Lies as Fuel for Slaughter; Truth as Wellspring of Courage

Yesterday, by chance, reading involved two things: a chapter of history and a short story.  Written by men living 2300 years apart, these describe the very same thing: the workings of the human heart, in particular at times of trial, and the results of those workings in terms of human suffering and survival. In the history, people lied to everyone about everything in an attempt to save their own skins, and failed, earning themselves sordid deaths.  In the story, a man is led by his absolute devotion to truth at least to die with integrity after having behaved well.

Thucydides claims to have based his history on near reports, and to have fleshed it out with his own considered reconstructions of the speeches made by the great men on all sides during the Peloponnesian War.  That’s fine; all well and good, but to read it is to scan multiple recursions of the same theme, here paraphrased:

The Plutonians sent forty ships to lay waste the lands of the Apricotians.  The Apricotians did not submit, so the Plutonians slaughtered them all, burned the city, raised a trophy, and sailed home.

Then the reader arrives at Chapter X, “The Corcyrean Revolution,”  to be startled awake on reading this:

The Corcyrean revolution began with the return of the prisoners taken in the sea-fights off Epidamnus . . . the accused, rendered desperate by law . . . banded together armed with daggers, and suddenly bursting into the senate killed Peithias and sixty others, senators and private persons . . . 

After a day’s interval hostilities recommenced, victory remaining with the commons, [over the oligarchs] who had the advantage in numbers and position, the women also valiantly assisting them, pelting with tiles from the houses, and supporting the mêlée with a fortitude beyond their sex. Towards dusk, the oligarchs in full rout, fearing that the victorious commons might assault and carry the arsenal and put them to the sword, fired the houses round the market -place and the lodging-houses . . . 

The Corcyreans, made aware of the approach of the Athenian fleet . . . slew such of their enemies as they laid hands on . . . Next they went to the sanctuary of Hera and persuaded about fifty men to take their trial, and condemned them all to death.  The mass of the suppliants who had refused to do so, on seeing what was taking place, slew each other there in the consecrated ground; while some hanged themselves upon the trees, and others destroyed themselves as they were severally able. . .  the Corcyreans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow-citizens whom they regarded as their enemies: and although the crime imputed was that of attempting to put down the democracy, some were slain also for private hatred, others by their debtors because of he monies owed to them.  Death thus raged in every shape; and as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go; sons were killed by their fathers, and suppliants dragged from the alter or slain upon it . . .

Now Thucydides moves from the particular to the general.

. . . struggles being everywhere made by the popular chiefs to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Lacedaemonians. . .   The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same;

Too right, says the 20th-century reader, who now wonders if she is actually reading a news story:

. . . Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any.  Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense.  The advocate of extrme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.  To succeed in a plot was t0 have a shrewd head, to divine a plot still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. 


Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1937 short story The Blood of the Martyrs concerns an apolitical scientific researcher and professor, imprisoned in “the castle” by the soldiers of “The Dictator.” The Professor dispassionately assesses the near likelihood of his execution.  He does not betray his students, who apparently have been self-organizing into a force in opposition to The Dictator –  but he does not articulate to himself why he does not betray them despite beatings and condemnation to death.

Only at the very end, when The Dictator personally demands, in exchange for his life on terms, that he lie about science – do State Science, speak in scientific language in service to the State – does the Professor make his refusal.  He does not spell it out for himself in his mind; he simply recalls the faces of his students who came to him over the years for one thing: truth, and the pursuit of truth.

He paused again, seeing their faces before him. . . From all over the world they had come – they wore cheap overcoats, they were hungry for knowledge, they ate the bad, starchy food of the poor restaurants . . . a few were promising – all must be given the truth. It did not matter if they died, but they must be given the truth.  Otherwise there could be no continuity and no science. 

. . . not to tell lies to young men on one’s own subject. . . .They had given him their terrible confidence – not for love or kindness, but because they had found him honest.  It was too late to change.

The Professor will not lie for the State, even to save his life.  His death is sordid only externally; internally his integrity gives him calm. He dies thinking of the young men to whom he has not lied.

So, some will lie, and participate in lies, in an attempt to evade murder, or merely to advance themselves.  Other will refuse to lie, because to lie would be to commit painful betrayal to the highest value.  For Benét’s character, it is not a matter of anguished calculation or conjecture.  It just is so.  That is the source of his personal courage: faithfulness to what is so.


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Anger Management Wednesday: “The Devil and Daniel Webster”


What I am supposed to be doing is packing and otherwise preparing for the Left Coast Sojourn. But this I have in mind is more interesting.  Hey, I checked the upcoming weather Utah and San Fran; I pulled out multiple clothing items and arranged them in various piles; I tried on bathing costumes in March in the Northern Hemisphere!  All those today!  So now I can do as I like for a while.

