Thursday, May 24, 2012

Complete and Incomplete Systems

In Wilkie Collins’s seminal mystery, The Moonstone, a character named Gabriel Betteredge uses Robinson Crusoe as his guide to life. In looking up that character’s name just now, I found a source suggesting that Betteredge uses Defoe’s novel in a superstitious way, finding passages at random and taking them as oracles for his present situation. If he does this, I don’t remember it. I just remember Betteredge finding Robinson Crusoe a compendium of sage advice for every situation. The castaway has to learn how to live, eat, sleep, defend himself, build shelter, keep records, make friends, worship God, and stay sane, and his first-person narrative spells out his reasoning on all these topics. He also recalls and analyzes, from his earlier life, practices of commerce, industry, the military, and career searches. So it’s no surprise that a person could find in it a nearly complete guide to life.

This month, as I reread The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, it struck me as in very much the same line. Of course, it was the age of the Encyclopédie, and people were fond of thorough catalogs of knowledge and wisdom. And one could expect Goldsmith, a frequent dining companion of Dr. Johnson, to write a book of moralizing analyses of life in the form of a story. Here are some samples of the life lessons the Vicar offers:

Is your friend suffering a loss? Remember to weep with those who weep, and don’t be too quick to cheer up your friend, because “premature consolation is but the remembrancer of sorrow.”

Are you wondering why your recent accomplishment or fortune has you itching for more before you can enjoy resting on your laurels? Remember the joy of the hunt: “It has been a thousand times observed, and I must observe it once more, that the hours we pass with happy prospects in view, are more pleasing than those crowned with fruition. In the first case we cook the dish to our own appetite; in the latter nature cooks it for us.”

What should you do when you find that breaking a pledge of silence on an acquaintance’s dark secret could help someone else? “Even tho' it may benefit the public, you must not inform against him. In all human institutions a smaller evil is allowed to procure a greater good; as in politics, a province may be given away to secure a kingdom; in medicine, a limb may be lopt off, to preserve the body. But in religion the law is written, and inflexible, never to do evil. And this law, my child, is right: for otherwise, if we commit a smaller evil, to procure a greater good, certain guilt would be thus incurred, in expectation of contingent advantage.”

In the best chapter, Goldsmith’s vicar defends the monarchy as the champion of freedom. As he explains it, society divides itself naturally into four strata: the poor, who spend all their time working to satisfy needs; the middle class, whose career success affords time for politics; the aristocracy, who have no need of work and can spend all their time seeking the gratification of their own desires; and the monarchy. The aristocracy, he says, is the enemy of freedom, not the king. The privileged class must closely guard the power they have wrested from the monarchy so they can continue to wield it over the middle and lower classes. The king and middle class, then, make natural allies against the usurpers of power.

Last month, my family visited Salisbury cathedral, and we were very happily surprised to find there an original copy of the Magna Carta. Both the explanatory plaques and the very kind retired gentleman who kept watch over the room told us the familiar story of the importance of the document in the history of human liberty. The barons, the story goes, stopped the tyrant, King John, at Runnymede and forced him to sign a document limiting his power over the people. John was indeed a tyrant, although there’s some doubt whether the Magna Carta actually succeeded in limiting his or any other king’s power. But the events of 1215 didn’t confer any power or liberty on “the people,” if by that phrase is meant the peasants, farmers, minor clerics, merchants, and artisans of England. John’s father, Henry II, empowered the people of the land more by granting the right to redress in a court of law. The king is the most likely defender of the rights of the people, not the barons. As Dr. Johnson would put it:
Anyone who thinks himself in servitude because subject to a prince errs egregiously; liberty nowhere extends itself more graciously than under a pious king.
The United States has its own class of barons. Rich people and lifetime politicians come to mind. But it seems to me the greatest power lies with the corporations, structures with the legal status, rights, and protections of “persons,” even though they have not been with born or naturalized in the United States. (Someone is confused about the Fourteenth Amendment. It could be the courts, but it’s more probably me.) The United States, of course, will never have a king. But who can play the role of the monarchy in allying with the people to protect us against the tyranny of the barons?

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