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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Knox opposed the war the British monarchy fought against the new French Republic in the mid 1790s. He thought it enabled the “spirit of despotism” to take further root in Britain and weaken civil and individual liberties. A major part of his opposition was focused on the existence of standing armies, which was also of major concern to the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution. In this quotation he is taking aim at the habit of aristocrats of sumptuously decorating their family mausoleums with the symbols of their rule. As he noted “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.” Knox particularly points out the glaring contrast between the tomb of the poet John Milton, who had “no monumental marble”, and the aristocrats of his own day. In his view no “painting, gilding, and marble, (can) 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.”

Other quotes about War & Peace:

1 June, 2010

Knox200

Vicesimus Knox on how the aristocracy and the “spirit of despotism” use the commemoration of the war dead for their own aims (1795)

Read the full quote in context here.

The English minister Vicesimus Knox (1752-1821) condemned British aristocrats for pridefully decorating their graves with the symbols of their oppressive rule over the people. None was worse to his mind than their display of military prowess and conquest:

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.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

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.

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…

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.

[More works by Vicesimus Knox (1752 – 1821) and on War and Peace]