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.

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.]

FOREWORD

An Australian movie called The Castle told the story of a man defending his home – that was his castle.  The movie had its own fingerprints of authenticity.  For example, the hero, Daryl, loved to ask what price someone was asking for second-hand goods, and when told, he would say, ‘Tell ‘im ‘e’s dreamin.’’  Or, if someone gave Daryl something special, he would say, and with proper reverence, ‘This is goin’ straight to the pool room’.  Toffs do not play pool – it is not on the curriculum at Eton.

My top shelf is like Daryl’s pool room.  It is where I can enjoy the company of books that matter to me, and I can show them off.  I used to collect do-dads on my travels for the mantel-piece over the fire.  Then I thought I might collect books of the writers that have been good for me. Accordingly, I put up a new shelf for the do-dads, and started to arrange a collection of my favourite books for the second top shelf.  When the little collection of favourites expanded in a new home, I put two shelves up around the fire-place for my top books.

There are two criteria of selection for the top shelf: I have read and enjoyed the book at least once: and the book or its author has enhanced my prospects of dying happy in my own skin.  I have read all the novels at least twice, the bigger of them, and the histories, more often (Carlyle six times).  Each book or author has been a sustaining source of comfort to me.

All the volumes selected for this shelf are at least part bound in leather or are slip-cased.  Many have been acquired or rebound for this purpose, leaving other editions elsewhere.  Some have been chosen for the shelf to represent the writer in a slimmer form – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall would take up a quarter of the shelf.  This is so for Bloch, Euripides, Gibbon, Keats, Maitland and Shakespeare.  The order of the books on the shelf is set by the array of shapes and colours that pleases my eye and that adds to the life of the room.  The idea is to have these books and writers there as companions close at hand – like the pictures on the walls and the music on the shelves.

For those arithmetically inclined, a rough classification of the 50 books might be as follows: novels, 13; history, 9; poetry, 8; drama, 3; philosophy, 4; music, 3, sport, 2, statesmen, 2; economics, 1; art 1, movies 1, science, 1, cooking 1, and religion, 1. Thirty three of the books are at least partly bound in leather, and seventeen are in slip cases.

The novels, plays and poems speak for themselves.  With the thinkers, I am at least as much interested in the thinker as the thinking.  Each of the three philosophers here left us at peace with themselves and the world, and that fact says as much to me as all that they said.  I read the histories for literature, and not so much to see whether lesser writers might sanction these historians’ view of the evidence – I believe that light can be imparted by good writing, as it may be by good painting or by good music.  That at any rate was the premise of people like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Goethe.  I believe that drama throws more light on the human condition than any other art form or any purely intellectual argument.

This is not a learned or scholarly book. There are no notes or references.  I have written about most of these subjects before.  Now, I am just saying why these books are on this shelf and in my life in the hope that others may take some comfort from them.  Even Don Giovanni knew that he should not keep it all to himself.

Science got beyond us amateurs with Einstein, and philosophy has not mattered since well before then.  (They like throwing stones at priests but what have they got to show for themselves?)  The only book on the shelf that is above the pay level of the average reader – including me – is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and that book is beyond most philosophy under-graduates.  Unless you are interested in fly fishing or golf, or opera, the most accessible books are Billy Budd and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but the only difference between them and War and Peace and Ulysses is that the latter are much longer and have long been doomed to fearful ‘greatness’ by the literati in command of the intellectual heights, even though two of our greatest novels are two of our funniest.

For each book, you will have the date of first publication, the details of the publication referred to here, and a description of the binding.  The citation in bold at the beginning of each chapter is from the author but not necessarily from the book on the shelf.

For the removal of doubt, I am not suggesting that my taste might reflect some universal or Platonic form of what is best in the literature of the West.  It is not a Top Forty.  There is no such thing.  My criteria will show why I am not interested in taking part in the parlour game of talking about what’s in and what’s out.  If one had been written, a history of the Melbourne Storm would be up there between Gibbon and Macaulay, and gorgeously apparelled in leather of an imperial or Mount Langi Ghiran purple.  This book is a record of personal infatuation, not a dictated or insincere tableau of correct books to inform wannabe proper minds.

Some of you may be interested to see how accessible these writers can be when we have brushed aside the ghosts of the past, or some dreary intellectual establishment of the present, and also by how we may be enriched by the story of the lives of some of the people who are up there.  As often as not, I am at least as interested in the author as in the book.  You will get good writing and thinking, and you will also be exposed to raw moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual courage from some of our real heroes.  I do not believe in saints but if I did, Spinoza, Lincoln, and Bonhoeffer would be jointly on pole, with Kant, Darwin, Maitland, Bloch, and Keynes, not far behind.  The following pages tell why.

 

Geoffrey Gibson

Malmsbury

Victoria

2015

Us and the U S – Chapter 14

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Patriotism; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]

14

Findings?

We might state some conclusions from what we have looked at as follows.

(1)

Well, it would seem safe to say that the U S at least feels more independent than Australia, and that its people feel that they and their nation are standing on their own two feet in a way that Australians cannot claim while they continue to import their head of state whose credentials turn on the English Constitution.  The ‘Fourth’ celebrates independence; Thanksgiving in part looks back to the Puritans having a good harvest at Plymouth; Australia Day looks back to the day that the English declared their foreign jail open.  Australians also look for another holiday for the Queen’s Birthday in the Land of the Long Weekend.  Anyone who has celebrated the fourth or fourteenth of July in the nations that do so will know just how flat and empty Australia Day may be.  It can be downright depressing for some.

(2)

Next, it would be surprising if there were no differences in the outlooks on life of the two peoples looking at the very different ways that their settlers and migrants arrived.  For the most part the Americans did it on their own, while the Australians did so at the cost of or with the help of government.  People in America, and their politicians, are not as quick as Australians are to look to government for help in life.  Put differently, Australians seem to depend on government more for welfare than Americans do.  The razzmatazz heart of capitalism can put a value on frugality and see a virtue in simplicity that would dismay southern Europe – and Australians.

Australians do not see this as a minus – anymore than England, France, and Germany do.  How many Americans see their side as a plus is an interesting question, but is this also one ground for suggesting that people in Australia, as opposed to the people of Australia, may be less independent than their American counterparts?  The Americans seem to have been primed to seek independence from Britain by their earlier acceptance of settlers and migrants who were not British, and by their greater spread of wealth among the landed gentry and the middle classes in the cities – and by their greater and longer accumulation of wealth.

Has this distinction led to a greater emphasis on what is called free enterprise or the role of the entrepreneur in America than in Australia?  Do people in America rely more on what they can negotiate for themselves and are they less dependent on their classification with the government than Australians?  Is the old difference between contract and status still relevant?

These are hazy areas, but Australians going to the U S are frequently impressed immediately by the eagerness of people to do business with them on a one on one basis.  The Americans tend to look and sound more business-like – and it is first person singular: it is what ‘I’ have or can do, not what ‘we’ have got or can do.  ‘What are you offering cash for on your first drink?  Can’t you see that I am running a business behind in this bar?’  And, if a tip is part of the deal, don’t be surprised to be told that you have not kept up your end of it.  But if in some sense Americans have been more enterprising than Australians, then that distinction may well be being eroded now at either end.

(3)

The impact of the frontier is much, much more evident and extensive in America than in Australia.  There was a kind of battle or series of wars going on for territory for hundreds of years.  If this led to some rough and tough sense of independence, as it did with the Boers in South Africa, it also has led to an appalling tolerance of guns and violence that so disturbs friends of America.

The macho man is on the wane, and men at large can no longer pretend that women just do not exist.  The whole idea of a man’s world is now just bullshit, although the grosser aspects of American football and ice hockey are some fairly stern reminders of the deep love of violence in the American psyche.

There is something of a contradiction close to the heart of American politics.  For all the popular participation in or celebration of the American system, there is a deep streak of aversion to or suspicion of government or the state in America, as some kind of bogey man whose only function is to rob real people of their purpose – and their money.  Australians do not like or trust politicians.  That is not a prejudice, but a reasoned conclusion from evidence that is all too obvious and painful.  But do you see there the same kind of suspicion of the very basis of government?  Australians have been wrapped up in government from their beginning, and have not been as exposed as the Americans to the isolating effects of the frontier.  The North Queensland separatism is not of the Texan order.  There may well be a big distinction in basic attitudes to government in the two countries.  A seizing up of the American machine, even if self-induced, may amplify any difference.

(4)

What most Australians and other outsiders see as the continuing murderous triumph of the gun lobby in the States is partly down to money – which does seem to carry more weight in America than in other parts of the West – and partly down to what might be called a doctrinaire streak in American public life.  The English Constitution derives from the common law and is set out in many old acts and texts.  Ultimately, it is a state of mind.  Its empirical methods are utterly different to those of a rationalist interpreting and applying a code.  The common law discourages large pronouncements on doctrine.  A constitutional court applies a much more rationalist approach from a large and irrefutable predicate, the constitution, and it produces a lot more doctrine and dogma as a result.

This is where the great power – liberal or conservative – arises with the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court.  The right to bear arms in the 1689 Bill of Rights is still part of the law in England and the Australian states, but not as part of an unalterable tablet of the law.  The difference is immense – only a very loose cannon in England or Australia would suggest that it might have the consequences presently contended for by a majority of the U S Supreme Court.

Almost no American would want to give up their Bill of Rights, although all sides would dearly like to see a great change in some or other of its manifestations from time to time.  You find people on both sides of the divide in Australia, but the short answer is that there is nothing to suggest that a referendum might be passed to amend its Constitution to entrench a Bill of Rights.

As against that, the Americans do have a commitment to their ‘rights’ as an article of faith which is admirable.  If that leads to a kind of legalism, and readiness to resort to law that most in Europe or Asia would find vulgar, or something that only Americans could afford, so be it.

(5)

Both countries are parliamentary democracies.  The states have more power and substance in America.  (That is a plus there – it would not be in Australia, where there is far too much government already.)  The U S gave the President more power on paper, but Australians would not want their nominal leader not to be answerable in the parliament.  The Australians have by attrition just about ditched an independent civil service, and ministers no longer resign for the sins of their department.  Australia is abandoning the Westminster System by default.

An independent judiciary is available to and essential for both nations.  They have inherited this facility from the English, but it is a major difference between these nations and others from the common law tradition and just about the rest of the world.  Lawyers had a formative role in building the constitution in both England and America, and in fighting for that constitution and for people’s rights.  The judges and juries and lawyers have provided a check on power and a release for dissent that have been indispensable to continuity in government and freeing the nation from the violent political friction that is seen almost everywhere else in the world.  Lawyers, or at least legally qualified statesmen, like Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison (the Father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights), Marshall (the first Chief Justice), Adams, and Lincoln were true political giants and not just for Americans.  We see there concentrations of intellectual firepower that might make the Florentine Renaissance look knock-kneed and which might also give their successors reason to pause.

The party system, and with it the parliamentary system, are stressed, for different reasons in each country, but to an equally worrying degree.  Money is huge in American politics, and that fact is not good for the image of America.  It resembles a capitalist feudal structure, a hierarchy of power and patronage built on capital rather than land.  It looks to outsiders as if too many people are in the pockets of too few other people and as if money has too much clout.  The world looks on nervously to see when Wall Street might invite us to look into a black hole of its own devising.

God only knows what Jefferson or Hamilton might have made of our deathless embrace of the dollar.  The conservative columnist George Will wrote that there was ‘an elegant memorial in Washington to Jefferson, but none to Hamilton.  However, if you seek Hamilton’s monument, look around.  You are living in it.  We honour Jefferson, but live in Hamilton’s country.’  At the end of his recent work, Jefferson and Hamilton, Professor John Ferling of the University of West Georgia said:

Today’s America is more Hamilton’s America.  Jefferson may never have fully understood Hamilton’s funding and banking systems, but better than most he gleaned the potential dangers that awaited the future generations living in the nation state that Hamilton wished to bring into being.  Presciently, and with foreboding, Jefferson saw that Hamiltonianism would concentrate power in the hands of the business leaders and financiers that it primarily served, leading inevitably to an American plutocracy every bit as dominant as monarchs and titled aristocrats had once been.  Jefferson’s fears were not misplaced.  In modern America, concentrated wealth controls politics, leading even the extremely conservative Senator John McCain to remark that ‘both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.’  The American nation, with its incredibly powerful chief executive, gargantuan military, repeated intervention in the affairs of foreign states, and political system in the thrall of great wealth, is the very world that Jefferson abhorred.

