Here and there – A Tale of Two Mountebanks


Sir Lewis Namier, the distinguished English historian, specialised in eighteenth century English history.  But he was born in Eastern Europe and he had a lifelong interest in European history.

In 1947, Namier published an essay called The First Mountebank Dictator.  It was about a nephew of Napoleon called Louis-Napoleon who, as Napoleon III, ruled France for a period in the nineteenth century.  The regime is called the Second Empire.  This was one of the many regimes that France went through in the century of agony that followed the fall of the Bastille.

Louis-Napoleon has not had a good press.  Many parts of this essay remind me of a contemporary figure who is not a dictator, but who is certainly a mountebank.  There are differences, but we can see the similarities. You have probably already guessed who I have in mind, but to remove any doubt, here is the OED definition of a mountebank:

An itinerant quack who from a platform appealed to his audience by means of stories, tricks, juggling and the like, often with the assistance of a professional clown.  An impudent charlatan.

Curiously, poor sad Gerry Henderson took exception to the word ‘charlatan’ being employed to the mountebank you and I now have in mind.  Appropriately, I see that Coleridge referred to ‘the Mountebanks and Zanies of Patriotism’ – a fair description of the rump of one of our political parties, or what’s left of it.

Here then are extracts from Sir Lewis Namier’s description of a mountebank.

The modern dictatorship arises amid the ruins of an inherited social and political structure, in the desolation of shattered loyalties – it is the desperate shift of communities broken from their moorings.  Disappointed, disillusioned men, uprooted and unbalanced, driven by half-conscious fears and gusts of passions, frantically seek a new rallying point and new attachments.  Their dreams and cravings projected into the void gather round some figure.  It is the monolatry of the political desert.  The more pathological the situation, the less important is the intrinsic worth of the idol.  His feet may be of clay and his face may be a blank: it is the frenzy of the worshippers which imparts to him meaning and power.

Why, of course!  We see it at once.  It’s just that we don’t have the command of either history or language to paint such a gorgeous portrait.  But don’t worry – there is plenty more to come.

Such morbid cults have by now acquired a tradition and ideology, and have evolved their own routine and political vocabulary.  With Napoleon I [Bonaparte] things were serious and real – the problems of his time and his mastery of them; he raised no bogies and whipped up no passions; he aimed at restoring sanity and consolidating the positive results of the Revolution; and if, in superposing the Empire on the Republic and in creating Realm of the West, he invoked the memories of Caesar and Charlemagne, the appeal was decorative rather than imitative.  There would have been no occasion for his dictatorship had not the living heritage of French history been obliterated by revolution; but his system has left its own unhealthy legend, a jackal-ghost which prowls in the wake of the ‘Red sceptre.’

Well, of value for us here is the catalogue of what Bonaparte wasn’t although it’s as well to recall that he left Europe with five million dead, and he left France a smoking, spent ruin.  We go on.

Napoleon III and Boulanger were to be the plagiarists, shadowy and counterfeit, of Napoleon I; and Mussolini and Hitler were to be unconscious reproducers of the methods of Napoleon III.  For these are inherent in plebiscitarian Caesarism, or so-called ‘Caesarian democracy’, with its direct appeal to the masses: demagogical slogans; disregard of legality in spite of a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political parties and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises for all and sundry; militarism, blatant displays and shady corruption.  Panem et circenses [bread and circuses] once more – and at the end of the road, disaster.

There seventy years ago you have a word for word portrait – word for word: read them again – of our current mountebank.  Note especially the contempt for the educated classes and look at the vague contradictory promises and the shady corruption.  And remember that two the most fascist regimes that the world has known – ancient Sparta and Nazi Germany – were also among the most corrupt.

…the taciturn, shadowy impassive figure of Napoleon III has puzzled the century which has gone by, as the shrieking, convulsed, hysterical figure of Hitler will puzzle the one to come.  ‘A sphinx without a riddle’ was Bismarck’s summing up of Napoleon III ‘from afar something, near at hand nothing.’ ‘Louis-Napoleon is essentially a copyist.  He can originate nothing; his opinions, his theories, his maxims, even his plots, are all borrowed and from the most dangerous of models….[Bonaparte]….  ‘His range of ideas is narrow, and there is always one which preoccupies him…..and shuts out the others….He learns little from his own meditations, for he does not balance opposite arguments; he learns nothing from conversation, for he never listens’….‘as he is ignorant uninventive and idle, you will see him flounder from one failure to another’….[his] ‘writings were not read by the soldier or by the prolétaire…  and the principle of his regime was to rest on the army and the people, and to ignore the existence of the educated classes.’

This brings us closer to the personalities of out two mountebanks.  Each was or is anything but educated but deeply troubled by those who were or are.  All that is missing – so far – from Louis-Napoleon is a massive ego masking a chasm of insecurity.  Princess Mathilde, a cousin, wanted ‘to break his head, to find out what there is in it.’  His writing was described as ‘turgid, contradictory, and baffling, both naïve and cunning’ – in other words, bullshit.  He wanted to forego parliament and the plutocracy and go with his ‘unformulated doctrine of direct contract between sovereign and masses.’  Then Namier describes the critical mistake of educated people.

They thought that because he was intellectually their inferior, they would be able to run him or get rid of him; the German conservatives – Junkers, industrialists, generals, Nationalists – thought the same about Hitler.  [And the Italians thought the same about Mussolini.]  ‘The elect of six millions executes  and does not betray the will of the people.

The pulling down and rebuilding of capitals is again a recurrent feature in the history of despots and dictators, from Nero to Mussolini and Hitler.  Self-expression, self-glorification and self-commemoration are one motive…..The careers of Napoleon III and Hitler have shown how far even a bare minimum of ideas and resources, when backed by a nation’s reminiscences or passions, can carry a man in the political desert of direct democracy’; and the books written about Napoleon III show how loath posterity is to accept the stark truth about such a man.

The phrase ‘political desert’ is good.

There was in him a streak of vulgarity.  He was sensual, dissolute, undiscriminating in his love affairs: his escapades were a form of escapism, a release…He talked high and vague idealism, uncorrelated to his actions.  He had a fixed, superstitious, childish belief in his name and star.  Risen to power, this immature weak man became a public danger.

There, near the end of the essay, we get the perfect marriage of our two mountebanks.  At their best, they’re nothing but bullshit-artists.

English was probably about the sixth language learned by Namier, but when he referred to ‘a streak of vulgarity’, he was using the word ‘vulgar’ which is based on a Latin word for the ‘common people’ or herd.  That is the perfect word for our other mountebank.

We might take as our text the opening lines of the book of Ecclesiastes.  There is nothing new under the sun.  It is risky to speculate about what Shakespeare thought of the herd, but his Roman plays and an early English historical play suggest that he had a most righteous fear of the mob. He examines an aspect of what we call ‘populism’ in Coriolanus.  This haughty patrician is the anti-populist – he refuses to bow to the plebeians.  He holds them in contempt and says so.  Plutarch said of the historical character that he ‘lacked the gravity and affability that is gotten with judgment and learning…and was wilfully given to self-opinion and obstinate mind.’  The fine English critic Tony Tanner said of Shakespeare’s character that ‘he is a prime example of what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the ill-educated prince, a man from the governing classes who is, by nature, temperament, and upbringing, unfitted and unfit to rule.’

That brings us back to our two mountebanks – again, word for word.  But Coriolanus was a tragic figure; our two mountebanks are merely preposterous.

Let me finish with a zinging one-liner from Sir Lewis:

The view that it was not a regime but a racket is not altogether unfounded.

Not with our mountebank, Mate.  There’s no doubt that there’s a racket going on there.