MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 1

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.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

A FAREWELL TO ARMS

Ernest Hemingway, 1929

Franklin Library, 1929.  Bound in quarter leather, ridged spine, with embossed title and filigree; cloth boards patterned.  Illustrated by Bernard Fuchs.

During the Second World War, British trains carried a message (one that Wittgenstein cited): ‘Is this journey really necessary?’  Try as I might, I find it hard to put this question behind me when reading Hemingway.  He could certainly write; he was a natural; but did he have anything to say that was worth listening to?

A Farewell to Arms is set on the Italian Front during World War I.  An American volunteer ambulance officer falls in love with a British nurse.  In the meantime, we are exposed to the horror and futility of war.  But what does it matter if two outsiders have their ups and downs during war?  The novel draws on many experiences of Hemingway in the war, but we are spared that obsession with manliness that cost so many women so dearly in the course of Hemingway’s life.

The beginning of the novel is often quoted to show the spare style of the author.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.  Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.  The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

For some, this will be like a mix of Debussy and Auden.

There are passages about the war.

I did not say anything.  I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them on the proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory, and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it……Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.  Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot.  He was born one.

Well, whatever else a patriot might be, you are not born one.  You have to accept moulding and pledge active loyalty and devotion.  The narrator has learned the horrors of war from being involved in one, even if not as a fighting man, and a citizen, and therefore potential patriot, of any of the nations involved.

But less than twenty pages later, we get this from an American volunteer dealing with Italian soldiers – quite possibly conscripts.  They appear to be deserting. The American tenente orders them to come back.  They said he had no authority because he was not their officer.

‘Halt,’ I said.  They kept on down the muddy road, the hedge on the other side.  ‘I order you to halt,’ I called.  They went a little faster.  I opened up my holster, took the pistol, aimed at the one who had talked the most, and fired.  I missed and they both started to run.  I shot three times and dropped one.  The other went through the hedge and was out of sight.  I fired at him through the hedge as he ran across the field.  The pistol clicked empty and I put in another clip.  I saw it was too far to shoot at the second sergeant.  He was far across the field, running, his head held low.  I commenced to reload an empty clip.  Bonello came up.

‘Let me finish him,’ he said. I handed him the pistol and he walked down to where the sergeant of engineers lay face down across the road.  Bonello leaned over, put the pistol against the man’s head and pulled the trigger.  The pistol did not fire.

‘You have to cock it’, I said.  He cocked it and fired twice.  He took hold of the sergeant’s legs and pulled him to the side of the road so he lay beside the hedge.  He came back and handed me the pistol.

‘The son of a bitch,’ he said.

There you have that stern spare style.  ‘I shot three times and dropped one.’  Just as if he were shooting wooden ducks on a conveyor belt at the town fair.

But what has happened here?  An American is there in Italy as a volunteer ambulance man.  He is there to save people, not to kill them.  But he is concerned that soldiers – ‘real soldiers’ – are deserting ‘his’ side.  They are in truth showing a feeling to war that the narrator has just embraced.  He assumes the authority, which is challenged on obvious grounds, to order them to stop, and then he fires at them.

Whatever you might think of this, how do you describe ‘finishing’ the wounded man – who was born to some mother and who may leave a wife and children – as anything other than vicious murder?  Where does that leave the hero and narrator – or the author, who goes on as if nothing had happened out of the ordinary?  Was Himmler or Heydrich so clinical in describing the murders that he participated in?  How many novelists do you know who would be content to leave all this up in the air?

The child of the union is stillborn.

It seems she [Catherine, the nurse and mother] had one haemorrhage after another.  They couldn’t stop it.  I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died.  She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die.

……

‘It was the only thing to do,’ he [the doctor] said.  ‘The operation proved – ’

‘I don’t want to talk about it’, I said.

‘I would like to take you to your hotel.’

‘No thank you.’

He went down the hall.  I went to the door of the room.

‘You can’t come in now’, one of the nurses said.

‘Yes I can I said’, I said.

‘You can’t come in yet.’

‘You get out’, I said.  ‘The other one too.’

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good.  It was like saying good-by to a statue.  After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

‘Like saying good-by to a statue’?  Is that all he has to show for the loss of his lover and mother of his child?

Sparseness in writing is one thing; being antiseptic is another; but heartlessness is altogether something different.  It is not then surprising if some readers – including me – are left cold, and fearing that they have just seen a victory of technique over humanity.

Why then is this book here?  This is a lovely and readable edition (even if the illustrations are awful); I have greatly enjoyed parts of this and other books by this author; and the acknowledged contribution of Hemingway to the literature of the twentieth century is such that it would have been churlish to have omitted him from a book such as this.

Here and there – Jude the Obscure

 

Jude Fawley is thoroughly decent.   He also wants to become learned and respected.  But he has doom written all over his face, and much more stridently than had either Romeo or Juliet.  He is at first seduced and then conned into marriage by Arabella Donn.  Arabella is anything but decent.  She is a tart who shoots through.  Jude then falls for his cousin, Sue Bridehead.  There are at least two problems – his marriage to Arabella, and the family relationship.  And Sue.  What is she about?  That is what the book is about.  Throughout my reading of this novel, a song my parents loved, I think sung by Eddie Cantor, kept on resurfacing.

If you knew Susie, like I know Susie,

Oh, Oh, what a gal!

There’s none so classy

As this fair lassie…..

You can see Thomas Hardy as the link between George Eliot and D H Lawrence.  There are also many times when this novel reads like Days of Our Lives.  And toward the end, a mordant slice of Wozzek hits you smack in the face from nowhere.  At times I wondered if the author’s mind was too fast for his pen.  The changes of tempi for the various star-crossed lovers can be very unsettling.  There are times, too, when you think that you may be watching a puppet show predestined by the coolest Calvinist.  Is Jude too innocent and vulnerable?  Is Arabella too predictably devious?  And will the mercurial Sue ever find peace?  And then there are times when the book just sounds alarmingly modern – and worlds way from Dickens

This is the start of Jude’s problems.

That night he went out alone, and walked in the dark self-communing. He knew well, too well, in the secret centre of his brain, that Arabella was not worth a great deal as a specimen of womankind. Yet, such being the custom of the rural districts among honourable young men who had drifted so far into intimacy with a woman as he unfortunately had done, he was ready to abide by what he had said, and take the consequences. For his own soothing he kept up a factitious belief in her. His idea of her was the thing of most consequence, not Arabella herself, he sometimes said laconically.

When Hardy spoke of Sue – and he should have known her – he referred to ‘the elusiveness of her curious double nature.’  She says she loves Jude but she has a hang-up about sex – or men generally.  Consequently, the two ‘lovers’ devote time and love to each other – without getting it off.  If Jude was bloody frustrated, so was I.  Sue was in mortal danger of being branded a teaser, but the strain on our credulity, or patience, can be severe.

You may often think that this was a book just written for Bette Davis – who made all those films that left you wondering why people wanted to torture themselves over ‘love’- with oodles of exclamation marks.

‘Yes… But Sue—my wife, as you are!’ he burst out; ‘my old reproach to you was, after all, a true one. You have never loved me as I love you—never—never! Yours is not a passionate heart—your heart does not burn in a flame! You are, upon the whole, a sort of fay, or sprite—not a woman!’

Jude has a philosophical disposition; in another life he may have been right into bondage.  And not many stonemasons can reel off Aeschylus.

‘Nothing can be done,’ he replied. ‘Things are as they are, and will be brought to their destined issue.’

She paused. ‘Yes! Who said that?’ she asked heavily.

‘It comes in the chorus of the Agamemnon. It has been in my mind continually since this happened.’

‘My poor Jude—how you’ve missed everything!—you more than I, for I did get you! To think you should know that by your unassisted reading, and yet be in poverty and despair!’

After such momentary diversions her grief would return in a wave.

(The ‘this’ is the Wozzek interlude.)

In the Preface, Hardy said that a German reviewer had said that the heroine – Sue Bridehead –

…..was the first delineation in fiction of the woman who was coming into notice in her thousands every year – the woman of the feminist movement – the slight, pale ‘bachelor’ girl – the intellectualized, emancipated bundle of nerves that modern conditions were producing, mainly in cities as yet; who does not recognise the necessity for most of her sex to follow marriage as a profession, and boast themselves as superior people because they are licensed to be loved on the premises.  (Emphasis added.)

The novel came out in 1894 – to uproar – but that absolute blinder of a line was written in 1912:….‘because they are licensed to be loved on the premises.’   That was when women were trying to come out – amid the blood and guts of a fearful partition.  And that I think is why the story of Sue Bridehead is so hard and chancy.  She was some sort of assault pioneer, and that sort of soldier takes heavy casualties.  Coming out, like breaking up, is hard to do.  Had a woman written this book, it may have been called Sue the Obscure.

For all its problems – especially for a bloke in this century – this book is an engrossing read.  And I have a soft spot for it for another reason.  It was the favourite book of the late John Arlott, a cricket commentator whose voice could be recognised instantly across the oceans, and who loved to get very deep with a bottle of red in his hand.

 

 

MY TOP SHELF – 50 – Beowulf

 

[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.]

BEOWULF

Seamus Heaney (translator)

Folio Society, 2010; bound in quarter burgundy buckram, with gold title and etching on cloth boards; gold trimmed pages; gold cloth slip case; illustrated by Becca Thorne.

So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by

And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

There is something about this poem Beowulf, which begins with the lines just quoted, that is at once mystical and elemental, misty but somehow internal.  It is as if we see ourselves but darkly, in some other plane.  It was composed in what we call Anglo-Saxon or Old English toward the end of the first millennium.  It was written in England about events in what are now called Denmark and Sweden.

Beowulf is a champion of the Geats.  He crosses the sea to help the Danes deal with a monster called Grendel.  He prevails, and then dies.  Like The Iliad, Beowulf ends with the funeral pyre of a hero.  If you like that kind of thing, you might see Beowulf as the missing link between The Iliad and Paradise Lost.

Great were the dangers to be overcome by Beowulf.

All were endangered; young and old

Were hunted down by that dark death-shadow

Who lurked and swooped in the long nights

On the misty moors; nobody knows

Where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

So Grendel waged his lonely war,

Inflicting constant cruelties on the people,

Atrocious hurt.  He took over Heorot,

Haunted the glittering hall after dark

But the throne itself, the treasure seat,

He was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast.

These were hard times, heart-breaking….

Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed

Offerings to idols, swore oaths

That the killer of souls may come to their aid

And save the people.  That was their way,

Their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts

They remembered hell.  (159-180)

It is hard to imagine someone better equipped to translate this great poem than the late Seamus Heaney, the distinguished Irish poet and scholar.

I came to translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery.  I remember the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique.  What I had always loved was a kind of foursquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living inside a constantly indicative mood, in the presence of an understanding that assumes you share an awareness of the perilous nature of life and are yet capable of seeing it steadily, and, when necessary, sternly.  There is an undeluded quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world which gives his lines immense emotional credibility and allows him to make general observations about life which are far too grounded in experience and reticence to be called ‘moralising.’  These so-called ‘gnomic’ parts of the poem have the cadence and force of earned wisdom, and their combination of cogency and verity was again something that I could remember about the speech I heard as a youngster in the Scullion kitchen….The style of the poem is hospitable to the kind of formulaic phrases which are the stock-in-trade of oral bards, and yet it is marked too by the self-consciousness of an artist convinced that ‘we must labour to be beautiful.’

