Entry from January 20, 2012

In my book, Honor, A HistoryI wrote of Lord Herbert of Cherbury who, shipwrecked at Dover in 1609, commandeered the only rescue boat and, with his drawn sword, kept anyone else off of it and on the sinking ship except Sir Thomas Lucy. He later mentioned the incident in his autobiography without any apparent sense of shame. The point was to show that the Victorian notion of chivalry was not, as is often thought, medieval in origin but an invention of the late modern era. When a hundred years ago this April the gentlemen on board the Titanic made way with remarkable unanimity for “women and children first” on the doomed vessel’s lifeboats, they must have had a strong sense not only that they were behaving honorably and chivalrously but that such notions of honor and chivalry were the most up-to-date and progressive ones available and not some throwback to a more primitive era.

The reaction to the apparent abandonment of his ship by the captain of the Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, shows that these notions are still, after almost a century of honor’s disgrace and desuetude in the general culture, remarkably current. We may laugh at the idea for the formation of the character of young men put forward by Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, that they should be “acceptable at a dance, and invaluable in a shipwreck,” but let a Captain Schettino prove the opposite of invaluable in a shipwreck and people will notice. And condemn.

In an interesting essay in the London Daily Telegraph, Theodore Dalrymple argues that we might excuse the Captain on the grounds that he was the product of a culture which had neglected to supply him with “an unthinking allegiance to a standard of conduct that in some circumstances might be, or might appear, ridiculous or counterproductive but in others is essential to the performance of difficult duty.” In short, with a sense of honor. He goes on to distinguish between wickedness and weakness, concluding that “on the scale of human monstrosity, the Captain does not climb very high. His place on the scale of human weakness is another matter.”

As Milton’s Samson points out, all wickedness is weakness, but it doesn’t follow that all weakness is wickedness. We struggle with the moral status of the Captain’s behavior because we lack the language of honor, which would give us a better metric. His failure was not so much a moral one as a failure to live up to the responsibilities and expectations of his office and the authority that he had been entrusted with when he assumed it. Today’s progressives don’t like that kind of talk and insist on a single standard for everyone. They speak of those, like me, with a lingering attachment to the idea of honor as exponents of a “counter-enlightenment” — which I guess is an odd euphemism for endarkenment. Even military men nowadays, like Rear Admiral Chris Parry of the Royal Navy, writing in The Times of London, are inclined to say that “none of us should rush to vilify” Captain Schettino, as any of us might have done the same.

Well, maybe. But the Italians who have had Vada a bordo, cazzo — the obscene command of Coast Guard Gregorio De Falco to the Captain to “Get the **** back on board” — printed on T-shirts all over Italy must long for that missing honorable standard as I do. I wonder if some such longing isn’t what lies behind the current popularity of “Downton Abbey”? I notice that Professor Simon Schama has lately dumped all over that show as a “servile soap opera” and a “silvered tureen of snobbery.” What’s it to him, I wonder? I suspect that if a progressive like the professor feels aggrieved about a TV show it’s not because of its snobbery but because, like James Cameron who re-wrote the history of the Titanic to bring it more into line with his ideological beliefs, he can’t stand the fact that it shows nobles behaving nobly.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts