Passing bull 169 – The myth of religious freedom


If I say that I want the freedom to do something, I mean that I want there to be no law against my doing it.  But if I want to be able to do something that is against the law as it is, I am asking for something more.  I want my case to be excluded from the law – like when a charity is exempted from paying tax.  What I am asking for is a privilege – ‘A right advantage or immunity granted to or enjoyed by a person, or class of persons, beyond the common advantages of others.’(Shorter O E D.)  The two notions are very different, and obviously different, but this difference is usually ignored, especially in The Australian, when people talk about some chimera called ‘religious freedom.’

Generally speaking, Australians can follow what religion they like, but not in a way that is against the law.  A cleric gets no immunity from the laws of libel, racial discrimination, or treason just because he is speaking in a pulpit.

There are laws against discriminating against people on the ground of their sexuality.  There is a suggestion that some religious schools should be exempted from complying with this law to the extent that it makes it unlawful for a school to send a child away because of his or her sexuality.  A religious group seeking to acquire such a right is seeking a form of privilege.  But they prefer the word freedom because it is harder to deny a claim to be free as opposed to a claim for a privilege that puts someone above and beyond the law.  This is one time when labels matter.  We are not talking about freedom of religion but privileges of churches.

The law allows certain kinds of clubs exemption from some laws about sexual discrimination.  It is lawful for the Melbourne Club not to allow female members.  Different considerations of policy would arise for the Melbourne Cricket Club or Victorian Racing Club because of their standing in public life.

There are at least two grounds of policy difference when considering exempting a school from obeying the law relating to sexual discrimination.  One is that the Melbourne Club consists of consenting adults.  That is not so with a school.  Schools are there to benefit children who have not reached the age of consent.  The other difference is that one way or another, a private school is likely to receive public money.  In my view those two differences distinguish the case of a school from that of a club, and entail a rejection of the claim for privilege.

At the very least, any government agreeing to grant such a privilege should make it transcendentally clear that any such school will never receive one cent of my taxes.

Finally, may I say that in the present climate of opinion, any religious group seeking to put itself above the law is showing a level of hardihood and obtuseness that verges on the sublime.


Now the enthusiasm gap has disappeared. Republicans are as intense as Democrats. This mutual loathing, by the way, is very bad for America.

Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 11 October 2018

The headline referred to ‘Kavanagh persecution.’  Two things.  It would be as hard to imagine a clearer instance of a spoiled child who is a flower of the Establishment, or of a man more unsuited for the judiciary because of his political views and failure of temperament – leaving Doctor Ford out of the question altogether.  American senators should dress in character and turn up in togas.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



T S Eliot (1968)

We had the experience but missed the meaning.

Folio Society, 1968, printed by permission of Mrs T S Eliot and Faber and Faber Limited; bound in natural canvas small f’scap quarto with titles superimposed on parchment labels on spine and upper board (with spare title label) and matching ribbon, in card slip-case.

There is something unavoidably intellectual, antiseptic even, about T S Eliot.  You wonder at times if the problem is worse in the poetry or the prose.  What do you say of a writer who prefaces a book of poetry with the following, in upper case: ‘I wish to acknowledge my obligation to friends for their criticism, and particularly to Mr John Hayward for improvements of phrase and construction’?  And he then follows that with fragments in ancient Greek from Heraclitus (in the old Greek spelling) from a German source, Die Fragmente der Versokratiker.   What do you say of a poem that has these lines?

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it.  And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Don’t tell me your problems, Digger – you are supposed to be the bloody poet.  This is about as moving as watching a desiccated Anglican prelate treat himself for constipation with castor oil.  In the name of heaven, how precise is his feeling, or how undisciplined is his emotion, when he is on the nest?  Could a man like this give himself to a woman or to God?  It comes over you with all the charm of an etherized hand upon a table.  Bring your own scalpel.  And what happens to the ‘inarticulate’ after it has been raided?

Why is this book there then?  This is a beautiful edition to read.  This book would not be there in another form – another reason for doubting that you cannot judge a book by its cover.

Then, the author stands for me as a warning of our withering imagination and that Anglo-Saxon aversion to emotional giving, much less surrender.  Twentieth century writing can be far too intellectual.  Eliot and Joyce can look like show-offs.  Someone wisely said that Milton had so much learning that it was a miracle that his imaginative drive had not been crushed.  It is ironical that Eliot, whose imagination barely survived, should have led a reaction against Milton – to whose literary and political genius Eliot could not hold a candle.  (And they both had trouble with women.)

But, then, like a Wagner opera, some light breaks through and you think that the effort may have been worthwhile.  It is a book to be taken with an aperitif on an autumn evening, or, better, before a fire in winter with a bottle of red and the book read by the incomparable Paul Scofield.

From East Coker:

……………..There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience.

…………..Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

………………………..They all go into the dark,

The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant

The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,

The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,

Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,

Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,

And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha,

And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,

And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,

Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

I said to my soul, be still, and let the darkness come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God.

This is from The Dry Salvages.

We had the experience but missed he meaning,

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form beyond any meaning

We assign to happiness.  I have said before

That the past experience revived in the meaning

Is not the experience of one life only

But of many generations – not forgetting

Something that is probably quite ineffable:

The backward look behind the assurance

Of recorded history, the backward half-look

Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.

I thought enough of the lines from East Coker to use them on the face page of a book.  It was not a wildly romantic book.  It was a book about the law – for company directors.  The poet had earned a living working for a bank.  He said:  ‘The end is where we start from.’

Passing bull 168 – Sense about the ABC


The dismissal of the CEO of the ABC raises issues of governance.  Are the directors and journalists at the ABC subject to different obligations to those at Fairfax or News?

The ABC is funded by public money.  So are News (Murdoch) and Fairfax.  There are at least two differences.  First, all citizens contribute in one way or another to the ABC and all have rights to get the services provided by the ABC for free.  They do not have to acquire shares in News or Fairfax or pay for any of their products.  Secondly, the functions of the ABC are set out in an act of parliament.  Those of News and Fairfax are set out in the constituent documents of the relevant corporations and the history of the role of a free press in a democracy like ours.

When considering that role, two questions may arise.  Are the journalists allowed to practise their profession independently?  What professional standards must those journalists apply?  The answers to those questions reflect the integrity of the corporation as a member of the press.  If you look at the two differences between the ABC on one hand and News and Fairfax on the other hand, is there anything there that may dictate different answers to either of those two questions?

