Book 4, Chapter 04 : Of Tyrannicide
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Book 4, Chapter 04
Diversity of opinions on this subject. - Argument in its vindication. - The destruction of a tyrant not a case of exception. - Consequences of tyrannicide. - Assassination described. Importance of sincerity.
A QUESTION connected with the mode of effecting political melioration, and which has been eagerly discussed among political reasoners, is that of tyrannicide. The moralists of antiquity contended for the lawfulness of this practice; by the moderns it has been generally condemned.
The arguments in its favor are built upon a very obvious principle. "Justice ought universally to be administered. Crimes of an inferior description are restrained, or pretended to be restrained, by the ordinary operations of jurisprudence. But criminals by whom the welfare of the whole is attacked, and who overturn the liberties of mankind, are out of the reach of this restraint. If justice be partially administered in subordinate cases, and the rich man be able to oppress the poor with impunity, it must be admitted that a few examples of this sort are insufficient to authorize the last appeal of human beings. But no man will deny that the case of the usurper and the despot is of the most atrocious nature. In this instance, all the provisions of civil policy being superseded, and justice poisoned at the source, every man is left to execute for himself the decrees of immutable equity."
It may however be doubted whether the destruction of a tyrant be, in any respect, a case of exception from the rules proper to be observed upon ordinary occasions. The tyrant has indeed no particular sanctity annexed to his person, and may be killed with as little scruple as any other man, when the object is that of repelling personal assault. In all other cases, the extirpation of the offender by a self-appointed authority does not appear to be the appropriate mode of counteracting injustice.
For, first, either the nation whose tyrant you would destroy is ripe for the assertion and maintenance of its liberty, or it is not. If it be, the tyrant ought to be deposed with every appearance of publicity. Nothing can be more improper than for an affair, interesting to the general weal, to be conducted as if it were an act of darkness and shame. It is an ill lesson we read to mankind, when a proceeding, built upon the broad basis of general justice, is permitted to shrink from public scrutiny. The pistol and the dagger may as easily be made the auxiliaries of vise, as of virtue. To proscribe all violence, and neglect no means of information and impartiality, is the most effectual security we can have, for an issue conformable to reason and truth.
If, on the other hand, the nation be not ripe for a state of freedom, the man who assumes to himself the right of interposing violence may indeed show the fervor of his conception, and gain a certain notoriety; but he will not fail to be the author of new calamities to his country. The consequences of tyrannicide are well known. If the attempt prove abortive, it renders the tyrant ten times more bloody, ferocious and cruel than before. If it succeed, and the tyranny be restored, it produces the same effect upon his successors. In the climate of despotism some solitary virtues may spring up. But, in the midst of plots and conspiracies, there is neither truth, nor confidence, nor love, nor humanity.
Secondly, the true merits of the question will be still further understood if we reflect on the nature of assassination. The mistake which has been incurred upon this subject is to be imputed principally to the superficial view that has been taken of it. If its advocates had followed the conspirator through all his windings, and observed his perpetual alarm, lest truth should become known, they would probably have been less indiscriminate in their applause. No action can be imagined more directly at war with a principle of ingenuousness and candor. Like all that is most odious in the catalog of vises, it delights in obscurity. It shrinks from the piercing light of day. It avoids all question, and hesitates and trembles before the questioner. It struggles for a tranquil gaiety, and is only complete where there is the most perfect hypocrisy. It changes the use of speech, and composes every feature the better to deceive.
is mystery and reserve. Is it possible to believe that a person who has upon him all the indications of guilt is engaged in an action which virtue enjoins? The same duplicity follows him to the last. Imagine to yourself the conspirators kneeling at the feet of Cesar, as they did the moment before they destroyed him! not all the virtue of Brutus can save them from your indignation.
There cannot be a better instance than that of which we are treating, to prove the importance of general sincerity. We see in this example that an action which has been undertaken from the best motives may, by a defect in this particular, tend to overturn the very foundations of justice and happiness. Wherever there is assassination, there is an end to all confidence among men. Protests and asseverations go for nothing. No man presumes to know his neighbor's intention. The boundaries that have hitherto served to divide the honest man from the profligate are gone. The true interests of mankind require, not the removal, but the confirmation of these boundaries. All morality proceeds upon mutual confidence and esteem, will grow and expand as the grounds of that confidence shall be more evident, and must inevitably decay, in proportion as they are undermined.
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