Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob


Part I

The kings in Shakespeare looked askance at those of their ilk who played to the mob.  They liked to indulge the fiction that they were appointed by God – and only answerable to God.  The notion that they might be chosen by the people was vulgar –in the purest sense of that word.  So, when it came to dealing with an uppity lord (Bolingbroke), Richard II:

Observed his courtship to the common people

How he did seem to dive in their hearts,

With humble and familiar courtesy…..(1.4 22-26)

He even doffed his hat to an oyster wench.  Showing courtesy to the vulgar was in truth a contradiction in terms.  Chivalry is not for the lower orders.  So, when Bolingbroke becomes king, he lectures his heir who has been a ‘truant to chivalry’ by binding himself to popularity and by being ‘stale and cheap to vulgar company’ (Part 1, 3.2.41, 69 and 5.1.94).

But Shakespeare does dwell on the mob in at least three plays, and in doing so he pictures people who bear a remarkable comparison to those who like to call themselves populists – people  like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.

Henry VI Part II is one Shakespeare’s earliest plays.  The picture he paints of the populist puppeteer Jack Cade is revolting – and revolting to fever pitch as played in the BBC production.  I said elsewhere of this monster:

When Banjo Paterson came to stigmatize mindless youth in the then equivalent of our outer suburbs, he referred to gilded youths who sat along the wall: ‘Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all.’  This is a recurrent nightmare for us now, made worse on our trains and buses by sullen looks coming from vacant spaces between iPod exit points.  It is not that education has failed them  –  they have rejected education. There is nothing going on at all there. What might happen if that lot got into government? The nightmare would be made real.


We see the template for this kind of disaster, and every tinpot dictator since, in Jack Cade. He comes and goes within Act 4 of Part 2 of King Henry VI.  Cade is a demagogue of Kentish soil. He is at first invoked as a pawn by a faction leader in the Wars of the Roses.  Cade appeals to the crowd.  But Jack Cade has ideas of his own. He thinks he can be king. (He is no democrat, but dictators never are.)  Although he says that he is waging a class war, he still wants to be king.  Even Hitler did not want to be Kaiser. But like Hitler, the ascent of Cade is by carrot and stick: give the masses what they want and purify the rest by terror by killing anyone who gets in the way.

What, then, does Cade have to teach us about ‘populists’?

The leader of the mob likes to encourage conjecture about birth – his own or that of someone in the status quo.  He introduces himself as Cade ‘so termed by our supposed father’ (4.2.32) before going on to claim to be a Mortimer – even if that result verges on the miraculous, since a fantastic birth has a most august provenance (4.2.136 – 145)

The leader goes out of his way to identify with the common people and to forego any trappings of the better people.  Cade says he will make it a felony to drink small beer and that they should kill all the lawyers (4.2.66, 75).  Any espousal of learning warrants suspicion.

The ambition of the leader is boundless, but so is his insecurity.  That is why he is so quick to put down anyone deviating from his vision or ambition.  It is also why he harbors a jealous regard for the fame of Henry V – the name that hales the mob ‘to an hundred mischiefs and makes them leave me desolate’ (4.9.58-9)

The leader makes wild promises to people who want to believe him.  These promises may look silly to others but that just shows how little the establishment knows about real life.

The establishment does not understand the power of the forces that will be unleashed when the revolution like that aspired to by Cade finally comes.  That was certainly the case for Louis XVI and his nobility – and for the rest of the world between 1789 and 1815.  There would be a similar explosion in Germany after 1933.  In each case, the new regime came close to defeating all Europe.  The Russians after 1917 focussed on killing each other.  The savage intensity of the Cade rebellion was indeed prophetic.

The leader encourages the mob to make ignorance virtue and knowledge a vice.  A man of the people is an ‘honest plain dealing man’ – a person ‘so well brought up that [he] can write his name’ is not one of the people – indeed, he is a ‘villain and a traitor’ and likely to suffer death (4.2.100 – 106).  That fate awaits anyone who looks down on the people – their sense of grievance, once it is unleashed, is insatiable.

While others may deplore the mob, it is unhelpful to say so.  Vilifying the mob just plays into their hands.  This is especially so if the criticism is rational – since any claim to rationality is suspect.  When a noble calls the mob ‘the filth and scum of Kent’ (4.2.119) and goes on about their humble origin, Cade unloads a zinger: ‘And Adam was a gardener’ (4.2.131)

As for anyone who could speak French: God help the obvious traitor (4.2.165).  When John Kerry ran for President, he thought it prudent not to dwell on his ability to speak French.  (The present president does not course have a second language – he has not mastered the first.)  The man of the people is not one those ‘that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can afford to hear’(4.7.39-42).  Cade fears any form of literacy because deep down he knows that not only is he illiterate, but that he simply cannot compete with people of intelligence or learning.

That is one reason Cade mistrusts logical thinking, but he hints at a kind of truth when he says ‘But then we are in order when we are most out of order’ (4.2.187).  This of course is a flirtation with anarchy – but pure anarchy puts the leader out of a job.  This is the dilemma of all those who take power by force – if we could do that to them, what is to stop others doing the same to us?  In this way every revolution comes pregnant with counter-revolution.

When the people rise up to overthrow the existing order, they want to obliterate it.  It’s as if the raiment of history mocks the nakedness of the new boy on the block.  So, ‘burn all records of the realm: my mouth shall be the parliament of England….And hence forward all things shall be in common.’ (4.7.15-20)

The leader can invoke the usual catch-cries, but his shout for ‘liberty’ (4.2.181) is as fatuous as that of the assassins of Julius Caesar.

And the leader is a well-known comic.  That way he can always say he was joking when he says something palpably silly.  This applies even when he is indulging his favourite past-time – eliminating people, except that he does so with extreme prejudice, although, like Trump, he only does it through agents.  The tough talker is frightened to get blood on his hands.

