Item of the Day: The Works of Algernon Sydney (1772)

Full Title: The Works of Algernon Sydney. A New Edition. London, Printed by W. Strahan IUN. For T. Becket and Co. and T. Cadell, in the Strand; T. Davies, in Russel Street; and T. Evans, in King Street.  MDCCLXXII. 

Discourses Concerning Government

Section II

The Common Notions of Liberty are not From School Divines, but from Nature.

In the first lines of his book [Filmer’s Patriarcha] he seems to denounce war against mankind, endeavoring to overthrow the principle in which God created us, and which includes the chief advantages of the life we enjoy, as well as the greatest helps towards the felicity, that is the end of our hopes in the other. To this end he absurdly imputes to the school divines that which was taken up by them as a common notion, written in the heart of every man, denied by none, but such as were degenerated into beats, from whence they might prove such points as of themselves were less evident. Thus did Euclid lay down certain axioms, which none could deny that did not renounce common sense, from whence he drew the proofs of such propositions as were less obvious to the understanding. And they may with as much reason be accused of paganism, who say that the whole is greater that a part, that two halves make the whole, or that a straight line is the shortest way from point to point, as to say, that they who in politics lay such foundations, as have been taken up by schoolmen as undeniable truths, do therefore follow them, or have any regard for their authority. Though the schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: they could not but see that which all men saw, not lay more approved foundations, than, that man is naturally free; that he cannot justly be deprived of that liberty without cause; and that he doth not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself. But if he doth unjustly impute the invention of this to school divinesm he in some measure repairs his fault in saying, “this hath been fostered by all succeeding papists for good divinity; the divines of the reformed churches have entertained it, and the common people every where tenderly embrace it.” That is to say, all christian divines, whether reformed or unreformed do approve it, and the people every where magnify it, as the height of human felicity. But Filmer, and such as are like to him, being neither reformed nor unreformed christians, nor of the people, can have no title to christianity; and, inasmuch as they set themselves against that which is the height of human felicity, they declare themselves enemies to all that are concerned in it, that is, to all mankind.  

But, says he, “they do not remember, that the desire of liberty was the first cause of the fall of man.” And I desire it may not be forgotten, that the liberty asserted is not a licentiousness of doing what is pleasing to everyone against the command of God, but an exemption from all human laws, to which they have not given their assent. If he would make us believe there was any thing of this in Adam’s sin, he ought to have proved, that the law which he transgressed was imposed upon him by man, and, consequently, that there was a man to impose it; for it will easily appear that neither the reformed nor the unreformed divines, nor the people following them, do place the felicity of man in the exemption from the laws of God, but in the most perfect conformity to them. Our Saviour taught us “not to fear such as could kill the body, but him that could kill, and cast us into hell;” and the apostle tells us, that “we should obey God rather than man.” It has beeen ever hereupon observed, that they, who most preciously adhere to the lwas of God, are least solicitous concerning the commands of men, unless they are well grounded; and those, who most delight in the glorious liberty of the sons of God, do not only subject themselves to him, but are most regular observers of the just ordinances of man, made by the consent of such as are concerned, according to the will of God. 

The error of not observing this may perhaps deserve to be pardoned in a man that had read no books, as proceeding from ignorance; if such as are grossly ignorant can be excusedm when they take upon them to write of such matters as require the highest knowledge: but in Sir Robert it is prevarication and fraud to impute to schoolmen and purtitans that which in his first page he acknowledged to be the doctrine of all reformed and unreformed christian churches, and that he knows to have been the principle in which the Grecians, Italians, Spaniards, Gauls, Germans, and Britons, and all other generous nations ever lived, before the name of Christ was known in the world; insomuch that the base effeminate Asiatics and Africans, for being careless of their liberty, or unable to govern themselves, were by Aristotle and other wise men called “slaves by nature,” and looked upon as little different from beasts.

This which hath its root in common sense, not being overthrown by reason, he spares his pains of seeking any; but thinks it enough to render his doctrine plausible to his own party, by joining the Jesuits to Geneva, and coupling Buchanan to Doleman as both maintaining the same doctrine; though he might as well have joined the puritans with the Turks, because they all think that one and one makes two.  But whoever marks the proceedings of Filmer and his masters, as well as his disciples, will rather believe, that they have learned from Rome and the Jesuits to hate Geneva, than that Geneva and Rome can agree in any thing farther, than as they are obliged to submit to the evidence of truth; or that Geneva and Rome can concur in any design or interest that is not common to mankind.

These men allowed to “the people a liberty of deposing their princes.” This is a “desparate” opinion. “Bellarmine and Calvin look asquint at it.” But why is this a desparate opinion? If disagreements happen between king and people, why is it a more desparate opinion to think the king should be subject to the censures of the people, than the people subject to the will of the king? Did the people make the king, or the king make the people? Is the king for the people, or the people for the king? Did God create Hebrews, that Saul might reign over them? or did they, from an opinion of procuring their own good, ask a king that might judge them, and fight their battles?

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Filed under Government, Liberty, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Politics, Posted by Matthew Williams, Religion

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