Here is some more of the remarkable poetry.

That great heart rested.  The hall towered,

Until the black raven with raucous glee

Announced heaven’s joy, and a hurry of brightness

Overran the shadows.  Warriors rose quickly

Impatient to be off; their own country

Was beckoning the nobles; and the bold voyager

Longed to be aboard his distant boat.  (1799-1807)

This is how Heaney saw the epic.

Grendel comes alive in the reader’s imagination as a kind of dog-breath in the dark, a fear of collision with some hard-boned and immensely strong android frame, a mixture of Caliban and hoplite.  And while his mother, too, has a definite brute-bearing about her, a creature of slouch and lunge on land if seal-swift in the water, she nevertheless retains a certain non-strangeness.  As antagonists of a hero being tested, Grendel and his mother possess an appropriate head-on strength.

The myth of the testing of the hero by a frightening instrument of evil is probably our favourite – right up to the movie Jaws.  But this epic is of interest to us also because it tells of the birth of our laws, in the replacement of the vendetta or blood-feud.

There was a feud one time, begun by your father.

With his own hands he had killed Heathaloaf

Who was a Wulfing; so war was looming

And his people in fear of it forced him to leave….

Finally I healed the feud by paying:

I shipped a treasure-trove to the Wulfings

And Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance.  (459-473)

We might call this settling out of court.  It is not surprising that the scholar who trumpeted the claim of Beowulf to be taken as literature was named J R R Tolkien.

We learn that the object of the hero – as for Achilles – was to ‘gain enduring glory in a combat’ (1535/6).  It is right, then, that the poem ends with these lines.

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits

And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing

For a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear

And cherish his memory when that moment comes

When he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.

So the Geat people, his hearth companions,

Sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.

They said that of all the kings upon the earth

He was the man most gracious and fair-minded,

Kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.  (3173-3182)

You do not need to crave immortality to see how the poet there speaks to all of us.  Heaney speaks of his ‘fondness for the melancholy and fortitude that characterised the poetry.’   He said that this poem has a ‘mythic potency’ that ‘arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose…it passes once more into the beyond.’  Exactly – and is it not for this that we go to great writers?

 

 

Passing Bull 228 –Bull about paying the price

 

We don’t like paying tax but we don’t like bad roads or long waits to get into hospital or insufficient protection from the police.  It is the job of government to balance those impulses.  Most of the time, we get by, although some hiccups annoy us.  But for many reasons – including massive bribery – we can’t even get started sensibly on climate change.  Yes, people will lose money or jobs on restraining fossil fuel sources, but all the evidence is that the probabilities are that we will all be a lot worse off- especially those coming after us – unless we bite the bullet.  Most of Europe – including England – know this and are reacting.  But not us or the U S.  We cannot afford to pay the price. Indeed we elected a government that had expressly promised not to pay the price.  But balancing these contrary impulses is the first function of government.  No wonder our children and grand-children are in despair.

And the failure looks to be a failure of democracy.  MP’s from coal areas have far too much influence.  Some say the same about Christianity and abortion and assisted dying.

These failings came home to me reading about the abolition of the slave trade in England.  There was a massive cost to the English economy, and that was the basis of the opposition.  The parallel seems apposite.  But the English, driven by Evangelicals and Quakers, went ahead and prevailed.  Why?   Because that was the right thing to do.

We do look to be going backwards, and the backlash from those coming after us will be ferocious.

Bloopers

The low level of harm and the apology made by the Minister… to the Mayor…., along with the significant level of resources required to investigate were also factored in the decision [of the AFP not to investigate] not to pursue this matter.

AFR, 7 February 2020.

You know you are going bad when the rozzers say that there is only ‘a low level of harm’ when one politician alters a document to smear another politician.

Top Shelf – 49 – Gibbon

MEMOIRS OF MY LIFE

Edward Gibbon (1814)

Folio Society, 1991; bound in green cloth, gold embossed, in stone slip case.

I had now attained the solid comforts of life, a convenient well-furnished house, a domestic table, half a dozen chosen servants, my own carriage, and all those decent luxuries whose value is more sensibly felt the longer they are enjoyed…To a lover of books, the shops and sales in London present irresistible temptations…..

Before looking at what Gibbon said, you need either to recall or know that Gibbon was one of the most graceful writers of prose that England has produced.  He was also one of the most devastating hit-men that the world has seen.  Apart from the grace of his style, and the rhythm of his writing, he had a wickedly nice, dry irony.  Here is one short example:  ‘See the tragic and scandalous fate of an Archdeacon of royal birth, who was slain by the Turks as he reposed in an orchard, playing at dice with a Syrian concubine’.  Count the criminal libels or mere denigrations in that off-the-cuff remark about one dead man of God.

Here is my all-time favourite put-down by this author.  It is of the Emperor Gallienus.

In every art that he attempted, his lively genius enabled him to succeed; and as his genius was destitute of judgment, he attempted every art except the important ones of war and government.  He was a master of several curious but useless sciences, a ready orator and elegant poet, a skilful gardener, an excellent cook, and most contemptible prince.  When the great emergencies of state required his presence and attention, he was engaged in conversation with the philosopher Plotinus, wasting his time in trifling or licentious pleasures, preparing his initiation to the Grecian mysteries or soliciting a place in the Areopagus of Athens.  His profuse magnificence insulted the general poverty; the solemn ridicule of his triumphs impressed a deeper sense of the public disgrace.  The repeated intelligence of invasions, defeats and rebellions, he received with a careless smile; and singling out, with affected contempt, some particular production of the lost province, he carelessly asked whether Rome must be ruined unless it was supplied with linen from Egypt, and Arras cloth from Gaul.

There you have the style of Edward Gibbon, and the story of the decline and fall of Rome.

Gibbon came from a family of squires in the Weald of Kent.  He was not well enough to stay at Winchester.  His mother died from breeding six other children who also died.  His father retired from Parliament to return to live among the landed gentry.  He was a man of whim.  One such whim was to enrol Gibbon as a Gentleman Commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford.  In this autobiography Gibbon rained some venom on his old university.

The Fellows or monks of my time were decent easy men who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder.  Their days were filled by a series of uniform employments:  the chapel and the hall, the coffee house and the common room, till they retired weary and well satisfied, to a long slumber.  From the toil of reading or thinking or writing they had absolved their conscience, and the first shoots of learning and ingenuity withered on the ground without yielding any fruit to the owners or the public…..Their conversations stagnated in a round of college business, personal stories and private scandal; their dull and deep potations excused the brisk intemperance of youth; and their constitutional toasts were not expressive of the most lively loyalty for the House of Hanover. 

Gibbon was too young to enjoy ‘the taverns and bagnios of Convent Garden’.  Instead, he fell under the spell of the Church of Rome.  This was too much for his father, who banished him to Lausanne, where he stayed for five years to have that nonsense knocked out of him by Monsieur Pavilliard, a learned Calvinist minister.

Gibbon dropped a girlfriend when Dad took exception.  ‘I sighed as a lover.  I obeyed as a son.’  Both limbs of the equation were probably untrue, and we might hope that Gibbon later regretted that tart dismissal of his one and only love.  (Mademoiselle Churchod went on to other things.  She married Monsieur Necker, who became the Minister of Finance in France, and played a large part in the French Revolution, and she gave him a daughter, Mme de Staël.)

Gibbon served for a time in the militia, and remained in it for years, and we might imagine Captain Gibbon, the small man with the rather large and ridiculous head, jogging at the head of his bucolic Grenadiers.  He sought to get away from it all with nights of ‘bumperizing that left him in the morning where he could ‘do nothing … but spew’.

When looking back on his life, Gibbon had no doubt that it was formed by the nearly five years he had spent at Lausanne.  ‘Such as I am in genius or learning or in manners, I owe my creation to Lausanne ….  I had ceased to be an Englishman’.  But he had previously recorded that his taste for the French theatre had only ‘perhaps abated my idolatry for the gigantic genius of Shakespeare, which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman’.

Gibbon embarked on the Grand Tour.  His lack of worldliness – he had been too young to visit the whores when he was at Oxford – may have left him even more at sea with the French ladies than David Hume had been.  He saw Voltaire perform in a play.  Then he came at last to Rome while he was still casting about for a subject for a history, for it was to writing a history that he would devote his life.  His mixed upbringing enabled him to give a more balanced view of the religious divide than others – ‘the Catholic superstition, which is always the enemy of reason, is often the parent of taste’.  The lines with which Gibbon celebrated his visit to Rome are still celebrated by his admirers.

My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned to affect.  But at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City.  After a sleepless night I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present in my eye;…several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation…In my Journal the place and moment of conception are recorded;  the fifteenth of October 1764, in the close of evening, as I sat musing in the Church of the Zoccalanti of Franciscan friars, while they were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter on the ruins of the Capitol.  But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the City, rather than the Empire; and, though my reading and reflections began to point towards the object, some years elapsed and several avocations intervened before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.

The six volume work of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was indeed to be his life’s work.  Gibbon greatly admired the History of Hume.  Gibbon’s first work had been written in French, but Hume persuaded him to write his History in English.  Hume thought, being an astute Scot, that the flowering of America would lead to English having the greater coverage.  Hume, and most of the rest of Britain, were generous in their praise of the History as it came out, volume by volume.  The Church was not.

Gibbon held court and would allow little chance of reply.  But this Georgian England had a vivacious conversational character.  He once unloaded one of his best foreign anecdotes and was waiting for his tribute of applause.  ‘When a deep-toned but clear voice was heard from the bottom of the table, very calmly and civilly impugning the correctness of the narrative, and the propriety of the doctrines of which it had been made the vehicle.’  This was no less than William Pitt the Younger (the youngest Prime Minister of England at the age of 24).  Gibbon was obliged to give ground and then excused himself and left the room.  He was apprehended looking for his hat, and when asked to return he said that the gentleman who had interrupted him was ‘extremely ingenious and agreeable, but I must acknowledge that his style of conversation is not exactly what I am accustomed to, so you must positively excuse me’.  Jane Austen could have written that.

He died on 16 January 1794 of an appalling illness that had long troubled him.  He was at peace and without fear, but it is a very fair guess that no other writer of history has been so read, so admired, and so loved.  It is certainly the case that this rather absurd Englishman still talks to us and enlightens us after we have gone more than two hundred years down the road.

The great historian looked for patterns in the past.  He was not to devote his life’s work to describing outlines of spent tea leaves.  ‘History to a philosopher’ he said, ‘is what gambling was to the Marquis de Dangeau:  he saw a system, relations, consequences, where others saw only the caprice of fortune’.  Gibbon was describing the decline and fall of an empire.  He saw that decline occurred with the rise of religion; he asked why ancient civilisation failed and if it could happen again.