The leader of course demands personal loyalty over and above loyalty to the people.  For this purpose he is the people.  ‘The proudest peer in the realm shall not era a head on his shoulders unless he pay me tribute.’ (4.7.122-123)  There is a curious symbiosis in the relationship between the mob and their leader.  The mob has a spiteful chip on its shoulder; Cade looks to be at risk of collapsing under the weight of his own ego

The leader can of course do no wrong.  It is a maxim that he may have derived from the kings.  If something does go wrong, it is always the fault of others.  In this way, they mirror those who rose up against kings – decorum dictates that you would not criticise the king in his majesty – rather, you would indict his wicked counsellors who misled the king.  And they would say things like ‘If only the good king knew….’Indeed, Cade himself says that he is the broom [besom] ‘that must sweep the court clean of such filth as thou art’ (4.7.37-38).  The image of the cleansing avenger has been about at least since the 6th century BCE in Greece.  It’s so old you might think people can see through it – but, no, there is, as they say, one born every minute.

So, if the leader appears to falter, the reason will be ‘only my followers’ base and ignominious treasons’ (4.9.65).  (Hitler was content to see Germany wiped out because the Germans had let him down’.)  Cade maintains this line even in death.  It is pathetic.  ‘O, I am slain!  Famine and no other hath slain me: let ten thousand devils come against me, and give me but ten meals I have lost, and I’d defy them all’ (4.10.62-65).  The thing about megalomania is the super human power of the mania.  It can trample anything in its path.  (So, while people in the U S die of a virus, their President warbles unashamedly about his position on Facebook.)

It follows that Cade finds out just how fickle the mob is.  ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?’  (4.8.56).  Cade has no friends – only transient travellers.  When the mob goes to water then, it can be like when the dykes get opened.  All restraint is gone.  The violent victors have murdered order.  What follows after the deluge?  To answer that, look at the history of France for the one hundred years following the overthrow of Robespierre.

In the result, Jack Cade looks doomed to be a fire that will burn out quickly –he would be useless in government in ordinary times or during a crisis.  He likes to be at home in crises of his own making.  Of Cade, it might be said that ‘his rash fire blaze of riot cannot last, For violent fires soon burn out themselves’ (Richard II, 2.1.34-35).



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

A Remarkable Politician- Joseph Fouché

The life of Fouché, terrorist in the Revolution, who survived Robespierre and then Napoleon – a cold blooded killer who became the ultimate survivor.

Some politicians get by with luck and grit, and not a lot more.  Perhaps that is all that it takes for most of them – as it tends to be for the rest of us.  One such politician was Joseph Fouché who was active during the French Revolution and who, as the Duke of Otranto, was Minister of Police for the Emperor Napoleon.  Fouché was the ultimate survivor.  The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who was an immensely popular novelist in the 1930’s, called Fouché ‘the most perfect Machiavel of modern times’ – ‘a leader of every party in turn and unique in surviving the destruction of them all.’.  Here was a ‘man of the same skin and hair who was in 1790 a priestly schoolmaster, and by 1792 already a plunderer of the Church; was in 1793 a communist, five years later a multimillionaire and ten years after that the Duke of Otranto.’  Fouché therefore was not just a survivor – he was a winner.

In introducing his book about ‘this thoroughly amoral personality’, Joseph Fouché, The Portrait of a Politician, Stefan Zweig said this:

Alike in 1914 and 1918 [the book was written in 1929] we learned to our cost that the issues of the war and the peace, issues of far-reaching historical significance, were not the outcome of a high sense of intelligence and exceptional responsibility, but were determined by obscure individuals of questionable character and endowed with little understanding.  Again and again since then it has become apparent that in the equivocal and often rascally game of politics, to which with touching faith the nations continue to entrust their children and their future, the winners are not men of wide moral grasp and firm conviction, but those professional gamesters whom we style diplomatists – glib talkers with light fingers and a cold heart.

Those observations have the timelessness of truth.

Joseph Fouché was born in the seaport town of Nantes to a seafaring mercantile family.  The great places were reserved for the nobility, so Joseph went into the Church.  He went to the Oratorians who were in charge of Catholic education after the expulsion of the Jesuits.  He becomes a tonsured teacher, not a priest.  ‘Not even to God, let alone to men, will Joseph Fouché give a pledge of lifelong fidelity.’  Three of the most powerful French political thinkers then – Talleyrand, Sieyes, and Fouché – come from an institution that the Revolution will be bent on destroying, the Church.

Joseph became friendly with a young lawyer named Robespierre.  There was even talk that he might marry Robespierre’s sister, and when the young Maximilien was elected to the Estates General at Versailles, it was Joseph who lent him the money for a new suit of clothes.

When Joseph moves that the Oratorians to express their support for the Third Estate, he is sent back to Nantes.  He then becomes political, discards his cassock, and, after marrying the daughter of a wealthy merchant, ‘an ugly girl but handsomely dowered’, he is elected to the revolutionary National Convention in 1792 as the Chairman of the Friends of the Constitution at Nantes.

Fouché is always cool and under control.  He has no vices and he is a loyal husband, but he will be an ‘inexorable puritan’ and invincibly cold blooded, at his best working in the shadows as an unseen second to the limelighters.  He prefers the reality of power to its insignia, but with ‘his resolute freedom from convictions’, he is quite capable of repudiating a leader who has gone too far.  ‘He knows that a revolution never bestows its fruits on those who begin it, but only on those who bring it to an end and are therefore in a position to seize the booty.’

Fouché starts up the ladder.  He had aligned with the moderates known as the Gironde on the issue of death for the king, but sensing the shift in the breeze, he stabbed them in the back with the words la mort when it came his turn to cast his vote.  He acquires huge power as Representative on Mission, a kind of Roman proconsul.  He has what we would call a communist social program, especially toward the Church.  He issues an utterly chilling instruction: ‘Everything is permissible to those who are working for the revolution; the only danger for the republican is to lag behind the laws of the Republic: one who outstrips them, gets ahead of them; one who seemingly overshoots the aim, has often not yet reached the goal.  While there is still anyone unhappy with the world, there are still some steps to take in the racecourse of liberty.’

