Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Power corrupts

Having missed it on TV, Danielle and I are currently catching up on the series The Tudors on DVD.

It’s absolutely infuriating in the unnecessary liberties it takes with history: for instance, why does it give the name ‘Margaret’ to Henry VIII’s sister Mary, particularly as he actually had another sister called Margaret who had a completely different life from Mary’s?

Still, these are only factual errors and they’re easy to check. Where the series does well is in its direction, pace and performance. Above all, it’s strong on psychological plausibility: I believe in the motivations and therefore I believe in the characters.

When Henry VIII became King, humanism was all the rage. In its extreme form, it led to radical challenges, most notably in Luther’s breach with the Church in Rome. It also produced other more moderate thinkers, the most outstanding being Erasmus who stayed inside the Church, believing he could defend it best by helping to reform it. Erasmus’s close friend Thomas More was a leading figure in Henry’s early administration, eventually becoming his Lord Chancellor.

Many people must have hoped that Henry would be as principled in his life as Erasmus and More were in theirs. So it must have been a disappointment to see how quickly he started to litter his reign with corpses: within a year, his father’s two leading Ministers had been executed for treason. The most senior Minister in the early part of his own reign, Cardinal Wolsey, was eventually arrested for treason and only avoided execution because he died naturally on his way to face the charge. Thomas More himself, after succeeding Wolsey, was executed for refusing to back Henry in making himself head of the Church of England. The downfall of Wolsey and More flowed from the King’s obsessive insistence on marrying Anne Boleyn. That didn’t stop him putting her to death in turn when he tired of her, justifying himself in doing so by executing five others, including her own brother, on the false charge that she had had adulterous relations with them.

What’s most striking about all this blood is that so much of it was spilled on grounds no stronger than the King’s whim, to eliminate obstacles to his getting his own way.

Curiously, years ago I studied a similar figure from two and a half centuries later, Frederick II of Prussia, known as ‘the Great’. He had given rise to similar hopes and many had expected him to be a ‘Philosopher King’. He and Voltaire maintained an extensive correspondence on philosophy and literature, in the course of which, among other things, Voltaire helped him with his written style in French: it was the language of intellectual endeavour at a time when no-one who wanted to be taken seriously internationally would have dreamed of writing in German or, indeed, English.

Madame du Châtelet, Voltaire’s longstanding partner and a major intellectual figure in her own right, had warned him to beware of Frederick. She may have been influenced by Frederick’s coolness towards her: he was not only homosexual but, unusually, also a profound misogynist. She unfortunately died a few years later, a few days after giving birth. Her death was entirely in keeping with her life: she was surrounded by her longstanding lover, Voltaire, her husband and her new lover, the father of the newborn child.

Without her guiding hand to restrain him, Voltaire accepted Frederick’s invitation and escaped oppressive France to live in the Philosopher King’s court in Prussia.

What a disappointment it turned out to be. Frederick was as demanding as Henry, insisting that his courtiers dance attendance on him whenever it suited him. Nor was he tolerant of opposition to his will. Voltaire, who was good at it, soon fell out with his former friend and fellow Frenchman Maupertuis, President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Voltaire wrote a brilliantly spiteful, deeply unfair but wickedly funny series of satires against Maupertuis that destroyed his reputation for two centuries. For the record, I wrote a biography of Maupertuis in the 1980s, which I hope contributed to moves to rehabilitate him, though I didn’t try to hide those flaws in his temperament which did him as much damage as Voltaire’s attacks and, indeed, provided material for them.

Frederick was not going to put up with this kind of behaviour towards the president of his Academy. Voltaire’s texts were seized and publicly burned by the executioner.

Ironically, this was exactly the fate of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques in Paris (although tradition has it that the executioner burned a different book and kept Voltaire’s: the work had become all the more expensive for being condemned). The enlightened King of Prussia behaved as badly as the conservative, absolutist King of France.

The cases of Henry and Frederick confirm the historian Lord Acton’s judgement that ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Whatever their principles as young men, both lost sight of them once they were able to indulge their desires unshackled.

Too much power is bad for people in government, and worse for the governed. In Britain, for instance, in five out of seven general elections in the last thirty years, governments of one party or the other have been returned with landslide parliamentary majorities. It hasn’t done government itself any good. With a huge majority, a government only has to dream up some new scheme for it to be all but enacted. This is no way of ensuring we get good law. Maggie Thatcher lost power over a disastrous initiative, the so-called poll tax. Tony Blair took us on an Iraqi adventure that has left a trail of bodies far longer than King Henry’s.

Limiting power. It isn’t easy, but the examples of Frederick and Henry show how important it is. To say nothing of the examples of Maggie and Tony.


Awoogamuffin said...

I've often thought history should be taught like this - not chronologically, but thematically, to show the connections between periods, countries and cultures, and maybe helping students get a sense of the underlying forces at work, as opposed to the events they caused. One task could be to find historical parallels to recent or current events - might make children see the relevance of history!

Anonymous said...

Hi David, your article shows how good it is to play "at home". I would like to know how you stopped when the ref blowed the whistle after 90 minutes (you will pardon the sporting allusion since you yourself chose to write about Sport earlier.