Perhaps it was because Georgian English gentlemen suspected that their England suffered from similar lesions on its society that they were content to allow Athens and Rome to be described as civilised.  But it is a little curious that educated Europeans should have sought to find how this mighty and civilised empire was brought low – was felled in truth – by a scrawny ragamuffin hasid whose teaching of the Sermon on the Mount underwrote all of what the English would come to call civilised about their empire.  And how could Rome have sought to hold an empire under arms if it subscribed to the view that it is the meek who inherit the earth?

It is not surprising that Gibbon followed what might be called the party line in describing Rome as civilised, but we might notice that he began his first published work, the Essai, with the following words of eternal verity: L’histoire des empires est celle de la misere des hommes. ‘The history of empires is the history of the misery of mankind.’

Sadly, space allows only a couple of quotations on the Crusades:

… the name and nature of a ‘holy war’ demands a more rigorous scrutiny;  nor can we hastily believe that the servants of the Prince of Peace would ensheath the sword of destruction unless the motive were pure, the quarrel legitimate, and the necessity inevitable. 

Gibbon attacks indulgences with savagery.  He then goes on to describe the beginning of the first Crusade.

Some counts and gentlemen, at the head of three thousand horse, attended the motions of the multitude to partake in the spoil, but their genuine leaders (may we credit such folly?) were a goose and a goat, who were carried in the front, and to whom these worthy Christians ascribed an infusion of the divine spirit.  Of these, and of other bands of enthusiasts, the first and most easy warfare was against the Jews, the murderers of the Son of God.  In the trading cities of the Moselle and the Rhine, their colonies were numerous and rich, and they enjoyed under the protection of the Emperor and the Bishops the free exercise of their religion.  At Verdun, Trèves, Metz, Spires, Worms many thousands of that unhappy people were pillaged and massacred, nor had they felt a more bloody stroke since the persecution of Hadrian ….  The more obstinate Jews exposed their fanaticism to the fanaticism of the Christians, barricadoed their houses, and precipitating themselves, their families and their wealth into the rivers of the flames, disappointed the malice, or at least the avarice, of their implacable foes.

Gibbon next savages the institution of knighthood and then goes on to describe the taking of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

A bloody sacrifice was offered by his mistaken votaries [Tancred’s] to the God of the Christians:  resistance might provoke, but neither age nor sex could mollify their implacable rage: they indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre; and the infection of the dead bodies produced an epidemical disease.  After seventy thousand Moslems had been put to the sword, and the harmless Jews had been burnt in their synagogue, they could still reserve a multitude of captives whom interest or lassitude persuaded them to spare.  ….  The Holy Sepulchre was now free; and the bloody victors prepared to accomplish their vow.  Bare-headed and bare foot, with contrite hearts and in a humble posture, they ascended the hill of Calvary, amidst the loud anthems of the clergy; kissed the stone which had covered the Saviour of the world;  and bedewed with tears of joy and penitence the monument of their redemption.  This union of the fiercest and most tender passions has been variously considered by two philosophers: by the one, as easy and natural; by the other, as absurd and critical.

The first philosopher referred to is David Hume; the second was Voltaire.

Here is Gibbon on Israelite conquests.

When the posterity of Abraham had multiplied like the sands of the sea, the Deity, from whose mouth they received a system of laws and ceremonies, declared himself the proper and as it were the national God of Israel; and with the most jealous care separated his most favourite people from the rest of mankind.  The conquest of the land of Canaan with so many wonderful and so many bloody circumstances, that the victorious Jews were left in a state of irreconcilable hostility with all their neighbours.  They had been commanded to extirpate some of the most idolatrous tribes, and the execution of the Divine will had seldom been retarded by the weakness of humanity.

Here is Gibbon on the absolutism of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

But the primitive church, whose faith was of a much firmer consistence, delivered over, without hesitation, to eternal torture, the far greater part of the human species. A charitable hope might perhaps be indulged in favour of Socrates, or some other sages of antiquity, who had consulted the light of reason before that of the Gospel had arisen.  But it was unanimously affirmed that those who, since the birth or the death of Christ, had obstinately persisted in the worship of the daemons, neither deserved nor could expect a pardon from the irritated justice of the Deity.  These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony.

Finally, this is Gibbon on celibacy.

Since desire was imputed as a crime, and marriage was tolerated as a defect, it was consistent with the same principles to consider a state of celibacy as the nearest approach to Divine perfection. It was with the utmost difficulty that ancient Rome could support the institution of six vestals [virgins] but the primitive church was filled with a great number of persons of either sex who had devoted themselves to the profession of perpetual chastity.

In the footnote, Gibbon records of the six Roman maids: ‘nor could the dread of the most horrible death always restrain their incontinence.’

How did our brothers and sisters of Asia fare? Gibbon said that for all his powers of eloquence, Mohammed was an illiterate barbarian, although he says that the ‘base and plebeian origin of Mohammed is an unskilful calumny of the Christians.’ (How did they class the origin of Jesus of Nazareth?)  Gibbon does of course praise Mohammed for dispensing with priests, sacrifices, and monks, but he rejects the doctrine of damnation by which ‘the greater part of mankind has been condemned for their opinions.’ Gibbon was, like most people, fascinated by sex.  He had this comment on Paradise.

Seventy-two Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years, and his faculties will be increased a hundredfold to render him worthy of the felicity ….This image of carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks…

But this Paradise was assured to those who died for the faith since the Prophet had said ‘The sword is the key of heaven and of hell: a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer…’ .

It is very hard now to imagine history in any language being written with such pitch and such intensity.  But he may have unsheathed a sword the consequences of which he never intended.

In Gibbon’s view, Greek philosophy had infected the teaching of those following Jesus of Nazareth.  It was notorious that many of the divisions of the early church were fed on thinking that came to its members from the Platonist school.  Gibbon thought that Platonism did not mix well with Christianity.

But theology, which it was incumbent to believe, which it was impious to doubt, and which it might be dangerous, even fatal, to mistake, became the familiar topic of private mediation and popular discourse.  The cold indifference of philosophy was inflamed by the fervent spirit of devotion.

It may have been like global warming disputants trying their hand with the theory of relativity or string theory.

The familiar study of the Platonic system, a vain and argumentative disposition, a copious and flexible idiom, supplied the clergy and the people of the east with an inexhaustible flow of words and distinctions; and, in the midst of their fierce contentions, they easily forgot the doubt which is recommended by philosophy, and the submission which is enjoined by religion.

It has to be said that these observations ring many bells, and not just in the context of the Christian church.

Baroque sentences flowed out Gibbon just like baroque music flowed out of Mozart.  His canvass blazes like that of El Greco.  He had a sense of grace and rhythm that would have appealed to the instincts of Errol Garner and which had a lasting effect on one of his greatest followers.

For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings.  I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it.  Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along.  Let it roll.  Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.

May I conclude on a whim of my own fancy?  For me, Gibbon was and is the greatest writer in prose of them all.

 

Here and there – Evading the question

 

People in public life are trained to evade answering questions.  They practise it.  It becomes second nature.  You might think that people in positions of trust should be obliged to answer questions about their discharge of that trust candidly and in good faith.  The law and I would agree with you.  But that is not what happens.  What we get are evasion, equivocation and half-truths.  The idea is never to give a straight answer.  Even if you are just asked to say what time it is.

Here are some of the most popular techniques.

  1. Restate or reframe the question so that you can answer it favourably to yourself. Mediators are trained to do this in a good way to try to take some heat out of the dispute.  It is notorious that opinion polls can be slanted by the way the question is framed.  ‘Do you think that it is in the public interest for the media to have more protection – more freedom of speech, if you like – in reporting on political issues?’  That is very different to: ‘Should we give Rupert Murdoch carte blanche to walk all over us in political cat fights?’  Instead of saying what your party has done, say what its policy is.  This is very common – offering motherhood in place of fact.  Alternatively, instead of talking about policy, say what your party has in fact done.  This simple if blatant evasion is standard.  For question A you have response X; for question B you have response Y; and so on.
  2. Challenge a premise of the question. ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ is objectionable as it assumes that you do beat your wife.  What about: ‘Why do you call this informant a whistle-blower?  He is just a common garden snitch and liar.’  ‘I object to your labelling this man as a conservative.  He is a closet lefty…anarchist ….alarmist’ …..and so on.
  3. If you get a chance to say that the question is ambiguous, think about saying so. (Some lawyers think that if their opponent looks clumsy, it may be best to leave them to try to dog paddle to shore on their own.)
  4. Brand the question as hypothetical and say that you don’t answer hypothetical questions. This may sometimes be true.
  5. Or invoke some other trite label. ‘I don’t engage in the Canberra bubble’, ‘water cooler gossip’, ‘locker room banter’, ‘hearsay’, ‘bloviations of the elites’, ‘virtue signalling’, ‘politically motivated’, ‘fake news’ or ‘deep state’……  Or, I speak to ‘quiet Australians’ (who never answer back).  You can get the full range of this nonsense every Saturday in The Weekend Australian.  Seasoned operatives take the view that the more meaningless and inflammatory the label is, the better off is the response.  It may depend on the acuity of the audience.
  6. If asked about the past say that you are focussed on the future. One Australian Minister, whose sense is matched by their deportment – the avoidance of gender is deliberate – always ‘looks to move on.’  (Walking backwards for Christmas does not enjoy a good pedigree.)  Then, when asked about the future, you decline to speculate on the suppositious or academic.  The golden template is in these immortal lines from the greatest movie ever made.

YVONNE: Where were you last night?

RICK: That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.

YVONNE: Will I see you tonight?

RICK: I never make plans that far ahead.

But, alas, that kind of spark is missing from those who bring coals into our parliament.  (On a good day, they remind me of a bus driver from Box Hill in the Fifties.)

