Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Cause and Pretext.

It is an important principle in morals and in politics, not to mistake the cause for the pretext, nor the pretext for the cause, and by this means to distinguish between the concealed and the ostensible motive. On this principle, history might be recomposed in a new manner; it would not often describe circumstances and characters as they usually appear. When we mistake the characters of men, we mistake the nature of their actions; and we shall find in the study of secret history, that some of the most important events in modern history were produced from very different motives than their ostensible ones. Polybius, the most philosophical writer of the ancients, has marked out this useful distinction of cause and pretext, and aptly illustrates the observation by the facts which he explains. Amilcar, for instance, was the first author and contriver of the second Punic war, though he died ten years before the commencement of it. “A statesman,” says the wise and grave historian, “who knows not how to trace the origin of events, and discern the different sources from whence they take their rise, may be compared to a physician who neglects to inform himself of the causes of those distempers which he is called in to cure. Our pains can never be better employed than in searching out the causes of events; for the most trifling incidents give birth to matters of the greatest moment and importance.” The latter part of this remark of Polybius points out another principle which has been often verified by history, and which furnished the materials of the little book of “Grands Evénemens par les petites Causes.”

Our present inquiry concerns “cause and pretext.”

Leo X. projected an alliance of the sovereigns of Christendom against the Turks. The avowed object was to oppose the progress of the Ottomans against the Mamelukes of Egypt, who were more friendly to the Christians; but the concealed motive with his holiness was to enrich himself and his family with the spoils of Christendom, and to aggrandise the papal throne by war; and such, indeed, the policy of these pontiffs had always been in those mad crusades which they excited against the East.

The Reformation, excellent as its results have proved in the cause of genuine freedom, originated in no purer source than human passions and selfish motives: it was the progeny of avarice in Germany, of novelty in France, and of love in England. The latter is elegantly alluded to by Gray —

And gospel-light first beam’d from Bullen’s eyes.

The Reformation is considered by the Duke of Nevers, in a work printed in 1590, as it had been by Francis I., in his Apology in 1537, as a coup-d’état of Charles V. towards universal monarchy. The duke says, that the emperor silently permitted Luther to establish his principles in Germany, that they might split the confederacy of the elective princes, and by this division facilitate their more easy conquest, and play them off one against another, and by these means to secure the imperial crown hereditary in the house of Austria. Had Charles V. not been the mere creature of his politics, and had he felt any zeal for the Catholic cause, which he pretended to fight for, never would he have allowed the new doctrines to spread for more than twenty years without the least opposition.

The famous League in France was raised for “religion and the relief of public grievances;” such was the pretext! After the princes and the people had alike become its victims, this “league” was discovered to have been formed by the pride and the ambition of the Guises, aided by the machinations of the Jesuits against the attempts of the Prince of Condé to dislodge them from their “seat of power.” While the Huguenots pillaged, burnt, and massacred, declaring in their manifestoes that they were only fighting to release the king, whom they asserted was a prisoner of the Guises, the Catholics repaid them with the same persecution and the same manifestoes, declaring that they only wished to liberate the Prince of Condé, who was the prisoner of the Huguenots. The people were led on by the cry of “religion;” but this civil war was not in reality so much Catholic against Huguenot, as Guise against Condé. A parallel event occurred between our Charles I. and the Scotch Covenanters; and the king expressly declared, in “a large declaration, concerning the late tumults in Scotland,” that “religion is only pretended, and used by them as a cloak to palliate their intended rebellion,” which he demonstrated by the facts he alleged. There was a revolutionary party in France, which, taking the name of Frondeurs, shook that kingdom under the administration of Cardinal Mazarin, and held out for their pretext the public freedom. But that faction, composed of some of the discontented French princes and the mob, was entirely organized by Cardinal de Retz, who held them in hand, to check or to spur them as the occasion required, from a mere personal pique against Mazarin, who had not treated that vivacious genius with all the deference he exacted. This appears from his own Memoirs.

We have smiled at James I. threatening the States-general by the English ambassador, about Vorstius, a Dutch professor, who had espoused the doctrines of Arminius against those of the contra-remonstrants, or Calvinists; the ostensible subject was religious, or rather metaphysical-religious doctrines, but the concealed one was a struggle for predominance between the Pensionary Barnevelt, assisted by the French interest, and the Prince of Orange, supported by the English. “These were the real sources,” says Lord Hardwicke, a statesman and a man of letters, deeply conversant with secret and public history, and a far more able judge than Diodati the Swiss divine, and Brandt the ecclesiastical historian, who in the synod of Dort could see nothing but what appeared in it, and gravely narrated the idle squabbles on phrases concerning predestination or grace. Hales, of Eaton, who was secretary to the English ambassador at this synod, perfectly accords with the account of Lord Hardwicke. “Our synod,” writes that judicious observer, “goes on like a watch; the main wheels upon which the whole business turns are least in sight; for all things of moment are acted in private sessions; what is done in public is only for show and entertainment.

The cause of the persecution of the Jansenists was the jealousy of the Jesuits; the pretext was la grace suffisante. The learned La Croze observes, that the same circumstance occurred in the affair of Nestorius and the church of Alexandria; the pretext was orthodoxy, the cause was the jealousy of the church of Alexandria, or rather the fiery and turbulent Cyril, who personally hated Nestorius. The opinions of Nestorius, and the council which condemned them, were the same in effect. I only produce this remote fact to prove that ancient times do not alter the truth of our principle.

When James II. was so strenuous an advocate for toleration and liberty of conscience in removing the Test Act, this enlightened principle of government was only a pretext with that monk-ridden monarch; it is well known that the cause was to introduce and make the Catholics predominant in his councils and government. The result, which that eager and blind politician hurried on too fast, and which therefore did not take place, would have been that “liberty of conscience” would soon have become an “overt act of treason” before an inquisition of his Jesuits!

In all political affairs drop the pretexts and strike at the causes; we may thus understand what the heads of parties may choose to conceal.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37