Proofs of a Conspiracy, by John Robison 1798

Such would be the conduct of a prudent man, who listens to the instructions of another with the serious intention of profiting by them. In the present case, he sees plain proofs of degraded self estimation, of dishonesty, and of mean motives. But the prudent man will go further–he will remark that dissolute manners, and actions which are inevitably subversive of the peace and order, nay, of the very existence of society, are the natural and necessary consequences of irreligion. Should any doubt of this remain in his mind; should he sometimes think of an Epectetus, or one or two individuals of antiquity, who were eminently virtuous, without the influence of religious sanctions, he should recollect, that the Stoics were animated by the thought, that while the wise man was playing the game of life, the gods were looking on, and pleased with his skill. Let him read the beautiful account given by Dr. Smith, of the rise of the Stoic philosophy, and he will see that it was an artificial, but noble attempt of a few exalted minds, enthusiasts in virtue, aiming to steel their souls against the dreadful but unavoidable misfortunes to which they were continually exposed by the daily recurring revolutions in the turbulent democracies of ancient Greece. There a Philosopher was this day a Magistrate, and the next day a captive and a slave. He would see, that this fair picture of mental happiness and independence was fitted for the contemplation of only a few choice spirits, but had no influence on the bulk of mankind. He must admire the noble characters who were animated by this manly enthusiasm, and who have really exhibited some wonderful pictures of virtuous heroism; but he will regret, that the influence of these manly, these natural principles, was not more extensive. He will say to himself, “How will a whole nation act, when religious sanctions are removed, and men are actuated by reason alone?”–He is not without instruction on this important subject. France has given an awful lesson to surrounding nations, by shewing them what is the natural effect of shaking off the religious principle, and the veneration for that pure morality which characterises Christianity. By a decree of the Convention (June 6, 1794) it is declared, that there is nothing criminal in the promiscuous commerce of the sexes, and therefore nothing that derogates from the female character, when woman forgets that she is the depositary of all domestic satisfaction–that her honor is the sacred bond of social life–that on her modesty and delicacy depend all the respect and confidence that will make a man attach himself to her society, free her from labour, share with her the fruits of all his own exertions, and work with willingness and delight, that she may appear on all occasions his equal, and the ornament of all his acquisitions. In the very argument which this selected body of senators has given for the propriety of this decree, it has degraded woman below all estimation. “It is to prevent her from murdering the fruit of unlawful love, by removing her shame, and by relieving her from the fear of want.” The senators say, “the Republic wants citizens, and therefore must not only remove this temptation of shame, but must take care of the mother while she nurses the child. It is the property of the nation, and must not be lost.” The woman all the while is considered only as the she animal, the breeder of Sansculottes. This is the just morality of Illumination. It is really amusing (for things revolting to nature now amuse) to observe with what fidelity the principles of the Illuminati have expressed the sentiments which take possession of a people who have shaken off the sanctions of religion and morality. The following is part of the address to Psycharion and the company mentioned in page 148: “Once more, Psycharion, I indulge you with a look behind you to the flowry days of childhood. Now look forward, young woman! the holy circle of the marriageable (mannbaren) welcome you. Young men, honor the young woman, the future breeder (gebaererin)!” Then, to all.–“Rejoice in the dawn of Illumination and Freedom. Nature at last enjoys her sacred never-fading rights. Long was her voice kept down by civil subordination; but the days of your majority now draw nigh, and you will no longer, under the authority of guardians, account it a reproach to consider with enlightened eyes the secret workshops of Nature, and to enjoy your work and duty.” Minos thought this very fine, but it raised a terrible disturbance, and broke up the assembly. Such are the effects of this boasted enlightening of the human mind with respect to religion and morality. Let us next consider what is the result of the mighty information which we have got in respect of our social or political connections.

