"Men Must Be Knaves; 'tis In Their Own Defense"
Context: Rochester was an only son; his father was a cavalier and his mother a Puritan. A cavalier himself, he traveled abroad, fought in the Dutch War, and became a courtier under Charles II. He was one of a group of court poets who flourished during the Restoration, and ended as one of the most notorius rakes of the period. He was selfish, ruthless, cynical, and talented. Socially, he devoted himself to the sensual pleasures provided by wine and women; intellectually, he allied himself with the materialistic philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Worn out by dissipation and venereal disease, he died in his thirty-third year, undergoing a religious conversion on his deathbed. He was briefly a patron to several other poets, Dryden among them, but delighted in abusing them after one or two gestures of encouragement. Much of his own poetry derives from his debaucheries, and some of it is obscene; the remainder is of a high order. His specialty lay in wit and the resulting satires are clever, penetrating, and savage. His lampoons of the king lost him royal favor; he then shifted his attack and burlesqued the science of his day. A Satyr Against Mankind is his assault upon wit and reason. It is based upon the eighth satire of Boileau, who had complained that man the rational animal is at times unreasonable. Rochester, however, attacks the reasoning faculty itself. Reason, he believes, has brought man more trouble than it has ever saved him from. He adds that if he could be any creature in existence he would not choose to be human. Anti-rationalists were not uncommon in Rochester's time, but none were so vehement as he. After describing the myriad follies that man's reason has brought about, Rochester declares that all such reasoning is false; that true reason is guided by the senses; and that he at least will live only by his appetites. In conclusion he points out that all of man's good actions are mere disguises and that, in every case, the underlying motivation is fear:
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 from Fear, to make himself secure.Meerly for Safety, after Fame they 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.Thus here you see what Human Nature craves,Most Men are Cowards, all Men shou'd be Knaves.The Difference lies, as far as I can see,Not in the Thing it self, but the Degree;And all the Subject Matter of Debate,Is only who's a Knave of the First Rate.