Here and there – The French Problem

 

On two of my six visits to Paris, I have been within earshot of the sounds of insurrection.  It is unsettling.  The French love a barricade and the first line of their national anthem has that bogus word ‘glory’ – after the exhortation to take up arms.  That’s fine before a footy match, or in Casablanca, but is that how you run a country?  It helps to understand this French love affair with violence if you look at events in England before their revolution and events in France after theirs.

During the 1700’s the people of the American colonies and of France revolted against their government.  In each case, the government had sought more revenue from taxation; the people wanted more representation in their government; when their governments denied their requests, the people revolted.

It is not just that the two revolutions have a lot in common – the French supported the American colonists against their old enemy England, and the cost of that support bankrupted the French nation.  Since that bankruptcy started the series of events that we know as the French revolution, that revolution may be said to have arisen from the determination of the French to keep up with the English.

The English had been developing a system of government since the Romans quit.  A system of government by the Crown in parliament had grown up with what the English called their common law.  Over the centuries, the English had experienced and absorbed four revolts each of which might fairly be called a revolution.  Between the first and second of these revolts, they had deposed two kings, and the deposition of one king – Richard II – was celebrated by the world’s greatest author in a play that put the fear of God into one of that nation’s strongest monarchs, Elizabeth I.

Armed barons induced King John to agree to a constitutional settlement.  The document, known as Magna Carta, is the root of title of the English constitution.  Since the king was assuming binding legal obligations, the settlement logically entailed, nearly six centuries before the French revolution against an absolute monarch, that the king was under and subject to the law.  This is how English judges and lawyers saw it, and have seen it ever since.  It is the foundation of what we call the rule of law.

This document laid the basis for civil liberties of the kind set out in the United States Bill of Rights.  It also rendered the doctrine of the divine right of kings into a kind of fiction, or regnal Dreamtime.  It was hard for a king to say that he was put there by God, and was only answerable to God, when in truth he held the Crown on terms laid down by his great and powerful subjects – who claimed to be acting on behalf of the whole nation – and where on a very bad day, the people would just depose a king if they thought that he was just not up to the job.

More than two centuries later, England obtained Home Rule from Rome.  It later defended that liberty under arms.  Unlike the son of the carpenter, the Holy Father had not renounced the kingdoms of this world.  One pope had annulled Magna Carta, and no self-respecting nation could leave itself open to that kind of foreign intervention.  The English proclaimed that ‘this realm is an empire’ – it had no peers.  (Before Agincourt, Shakespeare has the French herald Mountjoy giving the message of the French king, ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial.’)  In accordance with their custom, the English insisted that they were merely restating what had always been the case.  The pope issued fatwas and licences to kill the English monarch, and England felt the binding cement of the defeat of a great foreign armada.

This independence of the English church was fundamental to the capacity of the English people to mould their system of civil and religious governance as they saw fit.  What we call the Reformation was a great step up for the English parliament, since it was by its statutes that the constitutional settlement, including the succession of the Crown, was effected.  It was even harder for a king to claim authority from God when the royal succession was prescribed not by the Bible but by an act of parliament.  Putting to one side any spiritual differences, the constitutional effect of the revolution that we call the Reformation has been underestimated by historians.  If you doubt that effect, just look at the subsequent histories of European nations that did not achieve religious Home Rule – like Greece, Italy, Spain – or France.

In the seventeenth century, the English revolted against two Stuart kings.  The English nation owes a lot to that Stuart family from Scotland – they were a one-family Punch and Judy show, sent by God to provoke the English, and not bright enough to avoid quite terminal consequences.

The first revolt is sometimes called the Puritan Revolution.  It was fomented against a crafty and devious royal ideologue, Charles I, by a bunch of religious fanatics in parliament – both Lords and Commons – aided by common lawyers and judges outside of parliament, all king-busters straight from hell.  They procured the death of the king’s first minister by a parliamentary process that even Macaulay and Churchill conceded was revolutionary, but which might stand as a high point of ministerial responsibility.  (One of their great constitutional protests had said ministers should have the confidence of parliament.)  They forced through legislative protection of parliament against the king.

But Charles refused to go quietly and botched an attempted armed coup d’état.  This led to a civil war which the king lost to one of only two men the English have erected statues to outside their parliament.  When the king failed to negotiate responsibly, he paid the ultimate price for starting and losing a civil war.  The parliament proclaimed the end of the monarchy.  You do not get any more revolutionary than that – except that this was done by the law.

But the English were not ready for a republic.  It was too rude a shock, and they were frankly appalled by the excesses of some Puritans – who even liked closing pubs.  The monarch was restored with barely a ripple.  One vital statistic of English history is that after they passed a general act of indemnity, only about a dozen people were executed for their role in a revolution that saw the execution – now called the murder – of a king.

But when the second restored Stuart king refused to toe the parliamentary line, the English people revolted again.  This time they did it in style.  They called in a Dutch prince married to an English princess as a kind of receiver, and handed the Crown to him and his wife on conditions laid down in the English Bill of Rights.  James II fled, but this revolution, called the Glorious Revolution, effectively settled in 1689 the centuries old struggle between the crown and parliament.  The crown cannot get revenue except by act of parliament.  This is still the lynch-pin of parliamentary democracy in England and those states that follow its model.  This revolution was bloodless in England, but it was their last.

But at least as important as these revolutionary land-mark changes – that are celebrated in England and in the U S and elsewhere – were changes that evolved in England over six centuries.  English lawyers and litigants did not go the way of Europe in adopting Roman law.  They developed on a case by case basis their own native body of law based on custom and precedent.  This is the common law, which is still the ultimate source of authority for the English constitution, since it is the common law that says that parliament is sovereign.  The English gradually disbanded the feudal system under which people owed obligations to their seniors in return for protection (a kind of Mafia system that grew up in the chaos after Rome fell apart).  They developed their system of parliament from a small group advising the king and settling disputes to a broad representative body that was nowhere near being democratic, but which could and did claim to represent the nation in calling the king to account and making his advisers responsible to parliament.  They took the idea of a jury from the French as an ad hoc advisory panel to the crown to an essential ingredient in the judicial process, and a representative body in determining cases just as the parliament was in framing laws.  The jury was and is seen as a vital part of the constitutional settlement – in both the U K and the U S.  The Lords and Commons worked together to win their ascendancy over the Crown, and they did so with real help from lawyers, judges and juries.

By the time the English came to deal with James II, one hundred years before the fall of the Bastille, they looked back on, rejoiced in, and embroidered upon hundreds and hundreds of years of legal and constitutional development and political growth and maturity.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 contained the following:

When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and any portion thereof, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.

This was a bad mistake by people who put logic above experience.  Of course people can rebel or revolt.  But never assert that fact of life in a constitutional document that might be said to found something suspiciously like a right.  You might end up with a people who are beyond reform by legal means.

In the hundred years beginning in 1789, France experienced those events that we know as the French Revolution and then horrible revolutions in 1830, 1848, and 1870.  Putting to one side, for the moment, the huge death toll of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars – possibly seven million lives – and the subsequent coups, insurrections, and purges, France was subjected to the following forms of government in that period: the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons (Louis XIV); a limited monarchy ( the Rights of Man, and the detention of the king); a republic (the abolition of royalty and the execution of the king); a directory (after the fall of Robespierre); a tribunate (after a coup); the empire of Napoleon; the Restoration of Bourbons; the return of Bonaparte and his empire; the further restoration of the Bourbons (Louis XVI); the more limited monarchy after the 1830 revolution; the Second Republic (Louis-Philippe); the Second Empire (Napoleon III); and the third republic (after 1870).  Any nation so afflicted must be profoundly insecure.  France made banana republics look positively serene.

The horror of two world wars did not obliterate the French appetite for insurrection.  A revolution is a successful act of treason; an insurrection is a revolution that did not take off.  The French demand and get more benefits from their government than almost any people on earth.  Yet they periodically seek to blow up the whole lot.