Some people refer to the charter of the ABC in its act (section 6).  It contains motherhood statements, but three things can be said.  First, the obligation to ‘contribute to a sense of national identity’ might make people other than me feel queasy.  (Is that not the precise mission of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Pauline Hanson?)  Secondly, the words ‘independent’ and ‘balanced’ appear in the context of broadcasting programs that are specialised or of wide appeal.  Thirdly, the obligation in broadcasting overseas to ‘encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs’ is one of straight propaganda.

Another provision (section 8) provides that the board must ‘maintain the independence and integrity’ of the ABC and ‘ensure that the gathering and presentation…of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.’

But the same obligations attach to the directors of News and Fairfax.  In neither provision – section 6 or 8 – do I see any basis for saying that there is any difference between the ABC, News and Fairfax on their need to preserve editorial independence or their standards of journalism – that is, their integrity.  If that is right, much of the commentary on the ABC is based on false premises.

The essential difference is that the ABC is susceptible to political interference in a way that News and Fairfax are not.  As part of the free press, the ABC has to investigate and report on government.  In other words, it has to do things the government will not like.  You have only to look at the role of the press in investigating and reporting on our finance industry to see how fundamental this function of the press is to our democracy.  But for the reporting by the ABC and Fairfax, the Royal Commission, which was opposed to the last by government and News, would never have taken place, and we would be far, far worse off.  The press had to be good because government was so bad.

So, the ABC has to get stuck into government, and government must keep its hands off the ABC.  There must, therefore, be conflict.  In my view, the ABC generally handles that conflict much better than the government.

In The Australian, a News publication, Chris Kenny, a former Liberal Party staffer, said of the fracas about the ABC chairman:

And anyone with knowledge and experience of journalism, politics and public broadcasting should realise how unwise and improper it is to convey even the perception of political interference.

May I make two comments about The Australian?  First, in my view, too many of its journalists accept instructions to attack the ABC.  That conduct is unprofessional and it directly contradicts the need for editorial independence.  Secondly, too many of those journalists are too close to people in government.  The friendship between Messrs Abbott and Sheridan is just one example – and it shows, at both ends.  Journalists generally might follow the example of judges and steer clear of politicians.  A fortiori, they should not be pawns in political coups.  People at News go out of their way to suggest that they do just that.

What is the upshot?  Any suggestion that for either editorial independence or the standards of journalism or integrity generally the ABC is in some way inferior to, say, News, is at best just bloody laughable.


What’s your leadership style?

Collaborative, decisive, authentic and passionate. Leadership requires tremendous amounts of positive energy. Energy to inspire your people to be their best, to drive change in a rapidly evolving world, and to ensure we deliver superior outcomes.

Cindy Hook of Deloitte.  Australian Financial Review 18 September, 2018



This is an enigmatic little novel written by Muriel Spark in 1961 – Miss Brodie may be primed, but primed to do what?

Miss Jean Brodie teaches in a school in Edinburgh in the 1930’s.  She attracts followers, like queen bees do among young girls.  The novel follows this group’s attachment from their time in junior school, when Miss Brodie taught them, through senior school and to adulthood.  She exercises a power over them that might seem unhealthy to a reader who has brought up girls, and which does seem unhealthy to the headmistress, who is out to get her.  As the girls get older, Miss Brodie has affairs with the art teacher and the music teacher and, dangerously, she contrives to get one of the girls to succeed her as the mistress of one of them.  But it is not sexual licence that brings Miss Brodie undone.  Rather, her favourite informs on her (and denies that her informing is an act of betrayal).  Miss Brodie is a fascist, and not just in the closet – she warmly endorses Mussolini, Franco and Hitler to her charges.  By the end of the decade, that was more than enough to warrant her being fired.  Well, if the alternatives were Joseph Stalin or Neville Chamberlain, was not Miss Brodie’s preference at least understandable?

Dame Muriel Sarah Spark DBE, Clit, FRSE, FRSL, had a very European face.  She had an interesting ancestry – Lithuanian Jewish father and Scots Presbyterian mother.  After a failed marriage, she had a full life spent in Rhodesia, New York and London before, like Jeffrey Smart, going to live in Italy with someone of her own sex.  (The nature of that relationship fascinates most commentators, but it really is none of their bloody business.)  Her correspondence with the one child of the marriage is not good to read, but it is the certain fate of prolific writers of quality to have every aspect of their life combed over by those of second rate.

This novel is probably based on the experience of the author in her own education at Edinburgh.  It is the work of a naturally confident and composed writer.  Here is a discussion early in the novel of the forces attacking the heroine.

‘Who are the gang this time?’ said Rose, who was famous for sex-appeal.

‘We shall discuss tomorrow night the persons who oppose me’, said Miss Brodie.  ‘But rest assured they shall not succeed.’

‘No,’ said everyone.  ‘No, of course they won’t.’

‘Not while I am in my prime,’ she said.  ‘These years are still the years of my prime.  It is important to recognise the years of one’s prime, always remember that.  Here is my tram-car.  I daresay I’ll not get a seat.  This is nineteen thirty-six.  The age of chivalry is past.

Miss Brodie oozes Calvinism, but she follows Loyola and Freud – get a child young enough and you have them for life.  Here is her plotting.  (Teddy Lloyd is the art teacher.)

It was plain that Miss Brodie wanted Rose with her instinct to start preparing to be Teddy Lloyd’s lover; and Sandy with her insight to act as informant on the affair.  It was to this end that Rose and Sandy had been chosen as the crème de la crème.  There was a whiff of sulphur about the idea which fascinated Sandy in her present mind.  After all, it was only an idea.  And there was no pressing hurry in the matter, for Miss Brodie liked to take her leisure over the unfolding of her plans, most of her joy deriving from the preparation, and moreover, even if these plans were as clear to her own mind as they were to Sandy’s, the girls were too young.

Now this coolness can sound cold and sinister in a world ashamed of the abuse of young people by older people in power.  The obituary of the author in The New York Times included the following:

Her work, unlocked from her innermost memories of her experiences before and after her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1954, built a canon of short, sometimes macabre, sometimes humorous novels that sought to pare away the absurdities of human behavior.

Ms. Spark’s first novel was published when she was 39, and after that she supplied a stream of slender novels and enigmatic short stories peopled with such curiosities as narrators from beyond the grave, flying saucers, grandmotherly smugglers with bread bins full of diamond-studded loaves, and individuals of so little substance that they disappear when the door closes.

