Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XXXI. On the Idea that we have arrived at Perfection in Politics, though all other Sciences are in a Progressive State. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XXXI. On the Idea that we have arrived at Perfection in Politics, though all other Sciences are in a Progressive State. - 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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On the Idea that we have arrived at Perfection in Politics, though all other Sciences are in a Progressive State.
Those who have been fortunate enough to have gained possession of honours and profits, under a corrupt system, well pleased with things as they are, boldly contend that they cannot be better. But these, compared with the mass of the community, are few, and ultimately of little consequence. Their opinion therefore must not weigh against any improvement which is likely to promote the melioration of human affairs. Let them enjoy unmolested the luxuries of the table, the splendour of equipages, large houses, and every other external advantage, which makes little men swell into fancied importance. In the mean time let every honest, benevolent member of the community, who is satisfied with being happy himself, without desiring to intrench on the happiness of others, endeavour to reform abuses, and promote every improvement which can render human life (short as it is, and full of calamity) more comfortable, and less exposed to the injuries and contumelies of the proud oppressor.
Rewards are offered for the discovery of the longitude at sea. Men are not only allowed but encouraged to prosecute their inquiries into all other arts and sciences. But the grand art, the art of government, that is, the art of securing the civil happiness of millions, is to be considered as sacred and inscrutable. Those very millions whom it more immediately interests, dare not, if the despots could prevail, to lift up the awful veil. Racks, gibbets, bowstrings, chains, and prisons, are prepared, in most of the kingdoms of the world, to awe the curious, and check the spirit of political improvement. Optimism has long been established in the courts of despotic princes. Whatever is, is right, say they; for knowing that they stand on a rotten foundation, they fear that the very fixing of the scaffold for repair would precipitate the downfal of the whole fabric.
Is it to be believed that governments were brought to perfection in early and dark ages, when the minds of the great as well as the little were enveloped in the mists of ignorance, and shackled by the chains of superstition? Is it reasonable to suppose that they who were narrow-minded, ill-informed, childish, and barbarous in all other parts of knowledge and of conduct, were liberal, wise, and illuminated in the science and practice of government; so liberal, so wise, so illuminated, as to strike out at once a system complete in all its parts, and such as could in no subsequent age, in no variety of circumstances, admit of correction, addition, or melioration? Did this wonderful sagacity, approaching to inspiration, produce any thing else, in any other department, which defies all improvement, and challenges the respect and veneration of the latest posterity? Reasoning from analogy, we must conclude, that men, capable of establishing at once a perfect system of government, must have produced other inventions for the accommodation and security of life, worthy to be preserved inviolate, and handed down unaltered, till time itself be absorbed in the ocean of eternity. But where shall we look for it? The very question implies a doubt of its existence; for singular excellence, such excellence as approaches to perfection, cannot be concealed, but will shine with its own lustre, and force observation and wonder. Is the architecture of these paragons of wisdom superior to the modern, in beauty or convenience? Let us only walk the streets of London, and mark those houses which were spared by the great fire, and which may fairly be supposed improvements on the more ancient fabrics. We see them, contrary to every principle of common sense, with stories projecting over each other. We see them ugly, mean, inconvenient. Let us proceed to the northwest parts of that great town. Take a view of Portland-place. Contrast the symmetry, the accommodation, the magnificence, with the old edifices of Holborn or Aldersgate, and be persuaded that modern improvements in government might be as much superior to the work of ancient bunglers, as the elegant buildings in our new squares to the old mansions now converted into inns, in the dirtiest streets, in the most decayed districts of the metropolis.
Man is a progressive animal, and his advance towards improvement is a pleasurable state. Hope cheers his path as he toils up the hill that leads him to something better than he has yet experienced, on its gay summit gilded with sunshine. The labour of the ascent is a delight. But if he cannot help conceiving, from a sense of grievances which he feels, something excellent, to which he is prohibited by coercion from approaching, hope sickens, and ill humour succeeds to complacency. Hence arises a disagreement between the governed and the governors; and the governors being possessed of present power, use force and rigour to stifle the murmurs of complaint. Coercion but increases the ill humour, which often lies latent, like the fires of a volcano, for a considerable time, but at last bursts forth with irresistible fury. It is wise, therefore, as well as just, in all governors, who have a regard for any thing but their present and private interest, to encourage discussion, to seek improvement of the system, and to reject no reform proposed by great numbers, without a cool, a temperate, and a long deliberation. The reasons for rejection should be clearly stated, with the utmost regard to open and ingenuous behaviour; and those who remain unconvinced, after all, should not be treated with asperity. Every individual, in a free country, has a right to approve or disapprove the system under which he lives, without peril or controul, while he preserves the peace. His peaceable deportment and acquiescence in the opinion of others, contrary to his own conviction, renders him a very meritorious character. He may be won over by gentleness; but force only tends to excite the violence which it would imperiously repel.
But to tell a man of sense, reading, and reflection, that he must not venture to entertain an opinion on political matters, or the existing government, different from that of the minister and the herd of courtiers, is an impotent endeavour to exercise a despotism over his mind, against which nature revolts, and a manly spirit must rebel. Such a man can usually judge of governments, and all the institutions of social life, better than mere men of business, however high their rank or important their employments; far better than courtiers, occupied in vain ceremonies, and usually as little able as inclined to enter into deep disquisition.
Indeed it is difficult to avoid laughing at the extreme ignorance of crowned heads themselves, in despotic countries, when one contrasts it with the importance they assume, and the pomp and splendour with which they transfer their royal persons from place to place. The sight is truly ludicrous. Are these the men, occupied, as they usually are, in the meanest trifles and the most degrading pleasures, who tell us that the government over which they preside, is a perfect system, and that the wisest philosopher knows not how to govern mankind; that is, to consult their happiness and security, so well as themselves, neglected as they have been in youth, and corrupted in manhood by panders to their vices, and flatterers of their foibles, their pride, and their ambition? There is reason to believe that many kings, in despotic kingdoms, have been less well educated, and possess less abilities, than a common charity-boy, trained in a parish school to read. and write. Yet these are the men who, with their upstart creatures, presume to call philosophers wretches, and to condemn the Voltaires, the Rousseaus, the Sydneys, the Harringtons, and the Lockes.
There are persons, even in countries where limited royalty is established, who are for ever extolling the constitution, with all the abuses that have insinuated themselves into it, in terms of extravagant and unqualified praise. They talk against better knowledge, and may therefore be suspected of some sinister motive. They can see defects as well as others; but they assume the worst of all blindness, that which is voluntary.
The truth is, these men, for the most part, are such as would not like the constitution in its purity, because in its purity the constitution is really excellent, and highly favourable to the liberty which they hate. The constitution, in its purity, renders the people of consequence, whose political existence they are inclined to controvert or deny. But the constitution, in its state of corruption, is favourable to prerogative, to aristocratical pride and influence, to tory and jacobitical principles; therefore it is, in their eyes, criminal to handle it, to hint at its improvement, to remove a grievance, or reform an abuse. The whole, together, though violated every day by corrupt influence, they affect to consider as a written charter, dropt down from heaven, like the old Roman Ancilia, and therefore scarcely to be viewed by vulgar eyes, and certainly not to be touched by the hand of the profane people.
Despotism is so ugly in its form, and so hostile, in its nature, to human happiness, that no wonder those who wish to diffuse its spirit are inclined to check and discourage among the people all political investigation. But let it be a rule among those who really value liberty and the constitution, to use the more diligence in political discussions, in proportion as courtiers and ministers display a wish to suppress political writings and conversations; and disseminate the doctrine, that things are so well constituted as neither to require nor admit any improvement.