The current insurrection takes us right back to the bad guys of Dostoevsky and Conrad – anarchists.  Like their comrades across the water who want the benefits of Europe without the cost, they aspire to what was rightly called the prerogative of the harlot through the ages – power without responsibility.

Here and there – Lowlights of western civilisation

 

Without seeing an outline of studies for the Ramsay proposal, it is difficult to comment on its educational utility.  I am currently writing my second version of the top fifty books.  If the proposal envisages offering a smattering of those, it will be a bit like a finishing school for English gels before they offer themselves up to the meat market with a sombre photo of a twin-set in Country Life.  If it is a matter of offering a dabble in history, literature and philosophy, it would be like offering a shallow B A before something useful or sensible.  I wonder how ‘Western’ adds to or subtracts from ‘Civilisation’, and how the course would treat the lowlights set out below.

 

The barbarism of ancient Greece and Rome – whose citizens called everyone else barbarians

The failure of our education systems to identify that barbarism – especially at Cambridge and Oxford

The Dark Ages

The Crusades

Feudalism (a Mafia protection racket)

Apartheid by England in Ireland for six centuries

Anti-Semitism throughout and from time immemorial

The inherent conviction of Kant and Hume, and other leaders of the Enlightenment, that people of colour were seriously inferior to white people

A growing hostility to Islam masked as concern about migrants or refugees

The hardening of attitudes to refugees – including people made refugees by failed policies of the West

The Thirty Years War, the religious wars on the Dutch, and the French religious wars.  (Has anything inflicted more loss and misery upon Europe than Christianity?)

The Inquisition

The Spanish Armada, and its motives

The perpetuation of the lie about Original Sin in order to hold women down

Holding women down

Persecuting Galileo and retarding Darwin

The intolerance of both Catholics and Protestants after the schism

Civil wars in England and America

The toleration of slavery – in some places until now

The spoliation and ruination of all of Latin America

The looting of India

The rape of Africa

The attempted rape of China and Japan

The actual dismemberment of the Middle East

The failures of European imperialism generally and in particular the cruelty of imperial powers and colonising peoples to indigenous peoples

Napoleon, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.  (Russia is not part of the West.)

The role of Christianity in each of the above regimes

The perfection of terrorism in the French Revolution and by other oppressive regimes – all but the French claiming collaboration with Christianity

The intellectual failure of Marxism and the moral and political failure of Communism

The failure or degradation at one time or other of all the Great Powers of Europe and their Empires

Two world wars

The Holocaust

The Depression and the Great Financial Crisis

The failed interventions in Vietnam and the Middle East

The impending failure of the European experiment

The failure to civilise Russia

The failure of the rule of law to consolidate elsewhere than in common law countries and Western Europe

The involvement of so many religious bodies in abuse and covering up that abuse

The brutal ineptitude of American evangelicals

The present decline of Christianity and the failure to find something to put in its place

The sterility and uselessness of modern philosophy

The failure to confront inequality of opportunity and other lesions of what we call capitalism

The growing threat to the party system and democratic government

The consequent onset of the aberration called populism – the populists and those they follow are the antithesis of whatever western civilisation may be, and they evidence its failure

The sterility of popular entertainment and the popular press

The lingering death of classical music, opera, and modern jazz

The moral and intellectual collapse currently being experienced by the nation that once led the west

The present decline in literacy, numeracy, and courtesy

The failure to provide any sense of vision about where we are headed

The failure to come to grips with the notion that all the pillars of what is called western civilisation – religion, philosophy, the rule of law, courtesy (civility) and a sense of refinement – have failed or look likely to fail with the result that many now see the whole notion as having failed

A felt sense of superiority – notwithstanding all these manifest failures – and a need felt by some to engage in propaganda about the virtues and values of Western civilisation

Which will appear from the response – express or implied – of the zealots of western civilisation to this sad catalogue: ‘Well, yes, we have made mistakes – but we are much better than any other bastards – so stay with us for all of your answers to all of the big questions.’

Here and there – Some terrorists from God: 4

 

[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

13  Politics or morals?

Guy Fawkes there raised the issue of motive.  These insurrectionists had a political object – regime change – but their motive was religious – the vindication of their idea or brand of religion.  Like Brutus, they wanted to think that they were pure.  They may in some part have persuaded Trevelyan.  He said this of the treasonous conspirators.

But unlike their clerical chiefs, they were pure from self-interest and love of power.  It is difficult to detect any stain upon their conduct, except the one monstrous illusion that murder is right, which put all their virtues at the devil’s service.  Courage cold as steel, self-sacrifice untainted by jealousy or ambition, readiness when all was lost to endure all, raises the Gunpowder Plot into a story of which the ungarnished facts might well be read by those of every faith, not with shame or anger, but with enlarged admiration and pity for the things which men can do.

This is very slippery ground.  On what basis would we refuse this accolade or at least epitaph to the minions of Osama bin Laden who drove their aircraft into the twin towers with courage  cold as steel?  We may be reminded of the suggestion that the invasions and wars of Napoleon were somehow less evil than those of Hitler.  If you are being bayoneted or raped, your misery will not be lessened by the answer of your assailant to the question: ‘Why are you here?’

These conspirators were bent on killing people.  That is evil.  That the conspirators purported to do so in the name of God can only make it more evil.   As can the fact that they applied all their best qualities to achieve their purpose.  As indicated above, on at least two grounds, a person killing for God is worse than one killing for lucre.  First, his zeal makes him more venomous; it gives him strength, and some colour of right.  Secondly, and putting blasphemy to one side, it is obvious that by his crime against others, he exposes other members of his faith to retribution.

Even after he had ascended the scaffold, Father Garnet said, before making his final sign of the cross in this life: ‘I beseech all men that Catholics shall not fare the worse for my sake and I exhort all Catholics to take care not to mix themselves with seditious or traitorous designs against the king.’  No, Trevelyan should have stuck with his proposition that the conspirators put all their virtues at the service of the devil.

But this issue raises the question of how we judge insurrections, whether or not we apply the label ‘terrorists’ to those leading the insurrection.  (What is the difference between George Washington & Co and the IRA, except that the first lot clearly won and the jury is still out on the second?)  The rude truth may be that we assess an insurrection in the same way that we assess a business.  It is good if it succeeds.  If not, it is bad.  This was clearly seen by one of the leaders of what Americans call the American Revolution.  When the Declaration of Independence was finally signed, Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Well, Gentlemen, we must now hang together, or we will assuredly hang separately.’  (As ever, John Adams was different: ‘Power and artillery are the most efficacious, sure and infallible conciliatory measures we can adopt.’)  If you succeed, you are a patriot, a hero and a liberator, a father of the nation.  If you fail, you get topped for treason.

As Antonia Fraser remarked in her book The Gunpowder Plot, ‘terrorism does not exist in a vacuum.’

I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage.  I did not plan it in any spirit of recklessness or because I have any love of violence.  I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people.

It was not Robert Catesby who said that, but Nelson Mandela when in the dock at the Rivoni trial in 1964.  This sometime terrorist is now widely revered as being as close to a secular saint as we can get.  Possibly our only hero who might match Mandela is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Yet, he was plainly involved in a plot to kill Hitler.  Do we see our two secular saints as terrorists?

So, as ever the kinks in our timber preclude us from formulating wide and fast maxims about any right to resort to violence.  Indeed, even the word ‘right’ is fraught there.  The brute historical fact looks to be that some forms of evil or oppression leave us no reasonable alternative but to resort to a form of action which would otherwise be plainly wrong.  But none of us wants to trust anyone else to make that decision for us.