In her writing, evil is never far away, violence is a regular visitor and death is a constant companion.  Her themes were generally serious but nearly always handled with a feather-light touch.

It is this lightness, and a contrived detachment toward her characters, that became the target of the harshest criticism of her work…

So, it is not Rose but Sandy who gets into bed with the artist, acts as Judas toward Miss Brodie, and then takes the advice of Hamlet and gets herself to a nunnery.

Muriel Spark was one off and had a fine nose for our dark side – that is somehow reflected by the illustrations in the Folio edition of the book, for the film of which Maggie Smith won an Academy Award.  But the novel is like oysters – some like it more than others.  The author might bring to mind the image on the front cover of The Godfather – a puppeteer who on a bad day might do you some real harm.

My Top Shelf – Chapter 5


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Paul Brickhill (1953)

Folio Society, 2015.  Quarter-bound in cloth with cloth sides, and slip case; blocked with a design by Richard Sweeney, with a Lancaster on the spine.

In the early 1950’s, not long after the war, the parents of my mother Norma lived in what even then looked to me to be an aging weatherboard house in Orlando Street Hampton.  It was a quiet street.  Not a lot happened in it – there was quite a stir when the former Australian cricket captain Lindsay Hassett moved into a ‘cream brick vanilla’ flat, as we were starting to call them, in Hampton Street, overlooking our back fence.

My grandfather, Les, was called an engineer.  I think that meant that he was a tool-maker, or metal-worker.  When Les left Humes after forty years’ service, they gave him a mantel clock that chimed.  It sat on the kind of sideboard that people had back then, when the whole house seemed to chime.  Les had a perfectly kept tool-shed, with designs traced for each tool.  He kept something of wonder there.  It was a shanghai, or ging – not roughed out of eucalypt, and powered by rubber bands, but made out of forged steel, and powered by springs so taut that we could hardly pull them back.  One day a cousin and I screwed up our courage and lifted it from its designated space to give it a test fire from the ti-tree overlooking the bay.  The first shot hit a ti-tree just in front of us and nearly took our heads off; the second took off on a high trajectory in the general direction of Williamstown.  We shot through in mortal fear, and we never touched the ging again.

Les and Liza were frugal.  All those who had survived the depression, a word muttered in a subdued tone, were.  It was, I recall, quite an occasion when they signed up for the Herald-Sun Readers’ Book Club.  I cannot recall seeing books in the house before.  The series may have followed on a six volume encyclopaedia that we later inherited – with some gratitude.  The series proper consisted of novels and memoires.  Many of those were of the war just finished, like Two Eggs on my Plate, Wingless Victory, or Boldness be my Friend.  (Everybody had already read The Cruel Sea.) 

The first book in the series proper was, I think, The Dam Busters.  At any rate, I have a clear recollection of looking at the one in front of me now at the left end of a growing collection – in a red dust-jacket with HS on the spine, an image of a dam wall on the front cover, and on the rear a photo of the author.  As befitted a chap who wrote that kind of book back then, Mr Brickhill was photographed with nonchalantly brushed back hair, a pencil moustache, a hound’s-tooth check jacket, an open-necked shirt – with a cravat, in navy polka dot set in the spacing dictated by Winston Churchill – and with the rather imperious sidelong glance of a man not used to difficulty with skirt.  The first review in the blurb says ‘In all the history of arms there is no finer epic.’

It was therefore a major event when the movie came to Hampton in 1955.  As I recall, the excitement was as great as that which later greeted the start of television or the Olympic Games.  Les took me to a matinee on Saturday arvo at the Hampton Cinema in Hampton Street, about five hundred yards from home.  We got there early, which was just as well, because the place was chockers.  Later events make it hard to recall my first reaction, but I believe that I was entranced from beginning to end.  It was miles better than going to ‘town’ on the train with Liza – she and Les never had a car – and eating donuts at Downyflake.

Two things were beyond magic.  The leader of the raid had my name!  And my initials!  Guy Gibson.  And one Australian when they were practising low flying said, in a flat Australian accent, ‘this is bloody dangerous.’  How shockingly grown-up – the word ‘bloody’ on the screen, and out loud!  It was truly bliss to be alive that day.

I walked back home with Les in a state of exaltation.  He took me to see it again on two more occasions.  Then it came to TV and video and DVD.  I lost count of how many times I have seen it about thirty years ago, but you can proceed on the footing that I watch it about once a year, in varying states of composure or decency.  I only ever saw the dog get killed once.

If you do not know the story, you have a major problem.  In 1943, a squadron formed especially for that purpose, 617 Squadron, attacked the Moehne and Eder dams in Germany using a bouncing bomb especially designed and made for that purpose by an immensely gifted scientist named Barnes Wallis.  Both the book and the film contain two stories of great character and courage – that of Barnes Wallis for the courage of his conviction in his own skill and judgment, and the dedication and courage of the young men who delivered the bombs.  Fifty-six of those young men, whose whole and gifted life still lay before them, did not come back.  Wallis, a man of peace, was distraught.  It took him a long time to recover. The scene of Wallis standing under the hawk-like gaze of Bomber Harris and the blank coldness of Cochrane is still wrenching.

They had to fly as low as possible to beat radar.  Power lines were a real threat, and I think one plane was lost this way.  The bomb had to be delivered from sixty feet, the length of a cricket pitch.  The pilot had to hold the aircraft steady at that altitude in the face of enemy fire.  The only way that they could do that was by using spotlights on the water to illuminate their target.  From time to time, modern crews try to replicate the feat for TV, and they then find out how hard it is.  Among other things, someone might have to pick up a compass and protractor.

The cream of Bomber Command, and therefore the nation, went into 617, and not just from England.  They had all completed full tours.  Apart from Gibson, the pilots included at least three Australians – Mickey Martin, Dave Shannon, and Les Knight.

Martin (played by the late Bill Kerr in the film) commanded ‘P’ Popsie.  He delivered one of the bombs that hit the Moehne.  Although hit on his starboard wing, Martin then accompanied Gibson on the next attacks to draw the flak.  Gibson was later awarded the VC for his part in the raid.  When the Moehne was finally breached, Martin and Gibson accompanied Shannon and Knight to go to the Eder.  They had trouble finding it.  Having sat up there watching all the attacks on the Moehne, Dave Shannon then watched the first attack on the Eder fail – in a blazing explosion.

