Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XXV. Of a Natural Aristocracy. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
SECTION XXV. Of a Natural Aristocracy. - 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.
Of a Natural Aristocracy.
Nobility, according to the idea of the vulgar, both in high and low life, is nothing more than riches that have been a long time in one family: but it often happens that riches have been originally gained and preserved in one family by sordid avarice, by mean and dishonest arts; such arts as are utterly incompatible with true nobility, with superiority of intellects, united with generosity of disposition.
Most of the titles of nobility, and other civil distinctions, were taken from war: as a marquis, a duke, a count, a baron, a landgrave, a knight, an esquire. The inventors of arts, the improvers of life, those who have mitigated evil and augmented the good allotted to men in this world, were not thought worthy of any titular distinctions. The reason is indeed sufficiently obvious: titles were originally bestowed by despotic kings, who required and rewarded no other merit but that which supported them by violence in their arbitrary rule. In some countries they are now given, for the same reasons, to those who effect the same purposes, not by war only, but by corruption.
Persons thus raised to civil honours, thus enriched by the long-continued favour of courts, would willingly depreciate all dignity which is derived from God and virtue only, unindebted to patents royal. They would create an artificial preference to a distinguished few among the human race, which nature is for ever counteracting, by giving superior abilities to those who are pushed down among the despised and neglected many. This conduct is both unjust and unnatural. It cannot be favourable to human happiness, because it is adverse to truth, and does violence to the will of God manifested in the operations of nature. In France it was carried to that extreme which brought it to its termination. There is a tendency to carry it to extremes in all countries where courts predominate. The friend of reason and of man will therefore endeavour to convince the people, that an aristocracy, founded on caprice or accident only, without any regard to superior abilities and virtues, is a fertile cause of war, and all those evils which infest a great part of civil society.
That the best and ablest men should govern the worst and weakest, is reasonable: and this is the aristocracy appointed by God and nature. But what do we mean when we say the best and ablest men? Do we mean men of the best families; that is, men in whose families riches and titles have long been conspicuous? By the ablest men, do we mean men who possess the greatest power, by undue influence, in borough and county elections, though the exertion of that power be strictly forbidden by the law and constitution? Or do we mean men of honest, upright, and benevolent hearts; of vigorous, well-informed, well-exercised understandings? Certainly the latter sort, which forms the aristocracy established by God and nature. This is gold; the king's head stamped upon it may make it a guinea. The other is only copper; and though the same impression may be made upon it at the mint, it is intrinsically worth no more than a halfpenny.
But Mr. Burke has favoured mankind with a description of what he calls a true natural aristocracy.
The first requisite,∗ according to him, is “To be bred in a place of estimation.” Mr. Burke is a good classical scholar, and often writes Latin in English.† Place here is the Latin locus, which every polite scholar has observed to signify family. If I were to translate this little sentence into Latin, I might venture to render it in this manner: honesto oportet oriundus sit loco—you must, as the common people would express it, be a gentleman born. The accident of birth therefore is placed at the head of the qualifications necessary to give a man preeminence in society. This doctrine is certainly consistent with the whole tenour of the book; but whether it contributes to the general happiness of mankind, or tends to the spirit of despotism, let impartial observers determine. Mr. Burke had said a few lines before, satis est equitem mihi plaudere—“It is enough for me that gentlemen or nobles approve my doctrine;” and there is therefore little doubt but that he is satisfied; for their approbation must be secured by opinions so favourable to their importance in society, independently of laborious, virtuous, and useful exertion.
The next requisite is, “to see nothing low or sordid from one's infancy;” that is, to be kept at a distance from the swinish multitude, so as not to know those wants which it is the business of superiors, or of a natural aristocracy, to supply or alleviate.
The third requisite is, “to be taught to respect oneself.” This seldom requires any great teaching among persons who have the two preceding requisites. Pride and selfishness are the very principles of despotism.
The fourth requisite to natural aristocracy, “is to be habituated to the censorial inspection of the public eye.” Yes; so habituated as to be hardened by effrontery, and to say that a king holds his crown∗ in contempt of the people; and, satis est equitem mihi plaudere, which may be rendered, paraphrastically, “I care nothing for the people's censorial eye or tongue, if the great honour me with their applause, for defending their exclusive privileges from being trodden under the hoof of the swinish multitude.”