To what extent do Trump supporters abhor that world?  While Australia remains wedded to English legal procedures, and you can see and feel a horse-hair wig in many state courts, the American court system has developed on its own with benefits to others including Australia.  We should all be grateful that the Americans are continuing to champion the role and place of the jury.

Here is just one example of the differences in government between the two countries, and one that is very characteristic.  Americans do not have compulsory voting; Australia does.  Each side thinks that the other is mad.  The Americans rely on doctrine about liberty; the Australians rely on results.  They think that their system works and that the American does not.  This is another example of doctrine or dogma triumphing over experience in America – at least that is how it appears to Australians.

(6)

Religion got off to a strong start in America.  It got off to a bad start in Australia – the Reverend Marsden was a flogging parson, and the Anglican Church was and is as establishment as you can get – the monarch of the nation, its Head of State, has to be a member of it; its bishops were lords of the realm, and members of the House of Lords.  It does seem clear that religion is a more live force in America, and that Australians tend to count their comparative relaxation if not liberation as an unqualified plus.

The churches in Australia played a far greater role in the development of independent schools.  The churches now have very little part to play in these schools, but the failure of governments in Australia to see that its schools keep up with the private schools – called, after the English model, ‘public schools’ – is a part of the biggest failure of government in Australia – and a failure for which the church is not to blame.  There is a frightful inequality among Australian schools, a kind of educational apartheid.  Many parents who can afford to reject the schools offered for their children by their government.  This may be Australia’s biggest failure.

Although education is not a Commonwealth function under the Constitution, it is in fact their responsibility.  Generations of ineptitude and buck-passing at all levels had led to a disgraceful failure to provide an equal opportunity for the young people of Australia to get the kind of good education that they deserve and that the nation needs.  We now see a parliament composed in large part of those who had a free university education legislating to deny that right to others.  The products of the age of entitlement are kicking away the ladder.  This tragic failure of national fibre may never be corrected.  It would require deep foresight and a cool nerve.  Australia’s politicians have neither.

(7)

A sense of independence and self-creation, a real revolution, the creeping frontier, real heroes, and mythical ones, and God – all these have made patriotism much more visible in the U S than elsewhere.  Americans look to get more involved in national affairs than Australians, and to show more reverence for their flag and at least for the office of President, but this patriotism can get syrupy in a way that got up the nose of Alexis de Tocqueville, and it can lead to a kind of moral blindness – in places in the world where that kind of thing might ultimately be noticed.

(8)

Each nation got to where it by means that many would prefer to forget.  Both relied at the start on the free labour of imported convicts – they were Australia’s raison d’être – but before they could do that, they had to wrest the land from its native occupiers.  They did so in a way that caused immeasurable misery and loss and by means that most people cannot now square with the tenets of religion of the invaders.

There is not much to be gained from getting hung up on labels, as the Turks want to do with the Armenians.  The label of ‘genocide’ may or may not be contentious.  What matters are not labels, but the evidence of what happened, and the moral or political conclusions that can be drawn from that evidence.

These are issues as much for Britain as they are for America and Australia, and that may not be a bad thing, because the British may not get so skittish about a subject that they may know a lot about because of their shame in Ireland and because of their experience in the rest of their Empire.

In reviewing a book by Tom Lawson, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, Professor Bernard Porter said:

The lesson the Holocaust should be used to teach – if it’s proper for history to be used in this way at all – is that any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right.  It wasn’t just the Germans.  In different circumstances the British might have behaved as badly.  In certain circumstances – and the Tasmanian case is an example – they did.

‘Any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right’ is you might think a self-evident truth.  It is surprising how many people either do not acknowledge it, or do not accept that it applies to them, and they do so on the footing of the foundation of the whole bloody problem, the state of mind called ‘racism’, the belief that we are better than they are.

(9)

The main difference between the two nations lies in their standing in the world.  America is the biggest economy and the leader of what used to be called the free world.  America’s leading role was achieved by industry and invention working on its resources, and intellectual property laws have helped to secure its world primacy.

Australia is a client state of the U S.  It is not as troublesome as Israel, but not as close either.  Australia loyally followed its patron and protector into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan in order to honour and secure the alliance, but not one Australian government has felt able to acknowledge that fact.  There is what is now called ‘a disconnect’ between the governors and the governed in Australia on the subject of honouring the U S alliance in much the same way that there is a disconnect in America on the subject of tax – they are, if you like, the elephants in the room.  While Australians were objecting that all their politicians were the same, those politicians stood firm in favour of the Afghan War when most Australians wanted to get out of it.

But against that is the tendency to hubris that we saw, and the brittleness of Americans noticed by de Tocqueville – and now their obvious lack of appetite for any ventures overseas, for which they receive no offer of help beforehand or vote of thanks afterwards, and which is predicated on a failure of the U N for which the U S is not responsible.

(10)

Finally, and for whatever reason, there is a deep streak of orthodoxy and conservatism, or, if you prefer, an aversion to risk and scepticism of novelty or adventure, in both countries.  At least in the case of America, that comes as a surprise.

More than one hundred years ago, the English nation elected as their Prime Minister a grandson of an Italian Jew, who went on to become the closest confidante of the most powerful monarch in history.  More than eighty years ago, the English elected as their Prime Minister a man of Scottish descent who represented the labouring class.  More than thirty years ago, they elected their first woman Prime Minister.  Americans now have had their first black President, but it took them nearly two hundred years to elect a Catholic as President, and they are yet to elect to that office a woman, a working man, or a Jew.  All three of those omissions are extraordinary – to speak softly – in light of the contribution to American life made by those who have not made it.

In truth, the U S does have the appearance of a conservative and hidebound republic.  To this day no one could reasonably run for the office of President of the United States while claiming to stand for working men and women or to profess openly the views on religion that we believe were held by Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and Lincoln – none of whom stands low in the American pantheon.  The inability to move appears worse with a political engine where the gears are clashing, and with a disparity in incomes and assets that appears to be both growing and insidious.

Hardly any of the criminals behind the 2008 crash ever looked like going behind bars; the great citadels of business look to be beyond, or immune to, the criminal law that otherwise maintains an ever growing prison population that is massively black; the big corporates just do cosy deals in private with the lawyers and civil servants called regulators; an agreed amount of boodle goes to the state as a bribe; the company adjusts its books in an accounting exercise; the shareholders get a reduced dividend; the real crooks keep their jobs and their unimaginable bonuses; and your average Joe winds up in the slammer for much lower levels of crime.

