MY TOP SHELF – 14

 

[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.]

14

ENGLAND IN THE AGE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

Sir Lewis Namier (1930)

Second Edition, Macmillan, 1961; rebound in quarter red Morocco with gold embossed label and stone cloth boards.

Restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time; but restraint was a quality in which the eighteenth-century Englishman was as deficient as most other nations are even now.

When Ved Mehta wrote a book about English intellectuals, he went to see a star pupil of the late Sir Lewis Namier, and a keeper of the flame, John Brooke.  A woman showed Mehta to Brooke’s room and said: ‘Mr Brooke is a very eccentric man.  When it gets cold, he wears an electric waistcoat plugged into the light socket, and reads aloud to himself.’  Such conduct would come within my understanding of the word ‘eccentric.’

Brooke said that Namier looked on history as bundles of biographies; his interest was in the small men rather than the big; he believed that psychology was as important to history as mathematics was to astronomy; he looked at how men and women responded to the pressure of circumstances; his east European Jewish background enabled him to see his adopted and idolized nation in perspective; unlike liberals, he had no faith in progress – it was not that he did not wish to reform institutions that were decrepit – he just hated seeing them go; he would hammer out the first draft of a work with two-finger typing, and not be able to revise it until his secretary had finished the first draft – a process that might be repeated ten or more times.  He would go back and forth between his research boxes and indexes and his typewriter.  ‘It would be a constant process of writing and rewriting, shaping and reshaping, agony and more agony – and the biography was not more than a seven-thousand word job.’

There were other sources of pain.  He never relished acceptance by the English intellectual establishment; his deeply withdrawn nature led him to psychoanalysis; he suffered a cramp in the arm that got worse with the ill treatment of the Jews in the thirties – he was so terrified by the thought of a German occupation that he got a bottle of poison from a doctor friend and carried it in his waistcoat so that he could kill himself if the Germans came.

But his work, beginning with The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III in 1929, hit English literature like an earthquake in much the same way as F R Leavis did with literary criticism – and people who shake up the Establishment like that can expect a backlash.

Namier was, I am told, not an easy person to be with.  He was not respected as a teacher, and in good English universities that is a real minus.  John Kenyon referred to his ‘granitic seriousness, and the monomaniacal way in which he would impose his thoughts on others’  Sir Jack Plumb referred to the vulgar name-calling: ‘Constipation Namier – the big shit we can’t get rid of.’

Rejection was not new to Namier – his father cut him off for his espousal of Zionism – but exclusion breeds resentment and more exclusion – Namier became a frightful snob and name-dropper, and he fell for the English aristocracy.  He would never be offered a chair at Oxford, Cambridge or London – according to Kenyon, his commitment to Zionism ‘increased the coolness of an Arab-orientated upper class.’  A more rewarded historian – a man named Butterfield – had what might be called the Establishment view that ‘the point of teaching history to undergraduates is to turn them into public servants and statesmen…but I happen to think history is a school of wisdom and statesmanship.’  Butterfield thought that Namier’s factual inquiry was cutting the ground from under the feet of would-be philosopher-kings.

Why not just try to open their minds?  Things have changed.  The advocacy of the ideas or ideals of a dying empire now looks to us like a prospectus for a School for Bullshit.  But Butterfield and others went after Namier like gnats straining at a camel, and Namier became a kind of celebrity.

To those who have had to make findings of fact on inadequate and conflicting evidence, the Namier revolution seems to be the unsurprising suggestion that history should be based on evidence rather than romance.  From this book on the shelf, we have the following.

The basic elements of the Imperial Problem during the American Revolution must be sought not so much in conscious opinions and professed views bearing directly on it, as in the very structure and life of the Empire; and in doing that, the words of Danton should be remembered – on ne fait pas le proces aux revolutions.  Those who are out to apportion guilt in history have to keep to views and opinions, judge the collisions of planets by the rules of road traffic, make history into something like a column of motoring accidents, and discuss it in the atmosphere of a police court.

No wonder the idealists and the Glory Boys were crestfallen, but on Namier’s death, an undergraduate wrote to Lady Namier saying that ‘he was probably the only truly great man that I have known personally.’  It is not hard to see how Namier could have had precisely that effect.  He was like a great artist who has taken the trouble to learn how to draw.  After Namier had done the hard work of amassing and sifting the evidence, he could allow himself a go with the broad brush.

‘Characteristic of English social groups is the degree of freedom which they leave to the individual and the basic equality of their members, the voluntary submission to the rules of ‘the game’ and the curious mixture of elasticity and rigidity in these rules; most of all, the moral standards which these groups enforce or to which they aspire.  Characteristic of the German social group is the utter, conscious subordination of the individual, the iron discipline which they enforce, the high degree of organisation and efficiency which they attain, and their resultant inhumanity.  The State is an aim in itself….The English national pattern raises individuals above their average moral level, the German suppresses their human sides.’  (Conflicts, 1941)

‘And it was again on the masses that Hitler drew: what was worst in the Germans, their hatreds and resentments, their envy and cruelty, their brutality and adoration of force, he focused and radiated back on them.  A master in the realm of psyche but debarred from that of the spirit, he was the Prophet of the Possessed; and interchange there was between him and them, unknown between any other political leader and his followers.  This is the outstanding fact about Hitler and the Third Reich.’ (Personalities and Powers, 1955.)

