Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XXXVI. Poverty, when not extreme, favourable to all Virtue, public and private, and consequently to the Happiness of human Nature; and enormous Riches, without Virtue, the general Bane. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XXXVI. Poverty, when not extreme, favourable to all Virtue, public and private, and consequently to the Happiness of human Nature; and enormous Riches, without Virtue, the general Bane. - 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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Poverty, when not extreme, favourable to all Virtue, public and private, and consequently to the Happiness of human Nature; and enormous Riches, without Virtue, the general Bane.
Superfluity of riches, like superfluity of food, causes sickness and debility. Poverty, or mediocrity of fortune, is the nurse of many virtues; of modesty, industry, sobriety. But, in this age, the very name of poverty is odious. Poverty is a haggard phantom that appals half the world, and drives them over seas, into torrid zones, to disease and death! Life itself is thought by many a gift fit to be thrown back again into the face of the Almighty Donor, if it is not accompanied with the means of luxury, the means of making a figure beyond others; in a word, the means of indulging the spirit of despotism. Things are so managed, in a state of deep political corruption, that the honours due only to virtue are paid to money; and those who want not riches for the sake of indulgence in pleasure, or from the love of money itself, grow complete misers, in the hope of obtaining, together with opulence, civil honours, seats in the senate-house, and royal favour. They hope to make themselves of consequence enough to be corrupted, or rather purchased, by the state.
What is the consequence to the people, the labourer, the manufacturer, the retail trader, to poor families with many children, women with small patrimonies, annuitants, dependents, and all the numerous train of persons who are compelled to live, as the common phrase expresses it, from hand to mouth? Their gains or means are fixed, and by no means rise with the rising price of necessaries. But, in consequence of this rage for riches, the necessaries of life become not only dearer, but worse in quality; less nourishing, less commodious, and less durable. Landlords raise their rents to the utmost possible extent; each determining to make his rent-roll as respectable as some opulent neighbour, favoured by a lord lieutenant for his influence. They will not let their farms in little portions, to poor industrious tenants; but to some overgrown monopolizer, who is in as much haste to grow rich as the landlord himself; seeing that as he becomes rich he becomes a man of consequence in the county, and that not only esquires, but even lords, take notice of him at the approach of a general election. He is a wholesale farmer, and will breed but few of the animals of the farm-yard, and those only for his own family consumption. His children are too proud to carry the production of the hen-roost or dairy to the market. He scorns such little gains. He deals only in a great way; and keeps up the price by withholding his stores when the market is low. The neighbouring rustics, who used to be respectable, though little farmers, are now his day-labourers, begging to be employed by the great man who has engrossed and consolidated half a dozen farms. The old farm-houses are pulled down. One capital mansion is sufficient for a large territory of meadow and arable land, which used to display smoking chimnies in every part of a cheerful landscape, with a healthy progeny of children, and tribes of animals, enlivening the happy scene. The tenant now reigns over the uninhabited glebe a solitary despot; and something of the ancient vassalage of the feudal system is restored, through the necessities of the surrounding cottagers, who live in hovels with windows stopt up, hardly enjoying God's freest gifts, light and air. A murmur will exclude them even from the hut, compared with which the neighbouring dog-kennel is a palace.
The little tenants of former times were too numerous and too inconsiderable to become objects of corruption. But the great tenant, the engrosser of farms, feeling his consequence, grows as ambitious as his landlord. He may have sons, cousins, and nephews, whom he wishes to provide for by places; and therefore it becomes a part of his prudential plan, to side, in all county elections, and at all public meetings, with the court party, and the aristocratical toad-eaters of the minister.
In like manner, the great manufacturer, finding that riches tend to civil honours and political consequence, as well as to plenty of all good things, cannot be contented with the slow progress of his grandfathers, but must whip and spur, in his career from the temple of Plutus to the temple of Honour. His workmen therefore, are paid, not by the day, in which case they would endeavour to do their work well, though slowly, but by the piece. The public, perhaps, must of necessity purchase his commodity, however bad; and it is probably as good as others fabricate, because all are pursuing the same glorious end, by similar means. The materials, as well as the workmanship, are of inferior quality. For, the great monopolizers and dealers can force a trade, and get vent among the little retailers, by giving credit, and by various other contrivances, for the most ordinary ware. The great man, whose forefathers felt little else but avarice, now burns with ambition; and, as the honours he seeks are bestowed by ministerial favour, he must be devoted to the minister, and carry all the little traders and artisans to second the views of a court at the general election, or at public meetings, appointed for the promotion of a minister's project to keep himself in place.
These, and a thousand similar causes, visible enough in the various departments of manufacture, commerce, agriculture, are at this moment urging on the great machine of corruption, and diffusing the spirit of despotism. The revolution of France will indeed ultimately check it, throughout Europe, by the influence of principles, favourable to the freedom and happiness of man; but at present, even that event is used by short-sighted politicians, to increase aristocratical arrogance, to depress popular spirit, and to give unnatural influence to the possession of money, however acquired and however abused.
An indignant writer of ancient Rome exclaims:
The virtuous ancients, by the light of nature and the evidence of experience, were taught that, when riches obtained a value and esteem beyond their proper use, merely for the sake of splendour, ostentation, and aristocratic oppression, a fatal blow was given to liberty. The human race, they thought, degenerated under the despotism of money. In such a corrupt system there was no encouragement given in the state to excel in virtue for its own sake: even generals and admirals went on expeditions, not even for false and vain glory, far less from motives of patriotism; but to fill their coffers with plunder, and render war a cloak for pillage.
Cauponantes bellum, non belligerentes.
They made a trade, and a sordid trade, of legal bloodshed, not conducting it with the disinterested spirit of soldiers, animated with the love of their country, but with the cunning and avarice of Jew usurers in Duke's Place.
And have we had no instances of generals or admirals making war a trade in recent times, and in Christian nations; using the sword, to which the idea of honour has been attached, as an implement of lucre, and rendering it far less honourable than the knife of the butcher, exercising his trade in the market of Leadenhall? If it should ever be true, that ships of war are made merchantmen in the vilest merchandise, the barter of human blood for gold, will it not prove, that the attaching honour to the possession of money, is destroying, not only the national virtue, but its honour and defence? Have towns in the East Indies never been given up to plunder, contrary to the law of nations as well as justice and humanity, to make the fortune of European officers?
It is a noble and virtuous struggle, to stand up in defence of the rights of nature, true honour, liberty, and truth, against the overbearing dominion of pecuniary influence. Man will shine forth in his genuine lustre, when money can no longer gild the base metal of folly, knavery, pride, and cruelty. While the corrupt Ganges flows into the Thames, it will contaminate its waters, and infect the atmosphere of freedom. When British freeholders, yeomen, merchants, manufacturers, generals, admirals, and senators, become slaves to pelf only, forgetting or despising the very name of public virtue and disinterested exertion, nothing can oppose the spirit of despotism but the spirit of the people. That spirit, indeed, may at once rescue human nature from misery, and perpetuate the blessings of a pure and free constitution. But if ever a few worthless individuals should be permitted to domineer by the influence of their illgotten money, over free countries, to command majorities at elections, and drive all opposition before them, what chance of happiness could remain to virtuous independence? What, in such circumstances, could preserve liberty, but a convulsive struggle, attended, perhaps, with the horrors of the first French revolution, which God, in his mercy, avert!
[†]Viz. The East Indies at present.