ancient advice to kings on property rights and taxation

advisors to king in Padshahnama

The Book of Secret of Secrets, an Arabic text probably composed about 750, offers kings ancient advice on property rights and taxation, among many other matters.  The secret Arabic advice is styled as the words of the eminent Greek philosopher Aristotle to the world-conqueror Alexander the Great:

As I say to thee, O Alexander, and I have never ceased from saying it to thee, that generosity and liberality and the permanence of a state depend upon withholding oneself from that which is in the hands of the people, and abstaining from their possessions.  And I have seen it written in some testaments of Hermes the Great, that the perfect magnanimity of a king, the soundness of his judgement, and the permanence of his good name depend upon his abstaining from the possessions of the people.  O Alexander, the cause of the downfall of the kings of Hanaj was no other than this, that they extracted too much revenue from the people and seized their property.[1]

The argument for security of property is not directly economic, but concerns the moral and popular status of the ruler.  The advice on taxation, in contrast, emphasizes supply-side response:

he should lower all the taxes, especially in the case of those who come into his presence as merchants and traders.  Because by abstaining from their properties and treating them with justice, they will return more frequently and their number will increase, and his country will be greatly benefited by the variety of goods and men and beasts.  And this is the means of the civilization of the country, increase of its revenue, flourishing of its condition, and humiliation of its enemies.  Therefore he who gives up the small will obtain the great. [2]

According to this analysis, lowering taxes will increase tax revenue in the long run.  That wasn’t a laughable idea dreamed up in the late-twentieth-century United States.  Insecurity of property rights and too high taxes apparently were recognized policy problems in the early Islamic caliphate.

The Book of Secret of Secrets doesn’t engage in pointless arguments about whether government is good or bad.  The book analogizes the ruler and his government to the wind, rain, summer, winter, heat, and cold. For example, the analogy to wind:

the king also resembles the winds which God sends as harbingers of His blessings.  He drives the clouds by means of them, and causes them to fertilize the fruits and impart new life to mankind; by means of them He makes their rivers to flow, lights their fires; and drives their ships.  They injure many things on land and sea, both the lives and property of mankind, and cause plagues and simoons.  Men may complain of them to God, but He does not make them cease from the function He has assigned to them. [3]

Economists and policy-makers today now commonly talk of “government intervention,” as if government is some unnatural, extra-worldly force.  That’s ridiculous.  Government is as natural as the wind and the rain.  It is also as full of possibilities, both good and bad.

Beginning in the mid-twelfth century, the Book of Secret of Secrets was translated into Latin, Hebrew, and then European vernacular languages.  It was widely disseminated and frequently copied.  Known in Latin as the Secretum Secretorum, it was one of the most popular books in Europe prior to the sixteenth century.[4]

European vernacular translations were adapted to the communicative circumstances of smaller, competing Christian kingdoms.  The reference to the Egyptian god Hermes the Great became a reference to the great human Greek doctor Hermogenes.[5]  Immediately preceding the Arabic text’s advice to lower taxes was a description of the Indian king presenting himself to the people only once a year.  Some European texts changed the Indian king to a Jewish king.  More importantly, the European texts de-institutionalized tax policy and made forgiving tributes and rents part of the king’s annual appearance.[6]  The European texts also added advice on the importance of merchants in inter-kingdom communication:

A king should do no violence to merchants, nor hinder them, but should pay them great respect, for they go through all the world by sea and land, and they will report what they find, good or evil. And the king should either by himself or by his true deputy do fair justice in giving every man what is rightly his, and then shall the honor and joy of the king increase and he shall be more feared of his enemies and live and reign in prosperity and peace, and shall have at his will all his desires. [7]

Another English translation similar advised:

The king must beware that he does no wrong nor violence to the merchants.  But he ought to love them and cherish them, because they go into diverse parts of the world, where they make their reports as they have cause. [8]

Merchants in Europe could much more easily travel to a different kingdom than could merchants in Mesopotamia in the eighth and ninth centuries.  Communication and competition across jurisdictions in Europe provided additional reason for kings not to seize private property and not to impose exorbitant tributes.