@Minus pecuniam nostram has of late stirred up conversations about personal “anger management.”  On the very same day of one of those, by chance, I read the short story by Stephen Vincent Benét, The Devil and Daniel Webster.  I recommend this story as example and standard of human anger management, with cosmic consequences.  If it works for cosmic consequences, it can work for the more local and temporal, can it not?

Here is Daniel Webster, of New Hampshire:

And here is the man who painted that perfect portrait, Francis Alexander of Killingly, Connecticut:

Could either of these men beat the Devil in argument?  Could Daniel Webster beat a jury of historical psychopaths in argument in the Devil’s court?  Naturally they could.  Their stories and Benét’s story will make all matters clear.  Righteous passion has its place, and we are thankful beyond words for it when it fires up in the right people at the right time.  Self-control and judicious advocacy for the right have their place also.  Read for yourself and see if you are convinced.


Benét, The Devil and Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster  How goes the Union?

Francis Alexander


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“The Apple-Tree, the Singing, and the Gold”

In the Hippolytus of Euripides, matters proceed as the usual unstoppable train-wreck: swiftly at times and slowly at other times; hopeful for a few moments but dreadful mostly.  Goddess makes Queen fall in love with own stepson; Queen tries to shake it off, but fails; humans and deities all clamor about, baffling progress and escalating strife; Queen starts gearing up to do something not only stupid but also evil; Chorus gets a whiff of it and just wishes to get the heck out of there.

Here is Gilbert Murray’s translation of the Chorus as they fantasize escape destinations:  a cave, a cloud, the beach, a riverbank, and then hit on the ideal place: the Garden of the Hesperides, of course.

Could I take me to some cavern for mine hiding,
In the hill-tops where the Sun scarce hath trod;
Or a cloud make the home of mine abiding,
As a bird among the bird-droves of God!
Could I wing me to my rest amid the roar
Of the deep Adriatic on the shore,

Where the waters of Eridanus are clear,
And Phaëthon’s sad sisters by his grave
Weep into the river, and each tear
Gleams, a drop of amber, in the wave.

To the Strand of the Daughters of the Sunset,
The Apple-tree, the singing, and the gold;
Where the Mariner must stay him from his onset,
And the red wave is tranquil as of old;
Yea, beyond that Pillar of the End
That Atlas guarded, would I wend;
Where a voice of living waters never ceaseth
In God’s quiet garden by the sea,
And Earth, the ancient life-giver, increaseth
Joy among the meadows, like a tree.

(The Mariner must stay him from his onset because past Gibraltar is the Atlantic Ocean, where it is rare to sail and survive.)

Men dream of place of rest and escape from strife.  Sometimes they do so to survive, as for example a prisoner in a place of death, closing his eyes for an interior playing of some Beethoven or Brahms, of which he knows every note because he performed in the symphony orchestra before his arrest.

Sometimes they do so to keep up their own courage as they act as they can within the strife to fight the bad guys. Hippolytus came up in the course of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth trilogy of young-adult historical novels, of which I was reading the second while comfortably tucked into my electric lap robe the other day.  In The Silver Branch, Allectus has murdered Carausius, Emperor of Britain in the 290s, and usurped his throne.  Legionaries and former legionaries and their friends who disapprove of the murder form a covert network to smuggle men over to Gaul to join the ranks of Constantius there.  The leader of this network keeps an apple tree, the best little apple-tree in all Britain, in his closed courtyard, to remind him of the place, or the existence, of rest and peace.  He will not enjoy either until justice is reestablished, so he continues with his work.  He hides a couple of young soldiers in his attic and lends them his copy of Hippolytus to read, so that they can dream of the apple-tree, the singing, and the gold.

But then there are those who think of this place as an escape from responsibility.  Galsworthy, in The Apple Tree, conjured up a character who used an innocent young woman that way on a trip through the countryside.  The grander-scale utopians conceive an idea for public policy, call it good, urge everyone to support it, and care not how many bodies they have to trample in order to make their way toward it.  Every day these people are in the news.  The Garden has different guises: a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a World Without Countries, the Family of New York.  But I doubt that the people urging their countrymen to such places truly believe the places exist.  It is more likely that most of them see human problems and react in one, or both, of two ways. Either they figure out a con game by which to profit from the strife, or they just make noise about their Garden in order to avoid their responsibility actually to try to assist the people whom they see are having trouble.  That being the case, as I think it is, it is a grave error in public discourse to cede to them a single atom of benevolent intent.