The ci devant Oratorian declares war on the Church ‘to substitute the worship of the Republic and of morality for that of ancient superstitions.’  He abolishes celibacy and orders priests to marry or adopt a child within one month.  In Moulins, he rides through the town at the head of a procession hammer in hand smashing crosses, crucifixes and other images, the ‘shameful’ tokens of fanaticism.  This is the phase of dechristianization, far, far more brutal than the Reformation in England.

But we also speak of the Terror, when an anxious France was guillotining its enemies within, and Robespierre would implement the Law of Suspects.  It is the black night of the revolution and it leads Stefan Zweig to this most remarkable judgment which still speaks so clearly to us at a time of a collapse in public life.

By the inexorable law of gravity, each execution dragged others in its train.  Those who had begun the game with no more than ferocious mouthings, now tried to surpass one another in bloody deeds.  Not from frenzied passion and still less from stern resolution were so many victims sacrificed.  Irresolution, rather, was at work; the irresolution of politicians who lacked courage to withstand the mob.  In the last analysis, cowardice was to blame.  For, alas, history is not only (as we are so often told) the history of human courage, but also the history of human faintheartedness; and politics is not (as politicians would fain have us believe) the guidance of public opinion, but a servile bowing of the knee by the so-called leaders before the demons they have themselves created.

With those words, Stefan Zweig justified not only this whole book, but his whole life.  The words ‘the irresolution of politicians who lacked courage to withstand the mob’ should be put up in neon lights in every parliamentary and government office, and in the booth of every shock jock, poll taker, and sound-bite grabber, and that of any other predatory bludger, urger, or racecourse tout.

And the Terror was in turn at its worst for those parts of France that had sought to rebel in bloc, like the great city of Lyon, the second of France.  The revolt in the west in the Vendee was seen to be Catholic and Royalist; in Lyon, it was a revolt by class and money.  The reprisals for each had a manic cruelty and intensity unmatched until the times of Stalin and Hitler.  In the Vendee, a man named Carrier was responsible for the infamy of the noyades, when batches of priests were manacled, and placed on barges that were towed in the Loire and then sunk.  Fouché executed revolutionary justice at Lyon where the guillotine was thought to be too cumbersome.  The depravity is described by Zweig in these terms:

Early that morning sixty young fellows are taken out of prison and fettered together in couples.  Since, as Fouché puts it, the guillotine works ‘too slowly’, they are taken to the plain of Brotteaux, on the other side of the Rhone.  Two parallel trenches, hastily dug to receive their corpses, show the victims what is to be their fate, and the cannon ranged ten paces away indicate the manner of their execution.  The defenceless creatures are huddled and bound together into a screaming, trembling, raging, and vainly resisting mass of human despair.  A word of command and the guns loaded with slugs are ‘fired into the brown’.  The range is murderously close and yet the first volley does not finish them off.  Some have only had an arm or leg blown away; others have had their bellies torn open but are still alive; a few, as luck would have it, are uninjured.  But while blood is making runnels of itself down into the trenches, at a second order, cavalrymen armed with sabres and pistols fling themselves on those who are yet alive, slashing into and firing into this helpless heard, of groaning, twitching and yelling fellow mortals until the last raucous voice is hushed.  As a reward for their ghastly work, the butchers are then allowed to strip clothing and shoes from the sixty warm bodies before these are cast naked into the fosses which await them.

All this was done in front of a crowd of appreciative onlookers.  The next batch was enlarged to two hundred ‘head of cattle marched to the slaughter’ and this time the avengers of the nation dispensed with the graves.  The corpses were thrown into the Rhone as a lesson to the folks downstream.  When the guillotine is again put to work, ‘a couple of women who have pleaded too ardently for the release of their husbands from the bloody assize are by his [Fouché’s] orders bound and placed close to the guillotine.’  Fouché declares: ‘We do not hesitate to declare that we are shedding much unclean blood, but we do so for humane reasons, and because it is our duty.’ Zweig concludes: ‘Sixteen hundred executions within a few weeks show that, for once, Joseph Fouché is speaking the truth.’  That may be so, but the invocation of humanity for this butchery defies all language.

I am relying on a translation (by Eden and Cedar Paul in the 1930 Viking Edition), but Zweig attributes to Fouché what he calls ‘a flamboyant proclamation’;

The representatives of the people will remain inexorable in the fulfilment of the mission that has been entrusted to them.  The people has put into their hands the thunderbolts of vengeance, and they will not lay them down until all its enemies have been shattered.  They will have courage enough and be energetic enough to make their way through holocausts of conspirators and to march over ruins to ensure the happiness of the nation and effect the regeneration of the world.

There, surely, you have a preview of all the madness and cant that will underlie the evil that befalls mankind in the next century.

Fouché and his accomplice get news that the wind may have changed in Paris and the other is sent back to cover their backs.  Fouché now has to deal with Robespierre, ‘that tiger of a man, balancing adroitly as usual between savagery and clemency, swinging like a pendulum now to the Right and now to the Left’, who was unhappy with Fouché for having displaced his own henchman (the crippled lawyer Couthon who had no stomach for the task).  Robespierre is the cold lawyer from Arras that we associate with the height of the Terror – and with its end.  Zweig says that Robespierre was ‘wrapped in his virtue as if it were a toga’.  That about sums it up, but Zweig has a most remarkable passage that includes:

Robespierre’s tenacity of purpose was his finest quality, but it was also his greatest weakness.  For, intoxicated by the sense of his own incorruptibility and clad as he was in an armour of stubborn dogmatism, he considered that divergences of opinion were treasonable, and with the cold cruelty of a grand inquisitor, he was ready to regard as heretics all who differed from him and send them to a heretic’s doom…..The lack of communicable warmth, of contagious humanity, deprived his actions of procreative energy.  His strength lay exclusively in his stubbornness; his power, in his unyielding severity.  His dictatorship had become for him the entire substance and the all-engrossing form of his life.  Unless he could stamp his own ego on the revolution, that ego would be shattered.

