Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XL. The Pride which produces the Spirit of Despotism conspicuous even on the Tombstone. It might be treated with total Neglect, if it did not tend to the Oppression of the Poor, and to Bloodshed and Plunder. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XL. The Pride which produces the Spirit of Despotism conspicuous even on the Tombstone. It might be treated with total Neglect, if it did not tend to the Oppression of the Poor, and to Bloodshed and Plunder. - 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 Pride which produces the Spirit of Despotism conspicuous even on the Tombstone. It might be treated with total Neglect, if it did not tend to the Oppression of the Poor, and to Bloodshed and Plunder.
Death is the great teacher and censor of human vanity; but even death cannot repress the pride of aristocracy, or the insolence of riches, endeavouring to make wealth and grandeur triumph over the law of nature, and outshine others even from the coffin and the grave. If we look into the churches and church-yards, we see the most insignificant of mankind honoured with the most magnificent monuments of marble, the proudest trophies, sculptured urns, a flattering inscription, and a gilded lie. The walls of the sanctuary are hung with banners, escutcheons, helmets, and spurs; which display the emptiness of that preeminence which they are intended to emblazon. The poor body, which all this paint and finery attends, lies mouldering in the vault; and give it but a tongue to speak, would exclaim, at the gaudy sight, “Vanity of vanities! Mock not my humiliated condition with the contemptible pageantry that misguided my feet from the path of reason and happiness, during my mortal existence.” The only means of being honourably distinguished, is to promote most effectually the general happiness of human nature, and to seek private good in public beneficence.
The spirit of despotism is remarkably visible in the mausoleum. There are families who seem to think that their precious bones would be contaminated, even if deposited in the consecrated cemeteries of the church, where plebeians sleep; and therefore they erect proud temples in their private domains, where their fathers may rot in state, unapproached by the vulgar. If they were illustrious inventors of arts and benefactors to mankind, the distinction might be a just compliment to their memory, and a useful incentive to emulation. But the persons thus magnificently interred, are usually the most insignificant of the human race; whose very names would not be known a year after their decease, if they were not deeply engraven on the marble.
Many a citizen, notorious for the meanest avarice, as little distinguished for beneficence as abilities, is decorated with the most sumptuous memorials which the stone-cutter can raise for money; while Milton, the glory of the nation, a man elevated above the rank of common humanity, had no monumental marble. But all that the herald's office can effect, all that can be done by painting, gilding, and marble, cannot ennoble the greatest favourite of a court, the most successful adventurer in the East Indies, or the most opulent contractor and money-lender, like a Paradise Lost. The nabobs find their influence cannot secure the esteem of a few contemporaries, though it may command their votes, much less of whole nations, and of late posterity. Money, the only god which worldlings worship, loses its omnipotence after the death of its possessor; and even the inheritor often despises the man who acquired it. The undertaker, the escutcheon painter, and the sculptor, are however employed to keep up the false pageantry of insignificant opulence; and a hearse, covered over with coats of arms, is used for the purpose of impressing the vulgar with a veneration for rank and riches, while, in the minds of men of sense, it excites ridicule, and converts a funeral into a farce.
Indeed the empty parade of pride, and the self-importance of despotism itself, might furnish a laughable entertainment, if it were not productive of mischief, misery, and bloodshed. To support the vanity, exclusive privileges, and high pretensions of those who have little personal merit or services to recommend them to society, it is necessary to have recourse to military force and corruption. A system of terror and coercion can alone keep down the people, and compel a tame acquiescence under usurped power, abused for the purposes of oppression.
Standing armies are therefore the glory and delight of all who are actuated by the spirit of despotism. They would have no great objection to military government and martial law, while power is in their own hands, or in the hands of their patrons. The implicit submission of an army, the doctrine, which the military system favours, that men in subaltern stations are to act as they are bidden, and never to deliberate on the propriety of the command, is perfectly congenial with the spirit of despotism. The glitter, the pomp, the parade and ostentation of war are also highly pleasing to minds that prefer splendour and pageantry to solid and substantial comfort. The happiness, which must ever depend on the tranquillity of the people, is little regarded, when set in competition with the gratification of personal vanity. Plumes, lace, shining arms, and other habiliments of war, set off the person to great advantage; and as to the wretches who are slain or wounded, plunged into captivity and disease, in order to support this finery, are they not paid for it? Besides, they are, for the most part, in the lowest class, and those whom nobody knows.