  1. If the matter is sensitive – say gun control or climate change – say that current or recent events make it in bade taste to allow ‘political point scoring’ to cloud delicate and personal issues. You can use the word ‘opportunistic’ – and hope that you are not asked to say what you mean.  In this country at least, this is a dead horse – except for followers of Sky After Dark or The Australian.
  2. A primary object is to keep onside that part of the audience that fears doubt and is made insecure by a want of finality. (This is sometimes called ‘the base’ – a useful double entendre.)  That sadly is a large part of the audience (although not as large as in the U S).  For that purpose, keep serving up the same old platitudes.  The simpler, the better.  But be careful about mixing escalation and increase in volume with repetition.  (The leading modern exponent of that technique is currently – in November, 2019 – heading for a gutser.)
  3. Be like a good poker player. Just bluff hard and big and look them dead in the eye and dare them to call you out.  After all, this is all about saving   You could model this aspect on President Xi.  (Who would play poker with that sphinx?)
  4. Blind them with science or big words. This is mandatory in any discussion of science or economics.  (The two are very different things.)  Remember the immortal advice cited by Professor Frankfurt in On Bullshit – ‘Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.’  It’s like throwing sand in your protagonist’s eyes.  But this response, too, requires care.  Your supporters take offence if they think you are deliberately aiming to go above their heads (which it is alarmingly easy to do).
  5. Bury them with detail. ‘Yes, in order to deal with that issue in the manner it deserves, I need to take you to some of the figures……’  This is called a snow job.  It is very common in legal and commercial negotiations.  You may look aggrieved if you are called on to get to the point.  ‘This is not a matter to be entered into lightly or ill-advisedly.’  You could then give the Andrew Bolt look of dolour – with appropriate hand gestures.
  6. Alternatively, you may say that the question calls for an opinion that you are not qualified to give. You must apply this technique with extreme care –especially if you devote most of your time to doing just that (which is the case for many lawyers and most politicians).
  7. A similar caution goes for slowing down the process by taking an inordinate time to answer the question – or, more properly, to respond to the question. This technique can be useful in dealing with tyro journalists or barristers in cross-examination, but it may not fit your schtick – this is no place for modesty – and it may not appeal to that ghastly mirage called your ‘base.’  They are happy with front and bluff, and not impressed by a devotion to care; or, for that matter, by fidelity of any colour.
  8. Depending on the forum, you may choose to be pleasant – you should always at least look polite and courteous and under control. If you are prepared to resort to flattery, leave aside the trowel.  And ‘That’s a very good question’ is badly overdone.  And don’t ramble.  You might convict yourself out of your own mouth.  And avoid traps like ‘sincerely’ or ‘honestly.’  (What is your condition when you do not expressly adopt that position?)
  9. An alternative is to belittle the questioner. This too requires care and skill.  Many people don’t like bullies.  (That proposition is just one of those that is refuted by the current rise of two worst leaders in the West.)  Cajolery may be better.  (Blackmail of course should not be undertaken in public, and then only under total and detachable and renounceable cover in private – witness aid to the Ukraine.)
  10. Attack the questioner head on. ‘Well, that’s just the kind of bias I would expect from the ABC.’  (Compare: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands at last?’)
  11. The Latin tag for playing the man is ad hominem ( ‘to the man’). It is repellently overused by diverting attention to the other side.  ‘Well, we are not perfect.  We are realists.  But just have a look at the mess that our opponents left for us – and for you, the people.’  This is intellectual trash, but you get truckloads of it every day, and the people out of doors don’t hear the sighs or groans.
  12. If in doubt, start a fight. This has been the resort of lawyers and business people from time out of mind.  It comes ever so naturally to those who appeal to the gutter, because they know that the gutter enjoys a good fight.
  13. The alternative to a fight is just to walk out. That may be easier to live with than an admission of guilt – and the whole point of the exercise is to avoid precisely that.

They are some of the more common techniques.  The questioner must recall one of the major rules of cross-examination.  Make sure that the witness answers the question.  If you get a snow job or some other windy evasion, bring them back to the point.  ‘Well, are you quite finished?  Are you sure?  Did you understand the question?  Well then, could you now please answer it?’  It’s about even money that they will say that they forget what the question was – and sometimes that may be the case.

Professor Frankfurt cites two definitions of ‘bull’: ‘Talk which is not to the purpose; ‘hot air’; ‘slang term for a combination of bluff, bravado, ‘hot air’ and what we used to call in the Army ‘kidding the troops’’.  He spoke of people ‘unconstrained by a concern with truth.’

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit…..For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony….The bullshitter is faking things.  But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong….Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

That book was published in 2005.  Since then, bull has become an art form and reached its apotheosis in Messrs Trump and Johnson.

Now, you may well think that whatever else we have been talking about, it is not honesty.  I agree with you.  But that is where we are now.

Here and there -Contracts and status of medieval vassals and kings

 

I

On reading again Maine on Ancient Law, and Pollock and Maitland The History of English Law before the time of Edward I, I was once more made curious about the reluctance of English lawyers, historians and philosophers to acknowledge the importance of contract in the development of the common law – including in that term the constitution of England.

It was the insight of Sir Henry Maine that ‘the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract.’  Maine made that observation before ideologues of a certain bent, mostly those in the service of a certain press baron, invested the term ‘progressive’ with a load of rather smelly baggage, but it is a comfort to most of us to know that rather than just inherit some standing in the world (status), we can have our say in it by dealing with others for that purpose (contract).  Indeed, that great shift signifies the beginning of what we call the modern era after the waning of the Middle Ages.  And it coincides with another shift – from the supernatural to science, and from the jurisdiction of God and his church to that of the people on this earth.

II

The very long epoch called the Middle Ages was characterised by what we now call feudalism.  I sought to describe the compact at the heart of feudalism as follows.

A peasant farmer would go to the man in charge of the manor or village and offer to provide services, including what we would now call military service, in return for the protection afforded by the manor or village.  The ceremony was simple.  One man put his hands between the hands of the other and said ‘I am your man’.  This was called doing homage. 

In a world where God was everywhere, and where a transaction may not be thought to be worth much if God was not involved or invoked, there was often a further ceremony or rite.  The man paying homage, whom we call the vassal, might swear on the Gospel to be faithful to his lord or master.  This was called fealty, and it was given at a time when fear of eternal damnation was very real.  The compact lasted for the joint lives of the two people involved. ……

So, what we have is an exchange of promises – you look after me and I will work or fight for you – that were intended to be binding and to be acted upon for life.  That is what we call a contract. 

Maitland said that ‘Glanvill and Bracton seem to lower their voices to a religious whisper when they speak of homage’ but he went on to say:

The contract was far from being a one-sided one.  The lord was bound to defend and warrant his gift….But the primary obligation [was] the duty of defending his tenant in possession ‘against all men who can live and die.’  If the tenant was attacked by process of law, he vouched his lord, he called upon his lord to defend the action and the lord if he did his duty defended it.  Now here we see a great force at work.  Do what we may to make all men equal before the law, a rich man has and must always have great advantages in litigation…..

The contract at the bottom of vassalage was said by Professor Milsom to be ‘a relationship of reciprocal obligations…Now he [the lord] buys services and pays directly in land…He buys a man.’  You may wish to take care about repeating that last statement in some quarters.

III

We might wonder how a poor tenant might seek to enforce such a right as matter of law.  The lord could enforce his rights under the compact by seizing and converting goods of the tenant without any intervention by the courts.  This was the remedy called ‘distress.’  It was a burning issue because it was so open to oppression and abuse.  Simon de Montfort called it ‘the beginning of all wars.’  The Year Books show a judge in 1310 saying that a ‘wicked ribald of a bailiff…may cause a poor man by coercion to do a suit.’

The wrongs inflicted under the banner of distress had led to the passing of the statute of Marlborough in 1267.  This law severely limited the remedy of distress, to the extent that Maitland said that it ‘in many ways marks the end of feudalism.’  And as if to underline Maitland’s point about the advantages of the rich man in litigation, the statute began with an alarming proclamation of equality 500 years before the Bastille fell.  Section 1 is still part of the law of England:

Whereas at the time of a Commotion late stirred up within this Realm, and also sithence, many great Men, and divers other, refusing to be justified  by the King and his Court, like as they ought and were wont in Time of the King’s noble Progenitors, and also in his Time; but took great Revenges and Distresses of their Neighbours…..It is Provided, agreed, and granted, that all Persons, as well of high as of low Estate, shall receive Justice in the King’s Court; and none from henceforth shall take any such Revenge or Distress of his own Authority, without Award of  Court, though he have Damage or Injury, whereby he would have amends of his Neighbour either higher or lower.  [Emphasis added.]

Notice that this statute when it becomes operative says that it ‘is Provided, agreed, and granted that …’  What could be a more natural way of saying of a resolution of a dispute than that ‘the parties agree…..’?

IV

Now, when we speak of ‘contract’ in this context, we use the term as it is used now in our law.  The common law was nowhere near that point in the thirteenth century, much less anywhere near the doctrine of what we call ‘consideration.’  The first text of English law, published in the 12th century, said simply ‘It is not the custom of the Lord King to protect private agreements.’

The notion of contract had long been settled in Roman law, but not in ours.  The jury was yet to emerge from its cocoon.  Remedies for breach of covenant and recovery of debt or taking of accounts were being developed in the ad hoc manner of the common law, but we are not precluded from applying our concepts to medieval transactions and instruments.  The common law was then locked into issues of form – the remedy revealed the right – but the disputes over the remedy of distress show that the basic feudal compact was enforceable as a matter of law.

It may seem odd that we use our current concepts to explain what happened in a different era.  We would not feel any such oddity if we were talking of changes in learning about science.  After referring to the dictum of Maine with which we started, Maitland said that Maine ‘was quick to add that feudal society was governed by the law of contract’.  He went on, in his hallmark spritely style.

There is no paradox here.  In the really feudal centuries men could do by a contract, by the formal contract of vassalage or commendation, many things that could not be done nowadays…Those were the golden days of ‘free’ if ‘formal’ contract.  The idea that men can fix their rights and duties by agreement is in its early days an unruly, anarchical idea.  If there is to be any law at all, contract must be taught to know its place.

V

Whole libraries have been written about the abstract idea of the ‘social contract’, but the English for some reason are very coy about seeing that the two principal instruments of their constitution – Magna Carta, 1215 and the Bill of Rights, 1689 – represent actual contracts between the Crown and its subjects.

Each of them is what we lawyers would now call a service agreement or employment contract.  There is however this difference.  Not many CEOs would enter into an agreement for an indefinite time with the board of their company on the basis that they were locked in indefinitely unless both agreed otherwise.  This job was for life.

Each of those two contractual instruments has been set out and adopted in a statute of the parliament.  The parties to each such agreement intended it to be legally binding.  Each contained mutual promises.  Each is indisputably a part of the constitution of England.  Each represented an agreement between the Crown and the people that was intended to resolve civil strife or uncertainty, and to seek to avoid similar strife in the future by defining the rights and duties of the Crown and the people by a binding compact.  Each is in substance an agreement between the Crown and the people.  Each is a form of social compact that the parties – the Crown and the people – have adopted as the law.  Why should we not see each instrument as a legally binding contract?

How would the people be able to enforce these compacts if the Crown reneged?  If I borrow money from a bank to buy a house, the bank takes a mortgage and can sell me up if I default.  If a company borrows the money, the bank can send in receivers and managers if the company defaults.  In either case, the bank takes possession of the mortgaged property.  Going to court is not the only, or the preferred, way to enforce a contract.  It is better for a party to have taken and to be able to enforce a security.  In each of these settlements, the Crown gave security to the people to enable the settlement to be enforced against the Crown.

VI

In Magna Carta the barons opted for the model of the receiver and manager.  Article 61 refers expressly to security (securitas) and it is a security that not even the most over-mighty and overbearing corporation would now dare to seek.  It provides that if the king defaults, the barons can give him a notice to remedy that default.  If the king does not comply, a committee of twenty-five barons ‘together with the community of the entire country, shall distress and injure us in all ways possible – namely, by capturing our castles lands and possessions and in all ways that they can – until they secure redress according to their own decision, saving our person and the person of our queen, and the persons of our children.’(Emphasis added.)

Do you see the reference to the remedy of distress?  It is what we would call distress on steroids that no bank in the western world would dare go near (and which gave the pope some ammunition to annul it).  This led Theodore Plucknett in his Ford Lectures to say that ‘this chapter of the great charter is carefully drawn in the form of a covenant for distress.’

The momentary appearance of distress in the higher altitudes of constitutional law will serve to remind us of its great effectiveness, and it was thought to afford a substantial security for the king’s undertakings in the charter.  It will also remind us that distress was one of the commonest casualties of medieval life which might befall any man, high or low, at any moment.

