Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XLIV. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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LETTER XLIV. - 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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The subject of my last is of too much consequence not to be resumed.
Man is instinctively a religious animal. Others approach him in reason, but none have an idea of a God. Many of them, as the dog, look up to man with a species of adoration, resembling that with which he looks up to the Deity. This religious instinct in man is a certain proof of that dignity of human nature, which the modern philosophers are endeavouring to depreciate.
But those who claim a dignity among their fellow-creatures, will never, if they are wise, study to lower the dignity of the whole race. If there be no dignity in human nature, there can be none in any partaker of it. Nobles will act wisely in maintaining religion in its full vigour, if they should be actuated solely by selfish or political motives.
If man be a reptile, incapable of sustaining a character at once good and great, how ridiculous to put a coronet on his head, and clothe him in purple! They are the greatest levellers, who aim at levelling man with the brute. If we are all asses, no as among us will long be permitted to wear a lion's skin.
Indeed, poor human nature, with all its dignity, stands in need of every support to prevent it from falling beneath itself. Whatever can raise it from the savage and barbarous state, ought to be cherished. The wild crab-stock must be grafted with the pippin.
I wish your religion not to be a political one, but the spontaneous growth of a good and feeling heart. Yet even a political reverence for the religion of your country is far more honourable to a nobleman, raised or maintained as he is in his elevation for his supposed virtue, than an open contempt of it. Depend upon it, that some instances of this sort have given disgust to the people. All the eloquence and ability of Bolingbroke have not been able to rescue his name from infamy. And what will be thought of those little great men, who blaspheme in public, and avow themselves infidels, with scarcely any learning, and no peculiar share of common sense? Such men are sapping the foundations of nobility, on which it has stood firmly for ages.
A religion too evidently political will usually be frustrated. The public, ever keenly penetrating into the conduct of distinguished personages, will see that it is merely political, and then what becomes of the policy of it? It may do more injury than open impiety, because it renders all professions of religion throughout society suspected of policy, and causes religion itself to be considered as a state engine. The engine will lose its spring, and become a piece of lumber, when once the suspicion is universal.
Be therefore in truth what you wish to appear. Are you exempted from the common lot of humanity? Do you not want consolation which the world often has not to give? None are more wretched than the great. A thousand causes increase that portion of misery in them, of which all mortals must partake. They want the spur to industry which urges their inferiors to action, and consequently makes them happy. Their appetites are palled with abundance. They are exposed to a thousand temptations, happily unknown to the vulgar. They are often brought up in ignorance of all things but those which solicit their senses. And shall they, proud of a little temporary distinction, despise that which myriads of their fellow-creatures have found to be a light to lighten their paths; a medicine for sickness of mind, the most distressing of all languors; a vulnerary to heal the severest wounds of the bosom?
You have too much sense not to see the vanity of all human things; the brevity of life; the weakness of man in his best estate; the poverty of riches, and the littleness of grandeur. Seeing and feeling these things, you will aspire at something greater, something better, something more satisfactory and more durable, than this fading scene, and this perishable body, are able to afford. You will see a sublimity in religion, a true grandeur in all its views; and you will wish to be impressed with it, that your soul, your very essence may be refined, sublimed, and truly ennobled. Little minds, the half learned, the empty and the conceited, are the pronest to infidelity and irreligion. A really great mind, a mind adorned by the lights of learning, and a heart finely sensible of all that in its most perfect state it ought to feel, will acknowledge with all humility its own want of support, and aspire with ardent hope to the favour of the Deity.
And let me entreat you to keep in mind, that religious impressions must be stamped early in life; because there is great danger that the heart may become too much hardened in the world, to admit them in advanced age. The sooner you adopt pious sentiments, the better: but because the outward appearances of religion are often suspicious, often the cloaks of hypocrisy, you will take care to avoid the ostentation of piety. Indeed, there is not much danger of it in the present times: it is so much exploded in some circles in high life, that many a young man of gaiety and fashion would rather be suspected of every extravagance and folly, than of saying his prayers, or paying a sincere respect either to the public or private offices of devotion. To avoid the suspicion of hypocrisy, your piety will be more in your heart than on your tongue; and your intercourse with Heaven will be carried on with little other privity, (except on Sundays and in the church,) than that of your own conscience.
This subject is too extensive and too important for a familiar letter; I can only give you hints upon it; you must improve them by reading and reflection. Give me leave to send you for instruction to the great masters of theology in our own language; to Barrow, whose copious eloquence would adorn a senate; to South, whose wit, and sound argument, and energetic style, will improve you in speaking, while it convinces your reason, confirms your faith, animates your zeal, and inspires your heart with manly sentiments of duty to yourself, your neighbour, and your God. I mention eloquent writers, that you may not lay aside a volume of sermons, with the usual complaint of dulness. More lively writers than Barrow and South are not to be found in the English language. I fear, if I should recommend dull tomes of divinity, however sound, I should stand no chance of being regarded.
But why should you not have a theological library? Do you think divinity concerns the clergy only? It concerns man, as man; and he has poor pretensions to the character of a nobleman, whose narrow prejudiced mind leads him to think, that divinity is interesting to none but men who follow it as a lucrative profession.
Hebrew I do not recommend to you; because you cannot comprehend in your plan every thing that is desirable. But pray furnish yourself with a Septuagint Bible, a Latin Bible, and an English one, of the best edition. Procure Wetstein's and Bengelius's testaments. Set apart a bookcase in your library, for the best writings of celebrated laymen of our own country in divinity; such as Locke, Addison, Nelson, West, and Lyttelton: and be not ashamed of admitting among them, the celebrated writers of sermons, whose compositions, considered only as fine pieces of literature, deserve a place in every good library.
The time may come, when you will find this part of your collection the most agreeable. In old age it will furnish much comfort. Happy for you it will be, if in your youth you divest yourself of those prejudices against religion and religious books, which, unworthy as they are of a truly philosophic and noble mind, are cherished as marks of superiority over the vulgar! You must die like the vulgar; you have nerves susceptible of pain and languor like the vulgar; you may be judged and condemned like the vulgar; deign therefore to worship and obey the God of the vulgar. Before his eyes in what light do you think appear coronets, ribands, and stars? A book, of some authority with the people, though sometimes neglected by the great, says, “Not many noble are called.”—That they are not, must be their own fault, for God is no respecter of person.
I am, &c.