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[1] Kitab sirr al-asrar (The Book of the Secret of Secrets), from Arabic trans. Ali (1920) p. 181.  A Persian elite secretary seeking a high government position probably composed the text about 750, when the Abbasids replaced the Umayyads as the caliphate of the Islamic world.  The eminent ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle adds additional authority by invoking the great, esoteric Egyptian-Greek god Hermes.

[2] Id. p. 186.  The translation for the last sentence in id. is “Therefore he who abstains from little gains much.”  I’ve used the translation from Arabic to Hebrew to English for the last sentence above.  See Gaster (1908) p. 122, para. 19.  The fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, advised lowering taxes in response to economic shocks:

If the tax-payers complain to you of the heavy incidence to taxation, of any accidental calamity, of the vagaries of the monsoons, of the recession of the means of irrigation, of floods, or destruction of their crops on account of excessive rainfall and if their complaints are true, then reduce their taxes. This reduction should be such that it provides them opportunities to improve their conditions and eases them of their troubles.

Decrease in state income due to such reasons should not depress you because the best investment for a ruler is to help his subjects at the time of their difficulties. They are the real wealth of a country and any investment in them even in the form of reduction of taxes, will be returned to the State in the shape of the prosperity of its cities and improvement of the country at large. At the same time you will be in a position to command and secure their love, respect and praises along with the revenues.

Ali ibn Abi Talib, Nahj al-Balagha, Letter 53, trans. from Arabic to English, Wikipedia.

[3] Kitab sirr al-asrar, trans. Ali (1920) p. 188.

[4] Williams (2003) pp. 1-2.

[5] 2 Timothy 1:15 refers to a Hermogenes who deserted Paul of Tarsus in Asia.  A reference to that Hermogenes makes no sense in the context of Aristotle invoking a respected authority.

[6] Periodic forgiveness of debts is a part of the Jewish-Christian concept of jubilee.  Associating reduction of taxes with forgiveness of debts and jubilee may have prompted the switch from the Indian king to the Jewish king.  For examples of references to a Jewish king, see Secret of Secrets manuscripts  in Steele (1898) pp. 13, 140 (Yonge manuscript); Manzalaoui (1977) p. 314.  For a modern English translation of the Yonge manuscript, Kern (2008) pp. 22-23.  In the sixteenth century, Mughal rulers made daily appearances to the people (Jharokha Darshan).  That courtly ritual seems to have been based on more ancient Indian ideas.

[7] Secret of Secrets (medieval English translation from French; MS. Reg. I8A. in British Museum), Steele (1898) p. 14.  I’ve modernized the English.

[8] Secret of Secrets (medieval English translation from French version of abbreviated Tripolitanus text, 2nd half of 15th century; Oxford MS. 85, University College, fols. 36-68), Manzalaoui (1977) p. 316.

[image] detail from “The presentation of Prince Dara-Shikoh’s wedding gifts,” Windsor Castle Padshahnama, folio 72B (c. 1635).


Ali, Ismail, trans. 1920.  Kitab sirr al-asrar (The Book of the Secret of Secrets). Pp. 176-266 in Steele, Robert, ed. 1920. Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi.  Vol. 5. Secretum secretorum, cum glossis et notulis : Tractatus brevis et utilis ad declarandum quedam obscure dicta. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaster, Moses. 1907-8. “The Hebrew version of the Secretum Secretorum: a mediaeval treatise ascribed to Aristotle.”  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.  Oct., 1907, pp. 879-912 (Hebrew text); Jan., 1908, pp. 111-162 (English translation)’ Oct., 1908, pp. 1065-1084 (discussion in English).

Kerns, Lin, trans. 2008. The Secret of secrets (Secreta secretorum): a modern translation, with introduction, of The governance of princes {James Yonge translation}. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Manzalaoui, Mahmoud. 1977. Secretum secretorum: nine English versions. Oxford: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press.

Steele, Robert, ed. 1898.  Three prose versions of the Secreta secretorum. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.

Williams, Steven J. 2003. The secret of secrets: the scholarly career of a pseudo-Aristotelian text in the Latin Middle Ages. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

One thought on “ancient advice to kings on property rights and taxation”

  1. This proves that the ideas that the Republicans are trying to sell are very very old.
    These ideas have not worked in the 1200 years since they were proposed.
    Why would anyone think that they would work now.

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