Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION X. When Human Life is held cheap, it is a Symptom of a prevailing Spirit of Despotism. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION X. When Human Life is held cheap, it is a Symptom of a prevailing 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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When Human Life is held cheap, it is a Symptom of a prevailing Spirit of Despotism.
There is nothing which I can so reluctantly pardon in the great ones of this world, as the little value they entertain for the life of a man. Property, if seized or lost, may be restored; and without property, man may enjoy a thousand delightful pleasures of existence. The sun shines as warmly on the poor as on the rich; and the gale of health breathes its balsam into the cottage casement on the heath, no less sweetly and salubriously than into the portals of the palace. But can the lords of this world, who are so lavish of the lives of their inferiors, with all their boasted power, give the cold heart to beat again, or relume the light of the eye once dimmed by the shades of death? Accursed despots, show me your authority for taking away that which ye never gave, and cannot give; for undoing the work of God, and extinguishing the lamp of life which was illuminated with a ray from heaven. Where is your charter to privilege murder? You do the work of Satan, who was a destroyer; and your right, if you possess any, must have originated from the father of mischief and misery.
There is nothing so precious as the life of a man. A philosopher of antiquity, who possessed not the religion of philanthropy, who knew not that man came from heaven, and is to return thither; who never heard the doctrine authenticated, that man is favoured with a communication of the divine nature by the holy spirit of God; yet, under all these disadvantages, maintained that, homo est res sacra, that every human creature is consecrated to God, and therefore inviolable by his fellow man, without profanation. All the gold of Ophir, all the gems of Golconda, cannot buy a single life, nor pay for its loss. It is above all price.
Yet take a view of the world, and you will immediately be led to conclude, that scarcely any thing is viler than human life. Crimes which have very little moral evil, if any, and which therefore cannot incur the vengeance of a just and merciful Deity, are punished with death at a human tribunal. I now mean state crimes only; such actions, conduct, speeches, as are made crimes by despots, but are not recognised as such in the decalogue; such as may proceed from the purest and most virtuous principle, from the most enlarged benevolence, from wisdom and unaffected patriotism; such as may proceed from mere warmth of temper, neither intending nor accomplishing any mischief; the mere effects of error, as innocent too in its consequences as its origin. But the despot is offended or frightened; for guilt trembles at the least alarm, and nothing but the blood of the accused can expiate the offence.
Yet numerous as are the innocent victims of the tribunal, where to offend the state is the greatest abomination that man can commit, they are lost and disappear when compared to the myriads sacrificed to the demon of war. Despotism delights in war. It is its element. As the bull knows, by instinct, that his strength is in his horns, and the eagle trusts in his talons; so the despot feels his puissance most, when surrounded by his soldiery arrayed for battle. With the sword in his hand, and his artillery around him, he rejoices in his might, and glories in his greatness. Blood must mark his path; and his triumph is incomplete, till death and destruction stalk over the land, the harbingers of his triumphant cavalcade.
We hear much of necessary wars; but it is certainly true, that a real, absolute, unavoidable necessity for war, such as alone can render it just, has seldom occurred in the history of man. The pride, the wanton cruelty of absolute princes, caring nothing for human life, have in all ages, without the least necessity, involved the world in war; and therefore it is the common cause of all mankind to abolish absolute power; and to discourage, by every lawful means, the spirit that leads to any degree of it. No individual, however good, is fit to be trusted with so dangerous a deposit. His goodness may be corrupted by the magnitude of the trust; and it is the nature of power, uncontrolled by fear or law, to vitiate the best dispositions. He who would have shuddered to spill a drop of blood, in a hostile contest, as a private man, shall deluge whole provinces, as an absolute prince, and laugh over the subjugated plains which he has fertilized with human gore.
