Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XXVIII. The fashionable Contempt thrown on Mr. Locke, and his Writings in Favour of Liberty; and on other Authors and Books espousing the same Cause. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XXVIII. The fashionable Contempt thrown on Mr. Locke, and his Writings in Favour of Liberty; and on other Authors and Books espousing the same Cause. - 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 Contempt thrown on Mr. Locke, and his Writings in Favour of Liberty; and on other Authors and Books espousing the same Cause.
It is an infallible proof of great abilities in a writer who espouses the cause of the people, when he is cavilled at, written against, and condemned by the persons whose despotic principles he has endeavoured to expose and refute. It is a sign that he has touched them to the quick, and left a sore place, the smart of which is continually urging them to murmur. Their affected derision and contempt of him are but transparent veils to hide the writhings of their tortured minds; an awkward mask to cover the ugly features of impotent revenge, struggling, through pride, to conceal the painful emotions of rage.
It is amusing to observe what mean and little arts are used by these angry persons to lower the character of any writer, whose arguments they cannot refute. They hire a venal tool to write his life, and crowd it with every falsehood and calumny which party malice can invent, and popular credulity disseminate. They relate, without examination into a single fact, and decide, without the smallest attention to candour or justice. The man is to be hunted down. The minister and his creatures cry, havoc, and let slip the vermin of corruption. The newspapers, in daily paragraphs, discharge the venom of abuse on his name. Venal critics pour their acrimonious censure, in general terms, on his compositions, which they could not equal, and dare not examine with impartiality. Nick-names are fastened on him; and whenever he is spoken of, all additions of respect are omitted, and, in their place, some familiar and vulgar abbreviation of his christian name is used to vilify his surname. Poor artifices indeed! for while they expose the malice and weakness of those who use them, they leave the arguments and doctrines of the writer rather confirmed than shaken by an attack so feeble.
It is not surprising, indeed, that contemporary writers in favour of the people, whatever their abilities, and however convincing their arguments, are treated with affected contempt, as often as they excite real admiration. Envy always strikes at living merit. The policy of the aspirants to arbitrary power unites with envy, to depress all who are rising to public esteem by personal exertion, by their own virtue, independently of court patronage and hereditary distinction. But it might be supposed that departed genius, elevated, by the conspiring voice of nations, to the highest rank, would be surrounded with a sanctity which would defend it from profanation. It is not so. The love of power, in the hearts of mean and selfish men, acknowledges no reverence for genius. It has no reverential feelings beyond the purlieus of a court. The false brilliancy of what is called high and fashionable life, is preferred by it to the permanent lustre of all solid personal virtue.
Mr. Locke, therefore, one of the chief glories of English literature, is to be depreciated, for he wrote on the side of liberty. Possessing reason in greater perfection than most men, he naturally inclined to espouse the cause of man, without confining his regard to those who boasted adventitious honours, the fantastic distinctions of birth, or the fortuitous advantages of fortune. These are few, compared with the millions who constitute the mass of a common-wealth. His understanding, greatly elevated above the ordinary standard, clearly saw, that the purposes of real philanthropy can be accomplished solely by improving the condition of the many. They must be taught to know and value their rights. They must learn to reverence themselves, by feeling their importance in society. Such an improvement of their minds will lead them to act consistently with their dignity as rational creatures, and as members of a community which they love, and the welfare of which they find to depend upon their own virtue.
Mr. Locke was certainly stimulated to write his book on government by these philosophical and philanthropic ideas. In pursuance of those ideas, he wished to support, by doctrines favourable to general liberty, the revolution. Let us attend to his own words in his Preface.
“These papers,” says he, “I hope, are sufficient to establish the throne of our great Restorer, our present King William; to make good his title, in the consent of the people, which being the only one of all lawful governments, he has more fully and clearly than any prince in Christendom; and to justify to the world the people of England, whose love of their just and natural rights, with their resolution to preserve them, saved the nation when it was on the very brink of slavery and ruin.”