Australia is struggling under too much government and too much law, and a disinterest and distrust of politics that was once a charm, but which now sustains groups of inept and mediocre politicians who have never held down a real job and who are determined to put their own interests above those of the people.  The nation has next to nothing to look back on politically except a kind of enduring noiseless torpor.  There is almost no chance of anyone seeing anything like the vision, drive or guts of David Lloyd George or Winston Churchill when they fought for the People’s Budget.  By and large, the politicians and the press have succeeded in either anaesthetizing or repelling the people.  Each of the two main parties is prepared to execute a leader who is insufficiently bland and to replace them with an antiseptic model that the people trust even less: and then the people in disgust or despair vote for authentic layabouts, charlatans, urgers, bludgers and downright thieves.

In truth, if you look at the giant steps that the English took leading up to the settlement of 1689, and the explosion in France in 1789, most of the work of laying down the fabric of government in America and Australia was done for them by more purposeful people elsewhere, and they have proceeded quite doggedly to hold the line and preserve the status quo.  The day of the indigenous peoples has long since passed; the day of people of colour may or may not be at hand; only God knows if women will ever win anything like equality.

(11)

The suggestion that America and Australia are both innately conservative might come as a surprise to those in either country who like to see each as progressive if not radical.  It will not come as a surprise to those at the bottom of the pile in either America or Australia.  Those poor people will see their country as anything but progressive, or open to people of all types.

This conservatism might show itself in different ways.  We saw that Benjamin Franklin said that America was a land ‘where a general happy mediocrity prevails.’  That condition has not been sustained in a way that has produced any real kind of social equality in America – at the very least, American society does not look nearly as egalitarian as Australia’s.  Trump got elected on inequality.

The downside for Australia is the frightening mediocrity of its politics.  The land dubbed as ‘the quarry with a view’ is now revolted by its politicians.  How is it that the nation appears to be so economically successful?

Nearly fifty years ago, a writer called Donald Horne published a book called The Lucky Country.  The book immediately resonated with Australians and became a best seller, and is now something of a classic.  Its essential conclusion looks more true now than in 1964:

Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck….Many of the nation’s affairs are conducted by racketeers of the mediocre who have risen to authority in a non-competitive community where they are protected in their adaptations of other people’s ideas….Much of its public life is stunningly bad, but its ordinary people are fulfilling their aspirations.

Robin Boyd’s book The Australian Ugliness was just as insightful, but it did not have the same measure of success.  In touching on the shallowness of Australian public life, Boyd said of the Australian that ‘He has a high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of assurance in anything he thinks.’

At the end of his book The Rise and Fall of Australia, Nick Bryant referred to remarks made by Bertrand Russell to Australians in 1950 as he was leaving their shores after the intellectuals’ version of a royal tour: ‘Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble.  Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not.  I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence.’

A similar observation might have been made to Americans at the time.  Were Americans or Australians too comfortable to take so much trouble?  Has each of them settled for a general happy mediocrity?

[That is the final extract from Us and the U S.  Nest week, we will begin instalments, unaltered, from ‘Top Shelf – Or What Used to be called a Liberal Education’ – a review of great books or books that reflect how we live.]

Us and the U S – Chapter 13

Us and the US

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Patriotism; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]

13

God

The English Bill of Rights bans anyone from holding the Crown of England who is ‘…reconciled to, or shall hold communion with…the…Church of Rome…or shall marry a papist’.  The English Bill of Rights is still part of the laws of each state of Australia.  The English Act of Settlement of 1701 forbids the holder of the crown to marry ‘a papist’ and says that anyone who shall ‘come into possession of the Crown shall join in communion with the Church of England’.

The Queen of Australia must ‘join in communion with the Church of England.’  Her successor may marry someone of another faith – say a Muslim sister of Osama bin Laden – and Australia might ask the English Crown to approve of the appointment of a Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or Infidel Governor-General, but the English crown – the Australian crown – is denied religious freedom or tolerance.  It is, and must remain, Anglican.  Well, why shouldn’t the English have what they want?

Section 116 of the Australian Constitution provides:  ‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth’.  On the issue of an established church, and imposing religious observance, the Australian Constitution therefore provides for the direct opposite of the constitution of the United Kingdom.  Australia is schizophrenic at its ecclesiastical summit.

There does not look to have been much chance of some pious and ambitious types trying to set up an established church in Australia, but the Commonwealth of Australia is left in the anomalous position of being a country that cannot have an established church taking its monarch from a nation that must have an established church as a result of ancient British laws that Australians cannot change, but that are entirely repugnant to the laws of Australia as a whole.

Putting that quirk to one side, Australians have not had much trouble with religion, but such troubles as they have had did religion no good.  It is very much an ebbing force in communal life in Australia.

Religious conflict in Australia was mainly imported.  That is hardly surprising in a migrant nation.  Geoffrey Blainey has this comment: ‘Between 1929 and 1949, Irish Australians, three of whom were Catholics and one a lapsed Catholic, held the post of Prime Minister in every year but two.  One of the Catholics, Joe Lyons, dramatically left the Labor Party and headed a conservative government from 1932 to 1939.’  This was a bad premonition of an even worse split in the Labor Party, one that would disenfranchise a generation.

The issue of Church and State flickered on about state aid to church schools, but the disasters of about sixty years of religious fuelling of political debate meant that anyone trying that kind of thing could expect to be under a large bucket of something quite malodorous.  The churches as a whole now have very little influence in politics, and proponents of some worthy causes might be inclined to pray that the princes of the church just stay out of the fray.  However, on issues that are said to be moral like abortion and euthanasia, a small number of religious people can make enough noise to frighten off politicians who are by nature timid.  In 2017, that would be said of the dispute about equality.

The international abuse scandal is seen by those opposed to the churches as confirming all their fears, and when it broke, the church found no reservoir of goodwill or even sympathy.

**

The First Amendment to the U S Constitution provides: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances’.  So, the Australian model had followed the American on setting up rather more than Chinese Walls between Church and State by banning an established church and by guaranteeing freedom of religion.

The picture on the ground in England and in the U S looks to be the reverse of what it is on paper.  The English queen is the head of a state religion, but religion has a minimal effect on English politics; you could make much the same observation for Australia; in the U S, there is no established church, but de facto the president has to go through the motions of being a professed Christian, and religion has a continuing and significant effect on U S politics, an effect that is not widely admired outside of the U S.

