Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XXIII. Of the Pageantry of Life; that it originates in the Spirit of Despotism; and contributes to it, without advancing private any more than public Felicity. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XXIII. Of the Pageantry of Life; that it originates in the Spirit of Despotism; and contributes to it, without advancing private any more than public Felicity. - 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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Of the Pageantry of Life; that it originates in the Spirit of Despotism; and contributes to it, without advancing private any more than public Felicity.
The proud despise the people, represent them as little superior to the brutes, laugh at the idea of their rights, and seem to think that the world was made for themselves only; yet the proud are never satisfied but when they attract the notice of this very people, by splendour, by ostentation, by the exercise of authority over them, and by insolent airs of self-importance. The people, it must be owned, in the simplicity of their hearts, gape with admiration at the passing spectacle which insults them with its glare, and feel themselves awe-struck with the grandeur of the cavalcade, which would trample them in the dirt if they did not struggle to escape.
Politicians, observing this effect of finery and parade on the minds of the unthinking, take care to dress up the idol, which they themselves pretend to worship, and which they wish the people really to adore, in all the tawdry glitter of the lady of Loretto. They find this kind of vulgar superstition extremely favourable to their interested views. Accordingly, in all despotic countries, great pains are taken to amuse and delude the people with the trappings of royalty. Popery prevailed more by the gaudiness of its priests and altars, and the pomp of its processions, than from the progress of conviction. The people, in such circumstances, have indeed the pleasure of fine sights; but they usually pay much more dearly for them than for exhibitions at the theatre; and have this mortifying reflection, as a drawback from their pleasure, that the payment is involuntary, and the sight a political delusion. It insults their understandings, while it beguiles them of their rights; and takes from them the earnings of their industry, while it teaches them to feel their own insignificance.
But not only despots, courtiers, and public functionaries, think it proper to strike the vulgar with awe, by purchasing finery of the builder, the taylor, and the coach-painter; but the titled and overgrown rich men, through every part of every community, where family aggrandizement is procurable without public services, or private or personal virtue. Riches, in such societies, confer not only the means of luxurious enjoyment, but of civil superiority. They assume a value not naturally their own, and become the succedanea of wisdom, patriotism, valour, learning, and beneficence. The great object is therefore to make an ostentation of riches, and to keep the people at a distance, by dazzling their eyes with the blaze of equipage and magnificence. As all the minuter luminaries gravitate to the sun in our solar system, so all these aspirants to distinction and superior importance gravitate to royalty. The crown is the glittering orb round which they ambitiously revolve. They would all therefore contribute, if they were able, to add new brilliancy, new heat, new influence and powers of attraction to their fountain of glory. They turn to it as the sunflower to the sun; and feel their colours brighter, and their leaves invigorated, when a ray of favour falls upon them in a peculiar direction. They cannot turn a moment to the people. The popular climate chills them. The gales from this quarter are as the icy breezes from the frozen regions of the north, where the genial beams of solar influence can scarcely penetrate.
It may then be fairly presumed, that where all orders of the rich are vying with each other to make a splendid appearance, even above their rank and means of support, the spirit of the times, among these orders at least, is favourable to the increase of court influence, and therefore to the spirit of despotism.
This rivalry in splendour is, in course, attended with great expense; an expense, which by reducing independent fortunes, diminishes independence of spirit. They who are ruined in seconding the purposes of a court, naturally think themselves entitled to indemnity from court favour. They become then, merely tools of the minister, and dare not speak or act, in any instance, against him, lest they renounce all hope of the glittering prize, the secret douceur, the share of the loan, the contract, the place, the pension, the provision for a son, a nephew, a cousin, or the clerical tutor of the family, who has perhaps grown grey in hungry hope, fed only by the meagre diet of a ministerial promise.
Thus the rage of outshining others in externals contributes to ruin both fortune and principle. Add to this, that the prevalence of pageantry erects, in society, a false standard of human excellence. Money becomes the deity. Money is to give consequence, consideration, power. Money engrosses honour, which is due, and has often been paid, to poverty, when adorned with art, virtue, knowledge, or any other kind of personal merit. The man becomes nothing, and money all. How must the human mind sink in such a conjuncture! Its noblest energies cannot give it that estimation with mankind, which money, inherited by a fool, or acquired by a knave, boldly claims and obtains. Then what encouragement to young men to pursue improvement with any singular ardour? Common attainments are perhaps the best adapted to facilitate the acquisition of money. Common attainments and superficial ornaments will form the whole of education. In the mean time, mind is neglected, and human nature degenerates. Then steps in the despot. For the consequence, take the map, and look over the countries which formed ancient Greece.
