all this, under the notion of an elegant entertainment, hath been admitted among us ; though it be in truth a contagion of the worst kind. The plague, dreadful as it is, is an evil of short duration ; cities have often recovered and flourished after it ; but when was it known that a people broken and corrupt by luxury recovered themselves? Not to say that general corruption of manners never fails to draw after it some heavy judgment of war, famine, or pestilence. Of this we have a fresh instance in one of the most debauched towns of Europe, and nobody knows how soon it may be our own case. This elegant entertainment is indeed suspended for the present, but there remains so strong a propension towards it that, if the wisdom of the legislature does not interpose, it will soon return, with the additional temptation of having been forbidden for a time. It were stupid and barbarous to decline against keeping up the spirit of the people by proper diversions, but then they should be proper, such as to polish and improve their minds, or increase the strength and activity of their bodies; none of which ends are answered by the Masquerade, no more than by those French and Italian follies, which to our shame, are imported and encouraged at a time when the nation ought to be too grave for such trifles.
It is not to be believed what influence public diversions have on the spirit and manners of a people. The Greeks wisely saw this, and made a very serious affair of their public sports. For the same reason it will perhaps seem worthy the care of our legislature to regulate the public diversions by an absolute prohibition of those which have a direct tendency to corrupt our morals, as well as by a reformation of the Drama; - which, when rightly managed is such a noble entertainment, and gave those lessons of morality and good sense to the Athenians of old, and to our British gentry above a century ago; but for these last ninety years hath entertained us, for the most part, with such wretched things as spoil instead of improving the taste and manners of the audience. Those who are attentive to such propositions only as may fill their pockets will probably slight these things as trifles below the care of the legislature. But I am sure all honest thinking men must lament to see their country run headlong into all those luxurious follies, which, it is evident, have been fatal to other nations, and will undoubtedly prove fatal to us also, if a timely stop be not put to them.
Public spirit, that glorious principle of all that is great and good, is so far from being cherished or encouraged that it is become ridiculous in this enlightened age, which is taught to laugh at everything that is serious as well as sacred. The same atheistical narrow spirit, centring all our cares upon private interest, and contracting all our hopes within the enjoyment of this present life, equally produce a neglect of what we owe to God and our country. Cicero has long ago observed that it is impossible for those who have no belief of the immortality of the soul or a future state of rewards and punishments, to sacrifice their particular interests and passions to the public good, or have a generous concern for posterity and our own experience confirms the truth of this observation.
In order therefore to recover a sense of public spirit, it is to be wished that men were first affected with a true sense of religion; having ever been the great motive to courage and perseverance in a public cause.
It would likewise be a very useful policy, and warranted by the example of the wisest governments, to make the natural love of fame and reputation subservient to promoting that noble principle. Triumphal arches, columns, statues, inscriptions, and the like monuments of public services, have, in former times, been found great incentives to virtue and magnanimity; and would probably have the same effects on Englishmen which they have had on Greeks and Romans. And perhaps a pillar of infamy would be found a proper and exemplary punishment in cases of signal public villainy, where the loss of fortune, liberty, or life, are not proportioned to the crime; or where the skill of the offender, or the nature of his offence, may screen him from the letter of the law.
Several of these are to be seen at Genoa, Milan, and other towns of Italy, where it is the custom to demolish the house of a citizen who hath conspired the ruin of his country or been guilty of any enormous crime towards the public, and in place thereof to erect a monument of the crime and criminal, described in the blackest manner. We have nothing of this sort that I know, but that which is commonly called the Monument which in the last age was erected for an affair no way more atrocious than the modern unexampled attempt of men easy in their fortunes, and unprovoked by hardships of any sort, in cool blood, and with open eyes, to ruin their native country. This fact will never be forgotten, and it were to be wished that with it the public detestation thereof may be transmitted to posterity, which would in some measure vindicate the honour of the present and be a useful lesson to future ages.
