Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION I.: introductory. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
SECTION I.: introductory. - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Man in a state of simplicity, uncorrupted by the influence of bad education, bad examples, and bad government, possesses a taste for all that is good and beautiful. He is capable of a degree of moral and intellectual improvement, which advances his nature to a participation with the divine. The world, in all its magnificence, appears to him one vast theatre, richly adorned and illuminated, into which he is freely admitted, to enjoy the glorious spectacle. Acknowledging no natural superior but the great Architect of the whole fabric, he partakes the delight with conscious dignity, and glows with gratitude. Pleased with himself and all around him, his heart dilates with benevolence, as well as piety; and he finds his joys augmented by communication. His countenance cheerful, his mien erect, he rejoices in existence. Life is a continual feast to him, highly seasoned by virtue, by liberty, by mutual affection. God formed him to be happy, and he becomes so, thus fortunately unmolested by false policy and oppression. Religion, reason, nature, are his guides through the whole of his existence, and the whole is happy. Virtuous independence, the sun, which irradiates the morning of his day, and warms its noon, tinges the serene evening with every beautiful variety of colour, and, on the pillow of religious hope, he sinks to repose in the bosom of Providence.
But where is the man to be found, thus noble, thus innocent, thus happy? Not, indeed, in so many parts of the terraqueous globe as he ought to be; but still he is to be found wherever the rights of nature and the virtues of simplicity are not violated or banished by the false refinements, the base artifices of corrupted government.
Unhappily for man, society has been almost universally corrupted, even by the arts intended for its improvement; and human nature is gradually depraved in its very progress to civilisation. Metamorphosed by the tampering of unskilful or dishonest politicians, and the craft of interested priests, co-operating with politicians, man at present appears, in many countries, a diminutive and distorted animal, compared with what he was in his primeval state. He is become the dwarf and the cripple of courts and cities, instead of the well-formed, beautiful, creature, who once bounded, in the glory of health and strength, over the forest and the mountain, glowing with the warmth of virtue, and breathing the spirit of independence.
Various are the causes which contribute to the factitious depravity of man. Defective and erroneous education corrupts him; the prevalent examples of a degenerate community corrupt him; but bad government corrupts him more than all other causes combined. The grand adversary of human virtue and happiness is Despotism. Look over the surface of the whole earth, and behold man, the glory and deputed lord of the creation, withering under the influence of despotism, like the plant of temperate climes scorched by the sun of a torrid zone. The leaf is sickly, the blossom dares not expand its beauty, and no fruit arrives at its just size and maturity.
Turkey, Italy, Egypt! how changed from what ye were when inhabited by ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians! Nature, indeed, still smiles upon them with unaltered favour. The blue mantle of the skies is still spread over them in all its luminous magnificence. There is no reason to suppose the earth less fertile. The corn laughs in the vallies. The tree aspires to Heaven with all its original verdure and majesty. But man decays; withered, shrunk, enervated; a form without spirit, an animal less happy than the beasts of the field, and more ignoble, inasmuch as degeneracy is baser than native, original, created inferiority. Fallen with the columnar ruins of better times, over which, in these countries, he often tramples, man himself appears little better than a ruin, displaying all the deformity of the mouldering pile, with scarcely any vestige of its former magnificence. It would equally contradict philosophy and experience to attribute this moral degeneracy to the decay of nature's vigour. There is no reason to conclude that the natural faculties of men who inhabit countries once free, but now enslaved, are produced in a state of less perfection at this hour, than in the days of their illustrious forefathers. Anatomy discovers no defect in the fibres of the heart or the brain; yet the degeneracy remains uncontested. In truth, government has counteracted the beneficence of nature. The men are fallen; while the human figures, with their internal and external organization, continue similar, or the same. They are inactive and pusillanimous. They aspire to no extraordinary excellence or achievements; but crouch beneath their despot, glad of the poor privilege allowed them by a fellow-creature, as weak and more wicked than themselves, to eat, drink, sleep, and die. Any preeminent degree of merit among them would render the distinguished possessor of it fatally illustrious, the certain object of a tyrant's vengeance; and they find their best security in their want of virtue. By a voluntary submission to contempt, they retain and transmit the privilege of breathing, and build the bulwark of their safety on their personal insignificance.