There were only two bombs left, and they were both to be delivered by Australians.  It was a very tricky target – fatally tricky.  Dave Shannon eventually found a way to deliver his bomb on to the target.  Gibson ordered Knight in with the last bomb.  Brickhill described it this way.

Knight tried once and couldn’t make it.  He tried again.  Failed.  ‘Come in down moon, and dive for the point, Les’, Shannon said.  He gave more advice over the R/T, and Knight listened quietly.  He was a young Australian who did not drink, his idea of a riotous evening being to write letters home and go the pictures.  He dived to try again, made a perfect run and they saw the splash as his bomb dropped in the right spot.  Seconds later the water erupted, and as Gibson slanted down to have a look he saw the wall of the dam burst open and the torrent came crashing out.

Knight, more excited than he had ever been, was yelling over the R/T, and when he stopped he left his transmitter on for a few seconds by mistake; the crew’s remarks on the intercom were broadcast, and they were very spectacular remarks indeed.

Some time after all this, Dave Shannon celebrated his twenty-first birthday, and then married an English lass in the service.  The last of the pilots, Les Munro from New Zealand, died earlier this year (2015).  Mickey Martin never forgave Churchill for allowing Gibson to fly one more mission.  I have made the pilgrimage to the grave in Holland.

The devotion and courage of all those involved, from Wallis and Gibson down, defy belief.  It comes from another time.  They are all real and true heroes.  They are my absolute heroes.  I brought my children up on this story and I look forward to doing the same with their children.  Both the heroes and the children deserve no less.

Passing Bull 167 –False choices


The other day, I was discussing with a friend the decline in public life here and in the U S and the U K.  The question arose whether people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson were causes of the malaise or symptoms of it.  I wondered why they could not be considered as both causes and symptoms if we were looking at one version of the chicken and egg conundrum.

A dilemma occurs in an argument when one party is driven to a position of having to choose between two courses that are equally unattractive.  It is like having two pieces attacked by one in chess – being forked – or being snookered: whichever way you try to get out, you are in trouble.

A dilemma is false if it says that there are only two choices when there are more.  What you generally get is that if you do not do A, you will have to go with B, which will be truly awful.  The truth is that there are other possibilities, but you face an attempt to induce you to believe that you have no real choice.  Naturally, it is a weapon of choice among politicians.

As often as not, people say that you have to choose between two factors when you do not.  In his history, From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun says ‘True opera is a kind of music rather than a kind of play …’  Putting to one side the question of what a false opera might look or sound like, opera is both music and drama.  The joining of the music and drama defines what opera is.  We do not have to make a choice about what we like more or regard as the more important.  This is one occasion when you might truly say that it all depends on how it goes on the night.

This fallacy – that is what it is – might be compared to one that we might call that of ‘unnecessary choice.’  In a promo on CNN, Christiane Amanpour says that she insists on being ‘truthful, not neutral’.  That is plain silly.  Any journalist should aspire to be both.  Our Code of Ethics speaks of ‘scrupulous honesty’ and not allowing ‘personal interests to influence them in their professional duties.’  If the converse of ‘neutral’ is ‘passionate’ ‘committed’ or ‘partisan’, Ms Amanpour is in deep trouble.

These things matter when we get told that you are either for us or against us.  That is bullshit’ of a repellent tribal variety.


There’s an old political slogan you might remember … the public get the politicians they deserve. Through all the political turmoil over the past decade I can’t help but draw your attention to your own culpability. It’s at least partly your fault. And there’s every danger you are about to make the whole situation worse.

That sounds tough. Our political narrative assumes the public is always right. No elected official should blame the public for an adverse election outcome. When Hillary Clinton described the Trump voters as the ‘deplorables’ we all knew she was finished. You can’t say that in public life.

But still, the collective electorate can be wrong. They can make decisions that make governance harder, not easier. Let me give you a couple of examples.

First, let’s take our old friend climate change. The public overwhelmingly want Australia to contribute to lowering greenhouse emissions. At the very least they want us to make a proportional contribution to the global task of CO2 mitigation.

Alexander Downer, Australian Financial Review, 24 September, 2018.

What is terrifying is that the writer believes it.

My Top Shelf 4


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1945)

Folio Society, Enlarged Edition, edited by Eberhard Bethge, 2000; rebound with marbled boards, quarter in biscuit leather with sage label with gilt lettering.

Are we still of any use?

If the Almighty and I were to get back on first-name terms, it would most likely be through the agency – or grace, perhaps – of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  What a man!

Bonhoeffer was born, with a twin sister, to a family of culture and privilege that knew that the things that count come from the home.  His father was a doctor who became a professor of psychiatry; his mother was a teacher who became the nerve centre of a family of eight children and seven servants.  The family performed simple rites at home, but they were not regular church-goers.  When Dietrich found God and decided to go into theology, his family warned him against ‘a poor feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.’

Dietrich became involved in the ecumenical movement and he had his eyes opened in the UK and the US.  He heard the black Christ preached with ‘rapturous passion’.  But also, ‘not just separate railway cars, tramways, and buses south of Washington, but also for example, when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant with a Negro, I was refused service.’  Karl Barth called him back home in 1933:  ‘You are a German…the house of our church is on fire.’

When Hitler came, Bonhoeffer said that the church had to stand up for victims whether they were baptized or not.  When the Nuremberg Laws came, he proclaimed that ‘only those who shout for the Jews are permitted to sing Gregorian chants.’  The role of those who followed Jesus was not ‘just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.’  He preached that the church had the right to engage in direct action against the state.  That is a complete repudiation of the relevant teaching of Martin Luther.  Bonhoeffer took his moral stand on the Sermon on the Mount.

On 1 February 1933, he was on the microphone at the Potsdammerstrasse Voxhaus in Berlin.  He was speaking of ‘The Concept of the Führer’.  Two days after Hitler came to power – a calamity for the Bonhoeffer family – Dietrich Bonhoeffer told the German people that a leader could be a misleader.  ‘This is a leader who makes an idol of himself and his office, and who thus mocks God.’  Before he could get these words out, they had switched the microphone off.  Here, then, was courage to take your breath away.  Bonhoeffer was 26 years old.

