"All Men Would Be Cowards If They Durst"
Context: In this verse satire Rochester expresses a general and cold contempt for human life as he saw and lived it. He begins, as does Boileau in his eighth satire, with a picture of the contempt in which man is held by the beasts for his supposed reason, or "common sense." A clergyman interrupts for a brief dialogue, protesting Rochester's slander of "Blest glorious Man, to whom alone kind Heav'n / An everlasting Soul hath freely giv'n;" a gift which enables him to reason. The poet responds that it is "This super-nat'ral Gift, that makes a Mite / Think he's the Image of the Infinite." Reason, in Rochester's philosophy, is useful only when leagued with knavery and hypocrisy. Concerning man's martial accomplishments, the poet observes that animals kill out of necessity but man from wantonness and lust for power "for the which alone he dares be brave:"
Look to the bottom of his vast Design,Wherein Man's Wisdom, Pow'r, and Glory join;The Good he acts, the Ill he does endure,'Tis all for Fear, to make himself secure.Merely for safety, after Fame we thirst;For all Men would be Cowards if they durst:And Honesty's against all common sense–Men must be Knaves; 'tis in their own defence,Mankind's dishonest; if you think it fair,Amongst known Cheats, to play upon the square,You'll be undone–Nor can weak Truth, your Reputation save;The Knaves will all agree to call you Knave.Wrong'd shall he live, insulted o'er, opprest,Who dares be less a Villain than the rest.