David Hume on Ancient Revolutions

The longest essay in the modern edition of David Hume’s Essays  is “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” first published in 1752. The essay aims to discomfort those who lionize the ancients of Greece and Rome, by arguing, in effect, that neither had succeeded in establishing a political order that truly achieved what we today would call the rule of law. That is a mark of “every wise, just, and mild government” (382). The moderns have succeeded better, somehow.

The establishment of the rule of law in an extensive territory would bring prosperity, and prosperity would be reflected in populousness. Thus, Hume uses populousness to assess the ancient world. He argues that ancient Greece and Rome were much less populous than many like to think, and, thus, less prosperous, and less glorious.

Hume proceeds through a number of major aspects of the empirical question of populousness, highlighting the violence, capriciousness, and brutality of ancient society. The first is slavery. He explains why it is wholly detrimental to populousness, and, indeed, this section of the essay (pp. 383-397) is nothing short of an excoriation of slavery.

Next, Hume writes about infanticide and of the “great” families, which he presents as a sort of cult (398), with practices by no means conducive to the raising up of large families.

Next he turns to the “political customs” (400) and “political maxims and institutions” (404), treating a number of facets, including war and revolution. These too, he says, should make us skeptical about claims of ancient prosperity and populousness. About ancient revolutions, Hume writes:

In ancient history, we may always observe, where one party prevailed, whether the nobles or people (for I can observe no difference in this respect) that they immediately butchered all of the opposite party who fell into their hands, and banished such as had been so fortunate as to escape their fury. No form of process, no law, no trial, no pardon. A fourth, a third, perhaps near half of the city was slaughtered, or expelled, every revolution; and the exiles always joined foreign enemies, and did all the mischief possible to their fellow-citizens; till fortune put it in their power to take full revenge by a new revolution. And as these were frequent in such violent governments, the disorder, diffidence, jealousy, enmity, which must prevail, are not easy for us to imagine in this age of the world.

There are only two revolutions I can recollect in ancient history, which passed without great severity, and great effusion of blood in massacres and assassinations, namely, the restoration of the Athenian Democracy by Thrasybulus, and the subduing of the Roman republic by Cæsar. We learn from ancient history, that Thrasybulus passed a general amnesty for all past offences; and first introduced that word, as well as practice, into Greece. It appears, however, from many orations of Lysias, that the chief, and even some of the subaltern offenders, in the preceding tyranny, were tried, and capitally punished. And as to Cæsar’s clemency, though much celebrated, it would not gain great applause in the present age. He butchered, for instance, all Cato’s senate, when he became master of Utica; and these, we may readily believe, were not the most worthless of the party. All those who had borne arms against that usurper, were attainted; and, by Hirtius’s law, declared incapable of all public offices.

These people were extremely fond of liberty; but seem not to have understood it very well. When the thirty tyrants [a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC] first established their dominion at Athens, they began with seizing all the sycophants and informers, who had been so troublesome during the Democracy, and putting them to death by an arbitrary sentence and execution. Every man, says Sallust and Lysias, was rejoiced at these punishments; not considering, that liberty was from that moment annihilated. (407-408)

Hume goes on to address the security of life and property and the attitudes toward and extent of commerce and trade. He throws salt on ancient accounts that have suggested great populousness, and highlights other ancient remarks suggesting otherwise.

Happiness, prosperity, and populousness depend on the rule of law. Let us hope that it will be there for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to enjoy.

 

 

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Bannon’s Nationalist Adventure: Natural Justice?

Economists assume that each individual has his own preferences that guide his actions. The moral problem starts when an individual wants to force his preferences on other individuals’ choices. If, for this kind of moral sin, God had wanted to strike Steve Bannon off his horse on the road to Damascus and perhaps punish him with a nervous breakdown, He would have done exactly what He did on August 20: get Bannon arrested by federal agents on a Coast Guard boat.

Bannon is the former Executive Chairman of Breitbart News and Trump adviser. A believer in providential or natural justice (which is of course something different from economics) might think that Bannon’s arrest was a wake-up call or punishment for his protectionist crimes, that is, conspiring to impose his own preferences by force on individuals who want to trade.

I suspect that when Bannon saw the Coast Guard boat approaching the yacht on which he was sailing along the Connecticut coast, his nationalist heart bounced in his manly chest. He must have thought something like: “Here is our great Coast Guard tasked with keeping foreigners and their goods off our coasts (including Mexican rapists if they ever try to get around The Wall). The mighty Coast Guard is here to protect me, an American citizen.”

 

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way
to Damascus (Wikipedia Commons)

In fact, the Coast Guard was there to arrest him—another instance of a military unit assuming internal police functions, the sort of thing that the Founders feared from a permanent army.

I don’t know if Bannon is guilty of the crimes he is accused of, which have not been proven in court. And I will not discuss here the economics and ethics of the plethora and reach of laws that, in America like in other Western countries, give an air of quasi-inevitability and quasi-normalcy to the words of Lavrentiy Beria, chief of Soviet state security under Joseph Stalin: “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.”

It was not the least irony of Bannon’s nationalist adventure of August 20 that the Coast Guard originated from Revenue-Marine, a service created by Congress in 1790 at the request of Alexander Hamilton with the purpose of collecting customs duties—even if, at that time, tariffs were used more to finance a small government than to protect Americans from foreign goods. As usual for a government bureaucracy, mission creep has proceeded.

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