Those noble arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting do not only adorn the public but have also an influence on the minds and manners of men, filling them with great ideas, and spiriting them up to an emulation of worthy actions. For this cause they were cultivated and encouraged by the Greek cities, who vied with each other in building and adorning their temples, theatres, porticos, and the like public works at the same time that they discouraged private luxury; the very reverse of our conduct. To propose the building a parliament house, courts of justice, royal palace, and other public edifices, suitable to the dignity of the nation, and adorning them with paintings and statues, which may transmit memorable things and persons to posterity, would probably be laughed at as a vain affair, of great expense, and little use to the public; and it must be owned we have reduced ourselves to such straits that any proposition of expense sits ill with our present circumstances. But, how proper soever this proposal may be for the times, yet it comes so properly into a discourse of public spirit that I could not but say something of it. And at another time it will not seem unreasonable, if we consider that it is no more than the wisest nations have done before us, that it would spirit up new arts, employ many hands, keep the money circulating at home, and, lastly, that it would be a notable instance of public spirit, as well as a motive to it.
The same noble principle may be also encouraged by erecting an Academy of ingenious men, whose employment it would be to compile the history of Great Britain, to make discourses proper to inspire men with a zeal for the public, and celebrate the memory of those who have been ornaments to the nation, or done it eminent service. Not to mention that this would improve our language, and amuse some busy spirits of the age; which perhaps would be no ill policy.
This is not without example; for, to say nothing of the French Academy, which is prostituted to meaner purposes, it has been the custom of the Venetian Senate to appoint one of their order to continue the history of the Republic This was introduced in the flourishing state of that people, and is still in force. We fall short of other nations in the number of good historians, though no nation in Christendom has produced greater events, or more worthy to be recorded. The Athenian Senate appointed orators to commemorate annually those who died in defence of their country. Which solemnity was performed at their monuments erected in honour of them by the public; and the panegyrics, composed by Isocrates and Pericles, as well as many passages in Cicero, inform us with what pleasure the ancient orators used to expatiate in praise of their country.
Concord and union among ourselves is rather to be hoped for as an effect of public spirit than proposed as a means to promote it. Candid, generous men, who are true lovers of their country, can never be enemies to one half of their countrymen, or carry their resentments so far as to ruin the public for the sake of a party. Now I have fallen upon the mention of our parties, I shall beg leave to insert a remark or two, for the service both of Whig and Tory, without entering into their respective merits. First, it is impossible for either party to ruin the other without involving themselves and their posterity in the same ruin. Secondly it is very feasible for either party to get the better of the other if they could first get the better of themselves; and, instead of indulging the little womanish passions of obstinacy, resentment and revenge, to steadily promote the true interest of their country, in those great clear points of piety, industry, sobriety of manners, and an honest regard for posterity, which, all men of sense agree, are essential to public happiness, There would be something so great and good in this conduct as must necessarily overbear all calumny and opposition. But that men should act reasonably is rather to be wished than hoped.
I am well aware, that to talk of public spirit, and the means of retrieving it, must, to narrow sordid minds, be matter of jest and ridicule, how conformable soever it be to right reason, and the maxims of antiquity. Though one would think the most selfish men might see it was their interest to encourage a spirit in others, by which they, to be sure, must be gainers. Yet such is the corruption and folly of the present age that a public spirit is treated like ignorance of the world and want of sense; and all the respect is paid to cunning men, who bend and wrest the public interest to their own private ends, that in other times hath been thought due to those who were generous enough to sacrifice their private interest to that of their country.
Such practices and such maxims as these must necessarily ruin a state. But if the contrary should prevail, we may hope to see men in power prefer the public wealth and security to their own, and men of money make free gifts, or lend it without interest to their country. This, how strange and incredible soever it may seem to us, hath been often done in other States. And the natural English temper considered, together with the force of example, no one can tell how far a proposal for a free gift may go among the monied men, when set on foot by the legislature, and encouraged by two or three men of figure, who have the spirit to do a generous thing, and the understanding to see it is every private man's interest to support that of the public.
If they who have their fortunes in money should make a voluntary gift, the public would be eased, and at the same time maintain its credit. Nor is a generous love of their country the only motive that should induce them to this. Common equity requires that all subjects should equally share the public burden; and common sense shows that those who are foremost in the danger should not be the most backward in contributing to prevent it.
