Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Wisdom of Flexible Constitutions
By Algernon Sidney (16231683)
From Discourses on Government
IT ought to be considered, that the wisdom of man is imperfect, and unable to foresee the effects that may proceed from an infinite variety of accidents, which according to emergencies, necessarily require new constitutions, to prevent or cure the mischiefs arising from them, or to advance a good that at the first was not thought of. And as the noblest work in which the wit of man can be exercised, were (if it could be done) to constitute a government that should last for ever, the next to that is to suit laws to present exigencies, and so much as is in the power of man to foresee. He that would resolve to persist obstinately in the way he first entered upon, or to blame those who go out of that in which their fathers had walked, when they find it necessary, does, as far as in him lies, render the worst of errors perpetual. Changes therefore are unavoidable; and the wit of man can go no farther than to institute such as in relation to the forces, manners, nature, religion, or interests of a people, and their neighbours, are suitable and adequate to what is seen, or apprehended to be seen. He who would oblige all nations at all times to take the same course, would prove as foolish as a physician who should apply the same medicine to all distempers, or an architect that would build the same kind of house for all persons, without considering their estates, dignities, the number of their children or servants, the time or climate in which they live, and other circumstances: or, which is, if possible, more sottish, a general who should obstinately resolve always to make war in the same way and to draw up his army in the same form, without examining the nature, number, and strength of his own and his enemies forces, or the advantages and disadvantages of the ground. But as there may be some universal rules in physic, architecture, and military discipline, from which men ought never to depart, so there are some in politics also which ought always to be observed; and wise legislators, adhering to them only, will be ready to change all others, as occasion may require, in order to the public good.