14  Lessons?

There is one other great reminder in the story of the Gunpowder Plot (that as a kid I celebrated every 5 November with crackers and potatoes in the fire on the night that all dogs loathed – Bonfire Night.)  We say that we allow freedom of religion and that we claim to be tolerant.  Put that bluff or bluster aside.  It is obviously wrong and unfair to brand all those who profess a faith with the blame for wrongs done by fanatics who claim to be of that faith but whose actions show that they reject its teaching for their own motives.  It is like branding people because of the crimes, real or imagined, of their ancestors.  Typing people because of their faith or race is like holding them liable for the failures of others – they are two sides of our original sin.  We need to reach the insight that escaped Napoleon – you do not win people over by killing them or insulting them.  And that’s before you look at the moral question about how you should treat your neighbour.

We have a problem with religion that the ancients did not.  The religions of Greece and Rome look daffy to us.  It is hard for us to think of the Greeks or Romans taking them seriously.  But many of them did, especially if it suited them, like when the people of Athens decided that they had had enough of Socrates.  But one result of having so many all too human gods was that the people were very tolerant of other religions.  That stopped being the case with absolute religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Each of them said that there was only one God.  And it was theirs.  The problem then is one of simple arithmetic.  People are agreed that there can only be one answer.  But there are at least three different answers on offer.  The insight of Kant that I referred to was as follows.

If someone declares himself for this church [one that passes itself off as the only universal one] yet deviates from its faith in something essential (something made out to be so), especially if he propagates his errant belief, he is called a heretic and, like a rebel, is held more punishable than an external foe and is expelled from the church…..and given over to all the gods of hell. 

Kant also observed that the claim of each church to be the only universal church is ultimately ‘based on faith in a particular revelation which, since it is historical, can never be demanded of everyone.’  We might induce people to act on faith; we cannot compel them to do so.  Those remarks go to the heart of what we have been looking at.  So much of the suffering of this world has been caused by ruptures within religions that put themselves above all others.

We have been looking at manifestations of two of those ruptures.  The schism that we call the Reformation started a domino reaction that has been at least as lethal for mankind as the schism in Islam between Sunni and Shia.  As people on both sides could and did predict, the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath set back the course of religious peace in England in ways that can still be seen.  The reaction of the Protestant Crown left ample room for Catholic reaction and rejection, especially when disabilities were multiplied and decent people were asked to take responsibility for the actions of outright criminals who thought that they could fix their whole world with one big bang.  We might be reminded of the Treaty of Versailles.  The moral offence of Germany was great.  But the savagery of the reaction, as Keynes surely predicted, ensured that there would be another and worse war.

The division and hatred would be worse in Ireland.  The crimes of the English against the Irish were originally founded on a contempt for the Irish race.  A vicious sectarian shade was now added to that hostility.  At Drogheda, Cromwell, the great Puritan, engaged in what we would now call ethnic cleansing in the name of Christ.  As Christopher Hill remarked, ‘religious hostility reinforced cultural contempt.’  ‘Cultural’ there is the polite word for ‘racial.’  Professor Hill, no enemy of Cromwell, went on to compare the attitude of English people to the Irish with that of the Nazis  to the Slavs, and that of the Boers to black Africans, and said that ‘in each case the contempt rationalised a desire to exploit’.  The agony would go on for centuries.

So would blind prejudice.  In 1897, a Jesuit priest with the same name as one who fled when the Gunpowder Plot was exposed, Father John Gerard, published a book What Was Gunpowder Plot?  He said Salisbury made the whole lot up.  Off hand, it is hard to see how such a tract might achieve anything at all.

Those of us who look on glumly while mankind suffers from these two great schisms may just have to take refuge in the remark of a friend of Ben Johnson who gloried under the name of Lord Zouche:

Two religions cannot stand together.

Well, on one view, we may have been discussing four religions.

There may, then, be something to be said for teaching people about Western civilisation.  We saw that John Mortimer said that our Western civilisation is, after all, the product of a religion founded by Jesus of Nazareth.  That is, if I may say so, rather large.  Among other things, the splitting of Christianity has been about as much a blessing for us as the splitting of the atom – or the splitting of Islam.  Perhaps because I am a lawyer, I see the common law, including the rule of law, as fundamental to what I see as civilisation.  That may just be my prejudice.  The impact of religion on the common law has not been large – and part of the great teaching and legacy of the common law is that that’s the way it ought to be.  The alternative, frankly, is bloody dangerous.

Sources

[I apologise to those who like footnotes.  I don’t.  I like writing and reading and think that footnotes are bad for both.  They have clearly ruined our jurisprudence.  Any necessary references may be found below.]

Black, J B, The Reign of Elizabeth, Oxford History of England, 1959, 166-194, esp. 172

Bowen, C D, The Lion and the Throne, The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, Little Brown & Co, 1957, 252, 261, 267 and 270

Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot, Terror and Faith in 1605, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996, passim, but esp. 183, 235, 255, 258, and 295

Hill, C, God’s Englishman, Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, Folio Society, 2013, 99

Johnson, P, A History of the American People, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997, 125, 130

Kant, I, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, 6:109; Religion and Rational Theology, A Wood and G Di Giovanni, C U P, 1996, 141

Lovell, J, Notable Historical Trials, Folio Society, 1999, Volume 1, 482-514, esp. 494, 505, 510

Neale, J E, Elizabeth I, Folio Society, 2005, 243

Ranke, History of England, Oxford, 1875, Volume 1, 403-417, esp. 408,411

State Trials, London, 1816 (Printed T C Hansard), Volume 2, 217-358 (trial of Garnet)

Trevelyan, G M, England Under the Stuarts, Folio Society, 1996, 80, 81, 84

Here and there – Some terrorists from God: 3

 

[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

8 The priest and the confessions

Father Garnet was a distinguished scholar, and he comes down to us now as a decent man trapped in a vice put together by a haughty hierarchy and a rogue flock.  He showed astonishing composure and compassion during the trial  – and on the scaffold when the agents of the government were still pursuing him and trying to break him down morally before cutting him up physically.  Some would even later regard his conduct as saintly.

In the course of the trial, the leading government minister, Salisbury, had put it to the priest that he could not have absolved Catesby ‘because he professed no penitency, and therefore you could not absolve him.’  (We hear echoes of that discussion now on the issue of abuse by clerics.)  Father Garnet had maintained that he was obliged to respect the confessional and not report the confessor.

It looks likely that Father Garnet may have accepted that the law of England would go hard on him in carrying out what he saw was his duty as a priest.  When on trial for his life, Father Garnet was directly asked by Salisbury whether Catesby had told him of ‘the Powder Treason’, he calmly responded: ‘That my lord I may not answer.’  But he also said this:

But I allow that the laws made against such concealing are just and necessary, for it is not fit that the safety of the state should depend upon any man’s particular conscience.

It may be that such a concession related only to the knowledge that he had acquired outside of the confessional.  That would appear to have been the view of G M Trevelyan who said that Garnet had obtained ‘a general knowledge of Mr Catesby’s intention’ not in confession and that he saw himself as ‘highly guilty and to have offended God’ in not revealing it; Trevelyan also said that Garnet got the same knowledge from another source outside confession.

The depth of Garnet’s knowledge of the plot itself, and the source of such knowledge, are very controversial.  It is not easy to come to a conclusion even when you go back to State Trials – which is as close as we will get to a primary source.  (And the account there is as incomplete as it is evidently loaded against the accused.)

Garnet had said at first that Catesby had told him that ‘he had some great thing in hand for the good of Catholics.  I much disliked it and dissuaded him.’  On the scaffold, the Recorder challenged Garnet’s assertion that he only had general knowledge from Catesby.  He alleged that Garnet admitted getting ‘particulars of the Powder Plot’ from Tesimond at a meeting in Essex.  It was then said that Garnet acknowledged this to be true and said that ‘inasmuch as he had not declared the knowledge of the plot which had been generally imported to him, he owned himself to be justly condemned, and he asked pardon of the king.’  But Garnet had contended throughout that everything Tesimond said to him was said in confession.  That in itself was controversial – the discussion constituting the alleged confession took place in a walk in an Essex garden.

The great German historian Ranke said that Garnet had been asked to advise on a scheme to blow up parliament and the queen in the previous reign, and that he had said that such a scheme was ‘lawful’ – he cannot have been referring to the laws of England.  He said that the conspirators would have had a duty to spare as many of the ‘innocent’ as possible.  (By what criteria were the victims to be denied their ‘innocence’?)

The scheme which had been started under Elizabeth was resumed under King James, when men saw that his accession to the throne did not produce the hoped-for change.  On this occasion also scruples were felt on the ground that many a Catholic would perish at the same time.  To a question on the subject submitted to him without closer description of the case, Garnet answered in the spirit of a mufti delivering his fettah [fatwa?] that if an end were indubitably a good one, and could be accomplished in no other way, it was lawful to destroy even some of the innocent with the guilty.  Catesby had no compassion even for the innocent: he regarded the lords generally as only poltroons and atheists, whose place would be better filled by vigorous men.

If this assessment is well founded, it is frightening.  This discussion shows how alarmingly inhuman we can get if we allow religious schism to guide our moral judgment.  Here is a man of God contemplating indiscriminate slaughter on the footing that members of one sect are somehow ‘innocent’ in a way that members of another sect are not.  Kant was plainly right.  Heresy is a killer.  Offending God is far worse than offending man.  As Kant said, a heretic is like a rebel.  Heresy was religion’s version of rebellion – at least in those propagating the affront to authority.  Both involve a challenge to the existing order.

At least, as Ranke implies, this learned priest should have followed the maxim of seasoned lawyers – never give advice in the round, or on broad hypotheticals.  That way, two people can fall right off a cliff.  Father Garnet on any view was playing with fire – during his trial, it was alleged that Catesby had also sought to fish from Garnet some abstract ground of ‘lawfulness’ in respect of the deaths of innocent people.

When Father Garnet was pursued on the scaffold to confess to treason, he maintained his innocence in a manner that is for me persuasive.

I consider the late treason and conspiracy against the state to be cruel and detestable; and for my part all designs and endeavours against our king were ever disliked by me.  If this attempt had been perfected as it was designed, I think it would have been altogether damnable, and I pray for all prosperity to the king, the queen, and the royal family.

That was, after all, the teaching of his church and the inevitable consequence of the mission of its founder.  When, still on the scaffold, Father Garnet was asked if he sought pardon from the king, he responded:

I do so as far as I have sinned against him; namely, in that I did not reveal that whereof I had a general knowledge from Mr Catesby – but not otherwise.

There, then, was a decent man in dreadful plight.  The evidence is not complete, but doing the best I can, the finding of treason against Father Garnet looks to me to be about as sound as the same finding against Jesus of Nazareth nearly sixteen centuries beforehand.  Garnet would I think have been fairly convicted and executed on the misprision charge on its own, but in my view, he did not deserve the verdict or mode of death that he got.

9 Abuse of process

One source says that on the discovery of the plot, ‘the government seems to have fallen into a wild state of terror.’  That is just what the terrorists had sought, and we know what happened in the U S in 2001.  The USA Patriot Act of 2001 does not lack colour or warmth.

Possibly as a result of this ‘wild state of terror’, the trials did not reflect well on the English legal system.  Most of what Coke said or tendered in evidence would not be permitted in court today.  In his introduction to Volume I of the Folio Society Notable Historical Trials, the late John Mortimer, the creator of Rumpole, said of the conduct of Coke toward Ralegh that that was ‘the sort of cross-examination which demotes an attorney-general from an advocate to an accomplice in murder.’  Mr Mortimer concluded his Introduction:

So, reading these trials is as good a way as any of understanding history.  Sometimes the best people are in the dock, the most corrupt on the prosecutors and judges’ benches. Our Western civilisation is, after all, the product of a religion founded by someone who was tried, sentenced and executed as a criminal, in a trial of which a focus group of the citizens of Jerusalem thoroughly approved.

We can see aspects of a show trial.  For example, during the hearing, Salisbury (Cecil) had rather given the game away.

Alas, Mr Garnet.  Why should we be troubled all this day with you, were it not to make the cause appear as it deserveth?

Most lawyers know that feeling.  Sometimes when the train leaves the station, you are in no doubt about where your journey is going to end – why then are we here?

10 Punishment

Death, then, was the inevitable penalty.  The only question was how degrading and painful that death would be.  That meant that the English then were less exposed to the problems that come when you lock up religious fanatics together.  The Catholics who refused to toe the line were called recusants.  Elizabethan prisons were full of recusants.  Among other things, they could more easily attend mass in a place loaded with priests.

One of these slammers was named ‘the Clink’ – what else? – in Southwark.  It was always loaded with recusants and was seen as a ‘propaganda cell for the whole capital.’  This mirrors the experience in France and other jurisdictions where they now know that putting Muslim fanatics together unsurprisingly makes them worse.  No one appears to have the faintest idea of an answer.

11 The evil that zealots do – to priests

So, even in its hell-raising and mind-numbing scope, there was nothing new in the attack on the twin towers in 2001.  These attempts to raise hell on earth are meant to destabilise us by terrifying us.  They are especially evil when driven by what is said to be faith, because the fanaticism goes up a notch, and the stakes go up by far more than a notch – they go up to eternity.  One of the conspirators with a nice sense of understatement confessed that their object had been to ‘breed a confusion fit to beget new alterations.’

These zealots are also evil because they involve a prostitution, perversion and betrayal of the faith that they claim to represent while doing evil.  And by doing that, they are laying up trouble on earth for those that we may call the true believers.

To the extent that we disintegrate and drop our guard, we are handing the prize to the terrorists.  In my view, we do that by rashly abandoning long held rights, such as the ban on torture.  In that I think that we should follow the teaching of the military and police people who, as I understand it, follow the advice of the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor – don’t poke your enemy in the eye if he may come back and poke both of yours.

12 Protecting criminals

On the other hand, the time must be long past when adherents to one faith can allow their dogma to stand in the way of their saving the lives of others.  You may have thought that the claim of the clergy to be above the law had been put to bed more than 800 years ago after that unfortunate misunderstanding in the cathedral with Thomas Becket.  The effort to resuscitate it now shows not merely what Americans refer to as a tin ear, but a worryingly heartless preference for dogma over human life.  Whatever Father Garnet had in mind, he was plainly right when he said that ‘it is not fit that the safety of the state should depend upon any man’s particular conscience’.  It is revolting to think that the life or welfare of one man, woman or child might depend wholly on how the conscience of another man requires him to perform some part of a religious rite.

We read at times of priests claiming the protection of the seal of confession, and of some even offering to go to jail rather than adhere to the law, if law it be.  If such priests think that such a course might be a form of martyrdom, we might hope that they are deluded.  It is hard to think of anyone in our community, and certainly not anyone who has brought up children, who would accept such a view.  And before any cleric seeks to go down that path, he should carefully consider the hell that Father Garnet brought down upon himself and others.  The truest words that Father Garnet ever spoke may have been this response to Salisbury: ‘My lord, I would to God I had never known of the Powder Treason.’  Any priest who wants to allow any chance of being put in the life or death quandary of Father Garnet will look at best a brick shy of a full load.

It is sufficient here to refer to two subsidiary arguments of Coke that would have held attraction then and which could embarrass a cleric now.  Coke urged that Garnet could have revealed the identities of those who were not ‘confitents.’  His alternative submission may have had more attraction – Garnet ‘might and ought to have discovered the mischief for the preservation of the state though he had concealed the persons.’  These points are arguable but we do not provide our courts to settle disputes about religious dogma or rites.  Whose back would rise higher – that of the judge, or that of the jury?

And while we are talking about clerics giving succour to members of their flock who are contemplating doing evil to others, they may want to get some mature legal advice about the crimes of aiding and abetting.  In the humour of our time now, they need not expect warm sympathy from a jury.  And certainly any cleric offering a comforting view to a would be criminal about the ‘lawfulness’ of a proposed crime might look to receive full retribution at the hands of the law.  Preserving the peace is after all the law’s prime reason for existence.

As it happens, Guy Fawkes had correctly identified the nature and extent of the evil of the Gunpowder Plot in two answers that he gave directly to the king when he was arrested (with a watch, slow matches and touchwood on his person).

Why would you have killed me?

Because you are excommunicated by the pope.

How could you conspire against my children and so many innocent souls?

Dangerous diseases require a desperate remedy.

Here and there – Some terrorists from God: 2

 

[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

4  Two plots compared

The first thing to notice is that there was something like a state of war between two Christian sects in 1605.  We know that some Muslim clerics have issued fatwas, but none of those clerics had the standing or authority of a pope, and none of those fatwas was a direct attack on the sovereign government of a nation.  No fatwa that I am aware of gave spiritual licence to the murder of a head of state – on spiritual grounds.

Although the terrorists were seeking to topple a regime, their motivation was to serve their faith throughout.  From the time that the pope excommunicated and in effect deposed Queen Elizabeth, there was at least the risk that Catholics might think that any attack on the English Crown had the implicit blessing of their Church.  In the meanwhile, Spain had made war on England in the name of God.  France was harbouring the training of Jesuit opponents of the English Crown at Douai.  The Jesuits would provide what we know as the Fifth Column.

The forces behind those in the Gunpowder Plot therefore look to have been stronger and more highly backed than those in the attacks of 2001.  And their aim was correspondingly much higher.  They were after all intent on more than the death of the king.  They planned the annihilation of the entire parliament, and the top of the judiciary, and the incitement of a religious civil war that would have given new and awful meaning to Milton’s phrase ‘all hell broke loose.’

The object of the Catholic conspirators was to spread fear and alarm, and had they succeeded in at least their first objective, it is hard to imagine that fear and alarm not exceeding that which grabbed the United States after the attack on the twin towers.  The effects of the foreign wars commenced by the U S after that attack are still being felt.

5  The reaction – and torture

The attacks in the U S in 2001 led to calls for torture.  There is in my view little doubt that the U S engaged in torture, and that its allies looked the other way.  Torture was not permitted under the common law of England, but the king claimed the prerogative to use it at least in the case of Guy Fawkes.  Fawkes was the first to be taken, and his captors felt that they needed to torture him to identify the others.

It is hard to imagine a different course being taken in England in 1605.  But it is as like as not that those calling for torture in 1605 or 2001 were not recalling the role that torture played in the miscarriage of justice that led to the cruel death of the founder of their faith.  (The man called Jesus was found guilty of a religious offence (blasphemy) by the local authority and then executed by the imperial authority for an alleged breach of the secular criminal law (treason) for which there was no evidence at all.  The imperial authority committed the ultimate crime of handing the indigenous accused over to the mob.)

There was, however, other conduct in England that savours of hysteria.  Many in the parliament wanted to give the conspirators a ‘more sharp death.’  A bill was put forward in parliament for that purpose.  The bill was defeated, but as a fine American biographer of Sir Edward Coke (pronounced ‘Cook’) says:

Yet its very proposal gave indication of the ferocity with which the plotters were looked on – indication also of the time-honored propensity of legislators to proclaim their loyalty and save their skins by flaying alive the nearest vulnerable neighbour.

Yes, we do see that – and we did see some of it in the U S after 2001 – but these legislators were doubtless impressed by the fact that the conspirators had been trying to blow them to kingdom come – every last one of them.

6  The confessional

During the investigation and the trials following the Gunpowder Plot another issue arose that we now meet in a different context.  One of the conspirators, Catesby, confessed to a priest (Tesimond) during confession.  Catesby did not spell the plot out, but he made it clear that he and others would ignore the plea of the pope to leave matters to Providence.  The priest Tesimond in turn confessed this incident, again in confession, he said, to another priest, Father Henry Garnet, S J.  Both priests were horrified, but they felt precluded by the teaching of their church from notifying the government.  All they could do was to seek to prevent the crime by counselling against it.

Father Garnet was the leader of the Jesuits in England.  He was known as the English Provincial.  Putting to one side that he was said to be ‘a genial, easy-tempered man who loved his wine second only to his religion’, Garnet was always likely be a prime target of the Crown.  They were after the Jesuits as a body.

7 The trial

The prosecution was led by the Attorney General Sir Edward Coke.  He would go on to the bench and be a doughty defender of the common law, by standing right up in the face of James I for example, and he would be as a light unto the nations.  But as a prosecutor he could be like a dog with rabies.  (His conduct with Garnet was for our time appalling; with Ralegh, he was revolting.)

For Coke the phrase ‘English Catholic’ was close to being a contradiction in terms.  One of the conspirators had previously written that for Coke merely being a Catholic was sufficient to qualify a man as a traitor – a man is not English who gives his first allegiance elsewhere.  (Before you dismiss that notion as just ugly prejudice, you might recall that it would be very much that kind of that issue that led – fairly or otherwise – to the end of the Stuarts.  James II never got the point.)

Coke did not charge Garnet with not reporting evidence of treason – called then misprision of felony.  Coke charged the Jesuit with being a party to the plot – indeed, its mastermind.  And Coke performed with venom and frightful colour.  He said that the whole conspiracy had been dominated by the priests.  ‘I will name it the Jesuits’ treason, as belonging to them.’  Their doctrines of ‘King-killing’ and ‘Queen-killing’ were vital.  Garnet had had his finger in every treason since 1586.  It was the Jesuits who plotted to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.  (All the worst fears of the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor were now fulfilled.)  Coke said that this Jesuit doctor was a doctor of – ‘Dissimulation, Deposing of princes, Disposing of kingdoms, Daunting and Deterring of subjects, and Destruction.’  For good measure, the man from Cambridge added: ‘And I never knew any priest of Cambridge to be arraigned in court.’

When Coke read transcriptions of eavesdropped entrapment conversations, he adopted the practice of the time and edited out those parts that were favourable to the accused.  As G M Trevelyan coolly observed, this was ‘an age when the rules of evidence were the rules of probability interpreted by prejudice.’

Coke was not being forensic.  His denunciations were not even Protestant.  This exercise was wholly political, and the whole trial bears an unhealthy likeness to the proceedings before Senator McCarthy.  It is said that the Earl of Salisbury (formerly the all-powerful Sir Robert Cecil) later conceded that the object of Garnet’s trial had not been so much to convict the Jesuit as ‘to make a public and visible anatomy of Popish doctrine and practice.’  There is the risk of such contamination in all treason trials; it is inevitable in a show trial.  Show trials are just graphic political statements on behalf of the government.  They are propaganda.

Coke did refer the jury to canon law which he argued allowed Garnet to report on ‘a future thing to be done, not then already executed.’  He also attacked the Jesuits on their practice or technique of ‘equivocation’ in responding evasively to questions touching them in the profession of their faith.  (Shakespeare would pick up on this in Macbeth, which came out shortly after and which was heavily influenced by these events.)  Coke also alleged that at common law a person was bound to ‘discover’ (reveal) a treason against the king as soon as it came to his knowledge – even if it came to a priest during confession.  In that, Coke was on stronger ground.

The jury only took fifteen minutes.  (You might think that that was quick, but the practice in treason trials then was to do them in a day.  You may not smile if you consider the contemporary alternative.)  The sentence was the appalling one for treason, but a sympathetic crowd moved by this man’s spiritual demeanour ensured that he was as good as dead when he came off the scaffold to be disembowelled.  (Another source says that by express command of the king, Garnet remained hanging from the gallows until he was ‘quite dead.’  This would be one of the grounds of dispute later between Protestants and Catholics, some of whom believed his death was attended later by a miracle.  And the official version does smack of propaganda.)

My Top Shelf – Chapter 5

MY TOP SHELF

[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.]

5

THE DAM BUSTERS

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.

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.