For the most part, the early presidents were products of the Enlightenment who were at best not enthused about a personal God.  Lincoln was clearly nowhere near being a practising Christian.  There is not much point speculating which presidents may have been communicant Christians.  One American historian spoke of ‘The assumption that the United States is morally superior to other nations, the assertion that it must redeem the world by spreading popular government’, and ‘faith in the nation’s divinely ordained destiny to fulfil this mission.’  The ‘rhetoric of empire’ is a lot worse than the Napoleon complex – that cost more than five million lives in European wars fought so that Europe might know the blessing of French republican liberty – Napoleon did not claim to be sent by God.

This kind of talk is terrifying to those outside America.  It is not just that the U S has an appalling record of getting into bed for its own purposes with corrupt, repressive, and wicked rulers who are sponsored to stand over and hold down their people in the name of freedom and democracy – the more serious problem is that this is being done because the Americans, like the Hebrews, Romans, and English before them have been chosen by Providence for just that mission.  That is something that no-one outside America believes, and hopefully something that very, very few sane Americans believe.

Then, even putting to one side that two presidents in the lifetime of the author suffered from a manic incapacity to hold their pants up, and an equally manic drive to abuse the power of their high office and trust, and putting to one side TV evangelists, there is the spell-binding hypocrisy of it all.  Here we have Uncle Sam bringing truth, justice, freedom, and the American way to the oppressed peoples of the world – in the name of and on a mission from Almighty God – even to those poor souls not yet blessed with a revelation of God’s plan for them – in faraway and dangerous places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Then the problem of hypocrisy went into orbit with the election of Donald Trump.

A few years ago Australia saw its first female Prime Minister.  One day the U S might chance its arm on a woman, but there is little or no chance on present form that the first U S woman president will be a professed atheist living in sin.  Neither that PM, nor any other Australian has claimed that Australians have a mission to the world for which they have been chosen by God.

 

Here and there – Ethnic cleansing and riffing on extirpation – and some serendipity

 

The other day I was driving my Mini in the Grampians listening to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall when it got to one of my favourite parts – the luscious put-down of the Emperor Gallienus.  I was laughing out loud, and then my mood changed when I heard a passage which I have read and heard before, but which I could not recall.  Gibbon referred to ‘a most savage mandate’ Gallienus issued after he had put down a revolt by a man called Ingenuus, who had assumed the purple (claimed the title of Emperor) in the provinces.  The mandate was indeed savage, but it had a revoltingly modern air to it.

It is not enough that you exterminate such as have appeared in arms: the chance of battle might have served me as effectually.  The male sex of every age must be extirpated; provided that in the execution of the children and old men, you can contrive means to save our reputation.  Let everyone die who has dropped an expression, who has entertained a thought against me, against me, the son of Valerian, the father and brother of so many princes.  Remember that Ingenuus was made emperor: tear, kill, hew in pieces.  I write to you with my own hand, and would inspire you with my own feelings.

All that is revolting, but the modern part is that in bold.  And the word ‘extirpate’ immediately brought to mind the mandate that led to the infamous massacre at Glencoe.  It occurred about thirteen hundred years after the extirpation of the followers of Ingenuus, and is so movingly described by the other great English composer of history, T B Macaulay.

The tribal conflicts left the Highlands in a savage state.  The clan MacDonald had an awful reputation for outlawry.  Their blood enemies were the Campbells.  (Still now in Australia you might hesitate to ask a MacDonald to break bread with a Campbell.)  The new king, King William III, asked the clans to take an oath of loyalty.  The Macdonald chief was a day late in turning up and his enemies saw their chance to get even.

The Scot responsible for managing the clans was the Master of Stair.  ‘He justly thought it was monstrous that a third part of Scotland should be in a state scarcely less savage than New Guinea…..In his view the clans, as they existed, were the plagues of the kingdom; and of all the clans the worst was that which inhabited Glencoe….In his private correspondence, he applied to them the short and terrible form of words in which the implacable Roman pronounced the doom of Carthage.  His project was no less than this, that the whole hill country from sea to sea, and the neighbouring islands, should be wasted with fire and sword, that the Camerons, the Macleans, and all the branches of the race of Macdonald should be rooted out.’  (The word ‘race’ is there used for ‘clan’.  The word ‘extirpation’ is built on the Latin word stirps, meaning the stem or block of a tree, and the OED quotes Macaulay in support of its definition ‘to root out, exterminate; to render extinct.’)

The Master of Stair was dire in his directive.

Your troops will destroy the country of Lochaber, Lochiel’s lands, Glengarry’s and Glencoe’s.  Your power shall be large enough.  I hope the soldiers will not trouble the government with prisoners.

Troops of the Campbells accepted the hospitality of the Macdonalds over twelve days and then, like Macbeth, murdered their hosts.  Many escaped, but about thirty-eight were murdered – that is the word – and perhaps many more died of the cold or starvation.  The massacre proceeded under an order signed by King William that included these words.

As for Mac Ian of Glencoe and that tribe, if they can be well distinguished from the other Highlanders, it will be proper, for the vindication of public justice, to exterminate that set of thieves.

That was not a lawful order for a king to give in a nation that subscribed to the rule of law –which says that people are ruled by laws not people, and that they are only to be punished for a breach of those laws, and not at the arbitrary whim of the monarch.

Well, it was unlikely that anyone down the line would take that point, even had they wanted to.  And it is plain enough that extirpation in this context means extermination.  And that apparently is how the Campbells saw their authority and duty – to commit mass murder.  It is not to be supposed that they could have reported to the Master of Stair, or their king: ‘We shot and killed a dozen, but the others promised to behave in the future, so we stopped the killing.’  Among other things, they would be leaving witnesses to an act of infamy that no decent person could want to see the light of day; and the vendettas would have made Sicilian fishermen look decidedly docile.

But this was a problem for our author.  He was a bigger fan of William of Orange than all the people of Belfast put together.  Had his hero given a warrant for ethnic cleansing, if not genocide?  (Remember that the historian used the word ‘race.’)  Macaulay said that people as high as kings – he might have added me and my tax returns – rarely read a lot of what they sign.  That is true enough – but we all have to live with the consequences of so acting.

But Macaulay gets into trouble saying that ‘extirpate’ has more than one meaning – in this context.

