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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

58. The Balance of Power and Future Peace

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1In 1752, in an essay on European equilibrium that was destined to become famous (Of the Balance of Power),i the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, evokes past European wars and his desire for the relationship between different powers to develop in such a way as to guarantee peace, rather than provoke future conflicts.

2In the general wars, maintained against this ambitious power, Great Britain has stood foremost; and she still maintains her station. Beside her advantages of riches and situation, her people are animated with such a national spirit, and are so fully sensible of the blessings of their government, that we may hope their vigour never will languish in so necessary and so just a cause. On the contrary, if we may judge by the past, their passionate ardour seems rather to require some moderation; and they have oftener erred from a laudable excess than from a blameable deficiency.

3In the first place, we seem to have been more possessed with the ancient Greek spirit of jealous emulation, than actuated by the prudent views of modern politics. Our wars with France have been begun with justice, and even, perhaps, from necessity; but have always been too far pushed from obstinacy and passion. The same peace, which was afterwards made at Ryswick in 1697, was offered so early as the year ninety-two; that concluded at Utrecht in 1712 might have been finished on as good conditions at Gertruydenberg in the year eight; and we might have given at Frankfurt, in 1743, the same terms, which we were glad to accept of at Aix-la-Chapelle in the year forty-eight. Here then we see, that above half of our wars with France and all our public debts, are owing more to our own imprudent vehemence, than to the ambition of our neighbours.

  • ii This is an allusion to Tacitus. Otto, rising up against Emperor Galba, complained he and his parti (...)

4In the second place, we are so declared in our opposition to French power, and so alert in defence of our allies, that they always reckon upon our force as upon their own; and expecting to carry on war at our expense, refuse all reasonable terms of accommodation. Habent subjectos, tanquam suos, viles ut alienos.ii All the world knows, that the factious vote of the House of Commons, in the beginning of the last parliament, with the professed humour of the nation, made the queen of Hungary inflexible in her terms, and prevented that agreement with Prussia, which would immediately have restored the general tranquillity of Europe.

5In the third place, we are such true combatants, that, when once engaged, we lose all concern for ourselves and our posterity, and consider only how we may best annoy the enemy. To mortgage our revenues at so deep a rate, in wars, where we were only accessories, was surely the most fatal delusion, that a nation, which had any pretention to politics and prudence, has ever yet been guilty of. That remedy of funding, if it be a remedy, and not rather a poison, ought, in all reason, to be reserved, to the last extremity; and no evil, but the greatest and most urgent, should ever induce us to embrace so dangerous an expedient.

6These excesses, to which we have been carried, are prejudicial; and may, perhaps, in time, become still more prejudicial another way, by begetting, as is usual, the opposite extreme, and rendering us totally careless and supine with regard to the fate of Europe. The Athenians, from the most bustling, intriguing, warlike people of Greece, finding their error in thrusting themselves into every quarrel, abandoned all attention to sovereign affairs; and in no contest ever took part on either side, except by their flatteries and complaisance to the victor.

  • iii If the Roman Empire was of advantage, it could only proceed from this, that mankind were generally (...)
  • iv Croats.

7Enormous monarchies are, probably, destructive to human nature; in their progress, in their continuance,iii and even in their downfall, which never can be very distant from their establishment. The military genius, which aggrandized the monarchy, soon leaves the court, the capital, and the centre of such a government: while the wars are carried on at a great distance, and interest so small a part of the State. The ancient nobility, whose affections attach them to their sovereign, live all at court; and never will accept of military employments, which would carry them to remote and barbarous frontiers, where they are distant both from their pleasures and their fortune. The arms of the State, must, therefore, be entrusted to mercenary strangers, without zeal, without attachment, without honour; ready on every occasion to turn them against the prince, and join each desperate malcontent, who offers pay and plunder. This is the necessary progress of human affairs: Thus ambition blindly labours for the destruction of the conqueror, of his family, and of everything near and dear to him. The Bourbons, trusting to the support of their brave, faithful and affectionate nobility, would push their advantage, without reserve or limitation. These, while fired with glory and emulation, can bear the fatigues and dangers of war; but never would submit to languish in the garrisons of Hungary or Lithuania, forgot at court, and sacrificed to the intrigues of every minion or mistress, who approaches the prince. The troops are filled with Cravatesiv and Tartars, Hussars and Cossacks; intermingled, perhaps, with a few soldiers of fortune from the better provinces: And the melancholy fate of the Roman emperors, from the same cause, is renewed over and over again, till the final dissolution of the monarchy.

8David Hume, ‘Essay VII. Of the Balance of Power’ (1752).

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ii This is an allusion to Tacitus. Otto, rising up against Emperor Galba, complained he and his partisans were treated like slaves, as though they belonged to their oppressor, but were regarded as worthless as though they belonged to someone else.

iii If the Roman Empire was of advantage, it could only proceed from this, that mankind were generally in a very disorderly, uncivilised condition, before its establishment [author’s note].

iv Croats.

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