II. We have learned the sum-total of this political Illumination, and see that, if true, it is melancholy, destructive of our present comforts, numerous as they are, and affords no prospect of redress from which we can profit, but, on the contrary, plunges mankind into contest, mutual injury, and universal misery, and all this for the chance only of prevailing in the contest, and giving our posterity a chance of going on in peace, if no change shall be produced, as in former times, by the efforts of ambitious men. But the Illumination appears to be partial, nay false. What is it? It holds out to the Prince nothing but the resignation of all his possessions, rights, and claims, sanctioned by the quiet possession of ages, and by all the feelings of the human heart which give any notion of right to his lowest subject. All these possessions and claims are discovered to have arisen from usurpations, and are therefore tyranny. It has been discovered, that all subordinate subjections were enforced, therefore their continuance is slavery. But both of these historical assertions are in a great degree false, and the inferences from them are unreasonable. The world has gone on as we see it go on at present. Most principalities or sovereignties have arisen as we see personal authorities and influence arise every day among ourselves. Business for the whole must be done. Most men are sufficiently occupied by their private affairs, and they are indolent even in these–they are contented when another does the thing for them. There is not a little village, nor a society of men, where this is not seen every day. Some men have an enjoyment in this kind of vicarious employment. All men like influence and power, and thus are compensated for their trouble. Thus many petty managers of public affairs arise in every country. The mutual animosities of individuals, and still more, the animosities of tribes, clans, and different associations, give rise to another kind of superiors–to leaders, who direct the struggles of the rest, whether for offence or defence. The descendants of Israel said, “they wanted a man to go out before the people, like other nations.” As the small business of a few individuals requires a manager or a leader, so do some more general affairs of these petty superiors, and many of these also are indolent enough to wish this trouble taken off their hands; and thus another rank of superiors arises, and a third, and so on, till a great State may be formed; and in this gradation each class is a competent judge of the conduct of that class only which is immediately above it. All this may arise, and has often arisen, from voluntary concession alone. This concession may proceed from various causes–from confidence in superior talents–from confidence in great worth–most generally from the respect or deference which all men feel for great possessions. This is frequently founded in self-interest and expectations of advantage; but it is natural to man, and perhaps springs from our instinctive sympathy with the satisfactions of others–we are unwilling to disturb them, and even wish to promote them.

But this subordination may arise, and has often arisen, from other causes–from the love of power and influence, which makes some men eager to lead others, or even to manage their concerns. We see this every day, and it may be perfectly innocent. It often arises from the desire of gain of one kind or another. Even this may frequently be indulged with perfect innocence, and even with general advantage. Frequently, however, this subordination is produced by the love of power or of gain pushed to an immoderate degree of ambition, and rendered unjust. Now there arise oppression, tyranny, sufferings, and slavery. Now appears an opposition between the rights or claims of the ruler and of the people. Now the rulers come to consider themselves as a different class, and their transactions are now only with each other.–Prince becomes the rival or the enemy of Prince; and in their contests one prevails, and the dominion is enlarged. This rivalship may have begun in any rank of superiors, even between the first managers of the affairs of the smallest communities; and it must be remarked that they only are the immediate gainers or losers in the contest, while those below them live at ease, enjoying many advantages of the delegation of their own concerns.

No human society has ever proceeded purely in either of these two ways, but there has always been a mixture of both.–But this process is indispensably necessary for the formation of a great nation and for all the consequences that result only from such a coalition.–Therefore it is necessary for giving rise to all those comforts, and luxuries, and elegances, which are to be found only in great and cultivated states. It is necessary for producing such enjoyments as we see around us in Europe, which we prize so highly, and for which we are making all this stir and disturbance. I believe that no man who expects to be believed will flatly say that human nature and human enjoyments are not meliorated by this cultivation.–It seems to be the intention of nature, and, notwithstanding the follies and vices of many, we can have little hesitation in saying that there are in the most cultivated nations of Europe, and even in the highest ranks of these nations, men of great virtue and worth and of high accomplishment–Nor can we deny that such men are the finest specimens of human nature. Rousseau wrote a whimsical pamphlet in which he had the vanity to think that he had proved that all these fruits of cultivation were losses to humanity and to virtue–Yet Rousseau could not be contented with the society of the rude and unpolished, although he pretended that he was almost the sole worshipper of pure virtue.–He supported himself, not by assisting the simple peasant, but by writing music for the pampered rich.

This is the circumstance entirely overlooked, or artfully kept out of sight, in the boasted Illumination of these days. No attention is paid to the important changes which have happened in national greatness, in national connection, in national improvement–yet we never think of parting with any of the advantages, real or imaginary, which these changes have produced–nor do we reflect in order to keep a great nation together–to make it act with equality, or with preponderancy, among other nations, the individual exertions must be concentrated, must be directed–and that this requires a ruler vested with supreme power, and interested by some great and endearing motive, such as hereditary possession of this power and influence, to maintain and defend this coalition of men.–All this is overlooked, and we attend only to the subordination which is indispensably necessary. Its grievances are immediately felt, and they are heightened ten fold by a delicacy or sensibility which springs from the great improvements in the accommodations and enjoyments of life, which the gradual usurpation and subsequent subordination have produced and continue to support. But we are determined to have the elegance and grandeur of a palace without the prince.–We will not give up any of our luxuries and refinements, yet will not support those high ranks and those nice minds which produced them, and which must continue to keep them from degenerating into barbarous simplicity and coarse sensuality.–We would keep the philosophers, the poets, the artists, but not the Moecenases.–It is very true that in such a state there would be no Conjuration des Philosophes: for in such a state this vermin of philosophes and scribblers would not have existed.–In short, we would have what is impossible.