Here and there – Reformation

Europe’s House Divided, 1490 – 1700

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 2003

One benefit of doing Summer Schools at Cambridge, Harvard, or Oxford, is to hear dedicated people in seats of learning enjoying the act of teaching.  That was comparatively rare for me when I attended Melbourne University a long time ago.  Well, one benefit of reading this book is to experience Diarmaid MacCulloch doing just that.  The subject is tricky and beset with land-mines, but the author navigates his way patiently and with justified authority.  I had read the book in Penguin form when I was writing on the subject.  The print there was too small to read in comfort.  Now, in this large, and expensive, version, you can take your time and get the full benefit of the author’s learning and application.

Most people brought up in the West will have their own biases.  I am a lapsed Protestant who has an incurably firm view about the impact upon humanity of the prodigious learning of Augustine and Aquinas.  In addition to his primary degree, the author took the Oxford Diploma of Theology.  He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England, but he broke with the Church over its attitude to homosexuality.  In the Introduction to this book he says ‘I do not now personally subscribe to any form of religious dogma (although I do remember with some affection what it was like to do so).’  In 2001, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity by Oxford University.  He has also accepted a gong.  Perhaps because any prejudice that he may have may simply reflect my own, I see no lesion of bias in this book.  If I am right about that, it is a very significant achievement.

Permit me another general observation.  In the current debate, if that is the term, about teaching Western civilisation, reference is often made to the Reformation as if it were some unalloyed blessing.  It was anything but that.  It brought generations of war and misery promoted wholly by this schism.  You don’t need the intellect of Kant to see that division flowing from doctrinal feuding is the worst.  Heresy may be the most lethal term in our language.  The Germans know this.  After World War II, they were asked what the worst war they had endured was.  They had two examples from hell before their living eyes.  A majority went back more than three centuries to cite the Thirty Years War.  That war is a dreadful blot on all our history, a direct product of the division wrought in the Reformation, and a frightful debit in the balance sheet of religion on earth.

The author patiently explains how the theory of transubstantiation was not made official in the medieval church, but got weighty backing before Aquinas.  We are looking at a medieval – pre-Renaissance – reliance on Aristotle – and his discussion of the nature of existence and the essential difference between substance and accidents.  In the sweet name of the son of the carpenter, how many of the flock were up for that gig?  There was a related issue of the exclusive (privative) intellectual snobbery of the clergy (priesthood).  ‘Their professionalism was expressed by their possession of an information technology – literacy (the ability to read and write).’  And the priests were bent on maintaining their monopoly – if necessary by burning to death people who had the temerity to want the gospel in their own language.  (One significance of the rise of lawyers in the Inns of Court was that they also challenged this monopoly.)

And then the author goes straight on to another disaster that is still wreaking misery for so many in and out of the church.

Clergy were increasingly differentiated from the laity by the official attempt to make the clergy celibate for the whole of their careers, thus separating them from the sexuality which is the most intimate mark of an ordinary human being.  This was a requirement borrowed by the clergy from a separate and distinctive section of the Church’s life – monasticism.

Does one of the great cancers on our community come down to us still from the monastery?

The author is particularly good on two doctrines that in my view have blighted mankind – original sin and predestination.  (OK – here are my prejudices – Augustine and Aquinas took the simple teaching of a Jewish Hasid (holy man) and drenched it in the chilling but pretentious logic of Aristotle and Plato – and it’s a fair bet that the son of the carpenter had never heard of either – and so armed generations of priests with the power to put down you and me for the benefit of their God; it was a bizarre and cruel form of religious authoritarianism that lasted for centuries – and makes the balance sheet look even worse for religion.)

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul gave an extended commentary on the biblical story of Adam and Eve as they committed the first act of disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden: the first sin.  Augustine saw this corruption – original sin – as passed down from Adam to all humanity like a hereditary disease, and he linked heredity to sex, because like all heredity, sin was embodied in the act of procreation….All sin was thus Adam’s first sin, and no human being could escape it…..Augustine’s intellectual formation had been in a late form of Plato’s philosophy: Plato’s deity was perfect, individual and incapable of suffering, because suffering involves change which implies imperfection.  Since the perfect deity cannot change his mind, his decision about whom he chooses from humanity must be made only once.  All the saved must be predestined to salvation (and though Augustine rarely said this explicitly, all the dammed to damnation)….One can easily sympathise with the dry observation of the modern theologian Horton Davies that a God who cannot suffer is insufferable.

Well, people who say that a people as a whole are cursed with a hereditary disease have at least one very ugly fellow traveller.

Just what was it that gave these whizz kids the right to seek to wedge the infinity of God or the mercy of Christ between their paltry syllogisms?  And how do you seek to get someone into a church when at the back of your head is a song that says ‘Tough banana, your number’s already up, Sport’?  And in getting faith to take on logic with no runs or goals in, were they being any smarter than the Marylebone Cricket Club offering to take on the Yankees at baseball?

The thinking of the medieval church on indulgences being sold out of a ‘treasury of merit’ was as attractive as the thinking underlying derivatives that gave us the GFC.  Luther?

In any century in which he was born, Luther would have guaranteed a richly memorable night out, whether hilariously entertaining or infuriatingly quarrelsome.  Yet Freud is of little help in understanding Luther, whereas Augustine….is of central importance.

Although Luther rejected Aristotle, he could not break out of the gloom of Augustine.  Or the intellectualism – Luther came up with his own incantation that you won’t find in the bits in red – justification by faith alone.  Is that any more intelligible than transubstantiation?  Well, what got to Luther about indulgences was that they were dead against his own doctrine.  Logic then led him to deny the worth of good works.  ‘This was the parting blow of his book, and it was the very heart of the Reformation’s reassertion of the darkest side of Augustine: a proclamation that the humanist project of reasonable reform was redundant.’

And logic also led to division and death among the revolutionaries.  In 1526 four were solemnly drowned for being too progressive about baptism.  The community following Zwingli ‘committed itself to a policy of coercing and punishing fellow reformers whose crime was to be too radical.’ This is inevitable in revolutions.  And Luther would find out, with Lindy Chamberlin, that if you open your mouth often enough, you will put your foot in it.  The Peasants’ War was put down with the torture and death of thousands who had survived the battlefield.  ‘Luther, the champion of the ordinary Christian, had been transformed into an apologist for official savagery…’

The author deals briskly with Calvin.  Perhaps I might refer to what I said elsewhere after referring to MacCulloch.

God lets out the odds to make the winners feel better.  What kind of God would want to do that to his creation?  This kind of thing may have got by when Calvinists were a minority faith.  They could look at the masses outside for the damned.  But what if everyone came inside, and there was no one outside to look down on?  A minister addresses a congregation of 100 people.  Only one will be saved.  And guess who everyone thinks that will be….. In truth, there was more than just a touch of the soulless doctrinaire Lenin in Calvin.  These smug, dour killers of joy have probably done far more damage to the cause of religion than the Renaissance Popes.

The English reformation had nothing to do with God or religion and everything to do with Henry VIII and politics.  MacCulloch – charitably, perhaps – says that Harry believed his first marriage was bad, but he mentions that this king ‘cruelly emphasised his commitment to his personally devised religious ‘middle way’ by executing three papal loyalists and three evangelicals.’  That’s more Stalin than Lenin.  One evangelical observed that Harry liked to celebrate a new wedding by burning someone at the stake.

What about the Counter-Reformation?

Luther’s parallel solitary struggles with God led him ultimately to a sense that his salvation was an unconditional gift of God, making him free of all his natural bonds; this freedom empowered him to defy what he saw as worldly powers of bondage in the medieval western church.  Inigo [Loyola] found that his encounter with God was best expressed in forms drawn from the Iberian society which had created the most triumphant form of that same church: chivalric expressions of duty and service.  The contrasting conversion experiences thus led respectively to rebellion and obedience.  It was a momentous symbol of what came to separate Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation.

And could we see different developments in the civil polities on either side of that fault-line?

We are about half way through the book – near the end of Volume I.  The second part covers the bloody aftermath, including the Thirty Years’ War.  It may drag for some.

