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

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.

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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.