That judgment may be too severe for Robespierre, but it looks dead right for Lenin – especially the last, about the insatiable need to stamp his own ego on the revolution.  There is the key to the agony of all the Russias.

There followed a duel between Fouché and Robespierre.  Fouché ‘had never asked Robespierre’s advice; had never bowed the knee before the sometime friend.’  Robespierre turned on Fouché in the Convention: ‘Tell us, then, who commissioned you to announce to the people that God does not exist, you, who are so devoted to that doctrine?’    Fouché is just one target in a speech that ends in a hurricane of applause.  Fouché goes quiet, he goes underground, he performs the then equivalent of working the phones – and then he surfaces – as the next elected President of the Jacobins Club!  This is the rank and file of the ‘party’.

The response had to be nasty, and the next time Robespierre is brutal, with the by then standard allegation of conspiracy.  ‘I was at one time in fairly close touch with him because I believed him to be a patriot.  If I denounced him here, it was not so much because of his past crimes because he had gone into hiding to commit others, and because I believed him to be the ringleader of the conspiracy which we have to thwart.’  This was vintage Robespierre paranoia and the stakes were terminal.  Fouché is expelled from the Jacobins.  ‘Now Joseph Fouché is marked for the guillotine as a tree is marked for the axe…..Fifty or sixty deputies who, like Fouché, no longer dare to sleep in their own quarters, bite their lips when Robespierre walks past them; and many are furtively clenching their fists at the very time when they are hailing his speeches with acclamations.’

Robespierre is circling in his sky-blue suit and white silk stockings, and the very air is thick with fear.  He gives a three hour harangue, but then declines to give names.  ‘Et Fouché?’ gets no answer.  Fouché furiously works the numbers: ‘I hear there is a list, and your name is on it.’  ‘Cowardice shrinks and dwindles, and is replaced by desperate courage.’  God rolls the dice, the bunnies become wolves, and Robespierre and his lieutenants are submitted to the blade that they had brought down on so many others.

Here Zweig permits himself a general political observation.  He condemns those who overthrew Robespierre for their ‘cowardly and lying attitude’ who ‘to gain their own ends have betrayed the proletarian revolution.’  That is an assessment made in 1929 that many French historians would embrace, and Fouché had tried to get on a populist horse.  This time he picked badly, and the new regime had different views about the Terror – and Lyon.  Fouché ‘like many animals shams dead that he may not be killed.’  He goes underground for three years living on the breadline.  No one mentions his name.  As to the proletariat – what a dire and debasing word! – there is not much use crying over spilt milk.  Those who are crying wanted the French terrorists to do what Lenin had tried to do, and transfer all power from the king to all those at the bottom inside one generation.  It cannot be done.  It took the English, who are geniuses at this, seven centuries.

Fouché lies low and poor.  The carpet-baggers of the new shop-soiled regime, the Directory then the Consulate, need someone who can work in darkness, a cold-blooded spy, a collector of information on others, a man to hold chits IOU’s and grudges, and someone who can oil the wheels of power and money.  Who else?  ‘Joseph Fouché has become the ideal man for these sordid negotiations.  Poverty has made a clean sweep of his republican convictions, he has hung up his contempt for money to dry in the chimney, and he is so hungry that he can be bought cheaply.’  Is it not remarkable how deathless are all these political insights?

The dark and dangerous mitrailleur of Lyons is back in town – as minister of State, the Minister of Police to the mighty and all-conquering Republic of France!  Well, our man ‘has no use for sentimentality, and can whenever he likes, forget his past with formidable speed’.  The Jacobins are a shadow of themselves, but they are also beside themselves at this heartless enforcer of tranquillity – who calmly says that there must be an end to inflammatory speeches!  In France?  In Paris?  In 1799?

They have learned little during these years.  They threaten the Directory, the Ministers of State, and the constitution with quotations from Plutarch.  They behave as rabidly as if Danton and Marat were still alive; as if still, in those brave days of the revolution, they could with the sound of the tocsin summon hundreds of thousands from the faubourgs.

But our man has got his sense of scent back.  He knows the public mood.  The former president just closes down the Jacobins Club – the next day.  People are sick of strife.  They want their peace and their money.

Then some people higher up start to fear the information that he gets – on everyone.  Knowledge means power, and Fouché has more knowledge than anyone – more even than Napoleon.  And people start to notice that his eyes look upwards as well as downwards.  Talleyrand, who also stands up to Napoleon and lives to talk about it, and who is another consummate and totally conscienceless puppeteer, says: ‘The Minister of Police is a man who minds his own business – and goes on to mind other people’s.’

But when Napoleon becomes Consul for Life, his family, the biggest weakness of the loyal Corsican, urge him to fire Fouché.  Napoleon shifts him sideways, but ‘seldom in the course of history has a minister been dismissed with more honourable and more lucrative tokens of respect than Joseph Fouché.’  It was ever thus.

Fouché goes into retirement again, the polite and thrifty squire with his wife and children who gives a homely entertainment now and then.  The neighbours see a good husband and a kind father.  But the old campaigner feels the itch.  ‘Power is like the Medusa’s head.  Whoever has looked on her countenance can no longer turn his face away, but remains for always under her spell.  Whoever has once enjoyed the intoxication of holding sway over his fellows can never thenceforward renounce it altogether.  Flutter the pages of history in search for examples of the voluntary renouncement of power….Sulla and Charles V are the most famous among the exceptions.’