I have no hesitation in saying, that the British Constitution is the form of government for a great and refined nation, in which the ruling sentiments and propensities of human nature seem most happily blended and balanced. There is no occasion to vaunt it as the ancient rights of Britons, the wisdom of ages, &c. It has attained its present pitch of perfection by degrees, and this not by the efforts of wisdom, but by the struggles of vice and folly, working on a rich fund of good nature, and of manly spirit, that are conspicuous in the British character. I do not hesitate to say that this is the only form of government which will admit and give full exercise to all the respectable propensities of our nature, with the least chance of disturbance, and the greatest probability of man’s arriving at the highest pitch of improvement in every thing that raises him above the beasts of the field. Yet there is no part of it that may not, that is not, abused, by pushing it to an improper length, and the same watchful care is necessary for preserving our inestimable blessings that was employed in acquiring them.–This is to be done, not flying at once to an abstract theory of the rights of man.–There is an evident folly in this procedure. What is this theory? It is the best general sketch that we can draw of social life, deduced from our knowledge of human nature.–And what is this knowledge? It is a well digested abstract, or rather a declaration of what we have observed of human actions. What is the use therefore of this intermediate picture, this theory of the rights of man?–It has a chance of being unlike the original–it must certainly have imperfections.–Therefore it can be of no use to us.–We should go at once to the original–we should consider how men have acted–what have been their mutual expectations–their fond propensities–what of these are inconsistent with each other–what are the degrees of indulgence which have been admitted in them all without disturbance. I will venture to say that whoever does this, will find himself imperceptibly set down in the British parliament of King, Lords, and Commons, all looking at each other with somewhat of a cautious or jealous eye, while the rest of the nation are sitting, “each under his own vine, and under his own fig-tree, and there is none to make him afraid.”

A most valuable result of such contemplation will be a thorough conviction that the grievance which is most clamorously insisted on is the inevitable consequence of the liberty and security which we enjoy. I mean ministerial corruption, with all the dismal tale of placemen, and pensioners, and rotten boroughs, &c. &c. These are never seen in a despotic government–there they are not wanted–nor can they be very apparent in an uncultivated and poor state–but in a luxurious nation, where pleasures abound, where the returns of industry are secure; here an individual looks on every thing as his own acquisition–he does not feel his relation to the state–has no patriotism–thinks that he would be much happier if the state would let him alone.–He is fretted by the restraints which the public weal lays on him–therefore government and governors appear as checks and hindrances to his exertions–hence a general inclination to resist administration.–Yet public business must be done, that we may lie down and rise again in safety and peace.–Administration must be supported–there are always persons who wish to possess the power that is exercised by the present ministers, and would turn them out.–How is all this to be remedied?–I see no way but by applying to the selfish views of individuals–by rewarding the friends of administration–this may be done with perfect virtue–and from this the selfish will conceive hopes, and will support a virtuous ministry–but they are as ready to help a wicked one.–This becomes the greatest misfortune of a free nation.–Ministers are tempted to bribe–and, if a systematic opposition be considered as a necessary part of a practical constitution, it is almost indispensable–and it is no where so prevalent as in a pure democracy.–Laws may be contrived to make it very troublesome–but can never extirpate it, nor greatly diminish it–this can be done only by despotism, or by national virtue.–It is a shameful complaint–we should not reprobate a few ministers, but the thousands who take the bribes.–Nothing tends so much to diminish it in a corrupted nation as great limitations to the eligibility of representatives–and this is the beauty of our constitution.

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Methinks I am a conspiracy theorist. Art thou? Thou block, thou stone, thou worse than senseless thing, for whilst thou slept didst this become a badge of honor. Informed dissent shall always prevail, wherefore art thou worthy, or art thou this unwholesome fool in the group conformity experiment herein?

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