The final part refers to the Enlightenment and, as published in 2003, says this:

….the revelation of child abuse by certain clergy and religious of the Church….has had a catastrophic effect on the perception of the Church hierarchy in the English-speaking Catholic world, and if Catholics in other cultural settings react in the same way when they begin to take notice of what has happened, the effects on Roman Catholicism are likely to be profound.  The crisis places a question mark against the imposition of compulsory celibacy on the Church’s ministry as formidable as any posed by Protestants in the first decades of the Reformation.

That is an example of the insight and clear exposition of this model book of history.

My Top Shelf – Chapter 2

 

[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.]

2

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

Thomas Carlyle (1837)

J M Dent & Co (Everyman), 1906; 2 volumes; burgundy cloth with gilt lettering; subsequently placed in split slip-case with marbled exteriors, and burgundy silk ribbon extractors.

The Art of Insurrection.  It was an art needed in these last singular times: an art for which the French nature, so full of vehemence, so free from depth, was perhaps of all other the fittest.

How would a French provincial official back then have gone about making an observation about King Louis XV in a ‘sleek official way’?  At the very start of this book, Carlyle tells us that a man called President Henault took occasion ‘in his sleek official way to make a philosophical reflection’ about Louis XV.  If you look up President Henault, you will find that he seems to have been just the sort of French official who might have acted that way.  So, here we have a writer who arrests us in his first line.  We know at once that he is writing this book as literature, or, as we might now say, journalism.  But the book is much more than journalism or literature – it is theatre, and very high theatre at that.

As you get into this book, you will get used to being affronted in both your prejudices and your senses.  It is like being on the Big Dipper, and you are frequently tempted to ask – just what was this guy on when he was getting off on all this stuff?

The writing is surging, vivacious, and elemental.  The author likes to see the world from on high, and to put us all on a little stage.  When poor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette quit the Louvre under cover of night in a bid to escape from France, we get a costume drama.  ‘But where is the Lady that stood aside in gypsy hat, and touched the wheel-spoke with her badine?  O Reader, that Lady…was the Queen of France!…Flurried by the rattle and rencounter, she took the right hand, not the left; neither she nor her Courier knows Paris…They are off, quite wrong, over the Pont Royal and River; roaming disconsolate in the Rue du Bac; far from the Glass-coachman, who still waits.’

You too can ‘roam disconsolate’ in Paris.  It is simple to retrace those steps, and it must have been quite a stroll for the Queen of France.  Instead of heading up the Rue de L’Echelle, they went up Rue Saint Honoré, and then ended up on the left Bank.  What turn might the Revolution have taken if the Queen had turned the other way?  Or if the Austrian Marie Antoinette had known as least something of the lay-out of Paris?  That the Louvre was then as it is now on the Right Bank?

The coach driven by the Swedish Count Fersen gets the royal family out of Paris ‘through the ambrosial night.  Sleeping Paris is now all on the right-hand side of him; silent except for some snoring hum…’  There is a change of carriage and then a German coachman thunders toward the East and the dawn.  ‘The Universe, O my brothers, is flinging wide its portals for the Levee of the GREAT HIGH KING.  Thou, poor King Louis, fares nevertheless, as mortals do, toward Orient lands of Hope; and the Tuileries with its Levées, and France and the Earth itself, is but a larger kind of doghutch, -occasionally going rabid.’  This is very typical – a surge of Old Testament, Shakespeare and Romantic poetry that invokes the heavens, and then falls calmly but flat in the gutter.

Louis is spotted by a tough old patriot called Drouet who recognized the nameless traveller from the portrait on the currency.  They are brought back from Varennes to the City of Light.  At Saint Antoine, the workers and the poor have a placard; ‘Whosoever insults Louis shall be caned; whosoever applauds him shall be hanged.’  This was the second time that the family was returned to Paris.  The first was when the fishwives brought them in from Versailles.  Carlyle had then said: ‘Poor Louis has two other Paris Processions to make; one ludicrous ignominious like this: the other not ludicrous nor ignominious, but serious, nay sublime.’

Carlyle would later become infatuated with heroes and the idea of the strong man, but even French historians struggle to find heroes in their Revolution.  Carlyle does his best for Mirabeau and Danton, but they were both on the take.  The bad guys are easy for him – Marat and Robespierre.  (Both Danton and Robespierre used the ‘de’ before it became lethally unfashionable.)  When someone moots a Republic after the flight to Varennes, we get: ‘“A Republic?” said the Seagreen, with one of his dry husky unsportful laughs, “what is that?”  O seagreen Incorruptible, thou shalt see!’  After Robespierre lies low in the general unrest, we get: ‘Understand this, however: that incorruptible Robespierre is not wanting, now when the brunt of battle is past; in a stealthy way the seagreen man sits there, his feline eyes excellent in the twilight…..How changed for Marat; lifted from his dark cellar into this luminous” peculiar tribune!”  All dogs have their day; even rabid dogs.’

The two references to rabid dogs are characteristic.  The son of a Calvinist stonemason in the lowlands understood and loathed the lynch mob, which France had descended into.  At the beginning of the chapter headed The Gods Are Athirst, Carlyle said that La Revolution was ‘the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.’

And this Scots Calvinist rails against the weakness of mankind like a Hebrew prophet.  He knew, with Isaiah, that all nations before God are as nothing, and are counted before God as less than nothing, and as vanity; and that God brings the princes to nothing, and makes the judges of the earth vanity.  And he knew, with the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, that all is vanity, and that when it comes to evil, there is nothing new under the sun.

The lynch mob was at its peak in the Terror.  In some of the strongest passages in the book, Carlyle tells us how they made wigs (perrukes) taken from the heads of .guillotined women and breeches from human skins at the tannery at Meudon.  (The skin of men was superior and as good as chamois, but women’s skin was too soft to be of much use).  There is, we know, nothing new under the sun.

Hilaire Belloc thought that this writing was ‘bad’ and ‘all forced.’  That moral evasion may have been possible in 1906, when Belloc wrote it, but not after Gallipoli, Armenia, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Srebrenica.  We have now seen other nations, European nations, forfeit their right to be part of the family of man.  Carlyle is merely documenting one such case in one of the most civilized nations on earth.  Does history hold a more important lesson for us?  Has the story been told this well elsewhere?

So, we can put to one side all the later stuff about heroes.  (It is just as well that the book ends with the non-existing ‘whiff of grapeshot’ – Carlyle had a view of Napoleon that is not now widely shared on either side of the Channel.)  If nothing else, Carlyle believed that people make history.  The alternative, that history makes people, has to face the challenges that it is dogmatic, boring, dangerous, and bullshit.  You will see that problem in spades when we get to Tolstoy.

Carlyle wanted to tell a story and to make the dead come alive.  In his own terms, he wanted to ‘blow his living breath between dead lips’ and he believed that history ‘is the essence of innumerable biographies.’  He has done that for me six times, and I am about ready for my next fix.  The graph-makers can stick with their graphs.  The French Revolution is history writ very large, and it has never been writ more largely than here.

When Winston Churchill came to describe the heroism of the Finns in resisting Soviet Russia, he finished with a figure of speech that concluded with the words nay, sublime.  When a journalist on The Wall Street Journal came to describe how French bankers recently went long on Italian debt, she said that they had done do in their sleek official way.  There was no attribution in either case, and none was needed – it is a comfort for some that there may be a community of letters out there.

And look out for the one who gives you a dry unsportful laugh, whether or not his feline eyes glitter in the twilight.

Here and there – How guilty was Brutus?

 

Consider this plot – or, as one says in France, ce scénario. 

Bill and Bob are two very seasoned political operatives.  They are also close friends.  Bill is the more successful, and therefore the more respected, and powerful, of the two.  Until now, Bob has been content to play the second part.  That contentment derives from both friendship and rank – always strong components in a world of men.