This man of God, this pacifist, was true to his word.  He was in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.  He wanted to put a spoke in the wheel.  He was arrested, and imprisoned in various places, like Buchenwald and Tegel, after first being taken to the Gestapo Headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht Strasse.  (At this site, you can now visit a frighteningly moving museum called the Topography of Terror.)  Our book comes from his time in prison.

This book is on my shelf because of what the man did more than for what he said – as is the case with some others who are there.  We know what history tells us of the Nazis, but we can have no idea of what it was like to live under their Terror.  They regarded the church with the kind of contempt that they felt for non-Aryans.  They put Mein Kampf in place of the Bible, and the sword in place of the cross.  Hitler told Goebbels: ‘Let the churchmen dig their own grave.  They will surrender their kind little deity to us.  They will give up anything just to preserve their pitiful junk, rank, and incomes.’

We have debased privacy with a welter of laws and bureaucrats and wall-eyed zombies telling the whole carriage the awful story of their lives.  Bonhoeffer saw it coming.  He spoke of ‘respect for reticence’, ‘of a willingness to observe people more or less cautiously from the outside, but not from the inside’.  He referred to a ‘revolution from below…Anything clothed, veiled, pure and chaste is presumed to be deceitful, disguised, and impure; people here simply show their own impurity.  A basic anti-social attitude of mistrust and suspicion is the revolt of inferiority.’

We have become scared to face up to inferiority, and we are in thrall to mediocrity.  Bonhoeffer, as ever, resisted.  He was prepared to take on those ‘below’ as well as those ‘above’.  He could do so with a smile.  ‘Don Quixote is the symbol of resistance carried to the point of absurdity, even lunacy…Sancho Panza is the type of complacent and artful accommodation to things as they are.’

He knew our limits. ‘Uneducated people find it very difficult to decide things objectively and they will allow some more or less fortuitous circumstance to turn the scales.’  Did he only learn this in jail?  No.  He saw something that Keats famously remarked on in one of his letters – ‘how few people there are who can harbour conflicting emotions at the same time.’  While he feared that ‘man becomes radically religionless’, he was fond of reading Kant (‘a very rationalist rococo psychology’) and Spinoza (‘emotions are only expelled by stronger emotions, and not the mind’).  Standing by the Sermon on the Mount, he observed that ‘unlike the other oriental religions, the faith of the Old Testament is not a religion of redemption.’

At Easter 1944, Bonhoeffer spoke of Bach and Beethoven, and went on: ‘Easter?  We’re paying more attention to dying than to death.  We’re more concerned to get over the act of dying than to overcome death.  Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as the last enemy…There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities: the other means resurrection.’  The previous year, Bonhoeffer had said: ‘We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and stopped us being truthful and open…Are we still of any use?’

At Flossenberg at dawn on 9 April 1945, the SS hanged Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It was a round-up before liberation.  The Fatherland stripped one of its greatest sons of his clothing so that it could put him to death naked, but they used hemp rather than piano-wire.  They burned his corpse.  He was as guilty of a capital crime as was the man whose life and teaching he had sought to follow.  It might fairly be said to have been an accident of history that one crime was defined as treason and the other as blasphemy – it was nigh on inevitable that the mission of each would end in his execution.

Perhaps Bonhoeffer inherited his great strength and power of resistance.  His mother, Paula, wrote to him in jail: ‘I have always been proud of my eight children and I am now, more than ever when I see the dignity and respect they maintain in such an indescribable situation.’  She signed off: ‘All the best, my good boy.  Your old Mother.’  Her last letter added after those words: ‘We are staying in Berlin, come what may.’’  The whole family was tough.

Paula’s mother Julie had died in 1936.  She was a resister, too.  She just walked passed the Brownshirts to shop at Jewish shops.  On the way out she gave them that in-your-face attitude that we see in people in New York and Berlin – ‘I shop where I always shop!’  When Dietrich spoke at Grandma Julie’s burial, he used words of surpassing beauty that keep coming back to us.  ‘She came out of a different time, out of a different spiritual world, and this world will not shrink into the grave with her.  This heritage, for which we are grateful to her, puts us under obligation.’

What a family!  Other members were in the resistance and they too were executed.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great hero of resistance, is as good case of noblesse oblige as you will see.

Here and there – A war book: The Fighters


When people criticise President Barack Obama for failing to commit American troops in conflicts in the Middle East, they often forget that the President was giving effect to the wishes of the people of the United States at the time.  They had had enough of American death and destruction overseas with no apparent purpose or benefit.  And even if Americans had not learned the lesson that you do not go into a war unless you have a good plan for getting out of it, their president had.  You need to have an ‘off’ button.  The US is still looking for one in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the meantime, the world generally is worse off; a whole new threat became manifest; as a result, Syria is a disgrace to humanity; and no one has the faintest idea how to even start trying to fix the mess – humanitarian and strategic – in Iraq or Afghanistan.  And we don’t look to have heard anything like an apology from those leaders in the western world that are responsible for bringing all this destruction and misery.  Nor do we even look like learning from the mistakes – of a kind that have been repeated so often in history.

All this is made wrenchingly clear in the book The Fighters by C J Chivers published this year by Simon and Schuster.  Chivers is a New York Times correspondent who has served in the army in the Middle East.

This book traces the history of six American servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Their story is told in immense detail and in a manner that commands, among other things, trust.  It is therefore a very hard, wearing book to read – like revisiting the scene of a horrible war crime.  The detail compels conviction – as it did for Michael Herr in Dispatches and Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front.  Those books are classics that have helped to shape our horror of war.  In my view, the book The Fighters is of that ilk.

Before looking at some of this wonderful book, can we reflect on two elementary lessons from the history of the world?

First, when the Persians invaded Greece, when Spain invaded Holland, when England invaded America, when Napoleon invaded Spain and then Russia, and when America invaded Vietnam, all the invaders soon came to the same conclusion.  They were on the losing side – militarily and morally – from the start.  I will look at some of the reasons for this obvious fact, but let me now mention the second lesson.

When both royalists and republicans (or, perhaps, democrats) each for their own reasons wanted France to go to war on Austria, Maximilien Robespierre, seen by many as the Father of Modern Terrorism, swam bravely, intelligently, and vigorously against the tide.  He said this to the feverish Jacobins Club.

Our generals are to be missionaries of the Constitution; our camps are to be schools of public law; and the satellites of foreign princes, far from putting obstacles in the way of this plan, will fly to meet us, not to repel us by force, but to sit at our feet.  No one likes an armed missionary, and no more extravagant idea has ever sprang from the  head of a politician than to suppose that one people has only to enter another’s territory with arms in its hands to make the latter adopt its laws and its Constitution.