Napoleon senses the itchiness of Fouché but he does not want to take him back; ‘the argus-eyed unsleeping calculator’ is too dangerous.  But then Napoleon errs – he has the Duke of Enghien kidnapped over the border and returned to France to be shot – he passes his grave on the way to his ‘trial.’  This leads Fouché (some say Talleyrand) to make the famous remark: ‘It was worse than a crime it was a blunder.’  Napoleon needs someone to hold the stirrup again, and on his ascension to the purple – he allows the pope to watch him crown himself – Son Excellence Monsieur le Senateur Fouché is appointed Minister by Sa Majeste l’Empereur Napoleon.  He will become the Duke of Otranto and while the rest degenerate into ‘flatterers and lickspittles’, the Minister of Police stiffens his back, and minds his own business and that of everyone else.

Fouché is a millionaire many times over, but he lives a frugal almost Spartan life.  His image is part of his terrifying power.  He and the Emperor are at arms’ length.  ‘Filled with secret antipathy, each of them makes use of the other, and they are bound together solely by the attraction between hostile poles.’

The stakes have gone up now.  At Marengo in 1800, Napoleon won with thirty thousand men; five years later, he has three hundred thousand behind him; five years later, he is raising a levy of a million soldiers.  He will leave five million in their graves.  And now Fouché must deal with the political genius of Talleyrand, another of the world’s very greatest survivors.  ‘Both of them are of a perfectly amoral type, and this accounts for their likeness in character.’  For a long time tout Paris gazes in a kind of trance at the duel between Fouché and Talleyrand, and, as it happens, both survive Napoleon.

Fouché was either working for Napoleon or plotting against him, or both, even during the Hundred Days leading to Waterloo.  In fact, Fouché served as Minister of Police to Talleyrand as Prime Minister after 1815 for Louis XVIII.  Since he had voted for the death of that king’s brother, Louis XVI, this might be seen as the masterpiece of his slipperiness or negotiability.  He then proceeded to orchestrate a new terror, the White Terror, against the enemies of the Bourbons.  This revolted even Talleyrand, and Fouché was shifted again, this time for the last time.  He died in his bed in Trieste in 1820.

It is hard to imagine our story, for that in part is what it is, being told better than Stefan Zweig tells it in this wonderful book.  The author moves so easily from one graceful insight to the next, and like a true champion he makes it all look so easy and so natural.  And as our author leaves his subject, he leaves us with the question that Shakespeare leaves to us with various bastards, in the proper sense of that word, and Richard III and Falstaff – why are we so taken with the life and character of such an absolute villain?  And he also leaves us with the same old problem – glib talkers with light fingers and a cold heart

Passing Bull 235– Intolerance


The discussion about George Pell is like that about climate change – and, as it happens, you tend to see the same people on each side.  It is like watching a collision between Collingwood and Carlton supporters – you are either IN or you are OUT.  There is no middle ground.  People crave certainty – that is why they are suckers for simplicity – like the inane edicts of Donald Trump or the superficial nostrums of people like Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson.  (The twentieth century versions were much, much, worse.)  Too many people lack what Keats called ‘negative capability’ – they feel threatened if they are left in doubt.  We go to the footy because there we can be irrational – but we are looking for deep trouble if we go the polls with that mind-set.  Talking to such people is like addressing a brick wall.  The insecurity of these people makes them clam up.  The result is both unseemly and unsettling, but this poisoning of our public life just seems to keep getting worse.

Leafing through An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, published by David Hume fifty years before white settlement here, I read a word perfect description of this condition.

The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counterpoising argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; nor have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments. To hesitate or balance perplexes their understanding, checks their passion, and suspends their action. They are, therefore, impatient till they escape from a state, which to them is so uneasy: and they think, that they could never remove themselves far enough from it, by the violence of their affirmations and obstinacy of their belief. But could such dogmatical reasoners become sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding, even in its most perfect state, and when most accurate and cautious in its determinations; such a reflection would naturally inspire them with more modesty and reserve, and diminish their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists. The illiterate may reflect on the disposition of the learned, who, amidst all the advantages of study and reflection, are commonly still diffident in their determinations: and if any of the learned be inclined, from their natural temper, to haughtiness and obstinacy, a small tincture of Pyrrhonism [scepticism] might abate their pride, by showing them, that the few advantages, which they may have attained over their fellows, are but inconsiderable, if compared with the universal perplexity and confusion, which is inherent in human nature. In general, there is a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner.

The Scottish philosopher compares the reaction of the ‘illerate’ to that of the ‘learned’, and that reaction reminds us of the dour immovability of a spoiled child.  As it happens, a mistrust of experts also infects our public discussion.  We got used to it with climate change and we now have to put up with the same dummy spit on a pandemic.  We might wonder whether anything more than jealousy is in play here – but we are in deep trouble when a general mistrust of expertise – that is, advanced knowledge – may infect decisions of life and death.  If you have to rely on a pilot to bring you down safely during an electrical storm over Hong Kong, you are not inclined to belittle his tally of hours flying.

And for the removal of doubt, this intolerance of doubt is lethal in a professional person like a doctor or lawyer.


Malcolm Turnbull’s term as prime minister ended because his personal convictions were at odds with core Liberal Party values, and it showed.

The Australian, 20 April, 2020, Jennifer Oriel.

Offhand can you imagine bullshit more certifiable than ‘core values’?

Here and there – The curious case of George Pell


Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to imprisonment for serious crimes against a young man in his charge.

Before that could happen, the Crown (the DPP or prosecution) had to clear three hurdles.  The DPP must have found that there was a ‘reasonable prospect of conviction.’  Then a magistrate had to consider all the evidence and conclude that the available evidence was ‘of sufficient weight to support a conviction of’ an indictable offence.  Thirdly, at the conclusion of the prosecution case, it is open to the accused to submit that a verdict of not guilty should be directed on the ground that ‘there is a defect in the evidence such that, taken at its highest, it will not sustain a verdict of guilty.’