But Bill’s success arouses envy and disquiet among his less successful followers.  They fear – or they say they fear – that Bill’s success has gone to his head.  They fear, or they claim to fear, that Bill’s ambition is a threat to all that they stand for – what is called the Establishment, or status quo.  They plot – ‘conspire’ is another word – to bring Bill down.  They are very keen to recruit Bob to their cause.  He has something they don’t – the respect of outsiders and a good chance of being able to resist the inevitable charge of self-interest.  They approach Bob.  Seduction is their aim.

Bob is in two minds.  He owes allegiance and friendship to Bill.  But does Bill’s ambition represent a threat to the Establishment such that Bob should put his allegiance to it above his obligations to his friend?  In a wistful moment, Bob asks whether he loves the Establishment more than he loves Bill.  Bob is finally won over.

Because Bob was in two minds, he has had to show two faces.  Right to the end, he shows friendship and respect for Bill.  Bob positively fawns on Bill.  When the end finally comes and Bill sees Bob among the terminators, he despairs.  ‘You, too, Bob?’  Bob’s motives were not those of the other conspirators.  His hands may not have been so dirty – but they certainly ended by being just as bloody.

Well, Australians will recognise this plot immediately.  It forms the basis of a tawdry combination of Passion play and bedroom farce that their disgraceful politicians put on about once a year.

So, how guilty was Bob – or Brutus?  The short answer of Dante was that Brutus was as guilty as hell.  Dante put Brutus in with Judas and Cassius in the lowest pit of hell.  What do we think may have been Shakespeare’s view?

Let us deal with Dante first.  This medieval Catholic had his own views on Rome, and his own experience of grievous civil strife, but many would think that it is silly to compare Brutus to Judas.  Putting to one side that Judas did not kill his victim – he killed himself – the crime of murder focuses on intent, not the underling motivation.  If you intend to kill someone, it matters not that your motive was noble, or whatever.  But the motive will surely bear on the moral gravity of the offence.

Let us take Brutus at his word (in the play, not, perhaps, in Plutarch).  He was not moved by envy or self-interest, but by a felt need to save the Roman Republic from an ambitious man who, it was reasonably feared, would make himself king – and by so doing, end the Roman Republic.  On that view, Brutus would argue that at a time of national emergency, he acted reasonably and in the public interest to save the State.

It might still be murder, but the case is very different to that of Judas.  One answer is that no moral code, much less a legal code, can allow exemptions from or defences to offences or crimes of this magnitude that are based on an assessment by the offender of what may be happening in the community in fact; an assessment of whether those occurrences constitute a threat to established order; and a determination that the proposed antidote is reasonable.  It would be very hard to argue against that position.

But what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  He apprehended that Hitler was a threat to Germany and mankind, and that that threat justified Bonhoeffer in plotting to kill Hitler.  Even if that would not have made Bonhoeffer a common garden murderer, why is he any better off morally than Brutus?

We can, I think, put to one side that Bonhoeffer was a man of God, and a very real and decent one, and that most people would think that Hitler was a greater menace to his own state and the world than Julius Caesar.  There are still two critical distinctions between the moral standing of Brutus and of Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer certainly owed Hitler no personal allegiance that he could betray; and he did not falsely pretend that he did and that he was remaining faithful.  You can see the same issue between Judas and Cassius – who owed Caesar nothing.  And Judas had no grand ideological plan.  He just took the money.  They are some of the reasons why the judgment of Dante repels so many modern readers.  Many people would agree with E M Forster that personal betrayal is very different to betrayal of the nation.

So, how did Shakespeare show Brutus – perhaps we might ask how did he ‘fashion’ Brutus?  It is tempting to say that two thousand years before the term ‘spin merchant’ was coined for Tony Blair and others, Shakespeare delivered the prototype in Brutus.

It was clear to Cassius and the wife of Brutus that Brutus had been brooding about Caesar.  Cassius thinks he can work Brutus to join the conspiracy.

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see

Thy honourable metal may be wrought

From that it is disposed; therefore it is mete

That noble minds keep ever with their likes;

For who so firm that cannot be seduced?  (1.2.308-312)

Was Cassius really bent on neutralizing the nobility of Brutus?  Was Brutus not just ‘the noblest Roman of them all’, but the last Roman noble?  For that matter, what did it mean to be ‘noble’?

Tony Tanner says that Brutus is a murderer from the start. In his first soliloquy, Brutus says:

It must be by his death; and for my part,

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general.  He would be crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.  (2.1.10-14)

So, Brutus somehow thinks that Caesar has to go, but what will be the ground that is offered for what is plainly murder?

… And, since the quarrel

Will bear no colour for the thing he is,

Fashion it thus: that what he is augmented,

Would run to these and these extremities

And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg

Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,

And kill him in the shell.  (2.1.28-34)

We will tell the mob – indeed I will tell them myself – that we had to kill the snake before it got venomous.  We will ‘fashion it thus’, we spin doctors will. Then Brutus says that he has not been able to sleep, and in three lines he gives us the whole theme of Hamlet:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.  (2.1.62-65)

Although Cassius is the organiser, the nobles need Brutus as the front man.  He will offer a veneer of respectability.  An ideological faction wants to kill Caesar because they fear one-man rule, but they cannot do it without subjecting themselves to the one-man rule of Brutus.

And they pay very dearly for handing over to him.  He makes three mistakes that doom them all.  He says an oath is beneath them.  He declines to take out Antony – ‘our course will seem too bloody’ (2.1.162).  Brutus talks down to Cassius all the time. ‘Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers’ (the word Antony uses against them immediately after the act):

Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully

Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the Gods.  (2.1.171-2)

Even a noble Roman must have known that this was pure moonshine. This noble Roman cannot come to terms with his becoming a murderer, and a murderer of a friend.  (We lose count of the times that we are told that Brutus loved Caesar, and vice versa.)  He does not want to get his hands dirty.  (Some of us are old enough to share a frisson of pleasure at the memory of the reaction of a former PM when the late Richard Carlton asked the question: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands?’)

The final mistake of Brutus is to allow Antony to take the stage.  Then, in our terms, it’s a spin merchant against a shit-stirrer; Tony Blair against Donald Trump.  Game over.

There is another and related aspect of the guilt of Brutus that bears on contemporary politics here and in the U K and the U S.  The conspirators said that they were acting to save the State – that is, the Republic.  The better view – on the evidence of Plutarch* as well as Shakespeare – is that this was code or camouflage for the fact that they were looking after themselves, the patricians, against the plebs.  This was just another of the class wars that had disfigured Rome for many centuries.  This was caste against caste, and for that purpose, either side was prepared to invoke the mob.  All the conspirators’ cries of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ after the event was so much claptrap.  In our language, either side was prepared to play the ‘populist’.  You can’t get much more up to date than that.

But our playwright had not done with Brutus.  The final ceremonial act of Caesar and Brutus together was to share a cup of wine.  The final gesture of Brutus to Caesar before he stabbed him was to kiss the hand of Caesar.  The Judas kiss.  You may recall that Caesar refused the crown three times.  Even for a Godless age, Shakespeare’s view of Brutus may have been much closer to that of Dante than we have thought.

And whatever else you may find in Australian politicians, a noble will not be one of them.  As to that lot, we might finish on another line of Dante (Inferno, Canto XXXII, 107): ‘What the Hell’s wrong?’

*This appears to be the verdict of history.  In The Roman Revolution, Chapter 5, Sir Ronald Syme said:

The Liberators knew what they were about.  Honourable men grasped the assassin’s dagger to slay a Roman aristocrat, a friend and a benefactor for better reasons than that [saving Libertas for Rome].  They stood, not merely for the traditions and institutions of the Free State, but very precisely for the dignity and interests of their own order.  Liberty and the laws are high-sounding words.  They will often be rendered, on a cool estimate, as privilege and vested interests.

Syme’s work was once considered revolutionary, but it is no surprise that this playwright had come to the same view some centuries beforehand.