‘But revolutions are not made; they occur…..The year 1848 proved in Germany that union could not be achieved through discussion and by agreement; that it could be achieved only by force; that there were not sufficient revolutionary forces in Germany to impose from below; and that, therefore, if it was to be, it had to be imposed by the Prussian army.’  (Vanished Supremacies, 1957)

‘The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration.’  (Structure, etc., 2nd Ed, 1957.  ‘Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…’)

‘Trade was not despised in eighteenth-century England – it was acknowledged to be the great concern of the nation; and money was honoured, the mystic common denominator of all values, the universal repository of as yet undetermined possibilities….A man’s status in English society has always depended primarily on his own consciousness; for the English are not a methodical or logical nation – they perceive and accept facts without anxiously inquiring into their reasons or meaning.’  (England in the Age, etc., 2nd Ed, 1961; ‘….Fox would probably have found it easier to account for his fears than for the money…’).

On Charles Townshend: ‘He did not change or mellow; nor did he learn by experience; there was something ageless about him; never young, he remained immature to the end…Conscious superiority over other men freely flaunted, a capacity for seeing things from every angle displayed with vanity, and the absence of any deeper feelings of attachment left Townshend, as Chase Price put it, “entirely unhinged.”’  (Crossroads of Power, 1962).

The English aristocracy survived, almost alone in Europe.  They had been able to reach an accommodation with the Commons in shaping the English constitution, and they reached an accommodation with business and money in shaping British trade.  This triumph of the English aristocracy is unique in all Europe, and the failure of English historians to notice it, let alone celebrate it, is a sad reflection upon the provincialism and specialization of too much of English historical writing.  Namier saw it plainly, but he was from out of town.  Maitland frequently stressed the need for a comparative outlook, and was deeply interested in German history.  French historians such as Marc Bloch and Georges Lefebvre laced their analyses of the history of France and Europe with comparisons with what was happening across the Channel, and their work was so much more illuminating as a result.  But English historians do not often return that serve.  How often do you read in English history how the French law of derogation precluded the French lords from engaging in trade?  For example, under the heading La Noblesse et L’Argent, (The Nobility and Money), Georges Lefebvre remarked that the French lords envied the English lords who became rich on mixing with the bourgeoisie and who, thanks to their Parliament, formed the ministry and government of the nation.

The English lack of interest in Europe has borne fruit, and is currently celebrating a kind of mordant vindication, but the mind-set may also be at risk of being described as insular – definitively insular – with all the darkening and proud exclusion that that state of mind entails.

They are the kind of sparks you come across when reading Namier.  I can imagine he was difficult, a stranger to his new people, and possibly disloyal to his old people, and he was denied the acceptance that he craved and that he had so plainly earned.  My copy of The Structure, etc., has a letter signed by Namier on faded blue paper Shepherds Bush 2445, 60 The Grampians W 6, 14 December 1950.  The tone is antiseptic, but the signature is defiantly formal and straight.

When I read Namier, it is like being overtaken by a Bentley or listening to Joan Sutherland – you just know that there is plenty left in the tank.  Just as I think that Maitland’s intellect was far stronger than that of Pollock’, so I think that Namier was stronger than Berlin – it is just that the other two were better at the game.

Sir Geoffrey Elton was another import with a name-change who changed the way people saw his part of the history of England.  Elton said this about the reaction to Namier: ‘….the violence provoked by Namier owed much to the astonishment felt in conventional circles at the uncalled-for appearance of a historian with tory predilections who clearly outranked the liberals intellectually.’  We all recognize that syndrome immediately – the refuge of the tepid, the mediocre, the smug, and the fellow-travellers.  I have been a fan of Namier since 1963, and I will stay loyal to him.  I am not aware of anyone writing history now who comes even close.  He had a most formidable and penetrating intellect.  And how many historians now would have the courage to refer to ‘plain human kindness’?

Passing bull 181 – The vice of silence, when silence is a lie

 

The Spanish Civil War was full of horror.  It was also full of bullshit.  Priests exhorted the faithful not to consort with Jews or Freemasons.  The fascists – Falangists – were on a Crusade.  They had a kind of evangelical medievalism and they sought a return to ‘chivalrous Christianity’ – unless of course the Crusaders were butchering Jews or Muslims.  In his wonderful history of the conflict, Hugh Thomas sees conservatism, fascism and ‘reactionary nostalgia’.  What a great phrase for our time!  We are everywhere surrounded by a reactionary nostalgia that is rooted not in history but in dreams – or nightmares.  The Falangists had their own inane version of ‘Make Spain Great Again.’

What we need is someone to take a stand against nonsense.

One person did so, heroically, in Spain.  The writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno was the rector of the University of Salamanca.  That city was the base for Franco.  Miguel had originally favoured the nationalist (fascist) cause, but he became ‘terrified by the character that this civil war was taking, due to a collective mental illness, an epidemic of madness, with a pathological substratum.’  He thought that Franco’s Catholicism was not Christian.  At a fascist meeting at the University under a portrait of Franco, a bishop and others gave hot tempered speeches in the presence of a mutilated war hero (General Astray).  Vows were given to exterminate Basques (of whom Unamuno was one) and Catalans.  The cry went up: ‘Viva la Muerte!  Long live death.’  Something in the philosopher snapped.