It is one of the first duties of every government to extirpate gangs of thieves.  This does not mean that every thief ought to be treacherously assassinated in his sleep, or even that every thief ought to be put to death after a fair trial, but that every gang as a gang, ought to be completely broken up, and that whatever severity is indispensably necessary for that end ought to be used.

That’s like kids playing marbles behind the shelter shed and making up the rules as they go.  You don’t authorise or order a killing in ambiguous terms.  Nor do you make the killing subject to a value judgment – that this killing is ‘indispensably necessary’ to effect ‘extirpation’ – what if the family of a deceased and a prosecutor appointed by a government of a different colour come to a different result, and the executioner finds himself on a murder charge for doing what he reasonably believed to be his lawful duty.  (And the history of revolutions is full of instances where the executioners are among the first to die when their government falls.)

(Macaulay comes across this difficulty again when, much later, he discusses the government findings on the massacre.  The finding was that the massacre was murder and was not authorised by the King’s warrant.  But the report merely censured the real author of the crime, the Master of Stair, and recommended that some officers down to the rank of sergeant be charged with murder.  Macaulay says this was dead wrong.  (If it matters, I agree.)  ‘They had slain nobody whom they had not been positively directed by their commanding officer not to slay.  That subordination without which an army is the worst of all rabbles would be at an end if every soldier were to be held answerable for the justice of every order in obedience to which he pulls his trigger….Who then is to decide whether there be an emergency such as makes severity the truest mercy? Who is to determine whether it be or not be necessary to lay a thriving town in ashes, to decimate a large body of mutineers, to shoot a whole gang of banditti?…..And if the general rule be that the responsibility is with the commanding officer, and not with those who obey him, is it possible to find any reason for pronouncing the case of Glencoe an exception to that rule?’  All that seems very right to me, and the government response looks like another case of the Establishment looking after itself.)

Macaulay then makes his case worse by referring to Hastings’ dealings with the Pindarees, and Bentinck and the Thugs.  Any reference to different kinds of savagery is only likely to inflame the issue, and the Scots.

Finally, he says that another example of the soft use of ‘extirpate’ is in the coronation oath in Scotland when the king swears ‘to root out heresies.’  Heretics were commonly burnt then, but a heresy is not a person and cannot be put to death.  Macaulay says that King William asked what this meant and the Earl of Argyle (the Campbell chief, as it happens) was authorised by the Estates at Edinburgh to say that ‘the words did not imply persecution.’  The most polite thing that you can say about that is that it is plain silly.

A simpler explanation for the liability of the English for the massacre at Glencoe was that this was just a manifestation of the evil that had already plagued England for two centuries in its dealings with Ireland, and which had descended to a new low point under that religious fanatic named Cromwell – their contempt for people they regarded as being of an inferior race.

Well, a painter of history as gorgeous as Macaulay is entitled to the odd blemish.  And the people of Glencoe have moved on.  Or at least their publican has.  I have visited the site on three occasions, and if you visit my second loo, you will find a framed collage of scenes of Glencoe, in the middle of which is a photo of a brass sign on the front door of the pub: ‘NO HAWKERS OR CAMPBELLS.’

Finally, because I regard Macaulay’s account of the massacre as one of the glories of our letters, I just read it again.  People like Gibbon, Macaulay and Carlyle don’t write history –they compose it, or paint it, or write an opera about it.  For the first time, I think, I read the long footnote in which Macaulay mentioned his only two sources.  One was the government Report of 1695.  The other was a contemporary pamphlet that helped blow up the cover-up.  It was called Gallienus Redivivus.  It was published well before Gibbon, but its author was aware of the mandate of Gallienus that I have set out above, and part of which Macaulay quotes.  ‘Gallienus ordered the whole province to be laid waste, and wrote to one of his lieutenants in language to which that of the Master of Stair bore but too much resemblance.’  The man who said that there is nothing new under the sun was dead right on this point.

Us and the U S – Chapter 12

Us and the US

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Patriotism; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]

12

Wealth

The United States was commenced by deeply religious people.  Americans know that ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’, but some things require mature judgment and discernment before being applied to life here on earth.

Both the first colonists and the later waves of settlers and migrants went to America to create wealth.  Government at either end was not part of the business.  America was the primal NGO.  Australia was very different.  In the beginning it was the definitive not-for-profit operation, a jail.  The colonies in Australia were closely regulated by military delegates of London and then colonial legislatures.  Government intervention was both thorough and inevitable.  Most importantly, most people coming to Australia did so at the cost of government.  Government therefore played a far bigger role in public life in Australia.  It’s rare to see government creating wealth; that’s not its job.

There was and is a much greater emphasis on individual effort and reward in the U S.  There was correspondingly much more reliance on government intervention and protection in Australia.  The Americans have stronger notions of legal protection of civil rights in general; the Australians have stronger notions about the legal regulation for the distribution of wealth.

The agricultural resources were much better in the U S and small farmers could and did flourish.  There was more water and good soil in the U S.  Government in both London and the colonies sought to encourage a yeoman type of small farmer in Australia, but conditions there did not suit that development.  In the south and east in the U S, wealth was concentrated in tobacco and cotton, built on cheap land and the free labour of convicts and then slaves.  Throughout the rest of the country, the sources of wealth were more evenly spread, except that the north-east was heavily focussed on industry, enabling the U S to become the arsenal of the free world.   In Australia, wealth was concentrated on wool at first, that was initially also built on cheap – free – land and the free labour of convicts, and from there the transition would go to gold and then to minerals generally.

In America, people tend to admire those who succeed financially – that is, after all, the whole bloody point.  In Australia, people lean to a kind of suspicion informed by envy of people who get very rich.  They do not believe that people get very rich honestly; they do in truth see the very wealthy, especially the quick or new ones, as crooks; at the very least, they think that these people will not have paid tax, and so they have got where they have unfairly.

America and Australia are capitalist countries.  That is to say, they believe that business and the creation of wealth should be left to business people, and not to government.  These business people are what we call entrepreneurs.  The driver is competition.  The impression you might get is that the Americans are more ready than Australia and others to apply the logic of competition in capitalism – the prize goes to the winners, and the others are thanked for taking part.

Both countries have had to deal with unhealthy aggregations of wealth.  The Australians had to deal with splitting up the unduly and unfairly large holdings of the squatters, but the attempt to set up a ‘yeoman’ type model of farming failed.  America pioneered laws to break up combinations or trusts that were intended or likely to stifle competition.  These laws are known as anti-trust or competition laws, and Australia has adopted the U S model.  The common law recognises that you can start up in business with the view to wiping out the competition that you find already there –and in applying anti-trust laws, the courts recognise that competition is naturally ruthless – competitors are in one sense engaged in trying to lessen and therefore ‘injure’ the business of each other.  The balance is very fine.