What are the chief considerations with such men, previously to their going to war, and at its conclusion? Evidently the expense of money. Little is said or thought of the lives lost, or devoted to be lost, except as matters of pecuniary value. Humanity, indeed, weeps in silence and solitude, in the sequestered shade of private life; but is a single tear shed in courts, and camps, and cabinets? When men high in command, men of fortune and family, fall, their deeds are blazoned, and they figure in history; but who, save the poor widow and the orphan, inquire after the very names of the rank and file? There they lie, a mass of human flesh, not so much regretted by the despots as the horses they rode, or the arms they bore. While ships often go down to the bottom, struck by the iron thunderbolts of war, and not a life is saved; the national loss is estimated by the despot, according to the weight of metal wasted, and the magnitude and expense of the wooden castle:
Ploratur lachrymis amissa pecunia veris!
God, we read, made man in his own image; and our Saviour taught us that he was the heir of immortality. God made no distinction of persons; but behold a being, born to a sceptre, though a poor, puny, shivering mortal like the rest, presumes to sell, and let out for hire, these images of God, to do the work of butchers, in any cause, and for any paymaster, on any number of unoffending fellow-creatures, who are standing up in defence of their hearths, their altars, their wives, their children, and their liberty. Great numbers of men, trained to the trade of human butchery, have been constantly ready to be let to hire, to carry on the work of despotism, and to support, by the money they earned in this hellish employment, the luxurious vices of the wretch who called them his property. Can that state of human affairs be right and proper, which permits a miscreant, scarcely worthy the name of a man, sunk in effeminacy, the slave of vice, often the most abominable kind of vice, ignorant and illiterate, debilitated with disease, weak in body as in mind, to have such dominion of hundreds of thousands, his superiors by nature, as to let them out for pay, to murder the innocent stranger in cold blood?
Though, in free countries and limited monarchies, such atrocious villainy is never permitted, yet it becomes the friends of liberty and humanity to be on their guard against the prevalence of any opinions and practices which depreciate man, as man, and vilify human life. None can tell to what enormous depravity small concessions may lead; when the horror of crimes is gradually softened by the wicked arts of proud intriguers, idolizing grandeur and trampling on poverty.
What shall we think of the practice of what is called crimping? Is it to be allowed in a free country? Are not men bought, inveigled, or forced by it, as if they were cattle, beasts of the field or the forest, and capable of becoming the property of the purchaser or the captor? If a nation should behold with patience such a practice increasing and encouraged by the great, would there not be reason to suspect, that it had lost the spirit of freedom, and was preparing to submit its neck to the yoke of despotism? Is not an impressed sailor or a kidnapped soldier one of the images of God? Is he not entitled to all the rights of nature, and the society of which he is a member? Does poverty disfranchise a man, rob him of his rights, and render his life a commodity to be bought and sold, or thrown away, at the will of a rich man, who is enabled to take advantage of his want, and add to the misfortune of indigence the curse of slavery? Are a few pieces of silver to be allowed, by connivance, if not by legal permission, as the price of blood, when poverty, but not the will, consents to the sale?
Even if boxing were ever to become a spectacle patronised by princes, and encouraged by a people, there would be reason to fear lest man, as man, had lost his value; lest life were estimated of little price; and lest the spirit of despotism were gradually insinuating itself into the community. There would be reason to fear lest times, like those of the latter Roman emperors, were returning, and that men might be kept like wild beasts to be brought on the stage and fight for public diversion, and to be murdered for the evening's amusement of fashionable lords and ladies, at an opera-house.
The dignity of human nature, in despotical countries, is treated as a burlesque. A man is less dignified than a pampered horse, and his life infinitely less valued. But in a land of liberty, like ours, every man should learn to venerate himself and his neighbour, as a noble creature, dependant only on God, on reason, on law. Life, under such circumstances, is a pearl of great price. Every human being, under such circumstances, is of equal value in the sight of God. They, therefore, who, in consequence of civil elevation, hold any man's life cheap and vile, unless he has forfeited his rights by enormous crimes, are guilty of rebellion against God, and ought to be hunted out of society; as the wolf, once the native of England's forests, was exterminated from the island.