All of you are hanging on my words.  You all know me and are aware that I am unable to remain silent.  At times to be silent is to lie.  For silence can be interpreted as acquiescence.  I want to comment on the speech [of a professor] – to give it that name.  Let us waive the personal affront implied in the sudden burst of vituperation against the Basques and Catalans.  I was myself born in Bilbao.  The bishop here is, whether he likes it or not, a Catalan from Barcelona.

There was a silence pregnant with fear.  No one spoke like this in fascist Spain.

Just now, I heard a necrophilistic and senseless cry ‘Long Live Death.’  And I, who have spent my life shaping paradoxes which have aroused the uncomprehending anger of others, I must tell you as an expert authority, that this outlandish paradox is repellent.  General Astray is a cripple.  Let it be said without any slighting undertone.  He is a war invalid.  So was Cervantes.  Sadly, there are all too many cripples in Spain now.  And soon there will be even more of them if God does not come to our aid.  It pains me to think that General Astray should dictate the pattern of mass psychology.  A cripple who lacks the spiritual greatness of a Cervantes is wont to seek ominous relief in causing mutilation around him.

General Astray shouted ‘Death to Intellectuals.’  Terror and pandemonium filled the air.  ‘Long Live Death.’  The philosopher went on.

This is the temple of the intellect.  And I am its high priest.  It is you who profane its sacred precincts.  You will win because you have more than enough brute force.  But you will not convince.  For to convince, you need to persuade.  And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: reason and right in the struggle.  I consider it futile to exhort you to think of Spain.  I have done.

I will not insult the memory of this very great man by adding any comment of my own.  The fascists did not murder Unamuno, but he died shortly after this of a broken heart while under house arrest.  The fascists then named a concentration camp after him.

There was of course great evil on both sides.  The republicans put on a show trial of the one-time leader of the Falangists, José Antonio.  I expect that the charge was treason, since it was the fascists who had rebelled against the lawful government.  (That did not stop the fascists killing out of hand those who resisted the resistance.)  Antonio conducted his own defence with great dignity and courage, but the preordained sentence of death was given and then unlawfully carried because of a well justified fear that the government would commute the sentence.  But Antonio, ‘with the chivalry that his enemies never denied him’, had successfully argued that his brother and his brother’s wife should not be shot too.  In the course of that plea, he made an observation that was simply beyond the horizon of people like Stalin and Franco.  ‘Life is not a firework that you let off at the end of a garden party.’

In his Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Professor Simon Blackburn says that Unamuno ‘developed an existentialist Christian theology, premised on a tragic view of life and mortality.’  He was an intensely spiritual man.  He said: ‘Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.’  This Spanish man of God therefore had more than one thing in common with a German man of God, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bloopers

Weak borders, divisive identity politics, the attack on core freedoms and undemocratic rule by PC elites are hallmarks of government by green-left MPs.  Elect them at your peril.

The Australian, 10 December, 2018

What might it be like to live in a blinkered but labelled world beyond rational thought where some sad souls have nightmares at the mere thought of the other side having a look in?

I need not name the authoress, whose soul suffers dire torment that the IPA has not been able to staunch.

MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 13

 

[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.]

13

PROMETHEUS BOUND

Aeschylus (410 BC)

Limited Editions Club, 1965; stone and blue cloth with gold embossing and labels, in slip-case of same colour; illustrated by John Farleigh; copy number 353 of limited edition by Joh. Enschede en Zonen of Haarlem, Holland; with Prometheus Unbound of Shelley.

Victory and power proceeded from intelligence.

They do not get more elemental than this.  Big epics tend to start with feuds in heaven – The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Mahabharata, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that would have warmed the heart of a local apparatchik.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to ease the lot of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the O T God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus.  We do not have the balance of the trilogy, and what we have is not a ripping night out at the theatre.

Zeus is a real bastard.  As the hero says, ‘I know that Zeus measures what is just by his interest.’  That is not a bad definition of a dictator, and Prometheus also says: ‘This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.’  There are other mordantly modern touches.  When Prometheus exclaims ‘Alas!’ Hermes says ‘That is a word Zeus does not understand.’  ‘Now, first, when the gods entered upon their anger/ when they split into parties, and strife rose among them’, Zeus gets it into his head to make the whole human race extinct, and to form another race instead.’  When Prometheus applies the power of his mind to ease mankind, he has to face the wrath of a very personal God.

People in the west are now brought up with a very Platonic idea of God as eternal and changeless, and one thing that immediately strikes us as curious is that Zeus, the God of Aeschylus, is capable of changing.  It looks like these Greeks held that things must either grow or decay.  Well, for all the strife in heaven – that is scandalously on show in Milton – this tale is indeed elemental.  Rex Warner, the translator, referred to a Harvard scholar, J H Finley, who compares Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov, and King Lear as works having the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’  That is a powerful remark.

Aeschylus is better known now for the trilogy of Orestes, sometimes called Orestheia.  When Paris takes off for Troy with Helen, the Greeks go after them.  ‘She took to Ilium her dowry death…alas, for the bed sighed for their love together.’  Cassandra, who was not created for a cheery night out, says:

But I; when you marshalled this armament

For Helen’s sake, I will not hide it,

In ugly style you were written in my heart

For steering aslant the mind’s course

To bring home by blood

Sacrifice and dead men that wild spirit.