Fear must of necessity become the predominant passion in all countries subject to the uncontrolled dominion of an individual and his ministers: but fear chills the blood, and freezes the faculties. Under its icy influence there can arise no generous emulation, no daring spirit of adventure. Enterprise is considered as dangerous, not merely from the general casualty of all human affairs, but because it excites notice, and alarms the jealousy of selfish power. Under a despotic government, to steal through life unobserved, to creep, with timid caution, through the vale of obscurity, is the first wisdom; and to be suffered to die in old age, in the course of nature, without the prison, the chain, the halter, or the axe, the highest pitch of human felicity.
Ignorance of the grossest kind, ignorance of man's nature and rights, ignorance of all that tends to make and keep us happy, disgraces and renders wretched more than half the earth, at this moment, in consequence of its subjugation to despotic power. Ignorance, robed in imperial purple, with pride and cruelty by her side, sways an iron sceptre over more than one hemisphere. In the finest and largest regions of this planet which we inhabit, are no liberal pursuits and professions, no contemplative delights, nothing of that pure, intellectual employment which raises man from the mire of sensuality and sordid care, to a degree of excellence and dignity, which we conceive to be angelic and celestial. Without knowledge or the means of obtaining it, without exercise or excitements, the mind falls into a state of infantine imbecility and dotage; or acquires a low cunning, intent only on selfish and mean pursuits, such as is visible in the more ignoble of the irrational creatures, in foxes, apes, and monkies. Among nations so corrupted, the utmost effort of genius is a court intrigue or a ministerial cabal.
A degradation of the understanding, like this, is usually accompanied with depravity of heart. From an inability to find pleasure and honourable employment in the energies of thought, in noble and virtuous action, in refined conversation, in arts, in commerce, in learning, arises a mischievous activity in trifles, a perversion of nature, a wantonness of wickedness, productive of flagitious habits, which render the partaker of reason the most despicable and detestable animal in the whole circle of existence. Thus sunk under the pressure of despotism, who can recognise, notwithstanding the human shape they bear, the lineal descendants of Egyptian, Grecian, Roman worthies, the glory of their times, the luminaries of their own country and the world, the instructors and benefactors of human nature? Thus the image of the Deity, stamped on man at his creation, is defiled or utterly effaced by government, instituted and exercised by man over his fellow-man; and his kindred to Heaven is known no more by the divine resemblance. A bad government is therefore the curse of the earth, the scourge of man, the grand obstacle to the divine will, the most copious source of all moral evil, and for that reason, of all misery; but of bad governments, none are comparable, in their mischievous effects, to the despotic.
But if despotism in its extreme produces consequences thus malignant, reason will infer, and experience will justify the inference, that all the subordinate degrees of despotism are proportionally destructive. However it may be disguised by forms, it is ever seeking its own increase and aggrandizement, by openly crushing, or secretly undermining, the fabric of liberty: it is ever encroaching on the privileges and enjoyments of those who are subjected to it; greedily, though foolishly, wishing to engross every good of every kind in this sublunary state, except the good of virtue.
Power, though limited by written laws, in the hands of mortal men, poorly educated, and surrounded by sycophants and flatterers, who wish, by partaking the power, to partake also its profits and distinctions, and thus gratify at once their pride and avarice, is always endeavouring to extend itself beyond the limitations; and requires to be watched with the most jealous eye, by all who are subject to it, and to be restrained within its bounds by the manliest efforts, and the most determined resolution of virtue. Every engine of artifice and terror will be used to suppress such virtue: but the friend of man and of his country will defy persecution, fines, imprisonment, and death, in attempting, by every lawful and rational means, to push back the gigantic strides of encroaching despotism, more destructive of happiness than an earthquake or pestilence. A country deserves no love, when it ceases to be a country of liberty. Human beings constitute a country, not a soil in a certain latitude; and an attachment to liberty is the truest loyalty.
