Men do always, but not always with reason, commend the past and condemn the present, and are so much the partisans of what has been, as not merely to cry up those times which are known to them only from the records left by historians, but also, when they grow old, to extol the days in which they remember their youth to have been spent. And although this preference of theirs be in most instances a mistaken one, I can see that there are many causes to account for it; chief of which I take to be that in respect of things long gone by we perceive not the whole truth, those circumstances that would detract from the credit of the past being for the most part hidden from us, while all that gives it lustre is magnified and embellished. For the generality of writers render this tribute to the good fortune of conquerors, that to make their achievements seem more splendid, they not merely exaggerate the great things they have done, but also lend such a colour to the actions of their enemies, that any one born afterwards, whether in the conquering or in the conquered country, has cause to marvel at these men and these times, and is constrained to praise and love them beyond all others.
Again, men being moved to hatred either by fear or envy, these two most powerful causes of dislike are cancelled in respect of things which are past, because what is past can neither do us hurt, nor afford occasion for envy. The contrary, however, is the case with the things we see, and in which we take part; for in these, from our complete acquaintance with them, no part of them being hidden from us, we recognize, along with much that is good, much that displeases us, and so are forced to pronounce them far inferior to the old, although in truth they deserve far greater praise and admiration. I speak not, here, of what relates to the arts, which have such distinction inherent in them, that time can give or take from them but little of the glory which they merit of themselves. I speak of the lives and manners of men, touching which the grounds for judging are not so clear.
I repeat, then, that it is true that this habit of blaming and praising obtains, but not always true that it is wrong applied. For sometimes it will happen that this judgment is just; because, as human affairs are in constant movement, it must be that they either rise or fall. Wherefore, we may see a city or province furnished with free institutions by some great and wise founder, flourish for a while through his merits, and advance steadily on the path of improvement. Any one born therein at that time would be in the wrong to praise the past more than the present, and his error would be occasioned by the causes already noticed. But any one born afterwards in that city or province when the time has come for it to fall away from its former felicity, would not be mistaken in praising the past.
When I consider how this happens, I am persuaded that the world, remaining continually the same, has in it a constant quantity of good and evil; but that this good and this evil shift about from one country to another, as we know that in ancient times empire shifted from one nation to another, according as the manners of these nations changed, the world, as a whole, continuing as before, and the only difference being that, whereas at first Assyria was made the seat of its excellence, this was afterwards placed in Media, then in Persia, until at last it was transferred to Italy and Rome. And although after the Roman Empire, none has followed which has endured, or in which the world has centred its whole excellence, we nevertheless find that excellence diffused among many valiant nations, the kingdom of the Franks, for example, that of the Turks, that of the Soldan, and the States of Germany at the present day; and shared at an earlier time by that sect of the Saracens who performed so many great achievements and gained so wide a dominion, after destroying the Roman Empire in the East.
In all these countries, therefore, after the decline of the Roman power, and among all these races, there existed, and in some part of them there yet exists, that excellence which alone is to be desired and justly to be praised. Wherefore, if any man being born in one of these countries should exalt past times over present, he might be mistaken; but any who, living at the present day in Italy or Greece, has not in Italy become an ultramontane or in Greece a Turk, has reason to complain of his own times, and to commend those others, in which there were many things which made them admirable; whereas, now, no regard being had to religion, to laws, or to arms, but all being tarnished with every sort of shame, there is nothing to redeem the age from the last extremity of wretchedness, ignominy, and disgrace. And the vices of our age are the more odious in that they are practised by those who sit on the judgment seat, govern the State, and demand public reverence.
But, returning to the matter in hand, it may be said, that if the judgment of men be at fault in pronouncing whether the present age or the past is the better in respect of things whereof, by reason of their antiquity, they cannot have the same perfect knowledge which they have of their own times, it ought not to be at fault in old men when they compare the days of their youth with those of their maturity, both of which have been alike seen and known by them. This were indeed true, if men at all periods of their lives judged of things in the same way, and were constantly influenced by the same desires; but since they alter, the times, although they alter not, cannot but seem different to those who have other desires, other pleasures, and other ways of viewing things in their old age from those they had in their youth. For since, when they grow old, men lose in bodily strength but gain in wisdom and discernment, it must needs be that those things which in their youth seemed to them tolerable and good, should in their old age appear intolerable and evil. And whereas they should ascribe this to their judgment, they lay the blame upon the times.
But, further, since the desires of men are insatiable, Nature prompting them to desire all things and Fortune permitting them to enjoy but few, there results a constant discontent in their minds, and a loathing of what they possess, prompting them to find fault with the present, praise the past, and long for the future, even though they be not moved thereto by any reasonable cause.
I know not, therefore, whether I may not deserve to be reckoned in the number of those who thus deceive themselves, if, in these Discourses of mine, I render excessive praise to the ancient times of the Romans while I censure our own. And, indeed, were not the excellence which then prevailed and the corruption which prevails now clearer than the sun, I should proceed more guardedly in what I have to say, from fear lest in accusing others I should myself fall into this self-deception. But since the thing is so plain that every one sees it, I shall be bold to speak freely all I think, both of old times and of new, in order that the minds of the young who happen to read these my writings, may be led to shun modern examples, and be prepared to follow those set by antiquity whenever chance affords the opportunity. For it is the duty of every good man to teach others those wholesome lessons which the malice of Time or of Fortune has not permitted him to put in practice; to the end, that out of many who have the knowledge, some one better loved by Heaven may be found able to carry them out.
Having spoken, then, in the foregoing Book of the various methods followed by the Romans in regulating the domestic affairs of their city, in this I shall speak of what was done by them to spread their Empire.
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