But the wind will not rise for the fleet, and to appease the gods, King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter.  The gods relent and the Greeks go to war for a slight to pride caused by a randy tart.

The god of war, money changer of dead bodies,

Held the balance of the spear in the fighting,

And from the corpse-fires at Ilium

Sent to their dearest the dust

Heavy and bitter with tears shed

Packing smooth the urns with

Ashes that once were men

…..

And all for some strange woman

The young men in their beauty keep

Graves deep in the alien soil

They hated and they conquered.

The Greeks win a kind of revenge, but at hideous cost.  What of Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon and mother of the sacrificed daughter, must she avenge her daughter and kill her husband?  Yes.  That is the first play.  What of Orestes?  Must he avenge his father and kill his mother?  Yes.  That is the second play.  Will the cycle ever be broken by a law?  Yes.  That is the third play.

The late Tony Tanner wrote wonderful introductions to all of Shakespeare’s plays.  When he came to introduce the great tragedies, he made this most remarkable contribution to scholarly criticism.

‘Western tragedy opens with a troubled and apprehensive watchman or guard on the roof of the palace of King Agamemnon, watching and waiting for news and signals concerning the outcome of the Greek war against Troy.  He conveys a sense of unease and disquiet.  Something, which he dare not, or will not, articulate is wrong within the palace or ‘house’ for which he is the watchman.  It is night-time and the atmosphere is ominous, full of dubiety and an incipient sense of festering secrets.  The long drama of the Oresteia has begun.  Some two thousand years later, Hamlet, the first indisputably great European tragedy since the time of the Greeks, will open in very much the same way – on ‘A guard platform of the castle’ (of Elsinore), at midnight, with a nervous jittery guardsman – Barnado – asking apprehensive questions in the darkness, and revealing that, for unspecified reasons, he is ‘sick at heart.’  The similarity betokens no indebtedness of Shakespeare to Aeschylus (whose work he could not have known), but rather a profound similarity of apprehension as to what might constitute a source for tragic drama.  Shakespeare does not start where Aeschylus left off: he starts where Aeschylus started.  And the subject, which is to say the problem, which is to say the potentially – and actually – catastrophic issue which they both set out to explore in their plays – the drama they dramatized – centres on revenge.’

How was mankind to move from the vendetta to the rule of law where the state is said to have a monopoly of violence?  People who do not see why Hamlet pauses forget that his father’s ghost wants Hamlet to take European civilization back two thousand years.  Orestes did pause to ask if it was right for him to kill his mother.  His mate gives a brief rallying call to a Dorothy Dixer, and Orestes says: ‘I judge that you win.  Your advice is good.’  As lines go, it is about as valid as Mama, quel vino es generoso, except there it was the son who was about to make the final exit.

Tanner remarks that although the Greeks had a lot to say about guilt, they had no word for conscience.  This is how Tony Tanner sees the difference between the two plays. ‘We could say that, what for Orestes is a very short ‘pause’ and a very brief ‘scan’, becomes in Hamlet almost the whole of the play.  Because, between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, something has taken place which has permanently changed the western mind – namely, Christianity, and more particularly for the Elizabethans, the Reformation.’

These are searing insights.  Those who cling to the preposterous Oxbridge dream that ancient Greece and Rome were civilized presumably take the view that the Sermon on the Mount meant nothing.  But there is no doubting that the tragedies of Aeschylus record in dramatic form and poetry myths that still run very deeply in our consciousness.  They are discernible stepping stones on our ascent from the primeval slime.

Passing bull 180 – Being dogmatic in politics

 

As a party grounded in democratic principles, we believe in equality of opportunity.  Conversely, quotas, which are designed to engineer equality of outcome, are a fundamentally socialist concept, and an anathema to Liberal values.

The Australian, 2 January, 2018.  Senator Linda Reynolds

Is the other party not grounded in democratic principles?  What does ‘socialist’ there mean?  Is it any law designed to engineer an outcome?  Is Medicare socialist?  Are Liberals so attached to their dogma that deviance is anathema?  How long would a coalition government last if it refused to allow quotas in primary industry?

The Senator is good evidence of the swing of puritan dogmatism from one side of politics to the other.  Fifty years ago people on the Labor side were wont to say ‘It does not matter if we keep losing as long as we stay pure.’  Now we get this from the Liberals.  And ‘anathema’ comes from religion – of a very intolerant kind.

And if the Liberal policy of selecting people on merit gave them people like Tony Abbott, God save us all.

Bloopers

That’s right, so averse was Bradley to a listed company being expected to act ‘‘in a socially responsible manner’’ (on the basis that such a requirement ‘‘is fraught with subjectivity [so] should be removed’’), he penned a 13-page submission to the Australian Securities Exchange’s Corporate Governance Council. In July. As in less than five months ago.

‘‘I have the same concern about the use of the phrase ‘social licence to operate’,’’ he establishes on page 9, faulting ‘‘the slipperiness of this concept’’.

‘‘It is at best a metaphor for a company’s brand or reputation in the community. It would, therefore, be better to frame this commentary in terms of ‘the importance of culture to the preservation and enhancement of a company’s brand and reputation which are important sources of value and competitive advantage’. This would avoid the open ended, vague and controversial notion that companies have a ‘social licence’ as distinct from legal licences to operate.’’