It also reminds us that the barons had their king taut over the proverbial barrel, and reduced by this contract to the status of the most vulnerable tenant or vassal.  (King John had form with the latter as a vassal of Rome.  History also credits him with at least five bastards and taking a bath every three weeks.)

Perhaps the significance of this grand medieval compact is that the king was driven to agree to it – and his successors would be driven to adopt and adhere to it.  We might be reminded of Mafia dons coming together to ‘make the peace’ – or of that glorious re-enactment of the rite and ceremony of homage and fealty in the grand first scene of the movie of The Godfather. 

But it would now be hard for a king to say that he reigned by the grace of God, when the truth was that he was only still there because he had done a deal with his principal minders, the barons.  This looks like a shift from status to contract at the highest level on this earth.  And it was not just lawyers who would be able to say that the king was under the law, because the law made the king.

VII

In the Bill of Rights, the Commons elected to go for another kind of enforcement.  It provided that ‘keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with the consent of parliament, is against the law’ and then, immediately, ‘the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their condition and as allowed by law.’  In the idiom of the shorter form of cricket, here is the equation – we can have arms; Your Majesty cannot (except on our terms); if we have a falling out, we will be armed, and you will not; if there is a fight, can you guess who will win?

The government may have been centred on London, but it was carried out, if necessary by force, in the shires and in the counties.  Sir Jack Plumb said:  ‘The Bill of Rights had its sanctions clauses – there was to be no standing army and Protestant gentlemen were to be allowed arms; the right of rebellion is implicit.’   The phrase ‘right of rebellion’ might make constitutional lawyers blush*, but Sir Jack may have had in mind our current law of the right of the innocent party to accept the conduct of a guilty party as the repudiation of a contract, so bringing it to an end.  Plumb had also said that: ‘…the power of the 17th century gentry was sanctioned by violence’ and that ‘…by 1688, violence in politics was an Englishman’s birth-right’.

The English of course, being sensible, just let all this odd stuff about the right to bear arms sink into history.  Sadly, it still raises hell in the largest of its former colonies.

VIII

What we now call the right of a party to treat a contract as at an end if the other party repudiates that contact is in truth the notion that underlay the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution.  Jefferson adapted the English template in their Bill of Rights in his Declaration of Independence.  That the contracts in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights were later embodied in statutes does not mean that the contracts were at an end.  They were simply translated into the highest form of binding legal obligation.

We need not be surprised to see contracts being entered into on high – by the highest on this earth.  We do, after all, speak of a people whose religious faith derives from a book that holds that God himself enters into covenants with peoples that are, for people of that faith, binding beyond any power known to this world.

The word ‘covenant’ occurs at least 23 times in Genesis and 13 times in Exodus, generally referring to the covenant between God and his chosen people.  The Latin word is either foedus (normally ‘compact’ or ‘treaty’) or pactus (normally ‘contract’ or ‘agreement’).  If a people could covenant with God, they could covenant with their king; indeed, for people of that faith, nothing could be more natural or ordained than a covenant between a people and their king.  And the English at relevant times were wont to see themselves as the chosen people – not least those of the elect who took ship on the Mayflower.

IX

At about the time of Magna Carta, the Hungarians agreed to what was called The Golden Bull and the Spaniards agreed to a Privilegio de la Union, but neither achieved the standing of Magna Carta or anything like it.  There might have been something in the air.  The famous Sachsenspiegel had these words: ‘A man may resist his king and judge when he acts contrary to law and may even help to make war on him….Thereby, he does not violate the duty of fealty.’

This was the ‘right of resistance’ which, Marc Bloch said, ‘resounded in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries from one end of the Western world to the other, in a multitude of texts.’  What we see is mankind groping its way to a realisation that people may have legal rights arising out of an agreement between a man and his lord or a people and their king.

Marc Bloch concluded his great work Feudal Society with these words:

Nor was it an accident that in Japan, where the vassal’s submission was much more unilateral and where, moreover, the divine power of the Emperor remained outside the structure of vassal engagements, nothing of the kind emerged from a regime which was nevertheless in many respects closely akin to the feudalism of the West.  The originality of the latter system consisted in the emphasis that it placed on the idea of an agreement capable of binding the rulers; and in this way, oppressive as it may have been to the poor, it has in truth bequeathed to our Western civilization something with which we still desire to live.

We see here, then, the start of the process under which the rights of people derive from contract rather than status.  It is here then that some will see truly heroic energy and, perhaps for the first time, the start of a process for recognising human rights on which hangs our whole concept of western civilisation.  And it might all be said to have started with some sorry disputations about the forms of medieval writs.

But getting something good after a grubby kick-off is something that the English were good at once – at least in a previous manifestation; now they look to be locked into a sooty reverse.

*Compare the settlement entered into by Henry III after the battle of Lewes: the phrase ‘rise against us’ (contra nos insurgere) is expressly stipulated: see A L Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, Oxford, 1951, 476, note 3.  The author there queries the Plucknett view – this distress, if fairly invoked, would have been a licensed revolt.

NOTES

Maine: Ancient Law, John Murray, 1861, 170

Feudal compact: Gibson, Geoffrey, The Medieval West (Volume II of A History of the West), Amazon, 2014(I have also used remarks in a book The Common Law, A History, A S P, 2012, and a paper Contract in the English Constitution, 2014, in Looking Down the Well, Papers on Legal History, Amazon, 2015.)

Maitland on homage: F Pollock and F W Maitland, The History of English Law before the time of Edward I, Cambridge, 1895, Vol I, 277, 287.  (I refer to this as Maitland, since he wrote all but the first chapter.)

Milsom on buying a man: S F C Milsom, The Legal Framework of English Feudalism, C U P, 1976, 39

Simon de Montfort: T F T Plucknett, Legislation of Edward I, Oxford, 1949 (Ford Lectures), 58

Year Books: Year Books of Edward II (Selden Society) 1V. 161 (1310), Bereford, CJ, cited in Plucknett, 52, note 2

Statute of Marlborough: 52 Henry III

Maitland on: cited in Plucknett, 23

Not the custom: Glanvill, Laws and Customs of England, Nelson, 1965, 132

Maitland on no paradox: above, Vol.2, 232-233

Magna Carta: statute in 1297, 25 Edward I

Bill of Rights: [1688] I William and Mary Sess. II (Bill of Rights) c. II

Plucknett on Magna Carta: above, 76

Plumb on Bill of Rights: J H Plumb, The Growth of Political Stability in England, 1675-1725, Macmillan, 1967, 19, 21, and 64

Vassal homage and Sachsenspiegel: Bloch, Feudal Society, Routledge, 2nd Ed, 1962, 451.  (That great historian, and great man, is entitled to the highest respect on any aspect of feudalism or the medieval world, but we might doubt whether that ‘right of resistance’ applied in England up to the death of Edward I in 1307.)

Bloch on no accident: again, 452.

MY TOP SHELF – 49

 

[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.]

MEMOIRS OF MY LIFE

Edward Gibbon (1814)

Folio Society, 1991; bound in green cloth, gold embossed, in stone slip case.

I had now attained the solid comforts of life, a convenient well-furnished house, a domestic table, half a dozen chosen servants, my own carriage, and all those decent luxuries whose value is more sensibly felt the longer they are enjoyed…To a lover of books, the shops and sales in London present irresistible temptations…..

Before looking at what Gibbon said, you need either to recall or know that Gibbon was one of the most graceful writers of prose that England has produced.  He was also one of the most devastating hit-men that the world has seen.  Apart from the grace of his style, and the rhythm of his writing, he had a wickedly nice, dry irony.  Here is one short example:  ‘See the tragic and scandalous fate of an Archdeacon of royal birth, who was slain by the Turks as he reposed in an orchard, playing at dice with a Syrian concubine’.  Count the criminal libels or mere denigrations in that off-the-cuff remark about one dead man of God.

Here is my all-time favourite put-down by this author.  It is of the Emperor Gallienus.

In every art that he attempted, his lively genius enabled him to succeed; and as his genius was destitute of judgment, he attempted every art except the important ones of war and government.  He was a master of several curious but useless sciences, a ready orator and elegant poet, a skilful gardener, an excellent cook, and most contemptible prince.  When the great emergencies of state required his presence and attention, he was engaged in conversation with the philosopher Plotinus, wasting his time in trifling or licentious pleasures, preparing his initiation to the Grecian mysteries or soliciting a place in the Areopagus of Athens.  His profuse magnificence insulted the general poverty; the solemn ridicule of his triumphs impressed a deeper sense of the public disgrace.  The repeated intelligence of invasions, defeats and rebellions, he received with a careless smile; and singling out, with affected contempt, some particular production of the lost province, he carelessly asked whether Rome must be ruined unless it was supplied with linen from Egypt, and Arras cloth from Gaul.

There you have the style of Edward Gibbon, and the story of the decline and fall of Rome.

Gibbon came from a family of squires in the Weald of Kent.  He was not well enough to stay at Winchester.  His mother died from breeding six other children who also died.  His father retired from Parliament to return to live among the landed gentry.  He was a man of whim.  One such whim was to enrol Gibbon as a Gentleman Commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford.  In this autobiography Gibbon rained some venom on his old university.

The Fellows or monks of my time were decent easy men who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder.  Their days were filled by a series of uniform employments:  the chapel and the hall, the coffee house and the common room, till they retired weary and well satisfied, to a long slumber.  From the toil of reading or thinking or writing they had absolved their conscience, and the first shoots of learning and ingenuity withered on the ground without yielding any fruit to the owners or the public…..Their conversations stagnated in a round of college business, personal stories and private scandal; their dull and deep potations excused the brisk intemperance of youth; and their constitutional toasts were not expressive of the most lively loyalty for the House of Hanover. 

Gibbon was too young to enjoy ‘the taverns and bagnios of Convent Garden’.  Instead, he fell under the spell of the Church of Rome.  This was too much for his father, who banished him to Lausanne, where he stayed for five years to have that nonsense knocked out of him by Monsieur Pavilliard, a learned Calvinist minister.

Gibbon dropped a girlfriend when Dad took exception.  ‘I sighed as a lover.  I obeyed as a son.’  Both limbs of the equation were probably untrue, and we might hope that Gibbon later regretted that tart dismissal of his one and only love.  (Mademoiselle Churchod went on to other things.  She married Monsieur Necker, who became the Minister of Finance in France, and played a large part in the French Revolution, and she gave him a daughter, Mme de Staël.)

Gibbon served for a time in the militia, and remained in it for years, and we might imagine Captain Gibbon, the small man with the rather large and ridiculous head, jogging at the head of his bucolic Grenadiers.  He sought to get away from it all with nights of ‘bumperizing that left him in the morning where he could ‘do nothing … but spew’.

When looking back on his life, Gibbon had no doubt that it was formed by the nearly five years he had spent at Lausanne.  ‘Such as I am in genius or learning or in manners, I owe my creation to Lausanne ….  I had ceased to be an Englishman’.  But he had previously recorded that his taste for the French theatre had only ‘perhaps abated my idolatry for the gigantic genius of Shakespeare, which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman’.