It is therefore highly expedient, whenever a people, free by law and constitution, appear in the smallest degree to remit their attention to the preservation of freedom, to urge them, by the most serious admonition, to an immediate resumption of their vigilance. While they slumber and sleep, lulled by the Circèan cup of corruption, the enemy is awake, and busily making his insidious approaches to the citadel. Every inch of ground, they carelessly relinquish, is eagerly seized by the covetous possessor of dominion; the love of which, like the love of money, increases by accession. Nor are there ever wanting numbers of artful men who stimulate a weak or a wicked prince in his encroachments; sensible as they are, that their own power and privileges will be augmented with those of the prince, whose exclusive favour they have gained by sycophantic arts and by cooperation in the fallacious service of enlarging his prerogative. The more the power of the prince is augmented, the greater will be the emoluments, the more brilliant the distinctions of the courtier. A star shines with higher lustre, a riband displays a brighter hue, a title soothes the ear with sweeter music, when conferred by a mighty potentate far exalted above vulgar controul, and who holds his crown in contempt of his people. If kings can be once elevated to the rank of Heaven's vicegerents, how must admiring plebeians idolize their choice favours and their prime favourites? There is always, therefore, a set of men (to whom pomp and vanity are the chief good) who are continually endeavouring to add glory and greatness to the orb from which they derive their own lustre. Moons and satellites would shine faintly indeed, unless the sun of the system glittered with intolerable effulgence. If the sun were shorn of its beams, their native opaqueness would pass without notice.
So many advantages do the possessors of power enjoy for its extension, in all countries where courts have influence, that the people, however great their numbers, are scarcely a match for its subtle contrivances, its false alarms, its bribes, its spies, its informers, its constructive treasons, its military force, its superstitious terrors, invented and diffused by a policy, which often laughs in secret at the religion which it enforces with solemn hypocrisy. A court has an opportunity of gratifying, in a thousand different ways, both secretly and openly, the most prevalent and violent passions of human nature. When the mass of the people are artfully seduced to throw their weight into the same scale with the court, liberty in the other must kick the beam. When the aristocracy of rank and riches unite hand in hand, to seduce the people, the delusion may for a time be successful, and advantages may be taken, during the temporary delirium, to rifle the castle of liberty, to weaken its foundations, to break down its battlements, or to lull its watchmen asleep with a powerful opiate.
It has indeed been said in ancient times, and often repeated, that if the “people will be deceived, let them be deceived;” but they have no choice, no chance to escape deception, unless the truth be fairly and publicly exhibited to them, and their minds duly enlightened. When dust is thrown into their eyes, more especially gold dust, the political ophthalmist must honestly endeavour to clear away the obstruction. It becomes every lover of his country, especially a country like England, where even the throne itself is fixed on liberty as on a corner stone, to warn his countrymen of the danger, whenever he observes the smallest encroachment on their rights, and the spirit of the times tending but remotely to despotism.
If there be a time, in which the senate of a free country has declared that the influence of the crown “has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished;” and if, instead of a consequent diminution, there be an evident increase of that influence; if acts, like the habeas corpus, highly favourable to liberty, be frequently suspended; if unconstitutional benevolences be encouraged; if places and pensions be multiplied; if juries be censured by great men for honest verdicts in favour of freedom; if endeavours be made to restrain the press by sycophantic associations; if spies and informers be kept in pay for the purpose of prosecuting innocent men who espouse the cause of their country; if the press be hired to calumniate both liberty and the people; if wars, neither just nor necessary, be undertaken to divert the public mind from domestic reformation; if a party prevail by artifice, who hate the name of liberty, who are continually employed in aggrandizing monarchy, aristocracy, and in depreciating the people; in such a time, and in such a conjuncture, it becomes every honest man, not yet drawn into the whirlpool of political corruption, to warn his fellowcitizens against an encroaching spirit of despotism.
In the following pages, I offer some suggestions on the subject. I have indeed few qualifications for the task besides sincerity, an earnest desire to promote public and private happiness, and an independence of spirit; but these I certainly have, and profess to maintain. I wish the rising generation may be awakened, and learn to place a due value on the liberty handed down to them by their ancestors. I would inspire them with a generosity of mind, which should scorn dissimulation; which should neither practise the arts of corruption, nor become their dupe. I am desirous of discrediting the whole system of corruption, and of rendering all civil government fair, just, open, and honourable. All government, founded on insincerity and injustice, debases the morals and injures the happiness, while it infringes on the civil rights of the people. I wish to revive in the people a due sense of their native and constitutional importance. I endeavour, in this book, to plead the cause of man; firmly convinced that the cause of man is the cause of God.