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PREFACE. - Vicesimus Knox, The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5 
The Works of Vicesimus Knox, D.D. with a Biographical Preface. In Seven Volumes (London: J. Mawman, 1824). Vol. 5.
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It appears to me, that ancient learning is not sufficiently attended to in the education of modern nobility; and that the honour of an order, so highly privileged, cannot be more effectually promoted, than by a return to that truly classical mode which prevailed among the great in the reign of Elizabeth, and produced a manliness of mind, which caused the English character more nearly to resemble the Roman, than at any subsequent period of our history.
I have, therefore, recommended to my noble scholar, an early and attentive study of the poets, orators, and historians, of ancient Greece and Rome; I have advised him to imitate them in his compositions and eloquence, and to catch their generous spirit, while he emulates the vigour of their style.
Not only talents and superior knowledge are required in hereditary lawgivers, in men distinguished from their birth by titles, and claiming respect from their cradle, but public spirit, generosity, and nobility of mind; such as an imitation of the ancients in the purest ages is best adapted to promote. Pensions, places, titles, ribands, and all the mysteries of corruption, were then unknown, and virtue was nobility.
Modern meanness, mixed with pride founded in pedigree alone, though traced up to Adam, will be despised in every country on the face of the earth, once blest with light and liberty. The sun of knowledge is ascending, and, as it rises, the mists of prejudice disperse. Visions, which appeared solid and substantial, when seen at a distance and through the medium of a fog, now vanish into air, and the gaping spectator laughs at last at his own delusion.
The sun of knowledge, high above the horizon, not only gilds the tops of the mountains, but shines in the low valley. Indeed, the valley is often irradiated with the sunbeams, while the hills are enveloped in mist. A mediocrity of knowledge is diffused throughout all ranks of society; at least an ability and opportunity of obtaining with ease competent information. The lowest of the people can read; and books adapted to the capacity of the lowest of the people, on political and all other subjects, are industriously obtruded on their notice. The newspapers communicate the debates of opposing parties in the senate; and public measures (once confined to a conclave) are now canvassed in the cottage, the manufactory, and the lowest resorts of plebeian carousal. Great changes in the public mind are produced by this diffusion; and such changes must produce public innovation. Revolutions, unparalleled in history, have already happened on a large portion of the globe's surface; of which no human foresight can predict the remote consequences. All that wisdom can do, is to render the rising generation qualified to improve the vicissitudes which may happen, so as to promote the happiness of man in society, without partially consulting the exclusive privileges, or the oppressive superiority, of any single order.
Our own country is already a country of liberty. We enjoy, or may enjoy, by our happy form of government, as established at the Revolution, that freedom, to obtain which other countries are convulsed. We want only a restoration of the primitive principles of our constitution. The old building is strong and venerable, but in part decayed. No honest and independent man will refuse to cooperate in its repair. It is not so far dilapidated as to require demolition; but many stones are mouldered, that must be replaced with Purbeck; many timbers rotten, which must be renewed with heart of oak.
They who deny that the parliament wants reform, are of that description of men, who, like some noisome insects, can only subsist in corruption. They feed and fatten in filth, and cleanliness is their bane. And here I cannot but animadvert on those, who stigmatize all who wish to reform the most manifest abuses in the constitution of the senate, as its enemies; and would proscribe them under invidious names, basely thrown out to provoke the multitude against them. Who is the best friend of the sick man, the venal practitioner, who treacherously protracts the disorder for the sake of fees, and the lucre of vending his medicines; or the honest and liberal physician, who restores him to health, regardless of his private interest, with all possible expedition? Those calumnies against the best friends of the state, which endeavour to expose them to public resentment, as its enemies, will in time be treated with general indignation. The torrent of self-interest and timidity, rushing on to the dead lake of despotism, will soon be stemmed by the spirit and vigour of a people, whose history evinces, that however they may be overwhelmed by artifice for a time, they will emerge at last to light and liberty. There is in freeborn men a native elasticity, which will throw off every superincumbent weight, not imposed with their own concurrence, or submitted to from conviction of expediency. Coercion, whether from the ruling powers, or from a party or faction among themselves, will not be long borne by a whole people, unless, like the strait-waistcoat to the lunatic, it is necessary, in a morbid state, to their speedy convalescence. But who shall judge of the insanity?—A partial few, interested in the lunatic's confinement?
The general voice will be one day clamorous, though now overawed to whispers, for a reform of parliament. But when a reform of parliament is mentioned, it means not the house of commons only. The house of lords must reform itself, by training up a rising generation of patriots, with hearts inclined, and understandings enlightened, to pursue and accomplish whatever is best calculated to promote the happiness of a nation, of which they are born legislators. Can he be noble, who, in his sordid attention to borough elections, forgets what he owes to his country, what he owes to human nature?
