All the King’s Men: Man As a Slave to Knowledge Essay

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All the King’s Men: Man As a Slave to Knowledge

Dave Goff

In Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men, Jack Burden states,

The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing a man can’t know. He can’t

know whether knowledge will save him or kill him (9). Jack’s statement reveals

that man is enslaved by knowledge. Familiar sayings such as, Ignorance is

bliss, and, what you don’t know can’t hurt you also state this point.

Examples of knowledge enslaving man are seen in the novel through the characters

of Willie Stark, Adam Stanton and Jack Burden.

Willie Stark is a character that attempts to conquer knowledge, even

though in the end, he is overcome by the forces of knowledge. Willie did not

want to be a slave to knowledge, but rather, its keeper. Stark uses information

about people for blackmail, to achieve his goals. His goals for political

offices ranged from Mason County Treasurer to state governor, senator, and most

likely thoughts of presidency. And on the way to get to these offices, Stark had

to overpower others with dark knowledge, the secrets people keep. Stark says

that man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the

stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something (49).

He is saying that everyone has something to hide, a skeleton in the closet.

Stark knows that everyone has some bit of knowledge to hide, and that the

knowledge makes man a slave as he tries to hide the bit of knowledge. Stark

often wields the power of knowledge to enslave others to do his bidding. He

finds the dirt on someone, the secret bit of dark knowledge, and then has them

do his bidding. When a certain Byram B. White tried to get rich, Stark had him

sign an undated resignation form to hold him in his power. Willie said himself,

Well, I fixed Byram. I fixed him so his unborn great-grandchildren will wet

their pants on this anniversary and not know why (136). Also, Stark manipulates

people with knowledge, telling them what they want to hear. Under the picture

was the legend: My study is the heart of the people. In quotation marks, and

signed, Willie Stark (6). Willie Stark studies people, rather, voters, and what

they want to hear from him. When the people hear what they want to hear from

Willie, they are satisfied and will vote him in office. Willie learned this

important lesson through Jack Burden. After Willie gave a speech filled with

facts and figures that left the audience apathetic, Jack told him this:

Yeah, I heard the speech. But they don’t give a damn about that. Hell,

make em cry, make em laugh, make em think you’re their weak erring

pal, or make em think you’re God-Almighty. Or make em mad. Even

madat you. Just stir em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and

they’ll love you and come back for more. Pinch em in the

soft place. …Tell em anything.But for Sweet Jesus’ sake

don’t try to improve their minds (72).

Upon hearing this and pondering it, Stark became like a slave to this knowledge.

This lesson became a part of his political personality. But despite his use of

knowledge to enslave others, Stark becomes victim of Adam Stanton, who is

prisoner of his then recent enlightenment.

Adam Stanton grew up as the best friend of Jack Burden, and the son of

prominent Governor Stanton. Adam is a character who is a captive of his belief

that his father was perfect and that he should live up to the same greatness.

Thus he works most of his life striving to be the best, trying to be perfect

like his father. He works to be the best in the medical profession, becoming a

surgeon. Adam often spends his free time practicing the piano, again trying to

become perfect. Jack said that most of the time when I was at Adam’s apartment

he would be at the piano (101). Adam’s life, however, is affected by the

knowledge of his father’s corruption. When Jack gives a photostat incriminating

Governor Stanton to Anne, Adam’s sister, she then shows it to Adam. I gave them

to himthose thingsand he read them and then he just stood therehe didn’t move

he didn’t make a soundand his face was white as a sheet and I could hear him

breathing (253). His most basic belief that his father was perfect and that he

should be too is shattered as he learns the truth of his father’s shady deal.

Governor Stanton protected Judge Irwin when he took a bribe. The knowledge of

his father’s imperfection does not hit Adam in full right away. It is the

culmination of the knowledge about his father and the knowledge about his

sister that overwhelms him. Adam soon obtains the knowledge of his sister Anne’s

affair with Willie Stark. Adam believes that Willie appointed him at the

hospital not because of his skills, but because he is having an affair with his

sister. That makes him, like his father, not perfect. His full realization of

his father’s imperfection, as well as his own failure, impels him to do

something he would not normally do, which is to kill. The knowledge he learned

brought him to murder. In other words, he must have been in the grip of an

instinctive withdrawal, which took the form of moral indignation and moral

revulsion, but which, no doubt, was different from either, and more deep-seated

than either, and finally irrational (321). Thus Adam’s moral standards were set

so high, he sees the affair as completely irrational. Adam Stanton is enslaved

by knowledge. However, Adam Stanton is not the only character who is.

Jack Burden is associated with knowledge in many aspects. He collects

knowledge, he runs from knowledge, and sometimes, he grasps knowledge. His

actions towards Ellis Burden are guided by the knowledge that he believed that

Ellis was his father who walked out on him and his mother. This causes Jack pain,

so he flees, and eventually Jack gets a job working for Willie Stark. Jack

becomes the man that actually collects the knowledge for Stark to use as

blackmail. This is the dark knowledge that is used to have power over others, to

enslave them. However, this is not the way Jack had always looked upon knowledge.

Jack was, for a while, a slave to Idealism. Jack said that What you don’t know

can’t hurt you, for it ain’t real. If you are an Idealist it doesn’t matter what

you do or goes on around you because it isn’t real anyway (30). Later, Jack

says that he could remember but didn’t want to remember. If the human race

didn’t remember anything, it would be perfectly happy (40). From this quotation,

it is seen that knowledge can hurt. It is also shown that sometimes one can know

too much for one’s own good. And Jack’s past hurt him, so Jack ran from his past,

leaving Burden’s Landing, where his father’s departure caused him anguish.

Jack also dreaded returning to Burden’s Landing, refusing to face his problems,

refusing to accept any new stepfather and trying to refuse the love of his

mother. Nevertheless, Jack sometimes realized that he was running from his

problems. Once he said, For maybe you cannot ever really walk away from the

things you want most to walk away from (43). Jack finally understands that,

with knowledge you can face up to anything, for knowledge is power (313).

So man is enslaved by knowledge, whether it be through skeletons in the

closet, or false knowledge, or uncomfortable knowledge. Actions are guided by

knowledge. Usually, actions are thought about first. Also, some people try to

enslave others with knowledge, but fall victim themselves, one way or another.

Knowledge is power. That is why man can be enslaved by it.

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