Gibbon embarked on the Grand Tour.  His lack of worldliness – he had been too young to visit the whores when he was at Oxford – may have left him even more at sea with the French ladies than David Hume had been.  He saw Voltaire perform in a play.  Then he came at last to Rome while he was still casting about for a subject for a history, for it was to writing a history that he would devote his life.  His mixed upbringing enabled him to give a more balanced view of the religious divide than others – ‘the Catholic superstition, which is always the enemy of reason, is often the parent of taste’.  The lines with which Gibbon celebrated his visit to Rome are still celebrated by his admirers.

My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned to affect.  But at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City.  After a sleepless night I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present in my eye;…several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation…In my Journal the place and moment of conception are recorded;  the fifteenth of October 1764, in the close of evening, as I sat musing in the Church of the Zoccalanti of Franciscan friars, while they were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter on the ruins of the Capitol.  But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the City, rather than the Empire; and, though my reading and reflections began to point towards the object, some years elapsed and several avocations intervened before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.

The six volume work of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was indeed to be his life’s work.  Gibbon greatly admired the History of Hume.  Gibbon’s first work had been written in French, but Hume persuaded him to write his History in English.  Hume thought, being an astute Scot, that the flowering of America would lead to English having the greater coverage.  Hume, and most of the rest of Britain, were generous in their praise of the History as it came out, volume by volume.  The Church was not.

Gibbon held court and would allow little chance of reply.  But this Georgian England had a vivacious conversational character.  He once unloaded one of his best foreign anecdotes and was waiting for his tribute of applause.  ‘When a deep-toned but clear voice was heard from the bottom of the table, very calmly and civilly impugning the correctness of the narrative, and the propriety of the doctrines of which it had been made the vehicle.’  This was no less than William Pitt the Younger (the youngest Prime Minister of England at the age of 24).  Gibbon was obliged to give ground and then excused himself and left the room.  He was apprehended looking for his hat, and when asked to return he said that the gentleman who had interrupted him was ‘extremely ingenious and agreeable, but I must acknowledge that his style of conversation is not exactly what I am accustomed to, so you must positively excuse me’.  Jane Austen could have written that.

He died on 16 January 1794 of an appalling illness that had long troubled him.  He was at peace and without fear, but it is a very fair guess that no other writer of history has been so read, so admired, and so loved.  It is certainly the case that this rather absurd Englishman still talks to us and enlightens us after we have gone more than two hundred years down the road.

The great historian looked for patterns in the past.  He was not to devote his life’s work to describing outlines of spent tea leaves.  ‘History to a philosopher’ he said, ‘is what gambling was to the Marquis de Dangeau:  he saw a system, relations, consequences, where others saw only the caprice of fortune’.  Gibbon was describing the decline and fall of an empire.  He saw that decline occurred with the rise of religion; he asked why ancient civilisation failed and if it could happen again.

Perhaps it was because Georgian English gentlemen suspected that their England suffered from similar lesions on its society that they were content to allow Athens and Rome to be described as civilised.  But it is a little curious that educated Europeans should have sought to find how this mighty and civilised empire was brought low – was felled in truth – by a scrawny ragamuffin hasid whose teaching of the Sermon on the Mount underwrote all of what the English would come to call civilised about their empire.  And how could Rome have sought to hold an empire under arms if it subscribed to the view that it is the meek who inherit the earth?

It is not surprising that Gibbon followed what might be called the party line in describing Rome as civilised, but we might notice that he began his first published work, the Essai, with the following words of eternal verity: L’histoire des empires est celle de la misere des hommes. ‘The history of empires is the history of the misery of mankind.’

Sadly, space allows only a couple of quotations on the Crusades:

… the name and nature of a ‘holy war’ demands a more rigorous scrutiny;  nor can we hastily believe that the servants of the Prince of Peace would ensheath the sword of destruction unless the motive were pure, the quarrel legitimate, and the necessity inevitable. 

Gibbon attacks indulgences with savagery.  He then goes on to describe the beginning of the first Crusade.

Some counts and gentlemen, at the head of three thousand horse, attended the motions of the multitude to partake in the spoil, but their genuine leaders (may we credit such folly?) were a goose and a goat, who were carried in the front, and to whom these worthy Christians ascribed an infusion of the divine spirit.  Of these, and of other bands of enthusiasts, the first and most easy warfare was against the Jews, the murderers of the Son of God.  In the trading cities of the Moselle and the Rhine, their colonies were numerous and rich, and they enjoyed under the protection of the Emperor and the Bishops the free exercise of their religion.  At Verdun, Trèves, Metz, Spires, Worms many thousands of that unhappy people were pillaged and massacred, nor had they felt a more bloody stroke since the persecution of Hadrian ….  The more obstinate Jews exposed their fanaticism to the fanaticism of the Christians, barricadoed their houses, and precipitating themselves, their families and their wealth into the rivers of the flames, disappointed the malice, or at least the avarice, of their implacable foes.

Gibbon next savages the institution of knighthood and then goes on to describe the taking of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

A bloody sacrifice was offered by his mistaken votaries [Tancred’s] to the God of the Christians:  resistance might provoke, but neither age nor sex could mollify their implacable rage: they indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre; and the infection of the dead bodies produced an epidemical disease.  After seventy thousand Moslems had been put to the sword, and the harmless Jews had been burnt in their synagogue, they could still reserve a multitude of captives whom interest or lassitude persuaded them to spare.  ….  The Holy Sepulchre was now free; and the bloody victors prepared to accomplish their vow.  Bare-headed and bare foot, with contrite hearts and in a humble posture, they ascended the hill of Calvary, amidst the loud anthems of the clergy; kissed the stone which had covered the Saviour of the world;  and bedewed with tears of joy and penitence the monument of their redemption.  This union of the fiercest and most tender passions has been variously considered by two philosophers: by the one, as easy and natural; by the other, as absurd and critical.

The first philosopher referred to is David Hume; the second was Voltaire.

Here is Gibbon on Israelite conquests.

When the posterity of Abraham had multiplied like the sands of the sea, the Deity, from whose mouth they received a system of laws and ceremonies, declared himself the proper and as it were the national God of Israel; and with the most jealous care separated his most favourite people from the rest of mankind.  The conquest of the land of Canaan with so many wonderful and so many bloody circumstances, that the victorious Jews were left in a state of irreconcilable hostility with all their neighbours.  They had been commanded to extirpate some of the most idolatrous tribes, and the execution of the Divine will had seldom been retarded by the weakness of humanity.

Here is Gibbon on the absolutism of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

But the primitive church, whose faith was of a much firmer consistence, delivered over, without hesitation, to eternal torture, the far greater part of the human species. A charitable hope might perhaps be indulged in favour of Socrates, or some other sages of antiquity, who had consulted the light of reason before that of the Gospel had arisen.  But it was unanimously affirmed that those who, since the birth or the death of Christ, had obstinately persisted in the worship of the daemons, neither deserved nor could expect a pardon from the irritated justice of the Deity.  These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony.

Finally, this is Gibbon on celibacy.

Since desire was imputed as a crime, and marriage was tolerated as a defect, it was consistent with the same principles to consider a state of celibacy as the nearest approach to Divine perfection. It was with the utmost difficulty that ancient Rome could support the institution of six vestals [virgins] but the primitive church was filled with a great number of persons of either sex who had devoted themselves to the profession of perpetual chastity.

In the footnote, Gibbon records of the six Roman maids: ‘nor could the dread of the most horrible death always restrain their incontinence.’

How did our brothers and sisters of Asia fare? Gibbon said that for all his powers of eloquence, Mohammed was an illiterate barbarian, although he says that the ‘base and plebeian origin of Mohammed is an unskilful calumny of the Christians.’ (How did they class the origin of Jesus of Nazareth?)  Gibbon does of course praise Mohammed for dispensing with priests, sacrifices, and monks, but he rejects the doctrine of damnation by which ‘the greater part of mankind has been condemned for their opinions.’ Gibbon was, like most people, fascinated by sex.  He had this comment on Paradise.

Seventy-two Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years, and his faculties will be increased a hundredfold to render him worthy of the felicity ….This image of carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks…

But this Paradise was assured to those who died for the faith since the Prophet had said ‘The sword is the key of heaven and of hell: a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer…’ .

It is very hard now to imagine history in any language being written with such pitch and such intensity.  But he may have unsheathed a sword the consequences of which he never intended.

In Gibbon’s view, Greek philosophy had infected the teaching of those following Jesus of Nazareth.  It was notorious that many of the divisions of the early church were fed on thinking that came to its members from the Platonist school.  Gibbon thought that Platonism did not mix well with Christianity.

But theology, which it was incumbent to believe, which it was impious to doubt, and which it might be dangerous, even fatal, to mistake, became the familiar topic of private mediation and popular discourse.  The cold indifference of philosophy was inflamed by the fervent spirit of devotion.

It may have been like global warming disputants trying their hand with the theory of relativity or string theory.

The familiar study of the Platonic system, a vain and argumentative disposition, a copious and flexible idiom, supplied the clergy and the people of the east with an inexhaustible flow of words and distinctions; and, in the midst of their fierce contentions, they easily forgot the doubt which is recommended by philosophy, and the submission which is enjoined by religion.

It has to be said that these observations ring many bells, and not just in the context of the Christian church.

Baroque sentences flowed out Gibbon just like baroque music flowed out of Mozart.  His canvass blazes like that of El Greco.  He had a sense of grace and rhythm that would have appealed to the instincts of Errol Garner and which had a lasting effect on one of his greatest followers.

For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings.  I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it.  Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along.  Let it roll.  Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.

May I conclude on a whim of my own fancy?  For me, Gibbon was and is the greatest writer in prose of them all.

 

MY TOP SHELF – 48 – TACITUS

 

[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.]

ANNALS AND HISTORIES

Tacitus

Franklin Library, Limited Edition, Pennsylvania, 1979, translated by A J Church and W J Brodribb, Great Books of the World, 1952; fully bound in brown leather, gold inlays and print; raised spine; moiré end papers; gilt edges; and silk ribbon.

Tacitus was born in the first century after Christ.  He reached senatorial and consular rank.  He wrote mainly under the relatively peaceful aegis of the emperor Trajan, after the murder of the ‘tyrannical’ Domitian.  An early work was a small piece on his father-in-law, Agricola, and a book about the Germans, which would become very influential, but he is remembered for two classical works, his Annals and Histories. 

You will see that like Thucydides, Tacitus was equipped by his experience in public life to write a history of and about his times.  The Annals cover the empire from Tiberius to Nero; The Histories deal with a later period including the year of four emperors.  We are missing parts but we are lucky to have what we have – The Annals survived only in two medieval manuscripts, one of one part, and one of another.

Tacitus concedes that the Republic was doomed by its inability to provide peace, but he yearns for older and better days.  At the beginning of The Histories, he does not hold back on the horrors in store.