The Australian government intervenes with the distribution of profits by providing binding adjudications on wage issues.  Here Australia does things that would be unthinkable in America.  It has for more than a century settled industrial disputes by making decisions that are given the force of law putting a floor under wages across various industries across the nation.  It has been able to do this because trade unions in Australia have a legal definition and protection, industrial bargaining power, and community tolerance if not respect that they do not have in America.  This in turn has, as it did in England, helped the Labour Movement, as it is called, to maintain a political party.

The sustained and broad intervention of government in industrial relations, the strength of the unions, although now declining, and the presence of a political party with at least an historical tie to the workers, all represent very big differences in the lives of the working people, and the political outlook generally, in Australia compared to America.  If, as most believe, Americans have to work harder and longer for their wages, at least some of the reasons might be found in this different industrial background.

To what extent then should it the Australian government intervene to look after those of its electors who have not done so well and who might fairly be said to need if not deserve help?  Should government adjust the means of some to meet the needs of others?  However you frame the issue, or the criteria for its resolution, the kind of answer that you have got so far in the U S has been very different to that which you get in Australia, Britain, Germany, France, or the rest of Western Europe.  Its agonies over health care now make the point.

The English Welfare State followed similar progress in Germany; New Zealand and Australia were already going the same away; but the wording of section 8 of the U S (‘Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes….to provide for the ….general Welfare of the United States’), has produced nothing like those consequences in America.  When it comes to welfare the U S is the lone state in the Western world.  Like ‘tax’, ‘welfare’ is not a word used in polite company.

Australia has, unusually, gone one step further, almost on its own.  If you combine the last two tendencies that we have been looking at – regulating the distribution of wages and providing for the aged and sick – you get in Australia a universal system of compulsory superannuation.  Employees of all kinds have to put away a percentage of their wages to secure their life when they stop work.  The system has its burdens and its wrinkles, but it is described by some qualified people outside of it as a model for others.

They are the main differences between America and Australia on wealth.  The discussion shows that the terms Right and Left are passé, and that an injunction to provide for ‘Welfare’ may produce a result that makes no sense to others who think they have it – it also shows that old fashioned terms like liberalism, socialism, nanny state, free choice, individualism, or entitlements may not advance the discussion one iota.  Sticks and stones will break your bones, but welfare requires taxes; labels, slogans, and nostrums do not make policy, and they make bloody awful politics.  The inheritors of the empirical tradition are better off working with results rather than with formulae, with experience rather than with theory, and with the world as it is rather than with a Dreamtime or Fantasyland.

Here and there – What is fascism?

 

Some years ago, I sought to identify the range of meaning of three terms or labels commonly used in political discussion as follows.

Left and right

I do not like and I try to avoid these terms, which come from the French Revolution, but I shall set out my understanding.  The ‘left’ tend to stand for the poor and the oppressed against the interests of power and property and established institutions.  The ‘right’ stand for the freedom of the individual in economic issues, and seek to preserve the current mode of distribution.  The left is hopeful of government intervention and change; the right suspects government intervention and is against change.  The left hankers after redistribution of wealth, but is not at its best creating it.  The right stoutly opposes any redistribution of wealth, and is not at its best in celebrating it.  The left is at home with tax; the right loathes it.  These are matters of degree that make either term dangerous.  Either can be authoritarian.  On the left, that may lead to communism.  On the right, you may get fascism.

Fascism

What do I mean by ‘fascism’?  I mean a commitment to the strongest kind of government of a people along overtly militarist and nationalist lines; a government that puts itself above the interests of any or indeed all of its members; a commitment that is driven by faith rather than logic; with an aversion to or hatred of equality, minorities, strangers, women and other deviants; a contempt for liberalism or even mercy; and a government that is prone to symbolism in weapons, uniforms, or its own charms or runes, and to a belief in a charismatic leader. 

The word came originally from the Latin word fasces, the bundle of rods and axe carried before Roman consuls as emblems of authority, and was first applied to the followers of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, and then to the followers of Il Caudillo, Generalissimo Franco, and the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.  Fascists are thick-skinned, thick-headed, and brutal.  They despise intellectuals – who are after all deviants – but they may have an untutored and irrational rat cunning.

As Professor Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University tersely remarks: ‘The whole cocktail is animated by a belief in regeneration through energy and struggle’ (kampf).  To an outsider, it looks like pure moonshine that is the first refuge of a ratbag and a bully, a brilliant and seductive toy for the intellectually and morally deprived, and an eternal warning of the danger of patriotism to people of good sense and good will.  But while that ‘cocktail’ may look a bit much for Plato, it looks fair for Sparta.

Madeline Albright has written a book warning against a resurgence of fascism.  Eastern Europe looks very bleak.  You can make up your own mind about the application of those criteria to Trump.  To me it looks a very close run thing.  I am sick of hearing about him.  I merely say that since Hitler died before I was born, Trump is the leading contender for the prize of the man most loathed on this earth during my lifetime.

I want to invite people to apply those criteria to Napoleon.  Again at first blush that, too, looks close.  Let me just quote some passages from a biography by the distinguished English historian J M Thompson.

Napoleon’s forays into Italy and Egypt were little more than robbery on a grand scale.  He wanted to fund the rape of Egypt by robbing the Swiss.  On the war in Italy, Napoleon said:

Discipline is improving every day, though we still have to shoot a good many men for there are some intractable characters incapable of self-restraint.

You may recall that his political career took off when he used artillery to disperse a Paris mob – Carlyle’s ‘whiff of grapeshot.’  Throughout his career, the Corsican was profligate with French life – something that scandalised his Grace, the Duke of Wellington.

Asians got it worse.

The Turks must let their conduct be ruled by extreme severity.  Here at Cairo, I have heads cut off at the rate of 5 or 6 a day.  Hitherto, we have had to treat the people tactfully, in order to destroy the reputation for terrorism which preceded our arrival.  But now we must make sure that the natives obey us; and for them obedience means fear.

Could Hitler have improved on that descant?