The abolition of Nobility in France naturally excites some degree of alarm in England. The alarm, perhaps, is most concealed by those who feel it most; by those who affect contempt, while they burn with anger. The examples of two empires like America and France, a great portion of the inhabited globe, cannot but operate powerfully on the mind of neighbouring nations; on patricians and on plebeians; on those who fear, and on those who hope. Discussions are already begun on subjects which once were thought, like the holy of holies, too sacred to be entered upon by the profane. If the alarm, which has been founded, be just, the friends of the constitution, and the favourers of Nobility, will labour to render the one pure, and to preserve the other in its degree of due estimation, that they may both be retained amid the convulsion of neighbouring states; retained inviolate, for their evident utility in promoting the general happiness of man in society, and the welfare of this country. To prove their evident value and utility, and to restore them to their native dignity in the public esteem, will be to support them better than by levying legions of soldiers. Build them on any other foundation than public conviction of their real use and value, and like the house of the fool founded on the sand, they will one day fall, beaten down by the rains and winds of popular commotion.
To preserve the lustre of nobility unsullied, is the scope of the following pages. The lower orders of mankind have made wonderful advances in knowledge; I wished the higher to make a proportionable progress, and to preserve a due interval, by a preeminence of real excellence; by a nobility of virtue and merit, superadded to the nobility of civil institution.
The times certainly require great wisdom and great virtue in all who take the lead in administration, or in a salutary opposition to it. He, therefore, who recommends to the great the study of models best calculated to form the understanding, and to infuse a taste for that sublime of public virtue which soars above self-interest, is most effectually serving his country; he is sowing the seeds of plants, whose foliage may adorn and shelter the land; he is raising a future generation of Hampdens, Sidneys, Chathams; he is providing a succession of Foxes, greys, and lansdownes.
The noble stand made by a few independent peers for the liberty of man, the liberty of thought and speech, and the liberty of the press, on which it must ever depend, retrieves the credit of a venal age, and recalls ideas of Roman magnanimity. The tide of corruption flowed strong and full against them; but they stood their ground, despising danger, and pitying that weakness of the multitude, which rendered them, during a temporary mania, the dupes of placemen, pensioners, expectants, dealers in boroughs, and factors of corruption.
The encouragement indeed of the late associations in every little corner of the kingdom, though apparently adverse, is, perhaps undesignedly, favourable to the cause of liberty. It calls thousands and tens of thousands, in all ranks, from their indolent repose, to the investigation of political subjects. It awakens them to political life, and prompts them to read forbidden books of which they had scarcely heard the names before. It makes them feel their own weight, and will teach them to throw it into the opposite scale, when they find themselves deluded by their artful leaders; or when their artful leaders, disappointed in the hopes of reward for their present exertions, shall excite them on some future panie, to associate in opposition. This step may be said in some respect to resemble the calling forth the notables in France, and declaring the legislative and executive powers incompetent, without extraneous assistance. Is not this to sap the constitution, or to proclaim its imbecility and decrepitude? And are such associators friends, and the only friends to their country?
The truth is, that the people themselves are at this moment the best friends to the constitution, as consisting of king, lords, and commons: they wanted no associations to threaten them with prosecution; they were loyal from affection and from conviction; and, if any individual violated the law, punishment was certain; for the law retains all its vigour, and justice is administered with the purity of Heaven's tribunal. The people heard insurrections announced; but they looked, and, lo! all was peace. The insurrections, which were intended to strike a panic, resembled, in the circumstance of their reality, the ghost of Cock-lane, at which the whole nation from one extremity to the other was once unaccountably alarmed. Truth brought her torch; the ghost vanished; and the people laughed at their own credulity!
Men who dare to come forward in the moment of political frenzy, to oppose its extravagance, and to check that intemperate zeal, which, in its fear of republicanism, seems willing to rush into the extreme of despotism, are truly noble, and therefore worthy of being pointed out as patterns to the young aspirant at personal nobility. They afford an example of that greatness of mind, the only foundation of true grandeur, which the precepts of this book are intended to inspire.
Many enter into opposition as an adventure; they bring a certain quantity of ability and influence into the market, which is to be bought up, when it appears worth while, by those who possess patronage and the command of a treasury. But men who continue firm in their opposition, in their defence of general liberty, when their prospect of personal emolument is forlorn, when reviled by cabals, and when deserted by their adherents, are of that description who founded noble families; themselves, though untitled, the noblest of the human, as well as of their own, race. The army of Xerxes consisted of myriads; yet Leonidas comprised, in his firm, united, little band, more true spirit, more genuine nobility, than the swarms of an oriental despot.
To the Constitution of England, to its spirit, which is its essence, those who have thus stood forth are true friends. They have a great stake in the country, though not the stake of places and pensions. They have well-grounded hopes of being rewarded with its honours. They only wish to restore it to its first principles, that they may retard its decay, and build the fine pile of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, on marble columns, instead of posts crumbling with putrefaction. I avow myself with them, (though the avowal is, I own, unimportant,) a sincere lover of a government so supported; and am happy, however feeble my aid, to cooperate with their generous efforts. I have, with this view, attempted, in the following pages, to add to the personal merit of the aristocracy.
