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there is conspiracy only, not companionship: these have no
affection for one another; fear alone holds them together; they
are not friends, they are merely accomplices.
Although it might not be impossible, yet it would be difficult
to find true friendship in a tyrant; elevated above others and
having no companions, he finds himself already beyond the pale
of friendship, which receives its real sustenance from an equality
that, to proceed without a limp, must have its two limbs equal.
That is why there is honor among thieves (or so it is reported) in
the sharing of the booty; they are peers and comrades; if they are
not fond of one another they at least respect one another and do
not seek to lessen their strength by squabbling. But the favorites
of a tyrant can never feel entirely secure, and the less so because
he has learned from them that he is all powerful and unlimited by
any law or obligation. Thus it becomes his wont to consider his
own will as reason enough, and to be master of all with never a
compeer. Therefore it seems a pity that with so many examples
at hand, with the danger always present, no one is anxious to act
the wise man at the expense of the others, and that among so
many persons fawning upon their ruler there is not a single one
who has the wisdom and the boldness to say to him what,
according to the fable,20 the fox said to the lion who feigned
illness: "I should be glad to enter your lair to pay my respects;
but I see many tracks of beasts that have gone toward you, yet
not a single trace of any who have come back."
These wretches see the glint of the despot's treasures and are
bedazzled by the radiance of his splendor. Drawn by this
brilliance they come near, without realizing they are approaching
a flame that cannot fail to scorch them. Similarly attracted, the
indiscreet satyr of the old fables, on seeing the bright fire
brought down by Prometheus, found it so beautiful that he went
and kissed it, and was burned21; so, as the Tuscan22 poet reminds
us, the moth, intent upon desire, seeks the flame because it
shines, and also experiences its other quality, the burning.
Moreover, even admitting that favorites may at times escape
from the hands of him they serve, they are never safe from the
ruler who comes after him. If he is good, they must render an
account of their past and recognize at last that justice exists; if he
is bad and resembles their late master, he will certainly have his
own favorites, who are not usually satisfied to occupy in their
turn merely the posts of their precedessors, but will more often
insist on their wealth and their lives. Can anyone be found, then,
who under such perilous circumstances and with so little security
By Aesop.---M.N.R.
Aeschylus' Prometheus the Firebearer (fragment).---M.N.R.
Petrarch, Cazoniere, Sonnet XVII. La Boetie has accurately rendered the lines
concerning the moth.---H.K.
will still be ambitious to fill such an ill-fated position and serve,
despite such perils, so dangerous a master? Good God, what
suffering, what martyrdom all this involves! To be occupied
night and day in planning to please one person, and yet to fear
him more than anyone else in the world; to be always on the
watch, ears open, wondering whence the blow will come; to
search out conspiracy, to be on guard against snares, to scan the
faces of companions for signs of treachery, to smile at everybody
and be mortally afraid of all, to be sure of nobody, either as an
open enemy or as a reliable friend; showing always a gay
countenance despite an apprehensive heart, unable to be joyous
yet not daring to be sad!
However, there is satisfaction in examining what they get out
of all this torment, what advantage they derive from all the
trouble of their wretched existence. Actually the people never
blame the tyrant for the evils they suffer, but they do place
responsibility on those who influence him; peoples, nations, all
compete with one another, even the peasants, even the tillers of
the soil, in mentioning the names of the favorites, in analyzing
their vices, and heaping upon them a thousand insults, a
thousand obscenities, a thousand maledictions. All their prayers,
all their vows are directed against these persons; they hold them
accountable for all their misfortunes, their pestilences, their
famines; and if at times they show them outward respect, at those
very moments they are fuming in their hearts and hold them in
greater horror than wild beasts. This is the glory and honor
heaped upon influential favorites for their services by people
who, if they could tear apart their living bodies, would still
clamor for more, only half satiated by the agony they might
behold. For even when the favorites are dead those who live after
are never too lazy to blacken the names of these man-eaters23
The word was used by Homer in the Iliad, Book I, Line 341.---M.N.R.
with the ink of a thousand pens, tear their reputations into bits in
a thousand books, and drag, so to speak, their bones past
posterity, forever punishing them after their death for their
wicked lives.
Let us therefore learn while there is yet time, let us learn to
do good. Let us raise our eyes to Heaven for the sake of our
honor, for the very love of virtue, or, to speak wisely, for the
love and praise of God Almighty, who is the infallible witness of
our deeds and the just judge of our faults. As for me, I truly
believe I am right, since there is nothing so contrary to a
generous and loving God as tyranny---I believe He has reserved,
in a separate spot in Hell, some very special punishment for
tyrants and their accomplices.
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