Australian Financial Review, 11 December, 2018

The terms culture, brand and value are, it is apparently said, not open ended or vague.

Here and there – Frontier Justice

 

Like a lot of people busy in the birth of the United States, John Marshall came from Virginia – Fauquier County between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers.  (It’s hard to get more American than that.)  Mary Marshall was eighteen when John was born.  She would later have fourteen more children.  John’s dad was a surveyor, as was another local called George Washington.

John Marshall fought the English beside his father.  It was in truth a brutal form of civil war.  ‘Liberty or Death’ was inscribed on their jacket, and they were armed with a tomahawk and scalping knife.  When it came to this kind of fight, the white people were content to ape people they described as savages.

John would later qualify as a lawyer.  He too would have a large family whom he provided for by giving them land and slaves.  He was intensely political, but he is remembered for serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for thirty five years, a record that still stands.  Even Australian lawyers know of Marshall, C J, as the judge who affirmed that the Supreme Court could tell politicians where to get off by striking down laws of Congress that the Court found to be against the Constitution.

This story is crisply told by Richard Brookhiser in John Marshall, The Man who made the Supreme Court.  The author is a writer, not a historian or lawyer.  Given contemporary scholarship in either field, that is a huge plus.  Just tell the story and let us chase up the evidence or the law if we want to.  I am sick of acting as unpaid editor for bookish workaholics who feel the need to lay out the results of years of trawling that just obscure all that we need to know about the subject.  This book comes in at under 300 well-spaced pages, and the subject turns twenty before the book does (an achievement of Roy Jenkins on Churchill).  And the fact that the author is not a lawyer might serve to revive that wonderful old fairy tale that we should all be able to understand the law.  (That reminds me of a remark by an English judge that justice was open to all – just like the Ritz Hotel.)

The book justifies its subtitle.  Marshall brought to this new constitutional organ dignity as well as power.  He understood and acted upon the wisdom of our English ancestors that people don’t like or trust division in government.  A split in the highest court in the land is as welcome, or suspect, as a split in cabinet, or even in a political party.  Our ancestors forbade the publishing of any dissent within the Privy Council sitting in either its executive or its judicial capacity.  We preserve that doctrine for cabinet.  ‘As much as possible, Marshall made them [the justices] not six or seven men but one body.’

Marshall did so by juristic leadership, intellectual humility, and personal charm – in which Madeira played its part.  Not for him, or the people, the prima donna, or prima ballerina, or prima donna assoluta.  God only knows what the founding justices would have thought of the massive footnoted encyclopaedias scatter-gunned over the land by hugely over-resourced untouchables sealed away from the masses in a barren federal fastness.

For better or worse, the highest courts in common law countries now spend a lot time legislating.  The need for one voice then becomes imperative.  Our parliaments inflict misery and indignity on us, but not to the extent that they offer alternative, and not consistent, versions of a new law.  Yet our judicial law-makers do just that to us all the time.

There is another problem, one that is at least as bad.  You do not have to subscribe to the radical fringe of one political party to complain that we have too much law – and too much that is incomprehensible as well as suffocating.  Our judicial law-makers need to understand one simple truth.  Your decision may add to the law or it may not.  If not, you don’t need to say anything, except perhaps to apologise to the parties for putting them to an expense that has no point.  But if you are adding to the law, the odds are long that you will make it worse – either ipso facto just by adding to the volume, or because that’s just the way it is unless you are one of the All Time All Stars – and they come along about once each century.  On this point, the lawyers need to get their act together in parliament, the executive, and the judiciary.  You only have to look across the Pacific to see the awful fate that waits us if we don’t.

That I think is the point of the book, and it is a big one.  But the book gets there with lots of anecdotes that are the main reason we turn to biography.  (Why do we turn our noses up at ‘anecdotal evidence’?  Does not all evidence rest on a report of what has been perceived, just as all history resolves into parts of biographies?)

After Marshall had been on the court some time, he was joined by Joseph Story.  I have on many occasions consulted Story on equity.  He is up there juristically with Holmes, Ames and Pound – and on Kanchenjunga, the atmosphere is lofty.  Story and Marshall were very close.  Story helped Marshall bind the court.  Marshall could not have had a better man riding shotgun.  They also did comic routines.  The judges dined in a boarding house.  It was their custom to take wine only if it was raining.  Marshall would ask ‘Brother Story’ to look out the window and check the weather.  If he reported that it was sunny, Marshall would reply that ‘our territory is so large it must be raining somewhere’.  Grown men in high places who can act with that sense are doing something right.

Americans were then and are now much more attracted to oratory.  It was an art form and you got in for free.  Society came to hear the big guns.  When Dolly Madison arrived at the court with a party of ladies, counsel stopped and recapped the argument for their benefit.  Daniel Webster was a very big hitter.  In terms that only he could have found, Carlyle compared his eyes to ‘anthracite furnaces needing only to be blown…I have not traced so much of silent berserker rage in any other man.’  (I felt a bit like that with Tom Hughes in a case more than thirty years ago – and I was on his side!).  In one massive case about Dartmouth College, Webster at the conclusion of his argument, looked directly at the Chief Justice and said: ‘Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak; it is in your hands….It is, sir, a small college.  And yet there are those who love it.’  In our terms, that is not something you try on at home, but two people who were there said that the room was deadly silent or in tears.