The Crown satisfied the first two tests and as far as I know the accused did not submit that the case warranted a verdict of not guilty under the third heading above.  There were two further obstacles.  One of the protections afforded the accused is that the verdict of the jury must be unanimous. The first jury could not agree, and the verdict was only obtained on the re-trial.

The Crown case also survived on an appeal to the Court of Appeal by a majority decision.  All three justices reviewed all the evidence given by the accused, and the majority found the complainant to be a ‘compellingly credible witness’ and that the circumstantial evidence did not entail that the jury had been compelled to entertain a doubt about the guilt of the accused.

The accused then sought and obtained special leave to appeal from that decision to the High Court.  That court allowed the appeal and directed a verdict of acquittal. The seven justices unanimously concluded that there was ‘a significant possibility that an innocent person had been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.’

In R v Doney (1990) 171 CLR 207 (par.  11) the High Court said:

There is no doubt that it is a trial judge’s duty to direct such a verdict if the evidence cannot sustain a guilty verdict or, as is commonly said, if there is no evidence upon which a jury could convict.

In the case of Pell [2020] HCA 12 (par 39), the High Court said:

The function of the court of criminal appeal in determining a ground that contends that the verdict of the jury is unreasonable or cannot be supported having regard to the evidence.., in a case such as the present, proceeds upon the assumption that the evidence of the complainant was assessed by the jury to be credible and reliable. The court examines the record to see whether, notwithstanding that assessment – either by reason of inconsistencies, discrepancies, or other inadequacy; or in light of other evidence – the court is satisfied that the jury, acting rationally, ought nonetheless to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to proof of guilt.

My first reason for finding this case curious is that for a lawyer who does not practice in crime, I have great difficulty in following what if any is the substantive difference between the role of the trial judge in ruling against a submission of no case (as in Doney) and the role of the appellate court appellate court in determining whether the verdict of the jury can be found to be unreasonable.  The question then is this: if the verdict directed by the High Court is as plain as that court found, and only by reference to the evidence of the Crown, why was not the issue raised and dealt with in any of the procedures that led to the verdict in this trial?  It looks like I and others have had to foot the bill for the accommodation of the Cardinal on grounds that look to have been apparent from the start.

The second ground of curiosity relates to reviewing the video of the complainant’s evidence.  The accused argued against that course.  Not surprisingly, the Court of Appeal ruled against him.  But the High Court is at best very wary and a little terse about this practice.  Their Honours did not apparently view the videos.  In the result, a clear majority of those who saw the videos – part of the jury in the first trial, all of the jury in the second, and by a majority of justices on appeal – had no reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused.  The verdict of acquittal was directed by those who did not see the tapes.

It may be that the High Court would have reached the same result after looking at the tapes, but logic is not an absolute master when it comes to observing due process in the administration of justice.  Among other things, it would be a shame if forensic ingenuity was thought to count for more than witness integrity.  Such a view would buttress a common prejudice of the type that was immediately on show when the High Court gave its judgment.  It was obvious that the views within the nation were split, among other things on sectarian grounds, and it was vital that any judgment should be determinative both in law and on the merits.  The results so far are not good – even if, as may have been predicted, the ignorance of some parts of the press was matched only by its arrogance.

It is a very strong thing for one appellate court to overturn the finding of another appellate court on the evidence as a whole without reviewing that evidence in the same form that the first court did.  In the fullness of time, we may learn how that process differs from a decision to ban a book taken without reading the book.  And some may prefer the simple and humane approach of the majority of the Court of Appeal to the Euclidian sterility of those who reached a different result.  The former is clearly more accessible to the community at large.

This then was not an ideal way to put to rest a fierce contest that is and will long remain in the public domain.  And it is out of tune with the felt need to give victims of sexual abuse a decent hearing.  What is the message that we are sending to victims of sexual abuse by those in power?  ‘Go ahead and complain.  Then give evidence.  And be cross –examined painfully and insultingly for days.  Then watch on as the accused refuses to submit himself to the same ordeal.  Then have your version – that has not been contradicted on oath by the man who attacked you – accepted by a jury and acted on by the court’s sentencing your assailant to prison.  Then have a majority of judges also accept your version on appeal.  And then watch the prisoner walk away because another group of judges takes a different view of the evidence to the first group.  Although they did not take the time to watch you giving your evidence.  When the effect of the evidence is under our law primarily a matter for the jury.  And when your version on oath has been accepted by the jury and the accused has never had to give his version in the same way.’

The so-called ‘best evidence rule’ may be dead as a dodo, but its rationale – common sense and ordinary decency – is not.  And our law knows a long history of preference for direct oral evidence over that which is ‘only circumstantial’.  (I refer to an observation of Holt, CJ in 1701 referred to in Thayer A Preliminary Treatise on Evidence at The Common Law, Little Brown, 1898, 489.)

We are of course here discussing only the criminal standard of proof.  If the Cardinal sued for libel on an allegation of sexual abuse, the onus would be on the defendant, but only the balance of probabilities.  And as a matter of fact, he would have to go into the witness box.

Similarly, if there was an issue about whether this man could be trusted in a position with access to young men in the future, then that issue would not be determined by saying that this man should retain the trust of his employer until a court found him guilty beyond doubt of a relevant offence.  This is not the first time this man has been the subject of a complainant by someone who was found to be an honest witness.  That as I recollect it was the result of a finding of Justice Southwell in a private hearing into complaints of sexual abuse against this priest.

There have therefore been two cases involving the Cardinal where people have found in favour of the honesty of the victim.  Just how an employer might assess the significance of such a history may require some judgment.  And no such issue would properly be resolved by giving the Cardinal the benefit of the doubt.  It is those who may be hurt that have to be looked after.  Putting the interests of the employer over those in possible harm’s way is precisely the cause of so many of our present discontents.