The pageantry of life, considered in a political view, as designed by the grandees to awe the people, and keep them out of the park of selfish happiness, which the grandees have fenced with high pales, and guarded with spring-guns and man-traps, certainly may lay claim to the praise of deep cunning or worldly wisdom. The pageantry of life may answer the purpose of the scenery of the play-house, and keep the vulgar from beholding the grandees of the world, before they are dressed and made up for public exhibition. The galleries would certainly lose much of their veneration for the theatrical kings, queens, and nobles, if they were to see them behind the scenes, unbedizened. The pageantry of life is therefore highly efficacious in deluding the vulgar. When not carried too far, and abused for the purposes of oppression, it undoubtedly has its use. But is it, in general, conducive to the happiness of man; either of those who are the actors in the pageant, and gratify their pride by attracting the eyes of beholders; or of those who are led by it to a foolish admiration and a tame acquiescence? Chains of gold and silver are no less galling than fetters of iron.
Pageantry has contributed perhaps more than any other cause to the prevalence of war, the bane of happiness, the disgrace of human nature. The grand operations of war, the splendour of arms, the finery of military dress, have been the amusements which despots have chiefly delighted in, whenever they could behold them in perfect consistence with their own personal safety. The pageantry of war dazzles young minds, and supplies both armies and navies with willing victims. The ugliness of slaughter, the desolation of fertile plains, the burning of peaceful villages, have all been unnoticed, amid the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war. The taste for false glare and deceitful appearances of happiness and glory, has then been one of the most prolific parents of human calamity. It has palliated robbery, and covered foul murder with a glittering veil of tinsel.
All imposture is ultimately productive of evil. Pageantry, in a wretched world like this, assumed by infirm mortals doomed shortly to die, cannot but be deceitful. Its object is to put off false and counterfeit goods for true. There is nothing in human affairs that will justify or support that glare of happiness which the pageantry of the rich and great wish to display. The mask is too small and too transparent to conceal the face of woe, the wrinkles of decay and imperfection. In times of great ignorance, when scarcely any could read, and very little communication was preserved among the different orders of society, the mummery of courts and courtiers taught the vulgar to believe that the internal organization of beings, so decorated externally, must be of a superior nature. Princes and priests dressed themselves in grotesque garbs, in a kind of masquerade habit, to carry on the delusion. But the reign of great wigs, fur gowns, hoods, and cloaks, is nearly at its close. Gilded coaches, horses richly caparisoned, gaudy hammer-cloths, fine footmen, endeavour to supply their place; but they have lost much of their influence; and at last it will be found, that to obtain the respect of the people, it will be necessary to deserve it. No longer will the public admire the poor creature who rides within the coach, for a splendour which he owes entirely to the manufacturer of carriages, the painter, the carver, the gilder, the harness-maker, the horse-dealer, and the groom. No longer will men unjustly transfer the praise due to the tailor and hair-dresser, to the proud beau, who struts as if the earth were not good enough to tread upon, nor the people whom he meets, to look at as he passes them.
The pageantry exhibited by contractors, by placemen, by pensioners, by commissaries, by all who fatten on the public spoils, may justly be considered as an insult on the people. In times of great prosperity it might be winked at; but in times of distress and adversity, it is offensive. It answers no good end. It merely gratifies the vanity of those who make the display. The ostentation of the unfeeling great in France aggravated the sense of suffering under its despotism; but, on the other hand, in provoking the people by the insult, it accelerated and completed the revolution.
It is probable that every little wretch who decorates himself, and all that belongs to him, with finery to the utmost of his power, would be a despot, if he could, and dared. He shows all the dispositions to assume superiority without merit. He certainly has a narrow and vain mind. He cannot be a philosopher or philanthropist. With all his style and splendour in eating, drinking, dwelling, dressing, and riding, we cannot admire him; then let us pity, or deride.
Mere folly might be laughed at and neglected; but the folly I describe is mischievous. It delights in oppression and war; and is one of the principal promoters of the despotic spirit.