Napoleon would spread the bones of five million dead over Europe to affirm that simple truth.  It is – word for word – the error relied on by George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard when they decided to go to war on Iraq, and it should be engraved on their headstones.  Was a man or woman ever born who, while being bayoneted or raped by an invading soldier, stopped to ask that soldier what ideological mission had driven him to commit this crime against humanity?

To go back to the first point, I sought elsewhere to list the problems facing the British when they took on the American colonists on their own soil.

Although the Americans like to see themselves as having been the underdogs, they won the War of Independence, as they call it, and it is not hard to isolate some of the reasons why their position was eventually so much stronger than that of the English.  You can apply the following criteria to the American War of Independence – or to the Vietnam War, the Russian war in Afghanistan, the second Iraq war, or the present military operations in Afghanistan.  The phrases ‘home team’ and ‘away team’ are used for convenience and not to detract from the significance of the wars, or the valour shown and losses taken by those who actually fought them and are fighting the present one.

  1. The away team is the biggest in the world, or as the case may be, the only empire in the world, or the second biggest.
  2. The away team is a regular professional army while the home team consists of amateur irregulars.
  3. The professional soldiers in the away team have no advantage over the amateurs in the other team because they have not been trained for this kind of war and people who fight for the cause are more reliable than those who do it for money.
  4. People defending their own soil are far more motivated than those who cross the world to try to bring them into line.
  5. The away team has massive resources and advantages in population and war matériel (such as the navy) and technology, but the home team has local knowledge.
  6. The home team can move more quickly, avoid pitched battles, and use guerrilla tactics, which are sometimes referred to as terrorism, and which, as we saw, the British objected to as not being fair play.
  7. The away team has problems with morale and supplies that just get worse as time goes on.
  8. The away team finds that winning requires more than just winning battles – they may beat the army of the other side, but they will not beat the country, which has widespread support among its people (even if the people are otherwise split).
  9. The away team has a hopeless dilemma – it has to hit hard to win, but every time it hits hard it loses more hearts and minds.
  10. The home team finds it is easy to generate heroes and leaders; the away team finds it is easy to sack losers.
  11. The home team out-breeds the others – the result is just a matter of time.

12 The war becomes one of exhaustion and attrition, which in turn exaggerates the above advantage of the home team.

  1. Because of its felt superiority, its actual ignorance, and its sustained frustration, the away team resorts to atrocious behaviour that it would never be guilty of in a normal war, or against an enemy of its own kind.

In short, the American colonists felt that they were fighting on the moral high ground, a position that they have never surrendered. Appalling crimes were committed on both sides, especially in the civil war in the south between the Patriots and Loyalists. There were, Churchill said, ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’

The family of Dustin Kirby, later called ‘Doc’, lived in Powder Springs, Georgia.  They were ‘unflinchingly patriotic and unshakably Christian’ – and God bless them for both.  After the attack on the twin towers, young Kirby wanted to fight for his country.  He joined the navy.  His mum told him he would be safe there.  To get more action, Dusty tried out for the Marines.  Sailors wanting to go the Marines were first put through medical training – well, at least they would not go into battle not knowing the worst.  The Doc became what Americans call a corpsman – a medic, whose job it was to be what we call ‘the first responder’ to badly wounded Marines.  You might think it would be hard to get a more brutal, dangerous and testing job.

In Iraq, Doc attended a Marine who had been shot in the back while talking to a little boy – who most probably had been used as a decoy.  Then in a substantial engagement, Doc had to look after a Marine named Smith who had been shot clean through the head.  Doc tended Smith whose brains were dripping over Doc.  By a combination of valour, grit and luck, Doc got Smith to a medical helicopter.  There was at least a chance that radical surgery might save Smith’s life.  But what kind of life?  Doc fretted over this.

Some weeks later Petty Officer Kirby was asked to take a phone call at his base.  The father of Smith was on the line from the Naval Hospital at Bethesda.

The voice on the other end was breaking.  Bob Smith was talking through tears.  He pushed on.  ‘My son would not be alive if not for you,’ Smith said. ‘As long as I am breathing, you will have a father in Ohio.’

Later it would be Doc’s turn.  He got shot full in the face.  By a similar combination of valour, grit and luck, they kept him going until surgery saved his life.  Then there was surgery after surgery.  Doc was sent home.  This was the return of a hero to the U S from the war in Iraq.

It had been almost four years since Bush left office and nearly seven since Kirby had been shot.  Time had been kinder to the former commander in chief than to the corpsman.  Kirby had endured more than two dozen surgeries.  His jaw had been rebuilt with a bone graft, screws and plates.  The work had not set him right.  His bottom teeth did not align with those on top, and a section of his mouth was a food trap that he often had to clear with his index finger when he ate.  He was in constant pain and self-conscious about his appearance.  He had gained fifty pounds.  He was medically retired, unemployed, divorced, and disfigured.  He was also on probation in the state of Georgia for a reckless driving conviction.  Years of drinking had left their mark.

The family was invited to the home of the former president.  By this time, Doc had tried to kill himself while driving a car.  Gail Kirby, Doc’s mum, was determined to let Mr Bush know of the agony that she had endured as a mother.

She stared at the president, and held his gaze.  He looked back.  She plunged on.

‘Now picture that baby [the grandchild of Mr Bush] being out in a car seat and put in the middle of a highway, with hundreds of cars that are zooming past him all day long.

You know in your heart that that baby will be safe as long as no cars swerve even just a little bit.  You pray every minute of every day that those cars stay away from that yellow line….But to make it harder, we will put you in an office with a TV that is playing the footage of those cars driving past your baby every minute of every day, for weeks on end.’……

Gail did not care.  Her son had been shot.  She had not come here for ceremony, or to be denied her agency or right to speak.

Bush’s demeanour was gentle.  He leaned forward.

‘That’s quite an analogy’, he said.

‘I am sorry,’ he said.  ‘I am responsible, I know.  I sent him there.’

That is only a part of one of the seven stories in this book.  The only other story I will mention is Commander Layne McDowell.  He flew an F/A-18 Super Hornet from a carrier on bombing missions over Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.  He got his wish.  He never dropped a bomb over Afghanistan.