Such is the love of standing armies, in some countries, that attempts are made to render even the national militia little different from a standing army. This circumstance alone is a symptom of the spirit of despotism. A militia of mercenary substitutes, under officers entirely devoted to a minister, must add greatly to a standing army, from which, in fact, it would differ only in name. Should the people be entirely disarmed, and scarcely a musket and bayonet in the country but under the management of a minister, through the agency of servile lords lieutenant and venal magistrates, what defence would remain, in extremities, either for the king or the people?
The love of pomp and finery, though ridiculous in itself, may thus become injurious to liberty, and therefore to happiness, by increasing the military order in the time of peace, and when ministerial arts have contributed to render that order devoted to purposes of selfish aggrandizement or borough influence. Minds capable of being captivated with the silly parade of war, are of too soft a texture to grasp the manly principles of true patriotism. They will usually prefer the favour of a court, which has many shining ornaments to bestow, to the esteem of a people. A heart deeply infected with the spirit of despotism, despises the people too much to be in the least solicitous to obtain popular applause. Praise is but breath; and often, like the wind, veers about inconstantly; and certainly will desert a man who has deserted the virtuous and benevolent conduct which first excited it. But ribands, stars, garters, places, pensions, usually last for life; and titles descend to the latest posterity. Honour, once gained by royal smiles, is a part of the family goods and chattels, and goes down, from generation to generation, without requiring, to the day of doom, any painful exertion, any meritorious services, but leaving its happy possessors to the free enjoyment of idleness and luxury. No wonder, therefore, that where the selfish spirit of despotism prevails, a bauble bestowed by a court shall outweigh a whole people's plaudits. A coat of arms makes a figure on the escutcheon and the tombstone; but not a scrap of gilded and painted silk—not even a bloody hand, can be bestowed by the most cordial esteem of the low multitude.
Heraldry itself, though a childish, is a harmless vanity; but, as conducing very much to the spirit of despotism, it becomes not only ridiculous, but pernicious. It makes a distinction, on which men plume themselves, without merit and without services. Satisfied with such a distinction, they will be less inclined to acquire merit and to render services. They can inherit a coat of arms; or they can buy one; or, which is more compendious still, they can borrow or invent one. It is enough that they are separated from the canaille. The coach, the hall, the church, is crowded with their achievements; there is no occasion for arduous exertion. They are now raised above the vulgar. The work is done. Their name is up; they may slumber in the repose of useless insignificance, or move in the restlessness of mischievous activity. The coat of arms is at once a shield for folly, and a banner in the triumph of pride.
But both pride and folly should be permitted for me to enjoy their baubles unmolested, if they did not lead to cruelty. But pride and folly are the causes of war; therefore I hate them from my soul. They glory in destruction; and among the most frequent ornaments, even of our churches, (the very houses of peace,) are hung up on high trophies of war. Dead men (themselves subdued by the universal conqueror) are represented, by their surviving friends, as rejoicing, even in their graves, in the implements of manslaughter. Helmets, swords, and blood-stained flags hang over the grave, together with the escutcheons and marble monuments, emblematical of human ferocity; of those actions and passions which Christianity repudiates; for as well might oil and vinegar coalesce, as war and Christianity.
Spirit of despotism! I would laugh at all thy extravagances, thy solemn mummery, thy baby baubles, thy airs of insolence, thy finery and frippery, thy impotent insults over virtue, genius, and all personal merit, thy strutting, self-pleasing mien and language! I would consider them all with the eye of a Democritus, as affording a constant farce, an inexhaustible fund of merriment, did they not lead to the malevolent passions, which, in their effects, forge chains for men born free, plunder the poor of their property, and shed the blood of innocence.