Hazlitt on Henry V

William HazlittHenry V is a very favorite monarch with the English nation, and he appears to have been also a favorite with Shakespeare, who labors hard to apologize for the actions of the king, by showing us the character of the man, as “the king of good fellows.” He scarcely deserves this honor. He was fond of war and low company:—we know little else of him. He was careless, dissolute, and ambitious—idle, or doing mischief. In private, he seemed to have no idea of the common decencies of life, which he subjected to a kind of regal license; in public affairs, he seemed to have no idea of any rule of right or wrong, but brute force, glossed over with a little religious hypocrisy and archiepiscopal advice. His principles did not change with his situation and professions. His adventure on Gadshill was a prelude to the affair of Agincourt, only a bloodless one; Falstaff was a puny prompter of violence and outrage, compared with the pious and politic Archbishop of Canterbury, who gave the king carte blanche, in a genealogical tree of his family, to rob and murder in circles of latitude and longitude abroad—to save the possessions of the Church at home. This appears in the speeches in Shakespeare, where the hidden motives that actuate princes and their advisers in war and policy are better laid open than in speeches from the throne or woolsack. Henry, because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbors. Because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France. Because he did not know how to exercise the enormous power, which had just dropped into his hands, to any one good purpose, he immediately undertook (a cheap and obvious resource of sovereignty) to do all the mischief he could. Even if absolute monarchs had the wit to find out objects of laudable ambition, they could only “plume up their wills” in adhering to the more sacred formula of the royal prerogative, “the right divine of kings to govern wrong,” because will is only then triumphant when it is opposed to the will of others, because the pride of power is only then shown, not when it consults the rights and interests of others, but when it insults and tramples on all justice and all humanity. Henry declares his resolution ‘when France is his, to bend it to his awe, or break it all to pieces’—a resolution worthy of a conqueror, to destroy all that he cannot enslave; and what adds to the joke, he lays all the blame of the consequences of his ambition on those who will not submit tamely to his tyranny. Such is the history of kingly power, from the beginning to the end of the world—with this difference, that the object of war formerly, when the people adhered to their allegiance, was to depose kings; the object latterly, since the people swerved from their allegiance, has been to restore kings, and to make common cause against mankind. The object of our late invasion and conquest of France was to restore the legitimate monarch, the descendant of Hugh Capet, to the throne: Henry V in his time made war on and deposed the descendant of this very Hugh Capet, on the plea that he was a usurper and illegitimate. What would the great modern catspaw of legitimacy and restorer of divine right have said to the claim of Henry and the title of the descendants of Hugh Capet? Henry V, it is true, was a hero, a king of England, and the conqueror of the king of France. Yet we feel little love or admiration for him. He was a hero, that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives: he was a king of England, but not a constitutional one, and we only like kings according to the law; lastly, he was a conqueror of the French king, and for this we dislike him less than if he had conquered the French people. How then do we like him? We like him in the play. There he is a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant. As we like to gaze at a panther or a young lion in their cages in the Tower, and catch a pleasing horror from their glistening eyes, their velvet paws, and dreadless roar, so we take a very romantic, heroic, patriotic, and poetical delight in the boasts and feats of our younger Harry, as they appear on the stage and are confined to lines of ten syllables; where no blood follows the stroke that wounds our ears, where no harvest bends beneath horses’ hoofs, no city flames, no little child is butchered, no dead men’s bodies are found piled on heaps and festering the next morning—in the orchestra!

—William Hazlitt
Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays

Republican Abuse of Representative Democratic Norms Has Made Them Impotent

Ted CruzIf it weren’t for all the pain and suffering they cause, I would love the Republican Party. But I wouldn’t love them they way I love Iago in Othello or Richard III in, well, Richard III. Because they are both brilliant in their evilness. Instead, the Republican Party is more like Cosmo Lavish in Terry Pratchett’s Making Money. He is the evil subgenius whose machinations fail completely because he greatly underestimates his adversaries and greatly overestimates himself. This isn’t to say that Lavish didn’t have his victories, but in the end, he lost and went insane to boot. As I discussed earlier this week in Pessimistic Conservatives, conservatism constantly loses as long as civilization doesn’t collapse. And, just in case you haven’t been paying attention, the Republican Party is insane.

Let us consider the filibuster for a moment. For decades people of all political persuasions used this drastic legislative tool quite selectively. And then in the 1970s, it started to get out hand. And from there, basically every time the Republicans were in the minority, its use went up. I’m not saying that the Democrats’ hands are clean on this. But it is pretty much true, Republicans Caused All Filibuster Abuse. And it got so out of hand during the Obama administration that Harry Reid really had no choice but to get rid of it.

Actually, the filibuster didn’t go away; it is just that it only takes a majority to end one now, so it doesn’t take a supermajority to get Obama’s moderate judges confirmed. So what did the Republicans, those evil subgeniuses, do? Well, they simply filibuster every judicial nomination. So instead of the filibuster being a tool for individual senators to use to at least create some news and slow down an appointment, it is simply used as a standard procedure to slow down the entire governing process. The case is slightly less strict with executive branch nominations, but it is still largely true that the Republicans just slow down the nomination process by default.