I can’t bear the thought of injuring anyone who doesn’t deserve it, especially if a child were injured during an attack.  I think back to the house I accidentally bombed in Kosovo and wonder who was in it…I hope no one.  But I don’t want that kind of haunting anymore.  I’m glad it is over.  I hope my days of flying in combat are over.

I mean no disrespect to the Commander when I say that the first sentence may beg the question.  Which Afghans ‘deserved to die’ because Osama got lucky with the twin towers?  The ‘enemy’ of the Americans in Afghanistan is throughout the book referred to as the Taliban.  Most of them probably were.  But were not all of them also probably Afghans responding to a foreign, and infidel, invasion in exactly the manner that Robespierre had predicted?  Why don’t we see the Afghans as fighting their own war of independence against invading foreigners?

The question raises two other truths identified by the author.  ‘The battlefield did not care about reputations, appearances or wishes.’  And, the ‘Taliban could fight as it pleased, but the Americans were bound by rules.’

Earlier, I referred to two other classic books on war.  I hope I have said enough to show why I think this book belongs in that group.

Three other books on war occurred to me throughout.  You get the same relentless but arbitrary bloodletting that you get in the Iliad.  And you get the same aimlessness.  You also get brought back to earth by the effect on the families.  The spirit of the plea of Priam to Achilles underlies so much of this book – so little has changed in the intervening millennia.

Then there was the comment of John Keegan in The Face of Battle about studies undertaken in the U S about behaviour in combat.  They found a truth long known to football coaches, and hammered home in the book of Mr Chivers.

Foremost among them was the revelation that ordinary soldiers do not think of themselves, in life and death situations, as subordinate members of whatever formal military organisation it is to which authority has assigned them, but as equals within a very tiny group – perhaps no more than six or seven men.

What is the relevance of Catch 22?  When looking at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, how do you avoid the notion of madness wherever you look?  There is something timeless and universal about soldiers saying ‘We’re here because we’re here.’  Doubtless, the Achaean warriors said the same as they paced between their boats and the walls of Troy; and just as Australian diggers said so thousands of years later just across the water at Gallipoli.

May I then come back to the analogy of the redoubtable Gail Kirby?  It would have made Dostoyevsky weep.  Doc’s mum did Powder Springs, Georgia proud, and she did all of us parents and grandparents proud.  Could we not ask the Almighty to grant us a universal law that before any politician sends any of our children or grandchildren off to war, they must read through that analogy in public and in full, and then with their hands on their heart say that they personally will accept full responsibility for every baby that gets run over as a result of their decision?

Finally, may I say that that anecdote has caused me to think better of Mr Bush?  He actually said that he was sorry.  That made Doc’s mum think that Mr Bush was ‘not like so many people.  He respects us.’  That’s what saying sorry does for you.  ‘Sorry’ is not a word that I have heard from any of the others who were also responsible for sending all those men to die in those God forsaken holes in the earth – and all for nothing.

Passing Bull 166 –Nothing at the top


There is real concern at the revolving door of federal politics.  The people in Canberra are not up to it – morally or intellectually.  But has it occurred to you that there may be nothing there at all?

Do you know that we have a federal Minister for Energy?  The federal Constitution says nothing about energy – but that doesn’t stop the Commonwealth having a ministry.  How does the Minister see his function?  To keep down prices.

There will be no ideology in what I do.  My goal, the goal of my department and the goal of the electricity sector, must be simple and unambiguous – get prices down while keeping the lights on.

Well, the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia may not have the power to make laws about energy, but as a minister advising Her Majesty the Queen of Australia, the Minister believes that he can do something to keep prices down.  What can he do?  And what can he decently do as a member of a government that likes to call itself conservative, and to believe in the invisible hand of the free market?

If electricity is supplied by corporations, won’t their directors be managing their business to return profits to shareholders (including super funds), and might not this obvious fact of life lead them to increase rather than lower the price of their product?  In truth, asking a minister of this government to do anything sane about the environment or energy is like asking the Grand Chief Wizard of the Lodge to conduct Mass.

The National Party claims to represent farmers.  Desperate drought affected farmers have now joined with a conservation group to put on an ad:

We need to stick to the Paris agreement, we need to stop burning coal and we need to commit to more renewable energy.

Each of those propositions is anathema to those in power federally.

Well, the Commonwealth has power to make laws about corporations.  It has legislated about them – at mind-crippling length.  It has also appointed a body to enforce those laws.  The scandalous ineptitude of that body is just one of the unsettling revelations of the Royal Commission that this government was so keen to avoid.

You get the impression that some members of the government think that the buck stops with the regulator.  That is wrong.  The government cannot shed its responsibility for enforcing its laws by appointing a regulator any more than a board of directors can do so by appointing a CEO.  This government remains responsible for its failure to enforce its own laws.

The Treasurer appears to favour giving the regulator power to order a corporation to pay compensation ‘within a set timeframe, thus avoiding ASIC needing to take legal action.’  On its face, that looks like giving the executive of the government the power to deprive people of their property without intervention by the judiciary – that is to say, without due process.  That will be an interesting exercise – especially for a government claiming the character referred to above.  But whatever else is involved, we will get masses of regulation – and highly remunerative work for lawyers, accountants, and other advisers.

What then is the major aim of the Treasurer?

The big focus for me is going to be on the productivity agenda and…cutting regulation.

If you put all this with the blooper below, it is hard to imagine any body of people more completely losing their way.  Is there anyone home at all?


Brown is a fourth-generation grazier whose family property has been affected by drought.

In the clip, she calls for ‘politicians to stop dancing around the issue and help us to do something about this’.

‘We need to stick to the Paris agreement, we need to stop burning coal and we need to commit to more renewable energy,’ she says.

The campaign comes after the prime minister, Scott Morrison, described the drought as his highest priority but said the conversation about the connection between drought and climate change should be ‘left  to another day.’

The Guardian, 16 September, 2018

This might remind you of the standard response of Donald Trump or the NRL to the latest mass murder in the U S.  ‘This is not the time to talk about the answer to the problem – our rotten gun laws.  In the meantime’ – as David Rowe remarked some time ago in the AFR –‘take a few boxes of thoughts and prayers – on the house.’



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



John Milton (1667)

Oxford Library of the World’s Great Books, OUP, 1984, illustrated Gustave Dore; quarter bound in blue leather, with gold letters and ridges on the spine, with cloth boards embossed with gold, and marbled endpapers.