Here is Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) – bless his heart.  If you decide you need to read one of the plays, go for one of his translations, I say.  He will give you beauty.

Here is Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992) who as a child invalid found her Garden of the Hesperides in the history and literature of the Classical West and of England.  She found, and she made for us, beauty and joy and hope.


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A Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

The reference is to the Incarnation as ultimate expression of Divine  love for man.

Additionally, we apply this idea to the conduct of our own lives, as, for example, when we ask What is the most important thing in this situation?  What is the proper ultimate expression?

A child is in distress, more deeply than we had thought.  The trouble is harder for the child to bear than we had thought. How, specifically, do we help our child? We consider and offer this advice, that advice; this assurance, that assurance; this bit of wisdom from our experience, that bit; this way toward confident, detached, assessment, and that way.

But after all of that, all of that particular that, what remains, what must remain, as the single most important thing?

We walked up the road on the morning of the first day of Christmas, looked across the hills to the Green Mountains of Vermont, and I asked myself an urgent question:

What is the most important thing for this child to know and never forget?


Remember, you are loved.

O Ratty, as our Magistra says, please help me out here, to remember something.  There is a short story.  In this story an explorer is in trouble on some planet, some moon, some space station, or suchlike.  Communications with the home planet are horribly impaired for some reason – technical impairment due to some traumatic disaster as yet poorly understood.

The dudes on the ground have been sending out various signals in coded jargon, to no avail.  The author dilates on their sorrow and frustration.  Finally the astronaut’s Mom steps up and informs them that the thing to do is to transmit one very simple and unambiguous message, one that technical glitches cannot ever scramble, and to repeat it without limit until it is caught.  They obey her.  The message is:

I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you . . .

So, Ratty.  Who wrote that story, please, and what is the title?


The Old Botswana Morality

Those who value cultural conservatism are made happy when agreeable ideas flow through the mind of a favorite character, straight off on the first page of the 18th book of her series.  Mma Ramotswe, founder and proprietress of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, thinks about these ideas at first in terms of clothes:

.  . . -but she was never keen to pay one hundred pula for something that could be obtained elsewhere for eighty pula, or to get rid of any item that, although getting on a bit, still served its purpose well enough.  And that, she thought, was the most important consideration of all – whether something worked. . . She also felt that if something was doing its job then you should hold on to it and cherish it, rather than discarding it in favor of something new.  Her white van, for instance, was now rather old and inclined to rattle, but it never failed to start -except after a rain storm, which was rare enough in a dry country like Botswana – and it got her from place to place – except when she ran out of fuel, or when it broke down, which it did from time to time, but not too often.

Her author, Alexander McCall Smith, then makes one of his transitions between internal monologue and direct speech in dialogue, of the sort and of the, well, beauty of which he is seemingly effortless master, in the manner of Austen.  She converses with her husband on the question of replacing his worn-out work boots.  Anybody who has had a husband knows how that conversation goes.

When the story has got going and the problems presented, Mma Ramotswe thinks while driving to a distant appointment in her faithful van:

. . . that men should let ladies sit down if there are not enough chairs to go round and that they, the men, should stand – well, who would disagree with that?  To the surprise of both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane, it appeared that there were people who felt that this was an old-fashioned way of behaving and that if a man reached the chair first he should sit down, even if a woman ended up standing.  These people argued that offering a lady a chair implied that she was weak and that men and women should be treated differently.  Well, said both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane, of course women should be treated differently.  Of course they should be treated with respect and consideration and given the credit for all the hard work they did in the home, looking after children (and men), and in the workplace too.  Offering a lady a chair was one way of showing that this work was appreciated, and that strength and brute force –  at which men generally tended to excel – was not the only thing that counted.  Respect for ladies tamed men, and there were many men who were sorely in need of taming; that was well known, said Mma Ramotswe.

The gentleness of the exposition of these ideas arises from its context in beautiful Botswana, beautiful Botswana cattle, and the old Botswana morality.  That context plucks the heartstrings of millions of readers around the world who had never heard of the place.  That’s encouraging, I think.

There are bad people in the stories who do wicked things; nobody is walking around with eyes closed here.  The particular style in which the just are shown to pursue the wicked and make judgments about how to handle various problems is a reassuring, soothing style. There a times a reader wants a techno-thriller or a series of nice medieval battle scenes.  Then there are those times when a Mma Ramotswe story is just what is needed.  Thank goodness the author keeps rolling them out.

McCall Smith was born in Rhodesia, spent a great deal of his boyhood in Botswana, studied law in Edinburgh, co-founded the law school in Botswana, and specialized in medical law and medical ethics.


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