I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors.  Four emperors perished by the sword.  There were three civil wars; there were more with foreign enemies; there were often wars that had both characters at once.  There was success in the East, and disasters in the West….Sacred rites were profaned; there was profligacy in the highest ranks; the sea was crowded with exiles, and its rocks polluted with bloody deeds.  In the capital there were yet worse horrors.  Nobility, wealth, the refusal or acceptance of office, were grounds for accusation, and virtue ensured destruction.  The rewards of the informers were no less odious than their crimes; for while some seized on consulships and priestly offices, as their share of the spoils, others on procuratorships, and posts of more confidential authority, they robbed and ruined in every direction amid universal hatred and terror.  Slaves were bribed to turn against their masters, and freedmen to betray their patrons; and those who had not an enemy were destroyed by friends…..Never, surely, did more terrible calamities of the Roman people, or evidence more conclusive, prove that the gods take no thought for our happiness, but only for our punishment…[After the joy at the death of Nero]  The respectable portion of the people, which was connected with the great families, as well as the dependents and freedmen of condemned and banished persons, were high in hope.  The degraded populace, frequenters of the arena and the theatre, the most worthless of the slaves, and those who having wasted their property were supported by the infamous excesses of Nero, caught eagerly in their dejection at every rumour. (I, 2 to 4)

There are two things to notice.  That is a reasonable picture of hell on earth; and we see immediately why Gibbon idolised Tacitus – rolling, rhythmic doom-laden periods, even in translation, dripping with moral outrage and irony.

Tacitus has however told us that he was then ‘enjoying the rare happiness of times, when we may think what we please, and say what we think.’  He begins The Annals with a snap-shot history of Rome.

When Rome was first a city, its rulers were kings.  Then Lucius Junius Brutus created the consulate and free Republican institutions in general.  Dictatorships were assumed in emergencies.  A Council of Ten did not last more than two years; and then there was a short-lived arrangement by which senior army officers – the commanders of contingents provided by the tribes – possessed consular authority.  Subsequently, Cinna and Sulla set up autocracies, but they too were brief.  Soon, Pompey and Crassus acquired predominant positions, but rapidly lost them to Caesar.  Next, the military strength which Lepidus and Antony built up was absorbed by Augustus.  He found the whole state exhausted by internal dissensions, and established over it a regime known as the Principate.

Previous accounts have been marred by flattery or hatred. ‘I shall write without passion or partiality’ – sine ira et studio.

Tacitus then gives a succinct account of the revolution wrought by Augustus.

He seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians.  Indeed, he attracted every body’s goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace.  Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law.  Opposition did not exist.  War or judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit.  Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially.  They had profited from the revolution and so now they liked the security of the existing arrangement better than the dangerous opportunities of the old regime.  Besides, the new order was popular in the provinces. (1, 1)

The Annals focus on the relations between the emperor and senate, of whom Tacitus is scathing.  A prime function of the historian is ‘to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciation.  He goes on to describe Rome under Tiberius.

This was a tainted, meanly obsequious age.  The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals.  There is a legend that whenever Tiberius left the senate-house, he exclaimed in Greek, ‘Men fit to be slaves.’  Even he, freedom’s enemy, became impatient of abject servility.  (3, 65)

But Tacitus says Tiberius disdained monuments.  ‘Marble monuments, if the verdict of history is unfriendly, are mere neglected sepulchres.’  (4, 38)

The lieutenant of Tiberius, Sejanus, the head of the Praetorian Guard, sets up Tiberius into a reign of terror.  The author records the terror with language of astonishing power, in words that will be instantly understood by anyone who has ever lived under a police state.

At Rome, there was unprecedented agitation and terror.  People behaved secretively, even to their intimates, avoiding encounters and conversation, shunning the ears both of friends and strangers.  Even voiceless, inanimate objects – ceilings and walls – were scanned suspiciously.  (4, 69)

It was indeed a horrible feature of the period that leading senators became informers even on trivial matters – some openly, many secretly.  Friends and relatives were as suspect as strangers, old stories as damaging as new.  In the Forum, at a dinner-party, a remark on any subject might mean prosecution.  Every-one competed for priority in marking down the victim.  Sometimes this was self-defence, but mostly it was a sort of contagion, like an epidemic.  (6, 7)

It is unlikely that anyone reading this has lived under Stalin or Hitler, but can you imagine a more powerful picture of what it may have been like?  In the Agricola (45), Tacitus had said that ‘The worst of our torments under Domitian was to see him with his eyes fixed upon us.’  Writing of these horrors must take a toll.  The author feels a need to talk about his task.

Similarly, now that Rome has virtually been transformed into an autocracy, the investigation and record of these details concerning the autocrat may prove useful.  Indeed, it is from such studies – from the experience of others – that most men learn to distinguish right and wrong, advantage and disadvantage.  Few can tell them apart instinctively.  So these accounts have their uses.  But they are distasteful.  What interests and stimulates readers is a geographical description, the changing fortune of a battle, the glorious death of a commander.  My themes on the other hand concern cruel orders, unremitting accusations, treacherous friendships, innocent men ruined – a conspicuously monotonous glut of downfalls and their monotonous causes.  (4, 32 to 33)

Eventually, Sejanus over-reaches and is murdered.  What Professor John Burrow describes as ‘the appalling ruthlessness of Roman political atrocity’ is pitifully depicted in the treatment of the son and daughter of Sejanus in one of the cruellest parts of Western letters.

The general rage against Sejanus was now subsiding, appeased by the executions already carried out.  Yet retribution was now decreed against his remaining children.  They were taken to prison.  The boy understood what lay ahead of him.  But the girl uncomprehendingly repeated: ‘What have I done?  Where are you taking me?  I will not do it again!’  She could be punished with a beating, she said, like other children.  Contemporary writers report that because capital punishment of a virgin was unprecedented, she was violated by the executioner, with the noose beside her.  Then both were strangled, and their young bodies were thrown on to the Gemonian Steps.  (5, 6)

The Gemonian Steps were next to the prison.  They were called the Stair of Sighs.  After execution, dead prisoners were thrown on to these steps, and then dragged to the Tiber.

What Tacitus is describing here is a form of moral disintegration, a kind of national nervous breakdown, of the sort that the French would experience in the nineteenth century, and the Germans in the twentieth.  Roman virtue in the old Republican sense has gone.  It is no longer active and patriotic, but Stoic.  The last way for a senator to show worth was to commit suicide with style.  The only way out might be this form of escape, and it might protect the family from a loss of property flowing from a conviction for treason.  In truth, the old tradition of the family having to give way to the state might bear very nasty fruit.

In The Histories, there is a chilling description of the reaction at Rome to an invasion.

The populace stood by and watched the combatants; and, as though it had been a mimic conflict, encouraged first one party and then the other by their shouts and plaudits.  Whenever either side gave way, they cried out that those who concealed themselves in the shops, or took refuge in any private house, should be dragged out and butchered, and they secured a larger share of the booty; for while the soldiers were busy with bloodshed and massacre, the spoils fell to the crowd.  It was a terrible and hideous sight that presented itself throughout the city.  Here raged battle and death; there the bath and the tavern were crowded.  In one spot were pools of blood and heaps of corpses, and close by prostitutes and men of character as infamous; there were all the debaucheries of luxurious peace, all the horrors of a city most cruelly sacked, till one was ready to believe the country to be mad at once with rage and lust.  It was not indeed the first time that armed troops had fought within the city; they had done so twice when Sulla, once when Cinna triumphed.  The bloodshed then had not been less, but now there was an unnatural recklessness, and men’s pleasures were not interrupted even for a moment.  As if it were a new delight added to their holidays, they exulted in and enjoyed the scene, indifferent to parties, and rejoicing over the sufferings of the Commonwealth.  (3, 83)

They do indeed look like a people that has gone mad, with not one shred of decency left.

The Germania was to become popular in some quarters, not least Germany, for being complimentary.  This is the way Tacitus described some of their customs:

Affairs of the smaller moment the chiefs determine; about matters of higher consequence, the whole nation deliberates.

In the Assembly, it is allowed to present accusations and to prosecute capital offences.  Punishments vary according to the quality of the crime. 

Without being armed, they transact nothing, whether or public or private concernment.  But it is repugnant to their custom for any man to use arms, before the community has attested his capacity to wield them.

They are almost the only barbarians contented with one wife. 

To the husband, the wife tenders no dowry; but the husband to the wife.

There is little that is barbaric here.  Indeed, the German view on carrying weapons – essential for such a warlike race – is much more civilised than that adopted in those jurisdictions that hold every adult – even an untrained fool – has the right to carry a hand gun, a weapon so much more lethal than anything the barbaric Germans could have dreamed of in their cold, dark woods and bogs.

No, the Roman prejudice was not based on the customs of the kind described by Tacitus, but on the living habits of the Germans, a prejudice carried through to Dante, who in The Inferno mocked their consumption of beer, the ‘guzzling Germans’, and later on the habit of the Germans of defeating the Romans at war.  And Tacitus can set up against the drunkenness and aggressiveness of the Germans, those qualities so missing at Rome – sexual temperance, manliness, strength, courage, and loyalty.

And much would be made in the Renaissance and later of the suggestion that the Germans had no hereditary kingship – freedom was said to be older than absolutism.  The downside was the claim of Tacitus that the German tribes had always inhabited Germany and were of unmixed race.  That could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Agricola is a loyal tribute to his father-in-law, and has a lot to do with affairs in England.  It begins with these words.

Famous men have from time immemorial had their life stories told, and even our generation, with all its stupid indifference to the present, has not quite abandoned the practice.  The outstanding personality has still won an occasional triumph over that blind hostility to merit that poisons all states, small and great alike.

Is that not just dead true – ‘that blind hostility to merit’ – of our choking embrace of bland mediocrity right now?

Later, he gives a most remarkable address by a Briton (Calgacus) to his troops before battle.  Some of it follows.

Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes from the defilement of tyranny.  We, the last men on earth, the last of the free, have been shielded till today by the very remoteness and the seclusion for which we are famed.  We have enjoyed the impressiveness of the unknown….Brigands of the world, they [the Romans] have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea….They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy.  Robbery, butchery, rapine, the liars call Empire; they create desolation and call it peace…..Can you really imagine that the Romans’ bravery in war comes up to their wantonness in peace?  (30, 32)

Finally, Tacitus refers to the fact that Agricola stood up to the evil Domitian.

Let it be clear to those who insist on admiring insubordination that even under bad emperors men can be great, and that a decent regard for authority, if backed by ability and energy, can reach that peak of honour that many have stormed by precipitous paths, without serving their country, by a melodramatic death.  (42)

The translations of the smaller works are from the 1948 Penguin (H Mattingly).  The point may be clearer in the more modern translation in the Oxford History of the Classical World.

Let all those whose habit is to admire acts of civil disobedience, realise that great men can exist under bad emperors, and that compliance and an unassuming demeanour, if backed by energy and hard work, can attain a pitch of glory, which the majority reach through an ostentatious and untimely death.

There is a reminder that we proceed under a real disability.  We are not reading what this great writer actually wrote.  It is the same, for most of us, with Thucydides, and we have to take our translation on trust.  The remarks by an ancient critic about the astringency and severity of Thucydides and ‘his terrifying intensity’ apply equally to Tacitus.  But we have seen enough to show why both these great writers are historians for the ages.

 

Here and there – Annual Awards

 

Best wishes for Christmas and 2020.  I shall be off for a few weeks, but I commend the list below.  The season of good will is also the season of pay back and catharsis.  My Mum said I should have one every day.