I pass over some very proper requisites, to proceed to the last. The last is, “to be among rich traders, who, from their success, are presumed to have sharp and vigorous understandings, and to possess the virtues of diligence, order, constancy, and regularity, and to have cultivated an habitual regard to commutative justice.—These are the circumstances of men who form what I should call a natural aristocracy, without which there is no nation. Without this,” (the writer intimates, in a few subsequent lines,) “he cannot recognise the existence of the people.”
Respecting Mr. Burke greatly, as I do, and agreeing with him in many particulars in this very passage, I cannot help thinking that he has laid too much stress on riches and birth, in pointing out the men intended by nature to take the lead in all human affairs, and to form what he calls a true natural aristocracy.
I think it injurious to society and mankind at large to lavish honours and confer power on accidental qualities, which may exist in their greatest degree and perfection without the least particle of personal merit, without wisdom or benevolence. It discourages industry. It stifles all virtuous emulation. It makes riches the grand object of pursuit; not for their own intrinsic value, not for their power of supplying necessaries, and even luxuries, but for the political consequence they bestow, independently of the mode of acquisition or expenditure. I would have no idolatry. God has shown his peculiar indignation against it. I would not worship a calf, though a golden one. Kings log, and gods made of stocks and stones, can only command reverence from men really sunk to a state below the swine.
I know Lord Bolingbroke's doctrines of liberty are disliked by those who see their own consequence increasing in the increasing spirit of despotism. But I will cite a passage from him, which may counterbalance the servile ideas which some men entertain of the aristocracy constituted by nature.
“It seems to me,” says he, “that in order to maintain the moral system of the world at a certain point, far below that of ideal perfection; but however sufficient upon the whole to constitute a state easy and happy, or, at the worst, tolerable; I say, it seems to me, that the Author of Nature has thought fit to mingle, from time to time, among the societies of men, a few, and but a few, of those, on whom he is graciously pleased to bestow a larger portion of the ætherial spirit, than is given, in the ordinary course of his providence to the sons of men.∗∗∗
“You will find that there are superior spirits, men who show, even from their infancy, though it be not always perceived by others, perhaps not felt by themselves, that they were born for something more and better. These are the men to whom the part I mentioned is assigned. Their talents denote their general designation.
“I have sometimes represented to myself the vulgar, who are accidentally distinguished by the titles of king and subject, of lord and vassal, of nobleman and peasant; and the few who are distinguished by nature so essentially from the herd of mankind, that (figure apart) they seem to be of another species. The former loiter or trifle away their whole time; and their presence or their absence would be equally unperceived, if caprice or accident did not raise them often to stations, wherein their stupidity, and their vices, make them a public misfortune. The latter come into the world, or at least continue in it, after the effects of surprise and inexperience are over, like men who are sent on more important errands. They may indulge themselves in pleasure; but as their industry is not employed about trifles, so their amusements are not made the business of their lives. Such men cannot pass unperceived through a country. If they retire from the world, their splendour accompanies them, and enlightens even the obscurity of their retreat. If they take a part in public life, the effect is never indifferent. They either appear like ministers of divine vengeance; and their course through the world is marked by desolation and oppression, by poverty and servitude; or they are the guardian angels of the country they inhabit, busy to avert even the most distant evil, and to maintain or procure peace, plenty, and the greatest of human blessings, liberty.”
Such men, when they take the latter course, and become the guardian angels of the country they inhabit, are the aristocracy appointed by God and nature. Such men, therefore, should be selected by kings for civil honours, and public functions of high importance. If kings were republicans in the proper sense, all the people would be royalists. But when brilliant honours and ministerial employments are bestowed on fools and knaves, because they were begotten by ancestors whom they disgrace, or possess riches which they abuse, government becomes a nuisance, and the people feel an aristocracy to be little better than an automaton machine, for promoting the purposes of royal or ministerial despotism.
[∗]See Appeal from the new to the old Whigs, page 128.
[†]Thus he uses the word vast, which the common reader understands very great, in its classical sense, for desolate. Many other instances might be given.
[∗]Mr. Burke's doctrine.