A lot of this is unclear to me.  But two things are clear enough.  First, we would not be having this discussion if the accused had given evidence.  As far as I know, we are yet to hear why he declined to face his accuser from the witness box – a course that it is very difficult to square with his loud assertions of innocence and desire to have his day in court and see justice done.

The second is that Lindy Chamberlain must be asking what star she was born under or what bus she was run over by if Cardinal Pell could get a verdict set aside but she could not.  For we now know that not only was Lindy not guilty – she was also actually innocent.  Only the keenest of the faithful would ever say that of the Cardinal.

Passing Bull 234 – Postscript


According to the press today (14 April), one Australian economist said ‘savings tens of thousands of lives was a drop in the ocean compared to the long-lasting disaster caused by economic collapse’ and another said ‘What matters in these sorts of analysis is whether a life at 80 years old, beleaguered by multiple pre-existing conditions, is equivalent to a 20-year-old with their whole life left to live.’

If these quotes are in context, they are appalling.  It is putting the dollar above life and espousing the notion that moral issues can be solved by arithmetic.  While studying eugenics, did they take time out with Mein Kampf?  At least we know that our doctors are precluded from this espousal of doing harm.

Passing Bull 234– An inarticulate premise


Last week I asked if I were a mere statistic.  Well, I may be.  The basis of our logic is a syllogism.  You have a major premise (All men are equal), a minor premise (Socrates is a man) from which the conclusion (Therefore Socrates is mortal) follows ineluctably. You quite often see arguments where a premise is not articulated.  That is not necessarily sinister.  Take an example.  ‘The team consists of fat players.  Therefore it will lose.’  The unstated premise is something like ‘Fat players are not as good as players of normal weight.’

In reporting in the press on the deaths caused by the virus, there may be unconsciously a related thinking process.  We see reports of deaths in one country regularly exceeding one thousand in a day.  That is roughly the equivalent of deaths caused by four major airline crashes, or about half the total fatalities of the attacks on the twin towers.  Any of those would get screaming headlines day after day.  How did we get so blasé about all this death?

There are I think at least two factors.  One is that it is not happening to us.  (And, on a bad day, it is happening in places where life is cheap.  You will hear hardly anything of the toll in Africa.)  The other is I think an unexpressed sentiment.  Most of these deaths are among the old and decrepit who were on their way out anyway.

On behalf of the old and decrepit who might be said to be on the way out, I protest!

News cycles are funny.  We all know the line about tomorrow’s fish and chips.  Until about six weeks ago, the unrest in Hong Kong was near the top of the BBC news every evening.  Since then – nothing.  Et praeterea nihil.  Why?  It is hard to imagine that the unleashing of the virus has endeared the regime to the youth of Hong Kong.  Have they all just drifted into acquiescence?


The government’s massive fiscal intervention in the Australian economy, entirely justified by the gravity of the COVID-19 crisis, will change centre-right politics in this country forever…

A strong government to build a strong nation need not mean anything like socialism.

But that is a danger.

Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 1 April., 2020

What might the word ‘socialism’ mean there?  Mandatory affordable health care, or some other demon of American wasteland?  Is that dangerous?

Here and there – Worth


We get a charge out of seeing people at the top of their game professionally, or in a sport, or whatever.  Obvious excellence leads us to reflect on the worth of the person showing it – and the worth of what they do for us.  ‘Worth’ like ‘dignity’ is a word that is abused, but we resort to it to describe something that we think is good and to be valued – and not, of course, just in money.  If I see someone cast a fly or drive a golf ball as well as I can imagine it, I feel good – just as I feel good when hearing Jussi Bjorling sing Nessun Dorma, or when I look at one of the bridal series of Arthur Boyd.  If you are really lucky you can get a super charged sense of grateful elevation at the foot of the Iguazzu Falls, or on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or when Mount Kanchenjunga hauls into half the horizon.

A lot moonshine is spread about advocacy, and cross-examination in particular, but once about thirty five years ago, I sat bedside Neil McPhee, QC, as he cross-examined a hard-nosed manager from the Richmond Football Club – and the little Scot knew where some of their skeletons were buried – for about twenty minutes so as to elicit concessions that neither the witness nor his counsel seemed to notice.  Here was a technique that no one can teach.  I actually held my breath at times.  I was on the edge of my seat – I could have been in the front row of the circle at Covent Garden for Fonteyn and Nureyev.  There was a worth beyond my imagining.  I have never seen anything like it.

Some sports champions have a complete aura of their worth.  Muhammad Ali was a man like no other.  He changed other people’s lives (including some of our articled clerks who got close to him on the MCG and who came back with a barely subdued sense of wonder.  They had  been in his presence, and it showed.)  Jack Nicklaus walking down the eighteenth fairway to the adulation of the crowd looked to me to be not just regal, but imperial.  He just oozed calm authority.  And Viv Richards provoked in his opponents the kind of fear normally reserved for those facing fast bowlers.  In a world cup final, the game was stagnating until Richards backed away and flayed the ball to the fence from which it rocked back about half-way to the pitch.  As the crowd became frenzied, Richie Benaud said quietly, and nasally: ‘There was an element of contempt in that stroke.’  On his day, Virat Kohli can evoke up similar emotions.  These are the kinds of moments we celebrate in sports.

These notions came to me last night as I watched a replay of the Wednesday before the Masters at Augusta in, I gather, the last few years.  They get past champions to compete over the par three holes.  Gary Player (82), Jack Nicklaus (78) and Tom Watson (68) were matched.  Three titans – three world beaters – all with their own majestic aura and each of them way beyond any measured worth.  They were obviously not what they had been.  But none of them duffed one stroke, and you could still sense an underlying steel in the players in the carnival atmosphere of the adoring multitude.  Watson beat the whole field.  And I was getting it all for just about nothing – at a time when a virus is robbing us of the balm of sports and our weekends feel barren, if not desolate.  As sports events go, you would find it hard to beat this.  Here was worth that was indeed beyond all comparison.