Stay safe and watch out for the smoke.

With Compliments

Annual Awards 2019

Film of the year

The Irishman – an epic in the good old style with three of the best screen actors around.

Sporting events of the year

Two resurrections – Steve Smith and Tiger Woods.

Winx made a lot of people happy – including me, for winning at her last start the day after the Wolf joined his ancestors.

Mesut Ozil.  The German, Muslim, Arsenal footballer who stuck it right up President Xi, and who thereby gave the supporters of Israel Folau something to think about – an experience that they may find exhilarating – or, perhaps, intimidating.

Book of the year

Bending Toward Justice, Doug Jones; Finding My Place, Anne Aly; and Trials of the State, Jonathan Sumption.  (Curiously, the first two authors are intensely sane, but each had two prior marriages.)  (I read Carlyle’s The French Revolution for the seventh time, but that does not fit these criteria.)

Business head of the year

BHP is the biggest shareholding in my small fund, in no small part because of my respect for Andrew Mackenzie, the outgoing CEO.  His education record is formidable – in Scotland, England, and Germany, and in three disciplines; he has a remarkable business sense and capacity to lead; most importantly, he can still behave like a ‘merely decent human being’ – to quote a line from The Russia House.  ‘Leadership’ is a facility that is subject to more bullshit than most others, but Mr Mackenzie has it – in spades.  And he has shown it not just in BHP but at large – in a community that cries out for it – and to the consternation of those dolts who know nothing about business because they have never been involved in running one and because they have not seen the change in the role of business in our community.

Lawyer of the year

Lady Hale of the UK Supreme Court, for herding the cats and striking a blow for the rule of law and common sense and common decency with a single joint judgment.  And because she was once a barmaid and because she wore that brooch.  The U S establishment has not produced it at that level – although the impeachment civil servants looked to be impeccable.

Reporter of the year

Nesrine Malik.  I would not give her any cheek at all.  Seriously bright.  She is from Ethiopia or thereabouts – the cradle of mankind.  She is both imperious and imperial – and with a delicious and imposing sidelong glance.

Columnist of the year

Joe Aston.  For serving it up to people who deserve it.  With a special mention for his gutsy libel lawyer.

Artist of the year

David Rowe.  Easily.  Cartoons are something we do well.  And they are a very necessary guard against depression or madness.

Newspaper of the year

Financial Times.  Producing good newspapers is something that the English do well.  This paper oozes professional decency.  Its views on Johnson are not dissimilar to those of The New Yorker on Trump – but it is not so overtly on a war footing, or so incessantly feeding the beast.  No prize for the worst.

Victims of the year

Those who voted against Trump, Johnson and Morrison; closely followed by those who voted for them.

Mediocrity of the year

ScoMo.  Can someone tell him that there is a world of difference between volunteers’ facing death before killer fires and sending crack armed forces against unarmed refugees and then spitefully repealing a law to simplify the refugees’ getting medical aid – and then putting a plaque on your wall to celebrate – in all humility, of course – your own downright heroism?  ScoMo is a BYO sandwich board – nothing more; nothing less.  He is a ventriloquist’s doll, an organ-grinder’s monkey, and a pencil box with vocal chords.  And if you ever meet someone who is happy to be called a ‘quiet Australian’, could you please be so kind as to let me know? Because we just might have the world’s best practice prize galah on our hands.

Comparison of the year

The New Zealand PM and the Australian PM on national disasters.

Musical event of the year

Jonas Kaufman in opera concert (Andrea Chénier); the MSO Choir and the Brahms Requiem; and my recent acquisition of the Glyndebourne CD set of Billy Budd and my recent re-discovery of the Karajan Boris Godunov.

Symptom of our time

Boeing killed people because money meant more than the safety of you and me.  It then put out unrepentant spin to hold its share price.  For a while the U S government went along with it to save money and face.  No one will go to jail.

Another symptom

The slutty evanescence of Twenty/20 cricket.  And, no, I will not love her in the morning.  As fulfilling as Chinese takeaways in the Fifties.

The Joseph Stalin Award for Bastardry of the Year

The repeal of Medivac.  They did it because they could.

The Geoffrey Boycott Award for Utter and Unlovely Predictability

Anyone from the IPA or Murdoch Press – Brownie points for the quinella.  The IPA in Parliament come from Mars, boy wonders with no experience and less judgment, full of front and emptiness, signifying nothing.  Paterson and Wilson are names to conjure with.  They are true Princes of Bullshit.

Hypocrites of the year

The whole federal parliament.  They pray to start their day and then devote themselves to letting down the same God whose Son would be appalled because they do know what they do.  It is sad to see believers – or so they say – shred their Gospel to schmooze with womanising liars who are so transparently in it for their amoral selves and then turn their backs on refugees – many fleeing from a mess that we had a hand in creating.  Their bizarre response to learning and pollution suggests that they have no children.  Or that they have been bought.  God save us.

Sad sack of the year

Gerard Henderson, the Prince of Sadness in eternal pursuit of the Prince of Darkness – Aunty.  Has driven more people from religion than Savonarola or Mike Pence.  This is a very large statement.

Ratbag of the year

Rowan Dean.  The embodiment of the ugliness in us all down here.  Loves to leer, jeer and sneer at those he regards as inferior.  The ghastly price that we pay for not having a conservative press.  Actually likes Trump, Johnson and Morrison – although his team – yes, team – preferred Dutton.  Dean makes Bolt look like a tame also-ran.

Recipe of the year

Roast vegetables – peel and cut vegies to size (say Dutch Cream or Kipfler potatoes, carrot or parsnip, and zucchini) – simmer on boil for five minutes – place into colander and coat with olive oil and toss with salt, pepper, seasoning, flour and thyme – transfer to roasting pan after melting duck fat on the hob and then lightly repeat the coating process and toss – cook in oven under dripping roast meat.  Reserve vegie water for gravy (for which I cheat).

Restaurant of the year

Tsindos.  OK – I am biased in favour of the Greeks, and this place in particular, but I have been going to that site for more than forty-five years, and any restaurant that puts up with and survives the Deplorables deserves commendation from on high.  Comfort food for the ages.  If you go, tell Harry I sent you.  And wait for the curious look.

Wine of the year

I normally stick with my own, and my own regions, but Bordeaux Chateau Meillac of 2012 for $25 from Banks’ Fine Wines is very acceptable – and it was good to be reminded of that solid old trouper Redman 2013 Coonawarra Shiraz in something like the old Rouge Homme livery.

Aggravation of the year

The continuing despoliation of Shakespeare by miss-casting his plays to make a political point – we need to think about resurrecting the law of blasphemy.

Anything to do with the Mayor of Box Hill (aka our P M) – although Prince Andrew was a late and inspired challenger with an inside run on the rails.

Error of judgment of the year

My resigning my membership of Melbourne Storm and joining Melbourne Rebels.  The former then barely lost a game.  The latter then barely won one.  (I know how Collingwood supporters feel – I was there in 1964 when the D’s won their last pennant.  With my Mum.  And I am in the process of spreading the curse from the Melbourne Redlegs to the Boston Red Sox.)

The Australian Christian Lobby applying publicly collected money to aid a member of the entertainment industry to sue his employer for millions of dollars because they and their supporters were put out that his religious fanaticism led him to denigrate those who differed from him.  The bad taste press thought it was terrific.

And see also Victims of the year and Comparison of the year, above.

Find of the year

Marnus Laberschagne and the Malmsbury Pub – under new management.

Star turn of the year

Anita Hill and those other civil servants who gave evidence before the Congress and whose courage and integrity showed up their political masters for the ratbags they are.  She and they gave us hope that the U S may recover from this catastrophe.

Hardest falls of the year

The whole Republican Party, but especially their soi disant leaders – gloomy, scared old white males bereft alike of integrity and courage – especially those two goons who always turn up behind the same shoulder of Water-mouth McConnell.

Reminiscence of the year

Catherine Deneuve and Juliet Binoche in the one movie.  Just as well they didn’t rope in Emmanuelle Béart as well – they may have had to issue a health warning for fading old men – like the Deplorables (et pour moi aussi).

Realisation of the year

In a two party system of government, it takes two to tango.  And if the opposition isn’t up to it, you can end up with a mess like ours – or England’s or America’s.

Bullshit of the year

This magnificent vote is a reassertion of national sovereignty and national will.

It is a powerful boost to the cause of Western civilisation at a time when it is struggling, and widely seen as under attack.

This is an epic moment in Britain’s long national story.

Johnson is that rarest of leaders; he has bent the arc of history to his will.

The author of the Brexit political project, Nigel Farage, is the other figure who was most influential in this result.  His electoral pressure transformed the Conservatives from a Remain Party to a Leave Party.

Farage stiffened the spines of the Conservatives and then stood down in the seats they were defending to maximise the pro-sovereignty vote.

No smiley koala stamp for guessing the paper or the journalist.  And the poor fellow has crumbled even further since this one.

Australian of the year

Sam Kerr – for being herself, for being the best, and for staring down our worst trait – the adoration of mediocrity and the fear of the novel.

The oncologists at the Prince Alfred Hospital for adopting a philosophical response – nay, a mature or adult response – to the Liver Function Tests that come their way every three weeks in the blood tests that precede each session of immunotherapy.  They also get an elephant stamp for keeping me above the ground.

And most of all, and clear over-all winners, the nurses at the Alfred and elsewhere, for being the crown and cream of the best healthcare system in the world – by the length of the bloody straight at Flemington.  My gratitude knows no bounds.  A safe reservoir of grace and decency.

Aspirations for 2020

My staying above the ground, so delaying my reunion with the Wolf.

Those of us who believe that we might have been privileged to have done something useful fighting back against those pygmies – those gnats straining at a camel – who are just plain jealous.

Trying to bring Sharan Burrow back to help try to right the ship.  I had a bit to do with her at the MFB.  I quickly developed a great respect for her.  She is one of those straight shooters that you quickly sense that you can do business with.  You can see her now on the BBC telling Spanish coal miners that there are no jobs on a dead planet – an inevitable truth that wholly escapes our government – whose minds close at shopping lists and power bills.

Michaelia Cash sacking her hairdresser and fashion designer and then retiring from public life to some very quiet place; not necessarily of the kind that Hamlet commended to Ophelia.  (And while I am there, that Danish prince is a lesson of the dangers of feigning madness.)

ScoMo following his ancestors in the mediocrity bloodline – Little Johnnie and Bro Tony – and getting fired by his electorate.  That would for me constitute irrefutable evidence of the existence of God.

The Demons either putting up or getting put down – if it was good enough for the Wolf, it is good enough for a football club that has been near death since it incurred the curse of Norm Smith.

My getting a standing ovation at the 2020 Brisbane Ring Cycle of Wagner for being noticed for the number of acts I have missed – currently aiming at five out of thirteen – or, as John Steinbeck said of the returning Tuna fishermen in Cannery Row, being ‘embraced and admired’ – but we may forego the twenty-five foot string of firecrackers so nobly presented by the immortal Lee Chong of the general store.  If you let them off in Parliament House, would anyone notice – or care?