Another hotshot was Pinkney who was ‘acerbic, arrogant, and vain. He bullied opposing counsel, laced himself into corsets, and used cosmetics on his face.’  If you out to one side the underwear and make-up, we all know these people.  They commonly have a chip on their shoulder, often about their status before they rose up in the world.  Pinkney’s dad was a Tory who lost all in the Revolution.  The son started by sweeping out law offices.  When he was on the rise, he went to London to settle war claims.  He met Pitt and Fox and other greats.  He felt humiliated when these ‘Oxbridge-educated aristos’ were discussing Euripides.  He could add nothing.  ‘I resolved to study the classics’ – in other words, he would not be shamed again.

Marshall was able to champion the Constitution as the supreme voice of the people.  The high romance of its history helped him, even if much of it was invented.  (It’s harder for us.  Our founding document is in the schedule to an act of the British Parliament and Queen Victoria.)  In one case, he held that the power to tax was the power to destroy, and since the power of Congress to charter a bank was supreme, no state could claim a power that might destroy it.  States’ rights were and are much more lively there than here.  The author refers to one loaded states’ rights judge as a man of ‘strong passions and morose manners …who could not endure a superior.’  Well, we too know all about those judges, but Robert E Lee would lead his fellow Americans to pay a hideous price for his putting his state before the union.  (It is not surprising that some in the north later wanted to hang Lee and Davis.)

Marshall hated Jefferson with heat all his life and Jefferson responded in kind all his life.  (For some reason, I am not surprised that Jefferson got up some people’s noses.  The Declaration of Independence is for me full of that self-serving humbug that so troubled de Tocqueville about the American character.  The Convention did Jefferson and us a big favour by striking out the most purple passages.)  Marshall called Jefferson ‘the great Lama of the mountains.’  He had told Hamilton that Jefferson was a demagogue.

His great power is chiefly acquired by professions of democracy.  Every check on the wild impulse of the moment is therefore a check on his own power, and he is unfriendly to the source from which it flows.  He looks, of course, with an ill will at an independent judiciary.

God only knows what wan thoughts those words might arouse in a Chief Justice who every day might be called to check ‘the wild impulse of the moment’ of a president who makes Jefferson look like a Trappist monk on industrial strength sedatives.

Nor was Jefferson found wanting.  ‘Marshall makes history descend from its dignity, and the ermine from its sanctity’.  Jefferson spoke of the ‘slipperiness of the eels of the law’ and decisions ‘hanging inference on inference, from heaven to earth, like Jacob’s ladder.’  And we lawyers need to remember which side in this fight will get the popular vote – even putting to one side what is softly called ‘the base.’

Some of the stories look apocryphal, but they throw light nevertheless.  James Kent was a very learned judge in New York.  He had idolized Hamilton.  Aaron Burr was another figure larger than life.  He had killed Hamilton in a duel and would go on to dabble in treason.  When Kent saw Burr in the street, his Honour permitted himself the loud observation that Burr was a scoundrel.  Burr, the author tells us, ‘answered suavely’ that his Honour’s opinions were ‘always entitled to the highest consideration.’

And so it went on.  Jefferson died on the fiftieth anniversary of his Declaration.  Marshall kept going, although some prima donnas made a splash in the pool.

Every February, the same justices came to Washington, roomed at the same hotel, drank the same wine rain or shine, and followed Marshall’s lead regardless of their own party affiliation.

It was a colossal achievement.  Marshall would be followed by Taney.  The Dred Scott decision would sanctify the Original Sin of the Republic.  Marshall had wrestled with the ugly notion that ‘conquest gives a title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny’.  It would take the genius, and the murder, of Abraham Lincoln and the blood of 600,000 Americans to begin to erase the infamy of slavery.  Lincoln referred to Dred Scott in his first inaugural.  Taney sat behind him looking like a ‘galvanized corpse.’

When Marshall died, he had been on the court for nearly two generations.  From 1812 to 1823, the personnel on the court had not changed.  The only comparable period would come in 1994 to 2005.

Eight years after the death of Marshall, his friend Justice Story said that such men ‘are found only when our need is the greatest.’  History suggests that his Honour then uttered a great truth.  But the author is surely right to refer to another tribute.  Marshall had been a life-long member of the Richmond Quoits Club.  (I gather that they threw horse shoes.)  This was a very sensible and convivial body for a very sensible and convivial man to belong to.  There was a flat ban on any talk about religion or politics, but the members did not mind a drink.  When Marshall died the members resolved that he was irreplaceable and that the club should always have one less member.  I don’t know whether this gesture founded the tradition of retiring the number of a great player – like Babe Ruth – but it was a charming gesture on behalf of America to a very great American.

Passing bull 179– Timid denial

 

Have you noticed that those people who used to deny climate change now merely say we are over reacting?  The same people now do the same with Donald Trump.  They don’t say that he is evil – they just say that we are over reacting by disliking him so intensely.  On each count they deride experts and elites.  Now, these people are not experts but they certainly see themselves as elite.  Their championing of the common man or common sense is hilarious.

