Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION VII. The fashionable Invectives against Philosophy and Reason, a Proof of the Spirit of Despotism. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION VII. The fashionable Invectives against Philosophy and Reason, a Proof of the Spirit of Despotism. - 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 fashionable Invectives against Philosophy and Reason, a Proof of the Spirit of Despotism.
Persons who owe all their preeminence to the merit of their forefathers, or to casual events, which constitute good fortune, are usually desirous of fixing a standard of dignity, very different from real worth, and spare no pains to depreciate personal excellence, all such excellence as is, in fact, the most honourable; because it cannot exist without talents or virtues. Birth and riches, fashion and rank, are in their estimation infinitely more honourable and valuable than all the penetrating sagacity and wonderful science of a Newton. Such persons value Newton more as a knight than as a philosopher; more for the title bestowed upon him by Queen Anne, than the endowment given him by God, and improved by his own meritorious exertion.
Upon this principle, many men in our times, who wish to extend and aggrandize that power, from whose arbitrary bounty they derive all the honour they are capable of acquiring, endeavour to throw contempt on philosophy. It may indeed be doubted, whether they all know the meaning of the word; but they know it implies a merit not derived from princes, and therefore they wish to degrade it. Their fountain of honour, they conceive, has no resemblance, in its nature of efficacy, to the famed fountains of Parnassus: it conveys no inspiration, except that which displays itself in the tumour of pride.
The present age has heard upstart noblemen give to philosophers (whose genius and discoveries entitle them to rank, in Reason's table of precedency, above every nobleman in the red book) the opprobrious appellation of wretches and miscreants. Philosophy and philosophers have been mentioned by men, whose attainments would only qualify them for distinction in a ball room, with expressions of hatred and contempt due only to thieves, murderers, the very outcast and refuse of human nature.
The mind is naturally led to investigate the cause of such virulence, and to ask how has philosophy merited this usage from the tongue of factitious grandeur. The resentment expressed against philosophy is expressed with a peevishness and acrimony that proves it to proceed from the sense of a sore place. How has pride been so severely hurt by philosophy? It has been exposed, laid open to the eye of mankind in all its nakedness. Philosophy has held the scales, and rejected the coin that wanted weight. Philosophy has applied the touchstone, and thrown away the counterfeit. Hence the spirit of despotism is incensed against philosophy; and if proclamations or cannon balls could destroy her, her perdition would be inevitable and eternal. Folly exclaims aloud, “Let there be no light to detect my paint and tinsel.” But happily, the command of Folly, however imperial her tone, is not the fiat of Omnipotence. Philosophy therefore will survive the anathema; and standing on the rock of truth, laugh at the artillery of confederated despots.
When she deserts truth, she no longer deserves to be called philosophy: and it must be owned, that when she has attacked religion, she has justly lost her reputation. But here it is well worthy of remark, that those who now most bitterly revile her, gave themselves little concern about her, till she descended to politics. She might have continued to argue against religion; and many of her present opposers would have joined in her cry with alacrity: but the moment she entered on the holy ground of politics, the ignorant grandees shuddered at the profanation, and “Avaunt Philosophy,” was the word of alarm.
Philosophy, so far from deserving contempt, is the glory of human nature. Man approaches by contemplation to what we conceive of celestial purity and excellence. Without the aid of philosophy, the mass of mankind, all over the terraqueous globe, would have sunk in slavery and superstition, the natural consequences of gross ignorance. Men at the very bottom of society, have been enabled by the natural talents they possessed, seconded by favourable opportunities, to reach the highest improvements in philosophy; and have thus lifted up a torch in the valley, which has exposed the weakness and deformity of the castle on the mountain, from which the oppressors sallied, in the night of darkness, and spread desolation with impunity. Despots, the meanest, the basest, the most brutal and ignorant of the human race, would have trampled on the rights and the happiness of men unresisted, if philosophy had not opened the eyes of the sufferers, shown them their own power and dignity, and taught them to despise those giants of power, as they appeared through the mist of ignorance, who ruled a vassal world with a mace of iron. Liberty is the daughter of Philosophy; and they who detest the offspring, do all that they can to vilify and discountenance the mother.
But let us calmly consider what is the object of this philosophy, so formidable in the eyes of those who are bigotted to ancient abuses, who hate every improvement, and who wish to subject the many to the controul of an arbitrary few. Philosophy is ever employed in finding out whatever is good, and whatever is true. She darts her eagle eye over all the busy world, detects error and mischief, and points out modes of improvement. In the multiform state of human affairs, ever obnoxious to decay and abuse, it is hers to meditate on the means of melioration. She wishes to demolish nothing but what is a nuisance. To build, to repair, to strengthen, and to polish, these are the works which she delights to plan; and, in concerting the best methods of directing their accomplishment, she consumes the midnight oil. How can she disturb human affairs, since she dwells in contemplation, and descends not to action? Neither does she impel others to action by the arts of delusive eloquence. She applies to reason alone; and if reason is not convinced, all that she has done, is swept away, like the web of Arachne.
But it is modern philosophy, and French philosophy, which gives such umbrage to the lovers of old errors, and the favourers of absolute power; just as if philosophy were mutable by time or place. Philosophy, by which I mean the investigation of the good and true, on all subjects, is the same, like the sun, whether it shines in China or Peru. Truth and good are eternal and immutable; and therefore philosophy, which is solely attached to these, is still one and the same, whether ancient or modern, in England or in France.
It is sophistry, and not philosophy, which is justly reprobated; and there has at all times been more sophistry displayed by the sycophant defenders of despotism, than by the friends to liberty. England has ever abounded with sophists, when the high prerogative notions, Toryism, and Jacobitism, and the servile principles which flow from them, have required the support of eloquence, either written or oral. Besides our modern Filmers, we have had an army of ten thousand mercenary speakers and writers, whose names are as little remembered as their venal productions. Such men, contending against the light of nature, and common sense, have been obliged to seek succour of sophistry. Theirs is the philosophy, falsely so called, which deserves reprobation. They have had recourse to verbosity, to puzzle and perplex the plainest points; they have seduced the reader from the direct road of common sense, to delude his imagination in the fairy land of metaphor; they fine-spun their arguments to a degree of tenuity neither tangible nor visible, that they might excite the awe which is always felt for the incomprehensible by the ignorant; and at the same time, elude the refutation of the learned and the wise: they have acquired a lubricity, which, like the eel, enables them to slip from the grasp of the captor, whom they could not have escaped, by the fair exertion of muscular vigour. Animated with the hope of reward from that power which they labour to extend, they have, like good servants to their masters, bestowed art and labour in proportion to the weakness of their cause: they have assumed an air of wisdom to impose on the multitude, and uttered the language of knavery and folly with the grave confidence of an oracle. It is not necessary to cross the Channel in order to find Sophistry, decking herself, like the ass in the skin of the lion, with the venerable name of Philosophy.
As we value a free press, or wish to preserve a due esteem for genius and science, let us ever be on our guard, when we hear great men, possessing neither genius nor science, rail against philosophy. Let us remember, that it was a Roman tyrant, in the decline of all human excellence, (when Providence permitted such monsters to show the world the full deformity of despotism,) who wished to extinguish the light of learning by abolishing the finest productions of genius. There are men, in recent times, who display all the propensities of a Caligula; be it the people's care, that they never possess his power.