Each stage or coup in the rise of Napoleon in France involved a franker appeal to force.  Abroad, the urge for conquest was insatiable.  His nationalism was only matched by his egoism.  He said that he had made Italy a part of France.  Madame de Staël had his measure.  ‘The English particularly irritate him, as they have found the means of being honest as well as successful, a thing which Bonaparte would have us regard as impossible.’

In his 2014 book Napoleon the Great, Andrew Roberts said that Napoleon was great.  This to me is like the myopia that leads Oxbridge to say that ancient Greece and Rome were civilised.  He committed France to eternal war (la guerre éternelle) and then he lost that war.  He left five million dead in the process.  He left France a smoking rubble that it took France at least a century, and endless coups and revolutions, to come out of.  And, fatally to the reputation of any soldier, he walked out on his own army – twice.  And the only reason that Napoleon and his spurned soldiers found themselves in the sands of the Levant and the snows of Russia was his manic lust for la gloire.

But at least he had one clear policy.  Make France great.  And he then ruined the joint.  As they say there, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Here and there – Arendt on Eichmann

Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt

This book was first published in 1963.  It was serialised in The New Yorker.  In it, Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key participant in the Final Solution.  Arendt was a German Jewess of great learning who had fled from Nazi Germany, and Vichy France, and had become something of a rarity in the West – a respected intellectual.  The book is obviously the work of a very fine mind, but its publication caused great controversy – and grief within the Jewish community.  Some said that Arendt was too judgmental and insensitive – especially about the role of Jewish people in their own immolation.  But a huge controversy erupted, and can still be felt, about the subtitle – ‘the banality of evil.’

When Arendt arrived and first looked at the accused, she felt a kind of shock.  The ‘man in the glass booth’ was nicht einmal unheimlich, ‘not even sinister’ – certainly not inhuman or beyond comprehension.  She began to experience what she would later call her cura posterior, her cure after the event.  Her very astute biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, says:

Many people who read her five article series in the New Yorker – and many more who heard about the series secondhand – concluded that Hannah Arendt was soulless, or that she lacked what Gershom Scholem called Herzenstakt, sympathy.  They thought that Arendt felt no emotional involvement with the fate of her people.  She, on the other hand, thought that she had been finally cured of the kind of emotional involvement that precludes good judgment.

Well, her awakening may not have been as blinding as that of Saint Paul or Martin Luther, but she certainly blew the fuses of many people who were open to the suggestion that they were subject to ‘the kind of emotional involvement which precludes good judgment.’

In the book, Arendt said this about the banality of evil.

When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.  Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing……He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.  And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.

Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’  In other words, Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

The phrase ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ has always seemed to me to be far for more pregnant with meaning than that of ‘the banality of evil,’ even if they are related.  At least as it appears to me, those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose on us some kind of Procrustean bed, and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.  That is what I see as the real point of the book, and that is what I think makes it a great book.  And as with other great books, the reaction to it is almost as instructive as the book itself.

But the suggestion that the war criminal was ‘normal’ was hardly novel.  In looking at reigns of terror during or after the French and Russian revolutions, historians have struggled to understand how ‘ordinary people’ can become mass murderers.  In a book first published in 1941 (The Year of the Terror, Twelve Who Ruled France, 1793-1794, 3rd Ed., 220), the American historian R R Palmer made this observation about Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the man who drowned priests by the boat-load in the Vendée, and who after being at first applauded, was later guillotined for what we would now describe as war crimes.

Carrier, it may safely be said, was a normal man with average sensibilities, with no unusual intelligence or strength of character, driven wild by opposition, turning ruthless because ruthlessness seemed to be the easiest way of solving a difficult problem.

In what way, if any, was Carrier morally different to Eichmann?  As Arendt said, ‘it was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’

We might also reflect on what Berthold Brecht said of Hitler (in his notes to The Resistible Rise of the Man Arturo Ui, also published in 1941):

The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.  They are not great political criminals, but people who committed great political crimes, which is something entirely different.  The failure of his enterprises does not indicate that Hitler was an idiot and the extent of his enterprises does not make him a great man.  If the ruling classes permit a small crook to become a great crook, he is not entitled to a privileged position in our view of history.  That is, the fact that he becomes a great crook, and that what he does has great consequences, does not add to his stature….One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.

These are vital questions.  (And they bear on at least one prominent crook in the U S today.)  But, you might ask, what branch of human knowledge was Carrier, Brecht or Arendt invoking.  Tucked away in a footnote near the end of the biography of Young-Bruehl, we find that in his book Obedience to Authority (New York, 1974) the psychologist Stanley Milgram said:

After witnessing hundreds of ordinary people submit to authority in our experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth that one might dare imagine.  This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

For myself, I don’t know how anyone looking at the mass murders in various reigns of terror can come to a different conclusion.  These regimes have awful corrupting power, but when Arendt saw Eichmann in the flesh, she thought that she had overrated the impact of ideology on the individual.  The conclusion of Arendt about Eichmann looks to me to be consistent with the insight of Carlyle on the worst excesses of the French Terror:

What, then, is this Thing called La Révolution, which, like an Angel of Death, hangs over France, noyading [drowning], fusillading, fighting, gun-boring, tanning human skins?…..It is the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.  In this man, it is, and in that man; as a rage, or as a terror, it is in all men.  Invisible, impalpable; and yet no black Azrael, with wings spread over half a continent, with sword sweeping from sea to sea, could be truer reality. 

After recounting how the French Terror extracted goods to trade in from its dead victims (such as using the skins of the guillotined to produce chamois or their hair to produce wigs), so prefiguring the horror of the Nazis, Carlyle said:

Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever?  Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.

Many good judges wonder what is the point or moral basis of our whole criminal justice system.  What does punishment achieve?  Who but God could aspire to measure it fairly?  Arendt felt the same doubts.  According to her biographer, ‘she did not abandon her opinion that extreme evil, whether thought of as radical or banal, is unpunishable and unforgivable.’  The person she sought to untangle this with was W H Auden.

It is in my view very dangerous to try to come to grips with the greatest lapses in the history of mankind by suggesting that somehow some inherent characteristic of either the evil-doers or their victims was in some way a cause of the relevant crime against humanity.  Saying that some people are marked by birth as different to other people is in my view as close as we can get to the notion of original sin.  And Hannah Arendt was far too acute to think that labels help.

You know that the left think I am conservative and the conservatives sometimes think I am left or a maverick or God knows what.  And I must say I couldn’t care less.  I don’t think the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination from this kind of thing.