David Flint, the celebrated monarchist, broke the world land speed record for this kind of bullshit in a piece about Trump’s withdrawal from Syria in The Australian on New Year’s Eve.  It began.

Whatever Donald Trump does, we can be sure of two consequences.  Even if they once argued for what he is trying to do, such as diminishing excessive overseas military involvements – ‘imperial overreach’ – this will be vigorously and even hysterically opposed by the Democrats, the U S mainstream media and elites everywhere.  This is because their detestation of Trump is so irrational that they predictably react against anything he does as if they were programmed automatons.

Mr Flint then proceeded to ignore all the reasons why the Secretary of Defence resigned in protest, and leading Republicans denounced the decision – and why they have persuaded Trump to ‘walk back’ the decision, as they say.  Mr Flint rejects the experts.  He relies on Churchill who said that military strategy and tactics are a matter of common sense.  He then concluded:

The fact is that, in this policy, as in so many others, Trump demonstrates a wisdom his enemies refuse to contemplate.

You may have thought facts and opinions are different, but not in the new order.  It takes your breath away.  It is the best evidence that in the space of about one generation, the cranks and ideologues have moved from one side of politics to the other.  What is revolting is that these people style themselves conservatives.  They, like Trump, are pimps for the gutter.

George Orwell thought that he might be a ‘Tory Anarchist’.  What a noble calling!  He said that ‘what I saw in Spain and what I have seen of in the inner workings of left-wing politics has given me a horror of politics.’  He also said: ‘What sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen.’  They are my views exactly – except the cranks have changed sides.  When a man who claims to be conservative blesses Trump for his wisdom, we have become like ostriches, looking at the world a posteriori.

And just watch their hostility to the expert evaporate when they are charged with murder or diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Bloopers

The fact that Trump did this [pull out of Syria] against the wishes of his national security establishment can be seen either as legitimate presidential leadership or irresponsibility.  Take your pick.

The Australian, 21 December, 2018, Greg Sheridan

After that it gets worse.

Truth is optional.

The facing article is headed ‘Stunned advisers say job is not done.’

MY TOP SHELF

 

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

12

FAUST

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1808)

Easton Press, Connecticut, 1980, Collector’s Edition; fully bound in burgundy leather, with gold embossing and gold leaf and satin end-papers with gold silk sash; lithographs by Eugene Delacroix.

I am too young to be without desire,

Too old, too old merely to play.

It is healthy to suggest that people get punished if they get ideas above their station.  The greatest pests in history, from Caesar to Napoleon, were those who had to learn the lesson the hard way.  So did Adam and Eve.  So did Icarus.  The Greeks said that hubris would be met by nemesis.  In each case, people are trying to rise above the limits of their own humanity, and in each case the supernatural is involved.  Even in the tragedy of ambition of our greatest author, Macbeth, the fatal aspiration is planted by witches.

The German myth of Faust starts with a wager between God and the Devil (Mephistopheles).  (The great Indian epic Mahabharata starts with a dice game that was loaded.)  Mephistopheles bets that he can lead Doctor Faust astray.  Faust has climbed every intellectual mountain and is bored.  Mephistopheles offers to lend him all his powers if Faust agrees that if he allows himself to say that he is satisfied he will be at the disposal of Devil.  The pact is sealed in blood.  The Devil does his part and Faust is able to seduce and ruin Gretchen (or Margarete), but in doing so he enables Mephistopheles to call in the debt.  In American terms, that is one hell of a price to pay to get laid.

That is Part I of the verse drama of Goethe.  Part II is much longer and more esoteric.  Part I shows almost every style of theatre including commedia dell’arte.  People in Germany and intellectuals outside Germany put Goethe on the same level as Shakespeare.  But that, sadly, is about as far as it goes.  Goethe suffers the same fate as Pushkin – they are writers who are revered and adored at home but who somehow lose it in translation.  People are familiar with the Faust of Gounod, and the Boris Godunov of Mussorgsky, but very few outside Germany or Russia have seen the original.

Two passages will show the problem.  This is Mephistopheles:

I am not of the very great

But if you’ll take me as a mate

And go your way through life with me,

I shall willingly agree to be yours on the spot.

I’ll be your comrade to the grave

And if I suit –

I’ll be your servant, be your slave.

This is Gretchen:

I stand before him blushing red

And just say ‘Yes’ to all he’s said.

What a child I am! I cannot see

What he ever finds in me!

In English, that is bad poetry and worse theatre.  Compare these passages from the Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe.

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

………………..

Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,

And then return to Helen for a kiss.

Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air

Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;

Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter

When he appeared to hapless Semele:

More lovely than the monarch of the sky

In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;

And none but thou shall be my paramour!

This Faustus does not go to the flames like Don Giovanni:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,

The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.

O, I’ll leap up to my God!  Who pulls me down?

See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!

One drop would save my soul – half a drop: ah, my Christ!

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!

