On Clemency, Book I, XIX

Nothing can be imagined which is more becoming to a sovereign than clemency, by whatever title and right he may be set over his fellow citizens.

The greater his power, the more beautiful and admirable he will confess his clemency to be: for there is no reason why power should do any harm, if only it be wielded in accordance with the laws of nature.

Nature herself has conceived the idea of a king, as you may learn from various animals, and especially from bees, among whom the king’s cell is the roomiest, and is placed in the most central and safest part of the hive; moreover, he does no work, but employs himself in keeping the others up to their work.

If the king be lost, the entire swarm disperses: they never endure to have more than one king at a time, and find out which is the better by making them fight with one another: moreover the king is distinguished by his statelier appearance, being both larger and more brilliantly coloured than the other bees.

The most remarkable distinction, however, is the following: bees are very fierce, and for their size are the most pugnacious of creatures, and leave their stings in the wounds which they make, but the king himself has no sting: nature does not wish him to be savage or to seek revenge at so dear a rate, and so has deprived him of his weapon and disarmed his rage.

She has offered him as a pattern to great sovereigns, for she is wont to practice herself in small matters, and to scatter abroad tiny models of the hugest structures.

We ought to be ashamed of not learning a lesson in behaviour from these small creatures, for a man, who has so much more power of doing harm than they, ought to show a correspondingly greater amount of self-control.

Would that human beings were subject to the same law, and that their anger destroyed itself together with its instrument, so that they could only inflict a wound once, and would not make use of the strength of others to carry out their hatreds: for their fury would soon grow faint if it carried its own punishment with it, and could only give rein to its violence at the risk of death.

Even as it is, however, no one can exercise it with safety, for he must needs feel as much fear as he hopes to cause, he must watch everyone’s movements, and even when his enemies are not laying violent hands upon him he must bear in mind that they are plotting to do so, and he cannot have a single moment free from alarm.

Would anyone endure to live such a life as this, when he might enjoy the privileges of his high station to the general joy of all men, without injuring anyone, and for that very reason have no one to fear? for it is a mistake to suppose that the king can be safe in a state where nothing is safe from the king: he can only purchase a life without anxiety for himself by guaranteeing the same for his subjects.

He need not pile up lofty citadels, escarp steep hills, cut away the sides of mountains, and fence himself about with many lines of walls and towers: clemency will render a king safe even upon an open plain.

The one fortification which cannot be stormed is the love of his countrymen.

What can be more glorious than a life which everyone spontaneously and without official pressure hopes may last long? to excite men’s fears, not their hopes, if one’s health gives way a little? to know that no one holds anything so dear that he would not be glad to give it in exchange for the health of his sovereign?

“O, may no evil befall him!” they would cry: “he must live for his own sake, not only for ours: his constant proofs of goodness have made him belong to the State instead of the State belonging to him.”

Who would dare to plot any danger to such a king?

Who would not rather, if he could, keep misfortune far from one under whom justice, peace, decency, security and merit flourish, under whom the State grows rich with an abundance of all good things, and looks upon its ruler in the same spirit of adoration and respect with which we should look upon the immortal gods, if they allowed us to behold them as we behold him?

Why! does not that man come very close to the gods who acts in a godlike manner, and who is beneficent, openhanded, and powerful for good?

Your aim and your pride ought to lie in being thought the best, as well as the greatest of mankind.