This leads us to everyone’s favorite Republican subgenius, Ted Cruz. (Okay, maybe it’s a tie with Rand Paul.) As you may have heard, the FAA has banned American airline flights into Israel, because, as you may also have heard, they are at war. Now, the obvious explanation for this is that since Israel is at war, it is best not to fly commercial airplanes there. But if you are an evil subgenius, you know the real reason: it is because Obama is trying to destroy Israel’s tourism industry! So Cruz has decided that he will put a hold on all State Department nominees. Now imagine him laughing maniacally.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t matter. Jonathan Bernstein summed it up well in an article today, Ted Cruz Renders Himself Impotent. As he summed it up:

The upshot, as I’ve said before, is that the Republicans’ collective decision to “punish” majority leader Harry Reid by delaying all nominations also has the effect of depriving individual Republicans of any leverage over individual nominations. Consequently, what Reid must do to overcome Cruz’s holds is pretty much what he does regardless.

The Republicans long ago decided that they were going to throw out all the norms of representative democracy and use every technicality they could to their advantage. But all that’s done is make the government not work as well. When punishment because de rigueur, it also becomes useless.

The Extinct Pride of California

California State FlagA fairly common thing for college students to do is to write parody lyrics to the fight song of a rival. Just such a thing was done by some creative student or students at Stanford University with the Berkeley fight song. It goes:

That poor old Golden Bear
It’s losing all its hair
It’s teeth are out
It’s got the gout
It don’t know what it’s all about!

If only it were doing that well!

The bear in question is the California Grizzly (Brown) Bear , which is also known as the California Golden Bear. It is the mascot of the University of California, Berkeley. But it is also the symbol for the whole state. It is on our state flag, and was on the California flag even before it became a state in 1850. But within 75 years of statehood, the subspecies had been hunted to extinction. A lot of that was understandable: the bear was very dangerous to humans and their farming operations. It was also a food supply. But much of it wasn’t understandable, as in the once popular sport of grizzly bear versus bull fights. (Sadly, I’m sure there are many Californians who would enjoy watching such events today.)

The California Black Bear, on the other hand is doing just fine. But it is a much more adaptable animal. It is also a small bear. The largest California grizzly bears weigh well over a ton—arguably the largest of the brown bear species. Typically the California Black Bear weights one-tenth that. And the largest black bear of any subspecies ever was barely one-third the size of the largest California Grizzlies.

I’m not suggesting that the size of an animal is that big a deal. I’m rather fond of those cocky little smooth-coated otters myself. But clearly, we Californians put the California Grizzly Bear on our flag because it was big and strong. And then we proceeded to hunt it to extinction. I think we should add one of those red circles with a line through it to our flag.

New California State Flag

Truth in advertising.

Scholarship, Infidelity, and Robert Graves

Robert GravesOn this day in 1895, the great British scholar and writer Robert Graves was born. The volume and diversity of his work is overwhelming. He probably thought of himself as a poet. But he did an enormous amount of pure scholarship: critical analysis and translation. But I believe he paid the bills by writing the historical fiction that he is most remembered for, I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and other books like Wife to Mr Milton: the Story of Marie Powell, which is about the wife of John Milton.

I don’t have a great deal to say about Graves beyond relating my intense jealousy of him. My standard line about my own education is that if I had it all to do over again, I would study mathematics and not physics; but if I were starting now, I would study classics. I remember reading in a biography of Christopher Marlowe that originally, the term “illiterate” meant that one could not read Latin. And that a basic college education at that time (late 16th century) meant you were fluent in Latin. When Marlowe got his Master’s degree, that meant he was fluent in Greek as well. Graves did quite a lot of Greek and Latin translating, although I don’t think anyone was paying him, which makes it all the more cool.

The first thirty years of his life were something of a muddle where he went to school, then to war, got married, went back to school, was unsuccessful at business and then abandoned his wife and children for poet Laura Riding. His career kind of started there with the two of them publishing poetry and academic works. Things really got going when Graves published his autobiography, Good-bye to All That. Much of it was about his experiences in World War I, which was not laudatory and even discussed the murder of German prisoners of war. He also managed to offend a lot of people with the book, but I get the impression that Graves was generally rather good at that.

In 1934, he published I, Claudius, which has hugely successful and probably set him for life. Five years later, his turbulent relationship with Riding ended. Then he took up with Beryl Hodge, the wife of his collaborator Alan Hodge. They married and Graves went on to have a more boring life befitting a successful writer. But it is hard not to think that Graves was kind of jerk to many of the people in his life. Not that it matters. And none of us are perfect.

The gods, it would seem, did punish Graves. In his mid-70s, he began suffering from severe memory loss and for the last ten years of his life, he was able to do no work at all. It is a sad way to go, although actually rather typical. The mind tends to see a distinct diminution in its abilities in the early 70s, although it doesn’t seem to get notably worse even if you live to be 124 (which seems to be about the maximum possible age for humans). But it must have been particularly hard on a great mind like Graves. It is one of the reasons that I think it is best for me to die at around 75, even if I don’t have a great mind like Graves. What I do have is my mind and when that starts to go, what will be the point? Moving on…

Happy birthday Robert Graves!