Yet will I call on him.  O spare me, Lucifer!-

Why then is this book there?  Apart from courtesy to the Germans, there are three things.  This is a very handsome volume that it is a pleasure to hold and read.  The story has a resolutive charm, even if it is the diametric opposite of the resurrection story.  Finally, about 25 years ago, I saw a production of Part I by the Melbourne Theatre Company directed by Barry Kosky and starring Barry Otto.  It was long but it held the attention of my two quite young daughters.  At the start, the lights were completely killed; two spotlights shot along each of the three aisles, gorillas galloped up and down the aisles to ultra-loud music; they were stopped by a burst of even louder machine-gun fire; the spots went out and down came a single spot on a gorilla out of which emerged Barry Otto as Faust.  It was like 2001, but by a factor of ten, and it never relented or looked back.  It takes balls, but Faust can be riveting on the stage.

Passing bull 178 – There’s one born everyday

 

Do you sometimes wonder if America will wake up one day, as did Italy after Mussolini and Germany did after Hitler, and ask – was this all just a bad dream?  If no, how did we let it all happen?  Did we just check in our brains, and our better selves, behind the door?

In his recent and wordy book Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray has a chapter ‘Secular Humanism, a Sacred relic’.  (The book is loaded with –isms.)  There is a section ‘From Nietzsche to Ayn Rand.’  The former is a spoiler alert for bullshit; so is the latter.

This Russian Jewish migrant to the U S would become the darling of the type of people who would stigmatise migrants and seek to lock the door against them.  She was an amateur philosopher and she has been treated as such by professionals.  But whereas this kind of intellectual lunacy had been the preserve of one side of politics, she may have been the harbinger of its shift to the other side.  She was into –isms and her brand of moonshine was called ‘objectivism’  Her anointed apostle said that objectivism was about ‘the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.’  When you get heroic, noble and absolute in the one sentence, you are assured of vintage bullshit.

This world view is set out in the novel Atlas Shrugged.   That very long novel has biblical force for the disciples of Ayn Rand.  Her view of self-interest was a form of ‘ethical egoism.’  Donald Trump, I suspect, has never finished a book in his life, not even a Famous Five, but if he had, it should have been Atlas Shrugged – the ego enshrined in pure bullshit.  You would not be surprised if you found some autographed copies lying around the IPA.

Naturally, Ayn Rand developed a following of the type called ‘cult.’  She is beloved by the Tea Party crowd and those who call themselves ‘libertarian’.  (A good sane mate of mine says that that word is code for fascist; all I can say in response is that I am against most labels.)  Mr Gray gives evidence of the cult as follows.

Rand’s cult aimed to govern every aspect of life.  She was a dedicated smoker, and her followers were instructed that they had to smoke as well.  Not only did Rand smoke – she used a cigarette holder – so that when she addressed large audiences of the faithful, a thousand cigarette-holders would move in unison with hers.

It is like a soft comic version of a Nuremberg rally, Charlie Chaplin style.  But – hilariously – the faithful were branded with the Bolshevik label the ‘Collective.’

The selection of marriage partners was also controlled. In her view of things, rational human beings should not associate with those that are irrational.  There could be no worse example of this than two people joined together in marriage by mere emotion, so officers of the cult were empowered to pair Rand’s disciples only with others who also subscribed to the faith.  The marriage ceremony included pledging devotion to Rand, then opening Atlas Shrugged at random to read aloud a passage from the sacred text.

So, in the space of a few lines, we have gone from Marx Brothers at the Opera to Mein Kampf, and no one in the Collective knew or cared.  ‘What is good for me is right.’  Someone else said this, but Rand approved it as the ‘best and strongest expression of a real man’s psychology I have heard.’  She later cut the following passage from her first novel We the Living:

I loathe your ideas.  I admire your methods……What are your masses but mud to be ground under foot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?  What is the people but millions of puny, shrivelled, helpless souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the word put into their mildewed brains.

You can find almost everything that made Lenin loathsome in Ayn Rand.  There is in truth one born every minute.  Just ask the publishers of Janet Albrechtsen.  Or just look at the mob at a Trump rally – the ones Flynn worked over with ‘Lock her up.’  (And then ask yourself why a three star general should not get six with a four for that alone.)

Bloopers

The more complex questions are about the Coalition, which as Hennessy said on the ABC, ‘is at a crossroads of existentialism.’

The Guardian, 25 November, 2018

As a general rule, we should avoid words that we don’t understand – but which signify pure bullshit.

Here and there – The French Problem

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here and there – Lowlights of western civilisation

 

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

 

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

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

The Dark Ages

The Crusades

Feudalism (a Mafia protection racket)

Apartheid by England in Ireland for six centuries

Anti-Semitism throughout and from time immemorial

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

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

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

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

The Inquisition

The Spanish Armada, and its motives

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

Holding women down

Persecuting Galileo and retarding Darwin

The intolerance of both Catholics and Protestants after the schism

Civil wars in England and America

The toleration of slavery – in some places until now

The spoliation and ruination of all of Latin America

The looting of India

The rape of Africa

The attempted rape of China and Japan

The actual dismemberment of the Middle East

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

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

The role of Christianity in each of the above regimes

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

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

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

Two world wars

The Holocaust

The Depression and the Great Financial Crisis

The failed interventions in Vietnam and the Middle East

The impending failure of the European experiment

The failure to civilise Russia

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

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

The brutal ineptitude of American evangelicals

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

The sterility and uselessness of modern philosophy

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

The growing threat to the party system and democratic government

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

The sterility of popular entertainment and the popular press

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

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

The present decline in literacy, numeracy, and courtesy

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

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

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

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