Mr. Locke's book then tends directly to strengthen the foundation of the throne on which the present royal family is seated. It is equally favourable to the king and the people. Yet because it is at all favourable to the people and the general cause of liberty, it is the fashion, in the aristocratical circles, to revile it. It is said to contain the elements of those doctrines which the philosophers of France have dilated, which gave independence to America, and rendered France a republic. It is said, very unjustly, to contain the seminal principles of Mr. Paine's matured and expanded tree. Mr. Locke, therefore, the great defender of the revolution and of King William, is reprobated by tory courtiers, and numbered, by the aspirants to enormous power and privileges, to which they have no just and natural claim, among the “miscreants, called philosophers.”
Men who undertake to defend any thing contrary to the common sense and common interest of mankind, usually hurt the side they intend to defend, by promoting a discussion, and calling forth common sense, excited by the common interest, to defend its own cause. Thus Sir Robert Filmer's book gave rise both to Sydney's and Locke's defence of liberty. Thus Mr. Burke's Reflections on France drew forth Mr. Paine's Rights of Man, in which is much excellent matter, mingled with a blameable censure of limited monarchy. Thus Salmasius's mercenary invective against the republicans of England in the last century, provoked the great Milton, scarcely less eloquent in prose than in poetry, to defend the right of the people of England to manage, in their own country, their own concerns, according to their own judgment and inclination.
Milton and Locke are great names on the side of liberty. But Milton has been treated contemptuously; and some have shown a spirit illiberal enough to detract from his poetry in revenge for his politics. His last biographer, Dr. Johnson, who had many early prejudices which his most vigorous reason could not to the last subdue, was, by early prejudice, a violent tory and jacobite. I think there is reason to believe, that he would have been easily made a convert to popery. His high-church and high-prerogative principles led him to speak less honourably of Milton than he must have done if he had viewed him through a medium undiscoloured. Milton was a greater man than Johnson; and though I condemn him for his bitter hatred to monarchy and episcopacy, yet, in extenuation, let it be considered how much monarchy and episcopacy had been abused in his time, and how much more friendly to freedom they both are in our happier age. Milton discovered a noble spirit of independence, and his writings contain some of the finest passages that ever were written in vindication of civil liberty. They contributed to raise that spirit which afterwards produced our happy revolution; and I have no doubt but that Milton would have rejoiced under a limited monarchy. It is to writings and to a spirit like his, mankind are indebted for the limitation. If honest and able minds, like Milton's, had not appeared on the part of the people, it is probable that no such thing as a limited monarch would have been found on the face of the earth; and the family now on the British throne would have been known only in the petty dynasties of the German empire.
Free spirits are therefore to be pardoned in some errors which the propensity of human nature to err must ever render venial; and the general tendency of their writings to make the mass of mankind free and happy, ought to secure attention to their doctrines, and honour to their names. The enemies to the spirit of despotism have seen, with pain, the attempts to lessen these great men in the eyes of the world extended to writers of less renown, but of more recent date. They have seen men, good men in private life, and philosophers, whose discourses and letters have gained the notice and esteem of every enlightened country, reproached, vilified, persecuted, and almost destroyed, because, in consequence of that fine understanding which had done so much in philosophy, they made some discoveries in politics which must for ever militate powerfully against the spirit of despotism. Voltaire, Rousseau, Raynal, Price, Priestley, Paine, however different their characters, attainments, and abilities, are all vilified together, (because they have written admirably on the side of liberty,) all involved in one indiscriminate torrent of obloquy. The partisans of unlimited power would persuade us, not only that they were knaves, but fools. Some of them have very exceptionable passages in their works; but where they treat of civil liberty, they plead the cause of human nature. They have not pleaded it unsuccessfully. Political artifices cannot stifle truth and common sense.
The independent part of mankind, who detest parties and faction, and mean nothing but the happiness of their fellow-creatures, will do well to be upon their guard against the misrepresentations of those who would vilify a Locke, a Milton, a Sydney. Let them read and judge for themselves. The men who are anxious to withhold or extinguish the light, may fairly be suspected of intending to do evil.