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
mad at 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 him—those things—and he read them and then he just stood there—he didn\'t move—
he didn\'t make a sound—and 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