If I lean to liberty, I glory in it. I lean to that which every independent mind must love. He who is cordially attached to letters, will probably be attached, with peculiar affection, to liberty; for liberty is the friend of literature, as well as of every thing beautiful and honourable. Tyranny hates it. Tyranny has commonly been ignorant. Tyrants over men, and slaves to their own passions and caprice, have usually been brought up in illiterate voluptuousness; and seem, like the poor savages of some desert isle, to hate letters and sciences, merely because they are strangers to them. Weak eyes shrink from a strong light. But as light is indisputably to be preferred to darkness, so is even democracy to despotism. Ignorant despotism presiding over an enlightened people, is no less ridiculous than detestable; but ignorant it has usually been, and supported merely by brute force, by an ignorant and mercenary army.
The prevalence of systematic corruption in a state, is inimical not only to liberty, but to personal merit in every department. It discourages the rising race in their attempts to excel, when they see the rewards of excellence bestowed only where borough or election influence points out the favoured candidate. When the best emoluments in the church, in the law, in the army, in the navy, are reserved to secure implicit votes in favour of corruption, what is there to stimulate to high excellence in the liberal professions, but the pure love of excellence for its own sake, which operates only on a few of nobler dispositions than are possessed by the generality? What is there to cherish in the state that root of nobility, from which the branches, which now flourish from its vigour, chiefly derive their bloom and fruit? And is it not a fact too notorious to be controverted, that besides the public purse, all the douceurs in all the professions are scarcely sufficient, in our unreformed state, to satisfy the cravings of voracious corruption?
But though a senatorial reform is most devoutly to be wished, yet the unreformed state is to be preferred, with all its evils, to continued violence, rapine, bloodshed, and universal confusion. Let reason, not force, triumph. Though her conquest over prejudice be slow and gradual, it is ultimately sure. The tree of liberty is planted already in England. May the mossy concretions be rubbed off its branches, and the thorns and briars removed which impede its vegetation! I would plant by its side the tree of peace, the fruitful olive. May they both flourish together, watered by the dew of Heaven, comforting the people with their shade, and enriching them to their heart's content by an abundant fertility!
Peace is the chief good of a commercial, and indeed of every people. European nations, with all their improvements in civilisation, are still too near the savage state, while they terminate their contests by war. Nothing but self-defence can justify it. And if those who decree that it shall take place, under any circumstances but the necessity of selfdefence, were compelled to go into the field in person, it is probable that national disputes would be settled by the arbitration of neutral powers, and the sword converted into the ploughshare. To avoid war, the sorest calamity of human nature, should be the chief object of every humane man, and wise minister. If war at all times is to be shunned, it is more particularly at this time, when ill success may probably cause that anarchy and confusion, which has yet existed among us in idea only. When taxes shall be enormously increased, (as they must be in a war of this character,) many, it is to be feared, will desert the standard to which they have lately crept with blind servility, and rally round the torch of discord.
True patriotism, such as, regardless of party, and of all selfish views, contemplates events, in which the happiness of a future generation may be endangered, and by which the happiness of the living race must be destroyed, will labour to avoid war, by which nothing really valuable can be gained, and every thing may be lost. It will not sacrifice internal happiness like ours to punctilio. It will not wantonly interfere in the concerns of foreign nations. It will not gratify even national pride at the expense of national felicity. To excite such patriotism, I have endeavoured to form a virtuous Patrician, whose mind is enlarged by the most valuable knowledge, and whose heart is softened by religion and humanity; whose spirit is no less elevated above the ordinary level of mankind, than his civil rank in society. The moral architect who builds a man—great from internal qualities—good at heart—meaning nothing but what is generous and beneficent, and able to accomplish his purposes—is surely as well employed as he who forms a heap of stones into a palace, however beautiful in its symmetry, or magnificent in its size. As mind is superior to matter, so is a really great man more noble than the sublimest inanimate productions of art or of nature. To be the humblest labourer in erecting such an edifice, is an honourable employment.
If zeal in a good cause has led to any ardour of expression, I trust I shall need no pardon. I have no sordid interest to serve in what I have done. I have not been obsequious to power. I have nothing to ask of it, nothing to expect from it, and from the candid judgment of the public I have nothing to fear. I have employed my literary leisure in a way that I thought might be useful; and if one idea only is serviceable to the country, it will be acknowledged as meritorious, when the temporary prejudices of party shall be lost in the radiance of eternal truth.
I am attached to the king and to the lords; but I am more attached to the commons; and I will adopt the saying of Rumbald in the reign of Charles the Second, as recorded by Burnet: “I do not imagine the Almighty intended, that the greatest part of mankind should come into the world with saddles on their backs and bridles in their mouths, and a few ready booted and spurred to ride the rest to death.”