Then something happened that event organisers and TV producers just dream of.  As happens in these pro-am type days, caddies were given a shot.  It came to the turn Nicklaus’ caddie.  He was I think sixteen.  His practice swings showed that he was a natural whose swing had been finely honed.  He showed no sign of nerves.  He hit his tee shot cleanly and beautifully.  Replays showed Gary Player vocally celebrating the shot from the moment it took flight until the time it came to rest.  It ran to the back of the green.  Then it started to roll back.  In the direction of the hole.  And it slowly became clear that something wonderful might happen.  Which it did!  In the hole!  Pandemonium.  Then it turns out that the caddy is the grandson of the man some say is the greatest golfer ever, Jack Nicklaus, who looked every bit of his age, and who was celebrating above all others.  He just radiated his exultation.

Well, we must just hope that that ‘miracle’ does not put a spanner in the life of that young man –as Neil Crompton’s match winning goal did for him (‘the Frog’s goal’) in the 1964 Grand Final.  (I was there with my mum – right behind the Frog, although at the other end of the ground.)  The whole crowd and commentariat were suffused with benevolence.  It led to a kind of uplift which is so much needed in a frightened world where we are hourly reminded that we are not what we were cracked up to be.  It is the kind of innocent elation that you can get from the best of sport or theatre or concert.  And what kind of ratbag would wish to put a price on that result?

This is kind of boost we need for what we might hope for that notion that each of us has a certain worth or dignity merely because of our humanity.  And, as it seems to me, these great golfers are as well placed as any one to remind us of that basic truth.

Well, I am reading War and Peace for the fourth time, so I may be allowed some mysticism in my solitary sequestration sans sport.  But I have to report that Natasha does not get any easier to cope with from one reading to the next, and she just keeps exploding more loudly in the 1972 BBC version until – well you know when until.  And I have just passed that bit where Pierre – I thought it was Prince Bolkonsky, to whom I have taken a shine – allowed himself a philosophical observation on the subject of death.  When we die, Pierre (Antony Hopkins) says, we either get all the answers – or we stop asking the questions.  That notion has always seemed to me to be both fair and comfortable.  Who could ask for anything more?

Here and there – Some cold fish – and an angry ape


Part I

When Black Saturday came, I was living in a small town in the middle of the forest with only one way out.  I was scared stiff, and I went to the pub very relieved when the wind changed that evening.  We were horrified when we woke next day to find so many dead.  It could so easily have been us. We felt the guilt of the survivors.  We needed to reach out to other people to share our burden.  On the Monday, I was trying to explain this to a modish silk in a mediation I was chairing.  After a while, I realised I was going nowhere.  I may as well have been addressing the wall.  Nothing interested this silk unless it affected her personally.  You see just this with Donald Trump.  If the conversation does not concern him personally, he drops his head and his hands like a disconsolate ourangatang.

What was I trying to do?  Well, in some ways I was just trying to say what it is to be human.  You can’t really put it in words.  There are those beautiful lines of Virgil:

Sunt lachrymae rerum

Et mentem mortalia tangunt.

Nor is it easy to translate those lines. They mean something like: ‘Even things have tears, and we are touched by [intimations of] our own mortality.’  It is very sad if you seek to share your humanity and the other person cannot find within their self the humanity to respond.

If I told you I was going to introduce you to someone who was cold, you would not be happy with that news. Your day was not about to improve.   Nor would it be much better if the epithet were ‘precise’.  Such a person might share some humanity – but it may be measured or sterilised, or both.  ‘Sterile’ is never a happy epithet for one of us, but the three sorts of personality we are looking at are people who have problems relating to the rest of us.  They get called cold fish.

Two cold fish of Shakespeare are Angelo in Measure for Measure and Cassius in Julius Caesar.  Here is the kernel of the famous portrait of Cassius the smiling assassin.

He thinks too much; such men are dangerous….

………………He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock’d himself and scorn’d his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous. (1.2. 195-209)

Here is a man who only has time for himself.  There is something missing from his makeup.  Manning Clark would have said that the hand of the potter had faltered.  In Merchant of Venice,5.1.83 ff, we get: ‘The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons…..Let no such man be trusted.’  You would not warm to a bloke who was said to have no music of any kind in his make-up.  He might be a walking metronome.   And we know that Cassius sees little goodness in others.  ‘For who so firm that cannot be seduced?’ (1.2.312)

From Shakespeare’s source (Plutarch) we learn that Cassius has a personal grudge – Caesar became a consul before him – and that Caesar did not fear fat luxurious men, but asked: ‘What do you think Cassius is aiming at?  I don’t like him, he looks so pale.’

Lord Angelo is the ice man.

Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (1.4.50-54)

Later we get the earthier version from Lucio (who is a kind of comic Greek chorus): ‘But it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true.  And he is a motion generative; that’s infallible.’  (3.2.112 – 114)  (‘Motion generative’ is ‘masculine’ puppet’.)

Cassius had ambition and a grudge.  His coldness came from realising that if you want to be serious in politics, you have to put up with blood on your hands – and you must brace yourself accordingly.  The inability of Brutus to do just that brought them all undone; when Lady Macbeth sterilised herself to perfection, she went mad.  The coldness of Angelo was a front to hold down or at least hide the volcano raging under his belt – something that would certainly destroy him if it ever broke out.  But both Cassius and Angelo are what we call control freaks. They like playing the part of puppet-master.  And there is an awful lot about mortality in Measure for Measure – and, for that matter, Julius Caesar.  In the former we are told of one character who is ‘insensible of mortality and desperately mortal’ (4.2.148).  In both plays failures of humanity cross paths with visitations of mortality.  And if Angelo is the puritan and Cassius is the manipulator, they can each chill your blood when they turn really cold.