Before I leave this subject, I cannot but take notice of that most infamous practice of Bribery, than which nothing can be more opposite to public spirit, since everyone who takes a bribe plainly owns that he prefers his private interest to that of his country. This corruption has become a national crime, having infected the lowest as well as the highest amongst us, and is so general and notorious that, as it cannot be matched in former ages, so it is to be hoped it will not be imitated by posterity.
This calls to mind another guilt, which we possess in a very eminent degree; there being no nation under the sun where solemn Perjury is so common, or where there are such temptations to it. The making men swear so often in their own case, and where they have an interest to conceal the truth, hath gradually worn off that awful respect which was once thought due to an appeal to Almighty God; insomuch, that men now-a-days break their fast and a custom-house oath with the same peace of mind. It is a policy peculiar to us, the obliging men to perjure or betray themselves, and hath had no one good effect, but many very ill ones. Sure I am that other nations, without the hundredth part of our swearing, contrive to do their business at least as well as we do. And perhaps our legislature will think it proper to follow their example. For, whatever measures are taken, so long as we lie under such a load of guilt as national Perjury and national Bribery it is impossible we can prosper.
This poor nation hath sorely smarted of late, and to ease the present smart, a sudden remedy (as is usual in such cases) hath been thought of but we must beware not to mistake an anodyne for a cure. Where the vitals are touched, and the whole mass of humours vitiated, it is not enough to ease the part pained; we must look farther, and apply general correctives; otherwise the ill humour may soon show itself in some other part.
The South-sea affair, how sensible soever, is not the original evil, or the great source of our misfortunes; it is but the natural effect of those principles which for many years have been propagated with great industry. And, as a sharp distemper, by reclaiming a man from intemperance, may prolong his life, so it is not impossible but this public calamity that lies so heavy on the nation may prevent its ruin. It would certainly prove the greatest of blessings, if it should make all honest men of one party ; if it should put religion and virtue in countenance, restore a sense of public spirit, and convince men it is a dangerous folly to pursue private aims in opposition to the good of their country ; if it should turn our thought from cozenage and stock-jobbing to industry and frugal methods of life; in fine, if it should revive that native spark of British worth and honour, which has too long lain smothered and oppressed.
With this view I have, among so many projects for remedying the ill state of our affairs in a particular instance, ventured to publish the foregoing hints, which as they have been thrown together from a zeal for the public good, so I heartily wish they may be regarded neither more nor less than as they are fitted to promote that end.
Though it must be owned that little can be hoped it we consider the corrupt degenerate age we live in. I know it is an old folly to make peevish complaints of the times, and charge the common failures of human nature on a particular age. One may nevertheless venture to affirm that the present hath brought forth new and portentous villainies, not to be paralleled in our own or any other history. We have been long preparing for some great catastrophe. Vice and villainy have by degrees grown reputable among us; our infidels have passed for fine gentlemen, and our venal traitors for men of sense, who know the world. We have made a jest of public spirit, and cancelled all respect for whatever our laws and religion repute sacred. The old English modesty is quite worn off, and instead of blushing for our crimes, we are ashamed only of piety and virtue. In short, other nations have been wicked, but we are the first who have been wicked upon principle.
The truth is, our symptoms are so bad that, notwithstanding all the care and vigilance of the legislature, it is to be feared the final period of our State approaches. Strong constitutions, whether politic or naturaJ, do not feel light disorders. But when they are sensibly affected, the distemper is for the most part violent and of an ill prognostic. Free governments like our own were planted by the Goths in most parts of Europe; and, though we all know what they are come to, yet we seem disposed rather to follow their example than to profit by it.
Whether it be in the order of things, that civil States should have, like natural products, their several periods of growth, perfection, and decay; or whether it be an effect, as seems more probable, of human folly that, as industry produces wealth, so wealth should produce vice, and vice ruin.
God grant the time be not near.
End of Ruin Of Great Britain by Bishop Berkeley