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour

Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat:

Earth felt the wound……

John Milton knew so much and was so wise that it is a wonder that he could write any poetry at all.  Anyone who tracked down every allusion in Paradise Lost would have earned the best classical education possible with which to spend what was left of their life.

Milton was brought up in the Puritan tradition and is still remembered at Cambridge University.  Difficulties with his marriage led him to very modern views on the subject.  He would become a champion of liberty, at least as he understood that term, and the mouthpiece of the Puritan Revolution and Oliver Cromwell.  He was lucky not to be executed in the Restoration.  Now, only Shakespeare stands taller in English letters.

Paradise Lost is at least in part a war story.  All is well in heaven until God announces that he has a son.  Satan is stricken with envy.  The unthinkable happens: there is war in heaven.  Satan loses and he and his defectors are cast into utter darkness – into hell.  For revenge, he visits earth in the form of a serpent and seduces Eve into taking a bite of the apple of the forbidden tree of knowledge.  Adam follows Eve.  They have hot guilty sex as they come to grips with sin, shame and guilt.  Then they put up the fig leaves.  The father gives judgment on his disobedient children.  They are cast out of paradise, and are told of the miseries to come, but they are promised that redemption will come to them from the son of God.

Paradise Lost and The Iliad have at least two things in common.  First, each epic is dominated by the wrath of a hero – the wrath of Achilles against his king and the Greeks, and the wrath of Satan against God and his son.  Secondly, redemption is either given or promised in each.  In The Iliad it is given by the father, Priam, when he submits to his enemy to ask for mercy for his son.  In Paradise Lost, it is promised on behalf of the son, who later gives himself to redeem fallen man.

But their gods are different.  The gods of The Iliad may be immortal, but they are many, and they are divided against each other.  Each smells of mortality. The God of Paradise Lost and the Old Testament is very different.  He is the only One.  He is omnipotent and omniscient.  But he is not impersonal.  He has intimations not of mortality, but of humanity.  He did, after all, say that he made Adam in his own image.

The Iliad is about war and peace.  Paradise Lost is about heaven and hell.  But war and peace we can see; heaven and hell we cannot.  It is knowledge against belief.  The knowledge may be primitive and the belief may be fervent, but the difference is obvious.

The Godhead of Paradise Lost is split when Satan revolts.  Milton may or may not have intended Satan to be the hero of his poem, but that is what he got for a lot of readers.  (C S Lewis was scandalized.)  The father and son are out on the grounds of their divinity.  Adam and Eve are out on the grounds of their humanity.  They are – thank heaven – utterly, incurably, and irredeemably human.  The rest of the host just do what they are told, or fall in behind Satan, and squabble and hiss at him if they do not like his work.

That leaves Satan.  The more Milton dislikes Satan as a being, the more we like him as a character.  He has a lot going for him as hero.  (I put to one side his modernist sin of fathering a child and forgetting the mother.)  He ends up outcast by everyone.  Well, we tend to take a shine to outcasts.  Satan does have a mind of his own, and he is the only one openly to stand up to authority, to offer defiance.  He is the one character in each epic, excepting Priam, who refuses to toe the line.  He is a born insurrectionary, our primal hell-raiser.  It looks like he had been stewing on status for a while.  He talks of knee tribute:

Too much to one, but double, how endured (5.783)

He is wildly and immediately successful in executing his plan to corrupt the whole order of creation.  When ‘the enemy of mankind’ got to work, Eve fell immediately, and ‘Earth felt the wound’ (9.782).  Adam followed quickly next, and as a result the lord of hosts, the lord of all creation, would have to give up his only begotten son to undo the work of Satan.

This is not a bad return on the handiwork of a day or two; not a bad return for an outcast doomed to be blasted in eternal fires.  Thrown out of heaven; hissed at in hell; but a complete winner on earth.

And Satan has a point.  His envy knows no bounds when he sees Adam and Eve in Eden ‘imparadised in one another’s arms’, but he immediately sees their limitation and weakness as his way to strike at God.… …..knowledge forbidden?

Suspicion, reasonless: Why should the Lord
Envy them that?  Can it be sin to know,
Can it be death?  And so they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state?

Yes, Satan does impute envy to God, but we all know people who ‘only stand by ignorance’ – some of the happiest lawyers and the most successful politicians on earth.  But ‘knowledge forbidden’?  Can it be a ‘sin to know’?  Surely not.  What is the answer to this question of Satan?  Are we doomed to be cocooned in ignorance or to face the everlasting bonfire?

The pride of Satan leads him to ambition to ‘set himself in glory above his peers’, but one thing Satan never was – a quitter.  And when Satan told his crew that they could by their warlike effort claim ‘Honour, dominion, glory, and renown’, he was simply giving them the mission statement of Achilles and the other blood-drenched heroes of Homer.

In The Iliad, there were two acts of pride – hubris – that led ultimately to nemesis.  First, Helen and Paris took off knowing the consequences.  Secondly, the Greek king refused to hand back his prisoner to the gods, knowing that this would lead to divine retribution.  Paradise Lost reaches its climax with our first sin, the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, by Adam and Eve.  But two acts of disobedience born out of pride had happened first.  When God took a son to share his power, knowing at least the potential of the problem of what we call sibling rivalry, Satan then decided that he could not stand competition from a newcomer.  His paramount sin was envy, but what Satan felt was an affront to his honour.  Then Eve refused to obey Adam, although she knew very well that for her the power of Adam was absolute.  But now, only the most wilfully morbid self-flagellant believes any of that moonshine about Eve being the author of our original sin.

When the father announces the arrival of a son, the poet describes the reaction of Satan in terms of envy, honour, pride and malice.  Here is real envy.  When Milton wrote that Satan ‘thought himself impaired’ he may have had in mind that chilling remark about Cassio made by Iago, that most evil predator on another’s honour:

He has a kind of beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.

Milton said he wrote this wonderful epic ‘to justify the ways of God to men.’  He will not often get that result now, but what he has given us, like the Sistine Chapel, is a picture of us in terms that are beyond our understanding.  The theme is desperately mortal.

The best way to take Paradise Lost is to listen to it.  (Make sure that you get the version where Eve is played by a woman, and not just by the narrator.)  Then you can, as with Shakespeare, just laugh at the sheer blinding throwaway brilliance and magic of it all.  They were